Thursday, May 17, 2007


The difference between paying $250 and $800 or more for a commercial airline flight depends on how much you value a three-inch long, 4mm-wide biscotti.

My flights to and from Charlotte on US Airways this weekend got upgraded because of being a frequent flyer. You are probably familiar with the system. To qualify for the minimum level, Silver, you have to fly 30 segments or 25,000 miles in a year’s time. Not too hard to do, especially considering US Air’s many connections I have to take to secondary cities where I do my work, and each hop counts as a “segment.” One trip often yields four segments. Once you're at least Silver, you get unlimited upgrades so long as seats in First Class are open.

So two days out from my flight, I get a friendly email with an Upgrade Status Update. I’d say I get upgraded one out of three or four flights. I have never paid nor will ever pay for First Class within the US. Taking the lovely K to San Francisco or Tuscany for our next big getaway, now that’s a different story. But I should have miles to cover most of it.

Here’s what you get in First Class:

1. Board first…after the children, disabled, and Top Secret Air Marshals.
2. The flight attendant takes your sport coat and hangs it up.
3. S/he offers you a drink (sometimes, not on all flights).
4. Your seat is slightly wider (3.3 inches) than in coach and made of pleather that is not nearly as nice as the leather seats in our Honda minivan.
5. You have a little more leg room (~6 inches).
6. In flight, you are offered another drink – you get two three-ounce cups of soda in First Class.
7. The flight attendant brings around an attractive basket – you paid for that basket, but please don’t ask to take it home with you, because everyone else paid for it, too – filled with organic blue tortilla chips, pretzels, nuts, or biscotti. You have a choice of one or, if you are feeling impish, you maybe take two.
8. You have "exclusive" use of the First Class lavatory. (But I have flown enough with our three small kids that if one of my boys has to go: Sorry, you'll have to wait, Mr. Full-Fare-Paying First-Class Passenger.)
9. You exit the plane first (dependent on position of doorways).

Maybe if I got that third soda I could justify the extra expense of paying full fare… In the meantime, there is still the thrill of the bargain when I get that email that announces I’ve been upgraded. It's sort of the of rush when your bid is accepted.

My colleague is flying back from Charlotte on the same flight. Unless he moonlights as an Air Marshal, I’ll be walking by him at the gate: “Oooh. Sorry, dude…free upgrade.” He’ll give me grief when we get back.

There are times when you don’t necessarily want free upgrades.

Like the time Enterprise gave me a SUV when I had reserved a standard. I drove only about 30 miles that day but used more gas than my Corolla back home used in a week. We negotiated down the rental price because of it.

Or the time they were out of standard size and only had a premium car, a Volvo S40. It was sweet: silver with a sunroof and leather seats, amazing sound system. Sweet…on the lot, that is. Not sweet picking up my boss’s boss. My job involves raising money for a non-profit, so showing up anywhere to pick up anyone in a sun-roofed Volvo S40 is a bit sketchy. But the alternative was probably a Geo…so I took the Volvo and starting plotting my explanation. I was all smiles and aw-shucks when I picked up our chairman and his wife at the airport.

Everyone I saw got the story, the explanation, the aw-shucks.

But during that trip I had to drive alone from Charlotte to Raleigh, almost a three hour trip, and the sunroof and sound system made all the explaining worth it. Aw-yeah.

It was much better than biscotti, and the leather was real.

photo: beriliu

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