A Delta Air Lines Boeing 757 taking off in Tampa.

Combined ShapeCaption
A Delta Air Lines Boeing 757 taking off in Tampa.

They're like frequent fliers on steroids. They collect miles like candy. They spend their free time gossiping about aircraft types.

The true mileage junkies among them will travel long distances and then come right back, simply to rack up more miles.

They often hang out at FlyerTalk.com, which is what it sounds like --- a place for people who fly all the time to talk about flying all the time. And Delta lavishes plenty of attention on FlyerTalkers who amass vast quantities of Delta SkyMiles, even playing host to them recently at a four-day gathering at the company headquarters in Atlanta.

At that confab, Delta CEO Richard Anderson delighted FlyerTalkers with a comment that quickly circulated on Twitter: He flies in coach because it annoys elite members when he takes one of their first-class seats. But Anderson does get an exit row window seat.

The particularly active Delta discussion board on FlyerTalk includes topics such as "An appreciation of the Biscoff, " a discussion started in November heralding the Delta in-flight cookie and enumerating ways to better appreciate its flavors, such as making a mock key lime pie by squirting a Biscoff with a lime from the beverage cart.

One person wrote: "It sounds silly, but Biscoff was the tipping point that made me a DL frequent flyer."

More common discussions are on problems with delta.com, how to search for award flights and how to meet up with a Delta Sky Club member for entry to the airport lounge as a guest. And Delta is listening: FlyerTalk is an independent source of commentary by some of its best customers --- as well as those of other airlines.

Some FlyerTalkers know each other mainly by screen name, but the Delta gathering and others like it are how they meet face to face to share their fanaticism for airline travel. Real-world meetings also crop up at airports, where FlyerTalkers identify each other by way of special yellow luggage tags.

Straight out, straight back  

FlyerTalkers often are business travelers who have become airline hobbyists.

Delta diamond elite frequent flier Drew Lineback, an Atlantan who works as a consultant, flies weekly and also does "mileage runs, " which are flights taken just to earn enough miles to reach a higher elite status.

"I've done the ones where you fly out there immediately and come straight back, " said Lineback, who is also a FlyerTalker.

He said he once made a mileage run to Zurich, flying there on a Saturday and back to Atlanta the following day. When it comes to miles and flying, Lineback said, "I have a controlled addiction."

At Delta, the new diamond elite level is for the most frequent of frequent fliers --- 125,000 miles a year.

Not all elite-member business travelers are FlyerTalkers: Many don't possess the maniacal interest in the minutiae of frequent-flier programs, or may not have time to haunt the message board.

With some 15 million posts on FlyerTalk, the message board can be intimidating for newcomers, who may quickly out themselves as amateurs and get flamed for transgressions such as misunderstanding acronyms or starting a new discussion on a topic already started elsewhere. And the sheer volume of posts can be overwhelming. Atlanta architect Bryan Craft, a Delta platinum-elite flier, said he advises those new to FlyerTalk to "be careful and read the things that are relevant to them, because if you just start reading you can disappear for three weeks."

For airlines, what may be most important is that FlyerTalkers are well-versed on frequent-flier programs, opinionated and willing to share their opinions with the world. That makes them a type of alpha consumer.

Jeff Robertson, the Delta vice president who heads the SkyMiles program, said he goes on FlyerTalk about once a week to read posts, while another seven or eight employees in the SkyMiles program monitor FlyerTalk daily. Delta executives --- including the CEO --- get a daily summary of what's discussed on FlyerTalk.

Who moved their cheese?

During the integration of Delta's operations with Northwest last year, frequent fliers from Northwest took to FlyerTalk to protest the arrival of "fake cheese" in their airport lounges, which had been converted from Northwest clubs into Delta Sky Clubs. "The New 'Delta cheese' is disgusting, and doesn't even qualify as cheese vs the excellent Cabot brands we are accustomed to having, " one poster wrote. Another quipped: "$20 says [Sky Clubs] will start serving Soylent Green."

After a litany of gripes about the shelf-stable processed cheese, a Delta employee went on FlyerTalk to address the matter directly, posting that "we hear (as well as understand) your frustration over the whole 'cheese' issue." Now, more than 80 percent of the Sky Clubs have real cheese, including all Delta clubs in Atlanta, spokeswoman Chris Kelly said.

FlyerTalkers have also influenced Delta's moves to expand the number of preferred seats set aside for elite frequent fliers and add functionality to the Delta iPhone app.

For Robertson, another glimpse of FlyerTalkers' obsession with his airline came when Delta integrated Northwest's WorldPerks frequent-flier program into SkyMiles last year. "We sat in the room at midnight and we literally unplugged WorldPerks at 12:01 a.m. and we had to plug it back into SkyMiles over the coming hour, " Robertson said.

For FlyerTalkers, "it was the freak-out. When WorldPerks wasn't working any longer and it's, 'Oh my God, where's all my stuff?' "

Delta.com was down for about 20 minutes during the transition, and during that time there was a fear, "like at the turn of the century, that the lights were not going to come back on, " Robertson said. "You saw FlyerTalkers blogging endlessly at midnight ... and helping us, telling us what was going on. It was really cool to see."

Randy Petersen, who started FlyerTalk 12 years ago and sold it in 2007, said the site has so much influence that many airline and hotel programs, like Delta, now have "professional lurkers" on FlyerTalk who respond to members' questions in an official capacity, he said.

But Jay Sorensen, a consultant who specializes in frequent-flier programs, cautioned that FlyerTalkers "don't begin to represent the entire spectrum of travelers."

"An airline can actually begin to believe its own hubris that its frequent-flier program is the center of their customers' lives, " Sorensen said. For most customers, even elite frequent fliers, "it's not. ... Most elite frequent fliers don't devote nearly as much time [as a FlyerTalker does] to knowing all the attributes of a frequent-flier program."

'Gate lice'

But at the gathering in Atlanta, FlyerTalkers' fandom took center stage. In addition to touring facilities and playing on flight simulators, some FlyerTalkers got to be Delta gate agents for a day. They scanned boarding passes and learned how to make boarding announcements, handle standby lists and close out flights. Among the things the FlyerTalkers learned: Don't crumple up your boarding pass, get it wet or put it in your mouth, all of which can slow down the pass-scanning process.

And FlyerTalkers shared their terminology with gate agents, such as "gate lice" for the passengers who gather around a gate at boarding, and the "Don't you know who I am?" phenomenon, when passengers walk up and think they're entitled to board before everyone else.

Lineback had flown so much that he was already familiar with how to scan boarding passes. After getting passengers boarded, Lineback confessed a dream of his: "I'm hoping they're going to let me do other things, " Lineback said. "I would love to clear the standby list and clear the upgrade list."

Lineback said the job was very fast-paced. At the counter, "You have to balance the priority of the person standing in front of you with the priority of getting the flight out on time. ... I anticipate being much more understanding of the people behind the counter."

FlyerTalker Steven Klamon said that since the event, some fliers have taken chocolates and gifts out to the gate agents they worked with on that day.

Petersen, the FlyerTalk founder, said he heard positive comments about Delta after the Atlanta gathering, in large part because of the CEO's appearance.

"A lot of people who were really critical about Delta, said after seeing the big guy come out and seeing him, 'I think he's OK now, ' " said Petersen, who likened the experience for them to going to a concert by the Eagles on acoustic guitar.

After the event, "several people told me this was probably one of the best weekends they've ever spent in their entire life, " Klamon said. "This is a lifelong dream for them, to get that behind-the-scenes access. We got to pull the curtain back."