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I STILL REMEMBER the thrill of my first business class flight. I was on my way to Asia and I remember being excited that not only did my prized ticket mean I would be turning left rather than right as I boarded the plane, it also granted me access to the airline’s business and first class lounge.

There, my colleagues and I enjoyed sipping on NZ pinots while launching a relentless assault on the buffet. My memory is hazy, but I believe there was a spa facility where you could refresh yourself and there was a putting green. I felt like I was living the high life… on the ground. I felt privileged, powerful even. It turns out I was merely naïve.

A few years later, I recalled the experience to a bloke who was a producer on one of Australia’s biggest breakfast TV shows. This guy knew his way around a lounge. He nodded knowingly. “Sounds good,” he said. “But the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge is where it’s at.” Not that he’d actually experienced it for himself, mind you, but he proceeded to detail how one of his breakfast show stars, who was a very frequent flyer with the airline, had made it his mission to gain access to the Chairman’s Lounge and failed. “You have to be a serious bigwig to get in there,” said the producer.

Indeed you do. Known as the most exclusive club in Australia, memberships to the Chairman’s Lounge are confidential and the entrances are often nondescript, like speakeasys for the rich and powerful. You wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a secret knock.

Outgoing Qantas chairman Alan Joyce was grilled on membership on The 7.30 Report a couple of weeks ago, after it emerged that the prime minister’s son had been given access. Joyce said he couldn’t talk about membership to the club for privacy reasons.

But we now know its members include many politicians, CEOs and public figures, including the incoming Reserve Bank governor, Michele Bullock, the outgoing chair of the Productivity Commission, Michael Brennan, as well ACCC boss, Gina Cass-Gottlieb and ASIC chair, Joseph Longo.

The question of who is granted Lounge membership has raised questions as to whether Qantas uses the prized club as a way to butter up politicians and public figures–an allegation the airline and the Albanese government deny. The allegation was triggered after the government’s recent refusal to grant expanded air rights to Qantas’ rival Qatar Airways.

Should high profile public figures accept the offer of membership? Geoffrey Watson SC, a former counsel assisting the Independent Commission Against Corruption and a director of the Centre for Public Integrity, said politicians and policymakers should refuse memberships if offered.

“There are certain positions in life where you cannot take Chairman’s Club membership,” said Watson. “You’re taking public money for the job and you are supposed to represent the public. Why not sit with them while you’re waiting for a plane?”

Good question. Membership elevates you above your fellow citizens and you don’t have to pay for it. But the Chairman’s Lounge is likely not the only exclusive club in Australia. I once interviewed a senior politician in a luxury hotel. The interview occurred in a private lounge, off limits to the public, on the hotel’s upper floors and once I entered, I was gobsmacked by how many other pollies were up there, tucking into the buffet or enjoying espressos on the comfortable couches. It makes you wonder if there’s not a whole web of lavishly appointed, very private spaces around the country that are the exclusive preserve of the rich and powerful. It’s probably naïve to think otherwise.

What’s so special about the Chairman’s Lounge? Let’s take a look.

What is the Chairman’s Lounge?

The Chairman’s Lounge is for VIP clients travelling on domestic flights. Membership is for two years and renewed at Qantas’ discretion. No fees are charged and you can bring your partner or another guest with you. There are six Chairman’s Lounges in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth airports.

How do you find the Chairman’s Lounge?

You don’t. This is a “if you know, you know” situation. Having said that the Australian Financial Review reveals that in Sydney, “the door is between the Business Lounge and the Qantas Club. In Canberra, it’s a hard left at the top of the escalators. In Melbourne, it’s directly in front of you as you get to the top of the escalators inside the Qantas lounge precinct (with Business Lounge and Qantas Club on either side).”

To get in, you have to be the owner of a special black card, which displays your name and membership number. But the chances of you actually having to dig into your well-stuffed wallet for this are slim; your reputation or position will mean the hosts know who you are.

What’s inside the Chairman’s Lounge?

Expect a gentleman’s club vibe with a similar level of luxury and opulence to first class lounges. You can choose to sit at the bar, the restaurant, the reading area or a small private room. There are also large individual bathroom facilities if you need to freshen up.

Of course, there’s a buffet but also table service and an à la carte menu. “Part of the wankiness, as well as the secret doors, is the fact you could ask for absolutely anything, even if it’s not on the menu, and it will be cooked pretty quickly, just for you,” a regular visitor told the Financial Review. Most of the food on offer in the First Class Lounge is available in the Chairman’s Lounge.

