NEW YORK — When C.R. Smith, head of American Airlines, launched the first of what were to become known as Admirals Clubs a half century ago, he had one inviolate rule: No office equipment was allowed in open view, even on the club receptionist's desk. Not even a stapler could be left in sight.
Smith wanted his airline's airport clubs, which for many years were open only to friends of the airline who had been invited to join, to be "places to relax and not think about business."
Times have changed.
Until not too long ago, the clubs were hardly more than what Smith had envisioned--places for the traveler to stretch out on a sofa or upholstered chair, places to eat peanuts, sip a drink and watch television.
But today they are places where harried executives can conduct business, not hide from it. That's easier to do away from noisy airport concourses, away from long lines to use telephones in public areas and away from crying babies.
Now, anyone is eligible to join the clubs, though they are particularly favored by business travelers. Some companies pay the membership fees for executives if they travel frequently. The cost varies from airline to airline but is generally about $100 per year.
With the demand from business travelers growing, the nation's airlines are trying to outdo each other these days in the office-type facilities and other amenities they are providing especially for such customers.
United Airlines, which operates 27 Red Carpet clubs in the United States and overseas, is like many other airlines in providing private conference rooms for such things as sales meetings and interviews of job candidates. American Airlines, like others, has installed personal computers in its 24 Admirals Clubs. Executives bring computer programs on their own discs and go right to work.
Messages, Check Cashing
Airlines are installing facsimile machines that allow executives to send and receive printed material. Many of the personal computers have printers and telephone modems that enable travelers to exchange data electronically with an office or home computer and get a printout at the club. Members can get messages and cash checks at the clubs. There are photocopying machines, writing desks and semiprivate cubicles equipped with credit card telephones.
And Continental Airlines is carrying it all a step further. When it opens a new club at its Newark hub this summer, it will provide secretarial service there.
Some clubs have conference rooms large enough to hold sizable meetings. At its Atlanta hub, Eastern Airlines' Ionosphere Club can handle meetings of up to about 30 people. The rooms have kitchen facilities and catering services.
"Over the last few years, we started to change the focus of the club rooms from the old concept of a lounge," said Richard C. Buchman, product manager for United's Red Carpet Clubs. "We added features that would appeal to business persons so they could make productive use of their time. We got the message that, in the short time they would be there, they wanted to do more than just watch TV."
John W. Temple, Northwest Airlines' vice president for marketing programs, said Northwest's 24 WorldClubs try to "keep pace with the way (the) more than 60,000 members conduct business and thereby make them more productive."
Widespread adoption of hub-and-spoke scheduling by the airlines has resulted in increased emphasis on the clubs. A hub-and-spoke system, which looks much like a bicycle wheel when laid out on a diagram, involves having planes fly in and out of a centrally located hub airport to and from a variety of cities.
With such a system, an airline is able to serve many more combinations of cities but there are fewer non-stop flights because virtually all of an airline's flights must pass through the hub city. Passengers typically spend an hour or so on the ground at the hub, waiting for flights, and that's where the airline clubs come in.
Don't Have to Leave
Northwest's Temple said the advantage of the clubs is that business people can avoid having to leave the airport "to make a . . . presentation before catching the next flight."
Many executives swear by the clubs and say that they have helped them make money--or at least not to lose business. One measure of their increasing popularity is the fact that the average length of a visit to an airline club has increased to an hour from 35 minutes a decade ago, according to United Airlines.
Michael J. Green, a Chicago paper salesman who made 165 plane trips last year, of which 100 were on United, is a lifetime member of the Red Carpet Club. He uses the conference rooms frequently, he said, meeting customers and writing reports there.
Recently, he recalled, he was three hours late arriving back in Chicago from Kansas City, too late in the day to go to his office. So he just stayed in a conference room in the club at O'Hare airport.