European and Asian full service airlines generally offer lounge access as a benefit to their premium cabin customers and their elite frequent flyers.
In the U.S. lounge access is mostly paid via ‘membership’. The reason why dates to 1974.
American Airlines opened the first airport lounge in 1938. The brand new New York LaGuardia airport featured a huge office for Mayor LaGuardia, which he was criticized for, so the space was leased to American. Their second lounge was at Washington National. Until the 1970s this second club lacked a liquor license so stored members’ bottles for their own use instead.
These sorts of clubs were the subject of anti-discrimination cases in front of the Civil Aeronautics Board, the agency which regulated the airlines up until 1978’s Airline Deregulation Act.
On February 12, 1974 the Civil Aeronautics Board issued an order laying out the terms under which airlines could determine access to their clubs.
- Open to everyone
- Open to everyone in a premium cabin
- Membership-based where anyone who paid the fee could join
Airlines were also permitted to allow use of lounges by delayed passengers, by the sick, ill or elderly, and — because one bureaucrat washes the other — by politicians (as well as celebrities) whose presence in the terminal could create a disturbance. (Incidentally the late Senator Ted Kennedy insisted US Airways not lay off two special services representatives at National airport when the carrier was making cutbacks after 9/11, his office described this as ‘saving jobs’ albeit the jobs of people serving him.)
The notion of paid lounge memberships was a move towards making the clubs ‘more egalitarian’ rather than exclusive or elitist.
American Airlines Dallas Fort-Worth A Concourse Admirals Club
Since the 1970s US airline lounges have largely been membership clubs. They even have initiation fees (it’s $50 at United, at American the first year of membership is more expensive rather than breaking this fee out separately). And paying members are therefore granted access upon presenting themselves to the club, subject to normal and customary restrictions — such as regular operating hours.
They don’t even seem to enforce much of a dress code, the way Qantas does, from what I can tell.
All of this is changing next year. At Delta and American club lounge access will be sold as a subscription service rather than a membership. Just like an annual United premium economy access package, allowing seat selection in extra legroom coach seats when flying United, Delta and American will be offering one year package upsells of lounge access when you fly.
- Starting January 1, 2019 Delta will require ‘members’ to by flying either Delta or one of its airline partners same day for access.
- Starting November 1, 2019 American will require ‘members’ to be flying either American or one of its preferred airline partners (oneworld, Alaska) same day for access.
- United still allows club members to access their lounges as long as they’re flying same day. Members do not have to be flying on United. Can a similar restriction from United be far behind?
Delta SkyClub Seattle, Credit: Delta
So much for notions of membership. A US airline club used to be a members-only club not just an extra amenity to pay to add onto your ticket. You could access it as a member. In the old days when you didn’t need a same day ticket to clear security you could go wait in the lounge to meet an arriving passenger. As an historical vestige of that some airline clubs would even let you request gate passes after 9/11 as a service to its members.
I will continue to buy American’s extra service package of airport lounge access, bundled with its premium co-brand credit card, since American is the largest legacy airline at my home airport in Austin and given the frequency with which my flights seem to suffer irregular operations and I need help with re-booking.