Photo: Jude Edginton
Jack Vroom walks through the Jetway, pulling his little yellow suitcase behind him, boards the American Airlines Boeing 777, and, as always, turns left into the First Class cabin.
“Seat 2D is this way, sir,” the flight attendant says, pointing towards the far end of the aircraft.
“No, 2D is this way,” Vroom replies, indicating the near aisle. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
It’s not surprising that Jacques E. Vroom, Jr. (yes, that’s his real name) knows the layout of his favorite aircraft better than the flight attendant, because the 60 year-old Texan businessman is one of a select group of individuals who hold an American Airlines AAirpass, the ultimate frequent flier card. It’s a modest-looking little piece of grey plastic, with the American Airlines logo, his name and a six-digit number on it, and, in the bottom right-hand the words, “Valid thru: Lifetime.” He rarely even has to show it. But the pass, which he paid half a million dollars for in 1988 and which was withdrawn in the mid-nineties, means that Jack Vroom can travel in First Class on American Airlines whenever he wants, and wherever he wants, and as much as he wants – for life. Not only that, he can bring a guest on each flight. And – it gets even better – he gets redeemable miles, for both of them, each time he flies. He currently has around 27 million.
In the First Class cabin, only eight of the sixteen sumptuous fully reclining seats are occupied. As soon as we have sat down, a smiling flight attendant offers us Perrier-Jouet champagne, mimosa or orange juice. Vroom orders his usual, water with lots of ice, slips his shoes off, and demonstrates his favorite feature of the Boeing 777, swiveling his seat 90 degrees to face mine. Each passenger has a full twenty square feet to himself, where you can move around and stretch out. There is even an Ottoman in front of your seat where you can put your feet up, or, if you prefer, invite another passenger to sit down and join you. In fact, apart from the distant whirring of the aircraft engines, it’s almost like sitting in the First Class lounge at Heathrow that we’ve just come from.
AAirpass holders are the elite of the elite, singled out for preferential treatment even among the passengers in First Class. American Airlines refuses to say how many of them there are (Vroom thinks around 40 worldwide) but Vroom is probably quite unlike most of them. For a start, he’s not rich, at least not by the standards of those who travel in First Class. “I’m not a big time, deal-making, Donald Trump kind of guy,” he says, sitting in the wood-paneled First Class lounge before we depart. “I suspect my personal worth is less than anyone in this room, except maybe the waiting staff.”
Secondly, whereas most AAirpass holders travel for business, because they have to, or at least to get from A to B, Jack Vroom, who describes himself as a “hardcore psycho”, travels basically for kicks. Often, like today, he’ll fly thousands of miles, spend a few hours in a Flagship lounge somewhere, and then fly back, without even leaving the airport. He just loves the whole process of flying that most people who fly anywhere near as much as he does find simply tedious, even when all their time is spent in what he calls “the cocoon” of First Class, away from the queues and the crowds that are synonymous with air travel for the rest of us. Jack Kerouac said the road is life. For Jack Vroom, the runway is life.
Vroom is not exactly stereotypically Texan, and still less a stereotypical businessman. In fact, listening to him talk is like watching a David Letterman monologue. 6-foot-4, with a lined, expressive face and only slightly greying hair, he is dressed in an open-necked checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, khaki trousers, and – the only thing remotely Texan-looking about him – an elaborate silver and ruby belt buckle. He is not wearing his Breitling watch today, because he inadvertently left it on his office desk in Dallas the day before, along with his wallet containing his cash and credit cards – not that he seems particularly worried about travelling across the Atlantic and back without them. After all, when you have an AAirpass, you don’t really need anything else.
Vroom flies up to four times a week, but in theory, he could fly even more – 24/7 if he wanted to, in fact. “You’d have to have the stamina or the amphetamines, and I’m not sure if I have enough of either,” he says, stretching his legs out on the Ottoman in front of him as the flight attendant serves us warm cashew nuts and celery sticks and dips. But the thing is, although he loves flying, he doesn’t really like staying in places other than at home in Dallas with his family. “It’s nothing personal,” he deadpans, “but I’d rather sleep with my wife than with you.” So, if at all possible, he will fly out of Dallas in the morning, carrying just his little yellow case, which has just enough room for his laptop, iPod, a book, and a Ziploc bag of the lemon and ginger tea bags he carries with him everywhere, and be back home in the evening. Flying, for Jack Vroom, is like a nine-to-five job. In fact, probably the best way to describe him is a professional air traveller.
