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The Man Who Flies Around the World for Free

Rolling Stone did a feature on Ben Schlappig, creator of One Mile At a Time, and it’s definitely interesting. In typical Rolling Stone fashion, I am sure it was edited and in some cases sugarcoated to make the story more intriguing (I for one have never heard of “the Hobby”), but it’s a good read. There is tons of insight into the frequent flier community, including this:

Early editions of Petersen’s magazine featured stories on deals from obscure carriers; instructed fliers on how to duck airline countermeasures; and showed readers how they could win a thousand free miles by subscribing to magazines like Esquire. By 1993, Inside Flyer had 90,000 readers. Two years later, Petersen took the community online as FlyerTalk.

And this:

For some, the game has evolved from a wonkish pastime into an ends-justified obsession with beating the airlines — less Rain Man, more Ocean’s Eleven. While the game’s traditional methods remain technically legal, these Hobbyists — imagine them as the Deep Web of the Hobby — use tactics that routinely violate airline terms and conditions, techniques that can span a gradient from clever and harmless to borderline theft. (Schlappig concedes that he pushes the rules but insists he is careful not to break any laws.) Take the practice of “hidden-city ticketing” — booking your layover as your final destination, like buying a ticket from Point A to Point C, then sneaking away at B — or “fuel dumping,” a booking technique that confuses the price algorithm to deduct the cost of fuel from a ticket, often at an enormous discount.

I decided to read the Flyertalk thread that talks about the article and it was painful. A lot of personal attacks aimed at Ben and his story made it hard to read. I’ve only met Ben a few times and he’s a nice guy, I don’t agree with everything he writes or the idea of pushing credit cards on readers to receive the sign-up bonus, but I am a little jealous that he gets to fly around to really cool places and do it in premium cabins and makes a living from it. I think anyone who is a frequent flier and says they aren’t jealous of some of Ben’s travels is lying to themselves.

For me, doing a full time schedule of around the world travel, even in premium cabins, sounds good on the surface but is something I would probably really struggle with. I like having somewhere to come back to, a base of operations. But I would definitely love to fly premium cabins to exoctic locales more than I do currently.

I needed to buy a last minute ticket for work recently and Delta was the only option left that had seats and a schedule that matched what I needed. After I bought the ticket, Delta gave me an option to buy-up to first class. The price was right and I had wanted to compare what I had read about Delta’s first class product being great to what I had experienced on United, so I purchased the buy-up.

Time to examine the hype.

The App

For work travel, I rely heavily on airline iPhone apps to keep me updated and to do basic maintenance on my reservations (change seats, make reservations, etc.). The first thing I noticed using the Delta app is just how clunky it is. Sure, picking a seat is relatively easy, but making a booking in the app is a frustrating process. The app does validation before you submit a flight search and will pop up an error if your origin and destination are the same. So, if you need to reverse your search, you have to put in a third airport code to be able to switch the origin and destination without error. There are quirks like this throughout the app. It is the same thing for flight information as well. Some items are clickable and lead to more info, but there is no visual way to know that an item has that feature without clicking on everything so you end up sitting there, hitting random parts of the screen, looking for what you want. Compared to United’s app, which is powerful, yet relatively easy to use, Delta’s app seems to need some serious work.

The Trip

Before traveling, I had added my known traveler number to the reservation and on check-in received PreCheck. Knowing I have PreCheck allows me to show up at Portland’s airport about an hour before boarding and have plenty of time to grab a cup of coffee and do some work before getting on the plane, so that’s what I did. I walked up to the security area, opened up my mobile boarding pass and saw an orange icon indicating that my flight had been delayed. Knowing that an agent would be able to help me at the gate, I proceeded through security.

Making it through security, I look at the delay one more time and realize I will miss my connection because of it. I proceed to the gate and get in line to speak with the gate agent. An agent comes over and asks if I need something, to which I reply, “I believe my flight to Minneapolis is delayed and I will miss my connection”. She says, “I am closing out this flight and I’m not working that flight, walk down the hall and there are phones where you can call Delta”. Ok, that makes sense, so I walk down the hall and sure enough, there are phones. They’re all taken by people trying to fix their plans as well but there is a sign with a 1800 number so I dial it. The prompts ask if I am in the airport and when I reply yes, the wait is no more than 2 minutes to speak to an agent. The agent tells me that she cannot find any options on the same day but that she will see if she can find something on another carrier. A few minutes later she tells me my only options are to spend the night in Minneapolis or take a redeye via Atlanta. I ask if the hotel in Minneapolis will be covered to which she replies, “you would need to ask the agents in Minneapolis”. I am not willing to take that risk so I ask her to explore the American Airlines flight to Chicago that is showing an F seat for sale. She can’t find it. I run to the AA gate to see if they will simply sell me the seat (I’d refund the Delta ticket). Nope, they just cleared a standby into it. Sorry.

Back on the phone I accept the redeye option, simply because I was not comfortable spending the night and trusting that Delta would take care of the hotel (there was weather that night in the area). Well, time to head home because I have another nine hours before my new flight leaves. Here is what I originally booked (red), versus what I was rebooked on (navy).

