US Airlines Didn’t Always Charge for Lounge Access. Why the US Approach Has Diverged from Europe and Asia

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?

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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 remember when DL’s Crown Room was a kind of trade secret among frequent flyers. In the old terminal at ATL, it was behind an unmarked door near the ticket counter. In other cities, you basically approached a RedCoat and asked for admittance and they’d escort you. In those spoke cities, it was often a locked room(s) where you were left with a full bar, TV, couches, phones and washroom. No staff, except in major cities (ATL, DFW, ORD for example, though not LAX) No membership card, just ask for admittance.

    NW had a similar arrangement called the Top Flight Club, IIRC.

  2. Gary, one thing you should not is that some of Qantas’ lounges have areas for “general” individuals, including those that pay for it and elite members, as well as areas exclusively for those who are travelling in a premium class. When I went to Brisbane this year, the “general” area was pretty crowded and busy, while the premium passenger area was less busy and more relaxed.

  3. How about the reverse–is there a danger of European/Asian carriers moving to a revenue model (charging for access and then skimping out on the amenities provided in order to chase profits)?

  4. I’m the one who dug up that article on FlyerTalk. I will say…

    It makes the complaints about food options in US lounges a little moot. They often are grounded in a ‘it was better back then’ when there really never was a golden age of clubs here in the US. For 30+ years it’s been sometimes free drinks, a quieter place to sit, and maybe some non perishable snacks.

    I love that the NYTimes headline is ‘not so exclusive.’ It frankly reads like an article we could read today!

    As does the description of the ‘Diplomats Club’ on that Seinfeld episode 20 years ago.

  5. My parents are lifetime United Club members. My dad bought a life membership (I think in the mid ’70s) for ~$300 plus another $50 for my mom.

    This year is the first that I paid for a club membership out of pocket. I did so via Club Visa and for a year it was only slightly less than what he paid nearly 40 years ago for lifetime. Go dad!!

  6. Thanks for this, Gary – an interesting look back into history to explain some of the differences. The bit I still find surprising is how little paid membership actually gets folk – apart from some pretzels, coffee and soft drinks everything else seems to be a further payment. At least with Priority Pass they offer quite a selection for free (including some hot food in the No 1 range of lounges).

  7. @Stephen Mally – point in mentioning Qantas/Air New Zealand was that market supports paid, so US isn’t alone

  8. @alan I’ve always thought that the most important perk of domestic lounge membership (or access through an Amex Plat) was the ability to get assistance quickly during irrops. There have been times where I’ve been rebooked after only a 5 min wait, when the line in the terminal looked like there would be a min 1 hour wait for assistance.

  9. I was lucky enough to buy several lifetime memberships in the 60’s for $200 each. Luckily my Northwest membership transferred to Delta as they never have sold lifetime memberships. I have. braniff card I can sell you cheap.

  10. Wow, color television!! I actually remember back when that was a distinguishing feature to advertise for hotel rooms and such…well, and to brag about to one’s neighbors, for that matter, lol.

    This was interesting, I had always wondered why it is the way it is with US lounges. Never would have guessed the real reason.

  11. I thought the Mile High Club memberships were automatically for life, and they’re normally free!

    I didn’t get the $300 deal, but I paid $700 (plus $200 for spouse) some 15 years later for a lifetime membership that changed from EA to CO to UA over the years. Some luck was involved there, since the membership could have died in Eastern’s shutdown and possibly during an airline bankruptcy.

    Post-2001 these memberships are a lot less useful for skipping over to a different terminal to relax between flights. Post-bankruptcies the airlines are more serious about using the lounges to earn money, so the lounges are less appealing. I’m no longer very impressed by anything short of Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal in Frankfurt. Now _that_ is a lounge worth paying for!

  12. In what way is US airways different than European FFPs?

    For example: Flying Blue. It has exactly the same rule: Complimentary lounge access for elites only on an international itinerary.

    Meaning no lounge access when flying within the US with Flying Blue. Nor when flying within Russia, China, or any other country that hosts domestic Skyteam flights.

  13. @jackal. That’s an interesting question. Most non-US airlines sell the front cabin, rather than giving it away in upgrades. They jealously protect the privileges that come with the front cabin, so that they can continue to sell it. If they allowed anybody to buy access to the lounge, it could go towards damaging the sales of the front cabin, thus proving counter-productive. So I think a change outside the US towards the US model is about as unlikely as a change within the US towards the non-US model.

