Airline Clubs Quickly Becoming Last Bastion of Tranquility in Air Travel

Their names connote elegance: the Red Carpet Club, the Crown Room Club, the Admirals Club.

At airports across the country, their sturdy wooden doors and engraved brass or silver nameplates reek of exclusivity.

In an era when security lines are growing longer and airports are becoming more crowded, airline clubs are quickly becoming the last bastion of tranquility in air travel.

Airlines are famously cutting back where they can to save money: eliminating pillows and blankets, slashing employee wages, getting rid of free hot food, charging for booze on international flights.

But airline clubs, many travelers say, have largely withstood the airlines' cutbacks. Many are even adding features, such as wireless Internet access.

In some cases, access to the clubs has become cheaper. In the past few months, US Airways quietly lowered the cost of its one-day club pass to $25, down from $35. Most other airline clubs haven't hiked their membership fees in four years.

Still, US Airways has eliminated some of its lesser-used clubs to save money. Last month, it said it is closing clubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and West Palm Beach, Fla., following the closure last fall of clubs in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Syracuse, N.Y., and Rochester, N.Y. The airline still runs 16 clubs at 13 airports, including two clubs in Charlotte.

Intrigued by the low cost and the prospect of free goodies, I ventured to the US Airways Club on Concourse C in Charlotte's airport before a recent flight.

To my disappointment, it was no bacchanal. There were no hand-fed grapes, no free-flowing liquor cascading down ice sculptures of Greek gods. Nonetheless, the experience convinced me that airline clubs could be a good deal, especially to those with long layovers who value quiet time or who need to get work done on the road.

Walking into the club, I was first struck by its size and its apparent emptiness. When this particular club opened in 1999, US Airways touted it as one of the largest in the country, at more than 22,000 square feet.

In the main room, there were maybe two dozen people and scores of empty leather seats. A handful of unattended bags and jackets had been slung over some chairs. On a flat-screen TV at the end of the room, CNN International blared Australian rugby scores.

I set down my laptop bag and roller suitcase, picked up a complimentary red apple and biscotti bar and decided to check the place out.

On one side of the club I found work carrels, with data ports and phones and a fax machine nearby. Three people sat in them, banging away on laptops.

On the other side, I headed into the smokers' lounge, which was almost empty but offered the best view. There, I found Bill Seelhorst, 55, of Greensboro, who was reading Golf Digest and smoking Marlboro Lights.

Seelhorst, a regional manager with an industrial plumbing wholesaler, explained that he uses US Airways clubs to avoid the "traffic" in the rest of the airport. In addition, the free coffee, trail mix and other snacks sometimes substitute for a full meal, which saves his company money, he says.

A yearly membership in US Airways' clubs costs between $275 and $375, depending on frequent flier status -- a range typical among major airlines. Seelhorst says he has about 900,000 frequent flier miles, so he finds a club membership worth it.

"For the quietness you get, you can use the computer and the phone and not be fighting to at least sit down," Seelhorst says. That was a common theme among those in the club that day -- avoiding the herd, relaxing in peace.

At the bar nearby, the club offered a choice of four California Pizza Kitchen meals for lunch for $10 apiece. I simply ordered a free Coke. The bartender took her time getting it to me but was pleasant.

It was mostly older men in the club, but as I headed out to catch my flight, I pocketed a piece of cinnamon hard candy and struck up a conversation with John and Vicki Bartlett of Dublin, Va., who were headed to West Palm Beach for a quick vacation.

Their flight from Roanoke, Va., to Charlotte had been delayed because of weather, causing them to miss their connection to Florida. Their wait for the next flight: four hours.

"Today, this is a real value," said John Bartlett, a regional vice president with an insurance company. "If I was sitting out there at the gate for four hours, it would be rather unpleasant."

Last week, comedian David Letterman devoted one of his famous "Top Ten" lists to the topic of airline cutbacks. Without further ado, from CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" Top 10 Ways Airlines Are Cutting Back

10. Pilots have to pay for their inflight cocktails.

9. Ticket agents urging travelers to stay home.

8. To maximize space, seats no longer recline a luxurious inch-and-a-half.

7. Oxygen mask compartments replaced with video poker screens.

6. Instead of complimentary pillows, wadded-up clothing pulled out of checked luggage.

5. Difference between first class and coach? A bite-size 3 Musketeers bar.

4. From now on, planes will taxi from one destination to another on the interstate.

3. I don't know, but how hard is it to open them peanuts, am I right people?

2. In case of water landing, your only flotation device is the fat guy in 16F.

1. Inflight "movie" is home video of the pilot "Gettin' It On."

Most major old-line carriers offer club access to travelers for a fee, either a one-day pass or yearly membership. Some allow frequent fliers to cash in miles for membership. Typically, information and application forms can be found on airlines' Web sites. Other companies, such as Priority Pass ((http://www.prioritypass.com) www.prioritypass.com) also offer access to a wide range of airlines' clubs. The clubs are typically located at airlines' hub airports and airports where they have a significant number of flights. Some examples of fees to use clubs:

US Airways Club: $25 one-day pass. Yearly fee: $275 to $375. www.usairways.com

United Red Carpet Club: $50 one-day pass. Yearly fee: $300 to $500. www.united.com

Northwest WorldClubs: Yearly fee: $250 to $450. www.nwa.com

American Admirals Club: $50 one-day pass. Yearly fee: $300 to $450. www.aa.com

Delta Crown Room Club: $50 one-day pass. Yearly fee: $275 to $475 (free to Platinum frequent fliers). www.delta.com

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