How Fliers Can Relax and U.S. Airlines Can Compete: With Spas

A traveler receives a massage from Colin Havener, a therapist at the Asanda Spa Lounge in the Delta Sky Club at Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Spas have long been a staple at airports in Europe, Asia and, especially, the Middle East, where airlines are known for over-the-top extravagance. But it has only been in the last few years that airlines in the United States have embraced them.

And the spas, in turn, have been embraced by anxious fliers like Emily Lyons, chief executive of Femme Fatale Media Group, based in Toronto. “I am not a good flier, very nervous,” Ms. Lyons said.

She took a fear of flying course, where, she said, “Their advice was to be as relaxed as possible.” But it was not until she mentioned her problem to an American Express concierge that she found out about airport spas.

Now, Ms. Lyons said, “I like to plan my trips around any spas or other areas that can help me at all to relax. On top of being a bad flier, I’m normally very busy and wouldn’t get a chance to do my spa treatments.”

The increasing availability of airport spas has been driven by several factors, including credit card relationships with airlines and competition for increasingly elaborate lounges as well as expanded security waiting times and the overall stressful nature of airports.

Spas are split into two general types — those within airport terminal shopping areas and those that offer an air of privilege, within airline lounges and airport clubs, often accessible only to those with specialized credit cards or frequent flier memberships.

Masuda Sultan, an American businesswoman based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, who also does philanthropy work with women in the developing world, said she was flying from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to Goa, India, when she discovered Etihad Airways’ Six Senses Spa. “I remember somebody that I was traveling with said, ‘Let’s look at the spa,’ and it turned out they had free massages,” Ms. Sultan said.

“The fact that it was free just made you want to get it,” she said. “I can get a massage anywhere, but free is a special perk.”

She said the massage was shorter than at a spa outside the airport, but it “helped me sleep on the plane, because it got me into the relaxation mode.” Massages can also help fliers deal with travel’s physical strains, Ms. Sultan said. “You carry things, your luggage, your bag is heavy, your purse is heavy, your laptop. So it helps with all of that, too.”

Etihad has three spas in Abu Dhabi International Airport and one at London Heathrow that offer showers, beauty salons and barbers as well as massages, according to Allix Wright, a former corporate communications officer in North America for the airline. Spa sizes vary, as do treatments.

Ms. Wright said first-class passengers and platinum-level frequent flier members receive one complimentary spa treatment. Those booking the Residence, a private first-class area on the A380 that can cost $20,000 for a flight from Sydney, Australia, to Abu Dhabi, receive two complimentary treatments. The sense of exclusivity, though, is easily overcome: business and economy passengers can pay for treatments ranging from $25 to $40. Non-Etihad passengers can also pay for access.

Virgin Atlantic of Britain was the leader in bringing spas to American airport airline lounges, opening a spa in 2012 in its Clubhouse lounge in Kennedy International Airport in New York. The airline’s other spas are in Gatwick and Heathrow airports outside London. In an email, Louise Holding, a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman, said because most of Virgin’s flights out of Kennedy “take off in the evening and fly overnight, we offer treatments that encourage relaxation, which will help aid sleep onboard.”

Only in the past year have United States airlines begun to open spas. Delta Air Lines opened its first spa, under the Asanda Spa Lounge brand, in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in late 2016. The carrier has opened a spa at Kennedy Airport and another one is set to open in Atlanta.

Brian Condenanza, the founder and chief executive of Fluo shoes, said he stumbled on Delta’s spa at Kennedy as he was about to board an 11-hour flight to Buenos Aires, where he lived at the time. “It was my first time in a spa, ever,” he said. “I was mostly curious.”

Mr. Condenanza said he used his American Express Platinum card to get access to Delta’s lounge, one of the card’s perks, and to pay for the services. He said he had long been curious about airport spas to relieve preflight tension but was wary of going to one in the terminal because “everybody can see you, and I didn’t like that.” The lounge spas “felt private.”

The idea behind the Asanda spas is to bring a sense of privacy and duplicate the services available in a hotel spa in the limited confines of valuable airport space, said Gene Frisco, director of Asanda Air II, based in New York.

Mr. Frisco said lounge spas were part of a high-end flying experience for passengers. “Thematically,” he said, “we are trying to create the idea that they have arrived before they have departed.”

Within a limited footprint, Mr. Frisco said, “what we were looking for was a way to use the visual cues that people will respond to in a space that emulates a first-class cabin.” Travelers can book services online or from a connecting flight, giving them access “within a relatively short window while they are waiting to get to the gate.” Each Delta spa can serve between 3,000 and 5,000 people a month, Mr. Frisco said, adding that airports like Seattle-Tacoma, where domestic flights often connect to long-haul international flights with a few hours of layover, were ideal spa locations.

While membership credit cards, including Delta’s, may allow lounge access, so do certain American Express cards, as Mr. Condenanza discovered.

American Express also offers spas, said Heather Norton, the company’s director of corporate affairs and communications. Working with the spa company Exhale, American Express opened spas in its Centurion airport lounges in Miami in 2015 and Dallas-Fort Worth in 2013, each offering free 15-minute spa treatments. At the moment, the company does not plan to open more. Still, Ms. Norton said, American Express’s relationships with various airlines and through the Priority Pass lounge program mean cardholders have access to lounges offering spas across the globe.

Not a frequent flier member or a holder of a high-end credit card? Many lounges offer day passes, usually ranging in price from $25 to $50, that allow access to spa treatments for an additional fee. And there are always airport terminal spas, under brands including XpresSpa, Be Relax Spa and others, which also offer haircuts, manicures and other treatments.

Passengers with long layovers or staying overnight for connections also have the option of looking for spas in airport hotels.

Beyond the few locations he mentioned, Mr. Frisco of Asanda was mum about plans by his company and Delta for any additional lounge spas. “You have to remember,” he said, “these are secret weapons that set airlines apart,” when deciding perks for frequent travelers.

Ms. Sultan, the philanthropist, said she didn’t understand why there weren’t more airport spas. “I think it really adds a lot of value for a traveler. And it is the best thing to do before a flight.”

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