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THE RISE OF THE 'PUBLIC' PRIVATE LOUNGE
By Joe Brancatelli
April 10, 2013 --Death and taxes may be the only certainties available to most mortals, but business travelers have another guarantee: The best place at any airport is a private airport club.

As any business traveler will tell you, an airport club unlevels the playing field in our favor. The huddled airport masses make do with the chaotic public facilitiesfood courts, plastics chairs at crowded gates, a squat on an airport floor near an electrical outletbut we happy few can wave a club-card membership or the appropriate credit card and cross to what passes for airport nirvana: chairs and sofas with cushions, genuine workspace with WiFi, complimentary soft drinks and snacks, a decent bar area, clean restrooms and perhaps even showers, and, most of all, a bit of privacy and a modicum of dignity.

But guess what? The huddled masses have figured out that we band of business travel brothers have a good thing going. And they want in, too. Perhaps more surprisingly, what can only be called public private lounges are opening at airports around the nation to fill the demand.

The company that runs Priority Pass, which once only specialized in cracking open the door to airline-run private clubs, now also manages four open-to-all-comers lounges. American Express (NYSE: AXP) opened the swanky Centurion Lounge at McCarran International in Las Vegas in February and promises two more airport clubs before the end of the year. And a start-up firm called Airspace Lounge operates at Baltimore-Washington International, opened at Cleveland Hopkins late last month and is scheduled to open a branch next month at New York's John F. Kennedy International.

Airspace Lounges are "a direct-to-consumer brand," explains Anthony Tangorra, president of Airspace, a division of the huge airport logistics firm called Swissport. "We're bringing lounge access to the 90 percent of people who have never had one. Airport lounges are an accessible luxury."

Airport lounges for mass-market fliers is hardly a new idea. European and Asian airports have for decades offered public, pay-per-visit clubs. Companies such as Servisair and Plaza Premium operate the public lounges to supplement the private, by-invitation-only airport clubs run by international airlines.

Here in the states, however, airport clubs have been almost solely the province of the domestic carriers. They've built club networks at airports around the country, but only in cities where they run a large number of daily flights. While attractive enough, the lounges, with names like American Admirals Club or Delta Sky Club, are largely run as waystations to wait between flights.

But the new "public" private airport clubs such as Amex's Centurion Lounge are much swankier and nearly a destination to themselves. Available free to holders of the by-invitation-only Amex Centurion Card or for $50 a visit for other Amex members, the lounge offers restaurant-quality meals and snacks, a high-end bar and relaxation areas. There are also quiet, private workspaces and all of the power and Internet connectivity needed to work productively before, between or after flights.

"We're not getting into the airport lounge business," insists American Express vice president Stephen Selwood, who hold the title head of loyalty and innovations. "We open lounges as an amenity for cardholders and in a variety of venues," pointing out that Amex also operates cardmember-only clubs in several large convention centers. Still, Selwood admits, "demand from our customers for lounges in airports is getting louder."

Airspace's Tangorra says the demand far exceeds the available supply, especially since U.S. airlines have closed so many clubs in the years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He points to the initial Airspace location at Baltimore-Washington International, an airport that had two airline-run clubs in 2008, but none by the time his lounge opened in 2011.

Unlike Amex, Tangorra most definitely is in the airport club business. "The lounge business is meaningful to us. We run them as businesses and justify them as such."

At the Baltimore-Washington and Cleveland Airspace Lounges, the $20 entry fee will get you unlimited WiFi access and soft drinks as well as a choice of one item off the food menu or one alcoholic beverage. Additional food and liquor are available a la carte. Like Centurion Lounge and Priority Pass's The Club, Airspace Lounges offer plenty of space to work or relax and, most importantly, shelter from the airport storm.

Tangorra's upcoming lounge at JetBlue Airways' Terminal 5 at Kennedy Airport will cost a few dollars more per visit and will also feature shower facilities. With space for 50 guests, it'll offer a interesting contrast to the public restaurants and bars that already operate at the passenger-friendly terminal. "The bar is set high at T5," admits Tangorra. "The restaurants there are quite good, but the allure of an elegant, quiet, private space really is a point of differentiation for us."

But the rise of swanky, pay-per-visit operations like Airspace Lounge shouldn't overshadow the basic reality of airport clubs: Any club is better than no club at all. And smart business travelers shouldn't hope that a pay-per-visit lounge is available. They should make sure they have access to as many clubs at as many airports as possible. And as we've discussed in the past, opening the doors to private airline and airport clubs is easier than ever.

The $450-a-year American Express Platinum Card has a brilliant perk called the Airport Club Access Program. Cardholders receive complimentary access to the American Admirals and Delta Sky clubs on days you're flying those airlines. You also receive anytime access to the US Airways Club. Amex Platinum also gets you complimentary access to Airspace Lounges and a Priority Pass Select card, good for admittance to about 500 airport clubs around the world.

If the Amex Platinum club network has a weakness, it's lack of access to the lounges operated by United Airlines and many of its Star Alliance partners. The good news? The $395-a-year United MileagePlus Visa Signature card from Chase covers those lounges.

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 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.