Several months ago I booked a six day trip to New Orleans on Delta in mid-April (from RDU, my home airport), and I paid a pretty penny for the privilege of flying there in coach.  As a DL Five Million Miler and Platinum, I grabbed the best seats I could right behind first class when I bought the fare, and hoped that when the time came, I would be upgraded.

Then my commitments shifted under me unexpectedly. I’ve been involved in many months of transit planning as part of a team here in my neck of the woods, and I’d planned this trip to visit old friends in the jazz world to coincide with the crescendo of planning exercises that would end two days before my departure.  Didn’t happen.  The culmination of the transit planning work was rescheduled for the day after my departure. I had to be here for the meetings, and so I called Delta to rebook my outbound flights for two days later, making it a four day trip instead of six.

Of course the fare went up by quite a bit because it was only a month out by then, and I also had to pay the dreaded change fee.  I was able to use up my American Express Platinum Card $200 annual airline credit in one fell swoop to reduce the pain of those dollars flying out of my wallet faster than Delta’s jets zip to ATL.  I grabbed the best seats remaining in coach, of course, but my choices were limited by then.

Two weeks before my departure I checked for better seats in coach online at Delta.  Opening my record, I was offered a full “F” fare upgrade for just over $150.  Of course I had a lot of money invested in the fare at that point, so the difference to get to first class had shrunk.  Usually I do not succumb to such offers because they aren’t worth it, but for just $75 each way, I bit.  Better to have confirmed first class seats with no anxiety about waiting for an upgrade.  I paid the extra money and selected the seats I wanted on all four segments (1B).

On departure day I was in a lot of meetings and was dropped late at the airport while still talking on a 90-minute conference call about transit.  I didn’t even hang up through the TSA screen, just threw my phone in the dog bowl and sent it through the x-ray machine while 25 people babbled away in the ether.  My call didn’t end until I had boarded and put my luggage away.  Hanging up exhausted, I was greeted by a chirpy, eager-beaver flight attendant who exuded happiness and made it clear that she was there to make my flight the best ever.  Did I want a drink, she asked.  Yes, I said, a Bloody Mary. “With a lime, of course,” I emphasized.

“Oh, we’re out of limes,” she told me, because “we used them all up coming up from Atlanta!”

“No limes?” I groaned, as if I’d just received news of my 401K tanking again. “How on earth could Delta not have LIMES?  It’s not as if I’d asked for Beluga caviar.  They are just LIMES!”

Okay, I admit I was enervated and a bit overwrought.  I kept thinking how I’d paid $150 for a first class seat but could not even get a drink with limes, a common commodity.  I mean, what was the world coming to?

My happy-pill-taking FA was not going to let me down, however, and she went through a bunch of alternative liquors she could get me. I settled on Dewer’s on the rocks.  She literally leapt back to the galley and poured what looked to me like two mini-bottles of Dewer’s over ice into my glass (I could plainly see her from 1B).  Thrusting the cold glass into my hand, she beamed at me to await my verdict.  “MMMMMM!,” I uttered, as upbeat as I could, after taking the first sip.  She beamed even more and focused on other passengers in the first class cabin.

As we taxied out to the runway, the sweet-natured flight attendant brought me another Dewer’s on the rocks, again appearing to be a double shot (filled to the brim).  Ordinarily I am not a big drinker, stopping at two, or three at the most, but what the hell, I thought.  I was starting to relax, especially because my seatmate in 1A was a real raconteur, hailing from the Florida panhandle and himself matching my intake of hard liquor while regaling me with stories of menacing alligators and other swamp denizens he’d encountered.  I hardly ever get even the time of day from my flying companions these days, so it was a novelty to enjoy such a great conversation with someone who loved to talk and was good at telling colorful stories.  I polished off the second (double?) Dewer’s by the time we reached the runway’s end.

It was there the captain announced that Atlanta had ordered a ground stop and that we’d be sitting on the tarmac for “30-60 minutes.”  I began to realize that I was more than a little tipsy, but since I had a two hour connection in ATL, I didn’t fret over the delay.

