If you’re hanging around Los Angeles International Airport, hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity, you may be out of luck. Increasingly, celebrities, executives, and anyone else with deep enough pockets are opting out of the regular LAX airport experience—even when they don’t opt out of the LAX airport altogether.
Situated just minutes from the main LAX terminals is The Private Suite, a private terminal that serves all airlines that take off and land at LAX and has managed to eliminate virtually everything there is to hate about commercial airports. Private Suite users avoid traffic and congestion upon arrival. The TSA screening process is quick and private. There are no lines, no needless waiting. There are no paparazzi. “It’s like going to the airport without ever having to go through the airport, essentially,” says Josh Gausman, chief operating officer and co-founder of The Private Suite. “We have successfully created calm in this really chaotic environment at the airport—arguably the most chaotic environment in all of Los Angeles.” It’s an idyll that’s found its market, and is in the process of expanding: The company is planning to open a second Private Suite location this year at New York’s JFK.
The Private Suite is located close to LAX’s terminals and sits on its property, but it’s just far enough from the congested airport entrance to avoid traffic. Once you’ve passed through the tall gates into The Private Suite’s grounds, you’re escorted to your own hospitality suite (the facility has around a dozen) with complimentary refreshments and toiletries. An en-suite bathroom is provided, as are views of planes taking off and landing through the oversized windows. A communal garden is available for outdoor lounging, and spa services can be booked ahead of time in your room, so you can get a pedicure before enplaning. If you need a more thorough freshening up, you can wash up in the single-occupancy shower suite.
When it’s time to board a flight, you’ll be whisked through a private, dedicated TSA checkpoint and walked over to an idling 7-series BMW, which will then cruise across the the tarmac to the door of your aircraft (you board by ascending an exterior staircase next to the jetway). For passengers arriving at LAX, the whole things happens in reverse, with a private, line-free customs and border protection checkpoint.
The Private Suite’s co-founder is Gavin de Becker, security consultant and founder of Gavin de Becker & Associates, which specializes in security for high-profile individuals. It was during his work in security that Gausman was often faced with the challenge of how to safely get clients into and out of commercial airports. “It was always challenging in America,” Gausman says. “But when we went overseas with clients, they would have these terminals that made it so easy.”
To world travelers with deep pockets, the concept of a private terminal that serves commercial airlines is nothing new. VIP terminals have long been a staple of airports abroad, where those who can afford it are afforded the privilege of skipping lines and eschewing crowds. For example, London’s Heathrow Airport offers VIP service, which begins with chauffeur service from your home in the UK. Priced at GBP £2,750, the service can be booked by passengers on any airline—but only by those flying first or business class. Economy passengers (and premium economy passengers) are not invited to partake.
Similar offerings are available in airports across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. But in the United States, commercial airports had long offered no such perks for the elite. “It’s very new to everyone who lives in America,” Gausman says. “We are the first—we are the only—remote terminal that exists in the United States serving all commercial airlines.”
In 2012, Gausman and de Becker brought the idea to airport authorities, presenting The Private Suite as a way to solve a vexing problem specific to LAX. “Paparazzi were causing havoc on the sidewalks, at the curbside, in the traffic areas,” Gausman says. “It was just a real mess. And LAX really viewed this idea as a way to make the terminal more safe and orderly without costing the airport anything.”
It does cost clients something. Annual membership is $4,500, and use of a private terminal for one leg of your trip is $2,700 (which includes up to three guests). International flights cost $3,000 one way. An a la carte plan (no membership fee) is also available: $3,500 for domestic one-way flights (with two guests), $4,000 for international one-way.
Getting federal aviation and security authorities on board with the concept was a years-long process and involved multiple agencies (TSA did not return a request for comment, citing the ongoing government shutdown). But the powers that be at LAX were ultimately happy to rent an old outbuilding to Gausman and de Becker. “The Private Suite provides an additional option for travelers, some of whom may be looking to stay clear of the paparazzi and others who choose it because they appreciate the individual service and incredible amenities,” Becca Doten, Managing Director of Media Relations for LAWA, the LAX airport authority, told Quartz, stressing that users of the facility are subject to the same screening and security processes as any other passenger.
What users of The Private Suite are not subject to are the same invasions of privacy. “No one is allowed to take a photograph of someone else while they are here,” Gausman says, adding that those using the facility can tailor their level of seclusion. But even a “crowd” at the facility is unlikely to amount to more than half a dozen people wandering the private garden.
And while photographing others is taboo, Gausman isn’t complaining about selfies from celebrities and influencers, who have taken to Instagram to rave about the experience. Actors Katie Holmes and Jamie Foxx are fans, as are TODAY show co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. “A little bit of heaven on the ground,” raved Gifford on Instagram.
Demand has far exceeded expectations, according to Gausman, who says The Private Suite has more than 1,000 members. “We expect—even when we are totally full—to have a very limited amount of volume. Annually, we’ll be about 1/100th of 1% of the total volume of the entire airport,” Gausman says. Despite the low volume, he says it’s the people “that are causing the distraction and the congestion” who The Private Suite serves, making the LAX experience better for all travelers.
Why not just fly private? For starters, private flights are by no means inexpensive, easily costing tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. Furthermore, not all jets are created equal—a light or midsize jet used for private flight may not have as many amenities as a wide-body commercial jet.
“Many of our members do fly domestic private jets, so if they’re going to Las Vegas, they might use a private jet. But if they’re going to London, they might use a commercial aircraft,” Gausman says. “The onboard experience on a commercial aircraft is often more highly regarded than the onboard experience on a private aircraft. It’s the airport experience—the on-the-ground experience—that’s challenging with commercial travel.”
Members of The Private Suite agree. Dave Anderson, author and President of Learn to Lead, became a member in 2018. “I was sick of the airport experience,” says Anderson, who travels to approximately 110 speaking engagements annually. Anderson’s laundry list of complaints about commercial airports is about what you’d expect to hear from, well, anyone who has set foot in a commercial airport. “Wasted time in lines, crowds, indifference, rudeness, filthiness—I’m sick of the airport experience,” Anderson says.
Perhaps the most important perk offered by The Private Suite, according to Anderson, is the ease of the customs process upon arriving at LAX. “LAX customs can take an hour. It puts a damper on an international trip to know you have to go through that coming back,” Anderson says. “With The Private Suite, it was two minutes.” As for the price tag, Anderson says it is worth every penny. “The better the experience, the less relevant price is,” Anderson says. “The Private Suite is a logistical masterpiece.”
For novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner, The Private Suite sounded almost too good to be true. “The first time I used it, it was just so strange,” Wagner says, recounting his first time at the facility, when he marveled at being driven across the airfield to his awaiting flight. Wagner said he was never the type of person to use VIP services prior to joining The Private Suite. “Before I was a novelist, I drove a limousine. I didn’t even graduate high school,” Wagner says. “The Private Suite has nothing to do with class or class warfare. It’s a groovy enhancement of life and lifestyle. It’s about epic practicality.”
Gausman says the JFK Private Suite is expected to open in 2019, offering the same services to the New York market, while making flights between the two cities nearly friction free for clients. He also says the company is also exploring opportunities in Chicago, Washington DC, Dallas, and San Francisco. If his business instincts are correct, rich people will never have to see the inside of a Hudson News or Chili’s Express ever again.