United adds posh perk for elite fliers connecting in Houston

July 18, 2013 at 9:08 AM ET

Video: KPRC's Mark Boyle reports on a United Airlines pilot program, currently limited to Houston's Bush Airport, where Mercedes vehicles are used to shuttle "elite" passengers between connecting flights.

If you spend lots of time and money on United Airlines, there might be a nice surprise waiting for you when you’re connecting at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

The carrier this week rolled out a new service that whisks fliers across the tarmac in luxury cars to catch their next flight — no desperate sprinting inside the terminal required.

The airline is making the new perk available for its “premium” passengers — members of United’s invitation-only Global Services program and select first class travelers — who are connecting in Houston, said Mary Clark, a United spokeswoman.

Two Mercedes vehicles, a sedan and an SUV, have been dedicated to the service, although fliers can’t request or reserve the perk.

“It’s primarily designed to help speed customers through the transfer if they’ve got a tight connection,” Clark said.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to improve the travel experience for our top customers. This is one of the ways we’re exploring to provide that extra benefit to them.”

Here’s how it works: United will monitor inbound Houston flights and gauge which eligible passengers would need the service most. When the plane lands, a Global Services representative will wait by the cabin door holding a sign with the customer’s name on it and let them know a transfer service has been arranged, Clark said.

Then, the passenger walks down the stairs of the jetway and is driven to his or her connecting gate. Clark estimated several customers a day would be offered the service.

Stephan Brandt, who was flying from Newark to Corpus Christi on Tuesday, was one of the first fliers to take part.

Courtesy United
Stephan Brandt, seen walking down the stairs, was one of the first passengers to try the new service Tuesday at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

"I thought maybe they were going to drive me to Corpus Christi," Brandt joked to NBC affiliate KPRC in Houston.

"In the case where I do connect, if this is available, it's a great convenience. It's nice to know the car is waiting for you after the flight then you don't have to rush to get to the next destination.”

Houston is the first airport to offer United’s new perk, though the airline will be expanding it to another hub within the week, Clark said, declining to name the location.

Delta began a similar car service featuring Porsche vehicles at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 2011 and that was likely the catalyst for United to launch its own program, said Gary Leff, a frequent flier and loyalty program expert who runs the blog, View from the Wing.

“If you want to offer premium service and be competitive in that space ... (this may be) something that makes the customers who are buying incredibly expensive tickets happy — it can expedite connections, it can make those customers feel special,” Leff said, emphasizing it’s an unexpected perk.

“It’s not something you can ever count on, even with Delta. It’s a surprise and delight kind of thing.”

Courtesy Gary Leff
Gary Leff snapped this photo while being driven from Lufthansa's First Class Terminal to catch his flight at Frankfurt Airport in Germany in 2010.

One place where many elite fliers can count on being chauffeured across the tarmac is Frankfurt Airport in Germany since a car is the only way to get from Lufthansa’s standalone first class terminal to your plane, said Leff, who has made the journey several times.

“There is something that is very cool about sitting in a car on the tarmac, driving behind a 747,” he said. “And then, you get out of the car and head into the plane and everyone who can see you doing that wonders, 'Who is this person?'”

Leff predicted United’s perk, in its present form, won’t be a competitive advantage just yet because fliers have no way of knowing whether they’re going to get it or not.

After testing the service in two airports, United will evaluate whether to add in more cities, Clark said.