Readings: “Up in the Air”

Ben Wofford’s piece for Rolling Stone (7/16/15-7/30/15) is one of those pieces where I just cannot fathom the fact that people like Ben Schlappig exist. Narcissistic enough not only to carry through on deliberately exploiting faulty airline deals and mechanics surrounding “frequent flyer miles” and redemption points (think of him as the upscale combo-coupon clipper), but to be the subject of a profile piece in which he boasts, at length, about being “one step ahead” of the airlines. About paying for a $15,000 first-class cabin with miles accrued from false purchases (i.e., buying currency from the US Mint with a credit card and then using that currency to pay off the card) or with cycling through 15-40 credit cards. About trying to devise an algorithm that would help him get tickets on cheap and overbooked flights that he could then voluntarily “bump” himself off of, in exchange for airline comps. Actually, forget the coupon-clipping parallels: this is a lot like exploiting Wall Street, and the fact that these are massive corporations (airlines and credit cards) doesn’t really change the fact that they’re being defrauded.

This isn’t a Robin Hood story, either, despite fellow Hobbyist (the name for this weird, exploitative “profession”) Aktarer Zaman’s claims that airlines are “using the public’s lack of knowledge in order to profit greatly,” because Schlappig isn’t giving that information back to the public. If anything, he’s profiting from the small group he shares it with over at FlyerTalk, where he apparently gets nice ad revenue and commissions off every credit card he helps to activate through his site. Schlappig, given the opportunity, would probably be the next Martin Shkreli. Don’t believe me? Just listen to this line:

He’s treated equally well by flight attendants, who are among his rowdiest fans. When a chief steward recognized him on one superluxury carrier, Schlappig stepped into his onboard shower to find a bottle of Dom Perignon on ice waiting for him. On a recent international flight, an attendant maneuvered an unwitting Schlappig into an empty row, administering what he delicately terms a surprising and unwanted hand job. (“It was a disaster,” he says. “I tried to get out, but there was no point.”)

Frankly, given all the ways he’s bilked the airlines out of money–maybe he’s a bit like Slippin’ Jimmy of Better Call Saul fame, a small-time con-man with big-time aspirations and the smarts to make good on them–I’m surprised he didn’t sue the airline for this attendant’s attentions, because that sure sounds like sexual assault to me.

Don’t get me wrong: the airlines aren’t free and clear here. “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.” It’s worse, too, in that they actually control the bank, so to speak and “can constantly change the rules, devalue the points and close accounts at will.” I so badly want them to get screwed over–but in a way that really benefits the public, and at least Zaman’s mass-public version of FlyerTalk, Skiplagged, helps to get information about the cheapest flights out there.

The hubris–at least Jordan Belfort had a bit of a comeuppance in The Wolf of Wall Street, even if the damages and practices of he and his decadent cohorts are still with us in the market, or the 1%. God bless him for getting away with something that’s so extralegal that it’s not actually a scam–they do always say that you should run cons on criminals, because they can’t go to the police. I guess I just wouldn’t rub the rest of the world’s faces in it, y’know?

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