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Too Frequent Flyers: American Airlines’ AAirpass Program

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Did you know that back in 1981 American Airlines offered a lifetime unlimited $250,000 first-class AAirpass? Today there are a few AAirpass holders still booking tickets, two of whom are tied up in court proceedings with the airline. Ken Bensinger, who covered the story for the Los Angeles Times, joins Peter to look at the history of the program and the last 30 years of travel for the AAirpass holders.

Peter Greenberg: The wildest part of the AAirpass program was that since you paid for the pass, the ticket you got was considered a paid ticket that you even accrued mileage on. It was sort of like nuclear fusion.

Ken Bensinger: American sold the AAirpass in different flavors, but the marquee top of the top was the unlimited lifetime. It wasn’t very well advertised or heavily advertised, but for those with the money and who were in the know it was a heck of a purchase.

PG: They no longer sell the AAirpass. If they had sold it to a guy like me, I would have probably almost single-handedly ended the program because I would have used it every day. Turns out some people did use it every day, tell me what happened?

KB: The AAirpass holders, especially those that bought the companion pass, found that flying becomes more and more important in your when there is a low barrier to entry.

Pretty soon the people who owned these passes discovered that the most important things in their lives was flying. They’d alter their work schedule and their personal schedule to be in a plane and flew an absurd amount.

American was taking stock of these fliers and raising the price of the pass. By the time it stopped offering them in 1994, American was charging over a million for a pass with a companion pass ticket. After the program stopped, the airline kind of forgot about it from a financial point of view. It was only a few years ago when the revenue accounting department rediscovered the program. I got access to emails inside the company that show that they suddenly scrambled to figure out, “What the heck is the air pass and why is it costing us so much money?”