Delta and American No Longer Offer Club ‘Membership’, It’s a Subscription-Based Upsell Instead

European and Asian full service airlines generally offer lounge access as a benefit to their premium cabin customers and their elite frequent flyers.

In the U.S. lounge access is mostly paid via ‘membership’. The reason why dates to 1974.

American Airlines opened the first airport lounge in 1938. The brand new New York LaGuardia airport featured a huge office for Mayor LaGuardia, which he was criticized for, so the space was leased to American. Their second lounge was at Washington National. Until the 1970s this second club lacked a liquor license so stored members’ bottles for their own use instead.

These sorts of clubs were the subject of anti-discrimination cases in front of the Civil Aeronautics Board, the agency which regulated the airlines up until 1978’s Airline Deregulation Act.

On February 12, 1974 the Civil Aeronautics Board issued an order laying out the terms under which airlines could determine access to their clubs.

  • Open to everyone
  • Open to everyone in a premium cabin
  • Membership-based where anyone who paid the fee could join

Airlines were also permitted to allow use of lounges by delayed passengers, by the sick, ill or elderly, and — because one bureaucrat washes the other — by politicians (as well as celebrities) whose presence in the terminal could create a disturbance. (Incidentally the late Senator Ted Kennedy insisted US Airways not lay off two special services representatives at National airport when the carrier was making cutbacks after 9/11, his office described this as ‘saving jobs’ albeit the jobs of people serving him.)

The notion of paid lounge memberships was a move towards making the clubs ‘more egalitarian’ rather than exclusive or elitist.

American Airlines Dallas Fort-Worth A Concourse Admirals Club

Since the 1970s US airline lounges have largely been membership clubs. They even have initiation fees (it’s $50 at United, at American the first year of membership is more expensive rather than breaking this fee out separately). And paying members are therefore granted access upon presenting themselves to the club, subject to normal and customary restrictions — such as regular operating hours.

They don’t even seem to enforce much of a dress code, the way Qantas does, from what I can tell.

All of this is changing next year. At Delta and American club lounge access will be sold as a subscription service rather than a membership. Just like an annual United premium economy access package, allowing seat selection in extra legroom coach seats when flying United, Delta and American will be offering one year package upsells of lounge access when you fly.

Delta SkyClub Seattle, Credit: Delta

So much for notions of membership. A US airline club used to be a members-only club not just an extra amenity to pay to add onto your ticket. You could access it as a member. In the old days when you didn’t need a same day ticket to clear security you could go wait in the lounge to meet an arriving passenger. As an historical vestige of that some airline clubs would even let you request gate passes after 9/11 as a service to its members.

I will continue to buy American’s extra service package of airport lounge access, bundled with its premium co-brand credit card, since American is the largest legacy airline at my home airport in Austin and given the frequency with which my flights seem to suffer irregular operations and I need help with re-booking.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. How long before the airline clubs adopt the American Express Centurion Lounge policy of restricted access to only those within two hours of departure, and no in-bound passengers?

  2. @ Gary — Well, my spouse and I paid for MEMBERSHIPS to Delta, and we expect a refund. We are not alone. Expect a class action lawsuit against Delta if refunds are not forthcoming.

  3. @ nsx — My understanding is that, at least for Delta, lifetime memberships will be come lifetime subscriptions effective January 1, 2019.

  4. Or you can be a nonmember of a bar off the airport where you can pay next to nothing for a bartender who actually cares to take care of you and show up to the gate at the last minute.

  5. Hmmm. I bought United Red Carpet Club lifetime membership in 1973. Supposedly, this included unlimited access to the club. I wonder if United has breached its contract with these continuing cutbacks. Especially where I haven’t received a notice in 25 years about a change in terms.

  6. All the more reason to grab Oneworld Sapphire/Emerald from another carrier if you can. If American is going to deny almost all of its own elites and charge for restrictive access… what’s the point?

  7. Good for Delta and American. Lounges are overcrowded everywhere. Restrictions on free booze would be good too. Hit a lounge at 5pm and you deal with drunks. And enforce the dress code too.

  8. To help prevent lounge overcrowding, I wonder if Delta and American Airlines will soon add an extra surcharge for lounge access durring their irregular operations. This extra fee would be called a surge pricing surcharge.

  9. Currently if you have Citi AA Exec you can visit Admirals Club even if not flying American. After Jan 1, will I have to be flying American to take advantage of that perk?
    Or am I mistaken?

  10. Simple. Just buy a refundable ticket when you want to access it. If it denies the airline revenue, even better.

  11. @Steve S: the change is effective on November 1, 2019 for AA — before then you can be flying on another carrier. That’s what a very helpful; Admirals Club agent told me. AA Admirals Club will get a $10 payment from Citibank each time a World Elite Mastercard holder enters an Admirals Club. Citibank keeps the $450 annual card fee. Not dissimilar from the arrangement American Express has with Priority Pass Clubs, it seems.

  12. I like how this bothers Gary enough to write a post, but not to change behavior. I’m certain he’s not alone – 99% of people aren’t going to do anything different because of this policy.

    This is why nobody can have nice things. We’re not willing to take action when the airlines move against loyal customers.

  13. @john is entirely correct. Clubs have become way too oversubscribed. They are invaded by slovenly hordes that drag an entourage along. And in some cases look like unsupervised day care centers, as I am reminded of the wild ruffians jumping on the furniture in a LGA club.

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