American Airlines embarks on a major lounge makeover, leapfrogs domestic competition

On Tuesday, American Airlines unveiled an ambitious roadmap to improve the ground experience for their club members as well as top-elite and premium passengers.

The announcement builds and expands on an earlier plan to renovate Admirals Clubs system wide – a move that followed the merger with US Airways in an effort to address years of neglect and revamp numerous legacy clubs. But Tuesday’s announcement goes much further, with a goal to almost double the number of Flagship Lounges (the current First Class Lounges), introduce restaurant-style service at several locations, and extend access to the Flagship Lounges to Business Class customers.

If American lives up to the hype that they’ve created, the world’s largest airline will offer the best premium ground experience amongst US airlines, leaving competitors Delta and United far behind.

Buried in the announcement are also hints at a possible long-term change to the business model under which lounges currently operate – one that would bring American closer to European and Asian airlines and effectively allow them to deliver a true premium ground product.

American Airlines renovates Admirals Clubs at an accelerated pace, introduces new lounges

Back in 2015, on the heels of their merger with US Airways, American Airlines announced a major investment in their Admirals Club network. Admirals Clubs are American’s membership based lounges, which also double as Business Class lounges. While the initial plan was touted as a “historic makeover,” it was mainly aimed at bringing the clubs in line with modern standards and at compensating for years of under-investment, especially on the US Airways side.

American Airlines’ announcement, while significant, was neither unique nor especially original. Around the same time frame, United also committed over 100 million dollars to renovating United Clubs worldwide, while Delta was already in the midst of a number of renovations, club expansions, and other enhancements to the overall lounge experience. At the time, Delta seemed to have the edge, with the opening of stunning new clubs such as the Delta Sky Club at San Francisco airport (SFO) and the introduction of a substantial complimentary all-day menu. In contrast, American’s food options were remaining desperately paltry, though some Admirals Club do sell basic hot food and snacks.

One of the first lounges to be renovated was the Admirals Club at Chicago O’Hare by gate G8. The new design featured clean lines, Earth tones, a more open layout albeit with more quiet and private spaces, and power outlets at every seat. In addition, the airline shunned the traditional imposing customer service desk in favor of trendier and friendlier pods with swivel screens.

American Airlines Admirals Club - Chicago O'Hare (ORD) by gate G8

American Airlines Admirals Club – Chicago O’Hare (ORD) by gate G8

In late 2015, American unveiled a new lounge at San Paulo (GRU) Terminal 3 which implemented a similar but slightly more mature version of the new design, replacing the older lounge in Terminal 2. Early 2016, the airline re-opened the Admirals Club at Phoenix airport (PHX) above gates A7-A9 after a complete makeover – the club was a former US Airways location which hadn’t changed in over ten years.

The updated plan stresses the ongoing commitment to club renovations, though it goes further with the addition of new lounges, and the refurbishment of the London Heathrow Arrivals Lounge.

Next in line for remodeling are the Chicago O’Hare club by gates H/K (a humongous facility with a broad range of amenities including showers and a kids’ room), the Admirals Club at Los Angeles (LAX) Terminal 4 (which, incidentally, already saw a number of touch-ups in 2015), as well as the clubs at Miami (MIA) gate D30, New York (JFK) Terminal B and Rio de Janeiro (GIG).

American Airlines Admirals Club – Chicago O'Hare (ORD) Concourse H/K

American Airlines Admirals Club – Chicago O’Hare (ORD) Concourse H/K

The London Heathrow Arrivals Lounge will benefit from a new décor, valet pressing service, as well as larger and more aesthetically pleasing shower suites. It’s unclear why American Airlines deemed the renovation of the Arrivals Lounge a priority, seeing that it’s already a convenient and pleasant lounge, but the recent opening of a new and more modern Delta Arrivals Lounge and United Arrivals Lounge in the neighborhood might have been the trigger. Construction at the Arrivals Lounge at London Heathrow is scheduled to start in the summer, though the airline hasn’t specified whether the club would close temporarily (passengers may also use the British Airways Arrivals Lounge at Terminal 5.)

Perhaps more significant is the scheduled opening of two new Admirals Clubs, at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Orlando International Airport (MCO).

Houston marks a significant opportunity for the airline to distinguish itself from the competition. Heavily dominated by United, Houston airport features no less than five United Clubs, which are all pretty underwhelming. American Express is building a new Centurion Lounge that is bound to shake up the lounge scene and raise the standards. American has a chance to make a splash by introducing an elevated level of service. The situation would be very similar to the scene at San Francisco Airport (SFO), where United’s three lounges pale in comparison with the excellent Delta Sky Club and American Express Centurion Lounge – both of which feature showers and complimentary hot meals, unlike United’s lounges.

Rendering of the future American Airlines Admirals Club - Houston, TX (IAH) | Courtesy of American Airlines

Rendering of the future American Airlines Admirals Club – Houston, TX (IAH) | Courtesy of American Airlines

Orlando has been historically slightly underserved by airline lounges, with The Club at MCO, an independent lounge, plugging the gap on a pay-in basis (though United and Delta both have lounges.)

