Airline clubs aren't always the best way to go Waiting: When everything is on schedule, frequent travelers probably get their money's worth. But when there's a delay, the advantage is small.

January 25, 1998|By Betsy Wade | Betsy Wade,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When flights are delayed and the airport concourse looks like the subway at rush hour, with children crawling among luggage and lines winding to pay phones, anxious travelers yearn for surcease. Alas, an airline club may not be the haven it is supposed to be.

An on-the-fly examination of airline clubs in the United States shows a consistent result: If flights are held up at a major hub, the clubs are only slightly better than the public waiting areas. It's hard to find a seat without asking someone to move a briefcase, the phones are busy, the receptionists have their hands full and the ambience is harried.

When things are on schedule, people who travel a lot find much to use in an airline club. But even then comes the question of whether a club is worth $175 to $300 a year if it is not a business expense. As with a health club membership, the value derives from frequency of use. For example, for anyone who must frequently make a particular trip with a child, or regularly take a connecting flight, especially when the weather is uncertain, a club might be worthwhile.

Because I travel by myself a lot, I would want a club to help me cope. I want a place to set my bags aside while I use the phone, bathroom or perhaps modem. But I recently saw that not all clubs can do this because some are outside the airport's security barrier, or on "landside." When passengers leave the club to board a flight and are questioned about letting their luggage out of sight, no exception is made in security procedures.

This limitation became clear at La Guardia Airport in New York. Gary Lonieski, United Airlines' manager of special services, passing the luggage cubicles in the Red Carpet Club, pointed to signs that have for a year prohibited their use. I saw families watching television with their legs buried in luggage, just like nonclub users. And no one I talked to expects security at airports to be relaxed.

La Guardia's central terminal, undergoing revamping, has clubs on both sides of the security barrier. Three are landside: United's Red Carpet Club, Continental's Presidents Club and Trans World Airlines' Ambassadors Club. American's Admirals Club is on the far side. Delta, Northwest and US Airways, with their own terminals at La Guardia, also have clubs beyond the barrier. There is no club for the Delta Shuttle.

How is the distribution elsewhere? Uncertain. As a sample, Bill Dreslin, a spokesman for American, said his experts did not know exactly how many of the Admirals Clubs were outside security barriers; he estimated 11 -- out of a worldwide total of 46.

Inspection tour

To inspect clubs, I used a collection of one-visit courtesy passes. They bore my name but did not identify me as a reporter. I got a friendly greeting from every airline's club, and the receptionists offered to check me in for my flight, print out boarding passes or make any reservation changes. To maintain calm, flights are not announced in the clubs, so passengers must stay alert. Some clubs have smoking areas, sometimes in the bar.

I got a real sense of a club's comfort last winter, when I flew Midway Airlines on a trip to Chapel Hill, N.C. Because American Airlines provides service for Midway at Raleigh-Durham Airport, the Admirals Club next to the gate accepted my one-shot cards. A colleague and I were able to put our bags aside, sample and select a wine and relax for almost an hour.

More airports are adding public alcoves with ATM machines, fax machines, express-mail drop boxes and computers with credit-card access to E-mail or the Internet. La Guardia has just added two areas like this, with seats that can be moved.

As such facilities are expanded, the essence of a club seems less about doing business and more about privacy and quiet.

All the clubs except for TWA's have short-term passes, allowing a traveler to test them. These cost from $25 for one-day passes to US Airways' US Air Clubs and Delta's Crown Rooms to $50 for a one-day membership from United or American or a 60-day trial from Northwest's World Clubs. Some may be obtained on the spot.

In addition, American Express platinum card-holders are admitted to the clubs of Northwest and Delta, and many clubs admit first-class and business-class passengers holding overseas tickets. Airlines with overseas partners have reciprocal arrangements with those lines' clubs.

Membership costs

The first year of a regular membership in American's clubs costs $300 or 50,000 frequent flier miles; for Continental, $200; Delta, $300 or 30,000 miles; Northwest, $270; TWA, $175 or 30,000 miles; United, $400 or 50,000 miles for nonpremier frequent flier members, and $275 or 40,000 for premier members; and $225 for US Airways. There are also spouse and domestic-partner memberships at various prices; all seven airlines let a member take two guests into domestic clubs, and usually any number of members of the immediate family.

Drinks in public airport bars are not cheap, and Northwest's World Clubs and Delta's Crown Rooms still provide free drinks in the United States. American and United have free drinks in clubs overseas, and Continental provides free drinks in Honolulu, London and Guam; elsewhere, economy-class members pay.

Only Delta will not admit members without a Delta ticket for that day, for example, when they might be using another airline or are at the airport to meet a delayed flight.

People shopping for clubs should focus on whether there is a club in the places they are most likely to be stuck. Boston, Chicago O'Hare, Honolulu, Los Angeles International, La Guardia, Newark and San Francisco have the most choices.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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