Beyond the frosted door: invitation-only lounges, frequent flyer tiers

If you have to ask, you probably don't belong: the perks of some of the world's most exclusive airline clubs.

By Chris C., August 13 2019
Beyond the frosted door: invitation-only lounges, frequent flyer tiers

Private invitation-only airport lounges behind unmarked doors, the lofty privileges and perks that come with 'Very VIP status' – welcome to the world of the high-flying elite. That roster includes politicians and unelected power-brokers, A-list celebrities and the upper ranks of Australia's largest companies.

They probably don't travel anywhere near as much as a top-tier frequent flyer, but who needs a Platinum airline membership card when yours is a coveted and rarely-seen Black one?

Here’s a rundown of some of the world's most exclusive airline clubs and elite status tiers.

Qantas Chairman’s Lounge

Described by Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce as “probably the most exclusive club in the country”, the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge isn’t just a ‘secret’ frequent flyer tier: it’s also a network of private, invitation-only airport lounges.

Located in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth, guests enjoy restaurant-style dining and an all-day bar while taking in the serenity of the generally-quiet space, or enjoying the artwork, which is rotated every fortnight to give regular visitors something new to look at.

Qantas Chairman's Lounge, Brisbane. Supplied
Qantas Chairman's Lounge, Brisbane

Members also receive the highest priority when requesting upgrades, and have their preferences tracked and remembered from flight to flight, such as their usual drink and favourite seat.

Qantas has never published a list of Chairman’s Lounge members, but this VIP card is typically held by the CEO and Chair of major companies which have sizeable travel contracts with the airline, and by other invited guests who work in fields such as politics, showbusiness and media.

Read: What it's really like inside the Qantas Chairman's Lounge

Qantas' arch-rival Virgin Australia sought to emulate The Chairman's Lounge with its equivalent VIP tier, The Club. It offes similar benefits across a network of five private lounges, with the add-on of escorts from lounge to aircraft, (at least) eight free business class upgrades every 24 months, and complimentary airport limousine transfers when taking cross-country or long international flights.

Virgin Australia Premium Entry at Sydney Airport. Supplied
Virgin Australia Premium Entry at Sydney Airport

Revealed: Perks of 'The Club', Virgin Australia's secret VIP tier

Air New Zealand: Elite Priority One

For those lucky enough to receive an invitation from Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon, the Elite Priority One program also blends status with privacy, with its members gaining access to secluded rooms within existing airport lounges, rather than separate lounges entirely.

Air New Zealand's Elite Priority One VIP entrance. Chris Chamberlin
Air New Zealand's Elite Priority One VIP entrance
Chris Chamberlin

Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to spot the doors in Sydney, Auckland or Los Angeles – but as the Elite Priority One invitation comes with hot pink baggage tags, it can instead be easier to spot the travellers toting this status, particularly while being escorted through the airport by Air New Zealand staff:

Air New Zealand's Elite Priority One baggage tags. Supplied
Air New Zealand's Elite Priority One baggage tags

Cathay Pacific: Diamond Plus and Diamond Invitation

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific has not one, but two secret tiers beyond the lofty heights of Marco Polo Club Diamond. Diamond Plus, which recognises the airline’s highest-spending flyers, and Diamond Invitation, for the VVIP set.

Take the same benefits as ‘regular’ Marco Polo Club Diamond – access to Cathay Pacific and Oneworld first class lounges, for example – and stir in perks in like an airport ‘meet and greet’ service to skip past any queues, and that’s your above-Diamond cocktail.

Cathay Pacific's The Wing First Class Lounge, Hong Kong. Supplied
Cathay Pacific's The Wing First Class Lounge, Hong Kong

It’s been said that Diamond Plus may be within your reach if your yearly spend on Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon flights ranks among the top 1% of passengers, but as for Diamond Invitation, if you have to ask, you don’t belong!

Interestingly, rival Singapore Airlines chooses not to have a private VIP tier in its own frequent flyer scheme, which tops out at Solitaire PPS Club. In previous years, it was possible to earn Solitaire status for life, although that club is closed to new members.

American Express: Centurion

While neither an airline nor a frequent flyer program, American Express has its own invitation-only airport lounge and restaurant in Hong Kong, reserved for holders of the elite Centurion Card.

