If you’re into miles & points and/or frequently fly with United Airlines, you’ve probably heard of Tom Stuker. He’s United’s most frequent flyer, and almost certainly the world’s most frequent flyer who doesn’t work for an airline. He is a 23 million mile flyer with United, and flies the airline over a million miles per year.
As you’d expect, he’s a legend at the airline, and is treated very well (and conversely, he’s known for treating United employees well). United names planes after him, has parties when he reaches milestones, etc. The guy is quite proud of himself too, and even travels in a vest that has his name and how many millions of miles he has flown written on it.
Many have wondered why he flies so much, and how he pays for it. Well, we now have our answer.
Stuker has a lifetime United Airlines travel pass
Stuker has received a lot of media attention over the years, though as far as I know, has never publicly revealed one detail — how his flights are paid for. Well, we now have our answer, thanks to a Washington Post story.
Back in the day, many US airlines sold lifetime flight passes, including in first class. Back in 1990, Stuker purchased a lifetime United first class travel pass for $290,000. He has taken unlimited travel to the extreme, and has basically been flying nonstop ever since.
For example, 2019 was Stuker’s “best” year, as he took 373 flights that year, covering a distance of 1.46 million miles (that’s an average segment length of nearly 4,000 miles, roughly the equivalent of Chicago to London). If he had paid cash for those tickets, they would have cost $2.44 million that year alone. He once spent 12 straight days flying, without staying in a hotel.
Stucker flies so much with United Airlines to earn miles
So, why does Stuker fly so many miles? The 69-year-old car dealership consultant seems to do it mostly for… the miles. The lifetime flight pass seems to be eligible for accruing miles, and Stuker has United’s invitation-only Global Services status.
Now, miles are probably worth a bit less if you have unlimited confirmed space first and business class flights on United. Many people may prefer to fly on partner airlines, but Stuker is so busy wanting to keep accruing United miles, and getting to the next million miler threshold.
So, what does Stuker do with the miles? He redeems them mostly for non-flights. Stuker has redeemed miles for hotel suites, Crystal cruises, gourmet meals, and even for $50,000 worth of Walmart gift cards, in order to redo his brother’s house. He even redeemed some miles in an auction once to be able to appear in an episode of Seinfeld.
Keep in mind that redeeming miles for non-flying means generally doesn’t represent a good deal, since you typically get well under a cent of value per mile. But when you have access to unlimited flights and seemingly unlimited mileage earning potential, I suppose the value you’re getting doesn’t really matter.
I’m impressed United Airlines treats Stuker so well
I think it’s a given that Stuker is by far United’s most unprofitable customer. But good on him, because if airlines are going to sell unlimited lifetime flight passes, get ready for people to fly an “unlimited” amount.
So I’m impressed by the extent to which United embraces Stuker, and celebrates his milestones. He’s really treated as United’s most VIP passengers, and just about all employees seem to know him, and he frequently has parties thrown for him by the airline.
I imagine in many ways this great treatment only causes him to fly more, leading to the airline losing more money from him. But big picture, he’s a huge advocate for United, and always talks about how great the airline is, so it’s also good publicity for the airline. Good on United for making him feel so welcome and special, and honoring its commitment, even if he takes it to the extreme.
Stuker sure leads an unconventional life
Everyone should do what makes them happy in life, as long as they’re not harming others (I’m sure many would argue that flying so many miles is harming others, but that’s neither here nor there, for the purposes of this story). I think we can all agree Stuker lives quite the interesting — and bizarre — life.
It seems like Stuker genuinely loves the people at United, and has a friendship with many employees. He seems like a really nice guy, and I’ve never heard anyone at United say anything about him. It also seems like he really likes the attention. That’s not a dig, but the guy wears a vest that shows his name and how many miles he has flown, which isn’t exactly what someone would do if they wanted to fly under the radar.
To 16-year-old me, Stuker would’ve been my hero, and I would have dreamed of his life. To 33-year-old me, Stuker’s life sounds just a little unpleasant, to put it mildly. I couldn’t imagine flying that much, and also couldn’t imagine doing all that travel on a US airline. Of course to each their own, and what matter is that Stuker enjoys it.
The one thing I’d be curious about is what most motivates Stuker to fly so much:
- Does he genuinely enjoy flying so much, and interacting with United employees and customers?
- Does he just want to set an unbelievable record that no one will ever be able to beat?
- Does he almost view this as a “job” in terms of earning miles that he can use to otherwise elevate his life?
My guess would be that it’s mostly the first and second points.
Even if he earned 10 million miles per year (which I don’t think he does), that wouldn’t even be the equivalent of a low six figure job in terms of the value of the miles, given that he’s redeeming them mostly for well under a cent each. And based on how many hours he spends flying, traveling with United is way more than a full time job for him. 😉
Speaking of earning miles, I’m curious at what rate he earns them, given that United has a revenue based frequent flyer program nowadays. Can he just book any fare, giving him in an incentive to always book the most expensive ticket possible?
Tom Stuker is United Airlines’ most frequent flyer, and he has flown over 23 million miles with the airline. We’ve now officially learned that he has a lifetime unlimited travel pass on the airline, which he bought in 1990 for $290,000. We’ve also learned that one of his primary motivations for flying is to simply rack up miles, and then he redeems them for gift cards, cruises, hotels, and more.
What an interesting and unusual life Stuker has…
What’s your take on Stuker’s flying? Would you want his life?