What Makes a Domestic Airline Lounge Special?

There are some really special, amazing airport lounges in the world — places that are more ‘top end private club’ than ‘somewhat more quiet waiting room’.

    Spa treatment room in the Qantas first class lounge, Sydney

They have top notch dining, perhaps a spa, glorious shower rooms and maybe even video games and personal escort to the aircraft at the appointed time (so that it’s someone else’s job to worry about when you should leave and where you’re going).

Most of the time though lounges are far more pedestrian. Certainly lounges in the U.S. are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t serve a purpose. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t some that are much better than the rest.

A lounge should, at a minimum:

  1. Provide personal assistance with flight disruptions
  2. Have plenty of seating, and not get too crowded, with different kinds of spaces for relaxing and working
  3. Have plenty of power outlets available
  4. Offer clean restrooms

If it does these things, then it’s worthwhile.

The first airport lounge opened 75 years ago. It was an American Airlines lounge at New York LaGuardia, and ironically its creation was the result of (not cause of!) populist outrage.

US airlines offer paid memberships today because of a 1974 Civil Aeronautics Board ruling that said there had to be a mechanism by which anyone could join, in order to avoid charges of discrimination.

My two favorite airline lounges operated by US airlines in the United States are the American Airlines Admirals Clubs at Washington National and Austin.

The people are the best. A few months ago an agent in the lounge in DC actually called me in my office when a flight delay was going to cause me to misconnect, to let me know that in case I could get to the airport about 15 minutes earlier she had protected me on a different set of flights (including a confirmed upgrade) to get me home that night still. I had been looking for inventory myself and hand’t found any. I’m not even a Concierge Key member (just a 100,000 mile Executive Platinum).

The complimentary food in American’s lounges is a little bit behind what United just announced they’re rolling out (no hard boiled eggs in the American lounges – hah), and what Delta recently started offering. Their pay options vary in quality from club to club. I’ve never been turned away from bringing outside food into an American lounge (at Chicago O’Hare, Tortas Frontera baby!).

I thought it would be useful to share what the current Admirals Club breakfast offering looks like:

Of course, American has pay food choices as well (click to expand):

Here’s the rest of the Admirals Club in Austin … nothing special about the space, just the people, and it’s directly above gate 13, the first American gate nearest security.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. So the takeaway is that when one actually forms a relationship with service industry employees instead of treating them like robots or doormats, the customer experience improves as well? Hmmm, sounds like an important lesson here…

  2. All US lounges are…uhhhh…not good. nuff’ said. To pay for access is beyond me

  3. Your must-haves are all basically what makes the lounge a refuge from the hustle-and-bustle of the terminal, but airline lounges also protect you from the inflated prices found in the terminal. Free food and drink inside the lounge, to me, is what justifies the hefty membership fees. If the food/drink is lacking so badly that you need to bring outside food, then the lounge is not worthwhile.

  4. The AUS (and formerly MCI) Admiral’s Club have far and away the best, most friendly and proactive staff out of all the locations. On more than one occasion I have received calls from employees letting me know that my flight or connecting flight was having an issue and that they went ahead and grabbed seats on 1-2 other flights as back up and when I arrived at the club I could go over my options and pick the one that best suited me. Too bad this level of customer service is so isolated.

  5. I agree with Ron.
    IMO US lounges for the most part tend to be the worst in the developed world.

  6. There are plenty of places to sit in the terminal. I can’t see why I’d pay to sit when I can sit for free. Also, the food in the picture looks like continental breakfast at a low-cost motel (except for the fresh fruit). Conversely, if a loyalty lounge offered a place to LIE DOWN, then I’d certainly join. Absolutely, positively, I’d pay the annual fee for a place to lie down in the airport.

  7. @ermintrude – I’ve been to PLENTY of lounges in South America and even Europe that are far worse. Heck, I’ve been to some Thai lounges that are worse. They’re far from the BEST but let’s not get hyperbolic 😉

  8. Amen, @Gary. The old lounge in BLR was worse than just sitting in the gate area. Consistent, claustrophobic, unfurnished misery.

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