    Having said that, the history behind this is fascinating – I’ve always wondered why the US ended up with expensive and low quality airline lounges, but at the same time with airports where it’s generally easier to find a quiet seat somewhere in the non-lounge public area.

  14. The main reason for the difference is that no European country will ever match the U.S. for huge number of domestic passengers.

    On the check cashing bit, prior to the advent of ATMs and wide spread use of credit cards, most upscale private clubs offered check cashing to members as a service. It made sense, members were known individuals who would be bounced from the club if they bounced a check.

  15. I still have my United Red Carpet Club pass and 100,000 mile plaque from the mid-60’s. You just had to fill out a form showing you had traveled 100,000 miles on any airline to get the pass.

  16. During one of my first business trips in the early 1980s, I was taken into an airline lounge by a co-worker. I immediately sensed the immense benefits to frequent travelers, particularly the preferential treatment for travel plans gone askew. Since I aspired to a life of travel, I used all my available cash as a young professional at the time to buy life memberships in the lounges of USA airlines: American, TWA, United, Pan Am, Continental, Northwest, and US Air (never bought Alaska or America West, although I considered them). I believe I paid between $1500 and $3000 each. When Delta took over routes of Pan Am, they granted me a life membership to the Crown Room. Since then, the consolidations have gradually whittled away the value as TWA, NWA, and Continental were all absorbed. None of the acquiring airlines allowed me any value for the duplicate lounge life membership (like letting me have the extra card for a spouse). Interestingly, United Club still grants one extra privilege as a life member – I can book the lounge conference rooms for free. I never have, though, in all these years. The only reciprocal benefits for non-USA carriers I have ever received were that my lifetime Admirals Club card granted me access to Qantas lounges. As a fan of lounges, I also carry the Priority Pass, Lounge Club, and even the AMEX Platinum, for whenever I need airport lounge access. Even all that fails me in a few international airports when I am not flying in a premium cabin.

    The “good” old days had their advantages – the USA lounges were much less crowded and the staff/customer ratio was better – but the lounges these days tend to have larger spaces, nicer furniture and better overall amenities.

    Of course, none of these lounges ever held a candle to the best of the international FC lounges such as The Wing in HKG or the Concorde Lounge in LHR, or even the wonderful Turkish Airway BC lounge in Istanbul, but they were much better than the main terminal. That made it worth it for me.

    Oh yes, I did cash checks at airline lounges in the pre-ATM days. Occasionally, it was a handy benefit.

    Thanks for the memories! 😉

  17. I purchased a America West Lifetime for $1200 and thought I paid too much at the time in 1995. It is now a Admirals Club membership. I do not think enyone sells a lifetime anymore. The only thing I hate is the free booze is now
    rot gut bottom shelf crap I would not serve in my own home.

  18. I bought a United Red Carpet Club life membership when I graduated law school in 1973. This included membership for my spouse at them time. I found lifetime means lifetime for my spouse, as I could not transfer the membership to my second spouse when my first spouse died in 1992.

    I don’t have much call to use it anymore, as I’ve tended to book around United after they cancelled my flight to SFO one afternoon (UA used the aircraft for a more crowded flight to PHX), and refused to transfer me to a DL flight that day that was available. They insisted I could travel the next day and arrive at noon, even though I was due in San Francisco at 9:00 am.

    My father was a 100,000 Mile Club member in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Back then, the lounges were luxurious, and United actually gave the liquor away for free.

  19. Gary: I was solicited by United in 1973 to purchase Red Carpet Club membership for $25 per year, or $250 lifetime. The offer included 3 “trial” club passes. I purchased the lifetime membership, and have had it since. This supposedly included a free lifetime spouse membership.

    When my first wife died in 1992, and I remarried 18 months later, I learned that the spouse pass was for her lifetime, not mine.

    By the way, in 1961, my father was awarded a membership in the United 100,000 Mile Club, awarded to him for documenting 100,000 miles of lifetime flight. This gave him lounge access to United’s 100,000 Mile Club lounges, which lasted until they were opened to the public by the CAB, and renamed Red Carpet Clubs.

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