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Extreme traveler flies 1 million miles in a year

Image: Tom Stuker
Tom Stuker poses in front of a United Boeing 747 bearing his name on July 9, 2011, when he reached the 10 million mile mark with the airline’s frequent flier program.

Tom Stuker is looking forward to scaling back his flying a bit in 2013 and getting back to his normal routine: half a million miles sounds about right.

As one of the world’s most frequent fliers, Stuker will receive an annual mileage statement many travelers won’t see after a lifetime of globetrotting – he is the first passenger to fly 1 million miles on United Airlines in a calendar year, reaching the milestone earlier this month.

The feat comes about a year-and-a-half after the carrier threw him a party for earning 10 million miles in flight, a celebration that included naming a Boeing 747 in his honor.

How does Stuker feel after flying the equivalent of 40 trips around the world in less than 365 days?

“Tired,” he said, laughing. “I know I’ll never fly this much again in a year.”

Stuker, who lives in New Jersey, travels extensively as an automotive sales consultant. You’ll get a peek inside his hectic lifestyle when his reality TV show, “Car Lot Rescue,” begins airing on Spike TV in February.

Accumulating so many miles offers serious perks, of course. Stuker usually flies first class and is a member of United’s Global Services, an invitation-only program that offers “certain unpublished benefits,” said Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for the airline.

Stuker talked with NBC News by phone from Hawaii, where he was relaxing before jetting off to Indonesia with his wife for Christmas. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q: How did the quest to complete 1 million miles in a year come to be?

A: One of the reality TV producers who knows how much I fly said they could do a documentary about me flying for 30 days straight on a plane. I said that would be interesting.

I had some time off at the beginning of the year so I started flying 12 days non-stop (to practice). I flew over 100,000 miles because I wanted to see if I could be up for the challenge. It didn’t really faze me that much because I’m very comfortable flying. Granted, I fly first class – I don’t think I could have done it in coach.

Shortly after that, I ran into a fellow frequent flier friend of mine and he said, why don’t we do a million? I had a lot of work, I was going back and forth to Australia and I was finding myself on a really strong pace to fly a million.

As the year progressed, I was thinking, OK, I can’t do 917,000 – nobody is going to say, “Oh, did you hear about the guy who did 917,000?” That’s not a sexy number. So the two of us were going to set out and do a million. He ran into some health issues and he just told me to go for it.

Q: In your years of flying, what have you seen as far as passenger behavior?

A: The most disappointing thing is that people lack patience, and you’ve got to be a little more considerate. You’re not in your own domain; you’re in a public domain and when you’re on a plane remember certain common courtesies. Don’t talk so loud on a phone that 18 rows can hear you. And when you take off your shoes, understand that maybe your feet don’t exactly smell like roses. Be aware of the people around you – they have a right to comfort and a peaceful experience just like anybody else.

Q: Do you like the window seat or the aisle seat when you fly?

A: Oh, I’m an aisle guy. After flying almost 7,000 flights, I kind of know what the Grand Canyon looks like by now and a lot of my flights are at night, when there’s nothing to look at but the beautiful moon once in a while.

I like to be able to get up and go – I don’t want to crawl over people when I have to go to the bathroom.

Q: Have you had any scary moments with turbulence or mechanical trouble?

A: In 7,000 flights, I’ve never had the oxygen masks come down, I’ve never had an emergency landing.

I’ve had aborted takeoffs, aborted landings, those get a little nervy, but I haven’t had one for years. I’ve been on flights where people have passed away. When you’re spending as much time in the air as I have you’re bound to experience the realities of life.

I flew one time from Sydney to JFK and a couple of hours into the flight, I told one of my employees that I had a little chest pain. He was a little bit of a drama queen and so he tells the flight attendant that he thinks his boss is having a heart attack.

The flight attendant got carried away and what were the odds that out of 14 people in first class, eight were heart surgeons on the way to a conference? So within minutes, I was surrounded by surgeons. They had a tongue depressor in my mouth, they were taking my blood pressure. The flight attendant says, would you like us to land in Hawaii? I said, no that would give me a heart attack.

Q: Do you ever miss being in your own home, in your own bed?

A: I love traveling the world. My wife is a teacher so we take advantage of every long weekend that she has. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, we’re going down to Buenos Aires, even though it’s only for two nights. Then we’re going to Hawaii in February for President’s day. In April, we’re going to split the week between Paris and Prague.

Q: Have you gotten to fly the 747 that was named after you?

A: I don’t know. I’ve never paid attention to see if I was actually on that plane or not.