By Joe Brancatelli
October 13, 2010 -- Airports are divided into two broad areas: the huge and groaning public facilities where passengers fight the chaos of ticket counters, boarding lines, security checkpoints, and retail hucksters and the comparatively quiet, relatively serene confines of the private club lounges.

And the only question you have to ask yourself is: Why are you on the outside looking in?

Life on the road is always a matter of compromise and often a matter of choosing the lesser evil, but airport club memberships are unqualified, indisputable good things. They are, in fact, the single best investment you can make in your own travel comfort and personal productivity.

The lounges have changed radically in the decades since American Airlines first invented the Admirals Club as a marketing scheme to flatter high-profile flyers. They've gone from discriminatory, invitation-only operations and frat-boy drinking societies to pay-to-play private lounges and remote offices. WiFi seems more vital than whiskey these days, although all of the club networks sponsored by U.S. and Canadian carriers now offer both on a complimentary basis. Airlines still bestow membership on its preferred flyers, but club lounges aren't about status anymore. They are about shelter from the ranging storm that engulfs modern airports whenever a flight delay turns your 40-minute connection into a four-hour layover.

As the airline industry has contracted in recent years, the carriers' networks of club lounges have shrunk too. There are only seven multi-airport operations remaining in North America, and they have forged a series of overlapping domestic and international alliances. Membership in one airline's airport club system is likely to get you reciprocal privileges in some lounges operated by another carrier. Here is a brief snapshot of the current operations sponsored by the leading carriers.

Air Canada
As the only surviving network of airline-sponsored clubs in Canada, the Maple Leaf Lounge is a must for regular travelers up north. Membership includes access to 20 clubs, plus selected Red Carpet Club lounges operated by United Airlines and Lufthansa lounges in Munich and Frankfurt. The snacks, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages are free, as is WiFi and the Hewlett-Packard-branded in-club business centers. A year's membership costs C$459 or 54,000 Aeroplan miles, although some Air Canada elite-level flyers and Canadian American Express cardholders get free access. A "worldwide" Maple Leaf plan also includes access to several hundred Star Alliance lounges for C$649 a year. Bringing guests cost C$15 to C$25 each.

Alaska Airlines
There are only six Alaska Airlines Board Rooms, but they are buttressed by reciprocal privileges at more than 50 other lounges operated by Delta, American, and Continental Airlines. That makes the annual fee (starting at $295 depending on your elite status with Alaska Air) much more palatable. Besides, the Board Rooms offer an extensive array of complimentary soft drinks, alcohol, and snacks. WiFi is free too, as are two guests per member. A one-day pass to a Board Room for nonmembers costs $40.

American Airlines
Seventy years after the first one opened at New York's LaGuardia Airport, Admirals Clubs are still around. There are 40, in fact, and members also get reciprocal privileges at 30 clubs operated by Qantas Airlines, American's partner in the Oneworld Alliance. Earlier this month, American removed the charge for beer, wine, and some liquor. WiFi is free. At some Admirals Clubs, American also sells salads and sandwiches to go with the complimentary light snacks. Annual membership starts at $350 (or 50,000 AAdvantage miles) depending on your elite status with American. Members are allowed two guests per visit. A day pass for nonmembers costs $50.

Continental Airlines
Now owned by the same holding company as United Airlines, Continental Airlines and its network of 24 Presidents Clubs will eventually be joined with the Red Carpet Clubs operated by United. In fact, some Presidents Clubs have already closed as Continental began aligning in several airports with United. Continental was the first to offer free WiFi in its lounges; snacks, soft drinks, and alcohol are free too. Presidents Club membership now also includes reciprocal privileges at United clubs, as well as lounges operated by US Airways and other members of the Star Alliance. Annual membership starts at $375, depending on your Continental elite-status, plus a $50 initiation fee. Membership is free for travelers who carry the Chase Continental Presidential Plus credit card ($395 a year) or hold Continental Presidential Platinum Elite status. Members are permitted two guests or immediate family during a visit. A day pass for nonmembers costs $50.

Delta Air Lines
Delta merged last year with Northwest Airlines and it has integrated that carrier's lounges into its Sky Club network, which has grown to 50 locations. WiFi, snacks, and soft and hard beverages are free, and some Sky Clubs now offer more substantial fare for sale too. Membership includes reciprocal privileges at 40 other lounges operated by Alaska Air, Virgin Blue of Australia, and SkyTeam Alliance members Air France and KLM. Membership starts at $300 a year or 40,000 SkyMiles, depending on Delta elite status. There's also a $50 or 10,000-mile fee for new members. Membership is free for top-level (Diamond) Delta elite flyers. Members can bring two guests or a spouse and family members under 21. For nonmembers, a day pass ($50) or a 30-day pass ($90) is available.

United Airlines
The United Red Carpet Club network of 34 lounges became threadbare during the carrier's long stay in bankruptcy and its post-Chapter 11 years of deferred capital spending. But members now have access to Continental clubs and lounges operated by US Airways and other Star Alliance carriers. And when it completed its merger with Continental this month, United made WiFi free and some beer, wine, and drinks complimentary too. Annual membership costs $325 or 40,000 Mileage Plus miles, depending on United elite status. There's also a $50 or 7,000-mile fee for new members. Members can bring two guests or immediate family. Nonmembers can buy a day pass online for $35 or pay $50 at a club.

US Airways
The prosaically named US Airways Club shrank to 19 locations as the carrier contracted in recent years. But members get privileges at clubs run by United, Continental, and other Star Alliance carriers. WiFi is free, as are snacks, soft drinks, and some alcoholic beverages. Members can bring two guests or a spouse and family members under 18. Annual membership starts at $325, depending on your US Airways elite status. Nonmembers can purchase a day pass ($50) or a 90-day pass ($120) .

Most club lounges have some computer equipment on the premises, but since business travelers carry their own these days, the benefit is limited. And the printers, while useful, seem to have a high out-of-service rate. On-site conference rooms, once a key marketing point for the club networks, still exist at many lounges, but their value has diminished too. After all, it's almost impossible to clear security if you don't have a ticket to travel, and most clubs are beyond the security checkpoint. So only a masochist would call a meeting at a club lounge these days.

How do you pick the right club network? If your travel is primarily on one carrier and its alliance partners, join the club network sponsored by that airline. It'll give you the best bang for your membership dollar.

Don't use one airline exclusively? Consider the Platinum American Express Card. Cardholders receive free access to most clubs operated by American, Delta, and US Airways. The card will also get you entry into Continental Presidents Clubs through September 2011. This kind of access for members was pioneered decades ago by Diners Club. It still offers an extensive network of international airport clubs for its cardholders, but there are only five lounges in the United States.

Then there is Priority Pass. I've raved about it before, and I'm happy to do so again. For $400 or less a year, it opens the door to 600 airport clubs around the word. That includes many lounges operated by the U.S. carriers and third-party clubs run by airports, specialty providers, or international carriers. I think it's the best value in business travel. But your mileage may vary.

The Fine Print…
A standard business-travel caveat: Useful as they are, airport-club networks have peculiar rules and uneven hours of operation. Reciprocal rights also carry some restrictions. Read all of the terms and conditions carefully before joining any club network.
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 © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.