The three major US airlines devalue airport lounge memberships

The similarities between the three US heavyweights—American, Delta, United—are remarkable. In a stunning display of lack of creativity, all three carriers recently announced changes to airport club membership pricing and access rules.

The changes impact how customers who purchase memberships or one-time passes. There are no changes for elite status customers, or Business and First Class passengers.

At the crux of the issue is lounge crowding: airlines and independent operators are dealing with record affluence. The once-exclusive lounge experience has become all but mainstream.

Airline lounges are more crowded than ever

Today’s typical airport lounge experience is a far cry from what American Airlines envisioned back in 1939 when the carrier launched the first club ever at New York LaGuardia Airport. Initially intended as private havens for the lucky few and designed with the allure and flair of gentlemen’s clubs, airport lounges have become more accessible than ever. Modern lounges cater to the whole family, and finding a seat has occasionally become a challenge.

Membership schemes, generous guest policies, and one-time access passes have led to a steady increase in traffic. Lounge memberships are only available in the United States and Australia. In the US, memberships were created in response to the allegation that airline clubs were discriminating against customers. They were essentially a way to ensure that anybody, regardless of race or origin, could access airport clubs.

Admirals Club 1939 (First recorded airport lounge in the world) – Image from Jet Set Times. All rights reserved.

While priced at $500 and up a year for non-status passengers, memberships costs dip into the $400 range for ultra-frequent flyers, representing a solid value for road warriors. At the rate of a round-trip a week with a connection or a travel companion, memberships bring the cost of a lounge visit down to less than $2—less than a price of a coffee at any US airport.

The popularity of premium credit cards bundled with club memberships is also growing steadily, fueled by a competitive banking industry and finely-tuned marketing strategies. American Airlines has partnered with Citi to offer the AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. Delta has a long-standing relationship with American Express; the Platinum card includes access to Delta SkyClubs when flying Delta. The United Club card, issued by Chase, includes a full United Club membership.

Memberships, whether standalone or bundled with a credit card, are here to stay. Traditional memberships still represent a revenue stream for airlines, while credit card partnerships are increasingly critical to the bottom line. But pricing is increasing steadily, while associated benefits, such as guest privileges and flexible access, are starting to erode.

Admirals Club membership price increase and access changes

As of February 1, 2019, American Airlines is increasing the cost of Admirals Club memberships across the board. Individual memberships will see a $100 hike, while household memberships will cost a steep additional $325.

On the brighter side, the cost of an individual membership in miles will decrease by 10,000 to 20,000 miles depending on AAdvantage status, though paying with miles remains a poor value overall.

As of November 1, 2019, a same-day boarding pass for a flight operated by American Airlines or a partner airline will be required to enter Admirals Clubs. Previously, club members could enter at any time—even when flying on a competitor.

What’s not changing:

  • American Airlines will still offer one-day passes at $59 (with some exceptions for lounges under construction, where capacity is severely restricted.)
  • The guest policy is not changing.
American Airlines Admirals Club - Chicago O'Hare (ORD) gate G8

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

Delta SkyClub membership price increase and access changes

Effective immediately, Delta will no longer sell one-time passes (previously available at $59 or 5,000 SkyMiles.) Existing passes remain valid through their expiration date.

As January 1, 2019, Sky Club membership annual rates will increase. Individual memberships jump from $495 to $545 (or 54,500 SkyMiles), while annual executive memberships will cost $845 (up from $745), or 84,500 SkyMiles.

What’s not changing:

  • Access rules for elite and premium passengers are not changing.
  • Delta Platinum and Gold members can continue to purchase day passes for $29. They can also purchase passes for two guests, as long as they are flying Delta.
  • Access rules and guest policies for Delta Reserve card holders are not changing. Members can purchase access for two guests at $29 each, as long as they are flying Delta.
  • American Express card holders continue to enjoy the same level of access when flying Delta, and can purchase access for two guests for $29 per person.
Delta Sky Club - San Francisco, CA (SFO)

Delta Sky Club – San Francisco, CA (SFO)


United Club access changes

As of November 1, 2019, United Club members, guests, and one-time pass holders will need to present a same-day boarding pass for travel on United, Star Alliance or other airline partners in order to gain entry to a United Club. Until then, United Club members continue to enjoy lounge access as long as they present any same-day boarding pass.

What’s not changing:

  • At this time, United has not announced changes to the guest policy (two guests, or one adult plus dependents under 21)
  • The airline is continuing to sell one-time passes, and will continue to issue two passes with the popular United MileagePlus Explorer credit card.
  • United Club members continue to receive access to most Star Alliance lounges worldwide when traveling on Star Alliance member airlines, including Lufthansa Business Lounges, Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounges, and Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounges.
  • Access rules for premium customers and Star Alliance Gold members are not changing.

United’s announcement, which comes on the heels of changes by competitors American and Delta, is a remarkable statement as to the state of the airline industry in the US—carriers often make little to no attempt at differentiating their product. That said, access to hundreds of Star Alliance Lounges worldwide remains a remarkable perk, making United Club membership a valuable option for Star Alliance flyers.

United Club - Tokyo Narita (NRT)

United Club – Tokyo Narita (NRT)

Bottom line

The three major US airlines are increasing the cost of lounge memberships, eliminating access for customers flying on competing airlines, and in some cases, adjusting guest policies or eliminating one-time passes.

For road warriors who are reimbursed for the cost of their airline membership, the change is possibly positive as it may mean a more private and exclusive experience, though it remains to be seen if it will make a tangible impact.

For everybody else, the changes are mostly negative. The shift further increases the value of airline-affiliated premium credit cards, which have become by far the most cost-effective way to obtain a membership. Cards bundled with Priority Pass offer a possibly even better value: the Priority Pass network includes over 1,000 airport lounges worldwide, with complimentary guest access.

Featured photo: Delta SkyClub – Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) Concourse A

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