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:

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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.]

Recently I decided to take a closer look at the incessant entreaties and come-ons from Delta and American Express for the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Amex credit card.  As an American Express cardholder since 1976 with a regular Platinum Card in my wallet, I didn’t really think I could use a second Amex account.  But what the heck, I thought, I’ll do the analysis and see if it’s worth keeping the card for a year to earn the bonus miles.  Delta’s new restrictions on the transfer of Membership Miles prompted me in part to think about it, even though I won’t be subject to the 2015 cap (250,000 miles, but will it shrink in ensuing years?).

Frequent flyer games you can play

Thus, after reading through the materials and making some calculations, I indeed accepted Delta’s offer for a Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express Credit Card.  I liked the idea of 45,000 bonus miles after the first $1000 in purchases within the first three months, and double SkyMiles for Delta purchases, and a $100 one-time statement credit, for reasons that will become clear.

After receiving the new SkyMiles card, I made plans for next summer for a double-whammy trip to the states of Washington and Montana: to Washington to take our kids to see where my wife and I were married twenty years ago at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park, and to Montana to make our annual trek to the beautiful Beartooth Mountains Wilderness Area to visit my wife’s parents.  I booked us on Delta all the way  I had already checked Kayak.com and several other air travel websites before deciding to get the Platinum SkyMiles Amex card.  All those sites were showing around $830 round trip for Raleigh-Seattle-Billings-Raleigh on every airline that flies to those cities.

I also checked SkyMiles seats, and awards were available for the lowest possible mileage, but that was 80,000 miles per ticket.  Despite being a Five Million Miler with Delta, I did not currently have 320,000 SkyMiles on account.  Doing the numbers, at the cheapest “free” seat category, the miles are worth $0.01 each.  At higher award seat categories, they are worth a good deal less than a penny a mile. $831 divided by 80,000 miles is indeed one cent per mile, so the frequent flyer seats would have been a relative bargain had I enough to qualify.

As it was, I charged all four tickets (for my wife, me, and our two kids) to the new SkyMiles Platinum American Express credit card, which will yield me 45,000 bonus Skymiles plus another 6,446 Skymiles because purchases on Delta count as two miles for every one dollar charged ($3223 X 2).  When we fly next summer, we will also earn another good chunk of miles, 6,274 SkyMiles per ticket, for a grand total of 76,542 SkyMiles for the four of us, all of which we can cash in later.  That took a little of the sting out of the annual fee for the new Amex card.  Here are the total frequent flyer mileages (SkyMiles) to be earned based on our itinerary:

RDU/LAX – 2237

LAX/SEA – 951

SEA/SLC – 690

SLC/BIL – 387

BIL/MSP – 746

MSP/ATL – 907

ATL/RDU – 356

TOTAL – 6,274 SkyMiles per ticket x 4 people flying = 25,096

GRAND TOTAL – $3,223 for four tickets x 2 SkyMiles credit per dollar charged = 6,446 + 45,000 bonus SkyMiles + 25,096 SkyMiles for actual miles flown = 76,542 miles

Not bad for the annual Skymiles Amex fee of $195–no, check that, for $95 after my $100 statement credit for getting the card.

Delta affirms that miles are worth a penny each

This exercise also made me rethink how Delta values each SkyMile these days.  Almost fifteen years ago I came up with a business plan which I called IDEALMILES.COM (a play on the words “I deal miles”) that would allow frequent flyers to sell their miles, or to buy frequent flyer awards based on miles, through an airline-sanctioned online clearing house.  Without going into a lot of detail, the scheme would have allowed airlines to harvest at least a penny a mile by acting as the intermediary.  I first pitched the idea to Delta.  Here is one slide in a presentation I put together in 2000:

IDEALMILES

It was too controversial at the time, and no airline expressed sufficient interest for the business to take off.  Airline CFOs were struggling with how to value the billions of miles carried on their books.  The following year’s effect of 9/11 on the commercial aviation industry put IDEALMILES to rest once and for all.

When I was hawking my scheme to airline execs, they were coy about the retail value they placed on each mile, so I was intrigued to find that Delta’s website now allows the use of up to 55,000 Skymiles per ticket to be used to pay for part of airfares, and that those miles are valued at a penny per mile (55,000 miles discounts an airfare by $550).  You can see how that works in this screenshot:

Delta mileage screenprint

So it looks like I had it right in 2000 when I offered Delta one cent per mile.  It just took awhile for them to do it their way.

