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Airport Club Access Is Always a Priority
Thursday, October 12, 2017 -- Priority Pass is an irreplaceable tool for any business traveler who wants to be comfortable and productive at the airport, but the program bears little relation to the scheme I first recommended 20 years ago and called "the magic card" only a decade ago.
The existential remake of a program that most of us think of as an airport club access pass is remarkable because changes have been evolutionary and revolutionary at the same time. Almost nothing about Priority Pass is what it was 20 years ago, yet it continues to be the single best weapon in a business traveler's arsenal. Consider:
● When I first wrote about Priority Pass in 1997, it offered entry privileges at 180 clubs around the world. Now it is more than five times larger and counts at least 1,000 lounges in 500 cities as part of the network.
● Priority Pass executives worked assiduously to court the club lounge networks run by U.S. carriers and by 2007 had cracked the final holdout. But that access came with a virtual code of silence. Priority Pass essentially worked under the radar and rarely promoted itself because U.S. airlines didn't want flyers to know the fabulous value it offered compared to their proprietary clubs.
● None of that matters now because United, American and Delta airlines have pulled their clubs from Priority Pass to create exclusivity for credit cards they concoct with bank partners. (Alaska Airlines does remain a Priority Pass partner.) And few of us pay even the modest $399 annual fee that Priority Pass charges. Most business travelers now get the card bundled with American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Prestige.
● Via its parent company, London-based Collinson Group, Priority Pass now operates its own lounges at almost a dozen U.S. airports. It also manages the Aspire Lounge at London/Gatwick.
● Priority Pass now opens more than club doors at the airport. Business travelers get free use of Minute Suites transit accommodations in Atlanta, Philadelphia and at Dallas/Fort Worth. It'll get you a posh sleep pod in Dubai. And you will also receive food and beverage credits at restaurants and bars inside Gatwick, Sydney's Kingsford Smith, and in Portland, Oregon, and Miami.
It was that last point especially that led me to seek out Priority Pass for an update on what's happening with the card and the shifting airport landscape. As a private firm, Collinson refuses to reveal details such as the number of members and financial relationships with banks and the third-party lounge operators that form the backbone of Priority Pass. But that seems much less important than understanding why and how Priority Pass is morphing beyond the simple act of getting us access to airport lounges.
"We are grounded in the lifestyle" of business travel, says Shane Sullivan, a vice president for the Collinson Group. "We're obviously not for the masses, but for the affluent or at least those who aspire to affluence."
Snappy marketing patter, but not particularly revelatory. What, I wondered, led to the deals with Minute Suites and airport restaurants such as Timberline Steaks and Grille in Denver Concourse C, where Priority Pass members receive a $28 credit?
"Necessity, the mother of creativity," Sullivan says. "Airports are booming and space is at a premium. We are looking for options beyond existing common-use lounges. It's what led us to create [our own club network] and experiment with other experiences."
Sullivan admits he was skeptical when the opportunity arose to add Minute Suites as a Priority Pass benefit. (Travelers get a free hour and a discount on any additional hours they choose to stay.) The private mini-rooms seemed far removed from the common-use lounges upon which Priority Pass is built.
"An airport like Philadelphia is a very competitive environment and the airport authorities weren't quite ready to go with common-use lounge space," Sullivan says. "So we struck the Minute Suites deal. The feedback has been fabulous. Members like it."
(Ironically, American Express this month is scheduled to open a Centurion Lounge in Philadelphia. It's the first non-airline lounge at the airport, but naturally available only to Centurion and Platinum Cardholders.)
Sullivan says he was more confident in the restaurant discounts. The obvious example: Denver International. Although Denver has planned for a common-use lounge for several years, the existing clubs are all controlled by U.S. carriers. So Priority Pass last month negotiated the Timberline arrangement.
"It's a nice alternative, relaxing. It has the feel of a club," Sullivan explains. "You can sit in a corner and work and have a nice meal."
Still, the loss of the Big Three U.S. club networks over the years has created something of a challenge for Priority Pass at U.S. airports. It must scramble for space and airports often continue to ignore the value of common-use lounges. Airport managers usually prefer restaurants and shops. Why? Those outlets generate cash--and airports get a cut. When an airport restaurant can ring up $10 million annually in sales, revenue-hungry airport managers salivate over their slice of the pie.
"There is an educational opportunity with some airports," Sullivan says diplomatically. "We try to explain that common-use lounges could be located in less appealing locations where there is less foot traffic. We explain that Priority Pass members will seek out lounges in spaces that may not generate enough footfall for profitable food and beverage operations."
The biggest gaps in the Priority Pass lounge network? Airports in the Northeast United States, where space is often unavailable or wildly overpriced even for out-of-the-way locations. Sullivan says Priority Pass also is looking for opportunities at airports in Argentina and Australia.
Since even 1,000 clubs worldwide is not enough, my current best advice is to secure Priority Pass as part of an American Express Platinum Card membership. Besides Priority Pass, Platinum includes day-of-travel access to Delta SkyClubs; the Centurion Lounges; and entry to Escape and Airspace clubs, which aren't a part of Priority Pass.
"Airport infrastructure is always challenging," Sullivan concedes. "Yet there's increased awareness of how popular lounges have become ... how much travelers value them and how they improve the image of the airport. But it takes time to translate awareness into locations."
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