The New World of Independent Airport Clubs

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I did something I cannot recall ever doing before. The instant my meeting ended, I was out the door, in a cab, hurtling to the airport. Note: I had two hours until boarding, and I also had TSA PreCheck to race through security.

But I wanted to visit the American Express Centurion Lounge in Concourse D and, lo, I was rewarded with a free spread catered by celeb chef Scott Conant (known for Scarpetta and as a "Chopped" judge). There was lamb and beef burek - a Sicilian style sandwich; cavatelli with escarole and mushrooms; and farro and lentil salad. The price: zero.

Cocktails: free. Wines: free. Espresso: free. Lovely iced teas: free.

WiFi: free. Quiet: free.

Welcome to the new world of independent airport clubs, unaffiliated with particular airlines. The brutal truth is that in the past decade, airline-owned clubs have trimmed amenities, hot food has vanished, WiFi often is spotty, and overcrowding is rampant.

This is the market opportunity for independents.

The other part of the market is that very few of us arrive at the airport with guaranteed access to an airline club - around 6% of U.S. travelers, estimated Tyler Dikman, CEO of app developer LoungeBuddy, said in a Mainstreet interview.

Those are people who have ponied up for airline-branded premium credit cards such as the $395 United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase (free club access is a perk) or the $450 annual fee Citi Executive/AA Advantage World Elite Mastercard (also with free club access).

For the rest of us, the new independents will open their doors - for a price.

At the best of breed Centurion (open in Las Vegas and Dallas Fort Worth, with San Francisco, Miami and LaGuardia in New York slated to follow) - admission fees are tiered. Free if you have a Black Card - the Amex plate for the uber rich - and they also let in Platinum Card holders. Have a less prestigious Amex card, and $50 buys you a day pass.

That $50 sounds high, but the Conant meal has to be worth $20. Throw in a cocktail, a glass of wine, an espresso, free WiFi and $50 in value is in sight.

In Dallas Forth Worth, the food is by local hero chef Dean Fearing, an authentic godfather of new style Southwestern cookery. BBQ brisket tacos and sweet corn soup are on that menu.

You don't have an Amex card?

That sound you heard was the door slamming in your face. Entry is limited to members of the Amex family.

For you there is The Club, a network of five lounges (more are said to be on the way). Today's locations are Atlanta, Phoenix, San Jose, DFW and Las Vegas.

The current fee is $35 in Phoenix. Entry is free to holders of Diners Club, also Priority Pass (a network of some 700 airport lounges globally).

The plusses of The Club: free drinks, lots of quiet, good for work.

The downside: no hot food, at least not in the Phoenix or San Jose clubs visited by this reporter. Bags of chips, muffins, but not even a toaster and bagels in sight.

Nonetheless, especially if you can get free access via Diners Club or Priority Pass - $249 for the Standard Plus package which includes ten free club visits, then $27 per entry) - stop in. Have a cold beer, grab a newspaper, enjoy the quiet.

A third entrant is AirSpace Lounge - with locations in Cleveland, Baltimore Washington International, JFK and San Diego. Entrance is free for Amex Platinum Card holders; others can buy their way in at rates starting at $20.

Included are snacks, WiFi, a full bar and a quiet place to work.

Other companies may enter this fray because - clearly - domestic carriers have put small focus on their clubs and, yet, the flying public really likes a good club. LoungeBuddy's Dikman - whose company makes an app that sorts your personal data along with the airport you are in and pinpoints the lounges you are eligible to access -- said that his research indicates that lounge access remains "the most requested benefit for premium cards."

He added that those who especially value it are business travelers - some may want to grab a shower (there are facilities at some clubs), others may want a quiet place to make a phone call - and for them the independent lounges are an answered prayer, because many employers reimburse access costs, said Dikman.

Ultimately, though, club access is as simple as grabbing some peace, quiet and a free beverage. Out in the terminal it is hubbub, incessant announcements over the P.A., and the coffees and sodas cost so much you have to wince at the gouging. In the clubs, it's a different place - and, nowadays, the prices are ever more right, access is ever more democratic, and these are reasons to start every journey with a club moment.

--Written by Robert McGarvey

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