26 May 2007

Back Of The Plane

About 15 years ago, I started doing a lot of flying. Well, let's be precise: I started riding in a lot of airplanes. I never actually flew one myself. At first it was largely business related, with my having to jet around the country to meet up with bands and/or scout out bands or just see bands that I liked to see because it was all a tax write-off anyway. And then when I became exhausted from meeting, seeing and hobnobbing with all those bands, I'd have to fly off somewhere else for a vacation. Where I'd usually end up seeing more bands and/or they would see me and chase me around trying to give me demo tapes. Eventually the mound of demo tapes in the corner of my room reached Himalayan proportions (it just seemed wrong to throw them out, even though I could barely bring myself to listen to them, either), one of several reasons why I hailed and continue to hail the advent of the mp3.

But I digress more radically than usual: I'm actually here today to talk about air travel, and how my decade and a half of profligate travel led to the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles (yes, I know I am a villainous scoundrel for contributing to global warming, but a) most places I have lived could do with a little warming; b) I at least partially made up for my excess flying by doing little or no driving; and c) on the day that my energy consumption and greenhouse gas output reaches 10% - hell, even 5% - of what gasbag Al Gore is pumping out, I'll take your criticisms under serious consideration).

And nearly all of those miles were on United Airlines, partly because it flew to all the places I most often visited, and partly because once you start accumulating miles on one carrier, you tend to stick with it whenever possible because of the perks that start to come your way. Not just the free flights, but the upgrades to a better class of service, and the special treatment you get even when you're flying on a bargain basement fare.

For example, it's been years since I've had to stand in line with the normal folks to check in or board the plane. At many airports, they even have a separate security gate for "elite" flyers, meaning you can stroll right past the hoi polloi who might have already been standing there for hours waiting their turn.

Yes, those were the days, but no more, I'm afraid. For one thing, now that I'm finally settled in New York, I feel much less inclined to travel, and secondly, United Airlines, once my favorite airline, have steadily made themselves less pleasant and less affordable, to the point where I've finally had to give up on them altogether.

It's bad enough that their fares have steadily gone up, and that they're now usually among the most expensive rather than the most affordable, or that anytime you try to book a flight with with them, they try to send you on some route that takes you from New York to Chicago by way of Phoenix, Arizona and only leaves at 6'oclock in the morning. You want a normal flight that goes directly there at a normal time of the day? Fine, you can do that, but the fare just quadrupled.

But the last straw was when, possibly in an attempt to claw its way out of bankruptcy, United sold its landing rights for the lucrative New York to London route to another airline. You want to fly United between Kennedy and Heathrow now, you'll have to go by way of Washington or Chicago (hint: it's in the opposite direction), adding 3-5 hours to your travel time and taking nothing off your fare. In fact, other airlines like American or Virgin will usually take you directly to London for a few hundred bucks less than United is charging for its round-the-houses route.

So after several years of trying, United has finally destroyed my hard-won customer loyalty, and on my most recent trip to San Francisco, I had the unnerving experience of flying a different airline, leaving from a different terminal that I had never seen before, and if that weren't unsettling enough (it almost felt as though I were cheating on my wife, or that the president of United Airlines would suddenly pop up on the Airtrain and give me a pained look and a "How could you" as we rolled past his terminal).

And, of course, I had to wait until the last group to be boarded, and be squished into the cheap seats at the back of the plane where they don't even give you a full can of soda and a packet of M&Ms or some appalling-looking trail mix (the woman two seats over vomited repeatedly all the way across country after consuming some) retails for $3.

Yes, I suppose I could have paid more to ride up front, but if you think I would, you'd be forgetting that I'm the kind of guy who'd wait hours for a bus or a train - or walk 10 miles - rather than plunk down a few extra dollars for a taxi. At least my many years of flying experience have given me a little insight in how to obtain the best (of a bad lot) seats available, and to slither on board ahead of the people hoping to stash their goats and chickens in the overhead bins. And possibly if I stick with my new carrier (all right, it's American Airlines, but it hurts to say it, almost as though by pronouncing the name of the third party, I'm compounding my unfaithfulness) long enough, I'll eventually accumulate enough miles that they'll move me back up to whatever passes for "elite" status in their program.

But in a way, I kind of hope not, because in order for that to happen, I'd have to spend a lot more time on airplanes and in cities other than New York, and right now, I'm none too enthusiastic about being anyplace but here. That being said, I'm off to London tomorrow for 12 days, and yes, I'll be riding at the back of the plane. So this is how the other half, erm, I mean, the other 90% lives. Shocking, I tell you, simply shocking.

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