Sarah Wilkins can't stop jumping the queue at the airport.
The British writer first sampled Gatwick's Premium Security service in 2016 while covering it on her Liberty London Girl blog. Since then, Wilkins has repeatedly paid to use the airport's two fast-track lanes, which limit access to security and passport control to 50 passengers an hour. "It's nice not having to stand in line with 500 other people, all of whom seem to be sorting through their toiletries," she says.
Reserving a spot in both lanes typically saves at least 30 minutes, she adds, yet it costs a total of just £12 ($21). This means Wilkins needs neither a bottomless bank account nor elite loyalty status to breeze through, as she puts it, "like George Clooney in Up in the Air," the 2009 film in which the actor plays a savvy frequent flyer. This kind of accessible elitism might be scorned elsewhere, but in the increasingly grim and polarized world of air travel, it comes as something of a relief to discover that many other airports around the world, including several in Canada, are adding new, and newly affordable, services and programs that give travellers a taste of how the other half gets to the gate.
Fast-track security and passport control
All five of Britain's busiest airports now offer pay-per-use fast-track lanes. Outside of Britain, this kind of service usually costs nothing, but that's because it's governed either by loyalty-plan status or class of travel. If you're flying economy or lack the requisite mileage, the shorter queue is not for you.
A subtle exception exists at Montreal-Trudeau, Vancouver and Ottawa international airports, where domestic "FasTrack" security lanes (and other perks) are available to all Visa Infinite Privilege cardholders – even those with no loyalty status whatsoever. The catch: Getting the card in the first place requires an annual household income of at least $200,000, as well as $399 to cover the annual fee.
Regardless of how these access lanes are governed, it should be noted that they don't expedite progress through passport control or security. For that, passengers must belong to international preapproval programs, such as NEXUS, Global Entry, and Britain's Registered Traveller program.
Meet-and-greet staff do more than hold placards, wrangle luggage and open limousine doors these days. At five air hubs across Canada, Airport Butler concierges do this and also meet guests immediately upon arrival, monitor flight status, assist with check-in, arrange everything from hotel reservations to spa treatments and, whenever possible, escort guests through security and immigration en route to departure gates or ground transportation.
And if there's a fast-track lane along the way, the concierges take it. For all domestic flights and international departures, "my guests go down any line I want," says Bhagwan Ram, the five-year-old company's director of terminal services at Vancouver International. "We have channels we can use to do this, but we don't want to advertise those channels."
The Canada Border Services Agency "wants to treat everybody the same," he continues, "but we've got these high-end clients, so why can't we offer the same high-end services we see in Europe and in Asia? These VIPs are going to follow all the regular protocols one way or another, and we're just trying to expedite them. I mean, I can't have Matt Damon standing in customs in front of a thousand people, right?"
How much more does a guest like Damon pay for Airport Butler's gate-to-curb services, which start at about $250 for a group of four? "There's no extra charge," Ram says.
"People are slowly realizing that if they book as a group, they can have this effortless experience for less than they'll spend on a cab."
Similar concierge services from Allways, Toronto Pearson's "official VIP Meet and Greet provider," exemplify the airport's response to increasingly astute travellers, says Giovanna Verrilli, associate director of retail and passenger development at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. "Research and industry trends suggest demand for more concierge-type services, and for a variety of services all in one place – a one-stop shop, if you will."
Passengers, she adds, "are seeing services in other airports, or even in other venues, that they see as valuable to the travel experience."
Allways's services start at $215 for foursomes and dip close to $40 a person when booked online using the "CIBCFitsYourLife" promo code.
Does Matt Damon use promo codes? The pleasing dilution of the term "VIP" continues apace.
Several international airports, such as London Heathrow, Barcelona-El Prat and Rome's Leonardo da Vinci, have personal shoppers on hand to help travellers clean out duty-free boutiques. These no-minimum-spend services are free to book, so beyond some inevitable awkwardness, there's nothing stopping travellers from window shopping with a guide at their side.
Airport loyalty programs
It's common knowledge that economy-class passengers who lack the requisite loyalty status can get into many upscale airport and airline lounges simply by paying for admission. Another option involves joining a program such as Priority Pass, which covers more than 1,000 lounges in hundreds of cities for an annual membership fee that starts at about $120.
It's less well known that many airports have launched their own loyalty plans, with most offering lounge access as a reward. Such is the case with Copenhagen Airport's CPH Advantage program, Heathrow Rewards and the ViaMilano Program at Milano-Malpensa.
Then there's the Thanks Again program, which is in place at more than 100 airports across the United States – including Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles International – and which counts airline loyalty points, and in turn lounge access, among its rewards.
Private airport suites
Luxurious private digs at airports such as Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol avoid airport chaos altogether. One of the newest examples, the Private Suite at Los Angeles International, comes with its own security gate and customs and immigration checkpoint.
Deplaning guests immediately slide into a waiting BMW sedan, which crosses the tarmac en route to a gated complex of suites, each with its own bathroom, food-service pantry, two-person daybed and runway views.
Obviously, the Private Suite treatment doesn't come cheap – it costs about US$3,500 for a group of four – but if private jet-style treatment is your foursome's goal then this does the trick for under a grand a head.
And you never know: You might even run into Matt Damon.