Elite Status on Airlines for a Fee – NYTimes.com
$200 To not deal with the hassles of the airport…
Elite for a Day, in Coach, for a Fee
Published: August 31, 2011
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 La Guardia 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.
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, as well as a spot in an expedited security line at 15 airports, including Newark Liberty, San Franciscoand Kennedy. And United began selling a variety of perks a couple of years ago, like door-to-door baggage delivery ($79 to $99, depending on the flight) and 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 on-board 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 rigamarole of pulling out our toiletries to verify that they complied with the three-ounce rule, or having our carry-on bags rifled through.
We had plenty of time to board and 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.
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