Private VIP clubs rise above airport hubbub

Premium-class fliers value chance to rest in serene comfort

Strategies

April 04, 2004|By Bob Tedeschi | Bob Tedeschi,New York Times New Service

Economy ticket holders have always cast longing glances toward the doors of private airline lounges as they run the airport's aural gantlet of beeping baggage carts, blaring flight announcements and screaming children.

These lounges have grown even more enticing now that passengers are encouraged to arrive at the airport earlier. And since financially strapped airlines have begun competing more intensely for luxury-class customers, the VIP clubs have steadily added amenities, so the average SIP (somewhat important person) might consider occasionally checking in.

"Sometimes the best part about traveling is hanging out in the lounge before the flight," said Matthew J. Bennett, who is the publisher of FirstClassFlier.com, a newsletter for aspiring and veteran premium-class fliers. "The value of these hideaways is increasing as things in the airport become more hectic."

Bennett said that airlines are trying to come up with distinctions wherever possible in their luxury-class services, and lounge improvements are a core part of that effort. Virgin Atlantic is the latest to add to the lore of premium-class lounge opulence, with its new Virgin Clubhouse at Kennedy Airport.

The Clubhouse, which opened in February, is a study in architectural elan. Open-air sitting areas surround a series of cozy enclaves, whose lighting changes hue during the afternoon, as if it were lighted by a setting sun.

There are two shower rooms, stocked refrigerators and wireless Internet access. The lounge also serves freshly prepared meals, so travelers can get to sleep immediately after boarding. For preflight rest, the lounge features an alcove with a daybed and iPod digital music players with headphones.

As in many private lounges, Virgin's Clubhouse also includes a private room (available to anyone, upon request), for those who would like an added dash of exclusivity. And, like many other private airport lounges, the Clubhouse is stationed on a perch from which you may literally look down upon public areas.

But unlike many others, the Clubhouse is one you cannot buy your way into. Only those who reach the highest level of frequent-flier rewards or who purchase a seat in Virgin's Upper Class section (which includes seats that transform into beds, among other comforts) are eligible. (For an early April Upper Class round-trip flight between Kennedy and Heathrow Airport, Virgin charged $7,772 for the full fare; Premium Economy cost $776.)

At many airline clubs -- including those run by United, American and Delta -- $50 will get you in for the day. Continental sells one-day passes in packs of 10 for $250, which could be a bargain, depending on how often you travel and the surroundings at your home airport.

Regular rates vary, but not too widely. The Presidents Club (Continental) costs $375 annually, the Admirals Club (American) is $450, and the Crown Room (Delta) $475. Many airlines have reciprocal agreements with other carriers, increasing your chances of lounging in luxury. You may also qualify for lower annual rates, depending on your frequent-flier status with a particular airline. And first- and business-class tickets often include admission, too.

Other options exist. Priority Pass (www.prioritypass.com) sells memberships that grant access to more than 450 airline lounges. Standard membership costs $99 a year, with an additional per-visit fee of $25 and a guest visit fee of $24.

When considering a foray into the private lounges, it is worth noting that airlines place their flagship clubs in their busiest airports. Continental, for instance, has three Presidents Clubs at Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the airline's biggest hubs.

Among its Newark clubs, the flagship lounge is between Concourses 2 and 3 in Terminal C, a 19,000-square-foot expanse bordered on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows and open seating areas (with wired and wireless Internet access), and on the other by a maze of business cubicles, private conference rooms, a TV lounge and a bar with free drinks and a stock ticker coursing overhead.

Family rooms, showers, daybeds and such are less typical outside an airline's flagship clubs. But second-tier clubs are still worlds away from what you experience on the outside.

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