Jim Dolan on Living Up in the Air

Jim Dolan on Living Up in the Air

On airlines, "there really is a world behind what the public sees."

Jim Dolan, CEO of Dolan Media in Minneapolis, saw the movie Up in the Air with his wife: “She kept elbowing me and saying, ‘That’s you! That’s you!’”

Her point was not that he looks like George Clooney (“I wish”), but that like the Clooney character Ryan Bingham, he has racked up more than 10 million miles with American Airlines (and another 2 million with the combined Delta and Northwest).

Dolan Media owns business journals and specialty publications in at least 25 states, including Minnesota Lawyer and Finance & Commerce. But Dolan’s travel is evenly divided between operations, shareholder relations, and mergers and acquisitions. His preference for American dates to his years in Texas and New York before moving to Minnesota in 1993.

Dolan’s travel schedule is brutal—“I’m generally out of town 180 to 200 days a year”—but his mileage totals are heavily padded by credit card purchases, bonus miles, and the like. “I’ve got about 3.5 million actual air miles, counting all airlines,” he says. “I’m 60, and I’ve been flying a lot since my late 20s. I paid my dues in coach.”

As an uber-frequent-flier, how closely would he say the movie tracks with reality? “American doesn’t really send its chief pilot to fly with you on the flight where you hit the 10-million mark,” Dolan says. And he’s met many people who’ve passed that mark, so Clooney’s character would not be number seven.

Like Clooney, though, Dolan does possess a “Concierge Key” card from American. “It came in the mail about a year ago.” And the movie got this right: “When I call the phone number on it, the line really is answered with, ‘Hello, Mr. Dolan.’”

Mostly, the Concierge Key just makes it a bit more likely that perks he already enjoyed at the Executive Platinum level will materialize. For instance, he says, American will buy passengers off of oversold planes to ensure that he gets a seat.

But now carts sometimes meet him at gates, unbidden, to help him make tight connections. He is steered to special, unmarked VIP lounges. And at airports where American has enough presence (“not Minneapolis”), their attendants will personally escort him through security if he is running late.

He admits there are also some perks that the airline asked him not to talk about. (Inquiring minds are left to wonder how well the movie reflects those; the makers of Up in the Air are said to have worked closely with American Airlines for their research.)

Dolan isn’t looking a gift horse in the mouth. The Concierge Key is “an invitation-only deal,” he says. “It doesn’t correlate to 10 million miles. Why I got one and what all it does is a little fuzzy. When I called and asked if they could explain it, they said, ‘Not really. Just use it and enjoy it.’”