"I don't spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my mileage account," says Ryan Bingham, the high-flying character played by George Clooney in the newly released film Up in the Air. The corporate downsizer-for-hire dreams of one day clocking up 10 million frequent flyer miles, but has no plans for early retirement once the golden number is reached - not even a round-the-world trip.
"The miles are the goal," he says. Although the character might sound like the product of overactive screenwriter's imagination, people like Bingham actually exist and are more common than you might think. A "mileage runner" is anyone who goes out of their way to boost their frequent flyer points. They can be habitual business travellers (like Bingham) or just people who scour the internet for the cheapest tickets available before flying to a distant city and returning without having left the airport at the other end.
Just as some collect classic cars or matchboxes, mileage runners collect frequent flyer points. Their mantra is "he who dies with the most miles wins" - and yes, they are invariably male. But while they enjoy the complementary food and drinks at 33,000 feet, environmental groups have called their behaviour "sociopathic" and many veteran runners have claimed that the lifestyle's final destination is divorce and unhappiness.
"I think some people have got sick along the way, but most people just get catatonic; sometimes they're suffering from exhaustion and dehydration," says Randy Peterson, 55, the founder of FlyerTalk.com, which bills itself as "the world's most popular frequent flyer community". "But as we veteran mileage runners like to say, 'Rookies, rookies, rookies.'" Peterson is the self-appointed king of the mileage runners and refers to his subjects affectionately as road warriors. Since 1986 he has run several frequent flyer newsletters and magazines, and his website is now the No 1 destination for mileage runners to discover the latest deals and share stories of the high life.
When he was in his early thirties, Peterson left a job in men's fashion after realising he could travel for free by collecting frequent flyer points. He now has over 17 million air miles - one of the highest numbers ever reached - which he estimates to be worth about $2 million (Dh7.3m), or enough for him and his wife to fly first class around the world 20 times. Among Peterson's many mileage running stories is that of a legendary promotion that ran in the early 1990s. The partnership between eight airlines in Central and South America promised that anyone who managed to fly on all of the carriers would automatically be given a one million mile bonus.
"The promotion was a good idea but they didn't realise the passion that some people have for air miles," he says. "They thought maybe two or three people would qualify. I went with eight people and did it over the course of three days. We slept on the floor of the airport in Lima. Every flight we were on, we met other people who were doing the same thing, and lots of people became mileage millionaires very quickly."
The term "air miles" is often used to describe all frequent flyer reward points, but the names, rules and perks associated with each airline's promotion can vary greatly. Most mileage runners will be members of several frequent flyer schemes, adding their many separate tallies together to reach their golden number. But frequent flyer schemes have received strong criticism for allowing business travellers to collect air miles personally when their flights are being paid for by their employers. If individuals use those miles to claim upgrades or other perks, such behaviour could be considered an untaxed income.
"I've heard that for a long time," Peterson says. "I understand the criticism, but I believe that the miles are really a trade-off for the life of a road warrior. Almost every road warrior I know has had to miss a child's birthday or something important like that. "Pretty much all of the high-end frequent flyers I know that do 200 days a year [in the air] have been divorced a few times. Other people can go home every night and never miss an episode of their favourite TV show, but we pay a price as road warriors; most of it is in the area of family and friends. "
The first frequent flyer programme was created by a Texas carrier in 1979, before it was taken over by American Airlines and relaunched two years later. The idea was simple: to give customers points for every mile flown, which they could redeem for cheaper tickets or upgrades if they chose to fly with the airline in the future. In the three decades since, air miles have evolved into something resembling a currency. Mileage runners have learnt that by bingeing on cheap flights, they can accrue massive tallies, and the internet now makes it easy for them to find out how to get the greatest return on their investment. Flights that earn one air mile for every two cents spent are considered a good find.
Airlines also have countless link-ups with credit card companies, supermarkets, petrol stations and other retailers who offer air miles for every penny spent. Even an infrequent flyer often has over a dozen opportunities to collect miles in any given day. In 2000, the US resident David Phillips spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to earn 1.25 million frequent flyer miles by buying more than 12,000 cups of chocolate pudding. Phillips estimated that by spending $3,140, he had enough air miles for 21 trips to Australia and back, worth as much as $150,000.
