Elite status: Airlines offering secret, special perks aimed at serious frequent flyers

A United Airlines jet on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport. (AP file photo)

DULLES, Va. (WJLA) - At the height of the summer vacation season, while some airline customers are getting crammed into economy class and hit with a growing list of fees for basics like checking a bag, airlines are offering their most valued customers some little known perks for their loyalty.

At Dulles International Airport, airline employees wait for elite frequent flyers with tight connections and grab them at the airplane door. Then, a luxury vehicle (United Airlines uses Mercedes SUVs, while Delta Air Lines has Porsches) chauffeurs them to their connection. So there's no racing through the airport - and there's no charge for the elite customer.

"When we're having a tight connection, we'll go in proactively identify those customers, greet them at the aircraft door, escort them down the jet bridge, and away they go onto the tarmac to their connecting flight," said Alexander Dorow, United's senior manager for its global services program.

Airlines are offering the rides, aviation experts say, as part of the competition for travelers who buy pricey last-minute tickets.

"These are the types of customers that might pay $15,000 for a flight to Hong Kong or $3,000 for a flight across the country," explains Ben Mutzabaugh, who covers the aviation industry for USA Today.

"If you get picked up on a Porsche or Mercedes to be shuttled from gate 50 to gate 2, it's going to make your experience a lot better and you are going to feel a lot better about the airline," he said.

With other perks like upgraded lounges and multi-room suites on some international flights, it's a good time to be a big spender at major airports.

"The amount of miles I travel, a little service goes a long way," concludes John De Wardt, a management consultant who flies up to 150,000 miles a year on United.

That gets him into the elite club, as most airlines require you to fly over 100,000 miles a year to even be considered for their special perks.