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Los Angeles is a VIP city that makes do with an airport not known for VIP perks. London’s Heathrow, for example, just expanded a previously diplomats- and royals-only service that takes your car to a private terminal and delivers you straight to the plane without public contact. At Hong Kong International, Cathay Pacific’s lounges include a spa with private cabanas featuring oversized tubs. Nothing near that posh exists at L.A.’s outmoded (but soon to be significantly upgraded) terminals.
Dedicated in 1930, the airport was until the early ’80s a collection of separate satellite buildings accessed through underground tunnels. With the 1984 Summer Olympics looming, the city rushed to improve the place, hurriedly constructing connectors between ticketing areas and existing buildings. Now the world’s seventh-busiest airport, paparazzi-plagued LAX has a surprising lack of high-end lounges, stores and restaurants for such an international hub.
Even so, there are ways to make the airport work for you.
THR asked managers, agents, publicists and travel experts for their hard-earned tips about getting A-list treatment. A big name is sometimes all it takes, though often it’s simply about frequent-flier miles and corporate volume. For the LAX-to-JFK slog, studios and agencies almost exclusively use American and United, which boast the only three-class nonstop service — though many younger actors are falling for the fun of Virgin America. (All three airlines offer wireless.) Even within first class, there’s a pecking order. Some consider Seat 1A — in first-on, first-off Row 1 — the prestige spot. “It feels like the highest priority seat, but if people look past that, Row 2 usually offers more legroom,” says Matthew Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com. The bottom line: Hollywood will do whatever it can to avoid second-tier status. Admits a top PR exec, “I would literally take a different flight than sit in a lower class than my client.”
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THE INDUSTRY’S PREFERRED AIRLINES
Richard Branson’s upstart airline, which began service in 2007, lures a younger crowd with up-to-date seat-back entertainment screens, signature violet-and-blue mood lighting, a friendly vibe and first-class seats featuring lumbar massagers. For VIPs, Virgin employs a dedicated handler, given to wearing Hawaiian shirts, who smooths the way free of charge for top frequent fliers and celebrities — as long as they have major name recognition. Virgin doesn’t have its own lounge but piggybacks on the one for Alaska Airlines. For those with dietary restrictions, Virgin has been known to deliver special meals from the terminal’s Gladstone’s restaurant to the lounge. UTA uses Virgin as well as American.
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The airline, which has the most daily flights to JFK, has an in-house concierge, Five Star Service, that costs $125 per leg. “It’s the best in terms of VIP attention,” claims an A-list producer. “American, and sometimes United, will even sometimes put a hold on the seat next to you in first class, meaning that seat is the last one sold.” Celebrities also can reserve a private boardroom off the first-class Flagship Lounge for extra privacy. But what’s catnip for VIPs is a back passage that avoids regular security (“Ugh. Security lines are like bathrooms, the great equalizer,” moans one manager). Airport personnel slip high-level fliers through a nondescript door, down a series of hallways and through a private security checkpoint. One bummer? Electrical outlets on American require adaptors, while those on Virgin and United don’t. American is preferred by DreamWorks, Sony, Paramount, NBCUniversal and News Corp.
Fans of the airline rave about its Premium Service business class, asserting it trumps business class on American. “You get a first-class feel, and the PS section is a two-and-two layout, just four seats per row, compared to American, which is two-two-two. There’s just more breathing space at United,” says an entertainment business manager. The airline’s top-level perks program is the invitation-only Global Services, but United spokesman Charles Hobart declined comment on GS, which is reserved mostly for top revenue generators. “We don’t make the criteria or service public,” he says. GS treatment can include automatic rebooking before landing if a connecting flight is canceled and having a golf cart waiting to speed the traveler to their next flight at some airports. According to a source at an L.A. entertainment company, the firm does enough business with United to qualify one of its top executives as GS class. Jason Reitman is also said to have been given GS status after directing 2009’s Up in the Air, in which American was featured prominently. (Reitman also has top status with American.) United is the preferred airline of WME, ICM and Warner Bros.
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The industry favors two services, LJR & Associates and Airport Assistance Worldwide, that whisk clients from curbside to gate (including through security) and even run interference inside the airport when a flight is canceled. The cost? At least $150 for each departure and landing (that’s a minimum of $600 per round trip to JFK). “It adds up, but I use it every time I travel,” says a top manager. Many stars won’t fly without concierge service.
Firms such as Screen International Security Services and Gavin de Becker & Associates are the gold standard in clearing the way for top talent to get from baggage claim to the limo. Costs can run $300 to $500 per bodyguard per leg. Hiring them is not always about just client safety; it can also help “avoid situations that can cause disruption to overall airport security,” says McClure & Associates publicist Carri McClure.
Customes Fast Pass
One travel must-have is membership in U.S. Customs’ Global Entry program. Its fingerprint-readable kiosks get you to the front of immigration and customs lines when entering the U.S. Cost, $100; background check required.
The New LAX
LAX has long been a punching bag for its outdated design and lack of services. But a splashy new international terminal, Bradley West, is set to open in 2012. Upscale restaurants from BLD’s Neal Fraser and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto are planned.
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Joe Manganiello, Adrian Grenier, Amber Heard and Penn Badgley are among the young actors who love Virgin.
A YouTube clip of Miley Cyrus swarmed by paparazzi at Terminal 2 in June 2010 has been watched 35,000 times. It’s widely believed that photographers pay tips to airport employees for information on when stars are arriving, and publicists for D-list celebrities sometimes alert paparazzi about their own clients as well.
As Qantas’ global ambassador, John Travolta flies his personal Boeing 707, branded with the airline’s logo, in and out of LAX. The airport fee for each landing? About $2,600.
Footage of Kate Moss and her then-5-year-old daughter, Lila Grace, cowering in baggage claim while surrounded by paparazzi was used as a key exhibit in the passage of California’s 2009 anti-paparazzi law. The fact that LAX is public property means that photographers cannot be barred from access.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
“It’s really important to have a driver who’s not afraid to piss off the cops telling him to move. It can be a paparazzi free-for-all if the car is in a circling pattern when your client gets to the curb,” says a manager. “I’ve also heard of cases where the driver tells the police he’s waiting on a big star and the police will let him sit a little bit longer.” Some of the most requested limo companies are Music Express, green-friendly Econation and BLS (veteran driver Frank McKay is a favorite of James Cameron and Drive producer John Palermo). Rates for an Econation compressed-natural-gas town car run $75 to $85, including gratuity from mid-city to the airport.
In September 2010, Russell Brand was arrested after lashing out at a pap at the Delta terminal; no charges were filed. To avoid photogs, PR reps say celebrities sometimes fly at 6 a.m. and exit through the departures area. “The photogs are on to that now, though,” says a publicist.
Hold That Plane!
A famous story in the agency ranks is that pre-9/11, an assistant is said to have called in a bomb threat to LAX so his boss didn’t miss an important flight — and he got promoted. Now, through United’s top-level VIP program Global Services (see box at left), it’s possible to accomplish the same thing without breaking the law. One of the reputed perks of GS is the ability to get a plane delayed if you are running 10 to 15 minutes late. “We’ve never used it, but it’s an option,” says an industry source whose company participates in GS.
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