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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Airline VIP Clubs Are Frustrating Frequent Fliers Behind Closed Doors : Trends: Those secluded lounges were once considered oases at crowded airports. But long lines, limited seating and erratic hours have members questioning their value.

May 12, 1991|PETER S. GREENBERG

If you do any flying at all, then you probably despise most airports and all long lines, crowds and noise. At the very least, to try to avoid the mess, you've probably considered joining one of those airline VIP clubs.

Sure, it seems expensive--annual fees of up to $150 per club (and up to $2,600 for a lifetime membership).

In theory, it sounds like a good idea--a place to go far from the madding crowd of other travelers; a refuge where you can have a quiet drink, make some needed phone calls, get your boarding pass . . . and relax.

Until recently it was a good idea.

But now, consider this scenario:

You're flying to New York from Des Moines, Iowa, connecting in Chicago. You have 40 minutes between flights at O'Hare. When you land, you head straight for the airline club where you're a member. You need to make some calls. Or you need a boarding pass. Or you'd like to get a drink. You're searching for that "relaxing" atmosphere (after all, you paid for it).

But when you get to the club, you open the door and are confronted with a long line of other members. All the phones are being used. There's nowhere to sit. You leave, head for the departure gate and make your calls standing up from a pay phone. And you're still thirsty.

Or you're booked on an 8 p.m. departure from Atlanta to Detroit. The flight is delayed for three hours, so you head for the airline VIP club. It's crowded with other "off-schedule" passengers such as yourself. But at 9:45, more than an hour before the delayed flight is scheduled to depart, the attendant in the club announces that it's closing. You'll have to leave.

These scenes are repeated hundreds of times each day at airports across the United States. No surprise, then, that frequent fliers are beginning to question the value of their VIP club memberships.

It wasn't always this way. When the first airline VIP club opened more than 50 years ago, a relaxing atmosphere did prevail. It was 1939 and American Airlines opened a lounge at New York's La Guardia Airport. Other airlines soon followed American's lead. In fact, the airline VIP clubs were the airlines' original--and unspoken--frequent flier programs. Sequestered, unmarked rooms for traveling cognoscenti--quasi-social clubs for patrician passengers to spend idle moments relaxing between flights.

There were no membership fees, but getting in was hard. You had to be invited by the airline. Then, in 1967, a successful civil-rights discrimination suit was filed against the airlines; they could no longer restrict membership to the VIP lounges. Airlines were given a choice: Close the lounges altogether or open them to anyone who paid for a membership. And now, more than 20 years later, there is at least one airline VIP club at every major U.S. airport. Delta has 46. American has 31. United claims 28 worldwide; TWA has 23.

But while the clubs have dramatically increased in number, they seem to have suffered a traumatic transformation. For starters, they no longer are really lounges . Instead, the airline clubs have gone from cozy, special oases for VIP travelers to crowded pit stops at airport hubs--rooms full of individual profit centers, including desks, PCs, fax machines, copiers and phones.

In fact, inside most airline clubs today, the instruments of business actually take up more space than sofas or even bars. The clubs have become mini-business centers. United even boasts Federal Express drop-off service at its Red Carpet clubs.

But what about space and service, not to mention a "relaxing" atmosphere? After all, how can you do business if you have to wait in line forever to use a phone?

Given the crunch, is a membership in one of these airline VIP clubs worth it? Maybe not. What does a membership really get you these days? With extremely few exceptions, once you enter an airline club in the United States, you need your wallet for just about everything. In only a very few clubs are drinks free. And even if you are allowed to make free local calls, usually few phone units are set aside for the purpose.

No frequent flier worth his or her personalized luggage tags minds if the airlines make money on the annual fees for club membership. But the problem is that club membership may be outgrowing club facilities, and not one airline has put a cap on the number of members it will accept.

Exact membership numbers for the clubs remain a mystery. Citing competitive reasons, each airline surveyed for this article refused to divulge specific membership figures. United executives would only reveal that membership in its Red Carpet Club stands "in excess of 200,000." American confirms a similar figure for the Admirals Club.

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