When "Up in the Air" Becomes "Down on Your Luck"

The Oscar-nominated film, "Up in the Air," has focused a lot of attention on the rarified upper end of the frequent flyer world. There, bathed in silky-soft light and hushed by ultra-plush carpeting, George Clooney-ish road warriors plunk down arcane membership cards that gain them entry into super-secret clubs where they enjoy perks and privileges normally reserved for sheiks and dictators.

In real life, Jim Kennedy was just such traveling royalty.

As a high-level corporate executive, he traveled far and wide on the company dime, racking up the miles and points that go with that high-flying lifestyle. When not on the road, he drove a BMW, lived in a Southern California condo, and collected fine wines.

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Now, at 46 years old, he's unemployed and homeless, living on a $5-a-day food budget, and burning through his cache of more than 1 million frequent flyer miles and points to spend his nights in less-than-luxe hotels.

Kennedy was a casualty of the recession. He lost his job, and then his home. He eventually declared bankruptcy. His belongings now reside in a Mini U Storage shed.

Kennedy's story has gotten plenty of media attention over the past week—I saw it on an ABC evening newscast. Of course, he's hardly alone in finding himself jobless. The unemployment rate in California stands at 12.5 percent. But having fallen so far, his plight has an extra dollop of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I resonance.

There's an alternative reading of his riches-to-rags story.

As Kennedy burned through his savings, the value of his frequent flyer points took on new meaning. Were it not for his frequent flyer "savings," he might be sleeping in his storage shed instead of in a Holiday Inn Express. He might be foraging through restaurant garbage cans instead of beginning his days with a complimentary buffet breakfast. He might, in short, be considerably worse off.

The idea that loyalty program points constitute a form of currency is hardly new or novel. It's a proposition that's both true and not true. But to the extent that it is true, Jim Kennedy's story exemplifies that truth in a way that I hope never to experience myself.

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