Here’s Why US Airlines Charge for Lounge Membership

Yesterday tommy777 went on an epic rant about US airline lounges and American’s clubs in particular.

There’s no question that US airline lounges do not compare to their Asian counterparts. I’d disagree that European lounges in general are superior. I’ve been to too many contract lounges, shared lounges, and even some airline operated lounges in Europe that are awful. I’ll never forget the now-closed Boticelli lounge (Alitalia) in Milan where they gave you shower shoes because the drains were clogged. They didn’t have hot water, either. Or enough seating. And there were lines 20+ deep to get a coffee. Many South American lounges are equally bad.

Nonetheless, it’s 100% true that American has offered the least free food. I don’t mind paid food options when those options are good, unfortunately they vary a lot from lounge to lounge. American generally doesn’t enforce a rule of no outside food or drink, so I’ll bring in Tortas Frontera at O’Hare and sometimes a Starbucks. Not free, but far better than anything offered for free elsewhere.

All fair and good criticisms.

But there’s one misconception worth correcting. He writes,

And ironically, the NA Carriers clubs are the only clubs you have to PAY to be a member for the trash they are offering.

In fact, it’s not just North American airlines charging for lounge access. Qantas, Air New Zealand, and Virgin Australia do too.

In the US, though, airlines charge for membership for historical reasons.

In 1974 the US government ordered that airlines either:

  • make clubs available to everyone
  • make clubs available to everyone flying a particular class of service, or
  • make clubs available to everyone who pays.

Last year I had a longer discussion of how lounges used to be, and why we now pay.

Paid memberships were a way of ensuring compliance with non-discrimination rules coming out of the civil rights era. Anyone who could pay – regardless of race – could access the lounges.

Once the airlines had a revenue stream associated with the lounges it became difficult to walk away from that. The lounge network starts looking like a separate business unit, with its own profit and loss calculation.

Granted, American no longer structures it that way, a change made during its bankruptcy. And Delta among US airlines has done the most to make new investments in its clubs (and increase fees, and cut down on credit card-based access).

It’s not ironic at all that US airlines charge for lounge access, it’s based on particular US history — of civil rights law and the regulated era. And it follows logically that offerings would be limited compared to other regions given that model as well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It would be more accurate to say that while the Australian/Kiwi lounges do indeed offer paid membership options, those lounges can also be accessed without charge, even for purely domestic itineraries, by (a) their native carriers’ elite pax and (b) all premium cabin pax.

  2. …but they could have chosen Option 2, like European operations do, right? It’s not like they were somehow forced into gaining additional revenue by civil rights laws. So Tommy’s major premise, about our clubs being greedy, seems like it still holds

  3. It’s one thing to say well customers should “pay” so as to prevent any discrimination issues making the clubs exclusive, but then how do you explain an airline’s policy that forbids elites from visiting a lounge unless they are on an international ticket? Hasn’t the elite “paid” for access by having given the airline a significant amount of revenue ?

    I realize this is a small portion of people, very small. And I would not argue that someone who just bought a ticket in any class should enjoy the benefits but some of the airlines have gone so far as to place restrictions on their highest supposedly “elite” members.

    Crazy stuff.

  4. Oh and let’s face it, most of the time when flying, most people don’t even have time to get to the lounge so to unduly restrict access for people who are already your supposedly “elite” flyers simply reeks of pettiness and small minded snarky behavior.

    It’s a tough world out there. Have a great end of summer.

  5. I got the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card for the great signup bonus several months ago, with the AA lounges as a welcome benefit, so I’m a relative newcomer to that particular lounge scene. The card includes access to Qantas lounges when flying Qantas, and I visited several during a recent trip to Australia. They must not get many visitors in my situation, as they almost always had to look it up in their notebook before letting me in. Previously having visited Admirals Clubs in the U.S., I was amazed at the Qantas facilities and quality of food even in small regional airports, and wondering about the economics of all this. Is it profitable for Qantas to maintain this extensive, high quality system of lounges? If so, why doesn’t American have similar quality in its lounges, which are clearly not to the same standard? If not, how does Qantas justify it? The person who pays for Qantas lounge membership sure gets a lot more for the money. I know I’m offering an overly-simplified question, but Gary’s comment on the separate profit-and-loss calculation triggers my reply.

