The Battle of the Lounges at Heathrow – Round 4

It started with Virgin Atlantic’s cheeky “ClubRoom” concept back in the 90’s, where for the first time, business class passengers could check in for their flights a bit early and actually enjoy some quality time at what had become an extremely dull and boring airport.  British Airways stodgy Concorde lounge, until that time the lone bastion of exclusivity at the airport, couldn’t hold a candle to the brash Virgin upstart, and soon premium travelers were defecting to Richard Branson’s upstart product.

Last week, we experienced the first phase of American Airlines’ new Admiral’s Club in Terminal 3.  We’ve been accustomed to AA’s ancient lounge for so long that almost anything would be an improvement.  While we expected to still see the old lounge, we were pleasantly surprised to find a major portion of the new facility operational.   Clean, functional and much larger than the old lounge, we were impressed.  But first a few words about recent  historical developments in the Heathrow Lounge Wars. 

British Airway’s Terminal Five opened in mid-2007 to wide critical acclaim, as well as a series of embarassing service failures that made headling news for years.   Despite the opening glitches, British Airway’s First Class, Concorde, and Business Class Galleries lounges were an immediate hit with the traveling public.  Perhaps wisely having conceded the “fun” title to Virgin, the new BA lounges offered a level of premium lounge comfort rarely found in Europe.  The elegance of the BA First Class lounge, which features two serve – yourself Champagne Bars, a wide selection of truly premium wines, and a self-serve buffet, shares an exclusive two level facility with the business class Galleries lounge, which is both spacious and well equipped with a hot buffet that puts some restaurants in Britain to shame.  Even more exclusive is the Concorde Room, which can only be accessed by those traveling on full-fare first class tickets – no self service here, pre-flight meals and drinks are served by bespoke staff in an environment that defines the word exclusive.  (On a recent visit, we spotted Pierce Brosnan and Naomi Sims in corner lounge chairs).

Heathrow has finally begun to demolish some of its oldest buildings (I still think the remains of some luggage I lost 20 years ago in Terminal 2 might be found in the rubble).  Terminal 3 – home to One World carriers American, Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Finnair, Japan Airlines, and Royal Jordanian is in the midst of an upgrade of sorts.  Even though it’s theoretically possible for top tier passengers of any of these airlines to use any of the One World lounges, we’ve discovered as a practical matter one is often refused admission unless actually flying that airline.  Citing space limitations, the better lounges are not really open to would-be interlopers, although we’ve been known to wheedle our way in to most of them as top-tier fliers in the AAdvantage program.  Generally, it hasn’t been worth the effort.

Last year, British Airlines opened a Galleries Business class lounge in Terminal 3, providing a cool and inviting atmosphere for travelers on BAs intra-European flights to eight cities while construction on BA’s 2nd satellite terminal in T5 continues at a snail’s pace.  We suspect ultimately this facility will become a One-World lounge for non-AA airlines flying out of T3.  

American Airlines (the largest US Carrier at Heathrow), started revitalizing its Admiral’s Club and Flaghip First Class Suite 18 months ago.  The two year project included absorption of two smaller club lounges of other airlines, and was sorely needed.  Furniture from the 1960’s had never been updated, and looking at the competition’s offerings, calling American’s lounge tired would be kind.

The new Admiral’s Club is reached down a long construction corridor which will no doubt be replaced by a more acceptable entry when the entire club opens later this year.   But once past the makshift welcome desk, travelers will find a new and fresh look which has vastly improved offerings compared to its predecessor.

First and foremost, for business travelers, AA has finally installed wireless internet access from BT that actually works.   We measured throughput at 5.5 mps, which beats the speed in almost any other lounge we’ve encountered.  For business travelers hoping to catch up on email and send off messages before being out of touch for 8 hours or more, it’s nice to know AA has recognized the need.

Turning to food and beverage, a new wine bar in the center of the refreshment area offered 6 different vintages (3 white, 3 red) which were of excellent quality.   The self-serve beverage section contained a well-stocked collection of soft drinks, juices, and beer, as well as an open bar.   Replacing the non-existent food offerings at the old club was a typically British selection of fresh sandwiches, hot soup, cookies, and bar snacks.  The offerings at the new Admiral’s Club, while not quite up to the BA Galleries food bar, are better than the old First Class snack service, and you’ll find no complaints from me about the quality.

Three just-installed flat screen TVs were not yet fully operational, but were well placed for viewing throughout the room.  Nearly 200 new arm chairs, with ample power connections (both 220 and 110!) will make it easy for all travelers to plug in and power up anywhere in the lounge.  Work areas, complimentary computer work stations, and the aforementioned wireless access make this lounge a very comfortable and functional entry into the lounge wars.

American’s First Class Flagship Suite is scheduled to open later this Spring and we’ll be sure to let you know when it opens.

Our last connection through Terminal One was during the Summer of 2010.   All connections to Ireland depart through T1, as well as operations for all Star Alliance carriers.    We didn’t find anything that compares to the T3 and T5 offerings on our trip, although we understand a new Star Alliance lounge has since opened.    We’ll check it out on our next trip and shall report back.   It’s our understanding the new lounge is comfortable, with a limited selection of food and drink – but Internet Access is not complimentary.  There are more than 10 shower rooms, though, to help customers on long-haul flights recover and refresh for onward travel.

Finally, over in T4 – the Sky Team’s new home at Heathrow, the Alliance has taken over the old BA lounges, providing similar facilities for food and drink, showers and adequate seating areas.  While new carpeting and internet access have been added, the furniture is still a bit dated.

Our Summit Management clients and blog readers are encouraged to submit updates as your travels take them through Heathrow.  We’ll be happy to pass on your impressions and experiences to other readers, as the world’s second busiest airport continues to reinvent itself.


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