An Air Terminal Just for Pets? Airports Across America Racing to Appeal to Super Rich

Once upon a time, the wealthiest Americans were discreet. So were businesses that sold services to this elite.


But no more. Not even as both party's presidential candidates say economic inequality is a big problem they'll confront and Donald Trump keeps bragging about his wealth and saying smart Americans should be rich like him.

Inequality has come out of the closet, but not in the ways people seeking a better distribution of America’s riches might prefer. The latest example of rubbing the easy lifestyle of the wealthy in everyone else’s faces comes from the airline industry, where airport terminals and customized flying are reaching for the economic stratosphere.

There’s a handful of news reports from major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the esoteric governmental bodies that oversee airports are building new facilities for luxury flying, luxury shopping and luxury pet care. Specialty airlines focusing on corporate clients, charging upward of four times what everyday travelers would pay for the same route, are also taking off, reports say.

Next year, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport will open a $48 million terminal “exclusively” for animals called “the ARK,” which Business Insider reports is the first in the nation. “Though the ARK is intended to act as a quarantine and boarding facility, it’s actually going to be a sort of luxury hotel for animals.”

“Dogs will have a 20,000-square-foot luxury ‘resort’ run by the company Paradise 4 Paws with flat-screen TVs, a bone-shaped swimming pool, massage therapy, and ‘pawdicures,’” Business Insider continued, saying dog boarding prices start at $100 per night. “Cats will get their own trees to climb, according to the AP.” There are even webcams in the suites where owners can maintain some contact with their pets.”

It’s not just pets. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, city officials this week “cut ribbons” to celebrate the opening of the first of a new wave of luxury shop tenants—Coach handbags and MAC Cosmetics—after years of its terminals being a bit too much like fading suburban malls. “Coach and MAC are but the newest of what are likely to be more boutique openings at O'Hare in the months to come,” BizJournal.com reported.   

It appears the airline industry is more than on-board with these upgrades. In Los Angeles, Bloomberg Business reports there is a battle brewing among carriers at LAX to dominate that airport’s upscale travelers—corporate execs and Hollywood types—by “rolling out amenity-laden cross-country flights, lie-flat business-class seats, vented compartments that can house a pet and a slew of more flights.”

Three airlines—Delta, United and Southwest—are spending $1.3 billion to modernize their terminals at LAX, Bloomberg notes. Airline executives like Andrew Nocella, American’s chief marketing officer, said it’s a smart investment, because “it’s one of the largest generators of corporate traffic….It pulls more than its weight in terms of the quality of revenue it contributes to the system.”

Meanwhile, smaller cities such as Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Nashville, which are regional hubs, are also seeing new carriers that use corporate jets to enable their clients to avoid most of the hassles associated with crowded airports, according to Bloomberg Business. “Fares are roughly two to three times the cost of advance-purchase economy fares on airlines with connecting routes.”

The trend of catering to corporate flyers, celebrities and luxury shoppers is not occuring in a vacuum, Bloomberg notes. First, many of the regional airports have seen the major airlines cut the number of economy-class flights in recent years, especially since the 2008 recession. As more middle-class fliers know, that often translates to delays when traveling, from limited connection options to over-booking.

Even the U.S. Department of Justice has noticed that as oil and gas prices have fallen globally, airline ticket prices have not come down, and this month announced it had opened an investigation into ticket price-fixing. Spokespeople at Delta, Southwest, American and United all told the Washington Post they had been contacted by federal investigators. Still, three of these carriers are building glossy new terminals at LAX.

Advertising industry experts say the trend of selling to the rich has been growing, and for good reason: that’s where the disposable income in America is. There are nearly 59 million Americans living in households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more, Advertising Age reports, which represents “25 percent of American adults and 21 percent of American households.”    

“Affluents account for at least half of consumer spending in 38 categories, and at least one-third of consumer spending in 112 categories,” AdAge.com said, including 51 percent of airline fares and trip lodging, 76 percent of cruise ships, and 34 percent of perfumes, cosmetics and bath products. “We have described before the disproportionate role Affluents play in earning income and accumulating wealth. Census data reveals that Affluents account for roughly 60% of all household income earned in the U.S., and hold roughly 70% of the privately held wealth in the U.S.”

Thus, it is not surprising that airports and airlines are going upscale, even if the central domestic theme of the 2016 presidential race is addressing American inequality. Democratic and Republicans candidates may wring their hands about it. Trump may boast about it. And the non-Affluents will revel in it, faced with more evidence they’re being left behind by America's high fliers.

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