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For richest fliers, perks are becoming out of sight

Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible than fancy food or drink: physical distance between them and everyone else.

The idea is to provide an exclusive experience — inaccessible, even invisible, to the masses in coach. It’s one way that a gap between the world’s wealthiest 1 percent and everyone else has widened.

Many top-paying international passengers, having put down roughly $15,000 for a ticket, now check in at secluded facilities and are driven in luxury cars directly to planes. Others can savor the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent flier miles for a trip of a lifetime.

When Emirates Airline opened a new concourse at its home airport in Dubai last year, it made sure to keep coach passengers separate from those in business and first class. The top floor of the building is a lounge for premium passengers with direct boarding to the upstairs of Emirates’ fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s. Those in coach wait one story below and board to the lower level of the plane.

London’s Heathrow Airport took a private suite area designed for the royal family and heads of state and in July opened it to any passenger flying business or first class who’s willing to pay an extra $2,500.

“First class has become a way for a traveler to have an almost private-jet-like experience,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Hudson Crossing. Airlines “will do everything but sing a lullaby.”

The front of the plane has always been plusher than the back. But in recent years airlines have put a greater focus on catering to the most affluent fliers’ desire for new levels of privacy.

There’s a lot of money on the line. At big carriers like American Airlines, about 70 percent of revenue comes from the top 20 percent of its customers.

The special treatment now starts at check-in. American and United Airlines have both developed private rooms, located in discrete corners of their terminals in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, that allow for a speedy check-in. Boarding passes in hand, travelers exit through hidden doors leading to the front of security lines.

Some foreign airlines have gone further.

Lufthansa offers first-class passengers a separate terminal in Frankfurt. There’s a restaurant, cigar lounge and dedicated immigration officers. For those who choose to shower or take a bath, the private restrooms come with their own rubber ducky — an exclusive plastic souvenir for the international jet set. When it’s time to board, passengers are driven across the tarmac to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Porsche Cayenne.

“That sort of exclusivity plays to the ego of people who are in a position to spend that much money on airline flight,” says Tim Winship, publisher of travel advice site FrequentFlier.com.

At Heathrow’s private suites, designed for up to six people, fliers pass swiftly and privately through their own immigration and security screening. While they’re waiting, hors d’oeuvres and Champagne are provided. Steak, sushi or other meals can be delivered from airport restaurants. When it comes time to actually fly, passengers are driven to their plane in a BMW 7 Series sedan and escorted to their seat.

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