Up in the Air: Meet the Man Who Flies Around the World for Free
Almost at once, FlyerTalk became the singular worldwide hub of airline nerds, and today it claims to have more than 500,000 members. Virtually nothing on FlyerTalk is meant to be understood by outsiders. Posts there are littered with jargon like “3xx” (Airbus), “open jaw” (three-segment round trip) and “FEBO” (in-flight meal delivery). So Petersen’s next move was to launch Boarding-Area, a content platform for public consumption that featured FlyerTalk’s biggest stars on their own blogs.
This was where Schlappig launched “One Mile at a Time.” Immediately he became one of the Hobby’s biggest stars and, according to his friends, a millionaire. His revenue comes from three sources: impression-based ads on the blog; the PointsPros consultancy; and “affiliate marketing,” which means collecting a commission from credit-card companies each time a card sign-up originates from his blog. Schlappig admits that affiliate marketing gives him a vested interest in the very companies that many Hobbyists game. A garden-variety Hobbyist owns at least a dozen credit cards; many have more than 40.
Amassing a large cache of credit cards is essential to Manufacture Spend. No topic of discussion produces more worried glances or tighter lips — a code of silence is central to Hobby culture. Manufacture Spend reveals a fundamental but overlooked truth about frequent-flyer miles: They’ve become, in essence, a currency. In 2012, a European Central Bank paper classified airline miles in the same category as bitcoin, citing a 2005 calculation by The Economist that valued the global stock of frequent-flyer miles at more than $700 billion. But if miles are currency, then airlines are like central bankers who can constantly change the rules, devalue the points and close accounts at will. In 2009, one frequent flyer sued Northwest Airlines for closing his account, insisting that he never broke the program rules. The case rose to the Supreme Court, which sided with Northwest last year, reasoning that the 1970s deregulation left the terms of these programs entirely up to the airlines. In essence, airlines, not customers, owned the frequent-flyer miles, and an airline’s latitude for shuttering an account is wide — similar to the right casinos enjoy to kick out card-counters.
Schlappig is giving me this economics lesson while he waits in the spa of the first-class Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in JFK Airport in New York. He has been up all night, downing eight cups of coffee and typing blog posts the entire flight; he maintains a militant work regimen, blogging only on Eastern time, jet lag be damned. “I think he’s not a person who was meant to work from nine to five,” says his mother. “Now he probably works 18 hours a day.” Schlappig is chatting through a complimentary massage, enjoying the elbow in his back from a plump spa therapist and straining occasionally to sip his dry gin with crème de mûre. She chats him back, smiling, and asks how he’s been — Schlappig knows almost the entire staff here by name, and he schedules his globe-trots to make a pit stop here every few weeks.
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