Article by Greg Lindsay
Condé Nast Traveler  |  February 2010

Triumph of the Air Warriors

In Up in the Air, George Clooney revels in Airworld, a ten-million-mile flier's paradise of airports, lounges, and jet-iquette. Who lives like this? Meet the FlyerTalkers, the world's greatest passengers, who stockpile miles for currency, who make their cause the dignity of the frequent flier. Greg Lindsay joins them on a mad marathon of gate-hopping, champagne-quaffing stratospheric ecstasy.

“To know me, you have to fly with me,” says George Clooney in Jason Reitman’s new movie, Up in the Air–a hard-edged romance of the American flight from life below during this cruel era of economic contraction. He also says, “Moving is living.” Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an employee-termination expert who is so determined to live aloft that he’s concocted his own cracked brand of Zen, which he teaches at business conferences: Let go of your home, your family, all your earthly possessions, and just go.


“I call it Airworld,” Bingham says in the novel by Walter Kirn on which the movie is based. “The scene, the place, the style. My hometown papers are USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. The big-screen Panasonics in the club rooms broadcast all the news I need, with an emphasis on the markets and the weather. . . . Airworld is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood, and even its own currency–the token economy of airline bonus miles that I’ve come to value more than dollars. Inflation doesn’t degrade them. They’re not taxed. They’re private property in its purest form.”

For you, Airworld is the nowhere you pass through on your way to a meeting or a vacation. It’s the series of tubes from security to your gate, and to the rental car lots, chain hotels, and fast-casual restaurants. At every stop, if you’re savvy, you earn precious miles. American Airlines launched the first frequent-flier program almost 30 years ago on a lark; United followed suit a week later. Therein lies the tale–and many free trips to Hawaii. These led to real-life Clooneys endlessly chasing miles–and who knows what else.

The most fervent citizens of Airworld congregate on FlyerTalk, the Facebook of frequent fliers. It’s the largest, most vibrant community of travelers on the Web, with 232,000 members. Their archived chatter contains enough hard-earned wisdom to turn any conventional seasoned traveler into an instant aviator. FlyerTalk launched in 1998 as a haven for “mileage runners”–the airline junkies who endlessly orbit through Airworld racking up miles.

But we are all frequent fliers now. Roughly 100 million Americans flew four or more times last year. The great American crossroads–Atlanta, LAX, O’Hare–are practically cities in their own right, with daily populations in the six figures, and their transients, like Clooney’s Bingham, are Airworld’s natives.

You can hear echoes of the Jet Age in the FlyerTalkers’ madcap dashes around the world. They re-enact all of our half-forgotten dreams of flight: Americans’ essential faith in the open road; restless itinerancy; self-renewal through forward motion. Of course, it can get out of hand. Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham, according to Kirn, is a walking, talking, jet-setting metaphor for addiction.

Addicted to what? Airline miles are now a currency like any other, legal tender not just in Airworld but in the economy of flat-screen TVs, washing machines, and even diamond rings. There are an estimated 17 trillion miles in circulation right now, which would get you two-thirds of the way to Alpha Centauri. At their nominal exchange rate of a penny per mile, that’s $170 billion–more than the currency reserves of either the United States or Germany. Only a fraction are redeemed, for some 40 million free trips a year. The miles are worth more than the airlines themselves. Not only that, but they are a fact of life for the economy: American Airlines’ mileage program, the largest and oldest, now has upwards of 60 million members–one in every five Americans. Meanwhile, our credit cards are pumping out miles by the billion. They were a currency invented and circulated by the airlines–ready for arbitraging. One flier I met buys a new car’s worth of plane tickets annually but redeems his miles for tickets worth the equivalent of a new house. Miles aren’t taxed. The airlines have caught on to their true worth, selling billions of them to credit card companies for hundreds of millions of dollars.


FOR some time last year, a driven, delirious group of air warriors had been planning a kind of convention that would climax in a paroxysmal celebration of Airworld mania in Frankfurt in which champagne would be drunk, fuselages would be stroked, first-class lounges would be plumbed for pleasure. It would be the ultimate miles reward. When I asked to jump aboard, they embraced me. My expedition was led by Tommy Danielsen, a ruddy-faced Norwegian who had amassed millions of transatlantic miles. I joined them in Chicago. We were to start at O’Hare, fly to Newark, connect to JFK, and then . . . on to Frankfurt! After a day of rest and champagne, we would hop a chartered flight to Oslo, then Toulouse, and then back to New York in 24 hours. We were never to leave the airports. Some people like Paris, Prague, and Vienna. Control towers, hangars, kitchens, and first-class lounges were the sights this group wanted to see.

