Imagine if, for a one-time fee of around a million dollars, you could fly wherever you wanted for the rest of your life. As crazy as it sounds, there are 28 people in the world who have this privilege today, all because of one insane promotion — the American Airlines AAirPass.
From 1980 to 1994, American Airlines sold the AAirPass to only the most elite flyers in the world, with prices ranging from $250,000 to $3 million over the years. With this pass, passengers could fly anywhere they wanted, in first-class, for the rest of their lives. The best part? Every flight was not only free for them (you know, minus the initial cost), but they could also bring a guest to keep them company.
The privileges were so incredible and the program so premier that the AAirPass came to be called the "Golden Ticket," and the passengers who invested were airline VIPs, even known by the CEO. Not every pass holder started out a celebrity, but after a couple thousand flights, they certainly became one to the airline staff.
Although the Golden Ticket is no longer available, the insane stories of the people who bought the tickets continue to this day — and not all of them have happy endings. Take a look at some of the most high-profile Golden Ticket holders and what exactly happened to this lucrative promotion.
Mark Cuban: Businessman on a Mission
Today, Mark Cuban has enough money to buy a hundred Golden Tickets, but back when they were first offered, he had just crossed a million dollars. Because of that, he had to think long and hard about what he was going to do with his hard-earned money. With friends constantly asking him what he was going to buy, he knew he needed to come up with something good.
After doing lots of math, Cuban decided to splurge on his own AAirPass. He calculated that it would ultimately cost him about twelve cents per mile, which he considered a bargain. Combined with the luxury of first-class and the freedom of not having to stress over the cost of travel, the Golden Ticket became a no-brainer for Cuban.
He told his friends what he planned to do, and — after they all had a few drinks — he made a phone call to American Airlines placing his order. Today, Cuban considers the ticket "one of the best purchases [he's] ever made," and although he now flies in one of his three private jets, he fondly looks back on his days as a Golden Ticket holder.
Steve Rothstein: Secret Philanthropist
Compared to Mark Cuban, Steve Rothstein was a relatively regular guy. An investment banker in New York, he certainly had his share of money in the bank, but flying around the world at the drop of a hat wasn't a luxury he could afford — that is, until he bought his AAirPass for $340,000 in 1987.
He'd be the first to say that the Golden Ticket completely transformed his life. He took over 10,000 flights, racking up 10 million miles and 500 visits to the United Kingdom. He's also been to Tokyo 120 times and Australia 70 times.
It wasn't uncommon for him to fly up to Detroit for a day, drive to Canada, spend a few hours shopping and talking to locals, and then come home by dinner. In fact, Rothstein's flying habits were so luxurious that he ended up costing the airline $21 million.
But it wasn't just Rothstein's life that was changed. Over the years, he helped thousands of strangers get where they desperately needed to be by offering them his companion seat. He discovered a woman crying in the airport because she couldn't afford a ticket to get home, but her kids needed a babysitter. One of his friends wanted to go home to Bosnia after years of being a police officer in the U.S.
Rothstein gave them — and many others — his companion seat.
Unfortunately, this philanthropic heart is also what led to his downfall. On a trip out of Chicago O'Hare International Airport, staff handed Rothstein a letter informing him of "fraudulent behavior" and that his privileges were being revoked.
Jacques Vroom: Flying for the Fun of It
Jacques Vroom (yes, that is his real name) may be the most interesting character ever to own a Golden Ticket. Instead of flying for business, leisure, or philanthropy, like the men above, he flew for the sake of flying.
Often, he would just hop on a transatlantic flight, enjoy the personal service of first-class, hang out in the other airport's lounge area, then fly home in the same day. "The surrealism of it appealed to me in a goofy way," he told one reporter.
Spending almost a million dollars for goofy surrealism may sound like a bad plan for the pocketbook, but Vroom said the best part about the setup is that he never had to fear losing everything. Even if he was homeless or didn't have enough money to buy food, he could always live in first-class — literally.
Because of this love of flying for flying's sake, Jacques has taken advantage of the program arguably more than any other AAirPass holder in history. He's flown over 40 million miles, the equivalent of flying from Dallas to London almost 4,000 times. That's no small expense for American Airlines, which claims that his flights cost $1 million annually.
With millions of miles and dollars going into these famed Golden Ticket holders each year, it's no wonder that American Airlines is trying to get those tickets back. But on the other hand, they did sign a contract promising lifelong free first-class flights.
Both Rothstein and Vroom are each involved in legal battles trying to defend their right to own the ticket. Rothstein has been accused of fraudulent identities, while Vroom has been accused of renting out his companion seat. Both men are fighting back, though, claiming that the charges are false and that the American Airlines "Special Revenue Integrity Unit" held unnecessary prejudice against them.
Unfortunately for both parties, American's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2011 caused further challenges in legal proceedings. After elongated legal battles, both men walked away without the golden ticket they once held.