ABOARD AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 9454 - Eric Mueller's vacation started when his plane filled with smoke. Soon, people slid down an emergency chute, inflated life vests and climbed into a raft.
Mueller loved every minute of it.
Most days he runs a book review website. But on this day he was living out a fantasy at American Airlines' flight attendant academy, practicing evacuation procedures most people hope to never use.
"I look at the safety card. It's not supposed to be a comic book of things you want to try, but it all just looks cool," said Mueller, 40, of Los Angeles.
There are people who grew up wanting to be Mickey Mantle. They go to Yankees fantasy camp. Others dream of playing Carnegie Hall. They join the summer orchestra at the shore. Then there are aviation geeks like Mueller. People like him - and there are more than you think - charter a commercial airliner and hop across the country visiting the Meccas of the aviation world.
The most recent journey had 160 people paying up to $1,699 for a seat and access to spots normally off limits: Boeing's sprawling 737 factory, American's mission control-like operations center and the cockpit of the world's largest passenger jet.
Tickets sold out in 17 minutes.
"This is sort of the ultimate airplane nerd event," Mueller said.
Most people board a plane to escape to a tropical beach, see the Eiffel Tower or visit their family. For this group, the journey isn't just half the fun. It's the whole point.
They can differentiate between Boeing and Airbus jets just by looking at their tails. They know that on even-numbered flights, meals are served first from the front left of the cabin, while on odd-numbered flights, it's the back right.
"Usually in your life, you're the only one who knows this stuff," said Gabriel Leigh, 28, a filmmaker and writer from Hong Kong.
The camaraderie was part of the trip's appeal. Sure, it was really cool to walk inside the first 747 ever built. But it was also fun to gulp down gin and tonics midair with other guys - three out of four passengers were male - who have the same passion for flying. How much fun? Well, American stocked the plane with four times the liquor of a normal flight.
In each row, stories were swapped of amazing meals and opulent hotels in faraway lands - all paid for with frequent flier miles. These travelers don't just love to fly; they are obsessed with collecting frequent flier miles at the cheapest possible cost.
The fliers, who ranged in age from 20 to 81 and hailed from as far away as Chile, India and Italy, know the ins and outs of the programs better than anybody else and share pointers in online travel forums such as MilePoint. One tip: prevent miles from expiring with a tiny online purchase at Target, Macy's, iTunes or another retailer that's part of the airline's shopping portal.
Such expertise led American Airlines and several other travel companies to help set up the trip and use it to pick the brains of these veteran fliers. They wanted to know what these travelers like and hate about the loyalty programs. Airlines need to keep their most-frequent customers happy. The top 20 percent of American's customers generate about 70 percent of its revenue.
That's why Suzanne Rubin, the new president of the American's frequent flier program - AAdvantage - hopped on the plane, along with other executives, for what she called a "crash course in customer research."
Frequent Flier Mile Mania
For those who don't travel frequently or play the mileage game, it can be daunting to understand the appeal of the programs. It's not just about free trips for this group. It's a hobby - some would say obsession - similar to collecting stamps or brewing your own beer.