It's the Only Way to Fly: Exclusive Airport Clubs Get Cushier

But at the same time, airlines are trying to make it easier for the traveling public to get in.
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Airport clubs, those member-only private lounges tucked away from the crowds and confusion of the terminal, have always had an aura of pampered exclusivity for the privileged.

These days, the perks are getting even plusher.

Many clubs are offering free Internet access for passengers and more personalized service. And even putting greens, showers and massages have shown up in the fancier digs.

"They can be an oasis," says Doug Abbey of

AvStat Associates

, a Washington-based airline consultant. "I do think there is some value to joining a club. The number of services being offered keeps moving up, but you have to decide if paying up $250 to $300 a year is worth it."

Yet at the same time as clubs are rolling out more services, the airlines are trying to attract new members and make it easier for the traveling public to partake.

Costs aren't going down, but with most major airlines, there are more ways to get in the club doors. In lieu of cash, travelers can now use frequent-flier miles to pay for membership. On request, some airlines offer day passes for the clubs. Sharing-agreements that allow members of one airline's club to visit another airline's club are also bringing in more people.

Abbey says the airlines are increasing the services offered at clubs as a way to reward frequent fliers and good customers. But that has increased membership and made the clubs more crowded and less exclusive.

And exclusivity -- along with more comfort -- is why a lot of club members join in the first place. "Because the airlines are allowing people with a lot of miles to join, more people who fly coach are joining the clubs," Abbey says. "You walk in some clubs now and all the tables are taken and everybody is on the phones, and it doesn't look much better than the regular lounge in the terminal."

In fact, the clubs now have "rush hours just like commuters, when it's darn near impossible to get a seat in the house," says Randy Petersen of

Inside Flyer.com

, a travel Web site. "Boosted by alliances and more importantly, increasing delays ...

clubs can be a blessing or force you back out into the terminal."

Operated by all the major airlines and located in most airports, the clubs offer a measure of privacy, drinks and snacks, assistance from airline employees and, in more and more clubs, free phone calls and Internet service -- all, of course, for the cost of membership.

While the services vary slightly from club to club, most offer the same basic hook -- ostensibly a place to escape the hustle, bustle and crowds of hectic airport terminals.

"My experience is that they are a necessity if you are traveling more than a dozen times a year," Petersen says. "Cynically, I could say that they shouldn't be necessary if airlines run on time, but clubrooms today are much different than in the past." Better services make clubs a good deal, despite increased costs, Petersen adds.

"Primarily, the value of a club room is the easy access to a data terminal," he says. "Balancing your laptop on a pay phone and trying to work with a local access

provider in the main terminal area is rather trying. More clubrooms have free Internet access, and more importantly, bays of booths to easily hook up your computer for online work."

Along with providing a "safe harbor" from airport terminals, Petersen says the airline clubs' offerings have expanded to include ATMs,

FedEx

dropoffs and conference rooms for meetings.

One often overlooked function of the clubs is that they are also a check-in counter, he says. "If you have your luggage with you, you can go to the club room to get your boarding pass and upgrade. The difference here than in the main terminal or the actual check-in gate is that your chances of getting better customer help are greatly increased, sympathy for upgrades is much better and seating selections are considerate."

Bob Doyle, president of

Sutters Mill Fundraising and Strategy

, a Washington political consulting firm, paid $350 to join the

U.S. Airways Club

and calls that airline's club at Washington's

Ronald Reagan National Airport

"one of the best."

"I like it because I can get a drink or a cup of coffee, they bring me a newspaper, they'll store my luggage and they call me over a PA system when my flight begins to board," Doyle says. He adds that his only regret about joining the club is that he doesn't use it more often.

But for the creme de la creme, frequent travelers say nothing beats the international carriers.

Virgin Atlantic

(VIRGY)

, for instance, offers massages, showers and haircuts and putting greens at some of its international clubs.

"When you're talking about international business travel, top of the line amenities in airport clubs are more than just perks," AvStat's Abbey says. "They are almost a necessity that business travelers are coming to expect."

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At time of publication, he held no position in any securities mentioned, although holdings can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at crowleys@cinci.infi.net.