Just then the happy FA came up from rear galley and proudly showed me an entire glass full of limes she had “rescued” from the back of the plane.  “Now you can have that Bloody Mary you craved!” she blurted out.

Sounded like a fine plan to me, though it was dawning on me that my speech was a bit slurred as I gabbed with the Floridian about shrimp nets and crab pots and which hull design was best for inshore fishing (I prefer a modified deep vee, such as a Boston Whaler Montauk, about the most perfect boat ever made).  I noticed again two bottles of vodka were disappearing into the Bloody Mary mix with the limes festooned around the perimeter of the glass.  The FA plonked it down with a flourish on my tray table, taking the empty Dewer’s glass, and I obliged her hospitality by chugging down half of it in no time.

An hour later we were still sitting on the runway at RDU, and I had polished off a second Bloody Mary, though by then I was too blotto to know or care whether she had put one or two bottles of vodka in the mix.  I just knew it was time to stop.

At the 90 minute mark, the fellow in 1A also stopped drinking because neither of us could talk and understand each other.   Our mouths weren’t forming words real well.  I realized then that the plane was going to be canceled or delayed so long that I could never make my connection…unless it, too, was delayed by a long time.  I may have been drinking heavily, but I had been constantly checking both my flights on Flightstats.com and Flightaware.com on my Samsung Galaxy (which I had plugged in to renew its juice).  I also called the Delta Elite line several times.  All indications were that both my flights were on time.

It was a very weird Kafkaesque moment when the DL Elite agent told me that my RDU/ATL flight was on the ground in Atlanta and that I would have no trouble making my connection ATL/MSY.  “it is?” I said, sarcastically. “Then what flight am I sitting in here at RDU?” I concluded Delta’s computers were fritzing out.  Even being pretty much dead drunk, I knew I was in trouble then, because I could see the cancellation of my flight in the headlights.

Sure enough, after two hours sitting on the runway, the captain said they were going to the barn—back to the gate—and there to await instructions.  As he started the engines, I managed to get a Delta Elite agent on the phone again and rebooked my flights for the next morning.  Thank God I had a confirmed first class fare booked!  She said there were zero coach seats because tens of thousands of folks were stranded in Atlanta.

At first she tried to persuade me to stay with my flight because she promised it would, sooner or later that night, fly to Atlanta.  And would Delta pay for my hotel room once there? I asked.  “Oh no!” was the answer, “Not when it’s not our fault [weather]. But I could get you on a flight to New Orleans at 8:55 AM in first class if you go.”

“Why in the world would I do that?” I retorted (plastered, yes, but I wasn’t stupid). “There will be zero hotel rooms because of the mass strandings, and I’ll be sleeping on the floor of the Atlanta airport terminal all night.”

“Well,” she said, “If you want to leave RDU on a 6:00 AM flight tomorrow, you can still connect to the 8:55 AM flight in ATL, all in first class because you have a first class ticket.”

Naturally I took that deal as the best plan.  I was just getting the agent to confirm my seat assignments as the plane’s door opened, finally back at the gate, and I walked off with luggage, out of the terminal, and took a cab home.  Paying $35 for a taxi was better than sleeping in the ATL airport or paying for an expensive hotel room near ATL.

Of course I was hurting pretty badly by then.  No food, just hard liquor (I usually drink wine or beer), and exhausted and looking at having to get up before 4:00 AM—hungover, no doubt—for my 6:00 AM flight.  I gobbled down some calories as soon as I walked in the door of my house and then tried to print my boarding passes for the next morning’s flights.

But the Delta system wouldn’t let me.  There they were in plain sight on my screen, the two first class seats that Delta had rebooked for me the following morning, but their system would not even let me check in.

Once again I phoned the Delta Elite line, this time waiting for 16 minutes on hold due to the tens of thousands of poor travelers stuck in Atlanta because of the thunderstorms over the field and all trying desperately to reach a DL agent to get themselves rebooked.  When finally the weary-sounding voice of the agent came on the line, she was very sympathetic—bless her heart—and said she’d have my record unlocked in a jiffy.

