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.
"I can see how other guys might be jealous," he admits with a laugh. "I mean, for the last seven years, I've been able to lead this life where I can date a girl in L.A., I can date a girl in New York, or Mexico. You can go wherever you want -- for free, with no restrictions -- whenever you're not working."
Of course, making connections with a different girl in every port can be a challenge. "I had a friend in New York City who set me up on some dates," Jerry says. "Another time I flew down to Acapulco, and I met a woman who worked for America West there, and we started dating."
But Jerry does it the hard way, says Don, an older, single-again administrative exec who began working for America West immediately after his divorce, at age 40. Feeling lost in the new singles market, Don flew solo during his first month of travel eligibility with the airline -- until he discovered that there were attractive, available women in every city he wanted to visit, just waiting right there on his computer.
"The first time I used my flight benefits, I went to Vegas by myself, then the next weekend, I took a day trip to San Francisco," recalls Don. "And it was beautiful, walking along the piers. But I kept thinking how romantic it would have been if I had been with somebody. Then on the flight home, I sat next to this woman from Chicago who told me she was returning from a date she made with a guy on the Internet. Turns out she worked for United [Airlines] in Chicago. And it suddenly hit me, like Boing!' I could make dates with women all over the country on the Internet, and actually fly in and have them chauffeur me around!"
For Don and the handful of other single male co-workers he's since divulged his Hef-worthy secret to, the combination of online dating and free flying has proved to be pure horndog heaven.
"It's always such a romantic thing to women," he marvels. "Just the fact that you're traveling 500 or 600 miles to see them. Even though for us, it's cheaper than driving your car across town!"
Indeed, for Don and his pals, life sounds a bit like a B-movie version of You've Got Mail: savvy users of online matchmaking services who know how to woo a woman in every city -- and who have the free pass to person-to-person booty calls in more than 80 destinations throughout North America.
"The thing about dating someone in another city is you don't have the typical commitments," says Don. "You don't have to see them every other day or every weekend -- only when you tell them you can fly. So it's kind of on your terms."
And if the relationship fizzles out after the initial face-to-face meeting (as is often the case with online romances), hey -- even better.
"A lot of times when you meet someone online, you never get beyond that first date," Don allows. "But that's okay, because at the very least you get to see a new city -- and get shown around it by an attractive woman who lives there. So she knows all the best clubs, the best restaurants, and all the cool, non-touristy places to go. So you always get at least one great night out of it!"
For the frequent-flying America West bachelor, flight benefits are sometimes the least of his advantages.
Guys boast of weekend stays in exciting cities that cost them no more than the price of a dinner. One 46-year-old divorcé talks about a sex-filled two nights in Salt Lake City that merely put him back $6 -- he decided to treat his tour guide to ice cream after she drove him up to check out the Sundance Film Festival in Park City. A younger man talks about a Saturday night in Manhattan where he purposely played the toad so that the Internet date he was meeting would buy dinner. "Women do that when they want to send the message that it's not going any further," he reveals. "Which was fine with me -- she took me to an expensive place."
In their defense, these unapologetic fly guys insist that making and taking full advantage of willing connections in different cities is the only way they can truly live the life of James Bond on an Austin Powers budget.
"A lot of people don't understand that, yeah, you get the free flight benefits, but you still can't afford to go somewhere every weekend," says Scott, another young single who works on the same floor as Jerry. "You can't get a rental car, get a hotel and spend money in a different city all the time. A lot of America West employees are just staying home watching TV on the weekends, because they can't afford the regular expenses of a trip above the cost of the flight."
The answer, curiously enough, is dating. "When you know someone in a city, it saves a ton of money," says Scott. "Because they pick you up at the airport, they drive you around all weekend -- and if you're lucky," he adds with a wink, "they give you a place to stay."
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.
"He used the flight benefits when he was in college to see his girlfriend in Des Moines every other weekend during the summers," he says, noting that children and spouses of employees are entitled to the same perks. Fortunately for Monahan, this story has a perfectly PG ending: "He's married to her now."
Ironically, it was Miller's son who originally suggested he work for an airline back when the boy was only in the first grade. "It was that or a toy company!" he says, laughing. Miller wound up in a job as far removed from being a pilot as he could possibly get, interfacing with chambers of commerce, researching proposed legislation and slogging away at the other dry tasks of a government relations manager.
But each time he uses that badge, Miller admits he still feels a tinge of that thrill his young first-grader imagined an airline job would surely provide.
"Whenever people hear I work for an airline, the first thing they ask is, Oh, are you a pilot?'" Miller chuckles. "I tell them, No -- but I get to live like one!'"
"It's almost a power trip to be able to click here on dating range' and drag your cursor all the way down to any,'" says Barry, an analyst at America West on a coffee break at the Starbucks on Mill, tilting the screen on his laptop to demonstrate the workings of his favorite Web site, Match.com.
