The luxury of silence

To anyone who has weathered squawking public address announcements about gate changes or final boarding calls or picking up the nearest courtesy phone, to anyone who has cringed beneath a loudspeaker blaring Muzak or the narration of a CNN special on obesity in American pets, or to anyone who has been startled by a beeping cart bearing the disabled across a terminal, it will come as no surprise that the most welcoming feature of the airport lounge is the muted lighting and dampened sound that greet one in its reception vestibule. For beyond the free chips and fresh fruit, the complimentary soft drinks and house wines, and the selection of trade magazines offered for the guest’s reading enjoyment, travelers primarily purchase respite from the bustle of the terminal.

The layout of such lounges segregates silent work areas from carpeted bars and soundproofed playrooms for children. Even in their most convivial areas, where television screens display market news and sporting matches, a hushed decorum is maintained, with outbursts a rarity. Offered by airlines to first-class ticket holders and frequent fliers who have purchased annual club memberships, airport lounges make clear both in their promotional literature and their discreet entrances that segregation of noise from silence is an expression of segregation by class.

American Airlines, for instance, explicitly markets its “Admirals Club” as an expression of rank: “Treat an Admirals Club lounge as an oasis of peace—away from all of the airport hustle. Because we know a little space to yourself can add up to a feeling, well, really big.” The United Airlines Club promises that, for its $500 annual fee, you will be able to “Relax in a sophisticated environment when you wait for your flight.” Not surprisingly, many clubs have dress codes.