Except that she didn’t.  Neither did her supervisor, nor even her supervisor’s boss.  Like me, they could see that I was rebooked and had my seats, but they could not check me in or free up the system to let me print boarding passes.

This went on for about an hour, and by then it was past 10:00 PM.  I was spent and already feeling awful—hangover headache and too tired to keep moving.  The agents all three said they’d documented my record and to go to the counter in the morning when they opened at 4:00 AM to get checked in and receive my boarding passes.  They would keep working on it, they promised.  I gratefully hung up and dropped into bed.

At 3:30 AM the following morning I arose and showered, feeling like a bus had run me down, but I managed to get in the car as my wife—a saint!—drove me to RDU again.  I arrived at 4:15 AM and went promptly to the first class/DL Elite line.  A very nice agent greeted me with cheer and assured me my travails of the previous night were past because he was going to have my boarding passes to me in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

I wish he’d been right.  55 minutes after I had presented myself at the DL counter, with the help of two other counter agents, one a supervisor, and an unseen manager on the radio somewhere else, my boarding passes were finally issued at 5:10 AM. I was by then a nervous wreck  Not one agent had any clue why my record was locked up, though they could clearly see it.  Finally the unseen manager on the radio guessed that the night managers the previous evening might not have removed me from the long-delayed flight.  Sure enough they had not.  I was showing as having “flown” on that flight.  It took 20 minutes for them to untangle that snafu—theirs, of course, not mine—and finally print my boarding passes.

By the time I got through the long TSA Pre-Check queue (yes, too many people are now allowed in Pre-Check, making it as slow, almost, as the regular security line), and ran to my gate, the flight was boarding.  I was relieved but perplexed at the bizarre screw-up and and trying to brush off the accompanying anxiety.

RDU Pre-Check queue

RDU Pre-Check queue (and there were just as many waiting behind me)

I had only a Coke Zero on each of my two flights to New Orleans—no alcohol!  When I arrived in Atlanta, the hordes of travelers who’d been there since the night before made the concourse almost impossible to traverse.  I was glad I’d paid $150 extra for the assurance of first class seats.  Had I not, I would never have reached New Orleans to see my friends.  As it was, my six day trip, which had been cut to four, was now three days and a bit.  I made the most of it.

But when I went to the New Orleans airport for my return flights to Raleigh, Delta put me through the wringer again.  I mean, why limit the pain to just one half of the trip when you can do it both ways, right?  I’ll explain next week.

I admit up front that I am just a lowly Gold on American Airlines these days (since I am not flying all the time like I used to).  Everyone knows that AA Gold privileges are just marginally better than those enjoyed by the odd turnip farmer who has never flown in his life and turns up at the airport to hop a ride to DC to lobby his Congressman to continue farm subsidies for turnips.  So, right off the bat I will say that I don’t expect much anymore, certainly not the privileges I used to enjoy as an Executive Platinum when AA was really AA and not US Airways cloaked in the once-proud American Airlines brand.

Nonetheless, when I spend $1156 plus change to take my 11 year old daughter to San Francisco from Raleigh (RDU) on a father-daughter trip over her Spring Break, I expect things to run pretty smoothly.  After this build-up, you’ve probably guessed that they didn’t.

Well, at least we did get there and back in one piece. And we didn’t lose our luggage because we had only two small carry-on pieces.

Things started well enough.  To my great surprise my daughter and I were both upgraded (using AA’s expensive upgrade points, of course) from RDU to ORD, our connection airport.  It was an early morning flight on Sunday, and I guess most Executive Platinums in the Triangle area had sense and were still sleeping.  I was pleased to have two seats up front and to enjoy breakfast en route to O’Hare.

Turned out AA was just teasing me before the big letdown.  The next three segments were all in coach and not any fun.

