Let me put it to you this way: I’ve known Tom Stuker for many years and when I see him misquoted by a perfidious columnist for The Washington Post, it does not sit well with me. Beyond the sensational headlines chronicling his extraordinary quantity of flying, is the quality of a man who works hard, loves his family, and chooses to pepper life with a pinch of humor and a heap of loyalty.
Tom Stuker Cuts A Deal With United Airlines
When he was offered the chance to buy a lifetime United flight pass in 1990 for $290,000, the decision was hardly a no-brainer. Labor relations had warmed since the contentious pilots’ strike of 1985, but the future of United was up in the air. Few could have dreamed that United would outlive PanAm and TWA and the purchase price over 30 years ago amounted to nearly $700,000 in 2023 inflation-adjusted dollars.
Yes, there were tax breaks (you can write off business expenses) and yes, Stuker credits this investment as one of the shrewdest he has ever made, but it was no sure thing during the Recession of 1990. So the idea that he “has played United like three-card monte, and there’s been nothing they can do to stop him,” is simply not true (WaPo claim). There’s no con here: just a shrewd man who lived in New Jersey, traveled to Australia often in the course of his consulting work, and came to a meeting of the minds with United during a time in which United was desperate for cash.
“I saw an opportunity and I took it,” Stuker told me, “But it only became clear years later that was a smart buy.”
I am sure I am not the only one that wishes he had bought Apple, Facebook, or Tesla stock when it was low. Or Bitcoin in its infancy. Sometimes a financial decision that may be innocuous at the moment can change your life forever.
That was the case with Stuker. He is one of the outliers (not the only one) who bought a pass from United and got his money’s worth: many bought it and have not used like he has. That’s not three-card monte: that’s a game of poker sitting across the table from United that could have gone either way.
The Man. The Legend.
I have flown with Stuker to Cape Town twice and also to Honolulu…we have become friends over the years due to our shared love of travel. The first time we met was on United’s final 747-400 flight to Hawaii, where we just shook hands. The next meeting was totally by chance at the Newark Polaris Lounge, United’s posh waiting area for international business class travelers. We hit it off there and have been friends ever since.
I’ve studied Stuker as he travels and several things have stood out, some of which I outlined long before the latest round of viral interest in this intriguing man.
First, he truly cares about his United family. It seems so trite but it is actually the opposite. As I walked with him through the lounge to the gate and onboard the aircraft, the folks at United know who he is. They know that in him is a powerful brand ambassador and even more importantly, they know him as a flyer that believed in their airline at a critical juncture and forever demonstrated his loyalty to United.
Stuker would not want me to share this, but I will do so anyway: he has financially supported United employees with profound generosity. There is no lip service with Tom. He truly takes an interest in every employee he comes across, which is one reason he books all his reservations by phone and has developed friendships with so many United employees over the years.
Second, he loves his family. Many may wonder why someone would possibly fly so much. Some pity him – so much time away from his “real” family, so much time on an airplane, even if in business class. But—as I can personally attest—travel is not his vanity project or an escape from his family, but a means to spend time with them and treat them to incredible experiences around the globe. As his wife says, they have not enjoyed just one honeymoon, but over 100. He’s highly productive on flights, which allows him to spend more quality time with those he loves when at home.
A word on how he earns miles. Contrary to The Washington Post report, he doesn’t earn endless miles each year, which encourages more flying. Rather, like an anniversary bonus there is a deposit of miles posted to his account once per calendar year. He earns no redeemable miles when he flies (though he does continue to build lifetime flight miles). So why fly? He still consults. He still takes his family along. He still loves to explore the world.
And to be clear, he does not sell or barter his miles: if he did, United would revoke his pass. Stuker is quite generous with his miles, though. He has used his miles to support Bailey’s Day, an Australian charity and foundation aimed at helping to cure children’s cancer.
Even 23 million miles later, there is a smile on his face as he boards each flight. What a great hobby…what a better alternative to watching sports on TV or scrolling through social media. This recognition has not gone to his head. Stuker is a humble and kind man, sensitive and conscientious.
I’ve watched him on several flights carefully plan out upcoming holidays with his family. Yes, he is travel-obsessed, but he is not self-obsessed. Time is the currency of love and one way Stuker shows love is by showing his family the world.
Third, Stuker is a charmer. The Washington Post story really twisted his words in encouraging travelers to lie to the purser (chief flight attendant) by saying, “I remember you! You gave us such great service last time. I wanted to thank you again!” in order to receive great service onboard. In the case of Stuker, chances are he has indeed seen that flight attendant but what I have witnessed is not lying to flight attendants but a certain folksy charm that is both sincere and well-received.
For example, one-time Stuker sneezed in front of a flight attendant on one of our flights to Cape Town. He profusely apologized, stating, “Please forgive me. I’m allergic to great service. You’ll have to step away!” This put such a smile on the flight attendant’s face. It was really a cute moment and that sort of charm is quintessential to Stuker’s personality.
Stuker told me, “I don’t compliment flight attendants to get free stuff. I do it to make them feel appreciated.”
And I cannot help but to offer one more correction. No, Stuker never said that when someone dies (he has seen four people die in-flight over the years), someone is thinking about who is going to eat the unfinished ice cream sundae of the deceased. Death is a sobering moment and a reminder that life is passing: all the more reason to enjoy this beautiful world with family and friends.
Real Travel Tips
The Washington Post story took some liberties in concocting four questionable travel tips, so allow me to offer—from the lips of Stuker—five real travel tips:
- “Treat gate agents and flight attendants with kindness. It’s not their fault that your flight is delayed, but they will take the brunt of blame from passengers who do not know better.”
- “Bring a backup set of headphones and your charging cord so that you don’t have to be the idiot who watches a movie or takes a call on his phone without headphones.”
- “Upgrades are cleared just before boarding, often leaving some of the best seats open in economy open. If you are unhappy with your seat, wait for the upgrades to clear and then ask a gate agent to swap your seat.”
- “Avoid checking bags when possible. Think about it. How often do you come back with clothes that you never wore that you took just in case? Pack lighter and avoid unnecessary stress.”
- “Sign up for an airline co-branded credit card. The United card includes free checked baggage, priority boarding, and club passes. That easily offsets the annual fee if you take a couple of flights per year. That’s how you get free stuff, not by lying to the flight attendant.”
If you ever run into Stuker when you are traveling—and if you travel enough on United Airlines, you certainly will—say hello. He’s an approachable man who is always up for a chat. Chances are, you’ll walk away with a big smile on your face. Yes, he’s an obsessive flyer, but he’s channeled his healthy addiction into a lifestyle of productivity and success on many levels. As Stuker says, “I’m just a guy who flies a lot on United. The real heroes are the ones who keep United going. They are heroes. They are family.”
all images taken by author