Travel Secret Class


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Richard Moross.

Down a dark winding corridor lit with flickering candles, a circular chamber awaits. Its walls are etched in ancient symbols that peek at you from the shadows. Its existence is denied and thus its location is unknown to most.

In the center of the chamber’s marble floor, a bronze skull is drawn, large enough for five men to stand on. Along the curved edge of an empty eye socket, there’s a basin full of glowing, crackling coals; a red hot branding iron in the shape of a skull buried in them.

All you have to do is press the brand into your arm and the world’s power, fame, and fortune will be yours.

This is the rite you undergo to earn membership in an airline’s “secret class,” an ultra-exclusive travel club available (but not advertised) by most major carriers.

No, we’re kidding. That’s actually the plot to The Skulls, a 2000 film starring Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker.

The Skulls was based on Yale University’s Skull and Bones secret society, whose members include the wealthiest families in America, like the Rockefellers and Bushes. Legend has it that in order to join, initiates have to lie naked in a coffin and confess their sexual transgressions, thereby making themselves vulnerable to future blackmail should they ever dissent.

Perhaps there is also a branding iron involved, who knows.

The point is that before The Skulls was released, the general public was largely unaware that universities housed secret societies. The same is true with secret travel classes, which were made common knowledge only after the 2009 film Up in the Air starring George Clooney.

Clooney’s character is obsessed with attaining the secret American Airlines’ Concierge Key membership by accruing 10 million miles with them. He indulges in all sorts of privileged perks, like luxury waiting areas and first class seats, and while that portrayal is accurate to real life benefits it turns out airlines offer much, much more.

Details on what qualifies a person for the invitation-only level are scant and even fliers who have thousands of miles aren’t guaranteed a spot. Rather, you need to rack up hundreds of thousands of miles.

Take, for example, United’s Global Services Program. The Wall Street Journal was granted a rare glimpse into its inner-workings and reported one member, biotechnology executive Anita Norian, flew 180,000 miles in one year. As a Result, Norian regularly enjoys being driven between connecting flights in a luxury vehicle, skipping airport lines, and having personal attendants who know her by name constantly at her beck and call.

To give you an idea of its exclusivity, two percent of United’s million members have Global status and around 100 passengers of the 45,000 that the O’Hare Chicago Airport sees in a day are secret class.

Airlines devote entire teams just to tracking the footsteps of these members to ensure smooth sailing. If delays threaten their itinerary, other fliers are bumped from their seats and the member rerouted to guarantee an on-time arrival. One Global member reported that when his flight from Chicago to Tokyo was delayed he was immediately placed on a different flight through Seattle without having to approach anyone and ask for help.

There are rumors that statuses such as these are less about miles and more about revenue. One anonymous man claims to have flown 280,000 miles on United but was denied status because of the low price of the flights, while his friend was granted status with only 50,000 miles in a year because of the size of the corporation to which he belonged.

An anonymous United employee told Free Miles Traveler that the financial qualifications for Global change yearly. Of course, she wasn’t allowed to disclose an estimate, but she said “look up what a first class ticket to Asia costs and do a couple of those, then you’re in the ballpark of what it takes.”

Wth red velvet roped-off clubs, free bottomless Veuve, hor d’oeuvres, and never having to worry about making a connecting flight, it’s easy to wistfully envy members of the secret travel class. But, then, just think about how much time you’d have to spend on an airplane trying to clock 200,000 miles in a year.

You can decide for yourself whether that is better or worse than branding your forearm or lying naked in a coffin, but we’ll leave you with one word: turbulence.