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

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Flying these days, it can be pretty exciting if you're offered some peanuts or pretzels. First-class is more luxurious. But for a select group of travelers, airlines will go to almost any length to make them happy.

NPR's Ben Bergman tries to uncover the world of secret frequent-flier programs.

BEN BERGMAN: In the new movie "Up in the Air," George Clooney plays a road warrior who spends a lot of time in the air - 322 days a year.

(Soundbite of film, "Up in the Air")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (as Ryan Bingham) To know me is to fly with me. This is where I live.

BERGMAN: For his loyalty, American Airlines rewards Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, with a graphite frequent-flier card. It entitles him to many benefits, not least of which is impressing female travelers with his membership.

(Soundbite of film, "Up in the Air")

Ms. VERA FARMIGA (Actor): (as Alex Goran) Oh my God. I wasn't sure this actually existed. This is the American Airlines that...

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Ryan Bingham) It's the Concierge Key, yeah.

Ms. FARMIGA: (as Alex Goran) What is that, carbon fiber?

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Ryan Bingham) Graphite.

Ms. FARMIGA: (as Alex Goran) Oh, I love the weight.

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Ryan Bingham) I was pretty excited the day that bad boy came in.

Ms. FARMIGA: (as Alex Goran) Yeah, I'll say.

BERGMAN: The movie is fictional, but filmmakers worked closely with American Airlines to make it as realistic as possible. So even though it's not mentioned anywhere on American's Web site, there really is such a thing as the Concierge Key Program, says company spokesman Billy Sanez.

Mr. BILLY SANEZ (American Airlines): The Concierge Key Program is an exclusive program that American Airlines has for our very top customers. This is by invitation only, an extremely exclusive club.

BERGMAN: Just how exclusive? Sanez will only say membership is limited to a select few.

Mr. SANEZ: And we know them all very, very well.

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

Mr. SANEZ: We don't share the details of that because it's very exclusive, but we have a philosophy in that program that we really, really, really take care of our customer.

BERGMAN: There have been stories about airlines holding the plane until a VIP customer arrives or even arranging for a helicopter to fetch someone stuck in traffic.

In the movie, when Clooney's character reaches 10 million miles, he gets a private line to make reservations over or whatever request he wants. Plus...

(Soundbite of film, "Up in the Air")

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Ryan Bingham) Lifetime executive status. You get to meet the chief pilot, Maynard Finch, and they put your name on the side of a plane.

BERGMAN: Travel consultant and writer Joel Widzer says he once worked for an executive who belonged to one of these real life secret frequent-flier programs. The executive was on his way to an important meeting, only to have his flight canceled. So he called the airline...

Mr. JOEL WIDZER (Travel writer): The person on the other end had told him, he said, Sir, we have arranged for you a private flight that will take you to your destination and you will arrive to your meeting promptly and on time.

BERGMAN: Talk about service. Now, sending a private jet is the extreme example. More common are instant upgrades, escorts to help make tight connections, and not having to pay all those baggage and change fees.

To get in, it's not as important how much you fly as how much you spend. Buying full fare helps. Even better - if you're a CEO or a travel manager who can steer a lot of revenue to airline. Just don't ask to be let in.

Mr. WIDZER: It becomes sort of like a Skull and Bones society. And they don't want people to know that some of these people are getting these special perks.

BERGMAN: Despite having flown over 200,000 miles a year on Delta, Widzer 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.

But 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.

Ben Bergman, NPR News.

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