The ups and downs of being a frequent flyer
By Matt Reis
Waiting for a flight in an airport often brings forth memories of a lobby with sticky vinyl seats, overpriced food and drinks, and that one screaming kid that’s just asking for a punch in the face.
Frequent flyers used to be stuck in the same situation, but years of airline loyalty grant them special extras. They earned better service, and they get it. Forget overpriced bagels and coffee; they get a free martini. And waiting in a lobby? No way. They have trendy, exclusive clubs.
Repeat customers of airlines such as Delta, Continental and American Airlines have their own Bat Caves—lounges hidden in airports all over the world. These clubs include bars with complementary drinks, restaurants, showers, and even spas and movie theaters. Frequent flyers also receive more opportunities to fly first class, or even get free tickets.
In the Oscar-nominated movie Up in the Air, road warrior Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) dreamed of hitting the ten million mile mark with American Airlines. If he reached it, he’d be the seventh person in the world to do so. The perks would include lifetime executive status, a chance to meet the chief pilot, and his name on the side of a jet.
“I don’t spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my mileage account,” Bingham said.
Flying the distance of ten million miles is equivalent to going to the moon and back roughly 42 times. Even the most-traveled pontiff in history, the late Pope John Paul II, did not log close to that many miles on his personal aircraft Sheppard One.
Flexibility is a big part of the frequent flyer program. Miles can be sold, bought and traded, and can be transferred to friends and family members’ accounts as gifts. Purchasing a single mile itself is really inexpensive; each airline charges a different amount, typically under the dollar range, but thousands of miles are needed to get anything worthwhile.
Many social networking Web sites connect “mileage junkies” with each other. For instance, Flyertalk.com, “the world’s most popular frequent flyer community,” provides up-to-date travel information about reward programs and has forums for members to discuss their mile collections.
But like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, does a race for miles equal an empty life?
Lisa Mauro is a former pilot for Transworld Airlines and American Airlines. She thought that people who strive to rack up as many miles as possible are missing out on more important things.
“It means you spend too many days away from home, your marriage is on the rocks and you live out of a suitcase,” Mauro said.
Unlike Bingham, who travels so much for work that his apartment is devoid of hominess and personality, Cindy Hicks, a records management officer, racks up miles solely for pleasure. She uses her frequent flyer status with JetBlue, which she will have had for seven years this June, to her advantage when she flies to her condo in Florida.
“I’ve maybe had, oh my gosh, five or six free flights,” Hicks said. “I do a bit of traveling, and it’s nice when it’s like, ‘woah I have enough points for a free flight.’”
The frequent flyer craze is big business for the airline industry, and their influence extends far beyond the airport. Free hotel stays and meals at snazzy restaurants are a couple of extras that can be redeemed with flyer miles. Discounts on clothing, concerts and restaurants also entice customers. Credit cards such as American Express allow Delta flyers to save up bonus miles with each purchase.
The freebie that comes with a Delta SkyMiles card is a free plane ticket. American Airlines offers a Master Card, which allows users to earn one mile for every dollar spent.
However, it may take a light traveler or a light spender years to get a free ticket through frequent flyer programs. It really does take a determined person a long time to get free stuff.
Air travel can be a thoroughly boring and frustrating experience. But for some lucky people, getting through an airport can be easy. Even relaxing. Racking up the frequent flyer miles can be a long and expensive process, but it could be worth it to get those perks on the ground and up in the air.
Matt Reis is a freshman cinema and photography major who actually really didn’t like Up in the Air. E-mail him at email@example.com.