Here’s American’s New Airport Lounge Strategy, and What Makes an Airline’s Lounge Indispensable (No Matter How Good the Alternatives)

I recently saw a photo cross my Facebook stream of a soda machine in the American Airlines Admirals Club in St. Louis and it somehow struck me. That was new. Pretty minor, but new.

That small change anchored a sense that something was up, along with American opening a new lounge in Buenos Aires which looked pretty good.

American also just opened another lounge at LAX, of all places in the midfield terminal used for regional flights. That’s something which would sure make waiting over there more pleasant, as it’s pretty barren otherwise.

I spoke with Mimi Chen from American’s Premium Services to understand what was going on.

I wanted to know about the soda machines. She explained that as they refurbish clubs, one idea is giving customers more control over food and beverage and also relieving congestion at the bar. They don’t want people to have to wait for refreshments.

The new LAX club has one. It’s part of their new overall standard palette, and the LAX club features their overall new club ‘look and feel’ that’s intended to be a “modern fresh environment, warm and comfortable.”

And, of course, the new LAX club has a soda machine. And it’s self-serve, away from the nice-looking bar.

This club is small – just 2400 square feet – but you don’t need a large club for the remote terminal, they weren’t working with much space, and it’s a real improvement over what was on offer before.

The new design palette isn’t sweeping the clubs all at once, it’s simply a matter of rolling renovations getting new touches and improvements. I’m told that there’s nothing planned for Austin now, so the putting green there is safe.

They’ve closed the US Airways Club at Washington National airport that’s shared with American. They’ve consolidated down to a single club on that pier, and are evaluating what to do with the US Airways club space. I’ve heard lots of folks say that they’re going to tear down the wall between the clubs and simply expand, but apparently a decision on that hasn’t been made.

(Washington National isn’t the only place they’re consolidating clubs, they also did that in Raleigh in June as well – where like at DCA the surviving club was the American lounge.)

We don’t know what the final product alignment is going to be between US Airways and American, they haven’t announced those details, but there are at least already more complimentary snacks in the American clubs than there used to be. (US Airways always had less complimentary food in the air but more on the ground, oddly enough.)

When I’ve visited the DCA club, since the US Airways Club closed, I haven’t noticed it visibly crowder (which surprises me). There’s a legacy US Airways agent as one of the three working the front desk, and she (it’s always been a woman when I’ve been in) works on a US Airways terminal while the other two agents work on American terminals.

The DC club is a pretty tight-knit group, and I really like them. Of course I love the design, amenities and food of the American Express Centurion lounges, whether the Dallas Fort-Worth lounge or the brand new New York LaGuardia club which opens this month.

But the one thing American Express lounges can’t really provide, that US airline clubs usually do*, is help with airline-specific reservations issues. If you book your trips with American Express Travel, the Centurion clubs can help. But if you simply have an American ticket, American agents are who you need to deal with for help with upgrades or during irregular operations or if you want to switch flights.

The ladies at the DCA Admirals Club have always been fantastic. I check in with them, and they proactively look at my flights — they let me know whether the inbound aircraft has arrived, whether I’m likely to have any trouble with a connection, or if I arrive especially early whether I might be able to get on an earlier flight. I’ve often gotten out earlier, made my destination when I wouldn’t have otherwise, `and even done so while getting upgraded thanks to the magic they work.

And they’re like family. My favorite bartender is Johne, who makes a truly outstanding bloody mary. It’s complimentary, though I’ll sometimes substitute better alcohol with a drink coupon I get when I access the lounge using my British Airways status (normally I use the BA Silver card for drink coupons just to pick up free bottled water before the flight).

One of the other bartenders was stricken with cancer and has been on leave. Folks organized a bake sale to raise money for him while he’s off of work. I don’t need the baked goods, but several customers organized to just donate money to help him. Because it’s family. They take care of us while we’re on the road, and we try to take care of them right back.

Another ‘new’ club is in San Diego, where the former Admirals Clu is now a pay-in Airspace lounge but that offers complimentary access to Admirals Club members (same access policy as an Admirals Club). The Admirals Club name is on the door. (As an Airspace lounge, it’s an Admirals Club you can still access with an American Express Platinum card, heh.)

They’ve got a lot of ideas, but I don’t expect to see a bunch of new locations or new amenities outside of the process of finalizing standards between the American and US Airways Clubs at least until the two airlines combine. Ms. Chen, like virtually everyone else at American I speak to, repeated the mantra “integrate before we innovate.” That’s the line across the company for almost any topic right now.

Ultimately I love the top-end amenities that some foreign airlines offer in lounges. It’s hard to beat Thai spa treatments prior to a long haul departure. But if you’ve ever tried to get help with a reservation, even a seat assignment, in the Thai Airways first class lounge in Bangkok you’ll know that the basics can be just as important. The American Airlines lounges aren’t the height of luxury, but their clean, comfortable, provisioned places to wait for your flight and get any reservations help you need along the way.