Rendering of the future American Airlines Admirals Club - Orlando, FL (MCO) | Courtesy of American Airlines

Rendering of the future American Airlines Admirals Club – Orlando, FL (MCO) | Courtesy of American Airlines

Overall, American aims at renovating no less than fifteen clubs over the next few years.

American remodels and expands Flagship Lounges, adds three new locations

The four existing Flagship Lounges at Chicago O’Hare (ORD), London Heathrow (LHR), Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK) serve top-tier elites and First Class customers: they welcome American’s Executive Platinum (top-elite) customers traveling internationally, oneworld Emerald passengers (holding status on other oneworld carriers) traveling in any class of service, as well as First Class passengers traveling on American and oneworld intercontinental First Class, and American transcontinental flights with three classes of service (A321 between Los Angeles and San Francisco.) The lounges offer comfortable seating, showers, a hot and cold buffet, complimentary alcoholic beverages, and personal travel assistance.

Compared to the often busy Admirals Clubs and their basic snack selection, the Flagship Lounges are havens. Yet, they’re no match for world-class international First Class lounges and have suffered from a lack of ongoing investments and maintenance. At Los Angeles airport, for example, the contrast between the new Qantas First Lounge (operated by a fellow oneworld partner) and American’s Flagship Lounge, is striking – the latter is overdue for a renovation, with tired furniture, Bose music stations that ceased to function properly long ago, and underwhelming hot food.

American Airlines Flagship Lounge – Los Angeles, CA (LAX)

American Airlines Flagship Lounge – Los Angeles, CA (LAX)

American promises to completely revamp their Flagship Lounges with a fresh new décor, power outlets at every seat, and substantially improved catering. As per American Airlines, “behind the scenes, culinary chefs will prepare fresh, healthy food options in state-of-the-art gourmet kitchens. Buffet service will feature new selections, and the Flagship Lounge will continue to offer premium liquor, beer and wine.”

Renovations are first scheduled to occur at Chicago, Los Angeles and New York JFK airports. Furthermore, the airline intends to expand the existing lounges. Few details have surfaced yet, though at Chicago O’Hare, the airline has confirmed that the Flagship Lounge will move from its current, somewhat inconvenient location by gate K19 to the top-level of the centrally located Admirals Club complex by gates H/K, which is currently used as a conference center. The space is indeed significantly larger and currently underused, since airport meetings appear to be largely a thing of the past.

Rendering of American's new Flagship Lounge Concept | Courtesy of American Airlines

Rendering of American’s new Flagship Lounge Concept | Courtesy of American Airlines

American Airlines will also open new Flagship Lounges at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Miami (MIA) and Philadelphia (PHL). Incidentally, the airline had closed the Dallas and Miami Flagship Lounges a few years ago, and is therefore effectively reversing a former decision. At Dallas Ft. Worth (DFW), American already offers a small Flagship Dining area with an expanded buffet, though it lacks a true full-service Flagship Lounge.

The decision to invest in Flagship Lounges is significant, at a time at which other airlines are cutting First Class seats and facilities.

Delta does not offer First Class service. As for United, they recently shuttered their Global First Lounges in Los Angeles and New York, and a number of years ago, closed their First Class Lounges at Frankfurt and Paris Charles de Gaulle airports. United did however recently build a gorgeous new Global First Lounge at London Heathrow, and Paris Charles de Gaulle saw the opening of an elegant Star Alliance First Class lounge. Either way, American’s network of First Class lounges will be the most expansive compared to its direct competitors. With top-elites being granted access to Flagship Lounges, American also has the most generous access policy.

One open question is the schedule at which the airline intends to introduce the new facilities. So far, American has only released renderings, so we’re eagerly waiting for details.

American Airlines introduces a new Flagship Dining experience

At major hubs, American Airlines will be introducing a new “Flagship Dining” experience, separate from the Flagship Lounges. The restaurant-style concept, with full table side service, will feature locally sourced ingredients and a seasonal menu under the guidance of a New York based executive Chef. The restaurants will welcome passengers flying on American’s three-class international and transcontinental flights.

The renderings of the future Flagship Dining facilities have us salivating, and that’s before we even get to taste the food.

Rendering of American's Flagship Dining concept | Courtesy of American Airlines

Rendering of American’s Flagship Dining concept | Courtesy of American Airlines

The service will debut in early 2017 – that’s at least a year away – at New York JFK, prior to being expanded to Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas Ft. Worth, and possibly other gateway cities with scheduled international service. Realistically, the introduction of such a service is a complex endeavor that takes time. It’s unclear where the airline will find the necessary space and whether it will be carved out of the existing clubs. The kitchens alone require significant real estate, though they’ll most likely be shared with the Flagship Lounges.