Nine hours later I was back at the airport for the red-eye to Atlanta. I had hoped to review the meal options on the original flight but the delay squashed that idea. Now my goal was to get as much sleep as possible but I knew that would be a challenge. Onboard there was a bottle of water, a small pillow, and a blanket at the seat. The seat pitch was pretty standard but what I noticed was the lack of an adjustable headrest on the seat. It seems that most of the Delta domestic fleet is the same, missing the adjustable headrests that you can manipulate to rest your head to one side. The flight attendants come by asking if passengers would like anything before we take off. I order a whiskey and water, a nightcap if you will, and it’s quickly delivered.

The safety video comes on. It’s cute but man is it lengthy.

The pilot makes a quick announcement that he won’t be making any other announcements until our descent into Atlanta and that our flight time will be four hours (OUCH!). A few minutes later and we’re in the air. I put on an eye mask and attempt to get some sleep, but, to be honest, it didn’t go well. The seats are comfortable but there is not a lot in the way of lumbar support and without an adjustable headrest I can’t really lean one direction. The entire flight was spent with me readjusting to try and get comfortable and I ended up getting maybe 1-2 hours of sleep.

We landed in Atlanta on time and that gave me about 35 minutes to use the restroom, brush my teeth and make my connection. I walked from concourse A to concourse B and made it to the gate right as they were starting to board. I looked for a coffee shop nearby but there was nothing, the upside being I could try the much touted Starbucks coffee that Delta serves in first.

Legroom in First on the Airbus A320.

Onboard the flight attendant greeted everyone with a friendly “Good morning!”. She then came around first class asking if we would like anything before takeoff. A few minutes later and I was tasting the coffee. It wasn’t bad. Not great, but drinkable, which says a lot about airplane coffee. The taste was much more of what you expect in coffee and less of that metallic and chalky taste you sometimes get from airplane coffee. I was in the bulkhead seat on the Airbus A320 and found the legroom to be fine. There is a little cut out for your feet and that makes it comfortable. If I was a little taller the legroom would have been tight.

There was no overhead entertainment so the safety demo was done by the flight attendants and it went by much faster than the video shown above. A short time later we were in the air.

It was a quick flight to Milwaukee so the only service was beverages and a snack basket (I had a banana and some Biscoff cookies, if you were wondering). I tried to use the Delta Studio streaming entertainment but could not get it to work. Every time I connected I received a screen like below and could never get to the list of shows.

Failed attempt to try the streaming entertainment

An hour and half later and we were on the ground in Milwaukee and I was on my way to work.

Conclusion

Overall, there was nothing about the experience that blew me away making me want to switch permanently to Delta. The boarding process was just as chaotic as United’s, with people blocking the boarding lanes 15 or 20 minutes before the flight is scheduled to board.

Boarding. Just as chaotic as on other carriers.

The way the delayed flight was handled left a lot to be desired. I didn’t want to go into details above but the agent was not proactive in finding other options and I had to suggest a number of things. She also insisted on putting me in coach until I pushed back about being in first class. I am not an elite on Delta so I wonder if that had something to do with it.

For flying a relatively old fleet, the Airbus I was on is 23.3 years old, Delta does a pretty good job keeping the interiors clean and well kept. I didn’t see any panels loosely hanging or build ups of dirt and grime anywhere. The lavatories on both flights were the cleanest I have ever seen on an airplane.

I was happy to finally get to try Delta on a mainline flight in first. I am planning a few more flights on them since some of their schedules to certain destinations are better than what United offers. I am also flying Alaska back to Seattle at the end of this week and hope write a review about their new E-175 service as soon as I can.

A recent United flight from Houston to Portland diverted to Salt Lake City and the pilot had a family removed from the plane. The mother claims the removal was due to discrimination against her daughter’s autism. United claims that the situation became disruptive and the pilot made the decision to divert. The mother is now saying she is planning to sue United for discrimination. That is the simplest way to describe this odd story but, for a number of reasons, I think it only touches the surface of what happened.

Before I jump into the multiple aspects to this incident I want to state a few things that I think are important.

  1. I am not a lawyer nor am I an airline employee. I simply fly a lot for work and leisure and I see a lot of things, some of them crazy, on planes.
  2. I have family members with mental disabilities as well as friends who are the parents of children with mental disabilities. It is not my intention to diminish the fact that raising a child with disabilities is difficult, stressful, and trying. Parents who work so hard to give their children “normal” lives and provide for their needs are definitely not my issue in this post.
  3. I believe there is more to this story than what is being presented by the news outlets. United, being threatened with litigation by the mother, is unquestionably going to be tight-lipped about the entire thing. The story has seemingly morphed since it was originally on television here in Portland as well, with more details coming to light and wording being changed.

With all of that said, where do we even start with all of this? Dr. Beegle, the mother of the autistic child stated that the family had dinner in Houston’s Intercontinental Airport but that her daughter did not partake. The mother, being thoughtful and caring, grabbed some snacks, knowing that her daughter may need them onboard.

