Long lines 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: These lines can make you miss your flight, especially if navigating an unfamiliar airport, and more so if you arrive with little time to spare before takeoff, or if your connection is tight.
Even “fast lane” departure and arrival lines, meant for business- and first-class passengers, when and where offered, provide no panacea. Lines are the great leveler, like death. You may have flown to London in first class but end up waiting in the same queue as the poor guy in the middle seat at the back of the plane by the lavatory.
Here are some of the ways you can shorten the wait, or even eliminate waiting altogether.
You’ve probably already heard of TSA Precheck and Global Entry, but if not let me explain. Precheck ($85 for five years) sends passengers into shorter and quicker TSA lines, allowing you to keep your shoes on and your laptop and size-compliant liquids and gels inside your carry-on. I prefer Global Entry ($100 for five years) because it includes Precheck and also ensures a quick, line-free re-entry into the U.S. through immigration and customs (sometimes the customs inspection lines 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 annual fee, look into the Registered Traveller service, which allows automated processing through immigration at most U.K. airports as well as at Eurostar terminals.
More: Airport security: TSA PreCheck vs. Global Entry vs. Clear
Airlines offer line-beating perks that you can buy when you book your airfare. For $10 JetBlue, for example, will let you use the same TSA security line that its first-class customers enjoy; for $15 Delta will let you board the plane along with its preferred frequent flyers, giving you early access to the overhead bins; and for the same price United will let you use the priority check-in line or board the plane earlier than your fare would otherwise warrant. If lines are horrendously long, these $10 and $15 upgrades can make the difference between catching your flight or not.
Higher up the pecking order, United Airlines offers a “Signature Service” with VIP treatment at 11 airports, with prices starting at $250 per passenger. American sells its “5-Star Service” also for $250 per passenger in the U.S. and $300 overseas. Both programs include priority security lines and immigration processing (in some cases to the head of the line), but American’s is only for business- and first-class passengers.
Or, for a lucky few, VIP service might cost nothing at all: It could be included in your airfare. Airlines such as BA and Emirates employ cadres of special service agents who wave their magic wands and make lines disappear for celebrities and uber-frequent flyers.
Not a celebrity? Neither am I, but when I flew first class on Air France not long ago my ticket came with an agent who met me at check-in, escorted me to the head of the TSA line, then to the lounge, then to the head of the line at the gate and just in case I might have imbibed too much Champagne in the lounge, I guess, all the way to my seat (voila! monsieur). 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 similar meet-and-greet service to any customer at four French airports with prices starting at 120 euros for the first passenger and 10 to 20 euros for additional passengers in the same party.
VIP airport concierges
But most of these programs don’t help with security or immigration at airports outside the U.S., such as at 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.
So that’s where VIP airport concierges come in. For a fee these enterprises promise to meet you at the curb or at the airplane’s door and “expedite” you through security and passport control, and, when airport policy allows, even ushering you to the front of the lines.
Frankfurt Airport operates a VIP experience for any connecting passenger starting at 119 euros. 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 $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 $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 $100 per service in over 500 airports.
I tried Blacklane Pass recently at New York’s JFK, and was met by a Delta Air Lines Select Services employee at Terminal 2, although my flight was leaving from Terminal 4, because, he said, TSA lines are much shorter at 2 than at 4. He then drove me along the tarmac in a Porsche Panamera to the Delta Skyclub lounge in Terminal 4 to await boarding for my seriously delayed flight to London. Had the flight been on time, however, he would have driven me directly to the plane, to board before any of the other passengers. I got the full Delta concierge experience, by paying Blacklane $100, a service for which Delta normally charges $250 or more. I have to say that, other than the three-hour delay, it was a lot of fun.
And for something really special
Then there are the ultra-VIP opportunities, ones only affordable to the Thurston Howell IIIs of the world. Normally, these people fly “private” on their Gulfstreams and Cessna Citations. But when circumstances compel them to fly merely in first class on a “commercial” flight (I can just hear Lovey Howell sighing “Oh Thurston, this is ghastly!”), 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 with its own line-free security and immigration access. London’s Heathrow offers something similar as does Frankfurt Airport.
If you have to ask how much all this costs (let’s just say “thousands”), you, like me, probably can’t afford it.
The end of the line for lines?
The good news is that one day your face will be your passport and your boarding pass. Long lines will be a thing of the past. Airlines are working with airports and government agencies to introduce biometric passenger identification: Look into a camera, walk through the gate, and onto the plane. I saw this in action at a British Airways gate in Los Angeles and witnessed a jumbo jet loaded in a matter of minutes. Emirates Airline is experimenting with technology at its Dubai hub that goes even further, eliminating the need to look into a camera: Facial-recognition cameras throughout the airport follow passengers from the moment they enter the terminal, through security, and onto the plane, without ever showing a passport or boarding pass. Eventually, your mug will be your passport to the world.
More: Delta says USA’s ‘first biometric terminal’ is ready to go at Atlanta airport
George Hobica has worked in the travel industry as an airline employee, entrepreneur and journalist, and has flown on almost every commercial airliner from the DC-3 to the Concorde.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hate lines at the airport? Pay to make them go away
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