The Airline Club Wars

The last time I was in Newark Airport’s Terminal C I entered a United Club and there in front me me was a pulsating, vast sea of humanity. It took 10 minutes of hunting to find an empty seat and of course it was nowhere near an electrical outlet.

The WiFi was anemic but what do you expect? A packed roomful of travelers all wanted on.

When I was last in a USAir Club at Phoenix Sky Harbor it was much the same. I had to wait for a passenger to exit her chair before I could sit down and all I could manage was a cup of mediocre coffee.

I asked myself: really is this much better than being with the hoi polloi outside the club? I did not honestly think it was.  At least outside the clubs there are generally decent food choices and good coffee is easy to find in most airports. Are the concourses a hectic hurlyburly? Indeed but if the airline clubs are too, so what?

Personally I have found a better club solution – more on it momentarily.

First, however, know that United Airlines has now reshuffled the deck.  In an email that landed in my box on August 18 – header: United Club access changes – the carrier decreed: “To maintain and further improve the United Club experience, we’re announcing the following change to our program:

 

■   Effective August 18, 2016, a same-day boarding pass for all United Club customers, including members, will be required for United Club access.

The carrier continued with promises: “We’ve been working on a variety of improvements to our United Club program. To provide a more productive and relaxing experience, we’re investing more than $100 million in renovating existing locations and building new spaces with expanded seating areas, more power outlets and upgraded Wi-Fi. We’re also investing in a brand new complimentary food menu that you can now find at our hub locations across the U.S. and will be available soon at the rest of our locations.”

The United goal obviously is to cut down on some of the guests in its clubs and the carrot it is waving is a better club experience. It’s not alone.

Earlier, Delta had taken more aggressive steps.  It’s effectively eliminated free guests passes for most classes of membership ($29 fee applies) and it also has eliminated free access for most partner credit cardholders (who now are nicked $29 to get in).

Both those carriers – obviously – are seeking to improve the club experience by reducing the headcount.

This is not a new story. As long ago as 2013, Joe Sharkey wrote: “One result of the airlines’ scramble for extra revenue from their airport clubs is a free-for-all in lounge access — with mounting complaints from business travelers about crowded conditions in lounges.”

It really has only gotten worse.

American Airlines, at least for now, is leaving club access as is and in fact it recently extended free access to some Alaska Air passengers.

You know what? I don’t care what any of the airlines are doing and that is because I am all in – mainly because the carriers pushed me – with American Express’ Centurion Lounges, a free perk for Platinum Cardholders.  Really: Centurion lounge food is vastly superior to whatever airline club’s offer, drinks are free, the WiFi is fast, space is reasonably quiet and I have not seen it jammed yet.

The airlines of course forced Amex’s hand. For years I used the Platinum Card to get in free at Continental, and also Delta.  It’s now a no go at United (which absorbed Continental) and at Delta there’s now a $29 fee for guests. <UPDATED>

So Amex fired back with the Centurion Lounge and it is a winner. It really has outmaneuvered the airlines.

The only drawback? Clubs are not everywhere. So far they are in Las Vegas, Dallas Fort Worth, San Francisco, Miami, Laguardia, and there’s a smaller outpost at Seattle Tacoma.

The next opening is supposed to be Houston, early in 2016.

Me, I want one in Newark Airport, also LAX.

Where there isn’t a Centurion Lounge, often I have found free access to clubs via Priority Pass, another Amex Plat perk.  That’s been true recently in San Jose and Phoenix and, no, it’s not as swank as Centurion but these are quiet clubs with plenty of newspapers and decent coffee and WiFi.

So count me as just not caring what the airlines do. I am a satisfied Centurion Lounge user and where they aren’t, Amex has alternatives that (so far) work for me.  I may never set foot in an airline club again.

6 thoughts on “The Airline Club Wars”

  1. I notice them getting a lot busier. United has also gotten rid of their partnership with Priority pass. I am actually surprised they didn’t have the “same day boarding pass” rule in place before, I believe many other airlines do. Of course if they are busier, they need to make bigger clubs.

  2. I thought I had missed something, but according to Delta’s website, as of this evening, the Platinum Card still entitles the card holder (but not guests) to complimentary entry to SkyClubs when flying Delta. A guest of the card holder must pay the $29 fee as I read their website.

  3. This new United rule was designed to keep United employees out of the United Clubs unless they are travelling. In almost every United Club, they are inside of security, so you have to have a boarding pass to gain access. United’s new rule doesn’t say the boarding pass has to be for a UA flight. I purchased my lifetime Red Carpet Club pass for $300 in 1978. At the time my father thought it was a huge waste of money for a 22 year old to spend. It was especially nice when I lived in HNL and, in the days before needing to have a boarding pass, being able to bring a couple of friends to the HNL RCC, drink beers, eat pupus, and watch the air force jets taking off. The “good old days”.

  4. I second the endorsement of the Centurion Lounges. Decent food, decent beverage program, friendly staff, new (and stylish) lounges. It’s great!

  5. I love the new Centurion Club too–at least at LGA. But the Miami club, my home airport is way too small. It’s been over-packed both times I’ve used it recently. Just yesterday, the front desk woman warned “if the main room is full, there’s seating out here in the hall.” The price of success I guess!

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