When Chicago attorney Martin McKenzie flies, whether for business or with his family, he wants more than anything to avoid long lines. His aim is always to get through check-in and security in about 20 minutes. Then he heads to a private lounge to rest up or find snacks and entertainment for his kids.
"I've never waited behind more than 10 people to check in," he says. What might be surprising is that unless he's going overseas, this travel veteran now typically flies coach. He snags efficient first-class service by tacking VIP or concierge services onto his no-frills ticket for a total cost that can fall far short of a first-class fare.
These services, once used mostly by the wealthy and business executives, are becoming more popular and available to a broader section of users. They can cost as little as USD 125 per person but go up to more than USD 1,000 depending on the city and level of exclusivity. As security lines and flight delays get longer and on-board comforts disappear, everyone from road warriors to parents traveling with kids want quicker lines and better amenities than they can find at the airport food court.
"People generally have become more open to paying up to sweeten the traveling experience," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. "United's Premier Travel starts at USD 47 per person. While we might do it grudgingly, we do find more than ever that it may be worth paying if it means priority security lines, priority boarding and five inches of extra leg room."
Rafi Cattan, a co-founder Washington, DC-based Royal Airport Concierge Service, estimates his business has grown by about 25% a year since he started in 2005. He says economy ticket holders are a small but growing portion of his clients.
VIP services usually include access to lounges that get more exclusive as the price goes up. But the real draw is that they minimize, or entirely bypass, airport lines.
The services typically have an escort meet you curbside, sometimes at a private airport entrance. That person will have your boarding passes printed and waiting for you (or will steer you through priority check-in if that's not possible). If they don't have a dedicated security check for VIPS they'll walk you to the front of the long public line. And they'll escort you to your gate so you can be the very first or very last person to board (your choice).
If you buy separate landing services, an escort meets you at the gate, speeds you through customs and immigration if you're traveling abroad, retrieves your luggage and takes you to the car they have waiting.
"Marathon business travel puts a lot of wear and tear on your body," says McKenzie. "I'm interested in anything that will allow me to use less energy so I'm not increasingly weary as the week goes on and the weekend at home isn't just recovery."
When McKenzie was logging more than 200 travel days a year in a previous job, he accessed these services by paying for a club membership with American Airlines. Now he travels regularly but less often, so he buys concierge services for individual trips via airports, airlines or private companies.
The private companies do business internationally and typically serve dozens of airports. They work with the Transportation Security Administration and individual airports and airlines to gain access to priority lines for their clients and to obtain the airport clearance their employees need to pass through the security gate and deliver clients to and from the jet way.
Michael Cano, CEO of 25-year-old Gateway Meet & Greet, which operates worldwide, notes that even while his business is growing, it's getting trickier to execute.
Stricter TSA regulations mean it takes more legwork to gain the access he needs. And Lately, Cano has been seeing more competition from airlines and airports, which can move their own escorts through the terminals with fewer hassles. Heathrow in London and Changi Airport in Singapore are among airports that have launched or expanded VIP services in the last five years. Munich Airport unveiled a new VIP Service in June.
American Airlines, JetBlue and United Airlines have recently begun offering pay-as-you-go perks, including expedited check-in and security lines, early boarding and even baggage delivery. American, which had only been offering its Five Star service at New York's JFK, rolled it to nearly a dozen airports in 2010.
Consider that, based on recent price quotes on Expedia, a business class flight from Hong Kong to Singapore can cost more than four times a USD 238 economy fare. A first-class hop from Miami to Dallas can cost seven times a USD 277 economy ticket. Adding USD 150 to an economy ticket to have a first-class airport experience can seem like a good deal.
"The advantage of first class is extra room on the plane and services like a quicker security line," says Hank Kearney, president of PHM International, a consulting firm in Orlando. "When space isn't an issue it makes sense to buy an economy ticket and get these services in other ways."
Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a New York research firm, recently tried the new VIP Wing at Munich airport. His flight to Brussels wouldn't land until after 11:00 PM, so he wanted to catch up on work and have dinner before boarding. The service, which starts at 290 euros (about USD 400) is pricier than some but the airport's website notes that the it "can be booked regardless of your airline or ticket class!"
For Spira it began with an arranged car service that took him to a private airport entrance. It was a rainy night and Octoberfest time, so a lounge employee dressed in a traditional dirndl met his car with an umbrella. "We walked in and my luggage disappeared - it was just taken care of. I had to go through security but it was so quick I didn't even feel it."
He ate dinner from a buffet and worked in a semi-private alcove while the representative took care of his value-added-tax refund (he says he often forfeits it because he doesn't want to wait in line.)
Exactly eight minutes before his flight, she drove him across the tarmac to his gate. "I was the very last person to board, which I prefer," he says. "It was just so relaxing and I was able to get done what I needed to."
How often can you say that about a trip to the airport?
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own