Revisiting the Era of American Airlines’ Unlimited Flying Pass

One family’s experience with the highs and lows of AAirpass

American Airlines
For a very large sum of money in the late 1980s, the dream of unlimited air travel could become a reality.
Christopher T. Cooper/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / September 21, 2019 8:15 am

What would it be like to never have to worry about paying for air travel ever again? In the 1980s, American Airlines offered precisely that service. It was called AAirpass: pay one very large sum up front, and you’d be able to travel via first class anywhere you wanted to go, for as long as you lived. For some people who travel regularly for business, the numbers worked out — and a lucky group of people were able to buy something that gave them the ability to travel as much as they wanted.

For one frequent traveler named Steven Rothstein, this worked out from 1987 until 2008, when American discontinued his AAirpass. Needless to say, someone who had paid a not insignificant sum of money for his pass filed suit, setting in motion a legal battle that would make Charles Dickens leap to his feet to revise Bleak House to include details of frequent flier programs and air travel.

Now, The Guardian has published an essay exploring the heyday of AAirpass and what its abrupt end meant for one family. Author Caroline Rothstein, it turns out, is Steven Rothstein’s daughter, and thus had an up-close look at her father’s — and her family’s — complex relationship with air travel. 

“In 1987, amid a lucrative year as a Bear Stearns stockbroker, my father became one of only a few dozen people on earth to purchase an unlimited, lifetime AAirpass,” Rothstein writes. Said pass was not cheap: “A quarter of a million dollars gave him access to fly first class anywhere in the world on American for the rest of his life.”

This allowed the elder Rothstein to do a prodigious amount of travel, often with his family in tow. Years later, tragedy would strike the family — the fallout from which demonstrated the extent to which flight was interwoven with the family’s fortunes. The entire essay is well worth a read, as it deals with a host of complex matters, demonstrating just how travel can be freeing — except when it’s not.

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