An inside look at off-the-books elite airline programs

Imagine an airline experience free of middle seats, standing in line or dealing with nut-job flight attendants who withhold orange juice, water and any other service not related to “safety.” Tom Stuker, it seems, doesn’t have to close his eyes and pretend: he lives the dream. He’s spent 700,000 in non-middle seats this year alone, with complimentary cocktails, a hidden check-in process and a taste of luxury not present even in first class having become the norm for him.

Now, with 8.8 million miles racked up on United over his travel-intensive career, Stuker has been admitted to an elite frequent flier program, of the sort we covered here at Gadling not to long ago. This is the type of secret society noted in George Clooney‘s new flick, “Up in the Air.” Airlines don’t like to talk about it, but they actually do treat people well on occasion. You just have to spend a fortune to matter enough to them.

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski Janikowski likens the airlines super-duper-premium offer, Global Services, to Yale’s Skull and Bones society. Like the elite underworld of the Ivy League, its members include CEOs, senators and other people envied by the rest of us.

So, how does this work?

1. You get a special check-in area. Avoid the great unwashed, and get greeted by name, as a concierge, of sorts, dispatches with your bags quickly. Your boarding passes will be waiting for you. At some airports, you’ll be able to pass through a hidden door to the front of the security checkpoint.

2. You’ll be watched. When? Well, when you move to the front of anything. We are all aware of those guys who occasionally are allowed to board before the elderly – before any announcements are made.

3. You’ll choose first. For everything, all the time. The meal will come to you before anyone else even knows there’s food on the plane.

4. Your lost luggage is scouted. If the airline loses your luggage, they actually try to find your luggage. Actively. A special team takes care of this.

None of this is truly life-changing, though, except the security piece. The real value of being a member of this type of secret society becomes apparent when something goes wrong … not unusual when airline employees are involved.

If you have a connection that’s too tight, the airline will rebook you on the next available flight – while you are still in the sky. A special agent will meet you at the gate with your new boarding pass, and a set of wheels will be furnished to take you to the next gate. If you need to go through security again, you’ll be escorted personally. In rare cases, a car will be waiting for you to dart you across the tarmac to your next plane. Terminals are for prolie scum.

Thinking back to Stuker, he’s got insane props with several airlines, but his favorite is United, because, “I am treated like a king.” Simply, he notes, “If I was in coach, I would shoot myself.”

Airline secret societies

There’s a special type of membership level, but the airlines don’t want you to know about it … unless you’re dropping an easy $50,000 a year on full fare tickets with the same airline. The topic, which comes up from time to time, is in the headlines again thanks to the work of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

American Airlines is mentioned in the flick, but the carrier won’t talk about the subject itself. No details have been released on how to attain these levels of air travel greatness, except the obvious: you need to be a rich frequent traveler or control a company where a lot of people are on the road all the time. The perks of this secret society include fantastic upgrades, bat-phones to experienced agents who answer on the first ring, priority check-in, lounge access and airport escorts when you’re layover’s about to go under. Simply, it translates to real customer service, a rarity in this industry.

Status has become a commodity, with double miles bonuses and other tricks helping frequent flyers amp up their accounts faster, a side-effect of airlines looking to make their passengers as loyal as possible. Because of this, anyone who wants to be a real player — e.g., American’s ConciergeKey, Continental‘s Chairman’s Circle and United‘s Global Services — will have to pierce the inner circle.

Only 20,000 of United’s 1 million program members were allowed into United’s program, which requires 100,000 miles or 100 segments. Delta is the most secretive, with Executive Partner status, which has been replaced by Diamond Medallion level status, requiring 125,000 qualifying miles or 140 qualifying segments.

Okay, so you can figure out all the basic benefits — just like every other status, only faster and bigger and bitter. And then, it isn’t hard to let your mind wander to such upsides as confirming upgrades 120 hours in advance (instead of 100 hours). But, this only scratches the surface. Forrester Research reveals that airlines know which planes have the greatest VIP density and use this to assign gate priority. A Continental passenger and Chairman’s Circle member — who took more than 300 flights and traveled more than 400,000 miles (no bonus miles tucked in there) — was able to finagle some time on an MD-80 slight simulator, because the airline values his business.

See, it is possible to get some love from the airlines. You just have to be ready to spend an absolute fortune … and make the airline need you.



Stevie Wonder named UN Messenger of Peace

Stevie Wonder is singing a new tune. Okay, not literally, but he has just taken on a new role: UN Messenger of Peace.

Blind since birth, Wonder will support the United Nations’ work, specifically to advocate for people with disabilities, through planned public appearances, interaction with international media, and humanitarian work.

The winner of 25 Grammy awards, Wonder may be best known for his singer-songwriter career. But he has long been an activist — spearheading the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday in the U.S., advocating for ending apartheid in South Africa, as well as writing and performing songs to benefit humanitarian issues.

Wonder is the latest of the celebrity UN Messengers of Peace — there are 11 in total — including George Clooney (peacekeeping), Michael Douglas (disarmament), and Charlize Theron (ending violence against women).

“I recognize that he has consistently used his voice and special relationship with the public to create a better and more inclusive world, to defend civil and human rights and to improve the lives of those less fortunate,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.

Up in the Air: George Clooney becomes a frequent flyer

Trailers for Up in the Air with George Clooney started surfacing on my desk this week, and I must admit, I’m eying them with curiosity, fear and interest.

I’m curious and interested because in a way, the film narrates the lives of many people I know, perhaps myself included, the life of a person always on the move who travels light — both physically and metaphorically.

What I’m afraid I’ll see is how these people are portrayed, the hollowness and vanity that sometimes comes with frequent travel and how this is reflected onto myself. Watching the trailers now available on YouTube, much of the dialogue rings familiar, even if it doesn’t apply to my personal life:

“Do you know that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet?”


“Well, I don’t.”

But as all Hollywood movies go, I’m sure that Up in the Air will have a perfect ending and lesson learned, with all of us feeling as if we’re that clever, attractive businessman that finds love and starts life afresh.

I’m looking forward to the film.

Nice work on the product placement by the way. In this two minute trailer I saw American Airlines, Blackberry, Hilton, Travelpro and Mastercard. Incidentally, that shot of Clooney in front of the 747 and fountain was shot at Detroit’s Delta terminal.