For an American Airlines flight to Miami last month, my husband and I and our 16-month-old daughter were treated like celebrities. We were greeted at the curb at LaGuardia Airport by an American representative, her hair swept back in a practical ponytail, who checked us in and handled our baggage, and then whisked us through security, bypassing a long line of disgruntled passengers whose looks read, “Who the heck are you?”
Then she guided us into the airline’s tranquil lounge, where we sank into leather chairs and were treated to bagels, apples, coffee and orange juice. While we waited, our daughter tested out some virtually soundproof glass-fronted mini-conference rooms by screeching at us from the other side, and our personal assistant worked on getting us better seats toward the front of the plane.
“I tried to block a seat next to you for the baby,” she said apologetically, “but the plane is oversold.” When it was time to board, she walked us to our gate and up to the plane with the first-class and other elite passengers.
It was then that our taste of the good life ended and we took our seats — in coach.
It'll cost you
So how did we gain such special treatment? We paid for it: $200 a couple in addition to the price of our tickets for myself and my husband to receive American’s V.I.P. treatment (our baby received it free of charge) through the carrier’s Five Star Service program. Once reserved for celebrities and V.I.P.’s traveling between New York, Los Angeles and Miami, American began offering the service to passengers at Kennedy Airport in 2007, and expanded it to 11 airports last year. The program is being promoted through an online sweepstakes that promises to get you through the airport “like a star (jealous glances included).”
American isn’t the only airline offering V.I.P. service to coach passengers willing to pay for it. In June, JetBlue introduced Even More Speed, which offers passengers who, depending on the flight, pay $10 to $75 extra for a seat with more legroom, a spot in an expedited security line at 15 airports, including Newark Liberty, San Francisco and Kennedy. And United began selling a variety of perks a couple of years ago, ranging from door-to-door baggage delivery ($79 to $99, depending on the flight) to expedited security and preboarding (from $9). Its Premier Travel package, which starts at $47 for short flights, bundles several add-ons, including Economy Plus seating with extra legroom ($9 to $163, depending on the flight), expedited security and priority boarding (from $9), and bonus miles (from $9). And practically every airline will sell you a day pass to its airline lounge for about $50, often less if you buy it online in advance.
These pay-as-you-go perks follow a recent spate of charges for services that used to be free on many carriers — like checked bags, exit row seats and onboard meals — as airlines continue to look for ways to boost revenue through add-ons. But unlike fees for baggage and similar amenities, these new à la carte options come with special treatment previously unavailable to coach passengers unless they were an elite frequent flier or a movie star.
For us, the extra treatment was well worth it. We did have a 10-minute wait outside at the curb while our assistant entered our daughter’s passport details for security purposes into American’s computer system (which, annoyingly, does not allow parents to enter the data online or over the phone for children traveling in their parents’ laps). Otherwise, we didn’t wait in a single line during the entire check-in, security and boarding procedures. Although we did, of course, have to take off our shoes and walk through the metal detector at security, we were not subjected to any of the usual rigmarole of pulling out our toiletries to verify that they complied with the three-ounce rule, or having our carry-on bags rifled through.
Smart cost for tight schedules
We had plenty of time to board, settle into our seats and avoided the usual fight for the overhead bins. Simply put: for $200 we gained the exclusive privilege of a civilized airport experience. If we had gone à la carte, and just paid for two day passes to the lounge and expedited boarding, it would have cost $80 less.
We could have paid another $200 for assistance with our connecting flight in Miami and yet another $200 for help getting through customs and baggage claim at our final destination. At $125 a person or $200 a couple, it’s a pricey proposition that doesn’t really make sense for a savvy single traveler who knows her way around an airport. But for families traveling on a particularly tight schedule, people worried about, say, an elderly mother traveling alone, or those who simply don’t want to deal with the usual stress of getting through the airport, taking advantage of this service can be worth it for one leg of the trip.
Airlines say they are offering such services as a way to address the aggravations of flying — particularly at the airport itself. “It’s definitely designed to improve the overall airport experience and all those points that could potentially cause stress,” said Nancy Kipp, managing director of premium services at American. “It could be simply finding your way through the airport if it’s not familiar, especially with a tight connection.”
Airlines also point out that they carefully limit the sale of certain perks to ensure availability to frequent fliers. Controlling the number of its Premier Travel packages and other perks sold individually, said Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman, “ensures elites get an elite experience.”
Platinum service with plastic
There are other ways in which coach travelers can gain elite amenities. Credit card issuers are offering new airline benefits for globetrotting cardholders. Just this month, Delta added priority boarding and 20 percent off in-flight food, beverages and movies to its roster of benefits offered to Gold and Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express credit card holders who pay $95 a year. That fee had already guaranteed the first checked bag free for the card member and up to eight traveling companions. In July, Citibank introduced the American Airlines-branded Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard, which carries a host of travel perks, including lounge access, priority screening and boarding, and free checked bags, for a $450 annual fee. Also in July, Chase introduced the United MileagePlus Explorer Card offering two United airport club passes a year, priority boarding, the first checked bag free and other perks for a $95 annual fee.
While all this is good news for those of us in the back of the plane, ultimately, offering such perks to the masses — albeit for a price — threatens to dilute airlines’ loyalty programs and turn off their most valuable customers. Tim Winship, an editor for SmarterTravel.com and the publisher of FrequentFlier.com, said he has seen this play out at hotel check-ins where there are more people in the frequent guest line than there are in the regular one.
“If you give everyone access to the expedited security lane, there is the potential to create the opposite of the intended effect,” he said.
This story, "Elite for a Day, in Coach, for a Fee," originally appeared in the New York Times.