Elite-level frequent fliers get lots of perks and attention from airlines. But it’s nothing like the “star” treatment.
Despite massive cost-cutting and shrinking service, airlines still roll out the red carpet for celebrities. Many carriers have “special service” staffers to speed stars and VIPs through airports and on to planes, or out back doors to limousines. Special rooms, some hidden behind unmarked doors adjacent to gates and some private lounges inside airport clubs, are reserved for politicians, movie stars, sports heroes and other dignitaries.
“We are left to our own devices in terms of creativity,” said Philip Williams, a British Airways PLC special-services representative at Los Angeles International Airport, which is ground zero for airline star treatment. British Airways recently slipped a major movie star out of the airport “completely avoiding photographers by devious, but legal, means,” Mr. Williams says with pride. He can’t say who, but airport officials say Angelina Jolie was a recent airport patron.
In general, if you have to ask for it, you probably don’t qualify for special-services treatment. But even if you haven’t won an Oscar, you can purchase a bit of special coddling for yourself for as little as $100.
AMR Corp.’s American Airlines has special concierge handling called “Five Star” service available at LAX and New York’s Kennedy International Airport where an airline representative meets you, shuttles you quickly through check-in and security screening and on to a gate or airport club. The airline set up the service for movie studio VIPs and American doesn’t advertise the service, says Mark Mitchell, American’s managing director of customer experience. You won’t find mention of it on the airline’s Web site. But it is available to anyone in the know. (Psst. The phone number is 877-578-2702.)
Two private firms, Airport Assistance Worldwide and LJR & Associates, offer similar services to the public as well as the rich and famous. Both are based in Los Angeles, but serve other airports as well.
Amy Goldsmith, a public-relations executive, received a certificate for use of LJR’s service as a gift from a friend and used it for a trip with her husband, baby and nanny. The family was met at the curb by a man who bypassed baggage check-in lines, security lines and then, once inside security, watched their belongings while they slipped into Starbucks. “It was amazing,” she said, and has since used LJR for a second trip with her infant. The service cost about $110, including tips.
“It made me uncomfortable when everyone was watching us move to the front of the line, because I’m not that person,” said Ms. Goldsmith. “But you get over it pretty quickly.”
Private services said they can’t guarantee clients will be able to bypass lines — that’s up to Transportation Security Administration officials and airline workers. “Our reps are pretty aggressive when they need to be,” said Michelle Kohler of Airport Assistance, whose prices at LAX start at $95.
The airlines’ celebrity wrangling efforts can go much further. American’s terminal at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, an unmarked door in the concourse opens Oz-like to a private waiting room with a wall of autographed photos of members of Congress and movie stars. At some key airports, American has motorized privacy carts to ferry VIPs to gates with fringe hanging down from the roof that “obscures the faces of the VIPs,” a spokesman says.
Airlines allow celebrities to order special meals — and some travel internationally with their own chef who is allowed to cook in airplane galleys. Stars get private phone numbers to airline officials for help with bookings. Carriers sometimes even send employees to stand in long lines at immigration and border security checkpoints if agencies won’t grant special status for traveling stars.
For airlines, star travel is big business. In the early days of jet travel, photos of celebrities on aircraft stairs or smiling at the door to a plane amounted to extraordinary advertising, highlighting the glamour of air travel back then and confirming the credibility of airlines to a public unaccustomed to everyday air travel. Airlines had their own photographers, and made sure company names and logos were perfectly placed over airplane doors or on staircases so they’d show up in the background of pictures.
Trans World Airlines billed itself as the “Airline of Stars,” and owner Howard Hughes took extraordinary care of celebrities. “He could stop an airplane at the drop of a hat for Elizabeth Taylor. And he did,” said Maggie Anderson, who became TWA’s first “ground hostess” in Los Angeles in 1965 and spent 10 years as manager of special services at LAX for American as well.
These days the glamour is gone from air travel, but the benefits of carrying celebrities remain. Besides the secondary perks of rubbing elbows with the famous, Hollywood is a big buyer of travel, particularly high-dollar first-class travel. Being the carrier of choice for stars, or having your name show up in celebrity photos, can be a public-relations windfall.