The family ate dinner in Houston, Beegle said, but Juliette refused to eat. Beegle brought some snacks on board for her because “if her blood sugar lets go, she gets frustrated and antsy. We try to anticipate that and prevent that.”

When the family boarded, Dr. Beegle asked a Flight Attendant if they had any hot meals due to her daughter being a “picky eater” (her words not mine). The flight attendant let her know what they had a hot sandwich, but then, when everyone was served, the sandwich was room temperature.

The mother is clearly preempting her daughter’s needs, I appreciate that. The flight attendant is working with the information they have. Hot food is usually catered on United afternoon and evening flights, sometimes it is not due to catering screw-ups. What happened here is one of those pieces of information that we just don’t have. Did the flight attendant’s not heat up the meal? Were the hot sandwiches not catered?

Anyway, Dr. Beegle then asked to purchase a hot meal from first class. The flight attendant told her that was not possible.

“I asked if I can purchase something hot for my daughter and [the first class flight attendant] said no” she said. “I called him back over and I said to him, ‘Please, help us out here,'” but he again refused.

“He came back again and I said, ‘I have a child with special needs, I need to get her something.’ And he said, ‘I can’t do that,'” she explained. “I said, ‘How about we wait for her to have a meltdown, she’ll be crying and trying to scratch in frustration. I don’t want her to get to that point.'”

KOIN Screenshot of Mother's Quote

KOIN6 News version of mother’s quote

This is where I see some odd differences in the wording and also the point in the tale where things start to go downhill. First, the original story by KOIN6 news stated that the mother said she’ll “get to the meltdown point” and “maybe scratch someone”, yet the AP story has different wording. I would like to know what was actually said. And if “scratch someone” was used, why was that necessary to say? I would also want to know if this was the first time the mother mentioned the child having special needs. If it was, why did the mother not bring it up the first time when the sandwich arrived cold?

Yahoo! Screenshot of Mother's Quote

Yahoo! version of mother’s quote

After the mother made the above statement the flight attendant brought rice and jambalaya from first class. Again, we are lacking a little detail here. Was it an extra serving, did someone not want their meal, or was it a crew meal? That may not seem important but I have seen a comments stating that the flight attendant was cold hearted and should have just done something to help. If the flight attendant originally told the mother that he couldn’t bring something from first class, it may have been because he was still serving first class and didn’t know if there would be any meals available.

Soon after this occurred an announcement was made that the plane would be making an emergency landing because of a passenger with “a behavior issue”. What happened in between the two events I can only speculate about but for the pilot to make the decision he had to receive the details about the encounter with Dr. Beegle and then decide whether or not to continue with the flight. On domestic flights, when a pilot leaves the cockpit a flight attendant enters the cockpit so that the door can be opened when the pilot returns. This has been a policy since a little after 9/11. At the same time, a flight attendant in the front galley usually blocks the aisle with a food cart. I believe this is a policy on United only but you may see it at other airlines. With these measures, it is not possible for the pilot to walk back to the Beegles and assess the situation himself. He can only make a decision based on the information given to him by his flight attendants.

If the wording used by Dr. Beegle was actually “she may try to scratch someone” and that was passed along to the pilot, then the decision to divert was probably not a difficult one. A passenger who may threaten others can lead to a situation that escalates quickly and dealing with violence on an airplane is not easy. When you are on a plane, the pilot is the final say in safety matters. If he feels something is a danger, whether it be mechanical or human, he makes the decision on what to do with the plane. Diversions are not taken lightly either. It is not like a pilot wakes up one morning and thinks to herself, “you know, today I feel like going to Salt Lake City on the way to Portland, wonder if I can cause a diversion?”.

There are some side notes about the comments made after the plane landed. The medic’s comments I deem unimportant. When flights call in their diversions, there is very little information usually given other than maybe “we have an unruly passenger and would like to be met by emergency personnel”. For a medical professional to come onboard and then find that nothing was wrong medically then proceed to say it was an “overreaction” by the pilot, I think that’s unprofessional. When the pilot stated that he didn’t feel comfortable continuing with Dr. Beegle’s daughter onboard, Dr. Beegle stood up and asked the rest of the plane what they thought. That’s a red flag in my book as well.

In the end I think there is blame to share on both sides. The flight attendants could have done a better job asking what needs the child had when the mother first brought it up to them. The mother could have chosen her words more wisely and tried to explain what was going on more clearly. I don’t read the stories about this and see anything that stands out as discriminatory against autism though. It is not like the pilot came over before takeoff and said “we see your daughter has special needs and we can’t accommodate her, you will need to get off the plane” which would be direct violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.

I also do not see anything that says the pilot’s decision was based on anything physical the girl did, which leads me to believe that it was the mother’s statement about scratching that caused the diversion. The mother’s reason for using that statement bugs me. Someone told me on Twitter “It’s sad to me that people have to watch what they say so carefully now.” when I mentioned the wording being a potential problem. I agree and disagree. You are in a metal tube at 35,000 feet, things can go badly very quickly. Does this mean you need to be completely censored? No, it just means you do not use the potential of violence in your conversations, especially when you are wanting something from a flight attendant. Think about how that comes across, “she needs a hot meal or she may scratch someone”.

