Frequent Flier VIP: Meet the Guy Who Never Waits at the Airport
Secret frequent flier clubs aren't just for George Clooney and his new movie.
Dec. 17, 2009— -- Airport lines are a thing of the past for Tom Stuker. So are middle seats, waiting on hold when calling customer service and missed connections.
Instead, his air travels bring him complimentary cocktails, first name greetings and a hidden check-in process.
Stuker has flown nearly 700,000 miles this year alone, criss-crossing the globe for work as an automobile sales consultant. Over the years, he has racked up nearly 8.8 million miles on United Airlines, making him the top member of the airline's Mileage Plus frequent flier program.
Stuker's travel has earned him a spot in a secret group of super-elite frequent fliers that is essentially so valuable to the airlines they will do anything for them.
These once-secret clubs -- which airlines are still very reluctant to speak about -- are getting new attention, thanks to George Clooney. In his new movie 'Up in the Air,' Clooney's high-flying character, Ryan Bingham, details the life of a 10-million-miler, from the free round-the-world airline tickets right down to the personal greeting from ticket agents who have likely never met him.
Mega-mileage members like Stuker are a level far beyond the typical frequent flier.
"There's no such thing as weather delays for these types of people," said Randy Petersen, founder of FlyerTalk.com and editor of InsideFlyer magazine. "It's the service that all of us as travelers wish we had."
United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski Janikowski describes the airline's high-mileage program, Global Services, as the airline industry's answer to Yale University's secretive Skull and Bones club, which counts presidents, senators and CEOs as among its past members.
"You don't know what you get until you are in it, and then you don't want to leave," Urbanski Janikowski said. "It's a world that not many folks know even exists."
Fliers like Stuker arrive at special check-in areas where agents greet them by name and whisk away their bags. Their boarding passes are already printed, and at some airports an agent simply opens a hidden door, leading them to the very front of the security checkpoint line.
Most people have seen these passengers boarding planes before everybody else. They also get first choice of meals before the airline runs out of either beef or chicken, and there is even a special team dedicated to finding and delivering their lost luggage.
But the real perks come when a flight is delayed or a connection is too tight for mere coach travelers to make.
Before the traveler has landed, the airline's staff will automatically rebook him or her on the next flight -- possibly even bumping somebody else -- and have a special agent meet the traveler at their gate with the new boarding pass. A modified golf cart is waiting to speed the traveler through the terminal to the next flight.
"They really, really, really take care of you," Stuker said. "They'll have you rebooked, they'll meet you at the gate so you aren't panicking and they will arrange for any and all means to get you to that flight. They'll personally escort you through security."
In some extreme cases, the airlines will even hold a connecting flight and have a car waiting for the passenger that will race across the tarmac to the next plane -- bypassing the busy terminals. There have even been reports of a helicopter once being sent to help a traveler stuck in traffic.
Consider it high-roller service without the Las Vegas casino.
"It is total, total VIP," Stuker said.
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