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You gotta go the distance for flyer miles

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Stacey Vanek-Smith: The new movie "Up in the Air" is in theaters. That's the George Clooney film about a guy who flies all over the country firing people. He becomes addicted to the airline miles. Well, if you're up in the air this week, you might find some people like that flying with you, trying to squeeze in as many miles as they can before the end of the year. Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson has that story.


Jeremy Hobson: In Up in the Air, George Clooney's character is so obsessed with airline status, he uses it to pick up women. Here he is with another business traveller, played by Vera Farmiga.

Vera Farmiga: I put up pretty pedestrian numbers, like 60 thou a year, domestic.

George Clooney: That's not bad.

Farmiga: Don't patronize me. What's your total?

Clooney: That's a personal question.

Farmiga: Oh please.

Clooney: Well, we hardly know each other.

Farmiga: Oh come on. Impress me.

Turns out Clooney's character is on his way to a lifetime total of 10 million miles. Which isn't such a crazy number to some.

Matthew Klint: I've earned about 205,000 elite qualifying miles for the year.

I met up with Matthew Klint at JFK airport. His elite status gets him upgrades, priority boarding and a host of other perks every time he flies. He's a law student in Philadelphia, and today he's on his way to visit family in LA.

Klint: I'm flying from Philadelphia to Washington, Washington to New York, New York to San Francisco and then San Francisco to LA.

He's not doing that because of some screw-up at United Airlines. He's doing it because he'll get more miles.
And because if one of those flights is oversold, he asks for a cash voucher so he can buy airline tickets and get even more miles.

Klint says he's had plenty of company on his recent mileage runs:

Klint: There was another gentlemen who took a bump in San Francisco with me Sunday and he was asking the gate agent to route him very oddly. The agent was laughing and said, "Oh, it's the end of the year, isn't it."

Now, Matthew Klint is got to his United 1K elite status with nothing but leisure travel. But these days, many business travelers are playing the same game.

Webster O'Brien is an aviation strategy consultant with S, H and E. He's also United Premier Exec and Gold on two other airlines.

Webster O'Brien: Many companies have rolled back some of the benefits that are incorporated as part of their standard corporate package, and so people look to their frequent flier status to bulk some of those up or augment what's not there.

So if the company is only going to buy you a coach ticket, you might be able to get into business class anyway. And lest you think these mileage runners are scamming the airlines, Webster O'Brien says:

O'Brien: The airlines find that their high-frequency travelers are well worth the perks that they spill on them. So I think it's more of a win-win than necessarily a scam.

In New York -- holding a mere American Gold status -- I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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