Confessions of Extreme Air Travelers

One million miles is nothing.

Illustrations by Brendan Callahan

The seven people interviewed in the following pages belong to a sub-set of society living in our very midst, the most skilled of whom show no outward signs of their difference. These are people who live in limbo, unbound by societal convention or circadian rhythm. Week in and week out, they stare down the threat of deep-vein thrombosis and ward off space invaders with their telepathic powers. These mysterious men and women prefer to remain masked as they fly through the night, but although they may seem superhuman, they could be your family — or your former friends.

Mark Rolston

Mark Rolston

frog Austin, TX

Last week I sat next to Karl Rove. I was thinking about sticking a pin in his eye, but he was using an iPhone and a Macbook Air and you don’t normally associate those tools with Satan, so I stopped fuming somewhat. But I didn’t talk to him. I couldn’t have said anything polite. And mostly I prefer to just stay anonymous and watch a lot more TV than I normally would. Flying is not something I choose to do. I’m just on my way to do something else.

I fly about once a week — mostly domestic — and I fly internationally about once a month or once every two months: 16 or so times a year. I fly to the same places, like California, often enough that I see the same people, and my first thought is, “Gosh, how pathetic that they’re flying so often.” And then I remember I’m there too.

When you’re flying American to San Jose you hear the announcer say, “Executive Platinum boarding” and the entire plane gets in line. The rank and formality system leaves a lot of first-time fliers in the lurch. It used to be the guy who could cajole the counter would get the most upgrades. It was an assholes-win system. They got rid of that. Now everything is a “privilege.” It’s monetized. You pay for your bag to come out first. At a point you have to decide that there are certain things, if you do them frequently enough, that are worth paying for. I park in short-term, even if I can’t get reimbursed. I’ve got it down to where I can park in Aisle G in Austin with my eyes closed.

Matthew Robinson

Matthew Robinson

Boston, MA

I’ve been on the road since August of 2005. My first two and a half years on the job I was gone 100% of the time, Monday through Friday. I’ve accumulated about a half million miles in the last three years.

I went from being an undergrad in college to traveling constantly. At first I worked nonstop Monday through Thursday, and on the weekends I’d party nonstop for two days. It was never-ending fun at home, and then I’d fall asleep on the plane Monday morning, wake up at my destination, and go back to work again. That lasted for over two years. At some point, in some airport, you realize a lot of freedoms — like just catching up with friends — have disappeared. It’s amazing how many things you take for granted when you’re not traveling.

If you spend a lot of time on an airplane, you can calculate the rate of your exposure to airline crashes and it can get nerve wracking. I haven’t lost any hair over it, though one time I sat next to a guy who had been in two plane crashes and walked away from both of them. The closest I ever came to crashing was on a Kansas City to Chicago flight. Our plane got hit by lightning four times. When a plane gets hit by lightning, the brightness is spectacular. I was sitting on the exit-row wing seat (the best place to sit on a plane), and I wasn’t looking out the window at the time, but as lightening hit the wing the entire plane exploded in light. People were praying and screaming. It was especially bad because Chicago has ridiculous crosswinds. As we were landing, the airport deployed the entire rescue team to meet the plane.

Johnathan Wallis

Johnathan Wallis

Washington, DC

I live in DC but I spend two thirds of my time in Colorado Springs and one third of my time back home. I spend about five to eight hours commuting, if you include the whole process. I usually fly out Sunday night and fly home Friday on a 6 p.m. flight, but I just got married so I’m taking the Thursday flight home now.

When you fly, relatively minor things become huge deals. Once a colleague of mine was about to board a plane and saw a woman striking a match in the waiting area. Then on the plane, some of the passengers said that they smelled something burning. So this friend of mine told the flight attendant about the match lady he’d seen earlier. Anyway, the pilots had to make an unscheduled landing because the lady wouldn’t relinquish the matches. The funny thing is, she had gas and was trying to cover up the smell by lighting the matches. This friend of mine had to identify her in airport security after they landed the plane.

