A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How Airlines Whisk Celebs Through LAX
If you think walking through a busy airport is incredibly stressful, imagine how hard it is when you’re a celebrity being hounded by throngs of adoring fans, persistent selfie requests, and paparazzi yelling your name.
That’s probably why Los Angeles International Airport, which is paparazzi central, won approval last week to build a $3 million VIP-only private lounge where the rich and famous can await their flights.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the facility will be located in a converted cargo facility, apart from the main terminal, where stars can chill before their flights without worrying about onlookers and picture takers. When it’s time for the stars to catch their planes, shuttles will ferry them right to the passenger gates.
LAX’s special new VIP lounge, which reportedly will cost travelers up to $1,800, isn’t scheduled to open for another six-to-eight months. Until then, airlines at LAX will have to continue doing what they’ve been doing discretely for years: whisking celebrities through the airport with minimum intrusion and maximum privacy. Over the years, American Airlines has done it better than most. The Hollywood Reporter talked to a number of industry insiders — including managers, agents, and publicists — who named American one of the industry’s preferred airlines. One producer told THR, “It’s the best in terms of VIP attention."
"We have been committed to this community for a little bit over 80 years,” Juan Carlos “J.C.” Liscano, head of American Airlines’ operations for LAX, tells Yahoo Travel. He notes that going back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, his airline has been the favorite of Hollywood heavyweights. “We do a good job for them and we make sure we take care of their travel needs quite well,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why throughout the decades it has been the airline of choice for the entertainment industry.”
Celebrities have been flying American for years. Here’s film star James Cagney aboard an American flight from California in the mid 1930s. ((Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
So how does an airline whisk its A-list clientele through the celebrity world’s favorite airport while minimizing the chaos that can unnerve a celebrity, inconvenience fellow travelers, and disrupt the secure environment airports require? It’s a hard job, especially when you’re dealing with persistent paparazzi. “You’d be surprised how creative individuals can get if they really want to take your picture,” J.C. says, adding, “we do everything we absolutely can to keep the paparazzi away to protect the privacy of those that are traveling."
J.C. invited me to LAX for a special, behind-the-scenes look at the secret passageways and privacy-ensuring procedures (some of them, at least) his airline uses to whisk their VIPs to and from their flights. It was a rare opportunity to fly like a rock star.
Juan Carlos “J.C.” Liscano, head of American Airlines’ operations for LAX, shows Yahoo Travel how his airline discretely whisks A-listers and other high-profile passengers through the airport. (Photo: American Airlines)
J.C. greeted me at the LAX Departures entrance in front of a small door. Compared to the massive glass sliding doors that make up the airport’s entrance, this smaller-sized entryway would be easily missed but for the red carpet on the ground.
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This is the dedicated entrance for the airline’s passengers who use its Five-Star Service, an additional perk the airline offers to First and Business class passengers that provides another layer of luxury perks and privacy to their flying experience — like a dedicated door to the airport, part of the airline’s Flagship Check-In.
High-end flyers discretely use a dedicated, red-carpeted entrance at LAX. (Photo: American Airlines)
"It’s not just limited to celebrities,” J.C. says of the Five Star Service, “but most of the folks that use it certainly fall in that category.” J.C. says often the airline will get a special heads-up that a big star will be catching a flight from LAX. The traveling celebrity rarely calls the airline personally — this is Hollywood, after all. “It is usually somebody else making those arrangements and understands what the travel options are and the services that are available to them,” says J.C.
The dedicated entrance where J.C. and I are standing is where American’s celebrity clientele pull up to the curb and — with the assistance of an escort the airline provides — whisked inside with brisk, “wink-and-you’ll-miss-it” efficiency that tends to discourage any gawkers or paparazzi.
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But there are no paparazzi chasing J.C. and me, so we go in unbothered to check out the check-in. “Come right on in,” he says to me as he leads me through the red double-doors. Once inside, I don’t see the typical gigantic and super-crowded check-in areas, with their kiosks, and loud families and tour groups. Instead, this is a cozy, tastefully decorated and quiet area that looks like the lobby of a hip downtown hotel. Unless you had the misfortune of arriving right behind Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as they begin a family vacation with the kids, chances are, you won’t find a line for the two agents stationed there to help you check in.
“We make sure to keep it quiet and discrete and private,” J.C. says of the room, which — unlike the gigantic glass-enclosed check-in area in the main terminal — is completely sealed off. “You can see there’s no way anybody from the outside can look in.”
Samantha is one of the agents who checked us in during our behind-the-scenes, “fly like a rock star” tour. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
While celebrities can escape the lines and indignities of check-in, they can’t skip security screening. But this airline tries to make this process as private and unobtrusive So after we “check in”, J.C. whisks me up through a door rear staircase (“The elevator is down for repairs,” he informs me) and up through an area that includes what appears to be offices.
