By Joe Brancatelli
April 11, 2007 -- After fighting my way through several seas of humanity to clear customs and passport control at Moscow’s shambolic Sheremetyevo Airport, I broke from the madding crowds, followed the signs that read First Class Lounge, knocked on a nondescript door, and plopped myself down on a shabby but comfortable sofa.

I don’t get to Moscow often, so it’s nice to know I have a place to retreat to in the city’s depressing airport. But life on the road is a lot better when I’m passing through Honolulu Airport and have a choice of lounges with views of a garden courtyard. Some of the clubs at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport have tuxedoed baristas.

Yes, the features and perks of airport clubs differ widely. A few, like the ultraprivate lounge at Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal in Frankfurt Airport, have elegant dining rooms. Others, like the lounge at Sheremetyevo, are the epitome of a smoke-filled room. But all lounges offer the one amenity we business travelers crave: shelter from the chaos of the surrounding airport—the noise, the lines, the crowds. Lounges are sane places to work or relax before a flight or, increasingly, during hours-long delays.

There are several ways to gain access to an airport lounge: All major North American carriers offer paid membership to a network of clubs, and airline alliances such as Oneworld and Star offer lounge privileges to their most frequent fliers. Third-party management firms like Servisair operate pay-per-visit lounges at airports worldwide, and international airlines maintain lavish V.I.P. lounges—complete with day spas, libraries, and private workspaces—for business- and first-class customers.

But every one of those arrangements is a hit-or-miss proposition. If you’re not flying first or business class that day, you probably don’t rate an invitation to one of the international V.I.P. lounges. And the lounges open to elite frequent fliers require intense loyalty to a small group of carriers, not to mention hundreds of thousands of miles of flying each year. Paid membership in a U.S. airline lounge network is equally iffy. For instance, American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, says it serves 250 cities in 40 countries, but it operates its proprietary Admirals Club lounges in only 38 airports. And though Continental Airlines has filled out its roster of Presidents Clubs with lounges run by other airlines and even Amtrak, its network still covers just 62 locations.

I get around these limitations with a membership in Priority Pass, a nearly secret program that guarantees humane treatment at the world’s key airports—and many smaller ones too. A flash of the black-and-gold card opens the door to more than 500 airport clubs in the United States and abroad, everywhere from Tirana, Albania, to Lusaka, Zambia. Unlike any other airport-lounge program, Priority Pass is neither status-obsessed nor geographically challenged. It gives you lounge access regardless of the airline you fly, the class of ticket you purchase, or the frequent flier program status you hold.

Launched in the U.K. 15 years ago, Priority Pass claims more than 1.5 million members worldwide, but only a small portion of them are U.S. frequent fliers. It’s not that we’re dumber than our international counterparts; it’s that Priority Pass has barely promoted itself here.

Priority Pass doesn’t operate any lounges of its own but offers access to lounges run by other players. In the United States, for example, Priority Pass has arranged for members to use most Delta Crown Room Clubs, Continental Presidents Clubs, Northwest WorldClubs, U.S. Airways Clubs, United Airlines Red Carpet Clubs, and Alaska Airlines Board Rooms. You won’t necessarily be able to get into all of them, though; at LAX in Los Angeles, for example, Priority Pass members have a choice of four lounges, but the Red Carpet Club isn’t one of them.

Airlines aren’t exactly over the moon about the Priority Pass, even if they’ve signed on. The carriers charge travelers as much as $500 a year to join their more-limited club networks, and Priority Pass’ one-membership-does-it-all, $399-a-year proposition has been viewed as a threat. So the airlines demand that Priority Pass keep an extraordinarily low profile and limit its promotional activities in the United States.

Priority Pass recently cracked the last major U.S. holdout—American Airlines now allows a few of its overseas Admirals Clubs to participate. But don’t expect a publicity blitz: no ads in the major carriers’ in-flight magazines, no mail from your frequent-flier program touting the benefits of Priority Pass. In other words, it’s a good thing I tipped you to Priority Pass, because neither the company nor your favorite airline is likely to let you know it exists. And believe me, you need a place at Moscow’s airport where everyone knows your membership number.

The Fine Print
Priority Pass has two lower-priced plans: The $99-a-year Standard plan allows you and your guests to visit any affiliated club for a $27-per-person fee. (U.S. airline clubs generally allow paying members to bring two guests free of charge.) The $249-a-year Standard Plus plan offers 10 free lounge visits, with additional entries costing $27 each. Amex Centurion and Citigroup Chairman card holders receive free membership in Priority Pass. American Express Platinum cardholders who travel on American, Continental, Delta, or Northwest receive same-day free access to the club network of the carrier they are flying with, and Amex Centurion cardholders receive free membership in Priority Pass.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.