By now I am pretty sure that everybody on earth with a computer has read Derek Low’s well-done blog post detailing, in words and great pictures, his flying experience in Singapore Airlines’ over-the-top “Suites Class” ($23,000 one way) on the A380 whale plane from Singapore to New York.  Okay, there are a lot of selfies, but you have to admit that Mr. Low did an outstanding job of describing the flight from the outrageously decadent “Private Room” lounge on the ground to the accoutrements of the luxury “Suites” toilet in the air.  If you haven’t read about it, click here.

DCIM100GOPROthe private room

I’m not flying these days nearly as often as I used to, but I can relate to Mr. Low’s zest for trying the experience.  When I was pulling down a tidy annual sum and my clients were springing for international business class for me to fly overseas, I’d often pay the difference out of my pocket to experience international first class, or use miles for the difference, or wangle the budgeted money for business into a first class fare class that was as cheap (like Around The World First Class deals). Several times I was able to fly around the world in First Class for $5024, including taxes.  At one time I kept count of the number of times I’d circled the globe, but I used those ATW fare deals on so many airlines so many times that I lost count.

Someone asked me if I was jealous about his burning frequent flyer points on this trip, and I laughed.  I’d have done the same thing exactly!  My hat’s off to him for taking the plunge and to Singapore for creating a super first class experience.  This is especially encouraging in an era when real First Class has mostly sunk out of sight in favor of Business Class.

Today’s international Business Class is not the same experience as international First Class used to be, at least not to me. Sure, the seats lie flat now, which they didn’t used to, and that’s a plus, but the service in general has declined.  The luxe factor is gone, except on the few routes and airlines that Joe Brancatelli wrote about here back in July.  Not so long ago, international First Class was famously dubbed “flying sharp end” by author Martin Amis in his book Money because First Class cabins were always up front (literally in the nose of 747s).  There was a mystique and a glamour about flying First Class overseas that never translated to C Class (Business).  So I really enjoyed reading about the SQ Suites Class because it made me recall memorable flights that offered true luxury like the Concorde.

concorde in flight

I flew three segments on the BA Concorde, which technically trumps everything else, past or present.  Seeing the curvature of the earth from 60,000 feet above sea level while scooting along at Mach 2+ (1350 MPH cruising speed) and sipping a glass of Krug Champagne or a fine vintage Bordeaux is hard to beat. The “mach meter” installed in each cabin was famous:

Mach 2 60000 ft cabin sign

The Concorde Lounges at JFK and Heathrow were as sumptuous in their day as The Private Room, though they did not aim for the feel of a London Men’s Club.  The Concorde Lounge atmosphere was designed to be a bit more convivial, though if privacy was what you wanted, Concorde passengers were discreet and polite.  Nobody would bother you.

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The interior of the Concorde was small because the airplane was designed to fly at twice the speed of sound.  The plane held only 100 passengers in a  2-2 seat configuration, all first class, of course, in two cabins.  My first impression of the classy gray leather seats was of a fancy DC-9 that had been outfitted with all First Class seats.  The seat pitch, however, was more than adequate, and the seats were quite comfortable.  Since the Concorde was all about speed (3.5 hours London to New York), seat comfort and lots of space were not as important as on relatively slow conventional aircraft like the A380. I never heard anyone complain of Concorde seats or space.

Cabin interior

But those three and a half hours were unforgettable.  After the thrilling acceleration and steep takeoff climb, drinks were refreshed and meal orders taken. Concorde service was impeccable, classy, refined, and delicious. From the Royal Doulton crystal designed solely for Concorde service to the endless supply of fine Champagnes and wines to fill them with and serving the freshest comestibles, Concorde was as special in fact as its hype.

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Here are two of the Royal Doulton glasses the crew of my last BA Concorde gave me when I deplaned because I had admired them so much, along with some of the other memorabilia British Airways Concorde crews piled on me:

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The sleek, futuristic Concorde design is timeless.  It looked then and still looks now like something out of a science fiction movie.  No commercial aircraft has ever been so beautiful to look at.  Its nose even pivoted for landing:

concorde landing

The Concorde was the pinnacle of flying of its day (retired in 2003), just as Singapore’s Suites Class on its A380s is now.  I’ve had friends express surprise, even resentment, that people would be so foolish as to fork over $23,000 for such an ephemeral experience. In today’s troubled and uncertain economic times, with the Middle Class (that’d be me) squeezed as never before, it does seem like an unnecessary extravagance.   But sheepishly I admit, though I may not have the wherewithal any more to see what that’s like, I enjoyed sharing it vicariously with Mr. Low.  Good on him for boldly doing it.

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