Four ways to buy your way out of long queues at airports, and feel like a VIP
- From airline meet-and-greet services to government programmes and concierge services, there are ways to skip security, boarding, immigration and customs lines
- Pay as little as US$10 or as much as US$4,000 to buy time, and privacy
Long queues are the bane of the airline passenger’s existence, especially during peak holiday travel.
A cascade of them, from check-in to security to boarding, and then through immigration and customs clearance, isn’t just annoying: they can make you miss your flight, especially if navigating an unfamiliar airport, or arriving with little time to spare.
Even “fast lane” departure and arrival queues meant for business and first-class passengers provide no panacea. Queues are the great leveller, like death. You may have flown to London in first class but end up waiting in the same queue as the person in the middle seat at the back of the plane by the toilets.
Here are some of the ways you can shorten the wait, or even eliminate it altogether.
In the United States, TSA (Transportation Security Administration) Precheck (US$85 for five years) sends passengers into shorter and quicker TSA queues, allowing you to keep your shoes on and your laptop and size-compliant liquids and gels inside your carry-on.
I prefer TSA Global Entry (US$100 for five years) because it includes Precheck and also ensures a quick, line-free re-entry into the US through immigration and customs (sometimes the customs inspection queues are worse than immigration I’ve noticed).
Other countries offer quick or automated immigration only for residents, but if you travel to the United Kingdom at least twice a year, own an eligible passport, and you’re willing to pay the £70 (US$92) annual fee, look into the Registered Traveller service, which allows automated processing through immigration at most UK airports as well as at Eurostar terminals.
Airlines offer line-beating perks that you can buy when you book your ticket. Some cost as little as US$10. United Airlines, for example, offers a “Signature Service” for VIP treatment at 11 airports, with prices starting at US$250 per passenger. For a lucky few, VIP service might cost nothing at all: it could be included in your airfare. Airlines such as British Airways and Emirates employ cadres of special service agents who wave their magic wands and make queues disappear for celebrities and uber-frequent-fliers.
Not a celebrity? Neither am I, but when I flew first class on Air France not long ago an agent met me at check-in, escorted me to the head of the TSA line, then to the lounge, then to the gate and – just in case I might have imbibed too much champagne in the lounge, I guess – all the way to my seat. On landing, I was met at the plane’s door, brought down to the tarmac, and handed over to a driver who sped me to the terminal.
Not in first class? Air France offers a meet-and-greet service to any customer at four French airports, with prices starting at €120 (US$137) for the first passenger and €10 to €20 for additional passengers.
VIP airport concierges
Most of these programmes do not help with security or immigration at airports outside the US, such at London Heathrow, where I have spent many an hour zigzagging back and forth between crowd-control stanchions, in jet-lagged stupor, even with “fast lane” access.
That is where VIP airport concierges come in. For a fee these enterprises promise to meet you at the kerb or at the aeroplane’s door, “expedite” you through security and passport control, and, when airport policy allows, usher you to the front of the queues. Frankfurt Airport offers a VIP experience for any connecting passenger starting at €119. It includes gate-to-gate transfer by electric cart or, in some cases, via a luxury car on the airport’s tarmac. Some other airports offer similar perks.
One of the largest firms, London-based Global Airport Concierge, works in over 700 airports worldwide, with prices starting at US$150 per service.
In 100 of those airports the company offers a VVIP service whereby passengers wait in a private lounge or private terminal while security and other formalities are processed far from the maddening crowds and the prying eyes of the paparazzi.
Prices vary depending on airport (at LAX and London’s Heathrow, the fee is over US$4,000, but those two are anomalies and the service at most airports costs much less).
Then there’s Blacklane Pass, a product from Berlin-based Blacklane, which works with nearly 300 airport concierge firms, including Global Airport Concierge.
Known mostly for its private chauffeur services, Blacklane has re-imagined the VIP airport concierge business by charging a flat US$100 per service in over 500 airports.
“There was a lot of pricing disparity, a lot of add-on fees and a lot of confusion,” says Adam Parken, Blacklane’s spokesman. The rates varied from airport to airport and some were “base” prices, he says, not necessarily the final cost.
Indeed, fees do vary so compare prices. Occasionally dealing directly with a local or smaller provider such as Marhaba, Asia Fast Track or Fast Track Aero might cost less than Blacklane’s flat US$100 fee.
And for something really special …
Then there are the ultra VVIP opportunities, normally only available to the sort of people who fly “private” on their Gulfstreams and Cessna Citations. When circumstances compel them to fly merely in first class on a “commercial” flight a few airports offer ultra-exclusive experiences.
At the Los Angeles airport celebrities and CEOs are treated to the Private Suite Experience, which takes place in a very private, gated terminal far from the maddening crowds, with its own line-free security and immigration access.
If you have to ask how much all this costs you, like me, probably cannot afford it.