Inside the secret world of VIP travel and invitation-only lounges

By Chris C., May 28 2015
Inside the secret world of VIP travel and invitation-only lounges

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 celebs 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?

But relatively little is known about these cosy cliques: like Fight Club, it often seems that the first rule of belonging to these high-flyer clubs is that you don't talk about them.

However, we've pulled together what we can to bring you this guide to the world's most exclusive airline clubs and elite status tiers.

Qantas: Chairman's Lounge

The Chairman's Lounge “is probably the most exclusive club in the country” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce once told Australian Business Traveller, while wearing the smile of a man with a sly secret.

And it's aptly named: it's said that the Chairman of Qantas, Leigh Clifford, personally signs off on each membership application, which lasts for two years.

As to the lounges themselves: if you’re a member, you’ll know where to find the frosted glass doors… if not, keep your eyes peeled for a glass door marked ‘Private’ or a red ‘Private Lounge’ bollard – often discreetly tucked away.

The dining room in the Sydney Chairman's Lounge
The dining room in the Sydney Chairman's Lounge

Inside, the buffet and a la carte menus include Rockpool-influenced food, while the bar is both self-serve and always open – no drumming of the fingers until noon!

Members can also access Qantas lounges at any time without a boarding pass – whether they’re travelling on another airline, or simply at the airport to meet with a business colleague.

Other benefits include an allowance of three guests in the Sydney and Melbourne first class lounges, first dibs on flight upgrades and an extra 25kgs of checked baggage allowance on most Qantas and Emirates international flights:

Also read: Photos: Inside the Qantas Chairman's Lounge

Virgin Australia: The Club

Membership comes only at the invitation of Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti, and as with the Qantas Chairman's Lounge, membership lasts for two years and provides 'anytime access' to the airline's private lounges in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.

Tucked away behind discreet glass doors, the well-heeled are greeted by an à la carte menu and round-the-clock drinks service – including spirits, which aren't found in VA's regular lounges.

Invitees can also nominate their spouse or partner for their own membership in The Club, and their executive or personal assistant for Velocity Platinum status.

(But you'll win brownie points by guesting your assistant into The Club...). Flyme Funky
(But you'll win brownie points by guesting your assistant into The Club...)
Flyme Funky

Add to that a "flexible baggage allowance" on all Virgin Australia-operated flights, complimentary limousine transfers when travelling on Australian east-west flights and when bound for Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles, and even a private car when connecting between an Australian airport's domestic and international terminals.

VIP members also have access to the 24-hour The Club Executive Services contact centre and Virgin Australia’s concierge services on the ground, which CEO John Borghetti revealed to Australian Business Traveller in 2012:

"There'll be someone meeting and greeting you on arrival at the terminal and taking you through. It's to make sure the experience through the airport is all fine. And if there's any issues you need help with, well, that's what they're there for," he said.

To top things off, Virgin Australia can request the use of one of two private VIP rooms within the Star Alliance first class lounge in Los Angeles for members travelling home to Sydney or Brisbane with Virgin Australia:

Also read:  'The Club', Virgin Australia's secret VIP tier

Emirates: iO (Invitation Only)

Ask Emirates about the higher-than-Platinum status level in its Skywards frequent flyer program and you’re likely to be told “No comment” or “We don’t like to talk about that.”

Front and back: the Emirates iO card. Courtesy of FlyerTalk member 'Eightblack'
Front and back: the Emirates iO card
Courtesy of FlyerTalk member 'Eightblack'

Few people outside of Emirates know exactly how one qualifies for iO, although the lucky few on the receiving end will allegedly find the card (an impressively thick black card with a dark red motif, shown above) hand-delivered by a senior Emirates sales manager.

Also in the pack are matching luggage tags and a Mont Blanc wallet, while the Chosen One’s partner also receives a Skywards Gold card.

Benefits are said to include a ‘guaranteed’ business class seat on any Emirates flight with airport pickup and drop off in a chauffeur-driven Range Rover. You may have spied these at Dubai International Airport and around the city’s better hotels – they’re black and bear Emirates iO decals.

