Automated cappuccinos, flavour-free fruit, interminable CNN… Frequent flyer Nick Foulkes ruminates on the sorry state of today’s VIP airport lounge.

October 10 2010
Nick Foulkes

I hope that Tyler Brûlé will forgive me for intruding, albeit briefly, on to his turf, but spending a fair bit of time in the (relatively) new VIP lounge at Málaga airport has given me cause to think that being an airport VIP is not all it is cracked up to be.

I feel it is safe to say that things have been on the slide since that glorious Burton and Taylor vehicle, The V.I.P.s, managed to transform being fogbound at London Airport into a trophy experience. Apparently, in those days, airports did not have many VIP lounges. They did not need them. I suppose the assumption was that anyone who was travelling by air was, ipso facto, a VIP. And it was this concentration of VIPs in one place, without the diluent of patrons of EasyJet and Ryanair, that launched notable photographic careers, such as that of Terry O’Neill, who got started snapping stars as they arrived at and departed from London Airport – not London Stansted or London Luton but London London.

There was a prelapsarian innocence to it all, when you would see photographs of people such as Mick Jagger and, of course, Dick and Liz, strolling through airports, much as you and I might. When I started out in Fleet Street, I remember a picture editor recounting how there used to be a regular photo slot that, if memory serves, was called simply “arriving at London Airport”.

Of course, these days, real VIPs and even UVRPs (unimportant but very rich persons) use places like Farnborough. The rest are left brandishing the coloured plastic keys to a magical kingdom of limitless automated cappuccinos, bowls of fruit with a waxy shine that presages a flavour-free experience, and as much CNN with the volume turned down as we could want. As status-conferring experiences go, this is right up there with ordering inkjet cartridges on Amazon.

Yet, perhaps erroneously, I understand from the Brûlé oeuvre that somewhere out there, beyond the X-ray machines and the Lamborghinis that you can win by spotting the ball, there exists a Shangri-La, an El Dorado, a Land of Cockaigne: of perfect sashimi, Andean single-glacier mineral water and jet-lag banishing massages, where the furniture is made of carbon fibre by Scandinavian designers with strangely ornamented consonants in their names or a Vietnamese Pritzker Prize-winner you’ve never heard of. Perhaps this epiphanic lounge experience, spiritually located somewhere between Helsinki-Vantaa and Tokyo’s Narita airport, is an article of faith, much as early-19th-century geographers believed that a river called the Buenaventura flowed from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, despite no explorer being able to locate this mighty waterway.

Certainly this state of duty-free bliss and perfection has so far eluded me – the only VIP lounge I ever really liked was in Havana, because you used to be able to buy and smoke cigars there, but even that is no longer allowed.

Far from basking in pools of pure mineral water and nibbling on freshly peeled sea urchins while downloading updates from, my experience of the airside VIP lounge is more prosaic. As far as I can tell, rather like the swords worn by soldiers on state occasions, the VIP lounge is reduced to a largely ceremonial role. At Málaga airport, gateway to the Costa del Sol, the VIP lounge is a splendid room about 100m long, with a mock-Japanese raked-gravel garden visible beyond glass doors that do not open. But it’s the meeting rooms and business facilities I find so perplexing.

It would appear that halfway through designing the low tables and sofas upholstered in dirt-repelling materials, the creators of this marvel decided they would rather build a conference centre instead. It is the only feasible explanation I can think of for the various audio-visual lecture hall- and boardroom-style set-ups found around the periphery of this cynosure of airport design. Now I could be wrong, but hard as I try, I simply cannot imagine a major international corporation casting about for a suitable venue for its annual sales conference or shareholder meeting, and then deciding to hold the event in an airport… let alone Málaga airport, where the slap of flip-flopped feet is accompanied by too much visible flesh (and much of that “tanned” to an intense shade of lobster).

And then, as I wandered through these magnificent, but vacant, facilities, their true significance struck me. These spectral meeting rooms just waiting to be filled by high-powered executives who never seem to arrive, are there to validate the fiction that the half-dozen people who shared this lounge with me on a recent visit, were all highly important business travellers, who at any moment might need to launch into a PowerPoint presentation or convene an extempore e-AGM. In turn, by participating in this fiction of self-importance, we were assisting in a bigger piece of pantomime – namely, that for an airport to be taken seriously now, it has to give over hundreds of square metres to its VIP areas.

And viewed in this light I felt rather proud that Málaga had begun to climb what I am sure will become known as the Brûlé Ladder of Airside Excellence and, as a staunch supporter of the Costa del Sol, I am thrilled that the city fathers of Málaga have embarked on this important journey. Who knows, maybe one day the VIP lounge at Málaga airport will be spoken of in the same breath as the hallowed Finnair lounge in Helsinki, which apparently boasts “Powerkiss” desks, a paddling pool and not one, not two, not even three, but four different saunas.