Home sweet Airworld

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In the plush terrain of American Airlines' Red Carpet Club at O'Hare, I met up with a trio of Airworld natives found through FlyerTalk.com, an online hangout for frequent flyers who seemingly spend half their time plotting "mileage runs"-a series of flights designed for the express purpose of earning miles-and the other half writing reports of their trips. "It's like a drug addiction," said Jennifer Moody, co-founder of the health-care strategy firm AmeriMed Consulting (and a FlyerTalk moderator).

It was a FlyerTalker who famously arbitraged $3,000 worth of pudding into 1.25 million miles, but they're also the airlines' best customers, and perhaps a template for all customers to come: knowledgeable, permanently plugged in, eager to be engaged.

FlyerTalkers have won audiences with top executives of Continental and SAS who realized that it pays to listen to the most vocal segment of their customer base. Other sites, like ExpertFlyer.com and Seatguru.com, offer users sneak peeks into the airlines' ticketing engines and seat configurations, respectively, giving an unprecedented glimpse of pricing structures and inventory levels that may just make them the most informed, empowered customers of any kind anywhere.

Rachel Gradwohl is a tax consultant for a Big 4 accounting firm who calls a storage locker home, and instead of flying to visit it each week, she wrangles a ticket from her employer to far-flung locations, which she upgrades with her miles. She's taken weekend jaunts to Bangkok, possible because her salary "is 100% play money," she said, after a decade of saving. Airworld is her real home. "I am a lifer," she wrote on her blog.

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