Hate lines at the airport? Pay to make them go away

November 18, 2018 GMT

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 take off, or 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.

Government programs

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 pound 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.

Airline offerings

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 fliers, 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” for VIP treatment at 11 airports, with prices starting at $250 per passenger. American offers its “5-Star Service” also at $250 per passenger in the U.S. and $300 overseas. Both programs include priority security lines and immigration processing, 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 British Airways and Emirates employ cadres of special service agents who wave their magic wands and make lines disappear for celebrities and uber-frequent-fliers. A few years ago, on a British Airways London-to-Los Angeles flight, I was asked to switch seats with Angelina Jolie so she could sit next to her son. Upon landing I enviously watched her and her son get met at the airplane’s door and whisked through immigration by one of these facilitators.

Not a celebrity? Neither am I, but when I flew first class on Air France not long ago an agent met me at check in, escorted me to the head of the TSA line, then to the lounge, then to the gate and just in case I might have imbibed too much Champagne in the lounge, I guess, all the way to my seat. 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 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.

VIP Airport Concierges

But most of these programs don’t help with security or immigration at airports outside the U.S., such 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 offers 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.