  6. Gary: are the Citi Exec cards the same as buying an admirals club membership in the sense they work at all OneWorld partner’s lounges? Quite frankly, outside the US I’ve only been in premium class, so it’s always been easier just to show the ticket instead of arguing with the dragons.

  7. I will admit to having routed via ORD specifically to get Tortas Frontera. Never thought to bring it in the Admirals Club though. Honestly, for the amount AA charges for membership, their food offerings are a joke, especially in the Flagship First lounges.

  8. Thanks for 5 minutes of fame and also for a walk down memory lane. I did not know that was the reason why the airlines originally charge for memberships. I also wasn’t aware that they charge in one more country, Australia. I don’t mind paying for lounge access if I get a decent product, like you do in Australia, but I do mind paying for what gets offered here in the US aka nothing.

    What caused the reaction yesterday was that the post came across as something positive while in reality the “improvement” is that you get to help yourself to syrup McDonalds style pop instead of asking at the bar and having to give the bartender a dollar for it. The new “coffee machine” is not an improvement, it’s a disaster.

    And it’s your job to call the airline out on it and not stand up to them while sending me to Frontera to pick up food after paying 400 bucks for a membership.

    It looks like you are happy with what they are offering giving them absolutely no reason to change.

    The reality is that both UA and AA serve McCormick alcohol. Vodka/whiskey/Gin that drunks get at the liquor store. It costs less than 10 dollars for a handle aka 1,75 liter. And if you want a decent GT with Bombay Sapphire, the Admirals Club charges 11 dollars for it
    They serve bad to sometimes mediocre beer, the free wines are terrible, the juice they serve is from concentrate etc etc.

    That means they don’t serve food and they don’t serve free, decent drinks you don’t have to pay for. And the alcohol that’s drinkable is more expensive than at the Capitol Grill.

    And you’re absolutely incorrect about lounges in Europe. Sure, there are some bad contract lounges and some airline lounges (Alitalia is the only one that comes to mind), but you can’t compare that to what the airlines offer in Europe:

    Lufthansa — Great spread, including scrambled eggs in the morning sandwich stations at lunchtime, hot dogs and always a good selections of hot food around dinner time. Hendricks Gin, 15 year old single malt, Grey Goose. Sparkling wine is the only thing questionable, but good for Mimosas. Very good Espresso machines that make great coffee in all lounges. Love the Senator Cafe in Munich

    BA — Johnny Walker Blue in their Gold lounge. 4 types of real Champagne. Everything you could want on the drink front. Great coffee machines. Hot buffet all day. In the 50K/Business lounges around Europe, they still have 15 year old scotch and good food offerings.

    SAS – Great spread throughout the day. Not the most expensive booze, but very decent booze, beer, wine and Bombay gin and 12 year old scotch. Heaps of papers and magazines from all over the world.

    Austrian and Swiss have a very respectful offering with full breakfast and hot food at night. Heaps of drinks.

    Finnair — Full breakfast, real Champagne, very decent offering

    Add TAP, Brussels Airlines and LOT to the list of airlines with very nice offerings.

    In conclusion, they all have eatable, good food offerings for free all day and name brand alcohol. They also have very good coffee machines. Internet is also free.

    And when it comes to the contract lounges, sure, they won’t be the best, but you will find alcohol lightyears ahead of McCormicks and the food offered is definitely better than AAs absolutely nothing offering.

    And here’s the kicker, when you leave that bad contract lounge, all of these European airlines serve food and good alcohol, most of them even in coach!! Even on 40 minute flights you get a full meal in Business Class.

    Compare that to ABSOLUTELY NOTHING on even 6 hour transcons in coach and no meals in First on flights under 2:45 on Starving Air aka AA.

    American Airlines needs to hear it:

    The last couple of years, they have switched the alcohol to garbage in the lounges. That sucks. The new Nescafe “coffee machines” serve undrinkable “coffee”, but thanks for the “soda” machines.

    It’s just ghetto what they offer.

