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.
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