One afternoon early this summer, I visited the American Express (Amex) Centurion Lounge in Miami before a flight to Dallas. While there, I enjoyed a 15-minute hand massage, dined on a meal of white bean soup and couscous with roasted chicken and downed two specialty cocktails, one featuring a tropical tequila mix, the other rum with smoky flavors.
And like everyone else who gained entry to the lounge that day, all those services were free, save the masseuse's tip.
"Our overall goal is ensuring our customers have a haven to go to while traveling," Rosie Parra, the lounge's manager, explained to me that day. "We want these lounges to feel like a destination."
The Centurion Lounge program, which Amex began in late 2013 at Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), now also includes lounges at New York LaGuardia, Houston Bush Intercontinental, San Francisco and Seattle as well as Miami.
American Express launched its Centurion Lounge program in 2013. Its Miami Airport lounge includes a high-end bar with all drinks on the house; free massages in its spa; and a business center. Photo Credit: TW photo by Robert Silk
And the quality of the lounges' offerings, say industry experts, was the catalyst that led to what is now an ongoing and widespread transformation of the U.S. airport lounge industry.
"There is an arms race in the quality of lounges, and it was set off not by an airline but by American Express," said Brian Karmizad, director of the website Milecards.com, a website that offers advice on airline loyalty programs.
Hot meals, better liquor offerings and more stylish interiors were among the improvements, he said.
Since the launch of that DFW Centurion Lounge, the Big Three U.S. airlines have all embarked on ambitious lounge-overhaul programs, while new independent players have also begun moving into the U.S. airport lounge space.
American Airlines has embarked on $200 million worth of work to upgrade its entire network of 60 lounges.
In March of 2014, Delta turned to the hospitality industry's Claude Roussel, a longtime operations director with the China Grill restaurant chain, to head up an overhaul of all 54 of the carrier's Sky Club lounges.
And last year, United embarked on a $260 million multiyear program to refresh or in some cases completely overhaul its 52 United Clubs.
Meanwhile, American and United have launched or reimagined separate lounge lines for international business and first-class travelers, called the Flagship and Polaris lounges, respectively, and Delta is planning a differentiated offering for its Delta One business-class customers, as well.
"In everything, you have to stay up with the competition," Roussel said of Delta's entire lounge overhaul program. "If you look at the customer-care industry -- if you look at any industry -- if you do not get better, you fall behind."
Delta and its U.S. mainline competitors are, of course, also competing against international airlines. In addition, they partner as well as compete with new offerings from the airline alliances, such as the well-received Oneworld and Star international lounges in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles Airport (LAX).
Daily-fee and shared-use lounges have also joined the fray. Airport Lounge Development (ALD), which opened its first U.S. lounge at DFW in 2006, has now opened 15 lounges in 11 U.S. airports under the name The Club.
Escape Lounges operates spaces at Oakland, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; and Minneapolis, with a Reno, Nev., lounge coming in the winter.
Chicago O'Hare has an outlet of the U.K.-based Swiss-port, and at Cleveland, San Diego and New York Kennedy customers can pay a daily fee of just $20 to $25 to access Airspace lounges.
"It's a lot easier for customers now to be able to choose a club experience without having to commit to a particular airline," said ALD senior vice president Nancy Knipp.
The Club Lounge at San Jose Airport features an expansive seating area as well as a shower and an area to freshen up.
One reason that choosing a club has gotten easier is the app Lounge Buddy, which enables flyers to locate and purchase access to roughly 300 airport lounges worldwide.
Many regular travelers are also taking advantage of the Priority Pass, which offers access to more than 1,000 lounges worldwide. Priority Pass can be purchased for as little as $99 annually, though many users get the pass through their credit card.
Knipp said that in the fiscal year that ended in April, business at The Club lounges was up 70%, with the majority of usage driven by Priority Pass. In fact, the number of Priority Pass customers at The Club lounges increased by 86%, she said.
The Club lounges vary, but the one I went to in Orlando featured free drinks, a buffet of light appetizers, comfortable seating and friendly service.
ALD hasn't finalized any future lounge locations yet, but Knipp described its growth plans as "very aggressive."
The same could be said of Escape, which has set a goal of having 20 lounges by 2020, said Rosie Andolino, the CEO of Escape's parent, Mag USA. For $45 at the door, Escape customers get access to a hot and cold buffet of what Andolino calls "heavy hors d'oeuvres," such as salmon and locally inspired soups and salads.
They also get free drinks and are treated to a variety of seating options, including couches.
"It's not just the business traveler," Andolino said of Escape's core customer base. "We get leisure travelers, people just looking to get a separation from the airport environment."
Tyler Dikman, co-founder of LoungeBuddy, said that despite the growth of shared-use lounges, the U.S. remains an anomaly compared with worldwide lounge industry norms. In other countries, mixed-use lounges are more common.
Dikman said that investments in the U.S. airport lounge network were much needed.
"If you look at lounges around the world, the standard for U.S. lounges is typically lower," he said. "So I think what American is doing with Flagship and Delta generally is doing with a lot of its lounges is making their lounge product a more globally competitive service."
The Escape Lounge at Hartford’s Bradley Airport.
Among foreign carrier lounges within the U.S., LoungeBuddy ranks New York JFK's Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse as its favorite. "That lounge is just downright sexy," Dikman said.
"I am not a cool person, and I feel cool being in that space."
But the app's website actually ranks the full network of Centurion Lounges ahead of the Virgin Atlantic space.