The misery began with a six hour layover that Sunday morning at O’Hare.  When I booked our flights months before, AA had a timely mid-morning ORD/SFO connection with an mid-afternoon arrival, allowing plenty of time to get to our hotel and then relax with friends who had offered to pick us up and invited us to dinner in Pacific Heights.  However, AA dropped the mid-morning flight from its schedule, leaving an early afternoon flight as the sole option.  It was a long six hours in the Admirals Club.

Of course, one less flight option to San Francisco meant much higher demand, so there were no upgrades on that flight to SFO for the likes of me.  I resigned myself to sit in coach, and we trudged tiredly to our gate after the mind-numbing six hour wait.

Once we boarded, I discovered that we had bad seats to boot.  AA charges Golds now for Main Cabin Extra seats, but I had managed to get row 10, first row on the 737-800 behind MCE, which I thought would be comfortable.  Trouble was, AA’s website didn’t indicate that there is no window in that row on the left side (737-823 series aircraft). It felt like being locked in a closet, very claustrophobic. My daughter had been looking forward to seeing Chicago on takeoff and San Francisco on landing, but that wasn’t to be.

Once again, I resigned myself to the five hour flight locked in a closet and waited for boarding to complete. At least the closet lights were on, I thought, which was better than being in the dark.

When finally the plane was buttoned up, the pilot announced that our aircraft was being taken out of service due to a maintenance problem. He asked us to sit quietly (my daughter and I locked in the closet of row 10) while AA tried to find a replacement airplane.  I called and told our friends in SFO to forget about picking us up or having dinner.

After about an hour, American did find a replacement airplane but would not say when we might get to San Francisco.  Still we sat on the plane, a nightmare for my daughter and me. We were already terribly exhausted.

Finally our captain announced a gate where a replacement 737-800 would soon be landing, and they let us off to march down the concourse.  So after suffering a six hour layover at ORD because AA eliminated their mid-morning connection and what would be a two hour delay because American can’t keep their aircraft operational, we had a five hour claustrophobic flight locked in a damn closet to look forward to.  The cherry on top was that we would have no one to pick us up when we arrived as originally planned. It would cost me $80 to get a car into the city.

We waited for the replacement plane to land and unload its passengers, baggage, and crew.  Finally we re-boarded, and I wasn’t surprised to find that row 10 on the new plane, also a 737-800, had no window, just like the broken airplane.  Still locked in a closet, I thought.  I had tried to get different seat assignments when we were waiting between planes, but was told nothing was available, period.  Bummer.

Once underway (finally), the captain (same cockpit crew) announced that we had significant tailwinds and would make up about 30 minutes, so we reached SFO a mere 100 minutes or so late.  En route, the very nice cabin crew took pity on my daughter and gave her a choice of free goodies.  It didn’t make up for the long delays or the claustrophobia, but it was a kind gesture just the same.

Coming home, I checked and found the same 737-800 aircraft type assigned to our SFO/ORD and ORD/RDU flights.  Since I had grabbed the same seats in row 10 on all four segments not knowing row 10 lacked a window on the left side, I tried in vain to change to a different row.  Unavailable, I was told.  Once at the SFO Admirals Club, I asked again.  Just before we left the club for our gate, an agent brought me two seats in different rows, but I knew I could swap to keep my daughter and me seated together.  (Of course I had asked about upgrades, but was told we were numbers 23 and 24 on the upgrade list for the flight and that just one seat up front was available.)

I had noticed on the flight out that the seats in coach were the modern “slim-line” design and that they seemed very uncomfortable.  I also noticed that because every one of those very skinny seats had a big LCD screen built into the seatback, AA had been forced to place the electronics boxes which controlled the flatscreens on the floor, thereby taking up valuable and scarce underseat storage and leg room.

In fact there are two electronics boxes per row per side so that only the center seats in each row have the usual width and depth of storage and leg room space under the seats.  Thus seats A, C, D, and F in each row are considerably narrower under those seats.  That means AA has robbed two-thirds of its coach seats of underseat space.  Good thing we had so little carry-on luggage and were allowed to board in the “Priority” group because it’s now impossible to stow anything other than a small bag under those seats.  I could hardly even get my feet and legs under the seat, so large was the electronics box.

