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Delicious solitude, at a premium

Carriers' clubs at Logan get more lavish to lure lucrative business fliers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / April 9, 2008

Some travelers arriving at Boston's Logan International Airport hours before their Virgin Atlantic Airways flight can now spread out on luxurious leather- and mohair-covered banquettes or scoot designer Swan lounge chairs up to marble-topped tables in the airline's new clubhouse.

The airline spent $2 million on its Logan Upper Class clubhouse, which opened in February and can accommodate 75 first-class passengers and gold-level frequent fliers at a time.

"The investment on the ground is where we think the game is at now," said Chris Rossi, Virgin's senior vice president for North America.

Welcome to the battle for business travelers, which has airlines sprucing up their exclusive airport lounges and lavishing more amenities on these lucrative customers. As rising fuel prices and cutthroat competition roil air carriers, it's becoming more important for them to win the loyalty of their most profitable travelers.

To that end, British Airways outfitted the club it renovated at Logan in November with a chic, private dining room serving a complimentary supper to first-class customers.

American Airlines Inc. is about to start a yearlong, multimillion-dollar renovation of its Logan Admirals Club, reconstructing its bar and conference rooms and adding a children's playroom.

And Virgin's Logan lounge is the airline's first in the United States with battery recharging equipment already plugged into wall sockets.

Airlines have good reason to court business travelers. On a flight between Boston and London, the airlines' profit margin from a business-class customer is four to five times greater than from an economy-class customer, according to Henry Harteveldt, principal travel analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

And the new perks can also help make Boston more attractive to passengers who otherwise might use airports in Providence, Manchester, N.H., or New York.

"What we have to offer at Logan puts us ahead of the game," said Edward C. Freni, the airport's director of aviation. "We want to make sure what we offer here at Logan is better than what is offered at any other airport."

But some aging airline clubs are making Logan fall far behind.

Roger L. Kay, a Wayland technology analyst who travels two or three times a month to the West Coast or Texas, calls himself an "American Airlines loyalist" and paid more than $300 for an annual membership to the carrier's Admirals Clubs.

"American has some pretty fancy lounges around the country - notably Dallas and Miami," Kay said. "Nice blond wood. Clean carpets. But the Boston one is remarkably grody. It's dark and well worn."

American knows its 18-year-old Logan lounge is overdue for a makeover, which will start in May and end in February.

The renovation will strip away the "investment banking, law-firm look," replacing the dark hardwood with light wood and glass, said Michele Mathison, the airline's Northeast regional manager for premium services.

"We want the facility to look more timeless," she said.

American also plans to knock down walls to create a more airy atmosphere and install ovens so it can sell travelers warm Panini.

But already, its amenities make the Logan Admirals Club one of the five most profitable lounges out of the 44 American has across 13 countries.

And it's where business traveler Tim Bajarin, who flies more than 70,000 miles a year, immediately heads after passing through Logan's security checkpoint - so he doesn't have to scour the terminal walls for an electrical outlet and pay for wireless Internet access.

"For those of us who are serious business travelers," Bajarin said, "it's almost mandatory, for us to have any sanity when we travel."

For its part, Virgin decided to build a club at Logan because its corporate accounts business surged 68 percent in 2007.

Catering to those the airline calls its "most high-end travelers," Virgin's lounge offers wireless Internet access and international phone lines, unlimited servings of lobster salad and New England clam chowder, local wines, and a dozen varieties of liquor at no extra charge.

But the most valuable amenity - especially for forgetful travelers - may be Virgin's shelf of power cords for popular electronics. Pamela Weir, Virgin's events coordinator, said: "You have no reason to do no work on the aircraft."

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

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