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30,000 Feet: Frequent Flyer
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Gabriel Leigh

Gabriel Leigh has a BFA in Film Production from NYU and a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Born in New York City and raised in Japan, the U.S., and England, he's been taking long-haul flights since early childhood. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

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Length: 12:39

In 2001, when I was 18 and booking flights to visit family in Japan and England, I discovered American Airlines' Platinum Challenge -- an unpublished feature of the AAdvantage frequent flyer program that could "fast-track" passengers to the airline's Platinum elite status.

Fly a certain number of miles in a three-month span and you could skip the normally required 50,000-miles-in-a-year it took to earn the status.

With Platinum elite status came first-class upgrades, exclusive lounge access, and general preferential treatment for the following year. Doing the math, I realized that with my flights I could complete the challenge. All I had to do was call and sign up. I felt like I had just gained access to a secret club.

Before then, I had only earned a handful of frequent flyer miles and never really paid attention to the process. I flew multiple airlines with little regard for which partner mileage program might reward me best. But that fall, I had begun reading some of the discussions on a travel website called flyertalk.com.

I found people obsessed with frequent flyer programs, discussing in great detail about how to maximize the earning and burning of miles. It's where I learned about the Platinum Challenge, and where I got hooked. Since then, my interest in miles, along with my mileage balance, has increased significantly, and I've become a daily visitor to Flyertalk.

"Miles are confusing -- the programs come bundled with arcane rules, excessive restrictions, and feel designed to keep you from ever figuring a way to use them.

It's no surprise, then, that I met many of the personalities in the film 30,000 Feet: Frequent Flyer through flyertalk.com. At a moderator's meeting in Orlando, Florida, I spoke with the website's founder Randy Petersen, the head of a frequent-flyer-mile empire that encompasses websites, magazines, and books. (Its headquarters in Colorado has the address "Frequent Flyer Pt.") Some of Flyertalk's most active members told me stories of forcing their families to eat a certain kind of food and even hiring people to fly cheap flights for them all in the interest of adding to their mileage balance.

To many people, miles are confusing -- the programs come bundled with arcane rules, excessive restrictions, and feel designed to keep you from ever figuring a way to use them. Most regular travelers have at least a few thousand of them somewhere -- in fact, in total, trillions of miles sit unused in member accounts around the world. Meanwhile, loyalty programs are growing in scope every year. Since their invention in the early 1980s, miles and points have become an alternative world currency in terms of their potential value.

plane taking off

Since their invention in the early 1980s, miles and points have become an alternative world currency in terms of their potential value

This potential is part of what motivates the 200,000-plus members of Flyertalk, and what drives them (I include myself here) to study the various programs out there -- the transfer possibilities, the bonus offerings, and so on. Take, for instance, the relatively recent news that Air Canada's loyalty program, Aeroplan, has changed its rules: It now allows a U.S. to Asia mileage redemption ticket to route via Europe, with up to two stopovers, and can cross both the Atlantic and Pacific, at a cost of only 120,000 miles for true international First Class.

So let's say, hypothetically of course, that I booked a ticket for what is, ostensibly, a trip from Los Angeles to Bangkok. But I would go the long way, flying Swiss First Class to Europe for a few days, before going via Frankfurt in Lufthansa First Class to Toyko (where I could try out their new terminal dedicated solely to first-class passengers, complete with a Mercedes S-class to drive you to the plane).

After a few days in Japan, it's a seven-hour hop in Thai First to Bangkok (where complimentary hour-long massages are offered in the first class lounge) for a short stay, before heading back to Los Angeles via Zurich again in a mixture of Thai and Swiss First -- all for 120,000 miles.

Normally, that amount would not even be enough for a roundtrip first-class ticket from the U.S. to Europe, let alone a marathon like this. And, with a bit more research, the routing could probably be made even better.

The possibilities are endless.

-- Gabriel Leigh

Comments for this page are closed.

REACTIONS

Francis L - Niagara Falls, ON
Since I'm a flyertalker myself, I'll try to defend some of our practices. I think all Gabriel is showing here is that with some work, miles can be rewarding. For me, I've flown, on average, 80,000 miles for the last 3 years. Did I have to fly all of that 80,000, probably not, but at least 60,000 of it was necessary. Is it plausible for everybody to start flying like this, not likely - but for us, we found a way to take advantage, to use these hard-earned miles very efficiently. Hey, I even redeemed a New York to Hong Kong return international first class ticket last month so it's definitely not impossible and I'm still in college myself.

Jason Frasier - San Francisco, CA
I think quite a few of you are so emotionally swayed by the possible environmental impact that you're missing the point entirely.These miles mavens are not blindly flying solely to obtain the ability to sit in a comfortable chair in a metal tube next to a stranger they'll never see again. That's just a nice perk. The other major benefit is the extreme bonus miles that can be used for free flights (in first class, of course), hotel stays, gifts, etc. After you've obtained elite status with most airlines, you earn even more miles per mile flown so the miles rack up much, much faster. These insane miles mavens are such a small part of the overall flying population anyway that any perceived impact on the environment is negligible.There is much lower-hanging fruit that a hardcore environmentalist should
be going after than this.

