Thursday 23 May 2019

18 million miles and counting - the globe's top business traveller

Tom Stuker was the inspiration for George Clooney’s character in the movie Up in the Air
Tom Stuker was the inspiration for George Clooney’s character in the movie Up in the Air

Mark Evans

it's not getting easy getting hold of Tom Stuker - and for good reason. Arguably the world's top executive traveller, he's working his way towards 20 million miles in the air - with the same airline.

So next time you grumble about two or three trips a week to Heathrow and the walk to the Piccadilly Line platform, spare a thought for the well-travelled American businessman.

I catch him on a quick layover in London as he awaits a flight home to Chicago. Despite the mileage he's in chatty form. "I'm just on the way home," he told the Sunday Independent. "I crossed the 18 million mark with United [Airlines] and I have approximately two million with other airlines, so it's approximately 20 million miles so far."

The 64-year-old is aiming to make 2020 a special year, by crossing the 20 million threshold on United alone. As such he's a VIP flyer with the US carrier, and its best marketeer at a time when it's under fire over the passenger-removal storm.

But while flying is a chore for many, it's a joy for Stuker, head of Stuker Training, a global name in car sales and dealership management training. "It's fairly easy for me because I make it easy - I fly first class predominantly and I'm pretty strongly connected over the world because of contacts [indeed, he's such a strong brand ambassador that he's got a special rate for the front of the bus with the airline].

"Unlike 30 or 40 years ago when I first started, today with the communications, if I'm up in the air and if for some reason my flight is delayed on the ground there are people in place already transitioning me to another flight or accommodation. I will literally get off the plane and they're waiting there for me with a boarding pass for another flight. I never have to worry about flying with them."

Airline aside, Stuker has the same hassles as other business travellers - including airport security - and admits he's never signed up for Global Entry, the US Customs and Border Protection programme that allows faster clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travellers upon arrival in the US. The straight-talking Stuker says: "Here's a scoop for ya, if there's anyone who should have global entry in the world it's me. I just find myself so busy I haven't taken the 10 minutes to fill out the form online and do the interview. Now I've said I'm going to make it my number one priority."

Ironically, he does have US pre-check, which speeds up security - but only departing from US airports. "I've always had pre-check but pre-check in the States is being taken away and they're making everyone pay for it now, everyone including me. With global entry you automatically get the pre-check, so I'm going to finally suck it up and do the online thing."

While you might not know Stuker, you've seen George Clooney play him in the movie Up in the Air, about a frequent flyer who travels America on business. "I had no input in the movie, but it was loosely based on my character," Stuker says. "People may or may not know that United was offered the movie first and passed on it. It was a bad mistake but at the same time I got so much publicity off that movie that very strong frequent flyers from American were pissed off as I got all the attention, and the movie was about American Airlines."

But the expert flyer does pick holes in the Hollywood take. "There are so many falsehoods about that movie. What is a guy like George Clooney doing living in Omaha, Nebraska? With his position with the travel and all his accomplishments, what is he doing in a $400-a-month apartment? From a travel standpoint it shows him on a flight from Omaha to Tulsa in a 757, first class, drinking champagne. Well guess what? There is no 757. Those are all American Eagles. Those are all commuter flights to all those places he goes to. Every single destination he has out of Omaha would have taken connections - he would have had to take two flights there and two flights back every single day, which was an impossibility.

"It was very romantic, but as far as the points about the air miles go it was all true - those special lines at the hotels and those special lines at the airports - and I loved how he went through the security quick because that's how I roll. If a person just stands there trying to find their computer, I've already taken off my stuff and am on the belt and on the other side by the time they find it. I always say an empty belt is a terrible waste."

After his brush with movie fame, Stuker made a name for himself on the small screen as the star of the reality TV show Car Lot Rescue. "It was highly rated - in the top 25 on cable and one million viewers per week - but I was a pain in the ass to work with. I demanded too much and they didn't like that, so we never went to a second season. But that's OK, that's not what I do for a living." And it was tough being a kind of Gordon Ramsay-type guru to car dealers, revealing that some were broke financially and beyond help.

So any traveller tips? "If you can possibly get away without checking a bag you've got to do it. Travel as light as possible, I bring my chargers and make sure everything is 100pc charged before I get on the plane. I bring an iPad - don't bring a laptop because it's too bulky. I use Skype - I'm pretty well-connected so I can be around the world." That's for sure.

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