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Traveler flies high with 10 million miles

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
Tom Stuker poses in front of the United Boeing 747-400 named in his honor for earning 10 million frequent flier miles.
Tom Stuker poses in front of the United Boeing 747-400 named in his honor for earning 10 million frequent flier miles.
  • Tom Stuker is the first person to reach 10 million miles in United's Mileage Plus program
  • He has flown on almost 6,000 United flights since 1982 for business and pleasure
  • "If I go a week or two without flying, I get really jumpy," Stuker says

(CNN) -- When Tom Stuker telephones United Airlines to reserve a flight, all he has to say is "Hi."

The agent on the other end of the line will immediately recognize who is calling and take special care of the traveler United calls its "number one customer."

Meet the man many people have compared to George Clooney's character in "Up in the Air." Over the weekend, Stuker became the first person ever to reach the 10 million mile mark in United's Mileage Plus program.

Stuker, a Chicago-based consultant for the automotive industry, has flown on almost 6,000 United flights since 1982. He travels extensively for business and pleasure, noting that he's taken about 60 honeymoons with "the woman of my dreams" in the last 15 years.

"I love travel. I got hooked a long time ago, whether it's the Louvre in Paris or the pyramids or an African safari, I just really like seeing the world," Stuker said.

Frequent flier hits 10 million miles
  • Air Travel

"If I go a week or two without flying, I get really jumpy and really antsy because I find so much solace, so much peace when I fly. I'm so relaxed."

He flies first class, of course, and gets VIP treatment as a member of United's exclusive Global Services program for super elite frequent fliers. Membership "comes with many benefits that we actually don't publicize," United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said.

World is small for mileage millionaires

On Saturday, the airline feted Stuker at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, naming a Boeing 747-400 in his honor for the occasion and presenting him with a first-ever Titanium United Mileage Plus card. (Again, United was mum on the exact perks that come with it.) caught up with Stuker on the eve of the party. He was in Los Angeles, where he'd just landed after a trip to see a friend in Australia.

The following is an edited version of that interview.

CNN: Where do you fly the most?

Stuker: I've accumulated probably a good 4 million miles just going back and forth to Australia.

I've been to Hawaii probably about 80 times.

CNN: What sort of perks do you get as a super elite frequent flier?

Stuker: Every time I hit a million mark, United would call me or e-mail me and ask "What would you like this time?" They would e-mail me a list of several different gifts to choose from. The last time, I got quite a generous gift card from an online wine service, which was very nice and kept my wine cellar full of nice champagne for a while.

When the first [Boeing] 777 came out, they put my name on it, and that was quite an honor.

Next week, they're having me throw out the first pitch for a Cubs game, which is a Cubs fan's dream.

They've invited me to suites at the Bears games and to very exclusive chefs' tables in Chicago's nicest restaurants.

But it's the service, not just those little perks. On an international flight, a lot of people might be [worried,] saying, "I'm going to miss my connection." I never, ever worry about it, because they'll be at the gate, and when the door opens, they'll have me booked on another airline, they'll whisk me there. They just take care of me in every single way.

CNN: Have they ever held a plane for you?

Stuker: They've done that a couple of times, yes, which is very, very, very unusual because plane on-time performance is really crucial.

Actually, one time they kicked somebody else off so I could get on there.

CNN: What is your favorite perk?

Stuker: It's a tough call. I like the international first-class lounges, those are really nice. They have all kinds of goodies and anything you want to drink. They spoil me rotten. As a matter of fact, in L.A. in the first-class lounge -- I'm in and out of there when I go to Australia -- they'll take things that aren't even on the regular layout and pack me almost a picnic lunch for the plane.

They have a special brownie I love, they always pack those for me and make me custom sandwiches because they know I'm a real sandwich guy.

It's the daily service that's the biggest perk. I fly so seamlessly, I never worry about anything because they always take care of me in every way.

CNN: What are your favorite airport lounges?

Stuker: Without a doubt, United's first-class lounge in Chicago and the one in L.A., because they treat me like I own the airline.

CNN: What are your least favorite airports?

Stuker: I'm not real big on LaGuardia.

CNN: Since you fly so much, you must be pretty familiar with all the planes and the layouts.

Stuker: I'm so familiar with most of the aircraft that if there are any new flight attendants, I have to inform them how to operate certain things; like how to operate some of the seats and whenever they update the entertainment system.

CNN: For most people, flying is such a nightmare these days because of the fees, the cramped seats. Would you be able to fly in economy?

Stuker: In the early days, I flew almost exclusively in economy. What is the alternative? A bus? Riding a bike?

The average flier is spoiled rotten. The average flier wants to go from New York to L.A. roundtrip for $99, they want triple miles, they want free upgrades and everything free.

The cost of flying, dollar for dollar, is still cheap as hell today.

CNN: A lot of people complain about the lack of civility on planes. Have you seen less civility over the years, even in first class?

Stuker: Yes, people are rude.

Flying, because of the close quarters, will magnify people's rudeness. But I think people in general have less manners over the years.

I think people are more selfish today, and it's just amplified in close quarters.

CNN: Have you personally experienced rudeness in first class?

Stuker: Oh yes.

Once, I put my seat back and this guy [behind me] takes his USA Today and puts it in my hair. He lays it out where it's laying in my hair. That's just a little message saying, "I don't like you putting your seat back." I tell you, grown professional business people turn into third-graders on a plane.

So I took my hands up, took the paper, crumpled it up in a ball and threw it on the floor.

Air rage: Is reclining your seat a right?

CNN: Do you have a favorite meal in first class?

Stuker: First-class food just gets same old, same old. I love it, but it just gets boring. We have so many fillets, chicken cooked 126 ways, I used to just sometimes order a kiddie meal or something just to get something different to eat.