Gabriel Leigh, a graduate student in journalism at UC Berkeley, created a 20-minute documentary about frequent flyer programs and the mileage junkies who collect miles and status. The documentary titled “Frequent Flyer” was part of his master’s thesis and you can view the film at http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?2078 — Gabriel is an Executive Platinum member of American Airlines and has also earned million-miler status with the airline.
When and how did you first get interested in collecting miles?
I first became interested in miles in the fall of 2001, when I was 18. I had begun checking out FlyerTalk right around the time that I was deciding what airline I should fly from New York to London to visit family over Thanksgiving. Previous to that, I never had much of any airline loyalty. It was mostly British Airways and Virgin Atlantic for me, with no thought about even earning miles for the flights. (As a side note–I remember a couple of years prior to that, I had brought up the question to my parents–‘why don’t I earn miles for any of these flights?’, and I remember my stepfather saying to me that it was all a waste of time. Funny to think of how much use I’ve gotten out of miles since then!) Anyway at that moment, looking around for flights and choosing between so many airlines with nothing to go on aside from maybe aircraft types, I came across the FewMiles guide to Challenges on American Airlines, via FlyerTalk. When I realized that I could get elite status (previously totally unthinkable for me) by flying AA, I was sold, and the interest in miles grew from there.
Why did you choose frequent flyers and the world of miles as the subject of your documentary?
It’s one of the topics that interests me most in the world, so if I was going to spend close to a year making a documentary, it was a natural choice, as I could pretty much count on not getting tired of it. Also helpful was the fact that I’d already done a lot of the necessary research over the previous seven years or so, just learning things out of my own interest. But the biggest thing was that there wasn’t anything else like a documentary on frequent flyers out there. I realized I could make something fresh and unexpected about a niche idea that could have appeal to a broader segment of the population, if they only knew it existed.
How do you construct a mileage run?
I’m always on the lookout for especially low fares, so if I come across one, I’ll start looking into what I can do with it, where it can get me, and how many miles I might be able to get out of it. I’m generally looking at places where I can also make a little trip out of it–I very seldom will do a straight turnaround type of mileage run. So I’ll be checking into Europe and Asia most often, looking at a few different Web sites in case some low fare pops up for Frankfurt or Madrid or wherever–anything that’ll get me across the ocean for cheap, and then I’ll see what else I can tack on to it. Maybe a leg to Helsinki, or a flight to Tokyo the long way, via Southeast Asia. I like to browse through booking sites like ITA and Kayak. Sometimes I’ll go to airfarewatchdog.com for ideas. And I’ll check in with the FlyerTalk Mileage Run forum regularly to see what people have come across. It takes quite a bit of tinkering sometimes, since most unlikely city pairings will tend to raise the fare significantly. But all the fun is in trying to get to that moment when you plug in a certain set of dates and airports, and it gives you back something that’s way too cheap, and you can book it and feel like you’ve outsmarted the system.
Are you set for elite status in 2010, or do you have some mileage runs in your near future?
I’m close to requalifying for Executive Platinum thanks to the ridiculously lengthy double EQM promo AA has had this year. (Honestly I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I can’t complain myself.) I still need about nine thousand flown miles, so I’ll likely take another long trip this year. It won’t be a pure mileage run though, more of a trip motivated by miles. I’ll probably go to Japan and visit my father, since fares are great at the moment and I always look for a chance to return there.
What are a few things you learned about frequent flyers or frequent flyer programs when doing this documentary?
I think I got a better sense of how miles operate as a currency–there’s a lot of interesting economics in there, which I didn’t really have time to delve too far into this time. Maybe for the next movie though. As far as frequent flyers, I’d say I found that there are a lot of different ways that people come to be miles enthusiasts. For example, one of the things that makes me love traveling and earning miles is that I want to get to experience as many airlines as possible. It sounds kind of odd considering that being tied to an FFP tends to limit you. For instance, I’ll probably never take that Singapore Airlines flight from LAX to Tokyo that I’m kind of curious to try out, because it would be a terrible decision for my mileage portfolio. But I find that earning miles will occasionally free me up to take flights on new airlines, new routes and in new cabins that I might not have had the chance to try out. For some, it’s all about the strategy, or playing the game–and they’re not all that concerned about seeing a new color scheme on their boarding pass or adding a new aircraft type to their list.