Would you fly 33 million km? Meet the man who did, and loved it
Who hasn’t had that sinking feeling as they arrive at the airport and head for Departures? We all know what modern air travel entails - endless queueing, delays, inedible food, and cramp. And that’s assuming your flight hasn’t been cancelled because of strikes by ground crew or pilots.
If you’re Tom Stuker, on the other hand, your heart positively skips with joy at the prospect. For him, the romance of flying will never die.
For Mr Stuker is the world’s most frequent flyer, having flown more than 21 million miles (33 789 000km) and counting.
Hollywood tackled such obsessive ‘air-miles’ chasers in the 2009 George Clooney film Up In The Air. He played a corporate hatchet man whose fixation with notching up ten million frequent-flyer miles concealed an emotionally empty man with no home life.
Clooney’s character could only dream of the heights to which Mr Stuker has ascended, however. He has made more than 10 000 flights, effectively circling the Equator nearly 844 times. He spends 200 to 250 days a year on a plane - and loves every one of them.
He could say he has to do it for his job as the co-founder of Automotive Training Network, a successful international car sales consultancy with outlets in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia - but that wouldn’t be entirely true.
He is now 65 and, since he went into semi-retirement, his flying has actually increased, rather than shrunk.
In January, he became the first passenger to fly 20 million miles (32 180 000km), which prompted United - the airline he flies with - to throw celebrations including a mid-air champagne toast and a welcome reception when he arrived in Los Angeles.
In July, he broke the 21 million mark - the quickest it has ever taken him to notch up another million flying miles. Normally, it takes a year.
Mr Stuker admits he is very competitive and likes breaking records, even if they are his own.
"Some people play golf five days a week; I love flying. It’s not just the destination, it’s the journey," he told me - taking a break from flying, while cruising in the Mediterranean. He clearly revels in his semi-royal status with United and talks giddily of all the perks he receives.
When Mr Stuker takes to the skies, it’s with a glass of champagne in one hand, the controls to his lie-flat seat in the other, and a First Class flight attendant hovering around him. United even named a Boeing 777 jet after him.
A married father of two from the leafy town of Nutley, New Jersey, he signed up for United’s rewards programme in 1983 and admits it was "almost addictive".
For years, he has been a member of the airline’s secretive Global Services club, which travellers are invited to join once they have notched up four million flying miles. He has his own special check-in station, with a back door to the front of the security queue, as well as VIP airport lounges, which provide free fine dining, spa treatments and even sleeping quarters.
He could even have somebody to carry his bags (he only ever travels with hand luggage) if he wanted, but says that makes him feel like an invalid.
He has a special phone number to contact the airline if anything goes wrong, but they monitor his journeys anyway. Sometimes, he is picked up or dropped off on the runway in a Mercedes so that he doesn’t miss flights.
His all-black, titanium frequent-flyer card is unique, but he rarely has to show it, as everyone tends to know who he is. Not for him, then, a cramped seat near the lavatories and tasteless, overpriced sandwiches from the trolley.
"I’ll be perfectly frank - there’s a big difference between flying international First and Business Class or Coach," he tells me. "When you’re sitting back in Row 35 in the middle seat, it’s not exactly your all-time dream trip."
Would he hever have notched up 21 million miles in Economy?
No, he says, bluntly. "I’d be hospitalised right now."
Upgraded all the time
That said, Mr Stuker usually only needs to buy an Economy seat because he can bank on being upgraded. First Class has its attractions, such as famous passengers. He has sat next to Janet Jackson, the late country music legend Glen Campbell, rock star Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and actor Bill Murray, whom he persuaded to leave a hilarious voicemail message for his brother.
He prefers not to name the famous pop singer he once saw getting plastered at the First Class bar as three nannies looked after her three children.
Mr Stuker didn’t always travel up front - and he hasn’t always enjoyed flying. In his early years building his company, he could only afford to go Economy and was "scared to death" of flying, so he would grip the armrests with whitened knuckles whenever the seatbelt lights came on. His aerial epiphany came on a 1984 work trip to Melbourne: "I fell in love with the country. I’ve been back more than 350 times."
Sometimes, he will fly around the world and stay only a day before getting back on a plane.
Friends marvel at his constitution, able to go into business meetings after flying long-haul. He says his secret is to take a three-hour "power nap" after landing.
Mr Stuker denies any accusation his mania for flying is adding to global warming with a considerable carbon footprint: "I’m not adding to the footprint. The plane is going to fly whether I’m on it or not.
"It would be much more relevant if I was flying in a private jet. Those are the people who could help the environment much more than I can if they flew commercial."
However, a calculation based on figures from the MyClimate and CarbonNeutral websites suggests an individual who flew 21 million miles in First Class would have to plant more than 250, 000 trees to offset his CO2 footprint.
Mr Stuker doesn’t spend much time analysing what makes him yearn for the skies - though his "dysfunctional" family background may offer a clue. "I grew up in a family of seven kids," he says. "My dad never travelled anywhere - our idea of an adventure was sleeping in the back of the car - and he was a pretty unhappy man."
Some wives might have something to say about a husband and father who chooses to spend so much time away - indeed, he has been attacked by airline ‘trolls’.
They are just "jealous", he says. "I would put my relationship with my wife against any couple in the world - totally in love."
Mr Stuker gets away with it because Mrs Stuker adores flying almost as much as he does. Darlene, a schoolteacher, has flown nearly four million miles with him, using up the vast number of air-miles he earns.
He has flown transatlantic to London more than 100 times.
He and his wife once zipped over for a weekend to celebrate their wedding anniversary - and happened to fly on the Boeing 777 named after him.
It was not a total success, though. His seat was broken and there was no other free seat to move him to.
Mortified, United met Mr Stuker at the gate when he arrived, with a letter of apology, champagne, chocolates - and a $3500 flight voucher. Not something you’d get from Ryanair.Daily Mail