I Flew Three Million Miles on American…

…and all I got were these luggage tags.

Three Million Miler Tags

Three Million Miler Tags

Okay, that’s not exactly true. I didn’t actually fly 3 million miles. When you get to a certain mileage level, they juice your stats a bit. Technically speaking, I probably have only flown about 2 million actual miles. But it’s still a lot. Took me close to thirty years.

When I first started flying on American, it wasn’t even American. It was a regional airline called AirCal. Used to go back and forth to San Francisco damn near every week for a few years in the ’80’s. Ground out 25,000 miles that way, 343 at a pop. Went to Alaska with the missus for a reward. American acquired AirCal in 1986 and my mileage transferred over.

I did most of my heavy mileage in the late nineties. Mostly US domestic, with a handful of international gigs: London, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Manila among them. Back then there were “business” fares and “tourist” fares controlled by how many days in advance you bought the ticket and the all important Saturday stayover. We used to game the system a bit, by buying “wrap-around” tickets – basically you put two trips together and by reversing the itinerary of the two middle legs, you could make it look like you had Saturday stayovers for both. Was a neat trick until the airlines caught on.

When I first started flying, it was