Anyone who has spent a modicum of time in airports knows that the great secret to having a decent time in them is to find your way to a lounge. These closed-off spaces typically provide free WiFi, food, and drinks—even alcoholic ones, which is vital since the other great secret to airports is that it's surprisingly fun to get drunk in them. Depending on the lounge in question, the chairs might be more comfortable than the ones near the gates, and there might even be amenities like showers—which sounds ridiculous until you have a long layover between flights and have acquired that airplane-specific smell of peanuts, cheap blankets, and farts. Lounge access can cost $45 or so, but if you have a few drinks and snacks, it's obviously worth it.
Better yet, some of the fancier credit cards out there give you access to lounges as a perk, meaning you don't have to pay at all.
But increasing crowds at lounges has created a problem, according to the Wall Street Journal—lounges are no longer as fancy as they used to be. "What was once an oasis now is more like a mall food court," the paper reported. "Losing that '1%' feeling has been jarring. Grousers say gourmet meals once on offer are now finger foods, and beverages are more likely to be guzzled than sipped. Overcrowding means seats often aren’t available."
The piece went on to describe horror story after horror story. One flyer experienced a real nightmare before his flight to Ukraine: "A packed room with no available seats. A buffet with barely any food left. Toilet paper on the bathroom floor." A 63-year-old who has been lounging at airports for 25 years said the dishes on offer weren't as nice as they used to be, and that old flourishes like staff actually serving him a beverage were no more. Some lounges had become so crowded you had to wait a bit to get in—and even when you did, you might have to watch people load up on free food and drink like “farm animals," according to one traveler.
Here's another tale of woe:
Bill McGuinness, a 57-year-old real-estate developer, was at a Centurion Lounge, which is open to certain American Express cardholders, in Seattle in April when a woman placed her toddler on a bar table. She stripped him down to his diapers and changed him into his pajamas. Mr. McGuinness said the woman then ordered a cocktail and talked on her phone while her son was “running laps” around the lounge for the next hour.
The Journal even found one lounge user who admitted to using the lounge in what I think we'll all agree was a truly abominable manner:
Garett Ng admits to getting carried away. He had drunk three glasses of free “bottom-shelf whiskey” he said at a Priority Pass affiliated lounge in Boston last November when he realized his flight to San Francisco was boarding. The 36-year-old health-care analytics manager ran to the snack bar and stuffed five granola bars into his jacket—“the chewy ones for kids.”
Of course, getting a little sloshed and grabbing some chewy granola bars isn't getting "carried away," just like the incidents highlighted in this story barely qualify as nuisances. I have been to airport lounges myself and concede it's a bit annoying sometimes when they are crowded—maybe you can't get a free outlet to charge your computer, or maybe the bartender is busy and you have to wait a while. Maybe the croissants are less flaky than you'd like. Maybe a kid runs around while you're trying to get a little blotto on mimosas and clean out your work inbox, ruining your Don Draper fantasies.
But still, it's fine.
What's at stake here is not creature comforts but class privilege, the sort of thing Americans don't really like to discuss but nonetheless think about all the time. The thing that historically made airport lounges desirable for a lot of people wasn't really the comfortable chairs or even the free booze but the fact that those people were kept outside the doors. Once they started coming in, grubby hands all over the champagne flutes, stuffing cheese into backpack pockets, sweatpants and small children and neck pillows worn all the time, there was bound to be some resentment, and it was bound to get a little ugly.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this kind of thing is happening in a lot of different places all at once. A group has had a space for a long time that it has come to regard as exclusive. Then things change—in this case, credit card companies tweak their perks programs—and that space is now a semi-common area. It's hard to quantify the resulting loss of status in ways that don't sound ridiculous, because the newcomers have paid the same dues you have. Still, they aren't the same, the old guard insists.
The fix when it comes to airport lounges is easy. More exclusive lounges can always be built, and the true 1 percent will inevitably retreat into them. (Wealth, like life, finds a way.) Or those perks will shift—the Journal reported that Priority Pass, the service that gives lounge access to many credit card holders, was offering some flyers a $28 dining credit at airports instead of a lounge ticket.
What about all those other instances of privileges being eroded, of newcomers displacing the old guard and stirring up anger? Well, those are trickier problems to solve. But while we consider those issues, hopefully we can all agree that if you complain about once-exclusive lounges not being as good as they used to be, you're probably at least a little bit of an asshole.
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