Members can also note their favourite meal and how they like it prepared, in detail: for example, a low-fat lamb biryani without onions but with extra yoghurt and more rice than meat:

While there's no separate iO lounge at Dubai Airport, VIPs could always opt for a cosy meeting room within the Emirates first class lounge in Concourse A for privacy and a little peace and quiet:

Also read: Invitation Only: the club that Emirates won't talk about

Cathay Pacific: Marco Polo Club Diamond Plus

Diamond Plus is the secret weapon of Cathay Pacific and sister airline Dragonair in keeping seriously heavy-spending flyers happy – it's less about who you are than the revenue you bring to the airline, although we're sure the odd A-lister wouldn't be seen travelling without their Cathay VIP card.

Among the list of perks: companion Marco Polo Club Diamond status for a member's spouse or partner, corresponding to Oneworld Emerald and granting access to the alliance's top business and first class lounges including the Qantas First Lounges, BA's Galleries First lounge at Heathrow and Cathay's The Wing First Class lounge:

You'll also be greeted by a buggy if arriving with Cathay Pacific at a satellite gate at Hong Kong Airport, and can stop by any Cathay Pacific-operated lounge at any time, even when travelling with a competing airline or alliance.

Add to that the obligatory 'meet and greet' through the airport, along with a dedicated Diamond Plus contact centre for membership and reservation enquiries.

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.

"The ConciergeKey Program is an exclusive program that American Airlines has for our very top customers," an American Airlines spokesperson told NPR USA. "This is by invitation only and a very exclusive club."

Benefits include assistance through priority security screening at selected airports and a chance to pre-board the aircraft, along with a dedicated phone service for changes to flights and seat assignments, as well as upgrade requests.

There aren’t any private ConciergeKey lounges, yet these members receive free access to AA's Admirals Clubs at any time, along with AAdvantage Executive Platinum status – equivalent to the Oneworld Emerald tier, which gives access to business and first class lounges around the globe.

British Airways: Executive Club Premier

British Airways recognises its crème de la crème through Executive Club Premier status.

Going far beyond AA's program, BA Premier travellers can book confirmed seats on already-full flights, have a better chance of making their connecting flights – even if it means delaying the onward aircraft by up to 30 minutes – and receive upgrades from business to first class wherever possible.

Members can also relax in the British Airways Concorde Rooms at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and New York JFK, which are ordinarily reserved only for first class passengers and high-flying Concorde Room cardholders.

Inside you’ll find intimate dining booths with full waiter service, private cabanas with a comfortable day bed and en-suite, a social bar and terrace space.

The Concorde Room in London Heathrow's Terminal 5
The Concorde Room in London Heathrow's Terminal 5

When it's time to board, forget having to walk through the terminal like a regular passenger – VIPs are whisked from the lounge to the aircraft in their own private Jaguar.

Other perks include access to fast track security and immigration lines (where available) and a personal assistant at the check-in desk in selected airports.

United Airlines: Global Services

United Airlines’ Global Services tier is ordinarily offered only by invitation, but if you happen to rack up four million ‘Premier qualifying miles’ (PQMs) over the course of your MileagePlus membership, you’ll also be rewarded with a lifetime of Global Services status.

At the top end of the game, GS members receive a 100% mileage bonus and are the first in line for ‘complimentary Premier upgrades’ to first class – granted at up to five days prior to departure.

United’s Global First check-in zones and lounges, typically only available to travellers holding international first class tickets, are also available to Global Services members when travelling domestically or internationally in any class of service.

Step inside the Global Services and Global First check-in lobby. Chris McGinnis
Step inside the Global Services and Global First check-in lobby
Chris McGinnis

Behind the scenes, a dedicated team of staff constantly monitor GS member bookings for any disruptions or misconnects, before seamlessly rebooking them onto another flight.

Also read: New perks for Global Services members in San Francisco

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Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

12 Jun 2013

Total posts 735

Meh, if you're still flying commercial, you ain't that important. Getting a mildly funkier lounge doesn't impress me that much.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2204

Hey hey hey, some of us have only made it as far as Senior Consultant - Corporate Redundancies.


12 Feb 2015

Total posts 91

How many private jets do you own? ;-)


16 Nov 2012

Total posts 57

And what happens if at the end of two years you don't get renewed? With shame like that, self-immolation is the only response - preferably where I can watch the show from Qantas Club.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Apr 2015

Total posts 55

Only it is not just a mildly funkier lounge... Also, commercial is safer :)

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards Platinum

29 Aug 2014

Total posts 35

My grandfather is a formal president of South Korea but he apparently he doesn't own a private jet so he flies commercial airline with that sort of VVIP passes. I am sorry that he dont have the private jet but to me and to most of people, he is still very imporatnt person. 

10 Sep 2012

Total posts 149

FORMER presidenty, you say?

I must admit that I don't find those lounges, as shown on the pictures, very classy and appealing as one would expect for such a top, 'invitation-only' tier.

12 Feb 2015

Total posts 91

The photo of the QF Chairman's Lounge at SYD doesn't really do it justice. It is quite a spacious, airy and quiet area, although the green leather chairs possibly lean too far towards an old-style gentlemen's club. The MEL Chairman's lounge is my favourite - more intimate and with a nice splash of colour plus modern furnishings. CBR is designed like a cross between the SYD Chairman's Lounge and First Class Lounge. BNE is too small and has no view - in some ways the Business Lounge is better. ADL strikes a nice balance for a smaller lounge. However at all of them, the better catering and the nothing-is-too-much-trouble service are the highlights.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

02 Nov 2013

Total posts 29

Show off.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Jan 2015

Total posts 584

I'd rather have my own private runway in my backyard with aerobridges into my house (ala John Travolta)...I'll leave these 'invitation-only' lounges to the plebs who can't afford their own aircraft

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Nov 2014

Total posts 23

I reminds me of the lifetime Golden Wing platinum membership that I had with Ansett. Ah well, nothing lasts forever.

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

07 Sep 2012

Total posts 147

Interesting to read that an Emirates IO member gets a ‘guaranteed’ business class seat on any Emirates flight, which probably partly explains why EF always shows the same 7 blocked out seats in J on their 380s

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

17 Nov 2014

Total posts 102

I think Singapore Airlines also has Solitare PPS Gold that is similar to the Chairmen's lounge for Qantas?

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Jan 2015

Total posts 584

PPS Elite...but yes

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Jan 2015

Total posts 584

hmm it appear my info is out of date cos they don't call it elite anymore

27 Jul 2011

Total posts 42

Yeah, I'd really like to know the details of Singapore, Etihad and Qatar's special services...


21 Aug 2012

Total posts 14

I think you will find it's the behind the scenes service that is the real benefit to the "invitation only" flyers, after all a lounge is a lounge and a meal.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 May 2011

Total posts 732

Had to chuckle when reading he UA GS passage:

"if you happen to rack up four million ‘Premier qualifying miles’ (PQMs) over the course of your MileagePlus membership, you’ll also be rewarded with a lifetime of Global Services status"

Who on earth would survive that! and live to recieve GS status?!?!

04 Mar 2015

Total posts 17

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Apr 2015

Total posts 55

Whilst there is no separate iO lounge at Dubai Airport, it is a possibility that iO members get access to the private terminal... e.g. Pele in Ultimate Airport Dubai. Although I cannot confirm Pele is an iO member, I would find it highly surprising if not seeing as he is a Global Ambassador for Emirates. For instance Michael Clarke, as a Qantas Ambassador, gets Chairman's Lounge membership (can confirm this as I've seen him checking-in with his card lol).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Jan 2013

Total posts 240

There are a few now: Qantas Chairmans Lounge, Virgin Australia the Club, Emirates Invitation Only, Cathay Dimond Plus, American AIrlines Concierge Key, British Airways Executive Club Prem, United Global Services, Garuda Diamond, Air NewZealand Elite Priority One and Singapore PPS Elite.

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