Dikman said that to some degree, Centurion Lounges have become a victim of their own success. The lounges, with their high-quality food and drinks, their showers and spas and their comfortable furnishings, have become a draw for any holder of the Amex Platinum and Centurion cards. But that has made them overcrowded at times.
"What happens when you offer something that is so much better than everybody else?" Dikman asked rhetorically. "People will go out of their way to go there. I'll plan a flight around a Centurion if I can."
Executives at United, American and Delta surely aspire to arouse similar sentiments from flyers. To wit, each carrier has already undertaken substantial improvements to the food offerings in its larger lounge lines: Admirals Club for American, Delta Sky Club and United Club. Individuals generally gain admittance to such lounges through credit card programs by paying for annual memberships, by holding elite loyalty status with the airline or by holding first- or business class tickets on international or transcontinental flights. In some cases, day passes are also available for a fee.
American, for example, began updating the food and beverage program for Admirals Clubs in 2014 and 2015, said Nick Richards, the carrier's director of premium services and customer experience. Since then, they've added complimentary offerings such as bagels, hard-boiled eggs and fruit for breakfast. They've also added salads, improved the coffee machines and begun offering hot soups. (I recently enjoyed a tasty churrasco soup at a remodeled Admirals Club in Miami.)
Previously, Richards said, customers would likely have encountered more limited free offerings, such as snack mix, fruit and perhaps carrots and dip.
Last year, United entered an agreement with the Paris-based food services powerhouse Sodexo to operate its lounges worldwide. Todd Traynor-Corey, United's managing director of hospitality planning and experience, said Sodexo has expanded United Club food offerings, including introducing hot food in two Chicago United Clubs.
In its Sky Clubs, Roussel said, Delta has improved its complimentary beer, wine and liquor offerings, generally including a local beer on that list.
They've also lowered the price of premium liquors and made such purchases available via SkyMiles points.
On the food end, Sky Club lounges are offering a larger variety of healthful options. By summer's end, Delta will have introduced to a dozen clubs a build-your-own option called the Sky Bowl, whereby guests pick their choices of greens, starches and proteins. Every club has two soups, and a few of the larger clubs have hot food.
"We attempt with great pain to get into local fare," Roussel said. "We attempt to bring regional touches for each of the lounges we are in."
Other enhancements at Sky Clubs include curated art collections and improved furnishings.
At the new Sky Club in Atlanta's Concourse B, Delta offers a global wine selection that customers can enjoy with the help of a state-of-the-art self-service wine-dispensing system.
The luxurious new Delta Sky Club, which opened last October at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle.
The Seattle Sky Club, which opened last October, offers broad spaces, expansive views of Mount Rainier and massages at the Asanda Spa.
United opened a new United Club at Houston Bush Intercontinental this year, reopened its Terminal A Newark lounge after a full-scale gutting and renovation and upgraded its Orlando United Club. Refurbished lounges at DFW and Fort Lauderdale will open early next year.
Traynor-Corey said, "We're really designing the lounges to make sure that they have the right number of seats and the right types of seats to meet that local demand."
For example, he said, the DFW United Club might get counter seating since it will often be frequented by solo business travelers. On the other hand, more family-oriented United Club locales will see a proportionally larger selection of tables and lounge seating.
American added Admirals Club lounges at Orlando and Houston this year and renovated its Toronto lounge. In late 2016, the carrier completed a renovation and expansion of one of two clubs at Miami Airport.
Along with improvements in the food offerings, upgrades at clubs also include enhancements to decor and amenities. At the renovated Miami club, guests will now find a children's room, three showers, bigger rest rooms and an enlarged bar.
The upgraded bar and dining area at the newly remodeled Admirals Club at Miami Airport.
International flyers only
In May, American also marked the transformation of its Flagship Lounge program with the opening of the renovated Flagship Lounge at New York JFK. The JFK lounge -- as well as Flagships under renovation at LAX, Chicago O'Hare and London Heathrow -- will admit international, business-class ticket holders going forward, along with the first-class, international ticket holders they historically have admitted.
In addition, new Flagship lounges are to be opened at Miami, DFW and Philadelphia. All are scheduled to be operational by the end of 2018.
The JFK lounge houses American's inaugural Flagship First Dining, in which first-class passengers can order a free, locally inspired, full-service meal.
The goal of the meal service, American's Richards said, is to enable travelers to dine on their own time so they can spend more time doing other things while in the air. The lounges at DFW, Miami and LAX will also offer the meal service.
"People are getting to [JFK] early just to enjoy it," Richards said. "The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive."
The elegant layout of the remodeled JFK Flagship Lounge.
Not to be outdone, United is also rebranding and updating its lounges for international, premium-class ticket holders. The company is phasing out Global First lounges and replacing them with Polaris lounges. The first Polaris Lounge, which shares a name with United's new Polaris international, business-class cabin, opened at O'Hare last fall. Polaris lounges are also slated to open at Houston, Newark, San Francisco, Washington Dulles, LAX, Heathrow, Tokyo Narita and Hong Kong over the next 18 months, Traynor-Corey said.
Among the offerings at the O'Hare Polaris Lounge are private relaxation suites complete with day beds as well as shower suites equipped with rainfall shower heads. The lounge also offers restaurant-style dining from a menu developed by Art Smith, a James Beard Award-winning chef.
Delta, for now, doesn't have a lounge product that caters exclusively to international, premium-class ticket holders, but that could change soon.
"Delta is exploring a differentiated food and beverage offering at a JFK Delta Sky Club as early as next spring for guests flying in the Delta One cabin," Roussel said.
Los Angeles flyers could also see a differentiated product for Delta One customers further down the road, he said.