US Airlines Offer Paid Lounge Access, Most of the World Does Not
I’ve always found it interesting that US airlines charge for lounge access, while European and Asian airlines provide access primarily based on class of service flown (lounges for business and first class passengers) and for elites (for whom access is complimentary).
US airlines do offer premium cabin international travelers complimentary lounge access. And do they provide lounge access to elite members who are traveling internationally. But for the most part, passengers flying domestically have to pay to access an airport lounge.
Exceptions to this are Alaska Airlines offering (non-upgraded) first class passengers lounge access, and ‘premium transcon’ routes like New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco where lounge access for premium passengers is more common.
But US airlines offer paid memberships, while many of their international counterparts do not… all the while the standard offerings of many international lounges is much higher than what US airlines provide for a fee.
Now, the US is not alone in offering paid lounge access. The Air New Zealand Koru Clubs and Qantas Clubs offer paid memberships. And of course Priority Pass sells memberships which then access a variety of lounges around the world.
But why is the US (and Australia/New Zealand) different from Europe and Asia?
US Airline Lounges – and Lounge Access – Used to Be Different
My business travel life doesn’t extent far enough back to a time before paid lounge access existed. In fact, I really don’t know much about those times. I recall my first lounge visit in the late 1970s though perhaps it was as late as 1981, going to the airport with my grandmother as a young boy to pick up my grandfather. We went into the airline’s lounge while we waited for the flight to arrive. I had a ginger ale. I also remember being given American Airlines lounge passes when I was a teenager and had a long layover in Dallas after a flight back from Australia (back when American flew to Australia, via Honolulu!).
But Chad R. passes along this 31-year old article from the New York Times on airline lounges which offers some interesting clues as to how US airline lounges have evolved.
It turns out that access rules for airline lounges changed towards the end of the regulated era, by virtue of Civil Aeronautics Board decrees.
Designed primarily for business travelers, the clubs date from the 1930’s, one of the first being American Airlines’ Admirals Club, founded in 1938. The clubs remained relatively exclusive until the mid-70’s when, after a series of anti-discrimination cases, the Civil Aeronautics Board issued rules governing them.
In an order dated Feb. 12, 1974, the board decreed that the carriers had the choice of opening the clubs to all people, or of opening them to all passengers or all passengers traveling in a particular class, such as first class, or of opening them to members of a club, provided that anyone who requested membership in the club and paid the membership fee, if any, could join. Certain exceptions were permitted: The lounges could be used by handicapped, elderly, ill or delayed passengers who were not club members and by eminent people and public figures whose appearance in a main waiting area might create a disturbance or by groups needing an assembly point.
Interestingly, the notion of paid memberships was a move towards making the clubs “more egalitarian” and yet they are often decried as elitist.
And I found it fascinating how the clubs were described in the early 80’s:
Most airlines pride themselves on the decor of the lounges. Some maintain a similarity of decor throughout their system while others make a point of decorating each lounge differently, sometimes emphasizing a local theme. In almost all cases, lounge users may make free local phone calls and in some cases they enjoy such privileges as expedited baggage handling and check-in service. Color television and stereo music are other customary features.
For a cost of “$40 initiation fee plus $60 a year or $750 for a lifetime membership” American’s Admirals Clubs even offered check cashing privileges.
The US is Unlikely to Become Like Europe and Asia
There are historical reasons that the US has the access rules that it does, but once the equilibrium changed it became fairly locked in.
Occasionally top elite members, such as of Delta or US Airways, would be granted lounge access for no fee. Or non-US members with elite status in US frequent flyer programs might have been granted a lounge membership, in order for those programs to be competitive for the business of non-US residents.
But for the most part, once the revenue stream began, it became something airlines would not walk away from.
I’ve never purchased a lounge membership myself. I’ve used my American Express Platinum card for American, US Airways, Delta (and in the past, Northwest and Continental) lounge access. I’ve used elite status in non-US frequent flyer programs like british midland (in the past) and Aegean to gain access to United lounges, and in British Airways to gain access to American lounges.
Most lounge access though it by membership, and there’s little reason to expect that to change.
Did anyone buy a lifetime United club membership in the early 70s for $300?