Delta’s clubs get new look

Lounges are being updated to entice younger travelers.

On a recent day in the Delta Sky Club at gate A17 of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, several dozen travelers passed the time using complimentary Wi-Fi, watching big-screen TVs or sipping no-cost cocktails.

They were among the 55,000 people a month who use this bi-level hub of activity, the busiest of Delta’s 53 airport lounges worldwide. It is so busy that renovation work — part of the airline’s push to revamp its clubs nationwide — can only be done after hours when a shutdown won’t turn away travelers.

“A17 is my favorite,” said Rico Dorsey, 45, of Atlanta, awaiting the departure of his Las Vegas flight. “I come in because it is peaceful. I don’t have to worry about people stealing my stuff and sometimes I can get a nap. And it is nice to have drinks and snacks without spending money.”

Delta has decided the Sky Clubs could use a little updating, prompting renovations from Hartsfield-Jackson to Los Angeles International and most points in between. The renovated clubs — along with new ones set for Atlanta’s new international terminal and Concourse D — are designed to be hipper and appeal to younger travelers while still meeting the needs of the core business traveler.

Things have changed since 1959 when Delta first launched an airport lounge called the Delta Crown Room Club to cater to men in gray suits. The clubs now are used by businesswomen, retirees headed on vacation and families that prefer the perks of a semi-private space to the terminal rat race.

“[The clubs] have evolved into these multi-use locations for people seeking productivity or a respite,” said Kelley Moore, general manager of Delta Sky Clubs customer experience and product development. “We wanted to expand our demographic and create an environment that acknowledges that.”

In a new partnership with Avion Tequila, select Sky Clubs, including three in Atlanta, will have happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. each Thursday, featuring custom drinks prepared by local mixologists. The vibe in the newly renovated clubs is more like that of a boutique hotel lounge. Updates include sleek banquettes for two, a counter height cyberbar, pendant lights, and a healthier selection of snacks including oatmeal in the mornings, alongside veggies, hummus and apples — and, of course, free cocktails.

American Airlines is said to have pioneered the lounge concept at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 1939. These days most carriers have them, and reciprocal lounge access often is a key feature of marketing alliances with foreign airlines. Delta Sky Clubs host about 10.3 million visits a year, 26 percent of them at its Atlanta hub.

With most airline lounges limiting access to frequent flier members or charging high fees for entry, independently owned lounges have begun to crop up at airports in New York, Miami and possibly Atlanta.

The benefit of carrier-owned clubs is service, Moore said. Delta Sky Club agents — experienced in complicated transactions — are carefully chosen. Their skills come in handy when massive delays such as those involving bad weather bring more customers into the clubs for longer stays in need of more assistance.

“It’s what people do behind the desk that sets us apart. Members feel like the clubs are extensions of their homes,” Moore said.

Sue and Larry Davis of Lake Oconee are longtime Sky Club members who use the clubs whenever they travel. Recently, while en route to Las Vegas, the Sky Club served as a meeting place for the 50-something Davises and their adult children. Larry Davis, a former frequent business traveler, retains his Sky Club membership through his Delta American Express card. Because his wife loves to get to the airport “extra early,” the clubs are a place to spend time while avoiding the hustle and stress in the terminal, he said. They enjoy the perks such as snacks, Internet access and private bathrooms.

Those perks do come at a price. Only Diamond Medallion Sky Miles members (travelers with 125,000 miles) receive complimentary access to the clubs. Other ways to access the club include a one-day pass for $50, a 30-day membership for $90 or payments based on the level of Sky Miles acquired. Delta recently introduced a Sky Club payment plan allowing monthly payments with an annual fee instead of a yearly rate. Customers can also pay using partial frequent flier miles or American Express members can pay a separate fee for entry. Last summer, a one-visit pass for Atlanta Sky Clubs appeared on trendy group buying site Groupon at a 56 percent discount. Bringing Sky Clubs in striking range of Joe traveler has its drawbacks.

In the otherwise calm oasis of the Sky Club in Concourse T, one traveler conducted a cellphone conversation without switching to her inside voice. Though a bank of private phone booths was mere steps away, she sipped a glass of white wine while detailing her travel plans loudly enough to be heard over the television and the easy-listening music. Sky Clubs may take the traveler out of the terminal, but they can’t always take the terminal out of the traveler.

--------------------

WHO GETS INTO SKY CLUB?

● Diamond Medallion Sky Miles members (travelers with 125,000 miles) get free access.

● Fliers can buy a one-day pass for $50, a 30-day membership for $90 or payments based on the level of Sky Miles acquired.

● Customers can also pay using frequent flier miles.

HOTEL DEALS

» Find out from consumer columnist Clark Howard which new travel websites can help you get bargains on hotel rooms.

In Deal Spotter