For too long, Fred Finn was a champion without a rival. Since 1983, Finn, 72, a cheery, aristocratic, British-born businessman, has held the Guinness World Record for Most Air Miles Flown by a Passenger. He’s now past 15 million miles. Tom Stuker, 59, a fast-talking American who sometimes wears a cowboy hat, is at 13 million and coming up fast. Stuker flew 1 million miles on United Airlines this year alone. Finn racked up only 90,000.
Finn has turned the title of World’s Most Traveled Man—a moniker he bestowed upon himself—into full-time, glamorous work. Since quitting his job licensing the rights to synthetic pencils from now-defunct Empire in 1987 (a career that required obscene amounts of business travel), he’s been living off speaking engagements, consulting gigs, and endorsement deals. He’s befriended Richard Branson, hung out with boxer Wladimir Klitschko, played celebrity cricket with Pamela Anderson and the Los Angeles Lakers, and gone out for ribs with fellow first-class Nashville-to-New-York passenger Johnny Cash (oddly, in New York).
For his part, Stuker maintains his career as an automobile dealership consultant; a reality show in which he travels around the world fixing ailing businesses, Car Lot Rescue, airs on Spike in February. “I’ve heard inside scoop that Fred’s mad that I get more attention than he does,” says Stuker of his rival. In December, Stuker questioned the legitimacy of Finn’s record in a New York Times interview, but now he says he believes it—and that he’ll break it soon enough.
Stuker, who called from Lombok, Indonesia, right before a 90-minute couples massage with his wife, figures that in 2013 he’ll return to his more reasonable 15-year average of flying 600,000 miles a year, so he’ll likely pass Finn’s record of 15 million in a few years. “If I broke Fred’s record I don’t know if I’d put it on my tombstone, but it would be kind of neat. I certainly don’t want to rain on Fred’s parade. That seems to be pretty important to him. If I end up my life at No. 2, I’m perfectly OK.” Not quite as inspiring as Shackleton, but when you travel around the world constantly, you learn to be gracious.
Finn Skyped me from his apartment in England (25 minutes from Heathrow, 30 from Gatwick); he was visiting from his home in Ukraine (where his wife is from) for a pulmonary medical appointment. Somehow he’d managed to keep up a smoking habit for most of his life despite all that plane time. He says he isn’t threatened by Stuker. “I flew a million miles in a year, too. When United Airlines brought out their million mile club in 1972, I was the first million miler,” he says. “I’m not worried about him taking my record, because one record he can’t take from me is my [number of] flights on the Concorde, which is 718.” Once, Finn says, he flew across the Atlantic three times in one day to sign pencil contracts. Told of this feat, Stuker is impressed. “I’ve done some pretty nutty things, but that’s nuts,” says Stuker. “That’s flying for flying’s sake.” Although he can’t resist adding, “I’ve done that myself.”
Finn says of the record, “By the time he catches me, if he ever did, I would be almost 80 years old and probably wanting to spend time with my wife—and that’s if I am still on planet earth. So I wish Tom well.”
Journalists are often blamed for stoking rivalries, but I told both Stuker and Finn that each harbored no ill will and gave them each other’s e-mail addresses. Finn immediately sent a message to Stuker inviting him to Ukraine and noted that they both, at different points, lived within 3 miles of each other in New Jersey. “I would love to have dinner with Fred,” says Stuker. “We could probably share so many war stories about travel.” I’m guessing they’d fight to see who flies to the other’s home base. Those miles, after all, count.