Last week I boarded United Airways flight 1131 from Denver, Colorado to San Antonio, Texas. As I settled into seat 7C, I felt bittersweet. I was looking forward to visiting my good friend Bill, who was retiring from his thirty-five-year career in the hospitality business, but I also regretted leaving home. My daughter, Caroline, has been recovering from surgery for a torn labrum, and she’ll be bedridden for the next few days. I also missed my son, Tate’s, final hockey tournament in Nashville before he leaves for prep school later this summer at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota.
Just before the 737 pulled out of the gate in Denver, the captain’s voice crackled on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted everyone to know that we have a very special passenger on board this morning. When we land in San Antonio, he will reach one million miles flown with United Airlines. Very few of our passengers have flown that far with us, and today we welcome Thomas Spaulding as he achieves this incredible milestone!”
The entire cabin burst into applause. I waved, a bit embarrassed, and a moment later Captain Brent Sprouse walked down the aisle and shook my hand. “On behalf of United Airlines, please accept this token of our gratitude,” he said, handing me a silver and blue medallion with MILLION MILER inscribed on the back. Then a flight attendant said, “Mr. Spaulding, please follow us to first class. We have a complimentary seat available for you.”
I tried to decline—it was a full flight, and I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone—but then another man shook my hand and said, “I insist. Please take my seat in first class.” With the captain, the flight attendants, and nearby passengers egging me on, I finally relented. When I got to my new seat, there was a glass of champagne waiting for me.
A little while later I went back to economy to grab my backpack from the overhead bin. I thanked the man who had given up his seat. His name was Dean Whittaker, the managing director of global base operations and inflight services at United—a fancy way of saying he oversees the airline’s roughly twenty thousand flight attendants worldwide. “A million miles is a lot of traveling,” he said, handing me his card. “It’s a small club. We’re incredibly proud that you chose to spend that time with us.”
When I returned to my seat and sipped my champagne, I looked at that United medallion. A million miles—that’s more than forty times around the earth. And then it hit me: I fly United on business, which means that for every single one of those million miles, I was away from my family. Forty times around the globe, away from my family. Thousands of flights, thousands of hotel rooms, all away from my family. I flew those million miles for a noble purpose: To teach heart-led leadership to organizations. To coach leaders to have a positive influence on the lives of others. To introduce high school students to lifechanging experiences in Ethiopia, Italy, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and other amazing places. To do my part to make the world a better place. But all of that happened away from Jill, Anthony, Caroline, and Tate.
The kind folks at United meant for that flight to be a celebration. They meant for it to signify my loyalty and success. But to me, as I held that silver medallion in my hand, it signified a million miles away from hockey tournaments and school musicals and PTA meetings and family dinners. A million miles away from tucking my kids into bed and falling asleep next to my wife. As I held that cold hunk of metal at 36,000 feet in the air, I felt a million miles away from the people I love most.
A few hours later I landed in Texas and spent a wonderful evening with my friend Bill. We put together plans that one day will bring me another million miles doing the work I love. Work that genuinely helps others. When I returned to San Antonio International Airport, I grabbed some scrambled eggs from McDonald’s in Terminal B before my flight home. Next to me sat a middle-aged couple who seemed to be returning home from a vacation. They chatted about everything they had seen and done during their trip, all the happy moments. Then the man sighed, stood up, and said: “Well, honey, back to the grind.” It was the voice of a man who never had quite enough free time on his hands.
I love my work. I love doing my part to make a difference in the world. I’m proud of what I do, and the day it feels like a grind is the day I give it up for good. But even the most meaningful work takes its toll on the ones we love.
Whether or not you’ve flown a million miles, every day, most of us pull onto the road and watch our house disappear in the rearview mirror. Some head to work to make a difference. Some head to work to pay the bills. But all of us leave behind our loved ones, whether it’s for eight hours, eight days, or eight weeks at a time.
As for me, that United Airlines silver medallion is going to stay in my bag for all my business travel. It will remind me to be a little more conscious of the time I spend away from home and all the moments I am missing. To be a little more intentional with what I say yes too, but more importantly, what I say no too. Because at the end of the day, you can get a lot of travel perks with a million frequent flier miles, but you can’t redeem them to get back time with the people who matter most.