Ultimate frequent flyer: meet the 10-million-mile man

Tom Stuker, centre, the first customer ever to fly 10 million miles with United Airlines, walks through Chicago O'Hare International Airport with United employees.
Tom Stuker, centre, the first customer ever to fly 10 million miles with United Airlines, walks through Chicago O'Hare International Airport with United employees. 

Like all travellers, Tom Stuker has stories. But when you travel as much as Stuker does, the stories are a lot better.

As an automotive sales consultant, Stuker, 57, works on the retail side, helping develop salespeople and sales management. That means he flies a lot. Not once-a-month a lot. More like 29,000-miles-a-month a lot.

On July 9 he flew his 10 millionth mile on United Airlines - the most anyone has for the carrier - during Flight 942 from Los Angeles to Chicago and was honoured in ceremonies at O'Hare International Airport.

United CEO Jeff Smisek was on hand when Stuker stepped off the flight, his 5962nd, according to United. There was champagne, gifts, his name emblazoned on the side of a Boeing 747. In all, pretty cool.

The tally started in 1982, when he joined United's Mileage Plus program. "I flew several times on United before I joined Mileage Plus," he said shortly after the festivities. "And if you include all the rewards trips, I've flown over 6000."

Stuker, who has a home in Bloomingdale, Illinois, has been to all 50 states, has made more than 200 round-trip flights to Australia, has visited Asia 30 times. His most romantic city? Paris. Most romantic country? Italy. Hawaii "is paradise".

"I thought Dubai was the most amazing city, and it's becoming more amazing all the time. Monte Carlo blew me away because it reeked of money, where people are driving Mercedeses like Honda Civics. And they vacuum the streets, literally, every night."

Somehow, amid his travels, Stuker is finding time to star in a reality show on Spike TV. He described Car Lot Cowboy as a combination between The Office and Hell's Kitchen in which he will use his business acumen to turn around faltering auto dealerships. It also will feature his sister, Roxy, and will start airing around the first of the year.

"By the end of the hour, the salespeople look better, the manager looks better, and the dealership looks like a place you'll want to buy car. ... There is a 'move the truck moment,' when a salesman is ready to lose his house, and I'll help that guy turn his career around.

"I can train a monkey to sell 12 cars in a month."

And he can teach you a thing or two about travelling, sharing some of what he has learned while logging those 10 million miles.

Early on, Stuker was not a gung-ho flyer.

"I was scared to death," he said. But in his business, flying is necessary. "If I wanted to expand, I sure wasn't interested in driving to Denver or Portland. And the bus schedules from LA to Sydney aren't that convenient."

His solution: "Fly 6000 flights; you'll eventually get over it."

He said the key is to keep yourself occupied. "If you're flying with someone you know, distract yourself with conversation. If you're alone, get an iPod, get a Kindle so you can read."

In 6000 flights, there had to be one really embarrassing moment that we can learn from, right? It was a flight from LA to San Diego, he recalled. "What made my phobia worse this time is we had a mechanical delay right when we were ready to take off. Then we had another mechanical delay. Every time there was a delay, I had a 151 (rum) and Diet Coke."

Finally they took off, and he dozed. "I ended up waking up as we landed, we're about 5 seconds from touching down, and I open my eyes and see the wing and the ground approaching. 'Holy (bleep)! We're going to die!' I was so embarrassed, I waited till everyone got off plane, 20 minutes I sat there. I figured it'd be all clear. But when I got off, there must have been six people out there, pointing, 'There's the guy.'" So, flyers, watch that preflight intake.

Yes, some of your fellow passengers will be rude. Beyond rude. They're just jerks.

"The guy on the phone talking really loud. Just to ramble on? For God's sake. ... And everybody's irritated. I said, 'Dude, next time you force us all to be in your sales meeting, at least buy doughnuts for everybody.' You get grown executives acting like 8-year-olds. The whole territorial thing with the reclining of the seat. That's my space. Oh, put the seat up and let people get to the bathroom without some contortionist thing. People kick seats. Grown people. Women clipping their nails. Nail polish, a good way to suffocate three rows at the same time."

Stuker said the airline is obviously not to blame. "People think it's the airlines that are turning these Mister Rogerses into monsters. But a rude person is a rude person, whether it's talking on a cellphone or in line at a restaurant. There are more rude people than ever, and it's just amplified in confined spaces."

Don't be an amateur. Stuker said flyers need to learn how to play the game. "Get the right fares at the right time. Fly Tuesdays and Saturdays. ... Learn how to work the system. Maybe you shouldn't be packing a fridge and taking it to Uncle Willie's. Be patient. Anticipate delays, anticipate the possibility of delays and cancellations. It's part of the business. Understand what comes with the territory. Quit blaming the airlines when you get a foot of snow. They don't control the weather."

Look for deals. Hotel deals, mileage deals, status deals. "Play every angle to take advantage. Learn the mileage game. There are, like, 8000 ways to earn mileage. Get every credit card out there. They all have mileage deals."

Go with the flow. "You have to have a sense of humor to fly. Too much stuff happens. But it's part of the game. Anticipate a cancellation and be happy when it doesn't happen. Bring a book, do a crossword, sudoku. Take advantage of all the modern technology when there's a delay. One out of 200 times your bag will be delayed. Bring an extra set of underwear and be prepared. When these things don't happen, be appreciative it didn't."

Be grateful for what you have. He told about one visit to India when his cab was pulled over by a cop for a minor violation. The driver and officer haggled for a full 10 minutes before the driver gave the cop a dollar to end the dispute.

"I said, '10 minutes for a dollar? Here's five dollars. This should cover you for the next five violations.'"

About five minutes later, they were stopped at an intersection and were besieged by half a dozen kids.

"This one little girl put her hand on the window, and she had a webbed hand. I thought, if that cop was thrilled with a buck - so I gave her a five. It put everything into perspective."

THE STATS

Typical miles per month: 29,000

Total number of flights: 5962

States visited: 50

Trips to Australia: 200

Trips to Asia: 30

Read: Flight test: United Airlines Economy Plus

MCT

twitter Follow Traveller on Twitter @FairfaxTravel

Comments