It’s (Almost) Time For American Airlines To Raise The Fee For Admirals Club Lounge Membership

American Airlines seems prepared to raise the price of access to its Admirals Club airport lounges, but this will make sense only if they improve the lounge product. I alluded to this in my explanation of how each of the major U.S. airlines is at a crossroads. Fortunately the lounge product is improving and this will make a higher fee worth it.

American Airlines Lounge Access Is Cheaper Than United, Delta

American’s Admirals Club membership costs $500 – $600 per year, depending on elite status ($50 higher in the first year). That’s slightly cheaper than United, and much lower than Delta. But the real value comes from the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard which has just a $450 annual fee, and no annual fee additional cardholders who also receive lounge access for themselves and two guests.

United charges $550 – $650 for an annual membership, depending on elite status. The United ClubSM Infinite Card has a $525 annual fee and is the best way to gain access (especially with an offer to earn 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening).

Delta charges $695 for membership ($1495 for an ‘executive’ membership with guests) and only elites can purchase one. Members can’t access the clubs when flying on a basic economy ticket. The way around these restrictions is with their premium co-brand cards.

Currently American’s Lounge Product Lags United, Delta

United Airlines has improved its United Club food choices a lot, though they lag Delta here. All of the new build and renovated Delta lounges are gorgeous. Take, for instance, the club in my home airport of Austin – which has an outdoor deck (not to mention the new LAX Club, LaGuardia, etc.).

Delta lounges have been crowded, though (hence the restrictions on access). Lines to get in are long, most prominently but hardly only at New York JFK Terminal 4.

  • The food attracts passengers
  • Delta still lacks a separate business class lounge product to draw people out of the main clubs
  • More people have access, since all Amex Platinum cardmembers flying Delta can get in

You don’t get the same crowding at United or American lounges, except when lounge capacity is reduced usually for construction.

American’s 2018-era design template is institutional, and doesn’t create relaxing spaces. The lighting feels like a hospital. And while they’ve added some food options, the afternoon guacamole and the avocado toast is something Mastercard pays for. Where there’s been ‘make your own tacos’ it’s been with tasteless meat. The meatballs are overcooked pasta are ok? On the other hand, the addition of baklava is delicious – a real improvement over mini brownies and rice krispy treats.

American Lounges Are On The Cusp Of Improving – A Lot

The primary reason to be a member of the Admirals Club is access to reservations agents in the club. The agents in some of their clubs, especially for me the incredible AAngels in the Austin club, are outstanding and provide personalized service to keep you moving if something interrupts your flight.

However a peaceful escape from the terminal, in a beautiful and relaxing environment, which makes it convenient to have something tasty and healthy to eat along with a cocktail before your flight? And in major hubs, the ability to shower as well? For a frequent traveler that’s worth paying for, too.

The new Admirals Club on the E (regional jet) concourse at Washington’s National airport is just such a place, though the food needs work of course. It is downright gorgeous, and not usually crowded. Plus, since the concourse is connected airside to American’s other piers, it’s worth a walk regardless of which American flight you’re on.

National Hall is now entirely behind security, so you move freely between concourses:

The E concourse is just a couple of quick moving walkways beyond the C and D piers. And then the Admirals Club is directly on the left.

Even the entrance to the space is gorgeous.

The elevator up to the lounge has the local theme of cherry blossoms. And you enter right into a beautiful space.

The lounge is beautifully-designed, with plenty of different types of seating. There are views both of the tarmac and down into the concourse itself.

I especially like sitting in front of the fireplace, with the windows out behind it.

But there’s also relaxation chairs with high sides for a modicum of privacy.

There’s a separate bar and dining room as well. And one of the striking things is that the food area presentation makes the modest provisions look so much better than in other lounges.

The lounge features American’s soda machines from the 2018 redesign (it’s really surprising that lounges at major hubs which didn’t get the redesign don’t necessarily even have these machines).

And they have good coffee machines, which in some lounges sit out of order for extended periods.

Since food options are modest, some American clubs offer self-service food for purchase. In this new lounge, that option was already out of order.

One of the key elements of a lounge is its bathroom. One of the things you’re paying for is a clean and uncrowded restroom apart from the public ones in the terminal. And though there’s no showers in this new lounge (there’s not even a customs facility at DCA airport, and most flights are less than 1250 miles by law) the bathrooms do not disappoint.

