NEW YORK — Cutting into lines at airports used to be only for the rich, famous or very frequent fliers. But then airlines started granting fast-track access to anybody with the right credit card or who was willing to shell out a few extra dollars.
Now, with the masses clogging up special security and boarding lanes, true VIPs are saying: Get me away from this chaos. And the airlines are listening.
Just as they have made first class more enjoyable with new seats, tastier meals and bigger TVs, airlines are focusing on easing the misery of airports for their highest-paying customers and giving them a truly elite experience.
At a growing number of airports, special agents will meet these celebrities, high-powered executives and wealthy vacationers at the curb and will privately escort them from check-in to security to boarding.
American Airlines built a private check-in lobby in Los Angeles for VIPs who are greeted by name, given preprinted boarding passes, then whisked by elevator to the front of the security line.
Once past security, the VIPs aren’t left to fend for themselves in crowded terminals. Instead, Delta’s new Sky Club in New York includes a hidden lounge-within-a-lounge with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. In Atlanta, Delta will drive some VIPs from one plane to another in a Porsche. There is no need to ever enter the terminal.
The special treatment continues at boarding.
Most passengers jockey to get on the plane first to find a spot for their carry-on luggage. But celebrities like to be the last in their seats to avoid passengers asking for autographs as they trek through first class on the way to rear of the plane. Airlines make sure that last-second boarding is as smooth as possible.
“We even do things like reserve overhead bin space for them,” said Ranjan Goswami, who oversees West Coast sales for Delta Air Lines.
American is going one step further and reconfiguring jet bridges to allow boarding through a second door on some planes. That means coach passengers will no longer traipse through first class on its transcontinental flights.
In many ways, airlines are adding these extreme VIP services to fix a problem they have created for themselves.
Frequent fliers find dedicated security lines packed as airlines try to squeeze out every dollar from passengers. Boarding has become a free-for-all as passengers fight for overhead bin space, a situation created when the airlines started charging $25 extra to check suitcases.
There is a lot of money on the line. At big airlines like American, 70 percent of the revenue comes from 20 percent of its customers.
A one-way transcontinental business-class seat purchased at the last minute can cost more than $2,500. By contrast, a non-refundable ticket in coach booked at least 21 days in advance might cost $159.
“L.A.-New York is the pearl of domestic flying,” said airline analyst Bob Harrell. “Airlines are fighting tooth and nail to get more than their share of passengers, particularly in the front of the plane.”
At American Airlines’ AA Flagship lounge at Los Angeles International Airport, VIP passengers receive a discreet and expedited check-in process, personal access to agents for assistance with check-in and bag check, and a separate security line. American also is reconfiguring some jet bridges to bring coach passengers onto planes in a way that avoids their traipsing through first class on transcontinental flights.×