The feverishly watched Harry and Meghan documentary begins with the prince filming himself in the Windsor Suite at Heathrow. This stately-named room isn’t part of British Airways’ standard offering at the London hub – it’s part of the little-known world of secret airport lounges.
The discerning traveler could be forgiven for thinking that first-class lounges are the pinnacle of luxury travel. Maybe loyalty points were slavishly saved for those precious hours of free food and wine with a guaranteed chair. More likely, the access was granted as a benefit of traveling upper class. But however travelers find themselves enjoying smoked salmon at the airside breakfast buffet, they have to come to terms with the fact that there are even more exclusive private spaces in the airport.
These secret suites are tucked away in private parts of the terminals, allowing VIP passengers to pass through separate check-in and security points without having to wait in a long queue or walk through a duty-free shop. Often, the journey to these lounges begins long before the airport is even in sight: private cars will transport high-end travelers directly from their front door to one of aviation’s indoor sanctuaries. Fine wine and luxurious daybeds await; in some international airports, customers will probably be the only users of the space.
There are, of course, variations in the offer. At Frankfurt Airport, Lufthansa operates a series of lounges, culminating in a private suite for up to eight people. Plush rooms come with deep sofas, expansive workspaces – presumably the main user will be the overworked businessman – and luxurious bathtubs. At the time of boarding, travelers can be discreetly led from the suite to their plane by a chauffeur-driven car.
Lufthansa upholstery is, admittedly, a fairly acquired taste. That wouldn’t be a problem at Hong Kong International, though, as guests can request personalized room decor, as well as all the usual amenities like limousine transfer and passport checks in the lounge.
It’s not just Prince Harry who benefits from this extraordinary service – at the VIP center at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol there are rooms reserved only for the Dutch royal family. For those not in line for a throne, access to the most private rooms can be purchased, though it will likely cost significantly more than an upper-class plane ticket.
Admission may also be granted if the airline considers you a sufficiently important person: an A-list celebrity (or high-ranking politician) would likely have the type of security arrangement that requires secret check-in. That’s why you’re unlikely to find Taylor Swift in the terminal spending her last bucks on a giant Toblerone, or even mixing in JFK’s first-class lounge. Access to these rooms may result from a certain cultural capital, but there are also the ultra-frequent flyers whose activity is crucial to the airline’s profit margins – and therefore access to sacred spaces is a decision savvy business.
Christina Lawford, who runs DiamondAir International, a company that arranges luxury travel services, says personalization and privacy are key concerns for the VIP flyer. At one time, presidential suites were used only by diplomats, she says: “Especially at government-run airports, the more private rooms were exclusively reserved for high-ranking officials. The Windsor Suite basically started out as a place where members of the royal family waited for flights. Therefore, most of the time, these spaces would remain empty.
Now, however, airports allow access to “wealthy individuals, members of the C Suite [ie high-ranking executives] and high-profile celebrities,” as well as those willing to pay for the privilege. A three-hour stay in the Windsor Suite, for example, will cost non-royals around £4,000. At LAX, a similar service is a bit relative at £2,800 per person.
Lawford says there’s a substantial market of affluent travelers wanting to “live the experience of a private jet regardless of carrier,” which the Secret Lounge offers. It’s not a crowded Delta Sky Club, but it seems the same urge – to escape the fray for a clear view of the starting screen and a decent seat – is evident regardless of status.
While the frictionless journey from front door to boarding might be appealing, it’s the amenities inside that really highlight the splendor. Michelin-starred food is delivered by a butler, personal shoppers can pick up goods from Gucci and Harrods. At Heathrow, guests are chauffeured in a BMW 7 Series from their front door to their suite via a private access road. The walls are decorated with a rotating selection of artwork by Warhol, Bacon and Banksy.
The ability to customize the experience is obviously very appealing. “We’ve created pop-up spas in the salons for clients who really want to relax,” says Lawford. “But we also took care of a rock band who only wanted bacon butts and a shaving kit.” Celebrities, it seems, are very much like us.
Not every airline or airport has these top-secret spaces (Lawford has around 100 around the world), but many have the capability to create them. The popular Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow, for example, opened in 1993 for upper-class guests. It’s not exactly unheard of – those bright red banquettes are rather unforgettable. It can, however, be transformed for the Branson-loving VIP: come sliding doors and opaque partitions, creating an exclusive bubble in an already restricted space. The upper-class wing has its own luggage storage and security channel, plus Peloton bikes and expert mixologists on hand — but for celebrities traveling with their families, the private space is the convenience most wanted.
With travel now returning to pre-pandemic levels, it seems like we’re all yearning for a truly seamless airport experience. But for those who can afford it, first-class amenities are no longer enough. Intoxicating cigar bars and sommelier-run wine cellars suit the first-class traveler, but for the wealthier among us, an opaque door (and that BMW 7 Series) is even more valuable.