We were very glad to have been able to move back a row, though, because at least we had windows on both sides.  I noticed once again that the left side seats ABC in row 10 had obscured views.  My daughter and I endured five hours in the air to Chicago in the cramped space of row 11, during which time my back began to ache from the uncomfortable slim-line seats.  Even my 11 year old daughter complained about the seat’s discomfort.

At O’Hare we had a three hour wait this time (again because of schedule change which had occurred since I bought the tickets), and the ORD/RDU flight was due in at midnight rather than 9:00 PM as originally planned. Our final leg was a carbon copy of the previous two: uncomfortable skinny seats on 737-800 airplanes with no underseat legroom and in the locked closet of row 10.

We landed, bleary-eyed and aching and feeling like prisoners held in solitary, a minute before midnight.  My wife had offered to pick us, bless her soul, but arrived at midnight to find us stranded on the tarmac with no ramp agent to guide us in.  AA had insufficient RDU ground staff to handle all the late arrivals just ahead of us.  The final insult was to sit there with the terminal so tantalizingly in sight for another 20 minutes before reaching the gate.  When the door finally opened, I was never so glad to get off an airplane.

In retrospect, it felt like the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture: the accumulation of many small pains that summed into misery.  I cannot fault the AA flight attendants for any of the problems.  At least on the four flights to and from San Francisco, FAs were universally upbeat, helpful, and kind–light years better than the dragon ladies on United flights. That said, the overall experience was bad.

It was especially disappointing after flying more than a million miles on American Airlines (well, actually many more than that, but a million since they started counting, anyway) over four decades.  Perhaps if I had paid less for our passage I would be less critical.  For almost $1200, though, I did not judge the experience as either comfortable or approximating value for money.

As an AA Million Miler, I enjoy lifetime AA Gold status, but I have a friend who didn’t make it to a million miles and, like me, does not fly as much as he used to (he’s an ex-consultant).  He grew up in London, but lives here in Raleigh, where he owns a solar business, and travels several times a year RDU/LHR via AA173/174, the nonstop flights that connect Raleigh to London, to visit his family.

American has offered him Gold elite privileges for a year for $649, and he asked me if it’s worth it.  He views snagging a more comfy seat in the Main Cabin Extra section of economy on AA’s 767 nonstops to and from London as the primary benefit of Gold status, a privilege that was gratis when MCE seating was first introduced.

Good question, I thought.  After doing some research and thinking about it, here’s what I told him:

“I checked the AA website. Normally, RDU/LHR in Main Cabin Extra is an additional $130 one way, so being Gold gets you a 50% discount, which is a $65 savings one way, or $130 round trip savings per trip. At that rate you’d break even at 5 RDU/LHR round trips (650 ÷ 5 = 130). 

“But of course as Gold you get other perks, like a free checked bag and somewhat earlier boarding in addition to the 50% discount on MCE seating in advance (and it’s complimentary for Golds within 24 hours of the flight if any MCE seats are left then).  You also receive a 25% mileage bonus if that’s important to you.  Lastly, and not easily quantified, American Airlines Gold status and higher elite levels usually give you preferential treatment though the elite desks when unexpected disruptions occur.”

To recap, measuring the value of paying for Gold status at AA will differ by individual travel patterns, distances, and frequencies, but for Raleigh-London, at least, it’s a wash after five round trips.  For those who want to dig into this question a bit more, comparison charts for all three AA elite levels can be found here.

 

 

As a boy growing up in the 1950s on the edge of a small eastern North Carolina town, I had immense freedom to explore the world of nature around me.  Of course it was a different era, one of innocence compared to now, but even still, my parents were tolerant and permissive of my desire to dive into the real world and discover it for myself.  Wild animals, plants, birds, and insects were abundant then in bucolic eastern North Carolina.  Untamed fields and woods were within easy biking and walking distance for an energetic boy like me.

