Tom Stuker becomes first frequent flyer to pass 10 million miles, United celebrates

Ryan Bingham exists in real life, and his name is Tom Stuker. Mr. Stuker, an automotive consultant based in Chicago has been flying United for over 20 years, and this Saturday afternoon, somewhere between Los Angeles and Chicago he officially crossed the line over 10 million frequent flyer miles.

To celebrate, the folks at United hosted a private celebration at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, shutting down a section of a C concourse Red Carpet Club for a celebration with Mr. Stuker’s family, United CEO Jeff Smisek, Mileage Plus President Jeff Foland and a few dozen people from the community.

For his part, Tom Stuker doesn’t seem the least bit weary from his 10 million miles of travel. At just under six feet tall and with a steady, affable smile, he emerged from the Los Angeles flight full of energy and to the cheers of scores of waiting media and friends. In the Red Carpet Club he floated around the room mingling with assorted, eager miletalkers and accepting pats on the back from the wayward executive or marketing agent, effortlessly smiling as the media soaked up his glee.

Among the gestures that United made in recognition of his efforts came a single-edition, titanium Global Services membership card, a scale mockup of the upcoming United 787 and a framed certificate stating his achievement. The most impressive gift, however, was Tom Stuker’s name on the side of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, similar to the achievement that Ryan Bingham received in Up in the Air.

Perhaps most moving was the humility with which Mr. Stuker accepted his praise. His speech, hand written on three pages of wide rule notebook paper, was a reflection on his time with the airline and a heartfelt thank you to all of the staff with whom he had become friends over the years. He spoke of the difficulty during the United bankruptcy and the subsequent merger, moving himself nearly to tears on several occasions, but remaining gracious and optimistic the entire time.

The underlying theme of Mr. Stuker’s speech, however, kept returning: it was not only a milestone for one frequent flyer but rather for the entire airline — years of work building one of the world’s largest airlines, weathering a merger, a rough economy and an ultra competitive market. For everyone in the room there was much to celebrate, and for this one brief afternoon there were smiles on the faces of Jeff Smisek, the ramp workers and the flight attendants alike.

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[Editor's note: it shall be noted that Tom Stuker flew all of his 10M miles on United while Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air earned his miles in various means -- but we still think that the comparison is bang on. Judge away.]