“Airlines definitely want celebrities on planes,” said Nancy Suey Castles, director of public relations at LAX.
Yet the challenges of handling stars have grown for carriers, both from dealing with tighter security and from swarms of paparazzi staking out keys star airports like LAX and London’s Heathrow Airport.
Everyone boarding a plane has to go through government screening, although many airports have set up special screening lanes for first-class customers that can be used to speed through VIPs. At LAX, airlines say they used to be able to fax a list of a few people for whom they wanted to arrange expedited handling by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, such as slipping them through inspection lines reserved for airline crews. But, now, CBP grants that only if the agency deems there would be a disruption in the line if VIPs stood waiting with everyone else.
Last July, even Victoria Beckham, aka pop singer “Posh Spice” and wife of soccer star David Beckham, was sent to the end of the immigration line as 200 photographers waited outside for her arrival. (British Airways did whisk her children and their nanny out a back door so they’d avoid the media crush.)
Airport police say they try to keep paparazzi from disrupting passenger flow by aggressively enforcing traffic rules and towing paparazzi cars. “We’re laboring under the same problems as the city of Los Angeles — what to do with these people?” said Sgt. James Holcomb of the airport police.
The LAX police force has a dignitary-protection squad that handles mostly heads of state, diplomats and politicians, and officers who can respond quickly when stars unexpectedly cause commotions in terminals.
A swarm of 60 photographers once greeted Jennifer Aniston after a flight from London, airport officials say, and trapped her as she tried to exit. Officers responded and created a “bubble” of protection to move her.
“After that we had three weeks fending phone calls from celebrities asking for security to get them through,” said Ms. Castles of LAX. “The main issue for us is, who is a celebrity?” she said. In other words, who is “big” enough to merit special treatment?
Sgt. Holcomb notes that giving celebrities police protection at airports can sometimes worsen passenger flow — the entourage draws attention and propagates the frenzy.
Though many celebrities have long ago abandoned commercial airlines in favor of private-jet travel, they frequently turn back to airlines for international trips. And some have begun using commercial jets more frequently because of environmental concerns about private jets — it is tough to champion green causes and then get back on a jet with four people.
“They don’t like to be seen in a bad light, no matter what,” said Mr. Williams of British Airways.
At LAX, most celebrities come and go without any fanfare or glad-handing. The airport says on average at least one A-list celebrity comes through every day, many partially shielding famous faces under ball caps. Before her legal troubles, Paris Hilton was able to fly Southwest Airlines Co. to Las Vegas without causing a stir, airport officials say. But no more.
Airport and airline officials say gate agents or skycaps who check in celebrities often tip off photographers — and earn a percentage of the revenue a photo generates. Paparazzi have elaborate networks of photographers around the globe, so a tip that a star is on a certain flight means photographers will be waiting at the destination.
“Their intelligence is incredible,” Sgt. Holcomb said. He refers to it as “legalized stalking.”
Of course, many times the tips come from the celebrity’s publicist. While some stars ask airlines to help them avoid photographers, others covet the attention and ask airline special-service representatives for help with hair and makeup before facing swarms of cameras.
At times, juggling the demands of stars can be difficult for airlines. Multiple celebrities on a flight can create uncomfortable situations if one gets more attention than the other. Sometimes heads of studios or corporate CEOs are on flights with stars and actually command more airline attention than an actor or actress since companies buy many more tickets.
And sometimes stars don’t want special attention. At Virgin Atlantic Airways’ posh “Clubhouse” at Heathrow, celebrities regularly use the same facility reserved for “Upper Class” customers who pay $10,000 or more for a round-trip ticket. The Clubhouse offers facials, haircuts and massages, plus a restaurant, hot tub and secluded seating area that can be commandeered for celebrities.
“More often than not, they just sit somewhere out in the open with everyone else,” says Deborah Tanner, a concierge at the Clubhouse.