Not that I had to venture far afield from our house to encounter wildlife.  It was then common to come across large Snapping Turtles, along with other turtles and many varieties of snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads, in our back yard.  Birds of many species were prevalent, too, and lots of mammals.  It was paradise for a boy who loved nature and the outdoors.

My parents never knew what wildlife to expect in the house: snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, turtles, birds, Flying Squirrels, insects of all types.  I knew to keep poisonous snakes outside and to be careful handling them.  My brother and I once kept a Copperhead in a 55-gallon drum for a week or so, and it was like watching coiled lightning as it sprung over halfway up the sides of the barrel trying to strike us.  We came to understand it would never tame, and we soon released it back into the wild, albeit a good ways away from where we lived.

Every type of creature fascinated me.  I spent many long hours studying insects in books and in the fields and woods nearby.  I loved hunting and fishing as much for the experience of being in the real world as for any fish or game I bagged.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my love of nature and some of the expertise I gathered about it as a youth would stay with me for a lifetime.

When I grew to manhood those experiences became dormant memories.  My livelihood from consulting was derived across the globe in many different countries, but almost always in dense urban areas where nature had been eradicated or at least severely minimized.  I missed the natural world and often felt I needed to be be back in touch with it.

In 1991 a consulting gig in Johannesburg led me to Africa for the first time.  Less than a month after I arrived in South Africa, I found the Kruger National Park (see here).  After that I went back to the Kruger–or to similar wildlife national parks in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana–almost every weekend and holiday until the consulting project concluded.  I have returned to these wilderness areas in southern Africa, and especially to the Kruger, again and again in the intervening 24 years.    My family and I just returned on January 1 from another two weeks cruising around this marvelous territory.

kruger_national_park_map

Why do I endure flying in coach tens of thousands of miles so often?  I have written before about returning to the Kruger (see this post from May, 2014), but I could never, until now, completely understand just what was drawing my soul to it.  On this most recent journey, it finally hit me:  Because the Kruger is magic to me!  I never come back without a significant replenishment to my spirit.  Experiencing it there is more real and true to me than the urban activities I engage in here in Raleigh every day in the interest of advancing civilization.  Oddly, traveling many thousands of miles to spend time in the Kruger National Park is, for me, like a time warp back to my childhood enjoying the simple pleasures and wonders of nature of eastern North Carolina in the 1950s. God bless the South Africans for preserving that significant piece of wilderness for now and future generations.  Like I said, magic.

 

 

My December 17-31 trip to and from South Africa brings me a total of ten flights since 2011 in Delta’s coach cabin on their longest nonstop flight, Atlanta to Johannesburg and back again.  Though experts may arm-wrestle over the actual distance, Delta posts SkyMiles credit for this pair of flights, DL200 and DL201, at 8,433 statute miles each way, and I don’t argue with them.  It’s a good 16 hours, give or take, each way, and can be even longer with severe headwinds.  Nonstop, mind you.

I’ve posted at length about how to survive, and even enjoy, this pair of ultra-long distance flights here, and I won’t repeat myself except to say my flying experiences on DL200 and DL201 last month were good and almost carbon copies of all the previous ones.  Bravo to Delta for managing the tough experience on coach passengers so well.  The flights in sardine class were as painless as one could hope for.

What dawned me on me during the long December flights was that I have never seen an empty seat on any of the ten flights in either the Economy or Business Elite cabin.  I’ve flown in February, March, April, August, and December, and every seat has been full on every airplane.  Never one to be shy about asking for an upgrade, I inquired politely but firmly each time I flew to be whisked up to the Business Elite cabin on the basis of my five million miles and Platinum status.  Delta personnel were invariably polite about declining, and more than once they have confided to me that upgrades never happen on flights 200 and 201 because Business Elite is always sold out.

Thinking maybe that Delta upgraded a few full fare coach Diamonds or Platinums ahead of a discounted coach fare-paying customer like me, I was astonished to hear time and again from fellow travelers in the Economy Comfort cabin that their Diamond status and full fare Economy tickets failed to get them booted up front.  Several told me that they regularly make the flights (every month or two) back and forth, always paying full fare coach, and have never been upgraded.  I’ve had similar conversations with well-heeled Delta customers sitting with me in Economy Comfort to and from JNB on every flight.

