How much would you pay to skip the security and customs lines at the airport? Easing the pain of jet-setting is a promise that a growing number of "airport concierge" companies are making to frequent fliers, whether they’re departing or arriving.
These concierge companies are a fast-growing segment. At least ten airport concierge companies have debuted in the last three years, according to Michael Holtz, whose global travel consultancy SmartFlyer specialises in airports and airlines.
Their popularity is growing, he said, as more people fly more often and get increasingly fed up with the hassle of it all. "If you’re time pressed, hate waiting in long lines or simply want to feel like a VIP, these services are for you," Holtz said.
For anywhere between US$100 to US$4,000, travellers can book online, by phone, or through travel agents, and get expedited security access, help with getting VAT refunds, even access to private lounges.
Unlike TSA Pre Check, these programs don’t require participation from individual airlines; instead, they partner with airports to clear security hurdles necessary to operate across terminals. As such, their business is similar to stores and restaurants that pay airports a fee to run airport locations.
Established players in this under-the-radar industry are also reporting upticks. The five-year-old Asia Fast Track, which focuses on Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East, averaged 500 bookings per month this year, compared with 150 a month in 2016.
Royal Airport Concierge, a global service that’s been around since 2006, has doubled its business in the past five years. Founder Ron Gorfinkel didn’t provide specific figures but said, “We’re talking about [bookings] in the thousands.”
For Albert Herrera, the senior vice president of Global Product Partnerships at the travel agent consortium Virtuoso, sales of VIP airport services still only comprise about 2 percent of the company’s US$22 billion of annual revenue, but that’s four times what it was two years ago. “VIP airport concierges used to be for celebrities or the ultra-wealthy, but they’re now for anyone who wants a seamless airport experience,” he said.
Here’s a look at how four of the most significant airport concierge companies compare – and which might be right for you.
Royal Airport Concierge
Where it operates: In more than 750 airports globally, Royal Airport Concierge operates in many major hubs – JFK, Heathrow and Seoul among others – as well as in more vacation-centric spots such as Cancun, Miami, and Nice.
How it works: Flyers have the option to book different tiers of service, but the exact number of tiers depends on the airport itself. At the most basic end, travelers are assigned a greeter who will accompany them from the time they arrive at the airport to when they board their flight; they get assistance with check-in and their carry-on bags. (That’s most helpful for unaccompanied minors or big families with loads to lug.) Those who book the middle tier get fast tracked through security and immigration in most countries.
Splurging for the highest level of service is a full-scale luxury production. It means a ride to the plane in a limousine and entry into a private suite in the airport terminal that has complimentary amenities such as a top-shelf bar, a full spread of food with caviar, showers, and an office. And, of course, a butler to wait on you.
Best for: Luxury-loving flyers, big families, unattended minors.
The cost: US$100 per person for the most basic service, while US $750 gets you the works.
Where it operates: Not as large as Royal Airport Concierge, at 500 airports worldwide, but it operates in many of the same hubs, including Paris, New York, Rome, Beijing, and Dubai.
How it works: Blacklane PASS launched this summer as an offshoot of the car service company Blacklane. Its customers get a standard escort service that fast tracks them through security, customs, and immigration; carries their luggage; and helps process VAT refunds. On your departure, your greeter can wait at the gate and call you when it’s time to board so you’re free to roam the Duty Free.
On the way back, they’ll be waiting at the gate as soon as you get off the plane – a luxury that few post-9/11 travelers get to experience. One caveat: Unless you have lounge access on your own, you’ll have to pay extra for Blacklane to book you into one.
Best for: Flyers who care more about efficiency than high-end perks.
The cost: US$100 per person for either departures, arrivals, or connections (children two and under are free). While most patrons tip their greeters, a company spokesman said that gratuity is optional and not required.
Asia Fast Track
Where it operates: In more than 300 airports in Asia Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East
How it works: Asia Fast Track specializes in a region of the world where VIP services are relatively easier to come by – airports in the most populous continent have fewer government restrictions than those in the Americas and Europe. All customers are escorted through every step of their arrival or departure process, whether that means being met at the plane before immigration for an arrival service or at the curbside for a departure - at most airports that means expedited service, but not all hubs allow for that perk (so be sure to ask ahead of booking).
At select airports like Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, in Taipei, you can get more handholding through services like check-in at a private terminal or a tarmac transfer where you're driven to or from the plane in a limousine.
Best for: Flyers who regularly visit Asia
The cost: US$99 to US$299 per person for either arrivals, departures, or connections and depending on the airport and level of service booked. Gratuity is included.
The Private Suite
Where it operates: Los Angeles International Airport – with New York’s John F. Kennedy coming soon.
How it works: Owned and operated by the prominent security firm Gavin de Becker & Associates, The Private Suite, which launched in May 2017, is perhaps the most full-service offering of the bunch – but it’s also most limited in its operations. It’s essentially a former cargo facility adjacent to LAX that’s been converted into a private terminal serving all commercial airlines.
As the name hints, the space has eleven private suites, each with a two-person daybed, bathroom, a food pantry with snacks and a dedicated staff.
Travellers willing to pay up for access can also take advantage of luxuries like private TSA screening, on-site customs and immigration processing, and a ride to their aircraft in a BMW 7-series sedan. They’re great perks, but not as extraordinary as the price tag might suggest.
Best for: Flyers who have an unlimited budget and aren’t afraid to spend it.
The cost: US$3,700 for domestic flights and US$4,000 for international flights – covering up to four passengers per reservation. Frequent travelers can sign up for an annual membership for Us$4,500, which knocks US$1,000 off each reservation and adds extra perks, like multi-course meals, massages, haircuts, and the use of a conference room.