On the road, you get to know a whole other set of people and routines. You get to know the hotel staff when you stay there every week. One weekend I flew my wife up for a visit and the hotel hooked me up with a King suite. You can call the front desk anytime, and they’ll comp movies for you. The key is don’t be afraid to ask for anything.

Julienne Van Der Ziel

Julienne Van Der Ziel

Sacramento, CA

I’ve been an airline commuter for the past two years, leaving Monday morning and returning Thursday night every week.
I travel from Sacramento to Salem, Oregon, St. Louis, or Austin. I usually fly Southwest or United. Southwest has more leg room. United is hell when it comes to seat room.

Traveling is hard when you have a family. When I was traveling to St Louis all the time, it was Mother’s Day, and my daughter gave me a card (she was 7 at the time). It was way overdone and full of little hearts. It had this big giant heart in the front of it, and it said, “I LOVE YOU MOMMY.” I opened it up, and inside she’d written, “Dear Mommy, I love you so much, the day you stop traveling will be the happiest day of my life. I will give up my horse the day you quit your job and stop traveling.” She was saying, “I don’t care about anything else that you do, I care that you’re gone all week.”

When you get home you find that life happens without you. I came home last weekend to find a new tree in the yard, and my husband said, “Oh yeah, I think I did that Wednesday.” I thought, “Why didn’t you tell me?” My husband, daughter, and I talk every day but they don’t tell me all that little day-to-day stuff: “I planted a tree,” “I got in a fight with my friend.”

Kelley Rowe

Kelley Rowe

New York, NY

I’m an airline commuter. For the past three years, I’ve been traveling Monday through Friday to Phoenix, Chicago, London, Manchester, Shanghai, Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmadabad, Copenhagen, and Ithaca, New York. The majority of my trips are between New York and Phoenix, about five hours. I have about three hundred fifthy thousand air miles with Continental and fifty thousand each with American and USAirways.

The most dreaded part of the commute is the car ride to and from the airport. The drivers in New York are always grumpy early on Monday and always late to pick up on Thursday — and then they tend to be chatty. Going to Phoenix, I sleep the entire flight — from pushback to touchdown — sleeping, but I always wake up with neck pain. And I’m totally paranoid I’ll end up with deep-vein thrombosis, so I make a habit of frequenting the lavatory even though I rarely use the toilet.

Because so many of my competitors and clients are usually on my flight, I can’t work on my computer because of confidentiality. Once I was seated across the aisle from a senior vice president of the client I was working for at the time, and he never let me forget that he’d seen me in first class and how terrible it was that I was costing his organization money. What he didn’t know was that it was my elite status — not his company — that got me the upgrade.

However, I have seen flagrant spending: Someone I know in consulting expensed a “team trip” to Europe for 20 people (other consultants plus significant others) and got away with it no questions asked.

Collin Cole

Collin Cole

frog Austin, TX

I recently hit the two-million mile mark. I’m Executive Platinum because I’ve been traveling for about 12 – 13 years. My daughters are teenagers now, so it’s easier than when they were younger. I used to have a stint in Germany where I’d go back and forth every two weeks, and it was tough on my family.

Once I sat next to an American Airlines pilot coming back from London. He said that they used to have secret fliers to check on the level of service — the flight attendants didn’t know who was a passenger or a secret flier — but now there is no more money for that. The pilot went on to say the cabins are deteriorating and there’s no motivation for flight attendants to be friendly, and no consequences if they aren’t friendly. In his words: “You’ve got a bunch of water buffalo going up and down the aisle growling at you.”

But the major difference in the U.S. and Europe are “discount carriers.” In the US they’re trying to be more efficient. In Europe it’s a movement. The airlines count on attracting more people with cheap tickets. You can get a fare from Cologne to Budapest for five euros. The funny thing is, people will choose one flight over another to save ten euros, then they’ll hit the casino in the Amsterdam airport and lose hundreds of dollars. But actually the plane is the perfect environment for network gaming. You have a group of captive people, so new ways to connect people with similar interests is a compelling idea.

Emily Miller is a program manager in frog’s Austin studio. In her previous job she traveled five days a week, every week, for two years.