Spending time at the airport is increasingly associated with high levels of stress and anxiety as a consequence of long queues, intense security checks and delays. A study conducted last year by David Lewis, a neuropsychologist from research consultancy Mind Lab, even compared the stress of using an airport to driving in Formula One.
With forecasts from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expecting global air passengers to reach 7.8 billion in 2036 and growing capacity issues being raised in some leading airports including Heathrow, stress levels are only likely to increase.
As airports and other industry stakeholders assess different options to deal with this issue, one of the most popular solutions is offering VIP services.
In November 2018 for example, Stockholm Arlanda Airport inaugurated its new VIP service premises, an area entirely designed to help passengers relax and enjoy their travels without hectic queues and long waiting hours.
Similar suites are available in some of the major airports in the world, like Los Angeles, which offers an entire compound that serves as its own private terminal for celebrities and members.
Over the past few years, these options have enjoyed increasing success, leading other airports to open their own private suites and create a number of affiliated services that go beyond the airport experience and assist travellers throughout the entirety of their trips.
LAX’s Private Suite
So far the only private remote terminal in the US, with a similar one soon launching in New York, LAX’s Private Suite is probably the most famous example of a VIP airport.
Members and non-members willing to pay between $2,700 and $4,000 are invited into this private area of the airport where they can use one of the ten individual suites, private TSA screening and direct transportation to the aircraft, as well as many other premium services.
According to a spokeswoman for the suite, the facility has been equipped with a number of premium features – including en-suite massages, a private spa, manicures and an outdoor playground – where they can feel relaxed ahead of their flights. “We have successfully eliminated the entire ‘airport’ experience at LAX, while traditional VIP services in the US typically involve a meet-and-greet at the curbside and an escort to jam-packed security lines, airline lounges, and gate areas.
“Airports have become too crowded, too unpredictable and too stressful,” she says, adding that the suite’s goal is therefore to turn “the traditional departure and arrival experience upside down”.
But since that’s not just something that VIPs experience, the Private Suite is also looking to expand its client range to a broader (though still considerably wealthy) audience: “While the traditional airport experience does not distinguish between the needs of different travellers, we are exploring ways to offer tailored services and products to discerning customer segments, such as business travellers and diplomatic missions,” she says.
All-inclusive concierge services with Blacklane PASS
While Private Suite considers extending services to business travellers, Blacklane PASS – a service of the company Blacklane – has made them its main customers.
Launched earlier this summer following a pilot programme, Blacklane PASS is part of the so-called “airport concierge companies”, which provide services such as the ride to an airport, fast-track through security and assistance to travellers who want to avoid the airport hassle.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Michael Holtz, the owner of SmartFlyer, a global travel consultancy specialising in airports and airlines, said that at least ten of these concierge services have been launched over the last three years.
“There is definitely a trend towards making anybody’s time more comfortable at any airport, though it obviously depends on the size of the airport,” explains Blacklane PASS director Adam Homfray, adding that airports are working to make their guests comfortable and fully experience their services.
This is something Blacklane PASS is exploring. Being experienced in the world of car services, the company has learnt that the more inclusive the service, the less stressful travelling will be for its clients. “We’re trying to make everything easier for the business traveller, not just in the airport but also when booking – very much in the same way as we did with Blacklane,” explains Homfray.
“If you’re travelling to an airport you’ve never been to, up until now you’ve always had to work out who is the local provider in each individual airport, and that is a stress part that we’re taking out.”
Achieving this has meant making contact with airport authorities, airlines, security providers and gathering a network of escorts that assists customers through every step of their trip in considerably less time compared to regular standards. “We’ve got expertise at the airport,” says Homfray, “and our people know how much time you’re going to need depending on the flight, the time of day, the day of the week,” eliminating the need to go to the airport two hours ahead of the flight.
The cost is $200 for the first person and $100 for each additional person, and although Homfray reiterates his company’s focus is on business travellers, families and elderly people still make up for between 30% and 40% of the customers.
“They just want help in the airport and come to us because we’re easily findable on Google, whereas competitors may not be. So what we’re trying to do is extend the peace of mind that we provide in the Blacklane car, so that travellers can have it not just in the car but also within the airport.”
High-end services at Heathrow Airport
Although acknowledging the growing popularity of airport concierge companies around the world, Homfray also claims that this has led many businesses to launch even higher-end services specifically tailored for celebrities and VIPs.
This is the case of Airport VIP Services, a concierge company that has been serving Heathrow’s celebrity passengers for over ten years.
Director Mohammed Ali Jaflelah launched the service after working for an airline’s public relations department for more than 25 years. A good deal of his job had to do with VIP travellers, who he claims “asked on a daily basis about meet and greet services providers at Heathrow Airport but back then, there were no such services at the airport, so when [me and my business partner] came to the end of our services with the airline, we saw a lot of demand and a business opportunity.”
Airport VIP Services provides similar services to other airport concierge companies – from meet and greet to assistance with luggage and through security checks – though Jaflelah has found the gap in the market in his customers, which are mainly passengers from the Middle East and members of the royal families in the Arabian Gulf.
Having served them during his years in public relations, he claims he was able to build strong relationships with them and involve them in his concierge business up until present: “I have been in this business for over ten years, so I was one of the first service providers at Heathrow and I have numerous contacts in the Middle East, so I identified where my market is back then.”