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 The Brancatelli File

joe AIRLINE CLUBS:
SANITY FOR SALE


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

October 14, 1996 -- Here's one way to make an airport livable in a hurry: Grab the first skycap you see and tip him ten bucks to guide you past the thundering hordes at the ticket counter. Then slip a fiver to a secret agent to jump the line for your seat assignment and your boarding pass. Dole out another twenty to use a private office while you're waiting out the nasty weather delay. And dig into your wallet for a quick fifty when you need a conference room or computer terminal.

Or make your life bearable for a year at a time: Buy all those small, sanity-saving airport amenities in one cheap and tidy little package by joining at least one airline's network of airport club lounges.

For about $200 a year, airport clubs deliver all those perks to the surprisingly select number of harried business travelers who are smart enough to plunk down the annual membership fees. And since the clubs are the last oases of dignity and decorum at the three-ring circuses we call airports, club membership is surely the single best investment frequent-flying executives can make to maintain their equanimity and competitive edge on the road.

Once little more than super-annuated frat houses where hard-drinking, heavy-smoking traveling salesmen swapped fish tales and propositioned the exceedingly rare woman member, airport clubs have undergone a Darwinian evolution in the last decade. The once-sacred rations of free booze are mostly gone (only the Delta Crown Rooms and Northwest WorldClubs maintain the tradition at domestic clubs), and many clubs now ban smoking. Club membership rosters, while not exactly sexually balanced, more readily mirror the business travel population at large. And In place of the boys-club tomfoolery are airport-based remote offices that offer business travelers--men and women--a much-needed refuge.

Even the most primitive airport club--and there are a few that still belong to the era of prop planes--is now usually stocked with work desks, fax and copy machines, telephones and dataports, overnight-delivery drop boxes, and other business necessities. Concierge-like clubroom attendants secure boarding passes and seat assignments. Bigger clubs in the airline networks, like Northwest's sprawling Detroit facility and the huge Continental Presidents Club in Newark, boast fully-equipped conference rooms, top-of-the-line personal computers, a spread of popular software and laser printers. And, at major international airports like Seattle, Frankfurt, and Miami, American and United have built showers for long-haul travelers who hit the ground running.

In fact, the transition from boozy frat house to working office happened so quickly and so effortlessly that business travelers never even noticed when most clubs began to charge for alcoholic beverages. "If we had a club without telephones, our members would go ballistic. But I don't think many members would notice if we ever pulled the bar out of a club," says Georgene Ross, senior staff representative for airport services planning at United Airlines.

This attitude adjustment among business travelers hasn't gone unnoticed by the airlines. Sniffing a potential profit by catering to workaholics rather than alcoholics, many airlines are rapidly expanding their lounge networks. Despite the scarcity and expense of airport real estate, the nation's three largest carriers--United, American and Delta--have each added an average of three new clubs a year in the 1990s. Older clubs have been expanded and renovated at a breakneck pace. United alone says it has invested about $70 million on airport club facilities this year.

The payoff for the airlines? The 45 American Admirals Clubs are now "a healthy little profit center," says marketing manager Teresa Hanson. The airlines are also convinced that more, bigger and better equipped clubs will convince at least a few high-margin first- and business-class traveling executives to throw additional flight segments their way.

But the real surprise about airport clubs is the appalling number of business travelers who are too dim to realize how much more comfortable and productive an investment of a few hundred bucks can make them. American and United each have about 250,000 paying members for their respective club networks, only about one-hundredth of the number of members each airline claims for their free frequent-flier programs. "It's about money," explains Hanson. "Some business travelers say they won't join unless their company pays for the membership or they are allowed to expense it."

If you're one of those hard-nosed business travelers who haven't yet analyzed the financial value of having a quiet place to live at the airport, consider this simple equation. If you fly ten times a year (one measure of what qualifies you as a "frequent flyer") and spend an average of just one hour per roundtrip waiting at airports, a $200 annual club membership costs you just $20 per hour. Fly 20 times a year and spend 20 hours total at airports and the cost of membership drops to just $10 an hour. If someone offered you an opportunity to buy ten extra hours of working time, wouldn't you consider 10 bucks an hour an incredible bargain?

