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Not that sex is always the goal of the frequent free-flyer. "I was dating a girl who worked in the hotel business," says Neil, who worked at America West for more than 10 years before leaving voluntarily during the first round of downscaling following September 11. "She was able to get free rooms, and I was able to get free flights. We went to Hawaii once together, did the Bay Area another time. It was the perfect arrangement!"
Well, almost. "If only we loved each other," Neil says, laughing. "It coulda been nice. We basically used each other," he adds. "But there's a lot of that going on in this game."
If the cubicle guys of America West like to describe themselves as bachelors in paradise, with the Internet know-how to locate a new date every weekend and the means to fly off for personally guided tours in far-off cities they've always wanted to see -- and hopefully score in -- the company itself isn't so eager to advertise that image.
"Of course, the free flight benefits are a huge perk everyone who works here is happy to have," says disapproving-sounding America West spokeswoman Janice Monahan. "But I don't know whether or not there are some real swingers out there who really take it for all it's worth and are out on a date in a different city every weekend. For most of us, it's a perk we use for things like visiting our families."
Monahan is surprised -- and more than a little concerned -- when she learns that a few freaky frequent flyers have already shared some of their adventures, albeit anonymously, for this story. "Where did you find them?" she wants to know. "Hmm. And they didn't feel a need to clear it through Corporate Communications first? Interesting."
As the person who deals with a scandal-seeking media, Monahan has grown weary of reporters seeking out stories of improprieties at the beleaguered airline. Particularly since the national media feeding frenzy that followed the news last July of two America West pilots fired for trying to board a plane drunk in Miami. Pile on the news last April of two Southwest Airlines pilots caught flying with their pants down, and you get an airline media corps that's had its hands full trying to convince the American taxpayer that those 15 billion dollars in recent government aid are not being squandered by oversexed airline workers spared by the post-9/11 bailout.
"I know there's a temptation in the press to sex things up,'" Monahan acknowledges, with noticeable irritation. "But I wouldn't want our employees portrayed in a light that might not reflect the majority of what goes on. Honestly, I don't think there is that much of that lifestyle happening here."
Monahan would rather see a story focused on model world travelers like John Miller, manager of government relations for America West, who's used his flight benefits to visit 49 countries during his 16 years with the company -- but never with a woman other than his wife.
"I was married before I joined the airline," Miller says. "So, no, I never used the benefits for dating."
Miller has taken advantage of his free flight privileges for other curious pursuits, however. An avid backpacker, Miller once hopped a flight to Berkeley, California, simply to pick up some boots. "I have kind of an odd size, and I couldn't find any good backpacking boots in Phoenix," he says, shrugging. Miller admits he's even flown to San Francisco and back just to get a bird's eye view of the hiking conditions. "I know the flight will cross the Sierras, where I like to backpack, so I'll fly to San Fran and back just to check the snow levels, looking down from the plane."
Those kind of "why not?" impulse excursions are commonplace at the airline, says Miller -- particularly now, with everyone at corporate headquarters still reeling from the second round of post-9/11 layoffs that sent 250 workers packing last April. If there's a prevalent mood at America West these days, it's "Eat, drink and be merry" -- for tomorrow, all the free flying might end.
"Obviously, the job security working for an airline is not what it used to be," Miller says. "And the price of working for an airline means that you're probably working for lower wages than you would in a comparable industry. So if you're not using the benefits for all they're worth, it's really pretty silly."
Miller has heard of co-workers jetting off to Washington, D.C., just to see the cherry blossoms bloom, or skipping the tanning salon to spend an afternoon at a particular beach in Santa Barbara that's a close jog from the airport.
"You start thinking a little differently," he says. "It's one of those things where once you realize how valuable the benefit can be, you do tend to use it."
And how about single co-workers using those benefits to pick up women as casually as Miller flies off to pick up backpacking boots? Has Monahan's model flyer noticed any of that going on around him?
Actually, Miller does know of one young bachelor who took advantage of America West flight benefits to pursue some serious long-distance dating: his son.
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