In the bizarre world of Jack Vroom, geography is almost completely irrelevant. A few years ago, when his daughter Grace was 12 years-old, he flew her from Dallas to London for the day to spend a few hours in Lush, the cosmetics store on the King’s Road. When his son Jacques III was at college in Maine a few years before that, Jack flew the 2000 miles every Saturday to watch him play football – which was more frequently than the fathers who lived 20 minutes away. Another time he flew to Washington, D.C., to pick up his father-in-law so he could babysit for Vroom’s children for a night, and explained to a bemused executive sitting next to him on the flight that it actually worked out cheaper than paying a local teenager. Yet another time – Vroom has almost as many of these stories as he has air miles – he flew to London just to pick up two Pirelli Dragon motorcycle tyres for his Ducati, which was cheaper for him than having them sent by freight.
It all started on April Fool’s Day, 1988, when Vroom was working as a consultant creating mail order catalogues for large retail companies, and decided to buy the pass, which he’d heard about from a friend. He already flew frequently on business, often together with an art director or photographer, to scout exotic locations like Maui or Alaska, for catalogue shoots. At that time he usually travelled in business class, an experience he now describes, only half-jokingly, as being “like being put in the stocks.”
Of course, half a million dollars was a lot of money, but Vroom was already spending a lot of money on air travel, and he figured the pass would cover 90% of that. Often, last minute problems came up that he felt he could solve more effectively in person, but there was no way he could bill the clients $3,000 for last-minute flights to wherever they were based. Plus, travelling just for the day, as Vroom liked to, usually turned out to be prohibitively expensive. With an AAirpass, he would be able to jump on an airplane at a moment’s notice at no additional cost, and be back home by the evening.
Vroom also loved the idea that with an AAirpass, if he was ever bankrupt and homeless, he could always sleep and eat on American Airlines flights. “I liked the idea of a successful business guy thinking, ‘What shall we have [for dinner] tonight? Let’s see what they’re serving on the American flight to Tulsa!” he says. “The surrealism of it appealed to me a in a goofy way.”
The flight attendant comes by again, addressing us by name, hands us hot towels, lays little blue tablecloths on our tray tables, and begins to serve our meal. Vroom has chosen the farfalle with three cheese sauce, complemented by prosciutto, asparagus and freshly shredded parmesan cheese, all served on white china plates.
The AAirpass quickly paid itself off as Vroom started to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility it gave him and he travelled more (our Transatlantic flight alone would normally cost around $8,700, one-way). He and a companion would travel on the pass, and he could usually bring other people with him using the air miles he had collected. It changed the way he did business. Gradually, however, it also started to change his life. He began to take family and friends around (“friends don’t let friends fly coach,” he likes to say), but, being Jack Vroom, he also began to see other possibilities.
One was flying AIDS patients around the globe. A few years ago, he decided to set up a network of, as he puts it, “semi-morally evolved” people who would be prepared use their AAirpasses (another friend of his, a photographer, had since bought one as well) or air miles to help out AIDS patients who could not afford to travel. Tears well up in Vroom’s eyes as he tells me about one guy, an American living in London, who simply wanted to come back to the US to die, but could not afford to. Vroom flew over to London and brought him back.
These days, Vroom still travels frequently for business, but not in the way most business travellers do. For example, a couple of years ago he bought into a friend’s business producing high-end belt buckles like the elaborate $1,000 one he is wearing today – geeky cowboy shit,” as he calls it. Every month or so, Vroom boards an American Airlines flight to Guadalajara, Mexico, carrying sheets of raw silver in his carry-on bag, visits the workshop where a single craftsman turns them into buckles, and comes back carrying a bagful of finished belt buckles.
By now, Vroom is getting a little tired. He tells me we really should have flown to Tokyo instead, because that would have given us 12 full hours to talk instead of a mere eight and a half. Then, he presses the button marked “bed” on the panel on the armrest of his seat, the footrest flips up, and the backrest reclines until it’s completely horizontal. He puts on his noise cancelling headphones, pulls a blanket over himself, and rolls over. “See you in a few hours,” he says.
Vroom’s nightmare, of course, is that American might at some point go bankrupt. “It would be a big re-alignment of my psyche,” he tells me later that day, as we are walking through Chicago O’Hare airport heading for the American Airlines Flagship Lounge. 9/11 didn’t affect Vroom’s attitude to flying (“I’d take all the money we spend on security and spend it on therapy and statistics lessons for America,” he says) but it did affect the airline business – since then two of American’s competitors, United and US Airways, have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
American, which made a loss of $160 million in the first half of 2004, says it would be in its interests to assist its most valued customers in the event of bankruptcy, but it’s difficult to see how the airline could compensate someone who travels as much as Vroom if it actually stopped operating. So, when occasionally Vroom meets senior American executives on flights or at parties in Dallas, where the airline is based, he just thanks them for keeping the company afloat. “I try to help in little ways,” he says, looking around the crowded terminal. “I don’t eat the dessert, and when I see stuff on the floor, I pick it up.”