Peterson believes that, while relatively few people obsessively collect air miles like he does, many take flights that are not strictly necessary in order to retain certain frequent flyer privileges. After an early screening of Up in the Air at the Toronto Film Festival, Peterson met the film's director, Jason Reitman. He learnt that the filmmaker had recently taken a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, eaten a pizza in the airport, and flown straight back just to requalify for his elite flyer status and avoid losing its perks.
Last month, Ramin Raiszadeh, a 29-year-old Abu Dhabi-based lawyer originally from California, decided to spend Christmas in Australia so that he would gain enough miles for Gold Status on Emirates. "I went there for a holiday. On my flight back my status got turned to Gold and I was instantly upgraded to business class," says Raiszadeh, who currently has around 150,000 miles. "You get access to all the business class lounges worldwide. You get upgraded a bit more, reserved seats, rides to and from the airport. I do enjoy flying. I love the excitement of going somewhere new, and the flight is part of it. All the perks make travel so much more enjoyable."
Raiszadeh also uses his American Express credit card to collect miles for carriers in the US. But unlike the most obsessive mileage runners, he enjoys regularly cashing in his points for perks. "I'm certainly not like Bingham, just trying to get up to 10 million miles," says Raiszadeh. "I just want to get the status and enjoy it while I can, so I'm feeling a little bit more rested when I get where I'm going."
But despite having a higher tally than Raiszadeh - or almost anyone else on the planet - Peterson still flies everywhere in the cheapest seats available. "I'm a cheapskate," he says. "I still like to fly coach and figure out how to get the most miles out of a coach ticket. Everybody that sees me on the flight says: 'What are you doing back here Randy? You should be up front.' But I'm still doing what I started doing 25 years ago and that's helping somebody else play the mileage game so they don't have to sit in coach."
Despite making it his life's work to hoard every air mile he can, and helping others to do the same, Peterson insists that he will one day retire and cash in his air miles for the trip of a lifetime. He also claims to have enough hotel points for a two-year uninterrupted stay: "I would have fresh sheets every day and I could hang out at the pool." If everything goes to plan, few will have made better use of their air miles than the former electrician Alan Watts. After earning more than two million Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles, Watts decided to redeem the points for a ticket to space with Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial space tourism flight, expected to blast off in 2011.
While everyone from hard-core mileage runners to frequent flyers determined to keep their elite status is apparently having the time of their life, serious questions are being asked about the sustainability of such behaviour - and air miles in general - in an increasingly environmentally conscious world. "That's just borderline sociopath behaviour," says Graham Thompson, the spokesman for the campaign group Plane Stupid. "They're doing ridiculous amounts of damage to their children's futures - and everyone else's - just to have a comfy seat.
"If you're a relatively frequently flyer, then flying will be the biggest chunk of your carbon footprint. If you want to cut your carbon footprint dramatically, the easiest and quickest way of doing it is to drop the number of flights you are taking each year. Someone who's flying long distances every month could have a carbon footprint that's more than 10 times that of an average person's." While both Peterson and Raiszadeh would strongly deny that their behaviour is sociopathic and claim to care about the environment, both said they would not change their flight habits to reduce emissions.
"I guess it depends on your stance," Raiszadeh says. "If you're a big environmentalist, I can understand why you would want to fly as little as possible, but I wouldn't really consider myself to be like that." Peterson says that many mileage runners and frequent flyers use their points to make charitable donations and claims that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of air miles and hotel points have been donated to the relief effort in Haiti.
But the fact that his hobby - not to mention the focus of livelihood - is now considered by many to be a danger to the planet seems to be more of an inconvenience to Peterson than a wake-up call. "We are obviously criticised for the idea of getting on planes just for the hell of it, but the plane is going to go out anyway," he says. "It's also the airline's responsibility for their carbon footprint, not just the frequent flyers and the mileage guys."
It is now estimated that there are 270 million people around the world enrolled in at least one frequent flyer scheme. The biggest, Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles programme, has an estimated 73 million members. With airlines now offering more reasons to collect the coveted points than ever before - including elite lounges, increasingly luxurious seats and rapidly expanding lists of destinations - air miles are only heading in one direction: skyward. * Additional reporting by Sophia Money-Coutts firstname.lastname@example.org