It was dubbed the “Star Alliance Mega DO,” after the largest of the airline alliances, whose 25 members included our hosts–United, Continental, SAS, and Lufthansa. They called it a DO after a big to-do, and this one was mega, with more than 200 globe-trotters pinballing around Europe; joining in aerial cocktail parties; dive-landing the airports; kicking the tires on a 747; mingling with the very airline executives who control mileage exchange rates, and calling them on the carpet for shoddy service. For some this would be paradise, and among those people are the last commercial travelers in America who love gaming miles, who love to fly for flying’s sake.

“It’s an arbitrage game,” said Seth Miller in the Red Carpet Club at O’Hare. “Buy cheap and redeem high.” A boyish consultant with perpetual bedhead, Miller last fall cashed in 95,000 miles (a relative pittance) for a diving expedition in the Philippines, sandwiched between a stopover in Seoul and a long weekend in Toronto. His smirk concealed trade secrets.


“I also did sushi in Tokyo for 48 hours at the end of three days of transcon running,” Miller added. “That was an eight-night window where I spent six sleeping on planes. I went to Trinidad and Tobago for 36 hours at the beginning of the year because it was a weekend special from Continental. In January, I also hit England and Luxembourg one weekend. Then a group of us headed to Belgium for good beer. . . .” He went on, blissed out by a weekend when “I was traveling for 58 hours and took 13 flights, including two different trips to Puerto Rico.” FlyerTalkers have built an entire culture around this kind of incessant perambulation, and theyre addicted to its trade secrets.

In many ways, they’re the flip side of Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, who retreats into Airworld to hide, terrified of making human connections. When he tries, he’s horrified to learn that his Airworld is actually a prison. Up in the Air is a cautionary tale about mistaking virtual contact for intimacy and loneliness for freedom. But the air warriors counter the soul-crushing anonymity of Airworld with their own community. They’re still true believers in the dream of unfettered flight.

As Seth Miller said, it’s arbitrage: Invest a little time and as little money as possible per mile earned in return. Scour the Web for low fares to nowhere, stuff your itinerary with extra legs, and take off. It doesn’t matter where. “Like any addiction,” one air warrior said, “you don’t care where you end up.” The payoff: Collect your mileage bounty so you can go where you really want to.

“If you hate flying, you’re not doing it right,” says George Clooney as Ryan Bingham. Doing it right demands miles. Garner enough to hit the airlines’ targets and you’ll receive elite status with a bevy of perks: priority boarding, waived baggage fees, mileage bonuses, private lounge access.


THEY’RE hackers, really, cracking fare codes and exploiting seams until they’ve twisted the airlines’ own bewildering rules inside out. FlyerTalkers get a kick out of this, and brag among themselves. They use the same freely available tools as travel agents do, peel off the lids of the reservations systems and peer inside, taking detailed notes on ways to fly well and practically for free.

At this point, you might be forgiven for wondering what these people do all day to have this much time on their hands. They are consultants, salesmen, CEOs. The old-school air warriors lived in hotels and first-class lounges–work demanded it. FlyerTalkers are a different breed, masters and captains of their own lives. Rebelling against being herded like sheep, they banded together to assert their flier rights–exploiting loopholes, pooling information, leading a jailbreak from coach to the front of the plane. They made the airlines sit up and return some of their passenger dignity. You might also think of them as the shock troops of capitalism. Like Clooney’s nonstop flier, they believe that in a video-beamed world there’s no substitute for human presence.

In the lounge at O’Hare, I polled lawyers, bankers, Microsoft programmers, information architects, grad students, and accountants. They embodied the perfect mileage-runner skill set: bright, fantasy-minded people who see travel as a satisfying puzzle to be solved. Some of their schemes border on the baroque or self-parody. One especially devious mileage runner discovered that he could purchase dollar coins from the U.S. Mint on airline-branded credit cards, thus earning miles for buying money–miles that the Mint itself was effectively laundering. There was David Phillips, “the Pudding Guy,” a FlyerTalker who gained national attention when he bought more than 12,000 cups of Healthy Choice pudding at 25 cents each, in the process earning 1.25 million miles and lifetime Gold status on American Airlines.

