Traveler flies high with 10 million miles

Traveler flies high with 10 million miles

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By Harriet Baskas, msnbc.com contributor
When  Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) hit the 10 million-mile mark in the 2009 film “Up in the Air,” audience members may have gasped.

Tom Stuker, who surely first watched that film on an airplane, probably laughed.

Like a fair number of other frequent fliers, Stuker had already accumulated more miles than that through various credit card purchases, hotel stays and other partnership programs. But the Chicago-based automotive sales consultant had his heart set on reaching a more elusive milestone: to be the first person to accumulate 10 million “butt-in-seat” miles.

United Airlines says Stuker is the airline’s first customer to rack up 10 million miles on its frequent flier program, which started in 1981.

“We do have several customers who are above 5 million miles,” said United/Continental spokesperson Rahsaan Johnson, “but we don’t have anyone else about to get to 10 million.”

Stuker, who said he got the mileage “bug” first with hotel and car rental points programs in the 1970s, joined the United’s Mileage Plus program in 1982. “I didn’t get really serious about frequent flier points until the very end of the 1980s,” said Stuker. “I started doing a lot of international travel and fell with love with Australia and the people there. So I kept booking trips to Australia.”

He’s since logged close to 6,000 United flights, including travels to all 50 U.S. states, 200 round-trips to Australia and nearly 30 round-trips to Asia.

Stuker reached 10 million flown miles on Saturday, somewhere over Des Moines, Iowa, on United Airlines Flight 942 from Los Angeles to Chicago.

The milestone didn’t go unnoticed. There was champagne and other festivities during the flight, and when the plane arrived at O’Hare International Airport, United CEO Jeff Smisek and other airline executives and employees were on hand with a few gifts.

In addition to the airline’s first titanium Mileage Plus membership card, the airline put Stuker’s name on the fuselage of a Boeing 747 airplane.  (He already has his name on one of United’s 777s.) He also received a special shipment of his favorite wine and commemorative book listing every single United flight he has flown since he joined Mileage Plus, with personal messages from long-time United employees and executives.

Stuker, who is getting ready for another trip to Australia next week, said that unlike many other frequent business travelers, he still loves being up in the air. “I love the solace and peacefulness at 40,000 feet. That’s where I do my best creative work writing my training materials.”

During the first part of each month, Stuker says he looks forward to doing the Sudoku puzzle in the back of the in-flight magazine. And while he’s looking forward to having in-flight Internet access more widely available so he can take care of business in the air, he also admits to watching a lot of movies and TV shows on the in-flight entertainment system. “I’ll say, ‘I hate this show,’ but I watch it again anyway.”

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