On the way home from Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago I was able to visit my first American Express Centurion lounge. The lounges, which have been steadily growing over the last few years, are “exclusive” clubs for American Express cardholders. Inside, there’s free Wi-Fi, a concierge service and most importantly, in my opinion, hearty and decent food.

Past the hard product though, what these lounges really represent is the future of the industry. Today’s legacy lounges from American, Delta, and United are old and tired mules. Bloated with thousands of members and stripped of almost all of their benefits, there’s little value in signing up for the Admiral’s Club or the Sky Club beyond an occasional free drink or a handful of pretzels. With the Centurion Lounge, subscribers have a guaranteed meal before their flight and a clean and tranquil environment in which to eat it.

The only place in which legacy lounges can compete is in their first class or flagship venues speckled across the country or in international airports. In those spots, food offerings are elevated and the lounge utility goes up. Access to those spots, however, is largely restricted to international passengers — so today’s domestic traveler really has no option.

To be fair, much of the value in the current Centurion Lounges comes from their new design and lower volumes of customers. As the lounges become more popular and their appointments start to age, they face the same fate of aging into another tired and derelict airport relic. In their current state and deployment though, they’ll have no competition for the next few years.

In the meantime, in addition to capturing marketshare the Centurion Lounges should ideally become a homing beacon for the industry at large. Like Microsoft and Dell are starting to emulate Apple, American, Delta and United should be looking to AmEx as a leader in business class service. And with solid competition, hopefully all ships will rise.

Centurion Lounges are currently operational in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas, and New York’s LaGuardia (outside of security). There’s another lounge in the works in Miami. Anyone with an AmEx card is allowed to enter the club; Platinum and Centurion cardholders are given free access with two guests while everyone else has to pony up $50 for access.

Photo Credit: The Centurion Lounge by American Express at LaGurdia Airport. Angela Pham / BFAnyc.com