The posh airport club lounge is losing is exclusive status as airlines and airports open them up to a wider audience in a race to pamper frequent fliers.
Marketed as private "airport oases," the clubs give travelers an escape from crowds near the gates.
As American Airlines prepares to open its fourth lounge at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in the new Terminal D this weekend, some travel experts predict that the exclusivity of clubs nationwide might be threatened by their own growing popularity.
Once, the only way to get into the swanky clubs -- which resemble the lobbies of luxury hotels -- was to pay annual dues of $250 to $500.
Now travelers are getting in with code-share tickets from partner airlines, frequent-flier upgrades and credit-card reward points. Airlines are even selling day passes for about $25 to $50. It's all contributed to growing crowds at lounges in some of the busier airports, experts said.
"It isn't as much of an oasis as it used to be, but it sure is a better place to be than at the gate or in the food court," said Ira Weinstein, a member of several clubs who also surveys air travelers for his research company in New York.
The basic lounge comes with high-speed wireless Internet access, plush leather furniture, free snacks and drinks, large televisions, work desks and a concierge staff.
It's not clear how full the clubs are across the country, because airlines won't release attendance figures. The six major domestic carriers operate 188 clubs around the world, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 square feet.
Dallas/Fort Worth Airport has 10 airline lounges, four of them run by American.
Many airlines don't make much money off the luxurious lounges, experts said.
"Generally the clubs are very expensive to build, and for the most part, they're not a profit center," said Pat Gleason, a former D/FW executive who is now vice president of the Center for Airport Management, an industry consultancy in Portland, Ore. "They break even or make a little bit of money."
The low-fare carriers, such as Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, have passed on the club business because of the cost to build and maintain them.
But American Airlines does well with its network of 43 Admirals Clubs, said Nancy Knipp, managing director of premium services for the Fort Worth-based carrier.
"We actually operate at quite a substantial margin," she said, declining to give specifics. "They're expensive to build and operate, but our demand has been such where we can maintain an acceptable margin. And our customer base continues to grow."
Memberships at Admirals Clubs have grown about 10 percent over the past year. American is adding seating capacity throughout its network to meet the demand, Knipp said.
The Admirals Clubs generally don't get more than half full, even during peak times, Knipp said.
American Airlines, Korean Air, Lufthansa Airlines and British Airways operate the four lounges in Terminal D, which have floor-to-ceiling windows, light-colored wood paneling, showers for passengers getting off long international flights, magazines, computers and 40-inch flat-screen TVs.
The Admirals Club is the terminal's largest, at 21,000 square feet with seating for 340. Members will find a 31-foot bar, a quiet room where cellphones are not allowed, an Internet café, a children's room, a smoking room, conference rooms and individual work cubicles.
The Admirals Clubs are individually designed but try to offer the same amenities throughout the network, Knipp said.
For the first time, American started selling lifetime club memberships, which cost $2,300 to $5,500 per person. The company sold 700 memberships in the first six weeks, beginning in mid-August, Knipp said.
But American is not the only one making a go with the lounges.
Lufthansa, which doubled the size of its D/FW lounge when it moved into Terminal D three months ago, takes the lounge business seriously.
"The next new thing is going to be 'how can we compete on the ground,'" said Jennifer Urbaniak, a Lufthansa spokeswoman.
The German airline has added a side room to most of its lounges, including the one at D/FW, for first-class passengers and top frequent fliers.
"It's another layer of exclusivity that we offer," Urbaniak said, noting that its regular lounges get crowded at peak hours.
Airlines have typically been the operators of these VIP lounges.
Lately, though, D/FW and other airports have been testing the waters. D/FW has opened eight free lounges in the Skylink train stations.
They offer flat-screen televisions and leather seating like the airline lounges, but they have no waiters. The clubs are mainly there to give travelers a comfortable place to work and relax away from the crowded gates.
"I think there's a sense among airport management that customers would value something like this," Dick Marchi, senior vice president for technical and environmental affairs at the Airports Council International--North America, which represents North American airports.
Lounges in airports with strong local traffic are not as popular as those in airports with connecting traffic, such as D/FW, experts said.
Large hub airports have plenty of people with down time waiting for their connecting flights, Weinstein said, and businesspeople fly in for meetings.
That's why Southlake resident Domingo Cantu uses the lounges.
An Admirals Clubs member for more than 10 years, the regional business director for Newark, N.J.-based Par Pharmaceutical said he likes to fly his regional sales representatives into D/FW for meetings at the club in Terminal B.
"It's just a great place to meet with folks," he said.
Cantu, 45, agrees that the clubs have grown more crowded lately, but he's not bothered, as long as there are private meeting rooms available.
"I love the privacy of the meeting rooms," he said. "I don't just go in there to chill out with 100 other people I've never met before."
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, in Radnor, Pa., said the lounges have become important for travelers who fly more than a few times a year.
"If you're traveling once every three months, then lounges may have become too expensive," he said. "But if you're a true road warrior, then these lounges are truly important. ... The refuge value alone in these clubs is going to increase."
Mitchell, who describes the lounges as like posh hotel lobbies, said he could see the day when a hotel chain co-brands the lounges with airlines.
"At some point it's going to happen," he said. "There's a lot of inefficiency. The issue has been that the airlines are loath to give up that relationship with the customer. ... But everything's being looked at with a fresh set of eyes in this financial crisis of airlines."
Weinstein, who is president of Airport Interviewing & Research in White Plains, N.Y., discovered through his polling that 44 percent of travelers -- and 54 percent of business travelers -- consider the lounges important and like their availability.
"The numbers are starting to creep up," he said. "That is in proportion to the increase in overall travel, which is increasing about 5 percent a year."
But, with airport traffic increasing, the lounges are also losing their exclusivity, he said.
"What's happening is in the major airports, the clubs are becoming too crowded, especially during peak times," Weinstein said. "They're becoming more mass. So the quiet zones that it used to be doesn't exist."
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