Santa Monica, CA
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Life is a journey, not a destination." This, could in fact, be a very Zen experience. As for wasting time, who is anyone to judge how another gets value out of spending their time?=
=20

San Francisco, CA
These people remind me of people who order a 'good' bottle of wine and then spend the rest of the evening gloating about how much it cost, and never really enjoy the wine. As for frequent flyer programs, I 'game' the system in order to travel. But that almost never includes flying extra miles for points. And all of my flights (free or paid) are almost always always in the economy seats. So far this year, without taking advantage of any of the frequent flyer special offers, I have 3 free RT flights from SFO to Spain, using a total of 165k points. And the people concerned about the environment, yes there is that, but there are many efforts in progress working on this. MIT just designed a jet that uses 70% less fuel. And Sir Richard Branson is experimenting with alternate fuels.

(anonymous)
I usually am an avid consumer of Frontline/World. I love the tv pieces and have some to turn to the online stories as way to see interesting global stories. That being said this piece is completely bizarre. This is a Frontline/World story? It seemed more appropriate for a blog at best. There's no news imperative here and it really comes across as the reporter indulging his own private joy of being a frequent flier. Plus, I can't believe in this day and age, when airline travel contributes to emissions and environmental degradation, F/W editors would post something like this. Where are the real stories from around the world?

FRONTLINE/World Editors - Berkeley, CA
Check out our Twitter Interview with Gabriel here:=0D=0D
http://www.facebook.com/notes/pbs-frontlineworld-global-storytellers/twitte=
r-interview-with-filmmaker-gabriel-leigh-about-30000-feet-frequent-flyer/40=
4297880415=0D

T H - Los Angeles, CA
If the article had been title "I love to travel the world" there wouldn't have been such the environmental outcry we have here. Indeed, to see the world is one of the most sensitive things you can do for the people and the planet.

But there is always a price to pay, environmentally speaking. These flights will go on no matter what because others have "practical business" (as JN from Seattle says) to do. Practical business can essentially be done electronically. But the truth of the matter is that personal contact, whether cultural or commercial, is a necessity.

I personally know people who have never left the US and have an ethnocentric POV - from right-wing religious and political stances to denials of the human impact of climate change. People who have never been to Copenhagen or Amsterdam where public transportation and bicycles abound cannot open their eyes to a better, more eco-friendly way of living other than by travel.

My commute to work involves 30 minutes by car. The alternative is 3 hours by MTA bus. It's all of 16 miles. I would love to have public transportation like Paris or London and would be willing to give up my car for something like it. Without experiencing it first hand, I wouldn't have voted for larger taxes to help with public transport expansion in the greater LA area. I needed to see how others were doing it better to change my mind and put my money where my mouth is. In fact, I think traveling to share (and learn from) cultures other than your own is more worthwhile than the travels of a guy in Tulsa commuting weekly to Boise to sell car parts. The definition of what's "necessary/practical" is subjective.

I experienced first hand a better (eco) way to commute. It opened my eyes. Maybe someone in another country I meet will learn from my culture and see that success doesn't necessarily mean having more children - that education is a way out of a third world status. Overpopulation is a bigger threat, I think, to the environment. Travel is worth it.

See the world, learn from it and share it with those you meet. And these guys aren't immature - they just haven't lost their sense of wonder and adventure. I cannot trade my experience of seeing the Eiffel Tower or the smile of a child from Lagos and makes me want the world - yes, the environment - to be better. I want others to meet that child from Nigeria and help him grow up in a country without violence. I also want to see the beauty of the Maldives someday - so I will do my part to prevent the ice caps from submerging it

If people in the US who have never traveled to such places go there, I guarantee that the Kyoto protocol would be ratified in Congress and would only be the starting point. And traveling is hard. If you have access to first class because you worked for it, then I say enjoy it. The plane was going there anyway.

(anonymous)
What do you guys do for a living? I want to fly around the world all the time....

Andrew S - Los Angeles, CA
This whole production comes across as a couple kids who never got over the novelty of a new Christmas toy they received years ago. I agree with the earlier comment this appears to be a couple teenagers who discovered how to game a system. OK. Big deal.

I mean, really, is this the best Frontline can do? Broadcast a short about a couple kids who can game the system? Lemme guess, Frontline's next production will show us all how to tip over soda vending machines and get free cans of Coke? Please tell us what you're going to do with your life when you grow up.

Montreux, Switzerland
Whether or not extreme frequent fliers feel guilty for their environemental sins is one thing, but not even mentioning this aspect to flying is irresponsible as a journalist and really ends up being just navel gazing and self congratulatory.

