BY GARY SERNOVITZ –
Frequent fliers sometimes go to great lengths to keep their airline élite status, and those efforts are often completely out of proportion to the perks.CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY KENT NISHIMURA / THE DENVER POST VIA GETTY
When you fly a lot for work, as I do, you check your frequent-flier mile balance often, to provide data for competitive commiseration. “Eighteen flights this year already, fourteen hotel nights in eleven different hotels,” a friend e-mailed me, in victory, earlier this month. You also compulsively track your frequent-flier “status” levels, to mark your progress toward becoming a trusty in the prison of weekly air travel. And so, last month, when my United Airlines app told me that my status—as a customer, as a flier, as a man—had changed, I did a delighted double take. United had made me a member of Global Services, its apotheosis of a frequent flier. But even as I tried to remember the advertised perks (free tickets? free back rubs?), I was beginning to sense some symptoms.
My status was good only for 2016, which meant that I would be relegated to a lower level if I didn’t keep up the pace of ticket purchases. So, not twenty minutes after achieving my new status, I found myself calling the Global Services help desk and asking how much it would cost to change a frequent-flier award ticket to a bought one. (Global Services veterans had warned me never to lose the chance to “earn” miles, and instead to use frequent-flier points for other people’s flights.) I then asked my wife for permission to spend five hundred and sixty dollars for a flight that I already had a free ticket for. She told me I was insane. But I wasn’t insane. I knew others similarly afflicted. I had Global Services Maintenance Anxiety Disorder.
GS-MAD afflicts only a small sliver of the frequent-flying élite. As a precondition, you have to be extremely loyal to United, either because you have a soft spot for incessantly played “Rhapsody in Blue” (and I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?) or, more probably, because the airline has a hub near your home. You also have to fly a lot. Global Services is a level above another status tier, Premier 1K, that requires you to fly an annual cumulative distance equal, more or less, to four times the circumference of the earth. With Premier 1K and the Platinum, Gold, and Silver MileagePlus status levels, you can track your progress with each flight. It’s a logical system of inputs and outputs, like dieting, except instead of being rewarded for skipping a fudge nut sundae, you’re credited for flying to Peru. But the diabolical marketing genius of Global Services is that, as St. Paul said of grace, it cannot be earned by works. It is a gift. And God, in this case, is an algorithm of United Airlines.
Absent posted guidelines, road-warrior message boards are filled with speculation about why certain travellers receive Global Services. Is it a measure of dollars spent? Segments flown? Behavior? Maybe United is watching us all, and you weren’t elevated because someone noticed you wiping Doritos dust off your fingers on the armrest in 17C. Maybe United is reading this essay. Maybe by writing this I am committing an unpardonable sin, akin to a Scientologist mafia underboss penning a memoir. Or maybe United will be pleased by the publicity and invite me to an even more secretive status level—Solar System Services, here I come.
The benefits of Global Services start with the straightforward: special entrances, at certain airports, that let you skip the line at security; dedicated phone numbers to lively, responsive, competent United agents; first called to board the plane (“Out of my way, Premier Silver peons”); upgrade priority if a first-class seat is available. (On my first flight with Global Services, I still flew Economy Plus, just in time to take advantage of the free stroopwafels that United has started serving, which was convenient because I’ve always hated paying for my own stroopwafel.)
Other perks seem to be from a different era, like the Mercedes-Benz GL at the Newark Airport that will drive you, if your connection is tight, from one plane to the next, as though you’re the French ambassador or an especially violent supercriminal. And then there are perks that might be myths: one Global Services member told me that if you want a seat, United will kick another passenger off the plane. As I listened, I had visions of a grandmother tossed to the tarmac because a McKinsey consultant had to attend to an emergency case of corporate inefficiency.
Urban legends notwithstanding, the benefits are real enough. Everyone, I assume, would rather sit in first class than coach. The seats are wider. Alcoholism is nourished. First-class United passengers even get a dedicated literary-ish magazine, in case they can’t find other opportunities to read Joyce Carol Oates. But I’ve observed that the manifestations of GS-MAD are completely out of proportion to the perks.
One friend of mine always seemed to be dedicating two per cent of his mind to strategies to maintain his Global Services status. When, as a peer, I finally mentioned this to him, he corrected me: ninety-eight per cent of his mind was occupied with Global Services, with only two per cent left for everything else. Every November, he and a band of fellow-GS-MAD sufferers compare dollars spent and miles flown, speculating, like hard cases leaning on the rail of a horse track, on whose status will be renewed the following year. Another acquaintance, in danger of losing her status, appealed to United for mercy, writing to the airline that she deserved a break because she had had a baby mid-year. United granted her an exception. Three years later, she asked again, for the same reason. But perhaps to protect America from being overrun by MileagePlus anchor babies, the company replied that it gives only one exception every five years.
The costliest manifestations of GS-MAD are unnecessary year-end trips, called “mileage runs” in the frequent-flier community, which are cousins to the flights Walter Kirn’s protagonist in “Up in the Air” takes to meet his goal of a million lifetime miles. I asked around to find the highest amount anyone had heard of being spent on mileage runs: the winner was fifteen thousand dollars, by a friend of a friend, in a month. Another friend told me about his own bottoming out, in the pre-Global Services era, when, in an attempt to achieve the highest status level at Continental before it merged with United, he took advantage of a temporary quirk. At the time, Continental, engaged in a route war with Southwest, was flying connecting flights between Houston’s two airports. Just shy of the requisite number of flight segments, my friend flew three round trips in one day without ever leaving town. The planes were filled with others doing the same, like some mile-oholic version of “The Iceman Cometh.”
We live in an era of behavioral psychology, and our contemporary conclusion is that human beings, most of the time, are absurd, but predictable machines. As such, best-seller lists are filled with psychological explanations for conduct like GS-MAD. The endowment effect—we hate to lose what we already have—seems particularly apropos. There is also, of course, status anxiety, the inextinguishable desire for higher and more. Flying a lot on a commercial airline can’t help but remind the most “successful” customers of their position in the vertiginous hyperbolic tail of American income inequality: comfortably positioned across the gap between the one per cent and ten per cent; less so across the one between the one per cent and the 0.001 per cent (the type of people who own their own planes).
But for most of us, I suspect, GS-MAD arises because there is something of the consolation prize in being part of Global Services. While very-frequent-flier status may raise romantic visions of someone breakfasting in Buenos Aires and supping in St. Moritz, most Global Services members are probably like me: business travellers who visit Chicago or Houston a lot. Spending large amounts of time in a metal tube for work isn’t fun, but if you have achieved recognized excellence at it, it may distract you from the time you spend doing that rather than summiting the Rockies or learning how to flamenco.
So I’ve decided to fight GS-MAD before it becomes incurable. I sent Mr. Ninety-Eight Per Cent the Global Services luggage tags that United had sent me, telling him I wouldn’t be needing them where I was going. (“You killing yourself, man?” he asked. “No, just going back to the stroopwafel seats.”) I began reminiscing fondly of Delta’s terminal at LaGuardia, which has more outlets than an Apple store and really good snacks. I told myself that we are all obligated to prove that sometimes human beings are more than absurd, predictable machines. I resolved to fly because I needed to go somewhere, not to earn.
Still, it’s possible that, come December, you’ll find me curled up in 4B, in self-loathing, on a round-trip mileage run to Ulaanbaatar.