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.
But that doesn't mean the masses take advantage of such services; many travelers balk at paying $25 to check a suitcase.
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 from San Carlos, Calif., 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."
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.
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