THE AIRPORT lounge is the nearest most of us get to purgatory in this life. There are other contenders - being stuck in a motorway jam, trapped on a Tube train between stations, avoiding other peoples' diseases in the doctor's waiting room - but the airport lounge is closest to purgatory because it is where we wait in hopeful expectation of being lifted into the heavens on wings and set down in some holiday paradise.

In airport lounges, people sit in serried rows like fallen angels. The unkind glare from fluorescent lamps underscores every facial spot, line and bag. It turns the healthiest traveller into a semblance of the undead. People fidget with tickets and passports and examine the contents of their pockets with a fascination bordering on the pathological. They inspect their fingernails and shoes, yawn when others yawn and pretend to read the Economist.

No one wants to be in an airport lounge any more than the souls of those departed want to hang around in purgatory for the AD3000 departure to heaven. Airport lounges are so ineffably boring because no one wants to be in them and therefore no effort is made to make them in any way pleasurable. They are non-places.

For those with business cards, combination-lock briefcases and all-year tans, there is at least a better class of purgatory. This is the business or first class lounge, with its offer of a little privacy, peace and quiet, wall-to-wall carpet, sofas arranged along the perimeter wall, rubber plants in what look like dustbins, a blond wood bar, office-style ceiling tiles and a pile of duty-free magazines. This is the traveller's limbo.

Now, however, Richard Branson, the toothsome hero of the transatlantic hop, has devised a brand new breed of airport lounge. This week at Heathrow's Terminal Three, the Clubhouse opened for Virgin Atlantic's 'Upper Class' passengers (the lower class must wait with the rest of hoi polloi on the other side of the Clubhouse's bronze-clad doors). Given the general state of airport lounges, the Clubhouse is rather special. But if you find the idea of sitting at an antique table from Mr Branson's own country house less than winning, and never-ending cartoons celebrating everyone's favourite entrepreneur a touch self-congratulatory, then the Clubhouse is not for you.

However, if the idea of cocktails brought to your table by model railway (it may well arrive by the 'Virgin Express' itself) gives off all the right signals, book your Upper Class ticket to New York now. No one can say that the Clubhouse designers (Fitch R S) have not tried hard to please.

This is how the Clubhouse differs from limbo and purgatory. It begins unpromisingly, as passengers climb stairs covered in carpet that has more power to distract than a Bridget Riley and which reeks of a sky-high cocktail of aircraft fuel and diesel oil. One of a harem of Mandys in tight red takes your boarding card and points you to the bar. By the time you are leaning against a bar top decorated with imitation Art Deco lamps, the barman not only knows your name but can mix you a real dry martini in a properly chilled glass. So far, you might think, so good.

Propping yourself up by the model railway, you take in the Virgin hot-air balloon making its way backwards and forwards across the ceiling. On the other side of the train set is a pinball machine, followed by a bank of video machines under a starry ceiling (sit in an old dentist's chair and gawp at your choice of Mr Bean, The Stones in the Park, Captain Scarlett or Abba's Greatest Hits. Play one of a number of idiot games on computer screens opposite or climb a brown spiral stair laced with plastic ivy and plane-spot from a tiny observatory armed, courtesy of Mr Branson, with a pair of vintage T B Winter & Son binoculars and Virgin's Flyer's Handbook.

Back downstairs you can play chess or browse through shelves of second- hand books in the library. G M Trevelyan's English Social History might well catch your eye. Or you might be taken by Balzac in a slightly foxed, cloth- bound edition. You might settle for the latest issue of Hello] magazine instead, perched on Mr Branson's antique table.

If you think reading is for wimps, browse through the many works of art on display. There is art everywhere and all of it is for sale. One man's Picasso might be another man's Poussin, but you have to admit the selection of contemporary works from London galleries is at least diverting.

If you want a rest, have a real one, with a massage under soft blue light to the sound of whale song. Now, head past a 'Manneken-Pis' fountain to the lavatories (decorated with more art). Panelled and provided with washbasin, razor and towel (not very nice things to share), these are grand in a Grand Hotel way, and not a little over the top.

Next stop, the telephone. Calls can be made using the latest technology while lying on a daybed. The office is hyperventilating at the other end; where is that report you promised to deliver and had hoped to escape to the States before anyone remembered? No problem; there are antique desks to work at in the study along past the bar (time for a whisky sour) and fax machines galore.

After a spell at work, you flop out in the music room. The reproduction from the Linn hi-fi is excellent, but you will have to fight your fellow passengers to fill this padded room with sounds you like. Pigs might fly and your taste might just be for Madonna and Mahler, Bach and the B52s. Before fists fly in the music room, you should remember that jumbos also fly and, goodness, just how long have you spent playing games and reverting to childhood in this 'Upper Class' lounge?

Presumably the idea behind the Clubhouse is to make the incalculable (the wait for a delayed plane, perhaps) bearable. But Mr Branson - a seasoned traveller as well a man who likes a jolly jape or three - thinks there are plenty of people like him who, when waiting for a connecting plane or rushing from one place to another and needing to make phone calls, send faxes or write letters, will enjoy a lounge that is fun to be in rather than building society staid. The Clubhouse might be a very personal reflection of Mr Branson's way of travelling, but it is likely to imitated.

The Virgin lounge is entertaining, but for those seeking peace and quiet it still falls short of the ideal. For one of the few things that can be said in favour of travel by jet is the fact that it can offer escape from family, friends and work for a few hours. Suspended in neutral space, it allows us time to be by ourselves, lets us read, dream and switch off.

If this is your view, perhaps the dream airport lounge might best be designed by a Japanese Zen gardener or the architect of a Cistercian monastery than by a firm of fashionable interior designers. But, for the foreseeable future, unless you can afford to travel Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, the airport lounge and the time you waste, wings clipped, cocooned in its banal walls, is likely to remain purgatory.

(Photographs omitted)