It’s worth noting that the new restaurant-style Flagship Dining service has no connection with the current Flagship Dining room at DFW. The latter is essentially a substitute for a full-size Flagship Lounge, with only a small buffet stocked with a limited food selection.

The new service promises to significantly raise the bar and will make American Airlines’ offer unique amongst US domestic airlines. While Delta offers complimentary hot food at San Francisco and New York JFK, it falls short of delivering a true restaurant-like service. United runs a small restaurant at the Global First Lounge at London Heathrow, and offers cooked-to-order food at the Global First Lounge in Chicago, though the selection and the service in Chicago are rather limited – the offer might even be an attempt at cost cutting, since the buffet spread has seen a reduction in quantity and variety. With the new Flagship Dining service, American is truly leapfrogging past its direct competitors.

United Global First Lounge – London Heathrow (LHR)

United Global First Lounge – London Heathrow (LHR)


American Airlines grants Business Class passengers access to Flagship Lounges

With American Airlines eventually operating no less than four types of lounges, here is an overview of the access rules and the changes on the horizon:

  • The Admirals Club functions primarily on a membership basis, with annual memberships available at several price points. (As blogger Gary Leff often points out, that’s a legacy of anti-discrimination laws – a situation that American Airlines incidentally fostered when they founded the first airline lounge.) Business and First Class passengers are granted complimentary access to Admirals Clubs on the day of travel. Economy passengers may purchase one-time access coupons, though the value of a one-time pass depends heavily on the location (we would consider purchasing a pass at the Chicago H/K club, but stay clear of the Orange County, CA lounge.)
  • Flagship Lounges currently welcome American’s Executive Platinum (top-elite) customers traveling internationally, oneworld Emerald passengers (with status on other oneworld carriers) traveling in any class of service, First Class passengers traveling on American and oneworld intercontinental First Class, and First Class customers on American’s transcontinental flights with three classes of service (specifically, the A321 service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.) As of 2017, all trans-Pacific, trans- Atlantic, deep South America and Airbus 321T transcontinental customers booked in First Class and Business Class will have access to Flagship Lounges.
  • Flagship Dining will be exclusively available to American’s First Class customers traveling on three-class international and transcontinental flights.
  • The Arrivals Lounge at London Heathrow remains exclusively available to arriving premium class passengers on American, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.
American Airlines Admirals Club – San Diego, CA (SNA)

American Airlines Admirals Club – Orange County, CA (SNA)

There are interesting changes afoot.

The availability of Flagship Lounges to Business Class passengers as of 2017 is a significant change, which underscores the need for more spacious facilities. It also hints at the fact that the gap between Business Class and First Class is continuing to close: with First Class cabins shrinking and the advent of Premium Economy, American is expanding the value and appeal of Business Class and finding a creative way to differentiate their product, when virtually all airlines now offer flat beds on board. First Class is turning into a limited offering on specific high-yield routes, though the airline has other opportunities to offer elevated ground services to First Class passengers, namely through private car transfers.

With Business Class passengers soon enjoying access to Flagship Lounges, it’s also tempting to assume that American Airlines has no plans to improve catering at Admirals Clubs. This would put the airline on a different path than Delta and United, who are both further investing in food and beverages at their membership lounges.

Snacks at the Admirals Club

Admirals Club snacks

American’s announcement also makes no mention of access to Flagship Dining for top-elites (either Executive Platinums or oneworld Emerald members.) The service will be exclusively available to passengers who have purchased (or redeemed) a ticket. In other words, cash trumps loyalty, though top-elites will still benefit from truly improved Flagship Lounges.

Perhaps there is a silver lining to American’s evolving model: if you want a truly premium product, you have to pay for it. North American airlines have long been blamed for providing sub-par lounge products, compared to their European and Asian counterparts. As it turns out, with the exception of Australian airlines, they’re also the only ones who sell club memberships. Of course, there are other factors at play – including relatively higher salaries and cultural differences – but at $500 a year, a membership amounts to a few dollars per lounge visit for a pretty frequent traveler, which simply does not cover the cost of a meal. The equation is even less favorable when one factors in the discounts that are offered to elite members, and the option to invite one or more guests.

In comparison, a highly regarded airline such as Germany’s Lufthansa, which operates a large worldwide lounge network with complimentary hot food and quality services, functions more like American seems to aspire to: they don’t sell lounge access, but they offer a solid product to Business Class passengers (Business Lounges) and a slightly enhanced product to top-elites and First Class passengers (Senator Lounges.)

American Airlines Admirals Club – San Francisco, CA (SFO)

American Airlines Admirals Club – San Francisco, CA (SFO)

No matter what the silver lining may be, American’s roadmap is truly exciting. The changes are bound to be a marked enhancement over the current experience, with American leapfrogging its direct competitors on the ground services front.

Many details are still lacking, and implementation is over a year away as far as Flagship Dining is concerned, so there is still room for change and possibly for other airlines to respond. But American’s announcement is truly a milestone in the history of the airline that pioneered the airline lounge.

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