This is the new Admirals Club design template. They’re planning for the Denver and Newark lounges, sharing similar design motif with local characteristics, to open this year.

It’s going to be a long time before it broadens out much beyond that, but this has incredible potential. It’s downright beautiful and I enjoy spending extra time here.

This Will Come With Higher Fees

American Airlines charges less for its lounges than competitors, and delivers less overall. But food is a little bit better than it used to be (there’s a long way to go) and the design template creates much more relaxing spaces. That’s worth more.

We can expect prices to go up. Citibank is considering higher fees for its card with lounge access, and charging for authorized cardmembers who gain access. If the Citi Executive card fee rises, expect lounge membership cost to rise as well – otherwise the co-brand card wouldn’t be the relatively better way to gain access. Keeping the card as more attractive than paid membership is necessary because they prefer you to get the card and spend on the card – and a premium card tends to attract higher levels of spend, which is profitable both for the bank and the airline.

Though price is expected to rise, it makes no sense for most to pay more for the current lounge product. But the new lounge template at National airport, expanded more broadly, would be worth it. I could sit comfortably inside the new Washington National Airport’s E concourse Admirals Club for hours.

If American would further improve the food in its lounges (beyond meatballs and baklava) and fast track a rollout of this new lounge design which is vastly better than the 2018-era institutional template, I’d be willing to pay more for it.

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. I just flew through CLT and visited their C/D main club after remodeling. Quick observations:
    – all the same boring design;
    – the same chairs: you can take seat but impossible to nap;
    – both coffee machines are broken as was the case a few month ago;
    – breakfast offering is minimalist (fruit salad with no berries; some powder-reconstitutes scrambled eggs which are overly dry).

  2. “Delta lounges have been crowded, though (hence the restrictions on access).”

    Yes, but the Delta lounge access rules/restrictions are all about the money. Some may say the restrictions on access are driven by Delta wanting to make the lounges more profitable for Delta.

  3. I happen to love what they’ve done at LGA, which really feels like it’s using a design motif that’s transitionary between the old institutional and the new rustic locality-oriented themes. It’s not quite as nice as DCA, but it was definitely already headed in that direction. But yeah, as Alex’s observations implicitly touch on, the legacy US Airways lounges are still real rough. They really ought to fast-track renovations for some of those – PHX A concourses, ugh… some of the worst clubs in the system – along with any announcement of a price increase.

  4. Agree on AA LGA a nice lounge and good food. DFW is pitiful. I mean take any DFW concourse you want and the same. You would think the home airport would be the leader.

    Delta is light years ahead – ATL, DFW, LAX and SLC, take your pick. SLC is super with outside patio a year or more ago! The comment about Delta profit. I wouldn’t think the lounges are profit centers, but a liability cash wise.

  5. I’ve lost interest in American Airlines lounges
    in my home city San Diego the club outsourced to a horrible entity.with horrible lines to get in.,
    From their mediocre offerings and blah surroundings I’d rather sit in an unoccupied gate area.
    I do like it abroad where it’s free due to status
    Also with Chase and Amex building more interesting lounges I can’t think of a reason to ever have a membership with American Bearlines.The ship has sailed and they would have to become premium at some point in time but it’s just not in their DNA.Just look at their premium cabin catering or use the onboard restroom and that will tell you all you need to know about American

  6. Just like @Alex77W, I was at the “new” CLT lounge earlier this week and several other times in the past few months. Even after being closed for months for renovation, it re-opened basically unchanged with bathrooms not nearly as nice as those pictured above. The coffee machine has been out of order every time recently, including this week. The baklava was indeed good albeit overly sweet, but the tongs and dispensers (e.g., bottles of salad dressing) for every kind of food is constantly wet and/or grimy. And, most surprising, even after 8pm on a Tuesday night in the middle of February, it was utterly packed–nearly standing room only. It looked like pre-Thanksgiving travel. Have also recently been several times in the BNA lounge, where the staff is very friendly but food is even more limited and last time I was there was the most crowded I’ve ever seen. I like hummus as much as the next person, but I suspect theirs has more sodium benzoate, canola oil, and artificial fillers than actual olive oil, tahini, or appealing herbs and spices.

  7. I would say that Admirals Clubs are superior to United Clubs which would further your argument in the fee increase.

    Two reasons in particular.

    1) At hubs, generous access rules for Flagship lounges decrease crowding at Admirals Club in a way that Polaris doesn’t for United Clubs.

