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United's Top Flier of 2012 Has Eye on Global Title

Joe Sharkey, The New York Times
Monday, 24 Dec 2012 | 10:17 AM ET
Tom Stuker
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Tom Stuker

Like many frequent fliers, Tom Stuker is reflecting on his past year of accumulating miles in the air. Unlike many of us, he reflects on the fact that as of last week he had flown more than a million miles so far in 2012, all on United Airlines.

And yes, for those who are slapping their heads in skeptical astonishment, that is a million miles of actual flying, not a million piled up in frequent-flier mileage programs. (Read more: How to Quickly Rack Up Frequent-Flier Miles)

United's Top Flier in 2012
United Airlines' most frequent flyer, Tom Stuker, discuses just how much travel he put in this year, and what the biggest perks of being a "frequent flyer" is.

On Saturday morning, I caught up with Mr. Stuker during a leisurely phone conversation at his home in Nutley, N.J., where he was doing the math on his 2012 travels, most of them on the job as an independent consultant and sales trainer for automobile dealerships around the world.

"I'm sitting here going, 'Wait a minute, what else happened this year?' " acknowledged Mr. Stuker, who is 59.

Actually a lot, given those endless world travels — but everything is threaded by those airplane trips. The math says that hitting a million miles in a little less than a year requires flying about 20,000 miles each week. No problem, Mr. Stuker said.

"Are you familiar with 1K?" he asked me, referring to United's highest Premier 1K elite-status rank, which requires 100,000 miles flown in a year. "I became 1K on United last Jan. 8," he said. (Read more: How Flying, Just for the Miles, Can Pay Off)

United announced Mr. Stuker's amazing record last week, noting that he had reached the million milestone on a Dec. 6 flight from London to Chicago. United called Mr. Stuker, who has flown more than 13 million miles on more than 6,000 of its flights, its "top flier" and added that he is "one of commercial aviation's highest-mileage travelers."

Therein lies a bit of a rub. Like most champion record-setters in any field, Mr. Stuker keeps an eye on a mighty rival. That would be Fred Finn, a British expatriate businessman in his early 70s who has been acclaimed in the British media for a lifetime record of flying more than 15 million miles on various airlines.

Over the phone, I could practically see Mr. Stuker rolling his eyes at that. "I own every record on United, and most in the world," he said.

"I heard of this guy, what's his name, this Fred Finn or something, and supposedly he flew over 15 million miles. But it wasn't with one airline. And I don't know how well documented that is."

Mr. Stuker warns that Mr. Finn should keep looking over his shoulder. "I'm only 59 years old and, God willing, I'm going to be passing him in a couple of years. He knows who I am." A key to Mr. Stuker's record, incidentally, is that his job takes him to automobile dealerships around the world — more than 1,500 so far. Australia is a frequent destination, as are places throughout Europe and Asia. (Read more: Road Warrior Tested: United Airlines International Business Class)

He tries to fly at night to combine sleep and travel. "I do an awful lot of red-eyes," he said. "More of my nights are in a plane than in a bed, including maybe even counting hotels."

He and his wife, Darlene, who is a teacher, also travel about 200,000 miles a year together on leisure trips around the globe in the summer and on long weekends. "Martin Luther King weekend, we're going to Buenos Aires for two days. Then on Presidents' Day we'll fly over to Hawaii for two days," he said.

As a member of United's exclusive, invitation-only Global Services program for its highest-revenue customers, he receives special customer service treatment, including personal service at airports. In general, however, "I have the same routine problems as everybody else, but on a larger scale because of the sheer amount of travel," he said.

How about the wear and tear that amount of travel takes on any person? Being able to travel so frequently with his wife takes a lot of the edge off, he said. Transferring some of his voluminous frequent-flier award perks to friends is another treat.

And he enjoys his job. Starting in February, in fact, he will be featured in an eight-part reality TV series on Spike TV called "Car Lot Rescue," which is about his job, not his travel per se. On each show, he visits and rescues a troubled car dealership. "It's TV, so it's all ramped up. Within each 42 minutes, you see me go in there, beat the heck out of everybody, shake up the place, uncover problems, get everybody to hate me, fix the problems, get everybody to love me — and at the end, I save the world and we all sing Kumbaya."

O.K., how about staying fit with this much travel? Again, I can sense his eyes rolling on the phone.

"I have not actually accomplished this," he said. "I'm at 250 pounds, probably 50 pounds over where I should be. People suggest excuses for me like, 'Oh, it's because you travel so much.' But I say bull, there's a lot of skinny people who fly a lot. The truth is, when they come around in first class offering that nice cinnamon bun snack, those skinny people say, 'No, I'll have a banana instead.' Me, I say, 'I got your banana. Give me that cinnamon roll.' "

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