Did you know there was a time when American Airlines offered an “unlimited first-class travel for life” pass? Seriously, it’s what it sounds like: for a modest fee (depending on your income bracket) you could purchase an “AAirpass” which would guarantee you to a lifetime of unlimited first-class travel.

American Airlines’ Lifetime Pass: How a Marketing Ploy Turned Into a Costly FailureIt’s a real life “golden ticket”!

American Airlines first rolled out the marketing program in 1981 and charged $250,000 per pass. And for an additional $150,000, “AAirpass” customers could purchase the “companion ticket,” allowing them to bring one person with them on any flight . . . anytime, anywhere, for life (sorry, we just can’t get over the “unlimited” thing).

“It was almost like owning a fleet of private jets,” writes Ken Bensinger for the Los Angeles Times.

But like most stories about truly awesome things, this one doesn’t end very well.

“We thought originally it would be something that firms would buy for top employees,” said Bob Crandall, American’s chairman and chief executive from 85-98, according to the L.A. Times report. “It soon became apparent that the public was smarter than we were.”

The marketing ploy turned out to be a major mistake for the airline. What went wrong?

Simply put, several people who bought the “AAirpass” did exactly what we would have done with a “golden ticket” of unlimited lifetime travel: they went crazy.

“They started flying everywhere, all the time. They’d pick random people out of the check-in line and give them free first-class upgrades,” writes Cory Doctorow Boing Boing.

“They’d fly to Japan for lunch and back to the States that night. One of them was costing the airline more than $1,000,000 a year,” he adds.

American Airlines’ Lifetime Pass: How a Marketing Ploy Turned Into a Costly Failure“AAirpass” owners Steven Rothstein, left, and Jacques Vroom. American estimates the two cost the airline millions in lost revenue every year (photo source: L.A. Times)

How did the airline react to expensive “AAirpass” owners? The company got mean.

“The airline decided to get rid of them. They put private eyes and internal investigators on them. They sued. They extorted passengers who’d flown on companion tickets for confessions that they’d paid for the ‘gift,’ and froze their frequent flier accounts, saying they’d only restore them once the passengers fessed up,” Doctorow writes.

Men who were once treated like kings by the airline found themselves the target of investigations and lawsuits.

And although American discontinued the “AAirpass” in 1994 (and offered it one last time for $3,000,000 in a 2004 Neiman Marcus catalog), the airline is still dealing with the financial repercussions (as well as that whole Chapter 11 bankruptcy thing).

We told you the story didn’t have a very happy ending.

Read the in-depth report on American Airlines’ ill-fated “AAirpass” here.

This story has been updated.