What Makes Frequent Flyers Want to Go the Extra Mile? —

The high of getting high – 42,000 feet high.


For a frequent flyer, a million–mile journey begins with a single flight. After earning your first few thousand miles, it’s not long before cities become airport codes, airports become second homes and home becomes a pit stop between mileage runs. Suddenly, you can identify an aircraft by the rumble of its engine and the airline by the paint on the plane’s underbelly. You’re able to have conversations consisting solely of abbreviations, and you find yourself frequenting online flyer forums at sleepless hours. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that you still get high from getting high – up to 42,000 feet in the sky.

What drives certain people to adopt this lifestyle? It comes down to milestones. “There are two dominant ways to think about what motivates people to achieve goals,” says Kristin Laurin, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the psychological underpinnings of goals and motivations. The first is that “people will try hard to achieve a goal only to the extent that they expect they can achieve it,” she says. That is why it is no coincidence that frequent flyers tend to also be business travellers. Someone who travels for work is in a better position to collect miles. The more they can expect to collect miles, the more they will. The closer they get to their milestone, the more compulsive the chase becomes.

December 20, 2019
An illustration of a man dressed in a suit flying over Earth

The second motivator, explains Laurin, depends upon how much someone values the outcome. For some, the perks, upgrades and mileage rewards are enough to make even the most itinerant itineraries worthwhile. For others, it’s all about love of the game. Take, for instance, million–miler Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, in Up in the Air. His magic number, the figure aspired to by many multimillionaires, is 10 million.

“People who love flying might be the ones who set higher mile–earning goals,” says Laurin. “It can be a way of tracking just how often they’ve been able to enjoy that activity.” Lifetime mileage goals are also a way to connect the dots, and to make all the ups and downs add up to a greater sum. Entry to each echelon grants admission to a cosmic club, with members who share a quiet camaraderie – an approving nod when they spot your bag tag, a stolen eye–roll over a security slowpoke – that can carry weight in the sometimes solitary skies.

Major Milestones

These record–breaking jet–setters have gone the distance to earn miles, rewards and then some.

  1. Most frequent flyer in the world  Car consultant and New Jersey resident Tom Stuker broke his own butt–in–seat record last summer, crossing the 21–million–mile mark on a flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles. The 65–year–old has taken more than 10,000 flights, travelled to Australia more than 300 times and visited every U.S. state in 50 days – all amounting to the equivalent of nearly 844 trips around the world, or more than 40 round trips to the moon.

  2. Most pudding bought for airline miles  In 1999, food brand Healthy Choice ran a promotion that awarded customers with 100 airline miles for every bar code sent in. California–based engineer David Phillips bagged a few soup cans before realizing the oomph was in the pudding – 25–cent chocolate pudding cups, that is. About 100 hours, $3,140 and 12,150 cups later, he had earned 1,253,000 miles, plus the nickname Pudding Guy.

  3. Most airlines flown on  The current Guinness World Record title for most airlines flown on goes to Japanese aviation photographer Ryuji “Charlie” Furusho, who has taken to the skies with 156 different carriers. The figure excludes chartered flights and helicopters, and counted group airlines as one, narrowing down his original submission of 182 to meet the award’s criteria.