Not business class, but still travelling like a boss

Not business class, but still travelling like a boss

A server waits on a customer at the Club at ATL at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta
Raymond McCrea Jones/The New York Times

Atlanta:  There is a new club in this city often referred to as the ATL. Somehow, despite the abundance of clubs, the name its proprietors chose was unclaimed: the Club at ATL.

Yet it is hardly the latest hangout at Midtown or Buckhead or other night-life magnets. It usually borders on library-quiet and closes at 9:30 p.m. The $35 cover charge may seem steep, but food and drink are included. The drinks are dished out at a long, curved bar by an actual barkeeper.

Patrons pass through tighter security than at any club they have probably ever frequented.

The club, which opened six weeks ago, sits just beyond the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at an international concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. It is a passenger lounge little different from the major airlines lounges that are geared toward their faithful fliers.

What distinguishes the Club at ATL and a handful of others in the United States is that they operate independently from an airline. The clientele they woo is anyone willing to pay for a day pass.

"It's a democratisation of the lounge," said Chris McGinnis, editor of The Ticket, a blog that caters to frequent travellers. "It opens up the lounge to someone of lesser means."

The two concepts, however, are not distinct. The Club at ATL maintains an arrangement with two foreign-based airlines to admit their passengers who hold business- or first-class tickets.

Also, some airline clubs offer day passes to non-members of their frequent flier programs or even to those without a ticket on one of their planes. Delta, whose newest of several lounges at Hartsfield-Jackson sits next door to the Club at ATL, charges $50 to all comers.

Still, most customers at the airline-run clubs pay an annual fee.

"For folks who don't travel that frequently, it's a big investment to make," McGinnis said. He views the unaffiliated sites as "a great idea for someone who doesn't want to make the investment in membership for lounge access."

Atlanta's autonomous club is administered by Airport Lounge Development of Plano, Texas, a company created in 2006 strictly to run a club at Dallas-Fort Worth International. Four years later, partly inspired by similar lounges in Europe and Asia, where they are far more common, the company looked to grow beyond Texas. It now has clubs at airports in Las Vegas, San Jose, Calif., and Raleigh, N.C.

Graham Richards, Airport Lounge Development's director of operations, said the market for independent clubs was ripe. Major airline mergers have curbed the growth of traditional lounges, and airports are seeking new ways to generate revenue. Airports build the clubs and collect rent from the lounge company along with a portion of fees.

Further, Richards said, airlines "increasingly are asking, Do we really need to be investing all this capital in a lounge?"

Richards indicated that Airport Lounge Development intends to announce more locations soon. Potential sites are limited by the need for significant passenger traffic and available room. The fit is easier at airports undergoing renovation or expansion.

The average daily customer count at Hartsfield-Jackson lounges is 150 to 160, many of whom enter free of charge by flashing their higher-price tickets on British Airways or Lufthansa or their membership cards to Priority Pass, a global lounge access program, or the Diners Club. ALD also provides long-term enrollment.

A makeshift wall divides seats, 172 in all, between the main area and a "quiet zone," where
soft lavender lighting sets the mood.

Visitors can sink into round grey chairs and find an electrical outlet within arm's length almost anywhere.

A continental breakfast, ready when doors open at 5:30 a.m., gives way to a lunch and dinner of soup, sandwiches, salads and snacks. A bartender begins pouring and stirring in mid-morning and declares last call just before 9:30 p.m.

Other amenities include Wi-Fi, a business centre, showers (with a generous 30-minute time limit) and a wide-angle view of departing and arriving planes and Atlanta's skyline.

The Club at ATL stacks up competitively with its neighbouring lounge, though only Delta can promote an outdoor terrace.

Richards acknowledges that some fliers will consider the fee steep, but he points out that a restaurant or bar tab and the cost of Internet access might not amount to substantially less.

The Club at ATL is in the most distant of seven concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson, convenient for international passengers but out of the way for many domestic fliers. But a few customers have journeyed up to 20 minutes on the airport tram.

Comments from a dozen club visitors were generally positive, an exception being a young man, Alex Welcker, who was headed home to Cologne, Germany. He thought the décor was tacky and cramped, and he gave it a grade of 6 on a 1-to-10 scale. His mother, Nikki Welcker, easier to please while acknowledging having been spoiled by lounges in Europe, rated it an 8, prompting Alex to raise his assessment.

"The people here are very nice," he decided. "That's the most important thing."

Sarah Booker of Amelia Island, Fla., said, "It's definitely worth it if you are going to be in the airport a while."

Her traveling companion, Lynann Mullis, from the same town, found nothing to quibble about, aside from wishing for something on which to prop up her feet.

Jonathan Kirkland of Panama City, Fla., a seasoned traveller, said the lounge was "on par with some of the better clubs in the United States." He cited its spaciousness and service.

An industry analyst who once oversaw lounge operations for airlines as an employee suggested that the viability of independent clubs hinged on their ability to hook up with affinity partners, chiefly credit card and other loyalty programs.

Merely collecting fees for day passes might not suffice. The clubs occupy "expensive real estate" at airports, said Robert Mann of Port Washington, N.Y. "It is scarce real estate."

Among Airport Lounge Development's long-range ambitions is persuading airlines to hand off operations of some of their lounges to the company.

In Delta's case, that is unlikely, according to a spokeswoman, Leslie Scott. She said the airline would be reluctant to forgo having its own staff on hand for services like changing flights or seat numbers for its passengers.

Mann does not anticipate a wave of outsourcing by carriers, saying they value clubs more for their help in attracting people to become passengers than as profit centres.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: August 27, 2013 07:56 IST

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