Qantas' number one frequent flyer John Martin's 996th flight is to Antarctica

At 6pm on New Year's Eve, John Martin, 82, will board a Qantas plane for the 996th time. 

His destination? Antarctica.

At Sydney's Domestic terminal 3, the pensioner will follow the signs to the departure gate marked "Antarctica" and collect his return ticket. By the time he arrives back in Sydney at 6am on New Year's Day after his flight over the ice continent, he will be just three flights short of the magic 1000. 

"I never had the aim of doing 1000 Qantas flights, just like I never said I'd live to 82," Martin says from his home in north Wollongong. "It just happened."

What makes Martin's story even more remarkable to modern travellers is that he was 32 before he took his first international flight. 

"I'd flown down to Melbourne or Canberra before but my first overseas flight was in 1964," he admits. "When I check in today, and see kids with their thongs, board shorts and back packs going off to see the world, I think: 'Good luck to them'.

"But in my day, air travel was very different, and very expensive. Basically, there was only one fare. Full economy, which allowed you multiple stopovers.

"Then, with the arrival of the larger planes in the early 1970s, everything changed. Suddenly where I had struggled to buy one flight a year at $700 return, I could do three trips at $200 return."

On New Year's Eve, Martin will be in premium economy on the privately chartered Qantas 747, the guest of Antarctica Flights which has been operating what it calls "the world's most unique day tour" since 1994. As the jumbo heads south over the Southern Ocean towards the Australian Antarctic Territory, he'll enjoy a glass of his favourite white wine with dinner in his seat in premium economy. 

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But the vast majority of his Qantas flights have been in economy, because he paid for them himself.

Surprisingly, given his love of theatre, Martin is a reluctant celebrity. He's been Qantas' number one frequent flyer (0000101) since 1989, But it was only this year that the marketers really swung into action, when he happened to mention to the check-in crew that he'd been flying with Qantas for 50 years.

In July 2014, Martin was invited to be on board Qantas' 75th anniversary flight - "a 737-800" - from Fiji to Sydney. The former news editor for WIN TV was amazed by the reaction.

"They'd gathered a large number of travel and aviation journalists. When Antarctica Flights saw those stories, they invited me on this trip.

"Why would anyone want to fly an 82-year-old to the South Pole and back on New Year's Eve? But they do, so I have promised to be on my best behaviour."

But Martin has already flown more than 1000 commercial flights as a passenger. "Around 120 with Pan-Am and a few more with United," he says. "If I'm going somewhere that Qantas flies, I'll fly Qantas.

"But there are lots of places I've been to - and would like to go to - which Qantas doesn't fly to. Really, I'm not obsessive about Qantas."

Even before today's flight, he had notched up almost 3 million miles on Qantas alone ("probably another half to three quarters of a million on other airlines," he adds). Most flights were booked to see specific shows in New York (153 flights) or London (148 flights).

Martin says his greatest advantage (apart from "a good job on a good salary") was having a Qantas Travel Centre outlet in a mall near his Wollongong office. "I got on well with them. They enjoyed my enthusiasm. I made most of my bookings with them - they knew the types of aircraft flying on the different routes.

"They gave me a copy of what they called their "movement sheet". I learned how an aircraft would fly in from London to Sydney in the morning, be sent over to Auckland and back again, then be flown to Tokyo.

"I was fascinated by the different national configurations of aircraft. How, in the United States, the airlines wanted a lot more first class and business seats than we did in Australia. I still find that interesting."

The New Year's Eve 12-hour flight will include about four hours over Antarctica at a height of three kilometres, for maximum viewing. Champagne will be served at midnight, hopefully over Antarctica, though the exact route is subject to weather conditions.

FREQUENT FLYER TIPS FROM A VETERAN PASSENGER

1. Take twice as much money and half the luggage you originally planned.

2. Know exactly how many frequent flyer points you are earning on every flight.

3. Use the points as quickly as you can, because rules can change.

4. The only good frequent flyer points are the ones you've used - "as many of my mates found out when they lost their Ansett points".

5. Know exactly what aircraft and destination you're looking for before you start looking at what is available.

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