Watching Up in the Air, moviegoers are likely to be impressed by the obsession of Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) to reach 10 million frequent flyer miles. It is easy to fantasize about the perks that status might bring: front-of-the-line access, voyages to remote beaches at the price of nothing, expensive wines, surprise treats.... But before you stuff some shirts into a carry-on and prepare to brave the skies as Bingham does in the film, be aware that the glories of becoming an American Airlines 10 million miler have been given a little movie-magic lift.
When Bingham hits his 10 million-mile goal during a flight from Chicago to Omaha, he receives a surprise champagne celebration onboard, and American Airlines' chief pilot appears for a congratulatory sit-down visit. Bingham, already the owner of an impressive graphite card (a status invented by the film), receives an instant upgrade: a personally engraved metal card that will allow him to directly access his own private operator, someone who will greet him by name.
Real life doesn't quite provide that kind of a party for actual 10 million milers though certainly get treated well. Phillip Dunkelberger is the president of a data protection firm. Work sends him around the globe and he has earned about 14 million miles, mostly with American. ("I'm also an elite on United and Luftansa," he says.) What did he get at 10 million? It passed with the outward fanfare of an on-time arrival. "It was a trip to Zurich two years ago. I knew this trip would put me over 10 million miles," he recalls. "But what brought a smile to my face wasn't so much what I drank and what I ate. I think it was when I landed and realized I've been able to enrich my life with business travel. It was more a happy thought than anything else."
That said, Dunkelberger's Executive Platinum status with American is pretty sweet: it offers upgrades, lounge access and a 100% flight mileage bonus (meaning he doubles his miles with each trip), to name a few benefits. But he must also hit certain mileage marks each calendar-year or else lose his privileges.
Jerold Solovy is 79 years old and has been flying American Airlines for 64 years. He cannot even recall when he crossed the 10 million mile mark. "I think I passed it last year; I wasn't keeping track," he says. "American Airlines wrote me a nice letter. They advised me I crossed. They keep me posted." A letter? He admits he might have even lost the thing during a recent office move. "All I'm doing is throwing away things. I'm sentimental about my grandkids, but that's about it." Still, he's proud of the status it affords him. "I go to O'Hare and LaGuardia and they treat me royally. I know everyone and they are very nice to me," says Solovy. "I don't know what they did for Mr. Clooney; for me I get good service, they get me where I want to go and when I want to get there."
Solovy and Dunkleberger say that some things in the movie are accurate. While there is no such thing as the graphite card, the Concierge Key card that the film's other veteran flyer, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), finds in Ryan Bingham's wallet actually does exist. In the film, Goran is impressed in a way that only aficianados can be: "I wasn't sure these actually existed," she says. American Airlines officials, as secretive as Freemasons in a Dan Brown novel, claim not to know much about it, except that one becomes a member by invitation only because the airline has noticed your record of extensive travel, celebrity or some unquantifiable factor.
Dunkleberger is a member, but it is a status that even his close co-workers are unaware of. Solovy clams up after mentioning that he holds one of these cards. "It's very valuable. It's black," he says. "It gets you priority on the standby list and gives you upgrades if you need them." But then silence. Next topic please.
United Airlines has a similar level of secrecy surrounding its Global Services program. "We don't discuss the criteria for being invited into this elite club," says one spokesperson. The airline, however, will list some of its perks: being the first to board a plane; having a private check-in room with a back door to the front of security; a private phone number to agents who are at your beck and call. United's top flier, Thomas Stuker, is a huge fan. "Global services is like dying and going to heaven," he says. "They take care of every single Global person 24/7."
Stuker talks in giddy tones about special operators working behind the scenes to correct missed connections even while Global passengers are still in the air. "When I call the 800 number in Michigan, most of the time I don't even have to introduce myself, they know me," says Stuker. "I got my own 1-800 KISS MY ASS hotline."
Over the years, Stuker has enjoyed many Bingham-esque moments of grandeur, including $500 of free wine one Christmas and, another time, a gourmet dinner at Chicago's Tru for two ("They even let me pick the wine, which they might not do again."). He even had a United-sponsored appearance as a diner on Seinfeld ("I just sat there; they didn't want me to talk"). Last week on his way back from Australia, flight officials boarded his plane in Los Angeles and brought on a birthday cake.
But Stuker, 56, a sales and management trainer for the auto industry, is a purist and says his "butt-in-seat" flights only amount to 8.8 million since he started in 1982. (Counting all miles from flight bonuses and credit card extras, the total is an astronomical 30 million miles.) He says he's still gunning for a pure 10 million of miles his butt has actually flown.
When Stuker gets there, he says, he'll do it in style. "It won't be on a flight to Des Moines or Omaha, I'll take a bus before I cross the mark on one of those flights. It's going to be an international flight, probably Europe with my girlfriend. I'm going to plot it out exactly and know when I hit it. And hell yeah, there is going to be champagne."