The airlines know this and occasionally welcome it, because FlyerTalk also serves a kind of consumerist purpose. Its members are the ultimate focus group: knowledgeable, entitled, and ready to speak their minds. In 2005, then Continental Airlines CEO Lawrence Kellner and a FlyerTalker named Dean Burri made a bet. Burri wanted Kellner to take their complaints seriously; Kellner told him that if he could find more than 60 FlyerTalkers willing to pay their own way to Houston for dinner and a tour, Kellner himself would host them. Nearly 300 showed up. Their loud feedback was responsible for Continental’s improving its Web site, standby and upgrade lists, arriving connections, even menus on the flights.

If air warriors have a spiritual guru it’s Randy Petersen, FlyerTalk’s founder and a prophetic-looking advocate of the pleasures of Airworld. “These people really do live an entire travel lifestyle, and miles are the easiest way to get around,” Petersen told me. With his nasal drawl and long white hair, he looks the part. Since dropping out of menswear merchandising 24 years ago to start a frequent-flier newsletter, he’s put three million miles under his belt. “We have an entire generation of boomers who’ve started to retire with a nest egg of miles, because they’ve seen a lot of places. In the old days, they might have retired to a Winnebago, but today it looks a lot more like a 777. They’re not going to Sarasota to see the grandkids; they’re taking the grandkids to Sarajevo.”

FlyerTalk’s expansion is Petersen’s best evidence. The site is growing faster every day. The mileage know-how of the air warriors is trickling down to the general population.


ROLANDO Veloso, an Argentinian air warrior living in New Jersey, was flying practically every day until the recession. “It feeds the beast,” he says. “Once you get used to the premium cabins, you can’t go back.”

Veloso was raised by his mother, a travel agent from Buenos Aires. One of his earliest memories is of falling down the spiral staircase of a Pan Am 747 at the age of three. His employer is a Swiss firm named Eclinso, which sells the software for clinical pharmaceutical trials. He flies in, trains doctors, and flies out. Highly complicated and regulated, it’s not something you can do over e-mail. “My territory is the glue” for assembling miles, he said. Once they needed him in Bangkok in three days for a session. He hopped a flight to Paris on Christmas night, then flew to Bangkok and on to Sydney–for the miles, of course. There were also the indignities–wasted trips across the country and nights spent on airport floors waiting for delayed flights. But he got the miles–800,000 on Continental, and he was gunning for a million and the lifetime elite status that comes with it.

I sat with Fozz Mahmud, an Indian who, with his prodigious chin, has more than a passing resemblance to a bullfrog. He flew 300,000 miles last year. Mahmud told me how he had become homeless. It had all started innocently enough four years ago in San Diego when he began consulting for Symantec, which supplies anti-viral software for PCs. “When I took the job, I was told, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be home 90 percent of the time.’ In my first two and a half years, I was home for two weeks.”

Mahmud accepted a transfer to New Jersey, rented out his house in California, and put his things in storage. “It’s great for a while,” he said, laughing ruefully. “I would get home on Friday, camp out on the couch, and order takeout. By Sunday evening I was already packed.” In the last two months, he had spent his weekends in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo (twice), San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and New York. “I’m 35 years old,” he said. “There’s only a finite amount of time in your life to get away with something like this. I have maybe a year left.”

Even among the FlyerTalkers, one member inspires awe. Rob Cole, a.k.a. Kiwi Flyer, is a soft-spoken New Zealander whom Randy Petersen regards as the king of the mileage runners, with seven million lifetime miles. Three years ago, he took a double around-the-world trip in the single-minded pursuit of lifetime elite status on Qantas. Sixty-six flights and 146,040 miles later–all of it in business or first class–he had it, and had nearly drunk his weight in more than a dozen varieties of champagne. His detailed trip report on was entitled “A Fine Line Between Pleasure & Pain.”

Rob Cole comes and goes as he pleases from the Antipodes; one moment he’s in Auckland, the next he has materialized in Oslo. He’s on the road for purely personal reasons 40 weekends a year. “I just love to travel,” he told me quietly, refusing to even scratch the surface of what drives him. In 2008, he visited 41 countries, 23 of them new to him, and spent 44 nights up in the air–more than he slept in hotels.

