Q: How can I get through the airport faster? —Kathleen Francis, Oakland, Calif.
A: Over the past decade, between tightened security and the increased attention airlines are paying to premium fliers, airports have become as hierarchical and labyrinthine as the Sun King’s court. Lanes and lines have become defining features, and status has become essential for getting around.
So rule number one for a better airport experience: become an elite member of a frequent-flier program. If you travel often, stay loyal to a carrier, and follow the advice of loyalty-program experts such as the terrific Brian Kelly, founder of thepointsguy.com, you may be able to break into the upper tiers, gaining expedited check-in, private security lines, and priority boarding.
But good news for everyone else: status is no longer exclusively available to high-ranking frequent fliers. You just have to be willing to do a little extra legwork—and pay. Privilege, after all, has its price.
Bypass Security Lines
Perhaps the biggest airport innovation of the past two years has been the rollout of the TSA PreCheck program to 40 hubs across the country. The program lets passengers use a designated security line and (on a case-by-case basis) skip some of the more onerous security measures, such as taking off shoes and removing liquids and laptops from carry-ons. Though the program is gaining popularity, PreCheck lines rarely have a wait.
You can join PreCheck through partner airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, United, US Airways, and, coming soon, Virgin America), which notify eligible members from their frequent-flier programs. You can also opt in to PreCheck by participating in one of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler programs, such as (Global Entry, which speeds you through passport controls at the border. You’ll have to pay $100 to join, but all it takes is one hour-long wait in the immigration line at JFK to confirm that the investment in Global Entry—and PreCheck—is worth it.
Some recent complaints leveled at PreCheck are being addressed. One was that you didn’t know if you were eligible for the PreCheck line for a particular flight until you got to the security checkpoint. (Members aren’t guaranteed access for every flight.) Some airlines—United, Delta, and US Airways—have started printing your status right on the boarding pass. Another welcome change: fliers traveling on select international flights (or connecting to and from them) can now use PreCheck.
Also throwing a hat in the ring is Clear, which allows travelers who submit biometric information (fingerprint or iris image) and a $179 annual fee to bypass the manual ID check at regular security lines in several airports, including Denver, Dallas–Fort Worth, and San Francisco. Clear can’t really compete with PreCheck; it’s not as widespread and doesn’t expedite the actual screening process. But if you travel frequently out of one of its hubs and on airlines that don’t participate in PreCheck, it’s worth a look.
Seeing opportunity where the rest of us just see long lines, airlines have begun selling priority status to passengers who would not otherwise be eligible. Some airlines (Delta and Southwest among them) charge extra for priority boarding. United’s Premier Access (from $9 per flight) and PreferredAccess from US Airways (from $10 per flight) let passengers use priority check-in and security lines (where available) and board early.
There are a few caveats, though. First, you’ll still board the plane after the front-of-the-cabin passengers and high-ranking frequent fliers. Second, that priority security line is unlikely to move faster than PreCheck. So if you’re a member of PreCheck and at an airport that has it, you probably don’t need to bother with an upgrade.
American Airlines has come up with the most innovative package: its Five Star Service offers one-on-one airport assistance, including a curbside greeting, expedited check-in and access to the security checkpoint, admission to the Admirals Club, an escort to the gate, and early boarding. At New York’s JFK, Los Angeles, and Miami International airports, where American has its ultra-private Flagship Check-in Service, travelers don’t even need to mingle with fellow passengers until they’re on board. A favorite with traveling celebrities, the service is available to you, too, starting at $125 per flight.