Craft beer and USB ports: Airlines upgrade clubs to lure customers

A rendering of a remodeled American Airlines’ Admirals Club
A rendering of a remodeled American Airlines’ Admirals Club Courtesy of American Airlines

The exclusive feel of domestic airline clubs has taken a hit over the last decade. They are more crowded, and the free premium cocktails have been disappearing. Free Wi-Fi is no longer even a draw because it is available in many airport terminals.

But with bankruptcies and mergers in their rearview mirrors and low fuel prices helping profits, airline clubs in the United States are getting an upgrade. Domestic airlines are reinvesting in the customer experience, especially for their biggest spenders, who are willing to pay extra to escape terminals for their own power outlets and comfy chairs.

That’s the case at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where American Airlines is refurbishing its Admirals Clubs, and upgrade include updated furnishings, new lighting, improved power access and a new design.

Catering to high-end customers is a major goal for airlines, said Mike Oshins, a hospitality management professor at Boston University. He noted that airlines have restructured rewards programs to benefit their biggest spenders and have improved the seating in the front of planes.

On a plane with a fixed number of seats, airlines want to cater to the passengers who paid the most to be there because they offer the most profit, he said. The companies use their lounges to make the overall experience better, aiming to increase customer loyalty and attract fliers away from the competition.

“Airlines are flush with profits from continued low oil prices. Now is the time to reinvest in improvements,” Oshins said. “The ambience, service and amenities of the airport lounge is a tangible representation of the luxury service of the airline, and one area to focus on after some neglect.”

Jamie Larounis, who manages the travel blogging website, said that in the past 10 years, co-marketing partnerships had brought more fliers into lounges. And as they became more crowded, he added, the quality of the free food and liquor declined.

Fliers are looking forward to the improvements. Ben Brooks, chief executive of Pilot, a Manhattan coaching startup company, flies often and carries a variety of credit cards to be able to get into different airline clubs.

“Many have gotten dumpy and overcrowded,” he said. Recently at a club at Newark Airport in New Jersey, he said, “There was a long line for food and nowhere to sit. The general terminal was more serene.”

Clubs for American Airlines had not had significant upgrades in more than 10 years, said Casey Norton, the airline’s director of corporate communications. But beginning about a year ago, the company started improvements that will reach its more than 50 Admiral’s Clubs.

Fifteen locations will have major renovations, and the rest will receive updates like new carpets, modern furniture and additional power outlets. All will feature better food selections like soups and salads, rather than just snacks and cookies. The airlines’ more upscale Flagship clubs will also be expanded and redecorated.

“We’re spending $3 billion to improve the customer experience, and clubs are an important part of that,” Norton said. He did not specify the amount going to refurbish clubs but said competitive pressures had spurred the upgrades.

Delta Air Lines started reinvesting two years ago to update its 50 Delta Sky Clubs around the world, 47 of which are in the United States. The changes include redesigned food displays, relaxing background music and a signature scent in the lobby, said Marc Ferguson, general manager of the Delta Sky Club Experience, who is helping re-imagine the lounges.

Food choices are a top customer concern, said Claude Roussel, managing director of Sky Club. He said Delta was moving toward hiring local food suppliers and adding kitchen facilities. New features like toppings bars for soups, yogurts and breads are being introduced. Menus will be rotated more frequently, recognizing that many customers visit a club multiple times in a month, he said.

Delta is also trying to add some hometown flair, using local artists or themed art, as well as local craft beers to add individuality to the clubs. Renovated clubs reopened recently in Dallas and Nashville, Tennessee; Newark and Raleigh, North Carolina, are next on the schedule. A new club opened in San Francisco last fall to be followed this year by Atlanta, Denver and Seattle.

“We’re in a place where we can reinvest in the customer experience from ticket purchase to arrival at the destination,” said Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman. The Observer contributed.