The Sydney, Melbourne and Perth Lounges were created by Sébastien Segers and famed Australian designer Marc Newson, who was also behind the Qantas first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne. The Brisbane lounge is the newest and most modern of the six, and features wood panelling, beige lounges and grey wool carpet. 

But the real difference between the Chairman’s Lounge and those available to the general public is the service. “The Qantas Club resembles a bit of a zoo, whereas the Chairman’s Lounge is very quiet and very discreet,” a guest of the Sydney and Canberra lounges told the ABC. “If you walk up to the bar, there would have to be 30 upmarket wines and every spirit you can think of. You’re not getting Smirnoff, you’re getting Grey Goose or better.”

Attentive hosts let each member know when to make their way to the boarding gate. It is timed so they board only once everyone else has been seated—hint, take note of who gets on last, just before take-off. If you’re a Lounge member, and for some peculiar reason are flying economy, you will be upgraded to business class without having to cough up frequent flyer points, as long as there’s a spare seat up front.

But what’s really behind the doors is exclusivity and access to other powerful people. “You would walk past John Howard, and you wouldn’t even acknowledge it,” says the regular, who concludes that, “It’s a very easy way for really rich people to network. It felt to me like it was a bit of an ‘in’ club.”

Even money can’t buy that.

How can I join the Chairman’s Lounge?

This might be a legitimate question for a Fin Review reader. But let’s play this out. Do you have a high-profile and influential job in politics, the public service, business or law? No? Are you a celebrity? Great, get you in here. Is your father the prime minister? Yes? Right, this way sir.

Members are personally approved by the CEO or Qantas chairman Richard Goyder. Joyce has previously said that Chairman’s Lounge membership is “a commercial arrangement” with politicians offered access as a thanks for the government continuing to award Qantas the bulk of its own travel contracts.

Similarly, companies that use Qantas as their preferred airline option for staff may also be offered a membership for their chairman and CEO.

Who is a member?

Members encompass the entire political spectrum, even members of the Greens. In fact, all MPs are invited to join and, astonishingly, a handful have turned it down. This includes Labor senator and former national secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, Tony Sheldon and Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather. 

Sydney radio personality Alan Jones is one of the longest-standing members, having acquired his membership in 1985.

Former independent senator Nick Xenophon refused an invitation to join the Chairman’s Lounge while in federal parliament and says politicians should not accept a membership. “It is the ultimate perk for captains of industry, notable Australians and politicians. It has a subtle but powerful influence on politicians,” Xenophon said.

Do other airlines have similar lounges?

Yes, Virgin Australia’s Beyond lounges are its equivalent of the Chairman’s Lounge. Most politicians and top execs are members of both. But unlike Qantas, which reportedly serves real (French) champagne, Virgin serves Arras Brut Elite, a highly rated Tasmanian wine.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific has two secretive elite tiers: Marco Polo Club Diamond: Diamond Plus, which is for the airline’s highest-spending flyers, and Diamond Invitation, for VVIPs.

Emirates, meanwhile, has “iO”, or Invitation Only, its secret tier above Skywards Platinum. You need to be directly approved by Emirates’ president Sir Tim Clark. Membership lasts for two years at a time.

British Airways has Executive Club Premier status, granting access to the airline’s exclusive Concorde Rooms at London Heathrow and New York JFK: these are usually reserved for the airline’s first class passengers.

Finally, American Airlines has ConciergeKey, made famous by Ryan Bingham—George Clooney’s high-flying character in Up in the Air. This is a personal concierge service when you fly.

Should exclusive clubs exist?

The idea of places that are only the preserve of elites probably doesn’t pass the pub test these days and while networking has its place, we should perhaps be wary of exclusive clubs in which powerful individuals congregate.

You could argue most pollies and CEOs can get each other on the phone if they really want to shoot the shit, but as Gladys Berejiklian found out, you never know when ICAC is listening. Alternatively you can meet in a private place at your own expense. Of course, the problem with that is that you don’t get to feel special. Call me naïve (I have done so several times now, so, you know, I can take it) but shouldn’t political and corporate machinations at least feel a little grubby? Next, you’re going to tell me that powerful people don’t participate in orgies at secret sex clubs, which will completely change my feelings about Eyes Wide Shut.

More seriously, exclusivity and opulence are perfectly fine, but in a capitalist democracy shouldn’t it be something you pay for, like the first class lounge? It might be annoying as a CEO or pollie to have to rub shoulders with cashed-up bogans, but it’s that kind of egalitarianism that Australia has long prided itself on. But again, maybe I’m being naïve.


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