G C - Chicago, IL
As someone who is under 40 years old, has over 6M program miles and over 2.2M "butt in seat" miles on AA, this presentation was a little amateurish, and in a couple minor instances, inaccurate. This guy is a frequent flier geek who doesn't do real flying as hardcore business travelers do. He just games the system, polluting the environment, while not closing business deals or doing anything that contributes real value to our GDP. I'm a little surprised FRONTLINE let this one into production!

(anonymous)
Really good film Gabriel. Hopefully, if people want to make a film about planes and the environment they should do so. As for your film, its a good inside look at this weird sub-set of people. Thanks,
Jordan

J R - Baltimore, MD
Good for these guys. Rational decision-making at its finest!

Gary Kellison - Carlsbad, CA
I think killjoys need to check their facts. Complain about small executive jets if you want, but modern airliners are very efficient in terms of miles per passengers transported. No airline ever canceled a flight because I decided to stay home. All recreational activity has some environmental cost. It takes hours of car driving to get from my home to the nearest nation park, for example. Frequent flying is a harmless activity, and if it allows Americans to see the world, then that is a good thing! I always find something to do or see, like a museum or market in my faraway destinations. If other people think that this hobby is strange and not something they would enjoy, I am fine with that. I only suggest dispensing with the morally superior attitude.

Boston, MA
What a great little film! It's inspiring. I think it's so great that airlines have programs like this. How wonderful that you are able to see other parts of the world affordably and get to interact with people from other cultures!

Ken Z - Cleveland, OH
Everyone has a hobby. Some like to watch football and use up precious electricity which is made mostly from non-renewable energy. Some like to race muscle cars.Again, a plane flies with or without the so called mileage runners. More mileage runners, more money to the airlines, which in turn employ your neighbors.

G M - Sun Valley, ID
The Enviromental impact is negligible to those "Environmentalists" who fly in their corporate jets all over the world. Collecting Frequent Flyer miles allows many people to visit parts of the world that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive.

Agnostic Technologist - Hilo, Hawaii
Hippies are out in force in the comments page I see. Perhaps they should shut off their internet connection to conserve energy.Technology will make the minor negative consequential effects of climate change negligible and that is what should be emphasized - not placing limits,
stifling economic and technological progress, and screaming like religious
nuts about the devilry of fossil fuels.Things change, species go extinct, some people have to move around and adapt. Stop imposing your selfish human notions of "green perfection" on the physical universe. Technology is the next step in the natural evolution of
the universe - as it develops more and more negative factors that humans perceive will be reversed. Meanwhile, irrational religious fundamentalists and environmentalists preach.

Stephanie K - San Francisco, CA
Besides the horrifying environmental impact that's already been mentioned, we're forgetting the cultural impact. How self absorbed
are we to be flying as a hobby when most of the world hasn't even seen a plane up close? Anyone lucky enough to see the world from above the clouds better be grateful for the opportunity. The whole point airlines have thrived is because flying is a means to an end. People are trying to go places,
not just fly in circles. The greatest experiences come from going to new
places, seeing amazing things, meeting interesting people. Planes bring you there. Someone please explain the point of flying if it's just to fly more? Thats usually the worst part for me, for a million reasons. Would flying first class make the experience better? Absolutley. Is it worth sitting in planes for days just for an upgrade at some point in time? I've got better things to do with my time and that's live my life; not sit in a slightly more comfortable chair with strangers I'll never know or see again just for some free champagne. And by the way, did those guys actually spend any time in Buenos Aires while racking up those golden points? Becuase that city is electrfying and beautiful and they would know that if they stopped for one second and actually made use of all those miles. Dear Gabriel,
you're quite clever for figuring this all out but your intelligence could probably find a more productive use for people other than yourself.

C N - Baltimore, MD
Frontline should know better than to reflect this mentality in a positive light. Or maybe it's just not a negative light. This from a group that put out "Heat" and "Poisoned Waters" over the last year?
I love this program, but I think you slipped up here by selling this to people.

Kevin C. - Minneapolis, MN
As far as the environment fuel efficiency issue. A modern airplanes average mileage per passenger at typical occupancy is way better mileage then a Toyota Prius and are far more efficient than the average car on road. In addition these flights typically would still be made regardless by the airline company anyway. Based on the research I have looked through the effects of doing this type of scheme would be minimum.

David Donaldson - New York, New York
Please think of the environment.

Kristy Johnsson - Seattle, WA
The environmental consequences of schemes like this are and will be disastrous and it is even more repugnant knowing that a majority of these people could easily pay for these tickets without the miles or could afford more environmentally-sensitive forms of transportation. Human greed at it's finest. Let's start thinking beyond our little egos.

J N - Seattle, WA
This is revolting. These people are cavalier and unbothered by their utterly useless consumption of fossil fuel to fly in circles so they can sit in the front row of a flight to London and "feel important."
Jet planes are one of the worst polluters pound for pound and no one should be flying anywhere unless it is the only practical option. The blame should be shared by the airlines, who incentivize such reckless and irresponsible behavior.

Joe Armstrong - Portland, Maine
Great work! Frequent Flyer community is a fascinating world that I didn't know existed. Inspires me to travel!