Last year, more than 771 million people passed through American airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Across the globe, airports saw 6.6 percent more passengers in 2017 than the previous year. Airports are more crowded than ever before.
It’s also easier (and cheaper) than ever to nab elevated experiences at the airport. The only problem is that more people are having the exact same idea. As more passengers travel through airports, the VIP spaces are becoming more crowded and less “elite.”
When preferential treatment is just an app click or an application fee away for anybody, what really constitutes “elite” at the airport?
Luxury at airport security is being able to breeze through. For $85 for five years, TSA PreCheck members have access to expedited security at the airport. But now PreCheck members are complaining about the very thing they paid to opt out of: long lines.
Official numbers currently give 93 percent of PreCheck travelers an average wait time of less than five minutes at airport security. The TSA reports that in the standard lane, 95.3 percent of travelers wait less than 20 minutes.
In June 2016, the TSA said that 2.77 million people had signed up for TSA PreCheck. Only about one year later, the agency announced more than 5 million people had enrolled for the program. TSA spokesperson Mike England told Travel + Leisure that about 13 million people are now enrolled in trusted traveler programs.
It’s unlikely that congestion at security lines will get any better: The TSA has set a goal for 25 million people to enroll. England said that in order to deal with the increase in PreCheck passengers, the TSA will open more PreCheck lines at airports.
Officially, the program is “a risk-based approach to vetting and passenger security screening that has enabled TSA to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to passenger security screening,” England told T+L, “spending less time with individuals we know more about while focusing security resources on unknown passengers.”
So, despite its “premium” reputation, the program was never really meant to alleviate bottle-necking at security lines.
Those who value every minute of their time at the airport should tack on a CLEAR membership, too. CLEAR is a biometric security system available at more than 20 airports around the country, with expansion planned for this year.
While CLEAR does not eliminate the need to pass through security altogether, members don’t need to wait to provide their identification. Instead, they scan their irises or fingertips and are instantly able to proceed to the physical security checkpoint.
“Our goal is to create a frictionless curb-to-gate journey: biometric bag drop, biometric boarding pass, biometric lounge access, etc.,” Caryn Seidman Becker, CLEAR's CEO, told T+L.
CLEAR membership is a complimentary perk for Delta’s top SkyMiles members.
Frequent travelers looking for respite from the crowds may beeline for the closest airport lounge. But, upon arrival, they may be surprised to see the lounge is just as crowded as the gates and restaurants outside.
Lounges were once a place reserved solely for frequent business class travelers. But some long-standing lounge members point to 2016 as the year everything changed. According to the Wall Street Journal, that was the year Chase launched its Sapphire Reserve card and gave a whole new class of people access to Priority Pass (a membership program that opens doors to 1,200 lounges around the world and more than 60 lounges in the U.S.). One traveler likened the current lounge experience to Disney World.
But Tyler Dikman, CEO of LoungeBuddy, an app which allows users to purchase access to more than 100 airport lounges around the world, told T+L that this was “golden age thinking.”
“And it’s a very U.S.-based perspective,” Dikman said. “Less than a quarter of the world’s lounges are in the U.S. and the bar for U.S. lounges is set much lower than for international lounges.”
The U.S. is also one of the only places where anybody can buy airline lounge membership (generally about $500 per year), Dikman said. As airlines and private companies began to view lounge access as a way to make money, the clientele inside the lounges began to change.
Any lounge that allows anybody to enter for $35 will offer a vastly different scene than a lounge designed as a perk for loyal travelers.
“The AmEx Centurion lounges have become victims of their own success,” Dikman said. After complaints from cardholders about the state of lounges, AmEx announced in October that it would restrict Centurion access to customers with Platinum and Centurion cards (annual fees start at $550).
Other lounges are following suit. Dikman specifically pointed to United’s new Polaris lounges as some of the best in the business.
While anybody can buy access to a United Club lounge, United Polaris lounges are reserved for first and business class passengers only. Only first class passengers can bring guests into the lounge and they are limited to one guest each. There are currently only two United Polaris clubs open (in Chicago and San Francisco), with three more (in Houston, Los Angeles, and New Jersey) scheduled to open this year.
Commercial air travel can get several layers more glamorous than lounge access.
Last year, Los Angeles International Airport launched a new private terminal for its most well-heeled travelers. The Private Suite is an experience which ensures that luxury travelers don’t ever need to rub shoulders with common crowds.
Travelers pass through their own dedicated TSA PreCheck security lines and wait in their own private suites (without even having to deal with other VIPs). When it’s time to board, a driver will chauffeur them directly to the tarmac in a BMW 7-Series sedan.
Understandably, this service is much more expensive than a lounge membership. It costs $3,500 for domestic flights and $4,000 for international (with a discount for members who pay an annual fee of $4,500).
In airports, as in the outside world, you get what you pay for.