Just who do these people think they are?

You know who I’m talking about. You see them at the airport sailing through special check-in and security lines, boarding before you, snagging prime overhead luggage space. And then there’s what you don’t see. Their free and automatic upgrades, dedicated hotlines and, get this: their bags are not only checked surcharge-free, but they’re also loaded on board last so they’re the first ones to hit the baggage carousel.

Who are these people?

They’re your airline’s elite status members. They fly a lot, year after year. The more they fly, the higher their rank and the better their perks. The problem for the rest of us is that even if you just started flying a lot, or take a few high mileage flights each year, elite status can be difficult to reach. And once you reach it, it can be hard to keep.

Fortunately, a few airlines offer various shortcuts to elite status – largely unpublished, undocumented shortcuts that the airlines will tell you about only if you ask them.

Shortcut #1: American Airlines' Elite Status Challenge.

Ordinarily, if you wanted to join the ranks of AA’s elite, during the course of a year you’d have to fly 25,000 miles or points or 30 segments to achieve gold status, and double those amounts for platinum. Will miles get you to your target faster than segments or points? It depends on how you fly. With a few overseas flights you might reach your mileage target fairly easily, or you might rack up segments (a flight and its connecting flight count as two segments) without really trying.

Accumulating points can be easier if you pay to sit in the higher booking classes because the higher your class, the more points per mile you receive. If you fly on deeply discounted economy class tickets, you multiply each flying mile by a half point; discount economy a full point, and full-fare economy, business, or first, 1.5 points. So a one-way, 4,250 mile flight from NYC to Rome in booking class G (deep discount) would be 2,125 points, class L (discount economy) 4,250 points, and class D (business) 6,375 points. You get the idea.

This miles-to-point math is important because it’s only the points that count during a semi-secret challenge AA offers to see if you have what it takes to hang with their elite members. It works like this: You pay a nonrefundable application fee — $80 for a gold status challenge, $150 for platinum (if you’re already at the gold level) — and you have 90 days to fly 5,000 points to achieve gold status, 10,000 for platinum.

If you pass the challenge, you’ll retain your elite status until the membership year concludes at the end of February. However, you can potentially squeeze a few extra months out of your status if you begin your challenge earlier in the calendar year: Were you to begin on June 1, 2009 or earlier, you’d keep your status until the end of February 2010. But if you were to begin on June 16, 2009 or later (up until the end of 2009) you’d retain your status until the end of February 2011. Either way, between the end of your 90-day trial and your February deadline, you’ll need to be racking up the points, miles, or segments that will help you maintain your status for the following year.

If after passing the gold challenge you’re feeling frisky, you’re welcome to apply next for the platinum challenge. Should you fail platinum (or fail to maintain it once you get it) you’ll be busted back down to gold. And if you fail your initial 90-day gold challenge, you can try again immediately after, as long as you pay a new application fee.

Shortcut #2: US Airways’ Preferred Status Trial

As with American’s challenge, you have 90 days to prove yourself. During the US Airways trial, you must fly a minimum of 7,500 miles/10 segments for silver status, double that for gold, and 22,500 miles/30 segments for platinum.

You’ll also pay a nonrefundable trial upgrade fee — $215 for silver, $430 for gold, $645 for platinum; fees vary if you’re trying to upgrade from an existing elite level. Unlike AA, there are no points involved and you’re granted your status from the very beginning of the trial, so you have 90 days to keep your status versus earn it.

Should you succeed, you’ll keep you’re preferred status until the end of February 2010 if you began your trial from Jan-Sept 2009, and until February 2011 if you started between Oct-Dec 2009. If you succeed, as with AA, you will need to fly a lot from the end of your trial until your February deadline to maintain your particular level’s status: 25,000 miles or 30 segments for silver, double that for gold, and upwards for platinum and chairman’s status. If you fail to qualify during the trial, you won’t get to try again for another two years, and you’ll have to pay again for the privilege.

Shortcut #3: Elite Status Matches

Loyalty is what elite status is all about, but in the airline industry, a customer of your enemy is a potential customer for you. Perhaps you’ve become disenchanted with your airline’s performance or the way it’s doling out its elite perks. Or maybe you’ve changed jobs or cities and can’t fly your favorite airline enough to maintain your status. Whatever the case, Continental, Delta, and United will give you a shot at defecting to their elite programs.

To qualify for this elite status match, all three airlines will ask to see one of your elite mileage statements to see just how frequent a flier you are. A Delta representative told me it also can’t hurt to send along a letter projecting how much you think you might fly with them in the future, also explaining “why you’d like to have status before you’ve actually earned it.”

If Delta and Continental accept your pledge, you have a year to maintain the normal requirements of their elite programs; United will give you a 90-day trial to fly 7,500 elite qualifying miles or ten segments. Should you fail to maintain your status for a year, Delta and United will revoke it and likely won’t let you try a match again. If you fail during your trial year with Continental, they’ll let you try again at the start of the next calendar year.

Shortcut #4: Buying and trading miles

Racking up elite miles to maintain your elite status is, of course, different from amassing “regular” frequent flier miles redeemable for award travel, which is why the miles are tabulated separately on your statement.

You can typically only earn elite miles (or points or segments) by flying fully-paid flights, though once past your trial, US Airways will let you buy segments or miles if you fall short, United will permit you to trade 50,000 of your regular miles for 5,000 elite miles, and, once a member, “many programs allow you to earn partial or even full elite status by the expensive use of your credit card,” according to mileage guru Randy Petersen, founder of frequent flier sites www.flyertalk.com, www.insideflyer.com, and www.webflyer.com as well as business travel site www.boardingarea.com.

You can, of course, earn regular miles numerous ways – aforementioned credit card spending, hotel and rental car usage, and the elite programs themselves: American’s gold elite and US Airways’ silver preferred programs, for instance, will give you a 25 percent mileage bonus for each flight. The higher your elite tier, the more bonus miles you get. As for the best ways to collect and redeem those miles, stay tuned.