Again, there are, I’m sure, plenty of details that we are missing. Those details may fill in the gaps on things such as tone and composure of the mother and the flight attendant. Also, the family was put on another flight on Delta to get from Salt Lake City to Portland and from what I can find, that flight was the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it was an inconvenience for everyone, the Beegle family, the other passengers on the United flight, and the crew. I also believe there was a little bit of overreaction by Dr. Beegle and the flight attendant. Maybe if each had taken a minute to think about the situation and spoken a little less, the plane would have continued on to Portland with no diversion. But, as with most stories, there are two sides, and we are only hearing the one side that has been covered in the news and on social media. Just as with the flight attendant and the mother, maybe we all need to take a step back and understand that not everything about this has been made public and maybe we should reserve judgement for when more information is made available.

I do hope this raises more awareness of autism and the different forms it can take. Alaska Airlines has a program where they invite families with an autistic child experience a day at the airport and on an airplane as well teach their employees how to be sensitive to the needs of such passengers. AIR (Autism Inclusion Resources) also recently teamed up with United and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to host a dry run of a travel day for families with an autistic child. So awareness and training is growing.

EVA 777
In March I had a three week work assignment in the Los Angeles area. My Sundays were free so one weekend I headed to LAX and took photos of the mid-afternoon arrivals. The planespotting at LAX is a lot of the same traffic day after day but the experience of it is always a blast. If you have a long layover in Los Angeles I highly recommend making a stop at the In-N-Out on Sepulveda Boulevard, grabbing a burger and fries, and watching the planes come in. You can do this by catching the Parking Spot parking shuttle (Sepulveda location). The Parking Spot is well aware of people doing this and they are happy to oblige. Hop on the bus and at the drop off point inside the garage, just head for the single door, you will be able to see In-N-Out through it.

If you have a bit more time, there is another spotting area called Imperial Hill that is just as great for spotting but does not have the In-N-Out (or restrooms).

Below are a few of the shots I was able to get while at LAX. It really is a fun place to watch really large airplanes land.

American Airlines 77W

Cathay Pacific 77W

Aeroflot A330

Korean Air A380

I think it is pretty obvious that I am airplane nerd, an “avgeek” if you will. My love of planes and flying has been present since I was a little kid. Only in the last 10 to 15 years has my love of commercial aviation come to life, most of my love when I was younger was focused on military aircraft, especially those from the World War II era. Recently, when I visited the Polish Aviation Museum in Krakow, Poland, that love of military aircraft was reignited.

Yak-23
A number of my friends and I were in town and we thought we would plan a tour of the Polish Aviation Museum so I arranged a van to drive us to the location due to it be a little hard to reach via public transit. I was also able to arrange an English speaking guide for a small fee. He ended up being a fantastic guide and he seemed to love the enthusiasm we all had for aviation and thought it was awesome we came to their museum.

The museum is on the site of an old airfield and they have hold an airshow every year by reopening closed taxiways and runways just for the occasion. The indoor exhibits are fascinating with tons of general information about different conflicts as well as Poland’s aviation history. There is even an entire display of aircraft engines, including one of the largest ever built. But, the real gem is the outdoor aircraft display. At first it looks like there are only a few aircraft, but you turn a corner and you see that there are tons of Russian, American, French, and Swedish aircraft scattered all over the property. There is even a “MiG Alley”, a long walkway containing every MiG aircraft produced, including most variants.

If you have a love of aviation and are in Poland or even a country nearby, make a detour to the Polish Aviation Museum. It really is an aviation geek paradise. Enough words, I will let the pictures do the talking. I have a ton of photos to upload and will update this post as I get them uploaded.

MiG-15

MiG Alley

MiG Alley

 

Soviet Missile Systems

MiG-21

Su-17

An OpEd in the December 12, 2014 Houston Chronicle by a United Airlines employee really has me scratching my head. In it, Mark Segaloff posits that Emirates’s status as an airline hinges on them being state owned and that they are able to hurt U.S. airlines because of their use of the Import/Export bank to finance their aircraft. He continues, stating that state-owned airlines cause domestic U.S. carriers to lose business and suffer, costing jobs. While my heart is with Mr. Segaloff, my head is not.

Emirates A380 - Mark Harkin

Emirates A380 – Mark Harkin

It is true that there has been some concern about state-owned airlines coming into the U.S. and hurting domestic carriers. Even European carriers have stated that the Middle East carriers pose a serious risk to their business in the region. Here’s the kicker though, the European carriers are really the only ones with skin in the game. They are the ones with multiple flights to multiple destinations in the Middle East. U.S. carriers fall well behind when it comes to service to places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Kuwait City and others. In fact, United could not make their Washington-Dulles to Doha, Qatar (with a stop in Dubai) route work, so they pulled that service.