* I’ve been told in Alaska Airlines lounges that they cannot help with reservations — they’re management employees, and they tell me either to use the kiosk or go see a reservations agent because union contracts only allow those agents to work on reservations. Not all United club agents are equally helpful with reservations either ::Dulles: ::cough:: ::Dulles::

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. A nice post, Gary, and especially good that you give kudos to the AA lounge personnel. I don’t frequent the San Francisco AA lounge enough to know the staff there. But I’ve always found most AA lounges pleasant and the staff friendly and helpful. The American lounges offer a contrast with most of those of United, in my experience. No wonder that over at Flyertalk some posters refer to American lounge personnel as angels and United lounge personnel (albeit sometimes unfairly) as dragons.

  2. @italdesign –

    I have (1) the citi executive card, which comes with lounge access, and (2) i have british airways silver status… i was given gold status for 21 months when BA bought british midland (i was a bmi gold) and then got a soft landing to silver. If i did not have either 1 or 2, i would redeem Business ExtrAA points for it.

  3. Admirals at DCA is truly fantastic. Granted, is not super big or fancy, but the ladies at the entrance are amazing…every-single-time. Johne and his bloody mary….super nice guy, attentive and always smiling. He was even featured on an issue of GQ magazine (ask him, he has a copy laying around…). Anyhow, I hope the club gets bigger and better while keeping the same service. Kudos to all of them!

  4. The ladies at front desk of the SFO AC are, forgive the pun, AAmazing.

    I’ve lost count the number of times they’ve gone waaaaay above and beyond their job description to help me out. I love them all.

  5. So the conclusion is that they are adding soda machines and changing the look when it’s time for refurbishment. They are putting in soda machines when that happens which uses syrup instead of offering cans like they do in real lounges. They also are putting in the bottom of the barrel Nescafe machines that uses undrinkable, freeze dried coffee instead of real coffee beans. They’ve had one in the Flagship Lounge at ORD for a while.Have you tried it? It’s the worst coffee I’ve ever had. They could have put in a Nespresso machine from the same brand. GREAT coffee, but hey, it probably saves them 2 cents per cup with the freeze dried solution.. They will still be offering the undrinkable bottom of the barrel alcohol and nothing to eat for free. The US Airways lounges at least serves known alcohol, Keurig coffee and something to eat, even if it they don’t greatest lounges. It’s not hard to guess what the journey forward for the consolidated airline will look like: Pick the worst/cheapest when combining, great news for the folks over at McCormicks :P. At the end of the day, the only positive thing is that you don’t have to pay a dollar in tip to get a glass of mediocre pop anymore 😛

    The US carriers still offers the absolute worst in their lounges and the Admiral Club is the worst, And I’m not talking about comparing them to the Lufthansa First Class Terminal or the Singapore Private Room style lounges. I’m talking regular meat and potato lounges all western carriers offer all over. They all offer something to eat, real soda, real Espresso/Coffee machines and free alcohol from decent brands. That should be the bare minimum.

    And even if an Asian carrier doesn’t offer knowledge etc. during irr ops, most carriers have this down to the t.

    The Admirals Club folks can be helpful sometimes, hey, they need to be since over 1/3 of AAs flights are delayed according in the last 12 months statistic (while US Airways have almost 80% of their flights ontime ironically :P)

    And ironically, the NA Carriers clubs are the only clubs you have to PAY to be a member for the trash they are offering.

    Setting aside the Bloody Mary dude at Reagan the Admirals club is a waiting room with no lines (most of the times) when there are irr ops. That’s it. No food, nothing decent to drink and I have better internet on via LTE.

    I have only one thing to say GO AMERICAN EXPRESS!! Open up new lounges all over and force the deadbeat North America airlines that are starving us, cutting back to step up and improve themselves! You have my money and support! I’ll chill in the Centurion lounge, call EP desk during irr ops and head to the gate for seats and upgrades, they handle those things best anyways

  6. I really enjoyed this post because of the way it focuses on people helping people. That’s important when we travel.

  7. Tommy,

    You’re wrong that only North American airlines charge for lounge membership. See, for instance, Qantas and Air New Zealand.

    US airlines charge for membership for historical reasons. In 1974 the US government ordered that airlines either make clubs available to everyone, to everyone flying a particular class of service, or to everyone who pays. Paid memberships were a way of ensuring compliance with non-discrimination rules coming out of the civil rights era.

    I definitely agree, the American Express lounges are awesome. But the Admirals Club agents save my life all the time, going above and beyond to get me on earlier flights and confirm upgrades and proactively look out for likely missed connections. And frankly several of the American lounges are more nicely designed than United clubs, with better furnishings. They’re stingier on free food, for sure. But they also don’t enforce a ban on outside food. At O’Hare I’ll pick up Tortas Frontera and bring it into the club. Never been chastised by an AAgent for this. And sure better than anything I’d eat from United.