    And now that they are cutting back on service in the air, they nuked the Glenlivet with the excuse that the manufacturer doesn’t make it in minis anymore. Geez, so if their milk supplier goes out of business, should they not find a new supplier and stop serving milk onboard as well?? There are plenty of manufacturers that makes decent scotch minis. Glenlivet still has their 15 year old, BA serves that. AAs logic is: Great opportunity to cut cost and make scotch drinkers choose between the other two, jack and jim instead that costs less 😛

    So same conclusion as yesterday: The best thing that has ever happened is that most airlines kicked out Amex and that they are now building their own lounges. I hope the network grows significantly. It will force AA and others to step it up.

  9. Euro lounges are still better, IMO.

    The contract lounges (which, I agree, are basically just as bad as US domestic lounges for the most part) are almost exclusively operated at outstation locations–not hubs. So here in the US we get crappy lounges at hubs and no lounges at outstations, and in Europe they get decent lounges at hubs and crappy lounges, which are still better than nothing, at outstations.

  10. I’d take American’s domestic first class over intra-European business class in a heartbeat, if you want to bring inflight products into the discussion.

    Food and beverage is your priority, I get that, and I was never saying that I thought US lounges did a good job on that front.

    What I was saying was — and I think I framed this up from the title even of the prior post — that as much as I love Amex lounges, I think they’re great, I value US lounges for help during irrops. They’ve got some good people who you get to know over and over and take care of you like family, at least with American.

    And that’s why I need both.

    But I don’t care about $10 booze, I get drink chits with my non-American oneworld status and that gets me better stuff for free.

    I agree with you that it is fantastic Amex is building out its own lounge network across the major cities in the U.S. And I’d love it if US airline lounges upped their game in kind. But it isn’t one or the other, my strategy is to use both for what they each do well.

  11. @Pavel – the Flagship lounges vary tremendously. LAX > JFK > ORD… There’s a Flagship Lounge at Heathrow as well but if flying American I just use the nearby BA Galleries First lounge.

  12. @robert – the Citi Executive card gets you the equivalent of a lounge membership but that does not get you access to all oneworld partner lounges, and in those cases it does get you partner access the partners may be confused 🙂

  13. It is worth noting, from a historical view, that when the deregulation and subsequent issue of lounges arose, there were no frequent flyer programs. As Gary points out, the revenue opportunity has become too difficult to part with. Must be easy decision to cut the costs (for food/drinks, etc.) if they can hold steady on the revenue. With AMEX, the market may force a turnaround, but it would take quite a while and AMEX has to prove its sustainability.

  14. Last week I was at the United Lounge at the Ciudad Mexico international airport and they had a very nice food spread as well as complementary wines and liquors.

  15. @Gary agree the flagship lounges vary widely but they’re still pretty lousy across the board. Case in point: LAX last Monday around 8:30… Some unidentifiable Thai stir fry that looked as if it had been out since lunch, a very gummy, messy dessert, some small cold cut sandwiches.

    Will give credit to JFK for breakfast and LHR Admirals Club for midday. In fact, LHR gave DFW a run for its money and I quite like the atmosphere of DFW.

  16. I don’t use the lounges terribly often, and when I do, it’s always USAir or AA. As mentioned, there must be quite a difference between AA’s lounges, as the NRT-AA lounge had plenty of food, hot and cold (“oinked out” there twice last month). The coffee was quite adequate. The corn soup (1 of 2 selections), was worthy of blogging about, and I may do it.

    As to the DFW AA club (on the international concourse), it was quite nice. The coffee was good, but food available through 11:45 AM consisted of some snack crackers and pretzels. Perhaps we just weren’t there at the right time. Facing a 16:45 duration flight, there was going to be no shortage of food enroute, so not a problem for us. AA-DFW seemed mighty light on the food (compared to NRT-AA) when we transited.

    Even more critical was the fast and reliable internet, on the NRT-AA lounge terminals. When one is working a complex network problem, the airport concourse wifi does NOT cut it (and this is true virtually anywhere for the wifi provided to the “rabble”). Fast, reliable internet (with no VOIP blockage, thank you very much AA-NRT) is underrated, in my opinion.

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