Post Sept. 11, business travelers are finding airport lounges more valuable than ever
by BOB CURLEY
WITH “HURRY UP AND WAIT” THE NEW REALITY AT THE WORLD’S AIRPORTS, BUSINESS TRAVELERS SAY AIRLINE VIP LOUNGES ARE MORE VALUABLE THAN EVER FOR PROVIDING RESPITE FROM THE MADDING CROWDS AND QUIET WORK SPACE THAT MAKES TERMINAL “DOWNTIME” MORE PRODUCTIVE. In the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent plunge in air travel, a number of U.S. airlines—notably Delta and US Airways—trimmed airport lounges as they scrambled to cut costs. Others, however, have continued to open new VIP clubs and renovate existing facilities, adding amenities such as Internet-friendly workstations, conference rooms, expanded dining choices and even baby-sitting services.
That’s music to the ears of road warriors, who—told to arrive two hours before scheduled departures— often find themselves spending more time than ever in airport terminals.
“If I were traveling a lot today, lounge access would be a lot higher on my list of priorities than it was five or 10 years ago, because you do have to arrive at the airport much earlier, and there’s so much uncertainty once you get there,” said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlyer.com, an online community of frequent travelers. “You don’t know if you’re going to have a 45-minute line to clear security, or if there will be just two people there in front of you. The potential for wasting time is huge.”
Clubs on the air side of terminals are especially valuable when travelers are able to breeze through security checkpoints, according to Stacy Waite, a former investment manager for Credit Suisse, who now runs a travel advertising newsletter called Weblope (http://www.weblope.com).
Waite is blunt in her assessment of VIP lounge memberships, which can cost upwards of $600 annually. “Anyone traveling on business who doesn’t have one is a fool,” she said.
When she lived in Australia, Waite visited the Qantas Clubs at Sydney International Airport at least twice a week, and sometimes six days a week. On days when she had morning flights, she arrived in time to take advantage of the club’s generous breakfast spread. When meetings ended early, she would head to the lounge to use the phone and get extra work done.
“The domestic Qantas lounge in Sydney is fantastic,” said Waite. “It is large, well stocked with magazines and newspaper, and has plenty of Internet terminals and spare desks. Plus, it has great Australian wines and lots of snacks. At lunch and dinner time, you can certainly make a meal from what they put out.”
Qantas recently announced that it will spend $26.4 million over the next year on its airport lounges. The new flagship Qantas Club at the Sydney international terminal is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, company officials say, with seating for 150 first-class passengers and 500 business-class travelers. Qantas also is expanding and improving its domestic lounges in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane; its international lounges in Melbourne, Singapore and Honolulu; and is opening new clubs in Perth, Australia’s Gold Coast and Bangkok.
Elsewhere in Asia, Japan Airlines (JAL) recently opened its new Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita International Airport. The lounge features a British-style pub, bedrooms, showers, massage services, a business center with wireless Internet access, a library and a theater-style A/V lounge. “Business travel has taken some hard knocks and has been declining,” said JAL spokesperson Irene Jackson. “To ensure we retain a major share of the valuable Japanese business market, we have to have state-of-the-art facilities superior to those of our main competitors.”
Jackson added that the mix of business and leisure amenities at the club reflects the desires of JAL’s customers. “Not all travelers want to be e-mailing or accessing the Internet, especially the Japanese, who are less likely to use long flights to do work,” she said. “We see a need to cater to varied tastes and requirements. Lounges should provide places for work, yes, but also for leisure and relaxation.”
Airlines around the world have apparently taken that lesson to heart. When American Airlines opened an Admiral’s Club at Fort Worth International Airport last April, it included a music room with 14 listening stations equipped with individual headsets, showers, exercise rooms, a smoking lounge and a cybercafé. And British Airways’ “Terraces” concept—embodied in its new lounges at JFK, San Diego, Seattle and SFO— includes gardenlike patio areas suffused with natural light, as well as a bustling business center and the more sedate working environment of an oak-paneled library.
VIP lounges have also become more kid-friendly. The new British Airways lounges feature a “Toy Box” area filled with games, TVs and videos. American’s Fort Worth club has a children’s play area equipped with computers loaded with children’s educational software. And Saudi Arabian Airlines’ new Golden Lounges in Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam, London and Paris also have children’s play areas.
The golden age of travel may be gone for good, but many airlines appear to be recapturing in their lounges the luxury associated with the dawn of the jet age. In many airports, VIP club members and first- and business-class travelers can pass from the fast-food and plastic-seated world of the modern airport terminal into lounges that evoke tropical rain forests, are adorned with fountains and artwork, and include gourmet dining and cigar bars.
For example, the Star Alliance last year opened the first of a planned series of VIP lounges for customers of its 15 international member airlines. Located in Terminal B at Zurich International Airport, the lounge has a 30-seat first-class section and a 130-seat business-class area. Architects made extensive use of natural stone and wood to create the feel of an urban garden. The lounge—a prototype that Star Alliance is considering replicating in Brussels, Buenos Aires, LAX and Manila—was an immediate hit with business travelers, earning a mention among Forbes magazine’s top-10 airport lounges last fall.
In the U.S., Northwest Airlines unveiled a new WorldClub design in 2001, opening revamped clubs in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Memphis, San Francisco, O’Hare and four lounges at Detroit Midfield. Design elements include cherry wood paneling, working fireplaces and granite floors. Visitors can check out up-to-the-minute quotes on a live stock ticker while having fresh fruit or a latte.
Virgin Atlantic’s new Clubhouses at SFO and in Johannesburg— opened in 2000 and 2001, respectively—are “designed to deliberately challenge the conventions of the airline industry and to create a different traveling environment,” says airline chairman Richard Branson. The $2.8 million Clubhouse in San Francisco includes floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Bay, monitors displaying digital art and a bar accented with kinetic colored panels—all reflecting S.F.’s natural beauty.
Likewise, the Johannesburg Clubhouse, opened in December, provides views of the sun setting over the airport runway. Among the other amenities offered to Virgin’s elite customers in Johannesburg are an open-flame “theater kitchen” restaurant, digital satellite TVs and PlayStation 2 consoles.
Despite all the bells and whistles, however, frequent travelers like John DiScala say that it’s often the staff—with their ability to issue boarding passes, change flight arrangements and deal with problems—that make the difference between a good club and a bad one.
DiScala, who logs more than 150,000 air miles annually and is a member of United’s Red Carpet Club, says that while the airline’s special “1K” lounge at LAX is “dark, dreary and small,” the agents who work there are excellent. “They are very accommodating; just the rooms aren’t,” said DiScala, CEO of the online travel-information portal JohnnyJet.com (http://www.johnnyjet.com).
If there’s one service that frequent travelers would love to see added to VIP lounges, he added, it would be priority clearance through security checkpoints. “I think then you’d have 100 percent of business travelers having memberships,” DiScala said. “I also think it’s impossible—I don’t think the FAA would go for it.”
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