Online matchmaking sites such as this, one of the few Internet enterprises still flourishing years after the dot-com bust, are blocked by company firewalls -- a good thing, Barry jokes, or he'd probably never get any work done. But here at Starbucks, within a pleasant strolling distance from the corporate headquarters building, Barry is able to log on with his Wi-Fi-equipped laptop and check out the latest offerings on the Web's most popular dating service, which now boasts nearly three quarters of a million subscribers who pay at least $24.95 per month to be able to contact the hotties they find using the service's free search feature.
Like a veteran site user, Barry tabs quickly past the fields where his selections have already been saved from previous visits -- "man," seeking a "woman," between "18" and "35" -- to the field where he's asked to specify the distance in miles from his entered zip code that he's willing to travel on a date.
"Ahhh!" he sighs, mouse-upping on the coveted "any" selection at the bottom of the pop-up menu and hitting the "search" button. "Let 'em roll!"
Within seconds, the first 10 of 199 matches begin scrolling down Barry's screen: Thumbnail photos of women in every color, type and shape, complete with short self-descriptions ("My turn-ons are tattoos, body piercings, skinny-dipping and flirting," writes one 33-year-old mother of two from Waterloo, Iowa) and handy, user-friendly response buttons. If Barry is interested in that "Sexy, well-read techno geek" from Potsdam, New York, for instance, he can choose "E-mail me," "Send me video e-mail," "Add me to favorites" or even the curiously worded "Send me to a friend."
But Barry is usually not looking to see if that blonde from Eureka only smokes occasionally, or if that brunette from Cedar Falls says the celebrity she most resembles is Demi Moore. The first thing Barry looks at, even before the photos, are the cities where the women live. If Mardi Gras is coming up, he'll scan down the page for the words "New Orleans." If it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas and he's missing the snow, Control-F "Telluride."
"Is that terrible?" he asks, embarrassed just a little by the admission. Barry insists he's upfront with the women he contacts about his "location, location" priority -- and that it usually even works in his favor, bringing out a weird competitive side a lot of confident women share. "It's like, You'll come for the snow, but you'll stay for me!'" Barry just laughs.
Perhaps he can blame a bit of his calculated dating technique on the mechanics of online dating itself. Populated by millions of love-seeking men and women willing to post their picture and divulge all their best attributes to the world, and funneled through slick corporate Web sites always striving to make the hook-up faster, easier and more selective then the next, Internet matchmaking has mated the traditional bar scene with modern online catalogue shopping to create a universe where no one feels compelled to lower their standards, only "modify my search."
"Fundamentally, it's become the same thing as selecting a book from Amazon.com," muses Martin Sargent, wise-guy host of the irreverent nightly talk show Unscrewed on cable's TechTV. A kind of The Man Show for computer-obsessed geeks ("You know, Dungeons & Dragons freaks who are desperate for love, wanting to reach out for more human contact but trying to achieve that through the computer terminal"), Unscrewed features a regular segment where Sargent attempts to fact-check some of the most outrageous profiles found on matchmaking sites -- an enterprise the former PC Magazine writer is clearly fascinated with.
"I mean, you can sit in your bedroom, type in some words on your computer, and have thousands and thousands of potential women that match the criteria that you typed into some box, right there on your screen," Sargent marvels. "And you can see their picture, you can see what they're into. It's power! And it kind of gives you some strange advantage in these modern times when it comes to dating."
Already we've seen some wild examples of how that power can be abused. The press had a field day recently with the story of 50-year-old U.S. Army Colonel Kassem Saleh, the so-called "Casanova Colonel" who romanced and proposed to 50 different women he had contacted through Internet dating sites, luring them all with his "intoxicating" prose, according to one would-be fiancée ("more romantic than Shakespeare or Yeats," she gushed).
But the Casanova Colonel was never able to fly out of Afghanistan on the weekends to actually meet any of the cyber-flings in his harem. Barry, on the other hand, claims he scored weekend stayovers with 14 of the women he met online during the course of his first 12 months with America West.
Sargent is intrigued when told about the airline bachelors mixing online dating with free flying. "It's almost more power than any geek should be allowed to have," he shudders. To the average lonely computer nerd, actually flying to meet all the Internet babes you cyber-flirt with is a little like stepping out of The Matrix.
Of course, even for a major click-and-go player like Barry, poetic justice sometimes rears its ugly head. When America West first announced it had finalized a code share agreement with Hawaiian Airlines last October, allowing employees to fly nonstop out of Phoenix to the islands for a nominal interline fee, Barry was immediately on his computer, searching for words like "Maui," "Kauai" and "Molokai."
He came across a picture of a beauty in Oahu who was way beyond what he was hoping for: a drop-dead gorgeous island girl wearing a flower in her long, flowing dark hair and a skimpy white bikini over her toned, tanned body.
