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Keith Alexander

Is the Airline Terminal Club Still Viable?

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page E01

For nearly 20 years, Mary Duffy led a pampered life when she traveled, thanks to her memberships in exclusive airport clubs. Behind the polished wooden doors of the club, a hostess would greet Duffy by name, hand her a complimentary latté and usher her to the nearest leather sofa.

Life for airport club members such as Duffy was full of amenities: well-appointed lounges, attentive customer service and free drinks and snacks. The clubs provided jet-setting celebrities, dignitaries and top corporate executives a quiet refuge from other airline passengers and a space for meeting clients.

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Those plush airport clubs began to lose their appeal after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Duffy frequently found herself stuck in long security lines and often had to rush through concourses just to catch her flight, leaving little time to relax in the club. And because of heightened security, Duffy could no longer hold meetings with clients in the clubs as she once did. So she began renting meeting rooms or suites at nearby hotels.

"After having waited on line for 45 minutes in security, by that time, I am not interested in going into the club and getting coffee and finding a place to sit before I have to get up and walk to the end of terminal," said Duffy, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif.

Two years ago, Duffy dropped her 12-year membership with American Airlines' Admirals Club and her membership with United Airlines' Red Carpet Club, joining thousands of other elite travelers who are deciding not to renew.

Now, as the airline industry grapples with cutting costs, carriers are considering closing the clubs just as they have closed downtown ticket offices.

In shutting those exclusive clubs, the airlines find themselves in a difficult position. Do they continue to keep them opened and staffed at a time when many business travelers are opting away from the pricey clubs, where memberships can range in price from $275 to $500 a year. But if the airlines don't maintain the clubs, they run the risk of alienating some of their best and most loyal customers. In fact, some travelers say the clubs are the one advantage that traditional airlines still offer over their low-cost rivals.

Bob Johnson, a Mystic Island, N.J., sales trainer, said he recently renewed his $300 membership with US Airways so he could use the club when he travels to Los Angeles on his business. But US Airways closed that club on Saturday, along with its clubs in San Francisco and West Palm Beach, Fla.

"What's my incentive to fly them now? I might as well fly one of the low-cost airlines," Johnson said.

As part of its cost cutting, Arlington-based US Airways has closed more clubs than any other major airline. US Airways now operates 16 clubs at 13 airports, down from 25 clubs at 21 airports in April 2001.

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