Still not convinced? Just remember the last time you sat at a gate phoneless and bereft of a work space for three hours in Chicago during a weather delay. How much would you have paid at that moment for three hours of quiet shelter with access to a phone, a computer, a desk and a convivial bar? If you were savvy enough to race through the airport and snag a room at the O'Hare Hilton, you'd have paid at least $175--or about what you'd pay for a full year's membership in an airport club network.

If you're still vacillating, there are opportunities to sample airport clubs without joining. American Express Platinum cardholders have free access to Continental's President Clubs and Northwest WorldClubs on flight day whenever you are ticketed on those airlines. And many airlines quietly offer a day-pass program which, space allowing, permits you one-time club use for a small fee. The fee is usually $25-$50, although Continental offers a 30-day pass for just $30.

If you're going to join a club, you might be impressed by their omnipresence--all the major airlines except relentlessly no-frills Southwest operate clubs and all but one of the nation's 50 busiest airports have at least one club on the premises--but don't be fooled. You can't just choose any airline's club network.

For instance, few airlines have reciprocal arrangements with each other, so if you're stranded at an airport where your airline doesn't have a club, you are usually clubless. With that fact in mind, it's usually wise to join the club network sponsored by the airline you fly most frequently. This strategy is especially useful when your carrier operates huge hubs at major airports, since the airline often maintains multiple clubs there

Some examples: there are six Delta Crown Room Clubs in Atlanta, Delta's primary hub, three in Dallas/Fort Worth and two in Cincinnati. USAir maintains three clubs at its hubs in Pittsburgh and Charlotte. Continental has two Presidents Clubs at its Newark hub. Northwest has three clubs at its Detroit hub. TWA, whose network of aging Ambassadors Clubs has shrunk with the airline, nevertheless runs two clubs at its hubs in St. Louis and at New York's Kennedy airport. Even tiny America West operates two clubs in Phoenix, its home-town airport.

Fly so frequently that you can't match your travel patterns with one airport and one network of club lounges? Do yourself a favor: Join two clubs. You'll appreciate the wisdom of your decision the next time you've got six hours on your hand when an unexpected thunderstorm means you'll be stuck inside of Memphis airport waiting for the next flight to Mobile.

MAKING THE AIRPORT CLUB SCENE

AIRLINE

FEES*

LOCATION

THE INSIDE STORY

American
Admirals Club

1st Year: $300 or 50,000 miles

45 worldwide

Showers at 9 clubs; day pass: $50; conference-room rental: $35 an hour; most clubs are new or recently renovated.

Continental
Presidents Club

1st Year: $200

13, mostly in United States

Free conference rooms; 30-day membership: $30; Amex platinum cardholders have free access on day of flight; some clubs need renovation.

Delta
Crown Room

1st Year: $300 or 30,000 miles

48 worldwide

Free drinks at all clubs; day pass: $25; conference rooms are free; rules say even members must have tickets to enter.

Northwest
WorldClub

1st Year: $270

33 worldwide

Free drinks at all clubs; day pass: $50; conference rooms are free; Amex Platinum cardholders have free access on day of flight.

TWA
Ambassadors

1st Year: $150 or 30,000 miles

20 in U.S., Milan and Paris

Conference-room rental: $25 an hour; many clubs need renovation; TWA international fliers often have no club options.

United
Red Carpet Club

1st Year: $300 or 53,000 miles

43 worldwide

Showers at 3 clubs; day pass: $25; conference-room rental: $35-$50 an hour; many clubs are new or recently renovated.

USAir
USAir Club

1st Year: $225

26 in United States

Conference-room rental: $25 an hour; USAir international fliers have no club options.

*All airlines except United also offer multiple-year, senior-citizen and/or lifetime memberships. All offer reduced-priced "spouse" memberships; all offer discounted renewal rates.


This column originally appeared in Fortune magazine.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.