THE CLUB LIFE GETS DICEY AND PRICEY
By Joe Brancatelli
March 20, 2014 --The winter of our travel discontent is finally over after more than 100,000 flight cancellations and 500,000 delays, so guess what the big airlines are doing? Making it more complicated than ever to guarantee that you have airport lounge access, the 21st century equivalent of ports in a storm.
By the end of this week, the American Express Platinum Card will no longer pry open doors to the Admirals Clubs and US Airways Clubs run by the merged American Airlines. That means each of the nation's big carriers now has an exclusive deal with a single credit card partner.
After bolting from Amex, American is now locked into deal with Citibank and club privileges are the primary lure of the $450-a-year Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard. United Airlines is lined up with Chase and United Club access is an exclusive perk of the $395-a-year United MileagePlus Club card. Delta Air Lines' SkyClubs becomes the airline-lounge network of the $450-a-year Amex Platinum.
This trinity of high-priced plastic, a $1,300 annual investment if you spring for them all, is a far cry from Amex Platinum's initial concept. In the early 1980s, when Amex stood alone as the charge vehicle of choice among business travelers, American Express executives hoped to line up access to all U.S. airline clubs as the signature perk of its soon-to-be-unveiled Platinum card.
Amex never pulled it off and travelers have been balancing credit cards and club-lounge cards ever since. Now that the airlines and banks are in deep, wide-ranging and exclusive financial partnerships, it's harder than ever to ensure you'll never go clubless. Even the once-magical Priority Pass is no guarantee that you'll always have an airport club when you need one.
"Is it so hard for someone to create an all-access pass?" asks Simona Loring, a 250,000-mile-a-year flier. "Surely, some smart entrepreneur can design this."
Design an all-access airport-lounge pass? Yes. Execute one? Probably impossible today due to the convoluted banking relationships, airline alliances and internal pressures to offer something exclusive to a carrier's most valued fliers. There's no financial or marketing incentive for lounge operators to participate in a one-card-does-it-all program.
So what's a business traveler looking to duck the madding crowds at the airport to do? Act in his or her own best interest, of course, by piecing together a strategy that gets them into the most clubs they are likely to use at the lowest effective cost. Your real and metaphoric mileage will vary, of course, and your decisions should be based on your own travel patterns, but here's an overview of the current best club strategies.
Keep playing the platinum card
Amex is reacting by building and operating its own network of airport clubs, called Centurion Lounge. The first two opened last year—on Concourse D at Las Vegas McCarran International and Concourse D at Dallas/Fort Worth—and at least two more are on the way this year. The upcoming Centurion Lounges in Terminal 3 at San Francisco International and Terminal B at New York's LaGuardia airport promise to extend what has already become the Amex airport trademark: quiet, comfortable spaces with complimentary food from big-name chefs, great bars and top-notch service.
"We get that providing airport lounge access is critical to Platinum cardholders," says Gary Portuesi, who holds the title of "vice president, travel innovations" at American Express. "We're in this for the long haul. Negotiating leases with airports and building at airports are no fly-by-night things."
Portuesi won't discuss the next locations, but he did admit that filling gaps left by American's departure and adding clubs at airports where Delta doesn't have a SkyClub are crucial. "Our bread and butter is the business traveler and they are arguably our most profitable. We know that they judge us on the clubs we build" and the clubs that accept the Platinum card for entry.
Besides the Centurion Lounges, Platinum cardholders get free membership in Priority Pass Select, a network of about 600 clubs worldwide that includes the Alaska Airlines Board Rooms; complimentary use of the Airspace Lounges, run by a company hoping to develop pay-per-visit U.S. airport clubs; and use of an earlier collection of Amex VIP lounges overseas. Amex has recently upgraded the Mexico City and Buenos Aires airport clubs and added chefs to make them resemble the Centurion Lounges.
Amex is also shoring up Platinum Card benefits in June by adding complimentary access to the Boingo Wireless network of global hotspots. It already rebates the $100 fee cardholders spend to join Global Entry, the customs-bypass system, and now will offer the alternative of an $85 rebate for joining TSA PreCheck.
The star at United
Unlike Amex, Chase has no plans to build its own lounges to fill holes in the United network, says David Gold, who runs Chase's portfolio of United Airlines credit cards. Gold has gone in another direction: opening pop-up lounges tied to "special events where I know cardholders will be."
In recent years, Gold created cardholder-only lounges at upscale malls during the Christmas season. He opened a lounge in the heart of London during the 2012 Summer Olympics. Earlier this year, Chase took over Guy Fieri's American Kitchen and Bar in Manhattan's Times Square for the entire week before the Super Bowl. Cardholders had exclusive access to the restaurant, feasted on complimentary snacks and beverages and were offered special events with chefs and football stars.
The one-off approach
Is this patchwork approach perfect? Of course not. If nothing else, it often keeps you out of some superlative clubs run by international airlines for their premium-class and elite-status fliers. Lufthansa, for instance, has just opened a pair of stunning lounges at Newark Airport.
But until that unlikely day when some upstart figures out a way to offer complete, unfettered access to every airport lounge at every airport in the world, we'll have to settle for the ports we can find and buy our way into.
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.
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