The LA Times's Ken Bensinger tells the fascinating, dirty story of American Airlines's AAirpass, a too-good-to-be-true lifetime first-class-ticket-to-anywhere-anytime pass that the airline debuted in 1981 at $250,000 (the last one offered, in the 2004 Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalog, was priced at $3,000,000, but none sold). Purchasers could also buy companion tickets they could use to fly anyone along with them.
The men who bought them — the article only mentions men — went a little bananas. They started flying everywhere, all the time. They'd pick random people out of the check-in line and give them free first-class upgrades. They'd fly to Japan for lunch and back to the States that night. One of them was costing the airline more than $1,000,000 a year.
The airline decided to get rid of them. They put private eyes and internal investigators on them. They sued. They extorted passengers who'd flown on companion tickets for confessions that they'd paid for the "gift," and froze their frequent flier accounts, saying they'd only restore them once the passengers fessed up. The ugly tale ends in limbo with the airline's Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. But on the way, it has a lot of odd and colorful twists.
In July 2004, for example, Rothstein flew 18 times, visiting Nova Scotia, New York, Miami, London, Los Angeles, Maine, Denver and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., some of them several times over. The complexity of such itineraries would stump most travelers; happily for AAirpass holders, American provided elite agents able to solve the toughest booking puzzles.
They could help AAirpass customers make multiple reservations in case they missed a flight, or nab the last seat on the only plane leaving during a snowstorm. Some say agents even procured extra elbow room by booking an empty seat using a phony name on companion passes.
"I'd book it as Extra Lowe," said Peter Lowe, a motivational speaker from West Palm Beach, Fla. "They told me how to do it."
Vroom, a former mail-order catalog consultant, used his AAirpass to attend all his son's college football games in Maine. He built up so many frequent flier miles that he'd give them away, often to AIDS sufferers so they could visit family. Crew members knew him by name.
"There was one flight attendant, Pierre, who knew exactly what I wanted," Vroom said. "He'd bring me three salmon appetizers, no dessert and a glass of champagne, right after takeoff. I didn't even have to ask."
Creative uses seemed limitless. When bond broker Willard May of Round Rock, Texas, was forced into retirement after a run-in with federal securities regulators in the early 1990s, he turned to his trusty AAirpass to generate income. Using his companion ticket, he began shuttling a Dallas couple back and forth to Europe for $2,000 a month.
"For years, that was all the flying I did," said May, 81. "It's how I got the bills paid."