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.

December 15, 2009, 11:38 AM

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.

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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 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.

The' Up in the Air' Movie Treatment

Stuker flies so much that this summer he had 23 consecutive meals on planes.

"Toward the last day or two, I asked to switch my first class meal to a coach meal to try something different," he said.

Once, when flying out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, he was escorted by Global Services through the terminal with then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, just before Obama announced his intentions to seek the presidency.

"It's nice to know that United literally treats me like the president of the United States when I fly," said Stuker, 55.

When you live up in the air, these perks make a big difference. When Stuker calls the airline's reservation line, the staff greets him by name even when he calls from odd phones from around the world -- he says many of the telephone agents recognize his voice.

He's also flown enough on American Airlines to earn lifetime gold, million-miler status, but when given the choice, he picks United.

At the United Los Angeles first class lounge, "I am treated like a king," Stuker said. He walks in the door and his favorite drink -- a Bacardi and Diet Coke -- is waiting. When he leaves, the staff hands him a personally packed doggie bag of his favorite snack for the next flight: chips and guacamole.

During his frequent trips to Australia, Stuker pays for a first-class seat.

"If I was in coach, I would shoot myself," he said. "When you're sitting in a very comfortable seat, in this case a bed with two fluffy pillows, Champagne and an array of movies to choose from, I'm not looking for a whole lot of sympathy."

The Best Frequent Flier Perks

Airlines typically reward fliers for the number of miles or flight segments they fly. The more often you fly, the better the perks: upgrades, dedicated check-in lines and quiet lounges to escape the chaos of the terminal.

But there is a payoff for those perks: Business travelers who buy tickets hours before the flight might pay $1,400 for that same seat that costs another passenger hundreds of dollars less. Executives who buy last-minute, fully-refundable first-class tickets might pay $4,000 or more.

It costs the airline the same amount of money to get each person from point A to point B, but clearly some passengers are more profitable than others. (That's why airlines offer leisure travelers a $200 or $300 voucher to voluntarily be bumped to a later flight -- they often want to fill the seat with a high-yield customer paying three times that.)

The major airlines refused to give out details of these secret rewards programs, fearing that the competition will try to use such information to steal customers. But's Petersen, who was once a Global Services member himself, said members of these clubs often spend $50,000 to $100,000 a year with the airline.

The airlines can also offer membership to influential people such as the heads of large corporate travel departments, celebrities or politicians.

Petersen said it's like Studio 54, "They pick you, you don't pick them."

'Up in the Air" director Jason Reitman, for example, was given his own membership card by American.

"Somebody could fly once a year or 100 times a year," said Billy Sanez, director of advertising and promotion for American Airlines, who worked with the 'Up in the Air' crew. "There's no preset determination for it. It's invitation only. It is our very best customers."

Membership doesn't necessarily guarantee membership for life. Each year, American sends out letters either renewing memberships or not.

"I wouldn't call it a secret society, but it's an exclusive group," Sanez said.

Reaching 10 Million Frequent Flier Miles

In the movie, Clooney's character shows his American Airlines Concierge Key card to a woman he is hitting on at a bar. Her response: I had heard rumors, but I didn't know these really existed.

"This is pretty sexy," she says, picking up the card.

While the Concierge Key program does exist, the movie takes a bit of artistic license with other parts of the services. Clooney's character is seeking to get 10 million frequent flier miles.

"I'd be the seventh person to do it. More people have walked on the moon," he said.

The major airlines refused to divulge how many people have reached that target, but airline officials who were willing to talk -- including from American -- said the number is more than 12, the number who have walked on the moon.

"That line is not accurate," Sanez said.

And while there is some recognition when a passenger hits the 10 million mark, American does not put the traveler's name on the side of a plane or have the person meet the "chief pilot," as the movie claims.

Phillip Dunkelberger is one of those passengers. He currently has more than 11 million miles with American and is a member of Concierge Key. (There are several American AAdvantage members who have more miles.)

He is president and CEO of PGP Corp., a global data security firm. Each year, he is on the road for at least 30 weeks.

Dunkelberger hit 10 million miles about two years ago when flying out of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. At the gate there was an announcement about his milestone and then Dunkelberger was escorted in a mini-ceremony down the ramp to the plane.

Dunkelberger said Concierge Key provides him with unparalleled service and makes him feel looked after.

"I like the fact that you can't qualify for it," he said. "In today's world where airline travel has become a get-on-the-bus kind of thing, that's a real important thing for somebody who's in the air as much as I am and has a lot of choices in business travel being the CEO of a company."

Dunkelberger chooses flights by time and price but, when all things are equal, chooses American because of the service.

He recalls a time he was flying from San Francisco to London and before takeoff somebody got sick. The plane had to be taken out of service and Dunkelberger was going to miss his connection. American rebooked him on a British Airways flight and rushed him to the other terminal to make that flight.

"They literally bent over backward," he said, "went down, pulled my bag off that plane and hand-carried it across the airport to the other airline."

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