Mr. Segaloff’s key point is that the Emirates flight will cost Houston jobs. I fail to see any facts in the article as to why that would happen. United offers a once daily flight to Dubai from Dulles. If they want to compete directly for those dollars from potential customers out of Houston, maybe start non-stop service? Maybe offer a product that is not being degraded by installing slimline seats, reducing seat pitch, and generally making the travel experience sub-par. I know that Mr. Segaloff would probably retort, “But they are a state-owned airline with all the money in the world to make service improvements.” to which I would simply give him a link to United making a record profit in Q3 of 2014. There seems to be some money for improvement there, yet United offers 2-4-2 seating in business class on the Dubai flight. No thanks, I would rather take the non-stop from Houston (avoiding Dulles) in 1-2-1 seating on the A380. United does offer a number of one-stop options to a number of Emirates destinations via their antitrust immune joint venture with carriers such as ANA and Lufthansa. Granted, the service standards are not the same as Emirates but there are options that make money for United and their partners.

Something that Mr. Segaloff fails to mention is that the Emirates service to Houston is not new, it is simply bigger now. Truth be told, Emirates used to offer two daily flights to Houston from Dubai and with those two flights they actually had more seats (532) flying to Dubai than they do now with the A380 (489/517 depending on version). Where were the complaints when Emirates was running that second flight?

There have been a number of announcements of service to Houston by carriers that are not state-owned and not from the Middle East but these seem to do little to upset employees. But from an airline business perspective, these new routes are the worrisome ones. Korean has started non-stop service to Seoul, which I had heard was off to a rocky start but is doing better now. ANA announced service to Tokyo, EVA has schedules loaded to Taipei, and there are rumors that British Airways wants to bring an A380 to Houston for one of their two flights a day. ANA and EVA are Star Alliance partners with United, but Korean brings a good product and a fantastic network in Asia. Where is the uproar against that?

The Import/Export Bank is actually a valid concern, especially when the money is not spent the way it was meant to be spent, helping a foreign company grow by buying American goods. However, I do not think Emirates has any problem letting that money fall away. In fact, that money is specifically for Boeing jets, not for the Airbus A380 that Emirates is bringing to Houston.

I think one place where Mr. Segaloff could apply is argument is to the new Emirates flight linking New York City with Milan, Italy. This is a city pair that is served by two U.S. carriers, Delta from JFK and United from Newark. Now you have a third foreign carrier on the route who is trying to bring down the prices but not having much success. But I do not think it’s a question of letting foreign carriers operate routes from the U.S. to their respective hubs but whether or not those foreign carriers should be allowed to operate so called “Fifth Freedom” routes like New York-Milan ad infinitum. A number of carriers do this but use that fifth freedom flight to connect to their hub at the end. Out of Houston, Singapore Airlines flies to Moscow and then onward to Singapore. They are allowed to sell tickets to Moscow or Singapore out of Houston and they fill their plane. It’s a win/win. But when do those flights become anti-competitive? That’s for the FAA and DOT to sort out.

It is one thing to cry wolf when there is a valid concern but to say that Emirates and their A380 is going to hurt Houston is simply fiction. If anything, the Emirates service is helping strengthen the Houston economy by offering one-stop service to places that were previously unreachable without 2 or more stops. It will also continue to keep prices relatively competitive, which is good for the consumer. Sure, United may not like that, but how many passengers are they really flying a day to Dubai? How many are they flying to Europe for Middle East connections? United has a choice to make, they can up their game and focus on becoming a world class international carrier or they can relegate themselves to a middle-tier domestic focused carrier with a product that just barely keeps up with the competition. That decision will dictate the fate of those jobs that Mr. Segaloff is concerned about, not a single Emirates A380 flight a day to Houston.

The Financial Times on Why Luxury Air Travel is Taking Off Again

An interesting tidbit:

“Everyone thinks first class must be diminishing, but its quite incredible how more and more airlines are renewing their first-class offer and having more first-class seats on board,” says Nigel Goode, director of the design agency PriestmanGoode, whose recent projects include new first-class cabins for Qatar Airways, Swiss, Lufthansa and Air France. “There is quite a resurgence.”

And yet the picture isn’t straightforward. “Absolute numbers are up, but it’s the composition that is the really intriguing thing,” says John Grant, executive vice-president at OAG. Look at individual airlines and you see big discrepancies. In China, where flying first has traditionally been an important status symbol for executives and politicians, as well as in the Middle East, carriers have rapidly expanded their first-class offering. However European airlines, and US carriers on international routes, have tended to scale back.

Really, it is the Middle East and Far East carriers who are bringing the resurgence. Western carriers are simply trying to keep up and some are doing better at it than others. And I doubt we’ve seen the end of western carriers getting rid of longhaul first class cabins. Maybe the answer is for some western carriers to focus on the business class traveler experience and make it as comfortable and beneficial for flyers as possible while keeping the price in the range of employers.