Through the window at JFK’s Lufthansa lounge, we could see our ride show up–a floodlit, bone-white 747. It was there to pick up 88 FlyerTalkers who represented 24 million miles–enough to take the entire group to the moon. People tried to balance plates, champagne flutes, and ludicrously powerful digital cameras as they rushed to soak up the three-level lounge, which had reopened last January after a $10 million overhaul. No other airline has invested as much in over-the-top luxury for its most frequent fliers–Lufthansa has spent $200 million on luxury lounges in Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, and Mumbai.

Several hours over the North Atlantic, I turned to Art Pushkin. By then, the cabin was a cocktail party. Pushkin–in chinos, a rumpled sport coat, with glasses and closely cropped steel-gray hair–kept his distance from the mileage runners. Only one thing gave him away: a pin in the shape of a cockroach, emblazoned with the logo of US Airways. Pushkin is a legend in airline circles for leading a popular uprising against his old carrier, and when that failed, for leading a mass defection.

One of his co-fliers said the airline made him feel like “a scheming cockroach,” so Pushkin coalesced a group that dubbed themselves the Cockroaches. “If I’m on your airlines every week,” he said, “that makes me a loyal customer.” After they made enough noise and threatened to take their business elsewhere, the airline caved and threw a party–a “Roachfest”–for the mutineers.

Then the merger happened. US Airways was acquired by America West, whose no-frills CEO, Doug Parker, made it clear there would be no accommodation and no surrender: He was intent on remaking the airline into a low-cost carrier on a par with Southwest. The Roaches went to war. “When they messed with us,” said Pushkin, “it lit a fire.” The Roaches handed out Hershey’s Kisses to the US Airways flight attendants to show they cared, and sent gift baskets to the call center employees whose jobs were being outsourced overseas. So Pushkin began planning the Roaches’ escape, contacting Continental’s envoy to FlyerTalk to switch allegiance with their mileage status intact. Hundreds switched.

Behind the defection was Pushkin’s ethic: Business travelers are the bedrock of the industry. “My wife thinks I’m crazy, but she knows I’m a passionate person. I’m a volunteer firefighter–my personal value is to give back.”

Near the end of our conversation, a flight attendant knelt by his seat and said, “I understand this is your first flight on Lufthansa. We’re honored to have you here.”


IN Frankfurt, we were celebrated and feted as true air warriors. We spent our days behind the scenes at Lufthansa, running our hands over the bellies of 747s, crawling into the cockpits, and climbing into the crew’s private rest area to take a nap. We watched a posse of junior flight attendants serving their superiors test dinners and studied a row of lunar lander-like flight simulators shuddering from simulated turbulence. We were addressed by Lufthansa CEO Wolfgang Mayrhuber, who toasted the air warriors as heroes. “Every child aspires to be mobile,” he told the group, “to get out to see other parts of the world. Mobile societies are always the ones that drive the world forward, and you are the leading gear.”

By the time we left Frankfurt, the plane had taken on a Hawaiian motif. Each of the three legs on our jaunt across Europe–to Oslo, Toulouse, and home to Frankfurt–had a theme. This morning’s was Continental Airlines’ first flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu, circa 1973.

“Aloha!” bellowed Tommy Danielsen, draping leis over our heads as we boarded the charter in the pre-dawn darkness. Don Ho was playing on the PA. The chief air warriors were dressed in Hawaiian shirts and jeans.

In Oslo, it was snowing as we descended–the landscape was a blanket of thick wet flakes, “a Norwegian cliché, Danielsen snorted. Our plane taxied to a stop at the edge of the airfield, where we clambered down stairs to buses waiting to ferry us to a hangar. We slipped and slid across the tarmac, throwing snowballs. “This isn’t even Europe,” someone said. “This is just someplace along the way.” He was right; we were not in Oslo but a freezing pocket of Airworld.

struck up a conversation with Daniel Krupnick, who works for an Internet company in Tel Aviv. He has a second job on weekends, flying to Buenos Aires for a two-and-a-half-hour meeting before turning around and flying home. What they talk about, he wouldn’t say. But it has to be in person–a matter of trust, he said. He estimated that his shadowy employers have spent more than a million dollars to date flying him in first class. His advice is evidently worth that. Krupnick is 24. I took it on faith that he’s some sort of savant.

Our conversation ended abruptly with a pop! Our hosts from SAS had fired the emergency slide on one of their planes as a stunt. Krupnick’s jaw dropped. “Oh my God,” he said, “that just cost $30,000.” And sure enough, it had–emergency slides can’t be repacked. The first one gleefully down the chute was Tommy Danielsen; Seth Miller was close behind.

