And just like that, October’s gone. It’s always a bittersweet month, with its August-like spates of summer juxtaposed against precipitous chill and the inevitability of shorter days, late-ripening in the garden vs. systemic decay.
The fact that it’s also my birth month is a mixed blessing as well, as the tolling of the years has morphed from grade-school falsetto to resonant bells to the rhythmic hammer strokes of coffin construction.
But what I really meant to write about has to do with travel, moving about the country, and what this particular October has to say about it.
Starting in 1998, I became a road warrior, working for an IT consulting company and whisking off to projects in Fayetteville, NC, Toledo, Burbank, Fresno, Grand Rapids, Orlando, Sand Point (ID), Atlanta, Milwaukee. In 2001, I started my own business at least in part to get off the out-on-Sunday, back-on-Friday hamster-wheel, but I retained the client in Milwaukee, and for over a decade flew there to work one week a month.
During that time I tasted the sweet nectar of airline elite status, sometimes as Gold, a couple heady years as Platinum. You achieve status mostly by flying thousands of miles. To simplify (and ignore some labyrinthine codicils the airlines have promulgated), if you fly 25000 miles in a year, you’re Silver; 50,000, you’re Gold; 75000, you’re Platinum.
There are multiple amenities that accrue to each level, but the main prize is cadging an upgrade to first class. On each flight, there are a certain number of first class seats that someone has actually paid for; the remainder of first class seats are awarded to elites according to their hierarchy in the status. As a Platinum, you have a very good chance of riding in a single-digit seat. As a Gold, it depends on avoiding flights that are popular with Platinums.
In the 2000s, I probably flew first class 2/3 of the time. Yeah, on domestic F you get free drinks and a meal that in 1995 would have been an embarrassment in coach, but the biggest benefit is space, a large seat with no visual or tactile contact with someone else’s armpit. And a lavatory ostensibly only accessible to first class. Oh, and the pre-flight beverage which the flight attendant serves as the coach passengers are boarding. You sit there in your spacious seat sipping chardonnay and reading the New York Review of Books while people are struggling down the aisle looking for overhead bin space and seats whose row numbers suggest an Outward Bound expedition into the tail section wilderness. Yeah, I probably took a little too much pleasure in that.
In the early 2000s, airport amenities were pretty sparse, with no wi-fi, minimal food and beverage choices and not enough empty seats near your gate. Running my own business and not having a very difficult procurement process to game, I started purchasing memberships to the airline clubs: Northwest WorldClub, which morphed into the Delta Skyclub. At the outset, these oases amidst the squalor of airport existence were a great benefit, with free wi-fi, free beverages and snacks, and places where you could plug your laptop in for power and internet access.
At its height, I reveled in the exalted experience of waiting for a connection in a comfy club where I was greeted by name when I entered, then boarding a flight in First Class for my destination.
Starting with the Great Recession in 2009, my Milwaukee client experienced heavy financial headwinds, and soon I was no longer flying there regularly. This started a decompression in my road warrior mentality as I contemplated the certainty of not only not achieving Gold or Platinum status, but even struggling to maintain lowly Silver. As a road warrior, you really do get into the game of collecting airline miles and Hilton points and slavishly checking in on Flyertalk.com to see the latest tips and tricks for outsmarting the airlines in your quest for that first-class seat. One of my favorite movie scenes is from Up In The Air, when George Clooney and Vera Farmiga are in a hotel bar and throwing down elite-status cards from airlines, hotel chains and car-rental companies, trying to one-up each other.
At first, as those flightless months passed by, I brooded a bit about my eroding airline status. But then I began to realize how much stress had dissipated from my life. I travel well, I don’t fret as a trip approaches. I pack in about 5 minutes and scoot out the door, and the time zone dislocation doesn’t affect me all that much. I’m pretty much my own time zone, and I adapt instantaneously. But, after 15 years of cyclical quasi-menstrual disruption, it started to feel luxurious to just live from day to day, week to week, in my house, in my city.
I still work with my Milwaukee client remotely, and only had to travel there once this year. I have a large bank of miles, but no pressing ambition to fly off anywhere.
And I passed two milestones this fall. The first, over the weekend when I flew to Columbus for the OSUMB reunion, was my last chance to use the Delta Skyclub, as my last renewal finally expired:
The second occurred when I flew to Atlanta to attend the annual Philbin Oyster Roast in October. At some point over the prairie, I passed my 1 millionth flown mile with Northwest/Delta. With that, I get lifetime Silver status, which allows me to select exit row seats and a few other lowly privileges. But, just to reflect: one million miles Up In The Air. Now, all I need is Vera Farmiga’s cell phone number. Then again, she won’t be impressed with Silver, and my George Clooney impersonation won’t get past the first shirt button.