NEW YORK (AP) — Cutting in 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 spend a few extra dollars.
Now, with the masses clogging up special security and boarding lanes in the U.S., true VIPs are saying, "Get me away from this chaos." And the airlines are listening.
Just as they've 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 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 and whisked by elevator to the front of the security line.
Once past security, the VIPs aren't left 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. And in Atlanta, Delta will drive some VIPs from one plane to another in a Porsche. There's no need to enter the terminal.
The special treatment continues at boarding.
Most passengers jostle 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. Airlines make sure that last-second boarding is as smooth as possible.
"We even do things like reserve overhead bin space for them," says 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 the 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's 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," says 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."
American's VIP check-in was originally designed to shield celebrities from Los Angeles paparazzi. But there was another benefit: Fliers found themselves avoiding the hassle of the airport. The concept has since been expanded to Miami and is coming this year to Chicago, Dallas and New York.
But it's not just for celebrities. Anybody can pay for the service and a chance to feel like a star — at least for a few hours.
American's program — called Five Star Service — costs between $125 and $275 for the first passenger, depending on the airport. Each additional adult is $75; children are $50 extra. Delta's VIP Select, only available through the airline's corporate sales department or travel agents in the know, costs $125 for the first person, $75 for the second and $125 for each additional person, regardless of age. These fees are in addition to the price of a ticket.
United Airlines has a program but limits it to VIPs. Spokesman Rahsaan Johnson refused to detail it, saying "the individuals who enjoy the service we are providing understand what it is."
American and Delta also offer assistance on arrival, but the same fees have to be paid again. Agents assist with baggage and — at some airports — help passengers cut lines at immigration.
It's as close as a passenger can come to a private jet, without shelling out $30,000.
"It's just nice to have somebody there to almost hold your hand through the process," says Stacy Small, president of Elite Travel International, who often books such assistance for her clients.
Mark Howitson, a lawyer and former Facebook executive, is one of them.
When traveling with his wife and three children, he always pays extra for the assistance, if available. Not only do they skip to the front of every line and get help if there are delays, but airline staff will find his kids the best seats in the terminal to watch planes take off.
"It just makes the whole thing so much less stressful," Howitson, 40, says. "This is a cheaper alternative to flying in a private plane."