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Confessions of an Airline Club Lounge Bartender

If you've ever been lucky enough to visit an airline club (you know, the United's Red Carpet Club, American's Admiral's Club, etc.) and partake of the free booze, perhaps you've wondered about the person behind the bar serving you. We did, so we asked a couple about their work in our continuing series interviewing airline industry employees.

Bar Shelf
Bar Shelf

Q: How much do you get paid?

A: We get paid minimum wage. But we do not work for the airline; we work for a third party company. We do not get flight benefits; that's a question we get asked a lot. We depend on tips.

Q: But, the volume of travelers in an airport lounge bar is bound to be more than a traditional bar. Don't you make a lot of money?

A: It depends, but most of the time, yes we do very well. There are often lines for bar service, and we can walk away with as much as $40 an hour. Remember, we have to split that with our bar colleagues, but it's nice.

Q: Is this the arrangement in all airline lounges?

A: No. It varies based on the contract between the airline and the vendor. Most, however, are based on a minimum-wage salary with the ability to collect tips. If you notice that the bartender is dressed in an airline uniform (often the case in smaller airline clubs), then they are airline employees making standard wages and also enjoying flight benefits. You can tip, but that is just the icing on the cake for them.

Q: Is there something that you do to earn those tips beyond the call of duty?

A: Well, like any smart business person, it's all about making the customer feel special. We try to remember what repeat customers like. Believe me, we see a lot of the same faces week after week, and they are always shocked and pleased when we remember their drink order. And like other bartenders, we always make small talk to stir up conversation. It's not always about the tips, though. For us, it helps us to survive the monotony.

It also helps that when people pass through the same airport time after time that they get recognized. The airline's own employees who work in the lounge do not always recognize people for their repeat visits the way we do. We know that for a fact ... because the travelers tell us that the bartenders are more appreciative than the airline's own employees. That's sad, but since the airline staff do not depend on tips they can afford to be indifferent and complacent.

Q: Is there a drink that people request the most?

A: Not really. We love beer and wine orders since it is an easy pour and we typically get a buck for it. Mixed drinks are annoying since it is more work, but we are happy to do them. People are much more likely to tip on a complicated drink like that versus a glass of wine. Since the airline does not have any self-service facilities, we are stuck having to serve people juice, soda and water. Generally we get no tips on that, but we do not expect it either.

Q: Do you really get a dollar for each drink you pour?

A: No, not really. People rarely tip on nonalcoholic drinks, which is understandable. And there are lots of folks who do not tip on each drink. Or they will tip on every other drink. We understand since they pay a membership fee to be in the club in the first place, but when you act like a high roller in front of your fellow travelers, please try and tip like one. And please don't stand their chatting on your cell phone while you blurt through the conversation to bark your order at me. What happened to common courtesy?

Q: Do you like it when people sit at the bar and claim their spot?

A: Yes, we love it. We are happy to keep them topped up. We know that when they sit there they are looking for continuous service and ready to tip for it. Plus, it's more fun for us because they are often chatty and keep us entertained.

Q: Have you ever cut someone off before?

A: Are you kidding? We have seen so many drunk travelers, it's crazy. I am shocked that people would drink themselves into oblivion when they are on the road like that. Perhaps it is just the convenience of it all since it is free. It's easy to have one or two on your flight; then have another in the airline lounge; then have another on your connecting flight. After a while, they add up, but it happens too quickly. Since you have limited time in the lounge between your flights, you may end up drinking faster than you normally would. As bartenders, we can spot boozers from a mile away.

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