    2) There’s almost no domestic United Clubs that have showers, while this is more common with Admirals Clubs.

    My personal preference is that the new AA and DL lounge designs are also nicer than the new UA designs.

  8. This is the wet dream of this blogger, a captive to AA by having bought 7m miles.

    But IRL it makes zero sense for AA to go upmarket given its focus on markets where people have lower disposable (after-tax) income. The first comment (“Give me low price and a modest product please”) is more representative of AA’ target customer.

    DL already owns the lucrative end of the market that values quality and high(er) customer satisfaction, and has the profits to invest to fend off competitors.

  9. In concept, the airport lounge experience is *supposed to be* a premium experience. As a premium experience, it is *supposed to be* differentiated from the regular experience and is something that commands a price. Airport lounge operators must focus on those wanting a premium experience and who are willing to pay the price. They must avoid those wanting something other than a premium experience and who are not willing to pay the price. It’s that simple.

  10. Hey Gary – curious. Do you have any feel for how many Airpass users there were? For individuals and small businesses it was obviously a small number of users per membership, but I know that some of the corporate accounts were very, very large with many users (I may or may not have been one…), who were all granted AC access. Just wondering if you have a feel for whether that program’s phase-out has any material impact on AC member / access volumes, or was always a tiny drop in the bucket,

  11. I just visited the UA lounge at EWR this past week. Wow. What a step up. Expansive lounge, tons of seating — desks, sofas, private loungers, individual booths, all kinds of seats! The decor was modern, warm and tasteful.

    The drinks were plentiful — good coffee (both automatic machines and a barista), open bar. I was most impressed with the food. Just about on par with Delta and AMEX. Warm, varied, tasty and plentiful.

    One of the agents told me that this design is going to roll out at most locations over the coming years. The second lounge at EWR is under renovation now, and ORD is done (?)

    I think AA is waaaay behind the 8-ball on this.

  12. @Jake2
    Except Delta doesn’t really have the high end of the market locked down in any sense. No business class or premium lounges at any of the major airports, unlike AA and UA. AA is leaps and bounds ahead of Delta when it comes to premium lounge access for the segment you’re talking about.
    Think before you speak

  13. JFK term 8 only 1 Admirals club now pretty far away if you’re out of gates 1 to 12. And I noticed the other day. NO BOTTLE WATER. I mean really? No bottled water in a business club lounge at an airport?? So lame!

  14. Out of necessity I went back to AA from UA on a status match due to flight schedule convenience (I’m
    Based in DFW). Was ExPlat for years before defecting to UA as 1K for past 5 years. Now back at AA I can say my overall experience as UA 1K is superior. The Polaris lounges are vastly superior to any AA offering. The renovated UA lounge at ORD is fantastic. However, most airport lounges suffer from “Daycare Syndrome”.

  15. The BNA lounge appears to have started a renovation, but what exists in the meantime is not great. I arrived late morning today to discover the entire bar and food area closed off, much of it hidden behind tarp or various barriers. The “bar” is now a sad makeshift table with a few soda cans and beer bottles sitting on it. There are no warm foods for either breakfast or lunch (except a toaster for bagels and instant oatmeal packets with hot water).

    They have brought in a small open referigerator for a few food items. During breakfast, it was all prepackaged items such as yogurt, fruit, Nutri-grain bars, and plastic-wrapped hard boiled eggs. For lunch, it was similar to what is often sold onboard: prepackaged (overly bready) sandwiches (turkey, ham, roast beef), small containers of Sabra hummus, and Sun chips. There was no sign of any avocado toast station, nor even any iced tea or water dispensers. The coffee station did not even have any actual dairy items–only fake, flavored Coffeemate. The BNA lounge is already more limited than most others, but now it’s even more scaled back. Hopefully those indications of renovation are a good sign, though. Probably related, of the 2 sinks in the men’s room, one was completely lacking any water, and the other even when turned on the hottest setting was just a tiny trickle of ice-cold water. I noticed a worker carrying a container of coffee up the stairs, so they evidently don’t have any water in the food prep area either.

    A few hours later, in the main CLT lounge, it was standing room only. Literally every single seat in the main open area was occupied. I finally found an open seat in the office cubicle area in the very back. They were completely out of plates in one galley, the main food (i.e., meatballs) were completely wiped out, the salad was running low, and the guac station had a constant line of a dozen people.

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