“If we need to maintain privacy and be very discrete, for those very unique occasions we can bring you through a separate entrance,” J.C. tells me. After going through another door, we end up at a TSA security line that’s smaller than usual for such a major airport. Here you are searched with few delays, small lines, and very little chance of people fumbling with their laptops.
Sometimes high-end guests will take a short cut through an office for a private route to security screening. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
After security, we go through another side door down another empty hallway. One can’t help but feel like you’re the President of the United States being taken to a secure bunker. But such measures are necessary to protect from the prying eyes of the paparazzi. “We do try to go through great lengths to make sure there is no area where they can come into and take that picture or invade your space,” J.C. says.
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At the end of that long hallway, we go through another door and then, voila! We’re standing right inside the bright, airy terminal, with all its stores and coffee shops. Here, the traveling celebrity is slightly exposed to the public (hey, if they want zero exposure, they’re gonna have to spring for a private jet). But the exposure is minimal. For one, no one can get to this area without a boarding pass, and not even paparazzi are willing to spend several hundred dollars on a ticket on the off chance of getting a fleeting photo of a celebrity. Paparazzi are relegated to the other side of the security checkpoint at the front of the terminal entrance, well away from the hallway from where celebs enter the terminal. “You’ll notice there’s very limited opportunity for anybody to really get a view of you as you come through the terminal,” J.C. says.
Another secret passageway leads to the Terminal. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
From here, it’s just a short walk through the terminal to the entrance of American’s ultra-exclusive Admirals Club lounge, where well-heeled passengers cool their jets before their flight.
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Okay, the celebrity is safely checked in and ready for the flight. Now comes the matter of getting them on the plane without causing a scene at the gate.
“We will coordinate with the gate agent for the boarding process,” says J.C. “It’s very subtle; you will never notice that this is actually going on.” The airline rep escorting the celebrity is in close contact with the gate agent about the status of the VIP guests. Together, they come up with an appropriate time to board the special passenger.
You probably haven’t seen Jennifer Lawrence or Bradley Cooper standing next to you in the gate waiting for the agent to call your row numbers. J.C. says that’s because stars don’t line up to board like we mortals do. They often go through a side door next to the agent that leads to the jetbridge, and then from there to the plane.
One thing J.C. won’t divulge is exactly when in the boarding process you might expect to see a celebrity brought on board a plane. All he will say is, “We try to pick the time appropriate to make sure we have control of that.”
LAX, of course, doesn’t only deal with departing celebrities. Arriving celebrities pose a special challenge, too — especially if the paparazzi is camped outside waiting for a star to emerge from his/her flight.
“If we know that it is an extremely high profile [passenger], we will coordinate with TSA and other individuals to look for very discrete ways to exit the customer from the airport so they don’t have to walk through that mess,” says J.C. That sometimes involves picking up the celebrity straight from the tarmac in one of American’s luxury Cadillacs and quietly driving them away to a separate location to meet their driver (only on domestic flights, though; stars arriving on international flights still have to go through Customs).
Sometimes, American Airlines uses its fleet of Cadillacs to ferry arriving high-end guests off the plane, allowing them to skip the airport entirely. (Photo: American Airlines)
“You would get driven to a place to make your transition to your vehicle without ever having to see a paparazzi,” he says. Presumably, if you’re a big star, you have people who can go down to baggage claims to get your stuff.
But as anyone who’s seen TMZ knows, sometimes arriving celebrities actually want to talk to the paparazzi. They’ll walk through the airport, through baggage claim and even the outside parking lot, chatting away.
That, of course, is out of the airline’s hands. But whether the celebrity engages with the paparazzi or wants to sneak away, J.C. says the airline tries to promote safety.
“We do have our own corporate security individual assigned to the airport that helps us out,” he says. The police don’t usually get involved unless something serious happens or a law is broken.
American Airlines isn’t the only airline that has special procedures in place to ferry celebs through LAX. Delta Airlines has a similar anti-paparazzi service, called VIP Select, at LAX and other airports. All these procedures aren’t there for the purpose of celebrity butt kissing. Airlines realize that airports are crowded enough without the bedlam that a free-range A-list celebrity set loose in the terminal would create. "I think the goal is to avoid the disruption,“ J.C. says.
But with LAX’s private lounge scheduled to open in mid-2016, seeing a star in the airport is about to become even more rare than it is now with the secret passageways J.C. showed us. So all you celebrity gawkers camped out at LAX, better get your peeks in now: pretty soon, a celebrity sighting at LAX could become a thing of the past.
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