Buying two months in advance, I was delighted to snag a $233 roundtrip fare on Delta Raleigh to New Orleans and back through Atlanta.  And in Main Cabin!  (Well, I never book Basic Economy.)

The tradeoff was having to endure late night flights in both directions.  I hoped at least for upgrades on my Lifetime Platinum status; when the time came, I was surprised at my experiences negotiating all four flights.

As the outbound departure day neared, I got word from Delta that I’d been upgraded on the ATL/MSY flight—something that doesn’t happen to me often as a Platinum—but not on the RDU/ATL segment.  No matter, I thought; I had a secured a great bulkhead Comfort+ seat right behind First Class on that plane and would survive.

A Lyft ride to Raleigh/Durham after my last meeting of the day put me at the airport a bit over two hours prior to my RDU/ATL flight, so I quickly located an earlier schedule to Atlanta and asked the gate agent if I could stand by.  On condition that I didn’t have a center seat, I said, with a “please” and a smile.

The flight was full, as usual, with lots of folks on the standby list.  I didn’t think my walk-up request was worth much.  However, I was soon cleared for 24D, an aisle seat in the exit row with loads of legroom, and I happily jumped aboard the earlier flight.  My Platinum status had pushed me way up on the standby list, and either the computer system or the gate agent had assigned me a real good place to perch, proving that Platinum is worth something, after all.

My flying motto has always been: Take an earlier flight whenever possible! Would it work in Atlanta, too?  There was at least one flight to New Orleans earlier than mine, and I again went directly to the gate.

No dice this time.  The gate was lousy with standbys, a lot of them with elite status, and the flight was already overbooked.  I repaired to the nearest SkyClub, which was very crowded, and waited for my original flight.

The First Class upgrade on the ATL/MSY leg relieved stress, and I enjoyed being up front, if only for an hour or so.  Burnished the sense of value in my Lifetime Platinum status after 5.3 million miles on Delta.

Two days before my return flights, I received notifications from Delta that I was upgraded on both flights going home.  Frankly, I was astonished.  Upgrades came through on three out of four segments of my $233 itinerary?  When has that happened?  Not in years.  Okay, they were very late flights, but still…

Thus, as I prepared to head home, I was feeling pretty good that at least I’d be traveling sharp end.  I turned in the rental car five hours before my flight to Atlanta and went straight to the New Orleans SkyClub to see about standing by again for earlier flights.  I didn’t relish getting to Raleigh/Durham Airport at one in the morning, and I was willing to give up the upgrades to First to get home earlier.  Time trumped comfort.

The SkyClub agent clicked and clicked and clicked some more, like he was writing a Russian novel, and finally handed me two seat requests on much earlier MSY/ATL and ATL/RDU flights.  I rushed to the New Orleans gate and was again faced with mobs of standbys.  Looking at the seat request list on the electronic sign as far back as the 30s, I couldn’t find my ALL/W initials.

As before, I didn’t think I had much of a chance and asked the gate agent if I should just go back to the club.  With a twinkle in her eye and a grin, she quietly handed me a boarding pass, this one for 26F, another exit row seat, albeit by the window.  I couldn’t find my name on the board because she had already cleared me.

Boarding had by then commenced, so I marched down the jet bridge with my fellow elite members and got my bag put away well before the masses swarmed through the door.  I wasn’t wild about having the window seat, even if it was in a roomy exit row, but at least, I mused, it wasn’t a dreaded center seat.  I counted my blessings that I might get home at 7:00 PM rather than 1:00 AM.

An Australian fellow of far more ample proportions than I soon stopped at row 26 and announced that the center seat was his. He somehow squeezed his enormous form into it.  Egg-shaped, his upper physique bulged out beyond the confines of his own seat above the tiny armrests on both sides.  The effect was to force the aisle and window seat occupants to lean left (aisle) and right (window—me).  Except that I, hemmed in by the fuselage, had no space to lean into.  I was being squeezed in a vise.  Worse, the Aussie fell asleep en route, and his head and shoulders slumped over onto me.  My sharp elbows did little to rouse him from his slumbers. It was a most unpleasant trip to Atlanta for me.

The experience was made worse by slow/no drinks service.  The captain asked the flight attendants to put away their carts and prepare for landing just as they had reached row 25 in front of me.  I didn’t even get a glass of water.

No water, no service, no first class, and crushed by the Down-Under blob of blubber next to me, but at least I was arriving Atlanta many hours earlier.  I remembered Joe Brancatelli’s cheery advice to take a Zen attitude to such stressful discomfort.  Luckily, it was a short flight, and I was able to avoid going berserk.

Our flight touched down and nosed up to ATL gate E1—the very end of the E concourse. The earlier flight to RDU on which I was holding standby credentials was leaving from the B concourse, quite a hike.  With little time to spare, I ran as fast as I could, glad that I had packed a roller bag rather than my usual shoulder bag. I made it to gate B26 just before boarding was announced.

Once more my heart sank as I surveyed the situation.  It was a Monday evening, not a day or time when I expected a horde of travelers, even at busy ATL, and yet the gate area was SRO.  I checked the overhead sign and again could not see my name listed among the nearly 50 standbys.  The sign said only 5 seats were available in Economy, so I figured I’d be on the much later flight that landed at one in the morning.

But when I asked the gate agent, he winked and said I’d probably make it and suggested that I line up behind the Elite post and board when called after First Class.  So I did.  I was shocked to receive a boarding pass when I scanned my seat request document.

Because of my Platinum status, I was cleared ahead of 40-odd others to 32C on the MD80, a crazy aisle seat with three feet of legroom by the left rear exit door. Finally, I realized, it was time to relax. I had given up my 1B First class seat to get home at 7:09 PM instead of 12:52 AM, saving almost 6 hours.

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Seats 32C (aisle) and 32B (by the exit door) on Delta MD80 ATL/RDU – loads of legroom

I took a breath and practiced the Brancatelli-Zen attitude.  The fellow seated next to me in 32B was of normal proportions, and we managed to avoid colliding with one another the entire flight.

However, the captain announced before takeoff that he was ordering the cabin crew to perform an abbreviated service distributing only water because of expected turbulence.  When I heard the P.A., I called over the rear cabin flight attendant and whispered a request for her to please procure me a gin and tonic.  I pleaded that I was a five million miler and had dumped my First Class seat on the late flight to get home to my family. I said that of course I would gladly pay for the drink.

She promised she would try, time permitting.  The flight was indeed bumpy, with only water getting into everyone’s hands, and I lost hope of the G&T.

But just as the captain ordered the FAs to take their seats for landing, my flight attendant appeared with a G&T in a typical plastic water cup with ice—no lime—so looked like plain water. She gave me a conspiratorial smirk and patted my shoulder. “On the house,” she murmured.

Between happy slurps, I thanked her profusely.  Even sans lime, it was better than any gin and tonic I have ever received in First Class, no doubt because it was contraband.

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The view from 32C on a Delta MD80 – it’s a long way back!

Thinking back on those four flights, I am encouraged. I berate Delta on many counts with good cause, but their sophisticated computer systems and well-trained employees leveraged my Platinum status to very good results for me on that itinerary, for which I am grateful.  Some seats were a little quirky, but I saved six hours getting home. I hope and pray that I can count on Delta to provide such good care in the future.

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