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New Amex Card Perk: Access to US Airways Airport Lounges

Among travel-rewards credit and charge cards, there’s an intensifying scramble to add cardholder perks, both to bolster their customer bases and to keep existing users reaching for their cards.

Among the recent developments was Continental’s enhancement of its card benefits and Delta’s waiver of checked bag fees for holders of its SkyMiles credit cards.

The latest move in this escalating perk-athon is from American Express, which announced last week that holders of two of its Membership Rewards cards would henceforth enjoy access to 17 US Airways airport lounges in 13 cities.

According to the American Express press release, “Consumers who are passionate about travel and carry the Platinum or Centurion card can look forward to an enhanced airport experience, just for being an American Express Card member.”

To “passionate,” we might add “big spending”—the annual fee for the Platinum card is $450; and the invitation-only Centurion card costs $2,500 a year, plus a $5,000 initiation fee.

But at least for the Platinum card, lounge access alone potentially makes the fee a justifiable expenditure. An annual membership to US Airways lounges costs $450. And Platinum and Centurion cardholders already had access to the lounges operated by American, Continental, and Delta, normally priced at $500, $475, and $450, respectively.

It’s worth noting that in US Airways’ case, lounge access is not predicated on the cardholder’s actually flying US Airways. You could, for example, be flying on JetBlue and still use the US Airways club. With the other airport clubs, cardholders must be traveling on the airline that operates the lounge.

Although the two things are nominally unrelated, the addition of US Airways to the list of lounge partnerships raises the question of American Express’s lounge relationships with Continental (which it currently has) and United (which it does not have).

When Continental and United merge later this year, Chase—which issues co-branded cards for both airlines—will have a lot to say about whether United—which, post-merger, will be the world’s largest airline—maintains the relationship with American Express, or not. Will Chase be comfortable with United offering such a high-value perk to holders of competing credit cards?

My best guess is that they won’t, and American express cardholders will find themselves without access to the lounges of either Continental or United.

That won’t drive a stake through the hearts of the pricey American Express cards—they’ll still offer lounge access across the considerable networks of American, Delta, and US Airways.

But if I were in the market for a new rewards credit card, and access to the lounges of either Continental or United were a priority, I’d hold off on opting for the Platinum card until it’s clear whether, as I suspect, the addition of US Airways is one step forward before taking two steps back.