By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Rob, a newly divorced, 41-year-old SWM known to the online dating community by his Match.com screen name "phxbuddy," is 24,000 feet over Pocatello when it suddenly dawns on him: The only piece of identifying information he has on the woman he's traveling 726 miles to see tonight is her e-mail address.
He knows her first name is Sabrina -- there can't be too many of those in the Boise white pages. But without a last name to look under, he's sunk.
Unless there's an Internet kiosk at the airport, Rob thinks. He could log on, check his e-mail and see if "sabr1nah" pops up on his AOL Instant Messenger buddy list.
But upon landing, Rob, who toils by day in the advertising department at the Tempe corporate headquarters of America West Airlines, quickly discovers that Boise Airport is no LAX. He's more likely to find an antique shoeshine stand than a broadband-wired computer station in this unintentionally retro transportation hub.
Rob steps quickly through the terminal, checking his PDA, then his watch, then his cell phone like a sex-obsessed Inspector Gadget. Finally, Rob steps outside the concourse onto the curb and hails a cab. Somewhere in this city, he figures, there's got to be a Kinko's.
It only takes about three miles in the cab before one of the 24-hour copy centers with all the glowing computer monitors catches Rob's eye. He hollers at the cabby to drop him off here, at the Kinko's on Capitol Boulevard, where Rob immediately logs on to an open PC and fires off a short e-mail notifying his latest Match.com find that he's in town for the night. Sabrina IMs back instantly, saying that she and a friend -- whom Rob, ironically, has also been carrying on an Instant Message romance with -- were just heading out to Bogie's, a local blues club. "What's the address of the Kinko's?" Sabrina asks. "We'll pick you up on the way."
Within minutes, Rob is tearing up the dance floor at Bogie's with two women that, until tonight, he's only known by their JPEGs. Sabrina is astonished that their playful online conversation this very morning about "getting together for some skiing" is actually happening. "I can't believe you're here!" she says, a difficult-to-read expression covering her face.
Rob, an average-looking cubicle drone who's managed to turn his discovery of the online personals world into a lifestyle rivaling James Bond's -- with a little help from the unlimited flight benefits he receives from his job at America West -- just smiles as he delivers his standard line to his new lady friends. "I'm like a pizza," he boasts. "Delivered hot to your door in 30 minutes or less!"
It's pure Catch Me If You Can stuff, but with a modern twist: regular guys playing pilot, inventing their own jet-setter identities in Internet personals ads and flying around the country using only their airline employee ID badges.
"Oh yeah, this thing is like gold," exclaims Jerry, a single, 27-year-old product development analyst, holding up the shiny white credit-card-size slab of plastic that bears his ever-smiling likeness.
The pay at America West these days may not be the greatest; the entire airline industry has been wobbling on the brink of bankruptcy since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and no one dares ask for a raise.
But a job with the Valley's hometown airline still comes with one huge bonus: an America West badge. A simple, laminated photo ID tag which, for every one of AWA's 13,000 employees nationwide, works the exact same magic as Leonardo DiCaprio slipping on a misappropriated Pan Am uniform and strutting through the airport with eight stewardesses on his arms.
"It has gotten a little slower with all the security changes the airports have gone through," admits Jerry, who, like most of the nervous employees interviewed for this story, preferred not to use his real name. "But for the most part, employees can still just show their badge at the gate and get on any flight with available seating, free."
For eligible bachelors like Jerry, that employee ID badge is also the passport to a jet-setting dating lifestyle most 27-year-old guys would give up their lifetime subscription to Maxim for.
"What happens is a flight becomes like a taxi ride," he explains. "I mean, right now, I can make a date to go out for dinner with a girl in L.A.," he says, checking his watch. It's 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and Jerry and a co-worker are taking a coffee break at Mill's End Espresso, just across the street from the nine-story America West corporate headquarters building overlooking the Tempe Town Lake.
"I leave work at 5:30, it's a seven-minute drive from here to the airport, the flight takes less than an hour, and I'm in L.A. by 7:45, getting picked up," he says quickly. "By 8:15, we can be sitting down to dinner at her favorite restaurant." There's a 6:45 a.m. return flight the next day -- Jerry knows the flight number by heart -- that puts him back in Phoenix with enough time to brush his bed-head hair into shape and make it back to work by 9.