Apparently even full-fare Business Elite travelers can have trouble booking a sharp-end seat.  An American mining engineer who is a regular on the two flights every 45-60 days, and who always flies in Business Elite because his company pays for it, told me that he sometimes has to hunt for an available seat even weeks in advance because business class isn’t available on his preferred dates.

Nor have I ever been able to identify a nonrev Delta employee riding up front.  Excepting the odd award travel flyer, there are apparently fare-paying butts in every Business Elite seat on Delta 200 and 201 every day of the year. You can see the difference in space and comfort between Business Elite and the Economy Comfort section of coach immediately behind Business in these two photos:

20141217_202922-Best 20141217_202901-Best

The remarkable phenomenon of consistently full airplanes across this vast distance made me contemplate what profit Delta must be enjoying from this one pair of flights.  I Googled the flights every which way to see if I could find a clue and came up dry.  Except for an Atlanta Constitution article extolling the flights’ nonstop distances and my own earlier blog posts, there seems to be nothing on the profit margin contributions of these paired flights to and from Jo’burg.

I even went to my SkyMiles account to test what mileage would be required for award seats in Business ATL/JNB.  Using the new Delta tiers, the minimum and maximum miles required (one way) among the five levels are 80,000 miles and 175,000 miles, respectively, from the USA to South Africa.  Thus the round trip minimum is 160,000 miles, and the max round trip takes a bite of 350,000 miles.  Testing a range of future dates I was unable to find award seats for less than 255,000 miles round trip, and the majority were higher, up to 350,000 miles.  I found none at 160,000 miles, the theoretical minimum round trip, but I assume the 255,000 was 80,000 one way and 175,000 the other.  Assuming award seat availability is based on revenue capacity limits established for each flight, this indicates that ATL/JNB Business Elite seats must be selling pretty briskly.

In the absence of hard data I cannot draw any definitive conclusions, but if these flights are not Delta’s most profitable, then I feel certain at least that the CFO smiles every time he contemplates the torrent of revenue that DL200 and DL201 must be contributing to Delta’s bottom line.

As an enthusiastic fan of Southern Africa and especially of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which I have visited countless times since 1991, it never occurred to me that I should be worried about the Ebola crisis in West Africa spreading that far away (over 3,500 miles) any more than I should be worried about the botched Ebola case in Dallas, which is only 1,000 miles away from me in Raleigh, or the Maryland Ebola case, just 300 miles distant.

Naturally I continue to watch the Ebola situation to be prudent, but not out of fear of traveling to South Africa or any other country in Southern Africa. My family and I will be flying once again to Johannesburg in December for an extended stay in the Kruger National Park, and the Ebola outbreak is simply not a factor.

Apparently, however, many uninformed tourists have panicked and cancelled their trips.  Reports are that tourism in East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and Southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Namibia) is off by 40-50%.  The Daily Telegraph in England recently published this article about the phenomenon, accompanied by a map illustrating how distant the Ebola cases are to the tourist destinations in Africa:

We are eagerly anticipating our trip next month to South Africa.  The Kruger is always fun, the perfect place to take the family.  It is also easy to get to, easy to use (it’s a self-drive safari), and relatively inexpensive compared to safaris in Botswana.  As I reported some months ago, camping safaris in Botswana now run up to $500 per person per day or more.  Or at least they were that high before the Ebola hysteria set in, and the prices will again be that expensive once Ebola is under control. I read that airfares to East Africa and South Africa have dropped, too, as bookings have been cancelled.  If you ever dreamed of seeing African wildlife at bargain prices, now may be the time.

My wife and I didn’t let having children get in the way of traveling like we have always done all over the globe.  For instance, we thought nothing of taking our son, now 16, to England in his first year while a babe in arms.  He did fine, and he’s been all over the world with us since before he could talk or walk.  Later, when our daughter (now 11) came along, she joined us for every trip, too.