In January of 2015, Delta will move SkyMiles, their frequent flier program, from earning miles based on distance flown and your status with the airline to a new system that bases your miles earned on the cost of the ticket and your status. In March of 2015, United’s MileagePlus program will take an almost identical step and turn into a miles earned based on spend and elite status system. American Airlines will keep their current mileage earning system in place for the foreseeable future but when they are done with some of the technical aspects of their merger with US Airways, I see them going to a model similar to Delta and United.

The New York Times has an article about the changes, calling them the “fadeout” of the mileage run. It is less of a fadeout and more of the complete death of the mileage run. The piece does a good job raising the concerns about confusion between redeemable miles earning and elite status earning, which will take place under two separate umbrellas. The more confusion there is for the end user, the more frustration. And while the average flier may not care, someone who does a bit of travel without keeping track of all the news and changes will certainly be a little annoyed. I also agree with the point that Mr. Barro makes about calling them “miles” after these changes. They are no longer based on distanced and merely represent an amount of money spent, making it much more appropriate to just call what you earn “points”. And while the examples of mileage earning and the losses faced by frequent fliers are illustrated in the New York Times piece, I think there are some unanswered questions about if and how basing mileage earning on spend will really be perceived by travelers and also, what it means for redemptions.

The New Earning Charts

In Delta’s case, if you are a non-status flier you will earn 5 miles per dollar spent. A Silver Medallion status flier will earn 7 miles per dollar spent, and so on. This is illustrated below per Delta’s calculator.

United’s changes are almost identical.

United MileagePlus 2015 Changes

It is nice that Delta’s calculator shows what you would earn in the old program and what you will earn on the same fare in the program. It makes it easy for a flier to look at the numbers and see just how good or bad these changes are for them.

Examples

Below are a few anecdotal examples to illustrate the gains and losses that frequent fliers and non-statused passengers will experience with these changes. I took the lowest available fare a month or more out for the different routes. Also, I focused on United, simply because they are who I fly, but the math for Delta would be very similar. I did not include taxes in the calculations as those are not included in the mileage earning for either airline. The fuel surcharges on international trips was included, again, because it is included in the calculations for mileage earning by the airlines.

The first example is a Portland, Oregon to Newark, New Jersey roundtrip. This one is my typical route and while the price fluctuates on this route, the $466 is reflective of a typical 7-day stay.

Sample Route Distance Fare Class
PDX-EWR-PDX 4,866 $466 Coach
2014 (Current) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
4,866 6,082 7,298 8,514 9,732
2015 (New) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
2,330 3,262 3,728 4,194 5,126
Difference Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
-2,536 -2,820 -3,570 -4,320 -4,606

In this example you see that there is a loss of miles, regardless of elite status. A 1K would need to spend $885 2015 to earn near the same amount of miles that they would have earned in the program in 2014. With lots of competition on transcontinental routes, I see fares staying rather competitive for coach seats, meaning low fares, meaning low mileage earning.

The other side of this is the next example, the exact same route, Portland, Oregon to Newark, New Jersey, but this time, in first class.

Sample Route Distance Fare Class
PDX-EWR-PDX 4,866 $1,068 First
2014 (Current) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
7,298 8,514 9,730 10,946 12,164
2015 (New) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
5,340 7,476 8,544 9,612 11,748
Difference Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
-1,958 -1,038 -1,186 -1,334 -416

While anecdotal, this example shows that paying more cash and sitting in the comfy seat does not necessarily generate more redeemable miles under the 2015 earnings programs. In fact, if your goal is to earn more miles, you are better off paying for the $1,500 refundable fare and doing an instant upgrade (if an elite on the airline).


 

Next is a long distance business class trip. A San Francisco-Frankfurt roundtrip priced as the average of what I could find for different months. There are spikes in price some months, but I found the $7,060 price to be pretty close to average.

Sample Route Distance Fare Class
SFO-FRA-SFO 11,398 $7,060 Business
2014 (Current) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
17,096 19,944 22,794 25,644 28,494
2015 (New) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
35,300 49,420 56,480 63,540 75,000
Difference Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
18,204 29,476 33,686 37,896 46,506

In this example, the new 2015 program is extremely lucrative. The business class fare is high enough that everyone sees a significant gain in their redeemable miles earned. The 1K member actually doesn’t realize the full potential of the 11x multiplier because earnings on a single ticket are capped at 75,000 redeemable miles.

I then took the above business class example and made it an economy class booking instead. It’s not a bottom of the barrel example, it’s a mid-tier typical fare to Europe purchased somewhat in advance.

Sample Route Distance Fare Class
SFO-FRA-SFO 11,398 $1,400 Coach
2014 (Current) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
11,398 14,246 17,096 19,946 22,796
2015 (New) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
7,000 9,800 11,200 12,600 15,400
Difference Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
-4,398 -4,446 -5,896 -7,346 -7,396

Again, everyone loses out on miles. Not incredibly large amounts, but there is definitely a loss.


Lastly, I’d like to look the one place where people will make a mint on miles compared to how many they are earning under the current program: The short distance but relatively expensive ticket. These are usually refundable or flexible tickets but are shorter distances (say, less than 500 miles each segment). It’s a typical business scenario and one that I wanted to explore. In this example it is Manchester, New Hampshire to Washington-Reagan via Newark-Liberty.

Sample Route Distance Fare Class
MHT-EWR-DCA-EWR-MHT 816 $1,366 Coach (Flexible)
2014 (Current) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
1,018 1,220 1,424 1,628 1,834
2015 (New) Earnings Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
6,830 9,562 10,928 12,294 15,026
Difference Member Silver Gold Platinum 1K
5,812 8,342 9,504 10,666 13,192

What Does This Mean?

In short, the majority of travelers regardless of airline elite status, who fly on discount or regular coach class tickets, are going to lose redeemable miles under the new system. The new system is going to reward those on very expensive business/first class travel and those who have to buy refundable or flexible tickets. The ones who will see some of the biggest increases in miles are the short distance fliers who buy those refundable tickets. They are spending less time in a seat but paying more money for the privilege and the airlines are rewarding that.

Some, who I respect, have this to say:

When asked why:

And while Mr. Harteveldt isn’t incorrect that there is an element of low-yield travel created by gaming the mileage run system, the idea that this makes the airlines completely unprofitable and those passengers are a huge cash sink for those airlines, is a stretch. Truth is, airlines need some of that low-yield travel to fill seats that would otherwise go empty. The difference now is that Delta and United do not want to hand out the same number of miles for that seat. However, this has less to do with “rewarding” someone than it does with simply not putting the miles on the balance sheet.

The Cost of Miles

Regardless of how the airlines word these changes the real issue comes down to cost. The miles that the airlines have a cost associated to them for the airline. The airline records the outstanding miles on their balance sheets as liabilities. At some point, someone will redeem their miles and the airline will either pay a partner for the flight the passenger takes, or they will remove a seat from their own inventory for that passenger to sit in. There is a tangible cost here. In fact, when the Star Alliance recently changed their rules on reward redemption charges allowing carriers to set their own price for their premium cabin rewards, United responded by making partner rewards very expensive. If someone wants to redeem miles for a seat that Lufthansa charges United $5000 for, then United wants to collect more miles from that passenger.

The fact that airlines have millions upon millions of miles outstanding on their balance sheet does not look good to their accountants nor their investors, so in the changes to reward mileage earning, we’re seeing a shift. The newly rewarded miles will essentially be “paid for” up front (at least partially) while the old miles are removed from the balance sheets over time.

Want more proof that this is at least some of the motivation? Look at United’s page discussing the changes.

Mileage Redemption Options

That’s right, you can redeem your miles for Economy Plus seats on a specific flight, an Economy Plus subscription, and a checked baggage subscription. None of those three things has any real cost to United. If you use your miles for an Economy Plus seat on a specific flight, United is only out the $39 or $49 they would have charged someone had no elite member been available to take advantage of that seat as part of their benefits. If you use your miles for a checked baggage subscription, there is no cost to United, simply a slight drop in ancillary revenue on that flight, though even that is probably offset by the fact you spent miles on it. The cost for the airline is minimal while the benefit for them is taking more of the liability off of the balance sheet.

Even more proof of this is Delta’s recent announcement that there will soon be a limit on how many American Express Membership Rewards points one can transfer into SkyMiles (250,000 Membership Rewards points in a calendar year). Delta wants to limit the incoming liability of miles even though American Express has been one of their best partners.

The airlines are tying miles earned to how much you paid for a fare not just because “it’s rewarding” but because it limits their exposure to liability. Plain and simple.

What Do I Do Now?

The answer to this question is simple: Mileage earning shouldn’t be the determining factor of your airline loyalty, especially with these changes.

The argument used to be that a person could put up with the bad aspects of a carrier if the rewards were worth it. With the rewards quickly becoming based on spend and less on miles flown, why fly that airline over another if the price is the same? For example, I give United my business, even with the terrible Recaro seats, on a transcontinental flight because I value those points. With the mileage earning changes, my comfort takes priority and if that means a flight on Delta, so be it.

This isn’t to say that for everyone mileage earning is the deciding factor, in fact, I would say it’s a small percentage of people who actually care about this piece of the frequent flier game. I remember a discussion a long time ago about how most travelers redeem their miles for simple domestic rewards, sometimes paying the higher mileage rate to avoid paying what they considered a high fare.

There is also an option to earn the original redeemable miles as you have all along, the catch is, you have to not care about elite status. In the terms and FAQs of each airline’s new redeemable miles program (United | Delta), there is a statement regarding tickets booked on partner airlines. If you book on a partner’s ticket stock, basically who took your money, then you are still eligible to earn reward miles at the 2014 rates, but you in almost all cases, you will not earn elite miles. So you have a choice, become an elite with Delta or United or earn the 2014 redeemable mileage rates.

You could also play the credit card churning game to earn redeemable miles. I find it too time consuming and a ton of work to keep track of what cards need what minimum spend and which ones I haven’t signed up for yet. Some people love that game but for me, it just isn’t worth the time or the energy.

