January 21, 2004 -- As our troops continue to fight and die in Iraq, two airlines have stepped up to give soldiers on R&R leave a truly first-class welcome back to the USA.
For the duration of US operations in Iraq, Delta and American Airlines have opened the doors of their airport clubs to military traveling on R&R leave from Operation Iraqi Freedom. Normally closed to everyone except business class, first class, and elite fliers, airport clubs totally transform the experience of waiting for a flight. You can sit in comfy chairs, read magazines, sip free alcoholic drinks, check your e-mail, watch the news, and have an attendant tell you when it's time to head out for your flight.
You don't have to actually be going to or from Iraq to take advantage of the clubs. For Delta's deal, you just have to be wielding leave papers that say "Operation Iraqi Freedom" somewhere on them. Armed with those papers, feel free to march into any Crown Room Club and show them to the attendant, and you'll be feted like a first-class flier. You don't even have to be traveling on Delta.
American's requirements are similar. You must show leave forms marked "Operation Iraqi Freedom" or "Operation Enduring Freedom," be wearing a desert camouflage travel uniform or be traveling on a military charter from Kuwait. There's one catch to American's generosity, though: if there's a nearby USO facility, club attendants may direct you there. (Of course, you can always just duck into a nearby Delta club as well.)
At the moment, Delta has 41 Crown Room Clubs -- most importantly for soldiers, they have clubs in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas and Frankfurt. Military folk are also welcome in the clubs in Boston, Chicago O'Hare, Cincinnati , Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Kansas City, London Gatwick, Los Angeles, Miami, Munich, Nashville, New York JFK, New York LaGuardia, New Orleans, Newark, Orlando, Phoenix, Raleigh Durham, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, San Juan, Tampa, Santiago, Washington Reagan National and West Palm Beach.
American's 38 clubs include Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas and Frankfurt, as well, but also Austin, Bogota, Boston, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Miami, New York Kennedy, New York LaGuardia, Newark, Orange County, Panama City, Paris, Raleigh-Durham, Rio De Janeiro, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, San Juan, Santiago, Santo Domingo, S?Paulo, Seattle, St. Louis, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington Dulles, and Washington Reagan.
We give kudos to Delta and American for giving our military the respect they deserve -- and we hope to see other airlines following their examples.
Wanna Feel Like a Soldier? Get the Pass
If you're neither an elite flier nor an elite defender of our nation, you'd generally have to shell out $400-$600 per year to get access to a set of airline clubs. But there's a better deal for budget travelers: Priority Pass, (www.prioritypass.com), an independent operator that has made deals with more than 450 lounges, including 29 of the 30 world's busiest airports. (The only airport Priority Pass is missing is Tokyo's Haneda domestic airport, which isn't much-used by non-Japanese.) More than 800,000 members currently use Priority Pass's services, according to PP president Terry Evans.
Priority Pass offers three levels of service. For $99 per year, you can get an "a la carte"-type membership where you pay $24 per club visit. A membership with 10 club visits built-in costs $249 a year. For $399, you can get unlimited use of all 450 clubs.
The down side: although Priority Pass offers clubs at each airport, they may not necessarily be in the terminal you're flying from. Within the US and Canada, Priority Pass has deals with America West, United, US Airways and Air Canada to give access to their lounges. But the Priority Pass club at New York's JFK airport is in Terminal 1 -- great if you're flying Air France or Lufthansa, but not as convenient if you're flying British Airways, American or JetBlue. They may also not be the largest clubs, or the ones with Wi-Fi. And Priority Pass may not be a good choice for families -- while most airline club memberships allow you to bring in your immediate family for free, Priority Pass will charge you $24 per extra person. But if you're a single, itinerant traveler who's faithful to no single airline, PriorityPass is the best of all possible worlds.
Otherwise, United and Continental both have compelling clubs, for different reasons. United (www.ual.com/page/middlepage/0,1454,1108,00.html) has a reciprocity arrangement with 17 other airlines, including Delta, US Airways and 15 international carriers, giving you access to a particularly wide range of clubs. But you'll pay a painful $500/year for the privilege if you're not a United elite flier.
Continental (www.continental.com/travel/airport/lounge/default.asp) offers low rates ($375/year plus a $50 initiation fee) and a pretty good selection of lounges, allowing you to hang out in Continental, Delta, Northwest, Alaska and 29 international club rooms as long as you're flying on the appropriate carrier. But they're not as comprehensive as United or Priority Pass.
Sure, club memberships are expensive. But they're a heck of a lot cheaper than business class tickets. If you feel like you spend far too much time in airports, joining a club can turn an ordeal into a civilized pleasure.