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Secret Flier Programs: 'Skull And Bones' Of The Sky

<strong>Playing Favorites:</strong> Airlines have long sought to make their first-class passengers comfortable. In this 1970 photo, a Pan Am air hostess serves champagne in the first-class cabin of a Boeing 747.
Tim Graham
Getty Images
Playing Favorites: Airlines have long sought to make their first-class passengers comfortable. In this 1970 photo, a Pan Am air hostess serves champagne in the first-class cabin of a Boeing 747.

Airlines have set a pretty low bar of service for most passengers, except for those lucky enough to be invited into the airlines' most exclusive frequent-flier programs.

For those let in, there is almost nothing the airlines won't do to keep them happy. This includes instant upgrades, private reservation lines, escorts to help make tight connections, and not having to pay all those baggage and itinerary change fees.

In the quest to keep their most valuable customers happy, one airline even dispatched a private jet to pick up a CEO whose flight had been canceled.

Membership Is Both Exclusive, Elusive

So how do you get into these programs? Well, don't bother asking the airline. You have to be invited. Most airlines won't even say how they decide who gets in.

"It becomes sort of like a Skull and Bones society," says travel writer Joel Widzer.

Widzer says airlines don't want the vast majority of customers who aren't in these programs to know the special treatment some of their fellow passengers are getting. Also, the airlines want to keep the identity of the program's members a secret, lest their most valuable customers be lured away by the competition.

Widzer once worked for a CEO who belonged to one of these programs. The executive was on his way to an important meeting, only to have his flight canceled. By the time the executive called the airline, they had already arranged for a private jet to make sure the executive got to his meeting on time.

Miles In The Movies

In the new movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays road warrior Ryan Bingham. He's a member of one of these clubs, American Airlines' Ambassador Key Program.

Bingham travels 322 days a year. He says he doesn't spend a nickel unless it benefits his frequent-flier account. He's obsessed with getting to 10 million miles.

"More people have traveled on the moon," he says in the film.

When Bingham does reach 10 million, the flight attendants pop open champagne, and American's chief pilot plops down in the seat next to him.

The rewards don't end there. He also will get lifetime executive status, a private reservation line — and even gets his name written on the side of the plane. The movie is fictional, but filmmakers worked closely with American Airlines to make the movie as realistic as possible.

Closely Held Secrets

Even though it's not mentioned anywhere on American's Web site, there really is such a thing as the Concierge Key Program, according to spokesman Billy Sanez.

"The Concierge Key Program is an exclusive program that American Airlines has for our very top customers," says Sanez. "This is by invitation only and a very exclusive club."

Sanez will only say the group's membership is limited to a "select few."

"And we know them all very well," he adds.

Of several airlines contacted for this story, American was the only one willing to talk on tape. And even then, Sanez was coy on the details of who gets in or what exactly the benefits are.

"We don't share the details of that because it's very exclusive," Sanez says.

Nearly all major airlines have these VIP programs.

Delta Airlines had a secret program called "Executive Partner" before turning it into a higher-tiered version of its regular frequent-flier program a few months ago.

Arguably the most well-known program is United Airlines' Global Services, which has been the subject of much discussion and speculation on message boards.

Money And Influence Help

To get into these programs, how much you fly is not as important as how much you spend, according to Widzer. Buying full fare helps — and even better if you're a CEO or travel manager who can steer a lot of revenue to the airline.

"I know a CFO of a large company," says Widzer. "He only flew 35,000 miles with Delta, but he was invited into their invitation-only program. He was shocked he received it."

Despite having flown more than 200,000 miles a year on Delta, Widzer himself wasn't invited to join the airline's most elite program. He suspects Delta didn't want him writing about all the special things they do for their favorite customers while the rest of us fight for a pillow.

However, Jason Reitman, who directed Up in the Air, was asked to join American's VIP program after his movie started production.

So, that's one way to get in.

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