By Joe Brancatelli
August 11, 2009 -- How much would you pay to make the annoyances of commercial airports--the crowds, the noise, the inconveniences, the feeble business and personal amenities--disappear?

Before you empty the rest of the kids’ college fund, let me suggest an investment of just 400 bucks, the cost of an annual membership in Priority Pass, a nearly secret program that guarantees humane treatment at all of the world’s key airports—and many smaller ones, too. I raved about Priority Pass in the very first Seat 2B column in 2007, and I’ll say it again: Even in these down financial times, when every penny needs to be pinched, Priority Pass is probably the single best investment you can make in your own comfort and productivity on the road.

A quick flash of the black-and-gold Priority Pass membership card opens the door of about 600 otherwise-private airport clubs in the United States (and from Tirana, Albania, to Lusaka, Zambia). Unlike any other airport-lounge program, Priority Pass is valid regardless of the airline you fly, the class of ticket you purchase, or the frequent-flyer program status you hold.

Airport club access, of course, is the business traveler’s holy grail. Although club features and perks differ wildly, all lounges offer the one amenity that we crave: shelter from the chaos that engulfs the surrounding airport. They are sane places to work or relax before a flight or during long delays.

While there are many ways to get into an airport club—major North American carriers sponsor proprietary networks of paid-membership clubs, international airlines outfit lavish VIP lounges for premium-class customers, and third-party management firms like Servisair operate pay-per-visit lounges at airports worldwide—all of those lounge arrangements are a sometimes thing. The by-invitation VIP lounges are one-off deals: If you’re not flying first or business class that day, you probably don’t rate an invite. And paid membership in a U.S. airline-lounge network is an equally spotty proposition. For instance, American Airlines says it serves 250 cities worldwide. But its Admirals Club network, which costs upwards of $500 a year, covers just 38 airports.

Priority Pass is neither status-obsessed nor geographically challenged. Travelers who pay the $399 fee for Prestige Level membership receive unlimited entry to 600 lounges in 325 airports around the world. By the fragmentary standards of airport clubs, that is virtual omnipresence—and a godsend for club-dependent frequent flyers.

The company that issues the card, Priority Travel Group, doesn’t operate any lounges under its own banner. Its ubiquitous network, the specifics of which are distributed only to cardholders, is built on existing clubs run by other airport players. In the United States, for example, Priority Pass has arranged for members to use some lounges operated by the big U.S. carriers: Most Continental Presidents Clubs, US Airways Clubs, and Alaska Airlines Board Rooms are in the mix. Many United Airlines Red Carpet clubs also welcome Priority Pass members. Internationally, Priority Pass mostly relies on VIP lounges usually reserved for the day-tripping elite or public clubs that normally charge on a per-visit basis.

Launched in Britain in 1992, Priority Pass won’t say how many travelers it has signed up, but it’s reasonable to assume that about two million flyers worldwide are members. Shockingly, however, probably fewer than 100,000 U.S. frequent flyers carry its card. It’s not that we’re dumber than our international fellow travelers. It’s just that Priority Pass has been all but barred from promoting itself here.

In order to secure access privileges to the clubs operated by the U.S. airlines, Priority Pass has promised the carriers that it won’t try to poach their membership rolls. The carriers charge as much as $525 a year to join their more-limited club networks, and a compelling one-membership-does-it-all proposition has traditionally been viewed as a threat.

U.S. airlines “have always been concerned about our infringing on their membership base and diluting their revenue,” Priority Pass president Terry Evans told me two years ago. “Airlines are very jealous of their relationship with their customers, and that’s understandable.”

In recent years, however, U.S. carriers have begun to accept that Priority Pass doesn’t steal members from their club networks, but offers incremental revenue growth. Whenever a Priority Pass member visits a U.S. airline club, the sponsoring carrier receives a payment from Priority Pass—the exact formula is a closely held secret—and that’s essentially found money for the chronically cash-poor carriers.

Still, the relationship between Priority Pass and U.S. airlines remains tenuous. Continental Airlines once pulled its lounges out of the program, only to return a few years ago. Just a few overseas American Admirals Clubs accept the card; all of American’s domestic clubs are off limits. And Delta Air Lines is pulling its newly rebranded Sky Club airport-lounge network out of Priority Pass at the end of August. Delta’s move shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a knock against the program. Instead, Delta recently created a fourth tier of elite status for its SkyMiles frequent-flyer program, and the benefit for these Diamond Level road warriors who fly at least 125,000 miles a year on Delta is free membership in Sky Club. That perk wouldn’t be particularly valuable if those lounges still participated in Priority Pass.

To placate U.S. carriers, Priority Pass almost never advertises for new U.S. members. And U.S.-based Priority Pass executives reflexively talk down the program’s benefits vis-à-vis membership in an airline-sponsored club. Without prompting, they’ll remind you that Priority Pass members pay $27 for every guest they bring along. (U.S. airline clubs generally allow their members to bring along two guests free of charge.) And they seem almost eager to point out that not every lounge operated by a U.S. carrier accepts the card. (One example: Priority Pass members can use five lounges at Los Angeles International Airport, but the United Airlines Red Carpet Club at LAX doesn’t participate.)

In other words, it’s a good thing I tipped you to this, because neither Priority Pass itself nor your favorite airline is likely to let you know it exists.

The Fine Print…
Priority Pass also sells two lower-priced plans. The $99-a-year Standard plan allows you to visit any affiliated club for a $27-a-visit admission fee. The $249-a-year Standard Plus plan includes 10 lounge admissions; additional entries cost $27 each. Some high-end American Express cardholders, including those with a black Centurion or Citi Chairman card, receive free membership in Priority Pass. In fact, credit cards are often its closest competitors. Amex Platinum cardholders receive day-of-travel access to the lounges run by several U.S. carriers. Diners Club operates a network of lounges, most of them at overseas airports. And Chase now markets credit cards that offer free access to the Continental or United airport clubs.
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 © 2009 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.