Centurion Dining Room at AMEX Centurion Lounge, Hong Kong. Supplied
Centurion Dining Room at AMEX Centurion Lounge, Hong Kong

Separate to Hong Kong’s general AMEX Centurion Lounge – which actually caters to AMEX Platinum cardholders – the Centurion Dining Room’s menu covers everything from Champagne and caviar through to dishes with truffles, bird’s nest and more.

Oscietra caviar served at the AMEX Centurion Dining Room, Hong Kong. Chris Chamberlin
Oscietra caviar served at the AMEX Centurion Dining Room, Hong Kong
Chris Chamberlin

There’s no way to directly apply for a Centurion Card, but the path generally begins by holding and spending heavily on an AMEX Platinum Charge Card, from which you may be invited to upgrade to Centurion.

Read: Hong Kong's most exclusive restaurant is at the AMEX lounge

Emirates iO: Invitation Only

Launched in 2010, ‘iO’, or Invitation Only, is Emirates’ secret tier above Skywards Platinum. Getting this card is tough: the nod comes directly from Emirates’ President Sir Tim Clark, and membership lasts for two years at a time.

Emirates iO. Supplied
Emirates iO

In an iO welcome kit seen by this author, Clark describes the program as being “a very special and extremely exclusive club of Emirates travellers,” adding that “this select group is reserved for our most valued customers.”

iO members receive complimentary chauffeur-driven airport transfers every time they fly Emirates, and can expect to find a private car waiting for them if their aircraft arrives at a remote stand in Dubai.

Emirates iO membership card, front and back. Supplied
Emirates iO membership card, front and back

In the air, what the member wants, the member gets – including special meals customised to specific tastes and preferences, with such requests handled personally by Emirates’ Senior Vice President Airport Catering Services.

Read: Inside Emirates iO: a secret invitation-only club for VIP flyers

Gulf neighbour Etihad’s own VIP scheme, Etihad Guest Exclusive, offers similar personalised attention and private cars between aircraft and terminal, but with the addition of Residence Lounge access in Abu Dhabi: a space normally reserved for passengers booked to fly in The Residence, a three-room private suite on Etihad’s Airbus A380s.

American Airlines: ConciergeKey

Made famous by Ryan Bingham – George Clooney’s high-flying character in Up in the Air – American Airlines’ ConciergeKey is less a frequent flyer tier than a personal concierge service when you fly.

Expect to be greeted upon arrival at the airport, whisked through security, and time permitting, driven from the lounge to your departing flight in places like New York’s JFK Airport. On landing, a similar fast-track experience awaits.

American Airlines' ConciergeKey Cadillac service. Supplied
American Airlines' ConciergeKey Cadillac service

Review: AA ConciergeKey 'Five Star Service' concierge

Delta’s version, 360 Diamond Medallion, offers comparable VIP perks and is again invitation-only, although United’s private tier, Global Services, can be attained by anybody who racks up four million lifetime Premier Qualifying Miles via United MileagePlus.

British Airways: Executive Club Premier

British Airways recognises its crème de la crème through Executive Club Premier status, granting access to the airline’s exclusive Concorde Rooms at London Heathrow and New York JFK: ordinarily reserved for BA’s first class passengers.

Whether jetting near or far, the Concorde Room experience offers a dining room with table service, private cabanas, a social bar and a terrace space.

When it's time to board, VIPs are whisked directly from lounge to aircraft by Jaguar: but as to how you’d qualify in the first place, well, that’s a secret.

Also read: Inside eight of the world's most exclusive airport lounges

Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 933

I've been into a few of these lounges with friends, the thing that amazes me is everyone is trying to work out who everyone else is in the lounge. Is that the guy from ............., is that the lady from .......... Me, people just assume

27 Jul 2012

Total posts 1

I think Singapore Air do have an invite only tier. I vaguely recall reading about a PSS gold or PPS Solitaire Gold somewhere a few years back. Perhaps they actually do a better job of keeping it on the DL.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer - Chairmans Lounge

01 Sep 2011

Total posts 416

The spend on Qantas is $1million for Chairman's Lounge. They've really tightened up with it.

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