When my two kids turned three years old, I had to start buying a separate ticket for them, of course, and it was then that I registered them in Delta’s SkyMiles program and American’s AAdvantage programs.  (I also signed them up in the Northwest FF program, but those miles became SkyMiles when Delta and NWA merged.)  No sense paying for their seats and not accumulating miles in the frequent flyer programs, I reasoned.  Pretty soon their accounts were brimming with miles, but I never tried to use them.

We still take a lot of trips by air here in the USA and abroad.  Recently, though, my family has flown more on Delta than AA, and suddenly that’s caused a problem.  I noticed a few months ago that my kids AAdvantage miles will expire if not used by 6-30-15.  Or we can reset the clock by flying somewhere with them on American.  Since reasonable airfares have gone the way of the dodo, I decided instead to use their AAdvantage miles for trips with my wife and me before June of next year.

To do that I had to first get into their accounts.  I have their AAdvantage numbers, but I had to guess at the passwords I had set up for them.  I guessed right about our daughter’s, but struck out with my son’s, and so jumped through AA’s hoops for resetting his password.  I received a message saying that a temporary password had been emailed to me.  Except that it never came.  So I phoned American, and they told me that no email had ever been entered into my son’s account.  Then how come, I asked, AA sent me the email saying a temporary password was on the way? A puzzle, to be sure, they said.  I couldn’t get into my son’s account to add an email address without a password, but the only way I could add an email address was to get a temporary password that would be sent to me via the nonexistent email address.  A Catch-22, or even Kafkaesque!

Luckily the web expert at AA I spoke with believed me (after a lot of questions, to which I had the right answers), and she sent a temporary password to me which worked.  So now I was able to get into both kids’ AAdvantage accounts, and I was soon busy making reservations on their behalf on the same flight itineraries that my wife and I would soon make.

Of course the AA rez system calculated that my kids are 16 and 11, and when the time came for me to have the frequent flyer award travel tickets issued in each of their names, the system stopped me, saying they were each too young to fly on their own and would have to fly with adults.  There is nowhere in the online AA.com system to explain that they were indeed flying with adults: their parents!  That’s because our tickets and their tickets are on different PNR records and thus not associated with each other.  Another Catch-22.

Frustrated but undeterred, I phoned AA back and explained my conundrum.  The first agent I spoke with said he would be glad to associate the records, but I’d have to pay the ticketing fee (one fee for each of the four tickets) for using a real person to get the job done, even though the root cause is the flaw in their software.  Yet another Catch-22.  I declined his offer to enrich AA more, already perturbed that, as a Gold, I have to pay now for Main Cabin Extra seats.  Why should I pay for their logic errors?

I asked the nice AA rez agent if, instead, I could make the award seat reservations from my children’s accounts in my name and my wife’s name to avoid that problem.  Sure, I was told, as long as each of the children has a valid credit card in their name to pay for the nominal fees.  After all, you can’t pay in cash these days.  One more Catch-22.

My daughter has no credit card at age 11, and even though I recently acquired an American Express Platinum Card for my sixteen year old son, I realized that my plan would revert to the same problem when I tried to use my own miles, or my wife’s miles, to make reservations for our kids.  That is, the system would still prohibit those tickets being issued because it appears they are flying unaccompanied, regardless of the mileage source to pay for the free seats.  I sighed, comprehending the same Catch-22 as above, but turned on its head.

Defeated, I decided to take the coward’s way out and simply buy four tickets to where we are going, using AA.com, and thus reset the expiration date on everyone’s AAdvantage mileage.  It was the easiest way to stop wasting time, though it was disconcerting not to be able to use my kids’ mileage.  I guess we will have to keep resetting AA’s mileage expiration clock by periodically flying on American until our kids each turn 18 and can cash the miles in on their own.

[Footnote:  I have since learned from another AA agent I had to phone about a different matter that some agents will waive the ticketing fees to resolve the unassociated PNR numbers described above.  She was unsure, though, whether that’s AA policy or simply reservation agent courtesy discretion at work.]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers