Friday, December 4, 2009

Memories from Frequent Flying: My First Flight, and, the Return to 1K

Anyone who knows me well is aware how much I enjoy travel.

So I was pretty jazzed by a couple of things this past week. First, in going through a bunch of old magazines (sent to the recycling bin, thank you; these were 18-20 year old computer magazines!), I came across the boarding pass from my first-ever flight.

In 1991, I flew to Chicago to participate in a two-week science seminar sponsored by the Department of Energy at Argonne National Labs. The government-purchased ticket took me on United Airlines from Charleston, WV, (the "USS Kanawha" f0r the takeoff and landing experience on the relatively short runway and the way that while on the taxiway, your plane's wings hang out over the edge of a cliff...), with a stop in Lexington, KY, then onward to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

This is a keepsake I'd dug around for previously--like many frequent flier junkies, I've got a shoebox full of almost all my boarding passes and old airline program membership cards--and so it was quite a pleasant surprise to find it quite by accident like that.

My first boarding pass!Check out the retro United color scheme on the ticket jacket. I had seat 6A on an Air Wisconsin-operated BAe 146 jet for my first flight. As an aside, I assume the frequent flier # on the boarding pass is for some government account--it's an American Airlines # to boot--since I had yet to discover the joys of frequent flight at that point in my life. If memory serves, back in the early 90s government employees couldn't earn frequent flier miles personally on taxpayer-funded trips... but that's another story.

Secondly--and more importantly for the present day--I requalified for United's top-tier frequent flier level this week. The "1K" level of the Mileage Plus program is awarded to fliers who accrue over 100,000 miles (or 100 flight segments) in a calendar year, and carries with it higher priority for standby (getting onto a different flight than you booked, usually an earlier one), better upgrades (including six international upgrade certificates, or SWUs), better overall service, some fee waivers, etc. Technically, there's a higher level, Global Services, but it's awarded largely based on spending, and I sure as heck cannot afford the rumored $50,000 in full-fare tickets per year!

I typically have made Premier Executive ("1P") with United by flying 50,000 miles or 60 segments a year since becoming a frequent flier, only landing 1K in 2006 (by segments, no less--you try flying 100 times in a year and tell me your butt isn't tired!). But a generous round of double elite qualifying miles promos put 1K in sight this year, and given I want to go visit my cousin Michael and his wife Sam in Italy this next spring, the international upgrades will be quite appreciated.

I did a couple of insane "mileage runs" to achieve 1K--insane from a flying perspective, not cost (as I obviously found uber-cheap flights!). I capped off the year with a flight from Washington, DC, to Burbank, CA, and back--all in the same day, and for under $200. You may recall some of my other trips aimed primarily at earning miles this year, too: my trip to Montrose, CO, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, for example, which cost me under $50 after I used a $150-off voucher I'd earned on a previous trip.

Now that I've reached 1K, I'm going to be pulling my hair out in anticipation of the arrival of my new 1K card. Remember that Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin sends off for a propeller-topped beanie, and checks the mail for it eagerly every, all the while daydreaming through school about the grand adventures he'll have with a flying cap?


Maybe you remember Ralphie in A Christmas Story, then, checking the mail repeatedly for his "Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring."

That will be me as I await the spiffy new 1K card for 2010 (got my Premier Executive card yesterday, a day before making 1K). It probably won't be here until January or so, but each afternoon will bring sugarplum fairies dancing through my head in the form of that glittering black Mileage Plus card. I only hope that the return to 1K status and the arrival of said membership kit is somewhat less disappointing than both Calvin's and little Ralphie's much-anticipated deliveries (Calvin can't actually fly with his beanie, and of course we know about the "crummy commercial" Ralphie decodes and its reminder to drink more Ovaltine...).

I already know not to expect much of the membership packet compared to years past; for example, the "Going the Extra Mile" certificates we can hand out to airline employees who perform above their expected jobs are cut to three this year, and are attached to the rest of the mailing (instead of as a separate insert). Gone are the inserts with seat maps for the different sorts of planes United flies. At least the ten drink chits good for a bit of booze to ease the long flights in economy class are still there, and fingers-crossed that I end up with a double allotment due to sloppy work by the envelope-stuffers (I've actually heard several reports of just that).

I do hope that the 1K benefits themselves work well this year; one thing that drove me to really strive for 1K over my usual 1P is the way airline program benefits in general seem to be eroding away. But as of right now, I'm looking forward to boarding from the red carpet (I kid you not), no-fee confirmed changes to get on that earlier flight home ($75 for non-1Ks), the systemwide upgrades for a possible European trip, several "confirmed regional upgrades" for domestic travel... we'll see. But in general, the higher your airline status, the better: I can recall several times as a 1K previously being the only person to be cleared onto a standby flight, and one time as a Premier ("2P"), I got stuck in Chicago and watched plane after plane go out full, with me 40th on the standby list to get back to Washington after snow had cancelled my original flight--as a 1K, I'd have likely made the cut on one of the earlier departures and had a much less-aggravating stay in O'Hare.

Good times are here again.

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