On final approach to Toulouse a few hours later, we were so distracted by the A380s on the tarmac that at first we didn’t notice that our plane hadn’t quite landed. In the cockpit, the computer monitored our elevation in feet–“50 . . . 40 . . . 30 . . . 20 . . .”–and then stopped. Shouts of “Pull up!” started to echo through the cabin. The computer warned that we were running out of runway. At the last moment, the captain pulled back on the stick and gunned it, steering us into the sky. We could all see him pump his fist through the open cockpit door. All we heard were our whoops over the engines.


MY own initiation into Airworld happened by sheer luck. An impish mileage runner named Marty passed me in the terminal on our last afternoon in Frankfurt and asked mischievously, “Would you like to watch me upgrade a non-upgradable ticket?” Intrigued, I fell in behind him.

While we were waiting at the check-in desk, he unfurled a crumpled certificate that I recognized as worth its weight in gold: a System-Wide Upgrade, or, in FlyerTalk parlance, a SWU. Given only to top-tier fliers, a SWU entitles you to an upgrade anywhere the airline flies, and he was holding one for Lufthansa that didn’t have his name on it. Sure enough, he returned with a first-class ticket jacket. “I’m so excited to use the VIP terminal!” he squealed.

On the way back to the hotel, he proudly displayed his boarding pass to jealous peers.

“No way! How’d you do that?” they exclaimed.

Not content with the scope of his con, Marty hatched a plan at the bar that night to smuggle five of us into Lufthansa’s first-class terminal. He knew the stipulations by heart: Each passenger is allowed a guest as long as he or she is booked on the same flight. We would get around that by upgrading one of us using his method and by booking me a first-class ticket on their flight to LAX. Seeing that my eyes went wide at this, he brushed it off. “No worries,” he said. “It’s a fully refundable ticket. You’ll cancel it the moment you leave the terminal.”

Commandeering my laptop, he proceeded to bulldoze his way through a blizzard of screens to book my ticket. The Web has not only made it possible for anyone to be their own travel agent but also to see, for example, exactly how many people are sitting in business class or first, and roughly how much they paid–whether a full-fare ticket, a discount, or an upgrade. Prying open Lufthansa’s computers, he could tell that first class was wide open. Ten minutes and a phone call later, he had siphoned off a chunk of his United miles to book me into first. We would pick up the tickets in the morning.

But morning rolled around and there was a snafu at the ticket desk–United had booked me into business class, not first. Marty whipped out his cell phone, called United, and was promptly transferred to a call center in India, which enraged him. But he put the call on speaker phone while he reasoned with the agent, and his calm demeanor never cracked. “Be nice,” was someone’s crucial bit of advice. “Confrontation never works.”

As the minutes ticked by, he played the airline reps off each other, wooing Lufthansa to his side. Finally a compromise: United would clear my ticket through its own rep halfway across the terminal. As we trotted along the terrazzo, Marty wailed operatically, “This wasn’t supposed to happen! This is why I left United!”

The red tape finally cleared; we were given permission to enter the first-class terminal. Our assistant took our passports, then ushered us through security and into what could pass for the lobby of an especially Teutonic Ritz-Carlton, built at a cost of $43 million. Downstairs was the fleet of Porsches, BMWs, and Mercedeses waiting to whisk us to our plane. We did our best to play it cool, barely refraining from giggling as we were led to a table in the restaurant for breakfast.

The staff eyed us warily. “We’ve been on a charter, flying around for days,” Marty said. “We’re all a little tired,” he added, in a subtle dismissal of our hovering attendant. “Now, if I may make a point: Where is the champagne?”

Taittinger Rosé was served with pastries fresh off the first flight from Vienna. Marty began plotting his next mileage run: a mistake fare on Continental from Seattle to Tokyo for $580 round-trip, fully upgradable. We toasted. I left Marty making preparations to take a bath in the lounge’s full-size bathtub. But there was a rub. It turned out that Rolando Veloso, the Argentinian air warrior with 800,000 Continental miles, had designs on the tub as well. There was a trophy to be claimed for coming here, and only one flier would have it: a rubber ducky, across the front of which read clearly: lufthansa first-class terminal. In Airworld, the Lufthansa rubber ducky is the golden fleece.

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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