High life Up in the Rarefied Air

Lufthansa's exclusive HON Circle frequent-flyer club offers the ultimate in service and pampering – but members spend their entire lives in transit.
Anything your well-traveled heart desires in the first-class lounge.

It is early afternoon and the restaurant area in the Frankfurt first-class lounge is nearly empty. The waiter offers champagne, and frequent flier Jeff Armstroff orders Tom Ka Gai soup and Alsatian tarte flambée. After that, vanilla ice cream with warm strudel.

Mr. Armstroff is a frequent flyer. Perhaps not as obsessive as the character Ryan Bingham in the movie “Up in the Air,” but he spends enough time in the sky to know, for example, that seat 81A in the Boeing 747-400 has a separate bed next to the seat and that seat 2A in Airbus A380 has no neighbors.

The consultant, who did not want his real name disclosed, has flown well over 10 million miles with Lufthansa and is a member of the airline’s exclusive HON circle. Flying 600,000 status miles in business or first class guarantees entry into the HON Circle, and the member can keep that status for two years.

The HON Circle black card and its lavish perks are the “least expensive means” to keep this particular globe-trotting strategic consultant happy and loyal.

Loyalty has a value, and it's one that then-American Airlines chief executive Robert Crandall first recognized after he understood that only 5 percent of passengers, the frequent flyers, accounted for 40 percent of ticket sales. Once American Airlines started its scheme, most airlines followed suit with their own frequent-flyer programs. In 1993, Lufthansa started its Miles & More program.

Once inside the HON Circle, entry to first class lounges, which function like luxury hotel suites, is guaranteed. There is also a special credit card, a service hotline, booking guarantees, limousine services to the airport, extra-quick passport service at the airport of arrival and other exclusive treats.

In Frankfurt, card carriers do not have to bother themselves with going to the regular terminal. They can be checked in at Lufthansa's own first-class terminal. They are then driven from the lounge to the plane in a Mercedes or a Porsche Cayenne.

Supposedly, Lufthansa has never yet given away one of the cards as a gift. Even celebrities and politicians are excluded from this small, illustrious circle. The airline is tight-lipped about the exact number of members. However, the majority are global business executives who are almost always on the road.

His contact with friends has declined. Yet, on the road, he still has his special treats, like the buffet in the first class lounge in Geneva and the steam bath in the Thai Airways lounge in Bangkok.

Mr. Armstroff admits that being treated like royalty at all times can create a parallel world, “a  life where everyone is always nice to you, in the lounge, in the airplane, in the hotel. And then I come back into the real world, and it is simply otherwise.”

His contact with friends has declined. Yet, on the road, he still has his special treats, like the buffet in the first class lounge in Geneva, the steam bath in the Thai Airways lounge in Bangkok and the bratwurst on the long-haul flights of Swiss Airways.

“I believe that you really notice loneliness, when you have time for reflection,” he said, speaking of his decade-long life on the road. “And when I am traveling, I do not have any time for that. Since I am always away, it's rather an adjustment to be home again.”

He said he has not felt jet lag for a long time. “At some point, it just stops.”

Being an HON Circle member can make people demanding. Mr. Armstroff  is critical of the dedicated hotline, which cannot answer via e-mail. Passengers do not manage to get a proper blanket in airplanes with the old first-class seats. He is particularly worked up by Lufthansa's low-cost Germanwings, whose service he describes as a “catastrophe.”

He delivers his criticisms directly to Lufthansa or the service staff. “I am ready to pay money for service. If it is not right, then I would rather spend it elsewhere.”

He flirts with Singapore Airlines or Thai Airways because of their good service, but because the Lufthansa-affiliate Swiss Air is his favorite, he stays where he is.

Does he still feel privileged?  “Yes, absolutely. I reflect upon that often.” He recalls that once, upset about not getting a first-class upgrade on a flight from Hong Kong, he noticed an older Chinese man, excited as a child with his economy ticket. “He held it in both of his hands,” Mr. Armstroff said. It put his privileged status back into perspective again.


Ina Karabasz is a journalist for Handelsblatt Live. To contact the author: [email protected]