Global Services members at United Airlines — that’s the highest elite level — often fly more than 100,000 miles per year, and they usually spend tens of thousands of dollars on airfare. For their loyalty, they receive many perks, including a dedicated phone reservations line, free first class upgrades, and occasional airport transfers in a Mercedes, perhaps from one gate to the next for a connecting flight.

But until recently, at Los Angeles International Airport, where high-value customers have lofty expectations, United’s best customers went from a typical check-in area to the security line like everyone else. That’s not a big deal, since Global Services customers likely have TSA PreCheck, but they still had to wait to see an officer for an identification check.

No longer. In June, United opened a snazzy new lobby in Los Angeles, and customers in Global Services — an invitation-only level designed for big spenders — now go from a new private check-in area to the front of the PreCheck line. United’s new facility, which looks more like a five-star hotel lobby than anything most passengers see at an airport, essentially matches what American Airlines and Delta Air Lines offer their most lucrative customers in Los Angeles.

“We recognize the competitive landscape is fierce,” said Alex Dorow, United’s senior manager for airport hospitality. “We want to make sure we are providing experiences that are competitive and relevant to the customer but are very well executed.”

It is no secret the top three full-service U.S. airlines battle over the most lucrative passengers, most of whom fly for business reasons and in premium cabins. American, Delta, and United have been investing in business class seats, lounges, and even in chauffeured cars at their hubs. Few perks make elite frequent flyers happier than being picked up plane-side in a Mercedes (United), Cadillac (American) or Porsche (Delta).

But increasingly, at least in major cities, the big three global airlines are competing in airport lobbies, either by renovating older private check-in areas to make them more opulent, or like United in L.A., building new ones. The carriers have different criteria for entrance — American and Delta allow customers flying on the most expensive tickets to use them, United only lets in Global Services members — but each tries to reward its best customers by offering access. Some lobbies even have greeters out front with a list of names, to ensure only the right passengers enter.

“You get super cool privacy,” said Ranjan Goswami, a Los Angeles-based vice president of sales for Delta. “You get to check in where no one else is.”

Delta was the last of the three to introduce special check-in areas, building a VIP lobby two years ago in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles market is unlike any other in the United States, Goswami said, and lucrative customers in entertainment and media expect to be treated well. Delta eventually might add similar lobbies elsewhere, with New York probably the best candidate because it serves a similar high-end customer base, he said.

“These customers provide a disproportionate amount of revenue to airlines,” Goswami said. “And the customer base here demands privacy and speed — especially the privacy element, given we have a lot of high-profile people at LAX.”

United is Updating its Lounges

United has long had special areas for Global Services members at some airports, but it is making them more of a priority. It now has similar check-in facilities in San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston, and is building a new one in Newark. American, meanwhile, has what it calls Flagship check-in lobbies in Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York JFK.

These lobbies are a huge cost for airlines, since airport real estate is some of the most expensive space in the world. And because many customers — even high-value ones — prefer self-service options like mobile boarding passes, not all passengers need or want five-star service. When flights are on-time, many frequent flyers happily go from curb to lounge to plane without having a meaningful interaction with an airline employee.

But at certain airports, customers spend so much money on tickets that airlines want to give them the option for an opulent, full-service experience. United does not say how much money customers must spend annually to qualify for Global Services, but some frequent flyers have pegged it as more than $50,000. At Delta and American, a single ticket that allows a customer to use the lobby once may cost several thousand dollars.

“Customers who are invited to be a part of the Global Services program are very high-value to United,” said Todd Traynor-Corey, managing director of hospitality and operations. “We can’t talk about criteria, but it’s safe to say these are high-value customers.”

What customers want

One key is determining what customers want, Delta’s Goswami said. When the airline built its special Los Angeles check-in two years ago, it created a lounge just off the airport roadway with soft drinks and snacks like yogurt, fruit, and granola. But passengers didn’t spend much time there, because most wanted to clear security quickly. And while Delta’s lobby had a fancy lounge, it didn’t deliver customers to the front of the security queue.

Delta moved terminals this spring in Los Angeles, and though it now has a temporary VIP lobby, it has already solved the security problem. Delta has a dedicated corridor that brings passengers to the front of the PreCheck line.

“At the end of the day, while the lounge is a cool product to have, pre-security, people weren’t dwelling a lot there,” Goswami said. “You want to get past security. You feel more relaxed when you do.”

What customers have liked, he said, is interaction with customer service agents. While some passengers only use the lobby on occasion — perhaps when splurging on an expensive ticket — others are regulars, and staff tends to recognize them, Goswami said.

“They know their customers, whether the customer is super high-profile or a famous entertainment figure or whether they are super low-key,” he said. “We can perfect the services. There is definitely a personal rapport that our agent team has with this clientele.”

At United, Dorow said, agents sometimes help customers with tasks unrelated to flights. In one case, he said, a husband mistakenly took his wife’s passport to the airport, and a United agent helped him get the right one so he could fly.

Celebrity Service

At Delta in Los Angeles, all passengers using the special lobby receive the same service. But as part of its recent terminal renovation, United tried something new — an even more over-the-top service for true VIP passengers.

Just after security, United ushers celebrities into an elevator that takes them to a special private room at the airline’s lounge. When it’s time to board, they take an elevator to the airport ramp, where they ride a chauffeured Mercedes to the plane. If all goes well, few gawkers will spot them at the airport.

“If they are a celebrity and they need that type of discreet VIP service, we can give it to them,” Traynor-Corey said.

Photo Credit: United Airlines has been investing in its special lobbies for its most lucrative customers. Its new one in Los Angeles, pictured above, opened in June. United Airlines