  8. Having been an STL flyer until recently and the AA club there is very nice. I miss it now at MCI for sure. I don’t hold out much hope they will put a new one at MCI. I wish I had better access to Alaska lounges. For example I flew AA into Portland the other day but on the way out I was on Southwest and couldn’t access it 🙂

  9. I noticed the soda machine at the DEN Admiral’s Club a couple weeks ago. As a diet coke addict that was a truly happy site! I prefer not to have to go to the bar just for a soda/water.
    Hmm…I’ll be in San Diego in a couple weeks. Should I “charge” my Airspace visit to Citi or Amex? 🙂 I wonder if they pay Airpsace the same rate.

  10. I really like the soup, olives and healthy chips that US Airways has in the PHX and PHL lounges (and perhaps elsewhere). Was disappointed to see recently that the DCA lounges don’t have that food; it was explained to me that only the hub lounges do, and DCA isn’t enough of a hub. As one of the above commenters said, seems like a basic lounge amenity.

  11. I love the soda machine in the DEN Admiral’s club. I’m usually there in the evening, so the lounge is pretty crowded because of the BA flight to London. There are usually a fair number of people ordering food and the bar is pretty crowded, so the ability to pour your own soda is nice.

    The soda machine in the new SAN lounge is not like the type pictured. It’s more like the kind of single nozzle with multiple buttons that bartenders have, except instead of being connected to a hose, it’s fixed. If you haven’t used one before, it’s a bit confusing. Here’s a tip — “DP” is Doctor Pepper, not Diet Pepsi!

  12. The soda machines are nice, but those just-add-water instant-coffee machines are truly vile. Give me real coffee (even hours-old brewed coffee) any day over that dreck.

  13. Tommy777 is right – Admirals Clubs were actually the worst among the majors when it comes to food / drink amenities included in the price.

    I remember in SNA last month, went into the Admirals Club around breakfast. Couldn’t even find yogurt.

    Promptly walked to the other side, which is the United Club and had a decent morning spread. Hearty granola cereal, yogurt, donut holes, bagels.

    United gets a bad rap for a lot of things, but when it comes to the in-club snack spread they are the best of a sorry lot. And the Stags Leap for $11 a glass is nice too.

  14. I have to agree that the desk agents can be particularly helpful in many instances. I have also been able to enjoy the Centurion Lounges. While the food and drink offerings are superior, the lack of help changing flights is a major downfall.

    I would also like to throw out some kudos to the DCA team. But my favorites are the hometown gals at SNA.

  15. It’s ironic how I’ve been to the DCA admirals club once, and I’ve meet 3/4 of the people pictured. (Not the one in the middle at the check in desk) It’s also ironic how they might “tear down the wall” (between the AA/US lounges) at an airport named after Ronald Regan. (At least that’s what around half of Americans call it) 😛

  16. Oddly, irony, or ironic, is often confused with coincidence. So if I find the same yogurt relief that @Greg did by bypassing AA for United, that’s a coincidence, not ironic. Best post on this thread goes to Tommy 777.

  17. Sitting in the US Club here at pier C of DCA and am reminded of things to come. Whereas the AA club has Johne and his awesome bloodies, the US solution is to just not staff their bar at all. Like ever.

  18. (Update) And no coffee. And the bathroom is blocked off. Cannot wait for US mgmt to get their hands on the Admirals clubs.

  19. Agree with Tommy (and withmb saying that Tommy’s was the best post on this thread).

    To get into such excitement about a soda fountain…my goodness, is this how low the expectations are of US/North America based lounges? And fine, the agents can help sort out flight changes, so that’s a slight positive. But give me an Asian (or BA or LH) lounge in their respective countries any day…and for the Asian based lounge attendants who can’t help, I’ll walk a bit and get whatever I needed sorted.

  20. Gary, it’s obvious what we really need is an objective ranking of lounges by US News…

  21. I agree the staff @DCA Admirals Club are the best! OTOH last weekend the USAirways lady on the north pier was very helpful in a stressed situation.

  22. The Admirals Lounge at DEN has had the soda fountain since at least the end of June when I went. They do comp alcohol in AA lounges? Do you have to ask at the bar?

  23. And you can order the cheapie drinks free from the bar I assume? I actually liked the DEN lounge, especially because it’s just past security over the land bridge. Very modern, though one of the guests was looking at porn on one of the business PCs.

  24. Still like the Delta Sky Club at PBI. We were there last week. The food offerings included some quite good chili, veggies and two types of dips, several salty/crunchy snacks and fresh-baked cookies. The people at the desk are wonderful, and take a personal interest in each guest. And we’ve never had to go without a table and some chairs.

  25. I recognized those ladies from the other day too. Mike is my favorite bartender, hes always friendly. Any chance they will make the old US airways lounge a Centurion lounge?

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