"I sent her an e-mail with my picture attached, never expecting in a million years to hear back from her," Barry recalls. To his astonishment, however, he did. The beauty wrote back several times, in fact, each time encouraging the eager traveler to look her up when he got into town. When she finally sent him a phone number and told him to call her as soon as his plane touched down, Barry was packed and running to Phoenix Sky Harbor.
In retrospect, he should have called the number before he was standing at the passenger pickup lane at Honolulu International Airport. "It turned out to be the phone number for an adult massage service, where she was apparently one of the girls," Barry grimaces. Did the played player at least indulge in her services? "I didn't even have enough money for a rental car, by the time I found a hotel," he says. "I had to take the bus!"
It was somewhere about an hour into his lumbering ride with Oahu Transit Services that Barry began to see the humor in spending the first half of his two days in paradise picking up downtrodden working stiffs clocking out at the local Wal-Mart and McDonald's.
"I guess I kinda had that coming to me," he nods.
Trish sits quietly at an umbrella-shaded table outside Mill's End Espresso, pensively stirring the ice in her chilled cappuccino.
Unlike many of her single male co-workers, Trish says she hasn't been exploiting her flight benefits on scores of online love finds. But being able to fly free has allowed Trish to develop a number of "serious" long-distance relationships -- including the one she's currently involved in.
"One of the reasons I started at America West was because I was dating a guy who moved to San Francisco," she recalls. "We tried going back and forth to see each other for a couple months, but it was just getting to be too much. Neither of us could afford it. So I took a part-time job at the Reservations Center, and that's how it started. I'd fly to see him on the weekends, or he'd use my buddy passes' to fly down here."
Later, Trish started dating another young guy who left Phoenix to attend college in Pennsylvania. "And it worked out perfect for me," she says. "If I wanted to go out and see him, I could hop on a plane. But I didn't have to see him all the time. In a lot of ways, I think I preferred that to having a relationship with someone in town."
Indeed, while her male co-workers were discovering the macho joys of jet-setter serial dating, Trish had stumbled upon a Cosmo-worthy secret to turning the average couch potato boyfriend into a regularly rechargeable romantic prom date.
"What I found is the relationship becomes kind of exciting," she says. "Because you're only seeing him every two weeks, so that weekend is always perfect. He knows he only has a couple of days with you until he sees you again, so he always makes the most of it." She laughs. "Then you get to go back home!"
Lately, however, Trish has been reevaluating her dating technique. Even with her seven years of employment, Trish has seen just a few too many tearful co-workers packing up their office knickknacks and handing over their badges in the last two years to feel secure in her job. It's hard for anyone who's become accustomed to free travel to give up that primo perk, Trish agrees. But when your relationship is literally dependent upon hanging on to that coveted ID badge, just opening the latest company-wide e-mail from the CEO can trigger a panic attack.
"I don't think I could maintain a long-distance relationship if I lost these benefits," she frets. "And that kind of puts your relationship on the line. I think it's a common thing in the airline industry, dating people outside of your state. But the downside is, it's all over if you lose your job."
For Jerry, he believes he's already gotten a longer ride out of his current long-distance relationship than he would have if the girlfriend lived in town.
"I think our relationship has lasted as long as it has simply because I've only been seeing her every two weeks," he says, shrugging. "We've been seeing each other for two years, but if you totaled up all the time we've actually spent together, it's probably more like six months."
Still, he thinks about what would happen if his name popped up on the company's next most-expendable list.
"I'm not gonna give up travel, even if I have to leave the airline," he swears. "Granted, I won't be able to have a long-distance relationship like the one I have now. I wouldn't be able to go to L.A. every other weekend to date this girl. But I'll still travel."
Leaving America West certainly hasn't slowed travel for Neil, even though he now works for a solid waste management company in a field with zero chick appeal.
"The key for me was getting out at the right time," he says. "After 9/11, the company was just trying to get people out the door. And I didn't like the way things were going, so I said, Make me a deal.'"
The 10-year-plus employee was granted a package where he now has to pay the taxes on any flight he takes -- "like 40 or 50 bucks to New York" -- but still gets a free grab at any standby seat on an America West flight that isn't already snatched up by paying customers or employees.
"As long as AWA is alive, I can still fly," he says. "And that's a lifetime deal."
Of course, one of the benefits of having a job outside the airline is that Neil now makes enough money doing the same work to buy his own first-class ticket occasionally.
"I've discovered the pleasures of paying regular fare," he chuckles, "where you actually get a real seat and you don't have to be up all night worrying if you're going to get on a flight, or be stranded in Houston for a day because they ran out of space on the connecting flight from Australia."
For every water-cooler story you may hear about an America West bachelor's wild night in Miami or Cancun, Neil reveals, there's at least two or three untold tales about a night spent curled up on a hard seat in some dismal Midwest airport.
"Now I can afford to fly," Neil boasts proudly. "Which is even better!"