Another choice would be to start flying American Airlines. They are the last of the large U.S. carriers to have a mileage flown is what you earn rewards program and it will stay that way. Well, until they are done with their merger with US Airways, then I would say the chances are very good they too will move to a points based on spend system. Sure, bloggers will post about how great American is and how they are using their miles to go somewhere far away, but that I feel will be a short lived game. There is a year, maybe two left for the greener pastures on American. Feel free to make that move if you are prepared to make another move or choice when American decides to go to a system similar to Delta and United.

Like I said above, the answer is simple: Fly places, do it affordably and comfortably, and worry less about the miles being earned. That was a little difficult for me to write. I used to see a cheap fare somewhere and say, “a weekend there would be nice and the miles would be nice too” and buy a ticket. The miles were an incentive for me to buy a fare to go someplace new that I may not have been inclined to pay for, now I’ll just go new places knowing the earnings will not be as high.

Is There Any Chance The Airlines Change Their Minds?

The airlines changing their minds on this is unlikely. Why would they? They can now reward fewer miles and even cap them for their most “loyal” travelers. The cap at 75,000 miles on a single ticket is something that blows my mind. You (or your company more likely) drop $8,000 on a business class ticket to Asia and you get capped at 75,000 miles. United and Delta find you loyal, but only 75,000 miles loyal.

I think the only real way any of this changes is if the airlines struggle in the coming years. If people stop flying due to the economy or because of fares or whatever, then I could see the airlines reeling these mileage earning changes back to what they used to be, but even that is unlikely. Another scenario is that corporate accounts start complaining to the airlines. These companies pay a lot of money for their employees to travel and if those employees start complaining, it’s likely the corporate travel sales folks will get wind of it. But, there is nothing keeping Delta or United from sweetening the pot and giving those contracts some kind of mileage bonus every year, so even the idea of corporate contracts getting pulled is a stretch.

Lastly, I do see this changing some people’s behavior and that’s not necessarily a good thing. People who have the freedom to book via airline websites for their corporate travel could get themselves into trouble pursuing more expensive fares to earn more miles. To combat this, companies may enforce their corporate policies more stringently, taking away some money from Delta/United if they are not the cheapest carriers in a particular market.

In Summary

Overall the biggest problem with the new mileage earning programs is that they not only earn less miles for the frequent yet affordable traveler, but they are confusing programs now. You will still earn your elite status based on two criteria, qualifying dollars and qualifying miles, the latter being based on distance flown, but you will earn redeemable miles based on fare paid. It is even confusing to type.

These programs change on a whim. There are rumors (see footnote at bottom of page) that Delta’s Medallion Qualifying Dollars minimum is increasing for next year. It’s unconfirmed but if true, means these programs will get tweaked and changed as the airlines see fit. They will look to cut out the chaff and focus on people who are spending a lot of money. Pundits can say this rewards more profitable fliers but even that doesn’t take into account the caps on what a person can earn on a single ticket. This is about reducing costs and liabilities for the airlines. As the airlines see fit, they will make more changes to reduce those costs.

Focus on the good stuff. See a cheap fare to a place you want to visit and you have the cash? Buy it. Stop focusing on the miles and get out there and see the world. Miles, upgrades, rewards, etc. are all fun things but if they hinder the actual visiting of places, don’t focus on them.

Recently a number of airlines have been offering decent business class deals to Europe during off peak seasons. I have a feeling that this will become a new normal. We will see $1,500 business class fares to Europe from Houston, San Francisco, etc. when the airlines need to fill seats that would otherwise go empty. Take advantage of that. You’ll earn some miles and you will get a nice seat across the Pond.

For me, I am bummed about the move. I loved having a small incentive for a weekend trip somewhere I wanted to visit anyway. I loved being able to burn miles on the few trips my wife and I were able to take longhaul. My plan going forward is to continue to earn elite status simply because I am on the road so much but as soon as I hit a level I am comfortable with, my plan is to switch to booking on partner airlines and earning the old rates for that level that I reached. It’s a hybrid plan but one I think may have some benefits for me. If I was to stick to just flying United tickets everywhere, just like I do now, then I would lose out on around 95,000 miles, possibly more once I do the math for my end of year stats. My company spent a lot of money for my work travel and I spent a fair amount of cash on personal travel but that is only worth so much to United. Clearly, I am a low-yield passenger.

In any case, I hope you make the decision that works best for you financially and travel wise. Happy flying!

Edit: It is now confirmed that Delta is raising the qualifying dollars required for 2016 SkyMiles Medallion elite status.

Southwest unveiled their new livery this morning and while I am not a huge fan of the font or the colors, it seems they really thought about unifying their look. The bubble font is what bothers me the most. I thought bubble fonts were dead and we all said “good riddance”. I guess not.

A new commercial accompanied the livery unveiling and it’s a different marketing approach from previous Southwest spots and I like what they did. They talk about their customers, their commitment and how much their employees matter.