The Banks, Airport Clubs
and Today's Travel Reality
THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2021 -- Chase and Capital One have decided they need to open airport lounges to compete with American Express' network of Centurion Lounges, an odd turn of events considering Amex never wanted to be in the airport club game.

When American Express was designing the Platinum Card in the early 1980s, Russell Hogg and his team were hoping to partner with every U.S. airline club network to create the card's lounge-access amenity. When Platinum debuted in 1984, however, only a few airlines were game and Hogg, by then president of MasterCard, predicted Amex would have to create its own lounges to justify the card's then-stratospheric $250 annual fee. Preposterous, countered Debra Isenberg, the executive in charge of Platinum's launch. Amex Platinum, she explained, was about personal service, not real estate.

A lot of things change in a generation, of course, but not Amex's anti-club rhetoric. Even after the first Centurion Lounge opened in Las Vegas in 2013, American Express explicitly denied any interest in airport clubs. "We're not getting into the airport lounge business," American Express vice president Stephen Selwood insisted.

But rhetoric and reality are different things. Amex now operates 14 highly regarded Centurion Lounges in the United States and Hong Kong and about a dozen other American Express branded airport clubs elsewhere in the world. New clubs are on the way at London/Heathrow and Washington/National and Amex is seeking other airport locations. The Centurion Lounge and Platinum's 1,300-strong network of affiliated clubs is so ingrained in the value proposition of the card--which now costs $550 a year--that Amex had to scramble to offer replacement benefits last year when the pandemic hit and its lounges closed.

We need not delve too deeply into the why of all this. The reason banks are getting savvy about airport clubs is obvious: Travelers--especially business flyers--are big spenders and among the card issuers' most profitable customers. The real question is why Chase and Capital One waited so long to get into the airport-lounge game.

The answer? Logistics, according to one top bank executive I spoke to last month. "Airports used to all but give away the space for lounges," she noted. "It was usually square footage tucked away in corners where there was no foot traffic and little chance for retail action. But now lounges are big business and rents are insane."

Chase has learned that lesson as it makes plans to open its first Sapphire Lounge in the Terminal B/C Connector at Boston/Logan Airport. The buy-in? A capital investment of more than $20 million to build and maintain the 12,000-square-foot space. The 12-year lease requires an upfront payment of $18 million and a total commitment of nearly $65 million.

Chase beat out Amex and others for the rights to build the Logan club, but those devilish logistics and eye-watering costs were too risky to take on alone. Instead, Chase partnered with The Collinson Group of England, which operates
The Club network of lounges and Priority Pass.

Chase's arrival on the club scene will be delayed, however. Logan's Terminal B/C Connector is under construction and work on the Sapphire Lounge won't even start until next year. It means Capital One will land first, with a 10,000-square-foot lounge in Terminal D near Gate D22 at Dallas/Fort Worth this summer. A second Capital One facility, in the old control tower at Washington/Dulles, is due in 2022 after initial plans to open this year were foiled by the pandemic.

Capital One isn't going it alone, either. For the DFW lounge, it is partnering with Hong Kong-based Plaza Premium, which operates nearly 200 airport clubs around the world. (The first Plaza Premium lounge at a U.S. airport opened last September in Terminal E at DFW.) For the Dulles lounge, Capital One's partner is TAV Airports, a Turkish firm best known for its Primeclass Lounges.

I'll spare you the hype about what the Chase and Capital One clubs claim they'll offer. Artist renderings and PR promises rarely stack up to the prosaic and sometimes dreary reality of airport clubs. Suffice it to say that there'll be food, WiFi, comfy seats, bars and maybe a new wrinkle or two. Let's wait and see, though. And it would be helpful if Chase and Capital One actually explained what their entry policies will be. It seems the Capital One lounges will have a pay-to-play model and the bank's cardholders will receive discounted entry. We know even less about Chase's admittance plans.

But time, tides and travelers wait for no banks. As flying has inched back this year, the club landscape is changing dramatically. Here are some of the more interesting developments:
        American Express will further restrict admission privileges to Centurion Lounges. Beginning on February 1, 2023, most Platinum cardholders won't be able to bring guests into Centurion Lounges free of charge. Unless you spend at least $75,000 on the card, guests will cost $50 each. At the moment, Platinum cardholders can bring two guests for free. Separately, Amex closed its cursed Centurion club at LAX. Delayed for years, the lounge finally opened on March 9, 2020, just weeks before Amex closed all clubs due to the Coronavirus. Now that Centurion Lounges are open again, Amex abruptly closed the LAX location on Monday for unspecified "building repairs." Don't expect to see it open again before the end of the year.
        American Airlines says all its Admirals Clubs will reopen by August. The exception: Honolulu, a joint operation with Japan Airlines. The carrier's Flagship lounges reopen starting in September. The exception is Philadelphia, odd considering PHL is now American's primary hub to Europe. In contrast, many United Clubs remain shuttered and United has refused to say when any of its Polaris lounges will reopen. Delta Air Lines says all of its Sky Clubs will reopen by the summer.
        Plaza Premium is adding 13 new lounges via a rebranding of the Menzies clubs in South Africa, New Zealand and Scandinavia. Why is this relevant? Plaza Premium ended its deal with Priority Pass and most of its clubs won't be accessible with that card after June 30. That won't affect Amex Platinum cardholders because Plaza Premium recently cut a separate deal with Amex. But it is a blow to flyers who get Priority Pass via their Chase Sapphire Reserve card. On the other hand, Amex Platinum does not include the airport restaurant benefit offered by Priority Pass. Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can take advantage of the restaurant credits via their Priority Pass membership.