Access to airport lounges around the world is a cornerstone benefit of building up frequent flyer status within a particular airline alliance, and it's the one which business travellers appreciate the most.
In the case of the Oneworld alliance – which counts Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, British Airways, American Airlines, Qatar Airways and JAL among its 13 members – holding the equivalent of Oneworld Sapphire status with any member airline opens the doors at the business class lounges of all Oneworld airlines.
Likewise, Oneworld Emerald status – a tier which includes Qantas Frequent Flyer Platinum , Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Diamond and British Airways Executive Club Gold cards – sees the welcome mat rolled out at first class lounges.
That's the idea, anyway. Most of the time it holds true, but there are exceptions to every rule – including when it comes to lounge access for Oneworld frequent flyers.
First class yes, frequent flyers no
For example, British Airways' Concorde Room is available only to BA first class passengers and its most elite frequent flyers (Concorde Room Card holders and invitation-only BA Premier members). Emerald-grade frequent flyers, along with first class travellers on other Oneworld airlines, are directed to seperate and far less impressive 'first class' lounges.
Qatar Airways' Premium Lounges at London, Paris and from this week Bangkok, are open to first class and business class travellers on any Oneworld airline, but not frequent flyers of any stripe.
British Airways' arrivals lounge at London Heathrow Terminal 5 is exclusive to BA first class and business class passengers arriving on long-haul flights and British Airways Executive Club Gold members in any class – but only BAEC Golds, and not their equivalents from other Oneworld airlines.
However, Cathay Pacific's Hong Kong arrivals lounge welcomes Emerald-grade frequent flyers from any Oneworld airline (such as Qantas Platinum) and its own Marco Polo Gold and Diamond members, as long as they're arriving on a Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon flight.
American Airlines' Flagship Lounges in the USA will let in Oneworld Emerald card-holders travelling in economy on even the shortest domestic flight, but bars its own top-tier AAdvantage frequent flyers unless they're on an international flight headed outside of North America.
Oddly, Finnair flips things around in favour of the frequent flyer: Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire passengers enjoy entry to the upscale Finnair Premium lounge while business class travellers have to make do with the lesser Finnair lounge.
Oneworld makes the rules, but members can bend them
Doesn't this amount to a lot of inconsistency and confusion for the business traveller?
Dennis Tierney, Oneworld's Vice-President for Customer Experience, says that the alliance's rules "stipulate the minimum standards to which all alliance member airlines must adhere in all areas of customer experience, including lounge provision and access."
“But all member airlines are free, if they choose, to offer their own customers, and indeed customers from their partner airlines, services that exceed those minimum requirements," he tells Australian Business Traveller.
“Some member airlines choose to offer a range of lounges at some airports, with varying access criteria. There is no Oneworld requirement for these airlines to open the doors to all of these lounges to top-tier frequent flyers from all Oneworld airlines, whether flying in premium cabins or not – so long as at least one of these lounges is available to them under the usual Oneworld rules."
Tierney cites Qatar Airways' Premium Lounges as an example.
"Qatar Airways has a number of Premium Lounges, where access is restricted to customers booked in its own first or business class cabins, or in the first or business class cabins of any of its oneworld partners."
"At the locations where it offers these Premium Lounges, it also makes available other lounges in which top-tier frequent flyers (equivalent to Oneworld Emerald or Sapphire) from its own Privilege Club or any other Oneworld partner’s frequent flyer programme who are booked in the economy cabins on Qatar Airways or any oneworld partner airline are welcome."
In short: as long as there's somewhere for Platinums, Golds, Diamonds and others of their shiny ilk to put up their feet, airlines are free to operate even more exclusive lounges and set the doorlist as they please.
Meanwhile, arrivals lounges fall outside Oneworld's control altogether, Tierney adds.
“Arrivals lounges are not included as part of the oneworld offering – although, again, some member airlines go ‘above and beyond’ in this area."
"Cathay Pacific, for instance, welcomes Oneworld Emeralds into its Hong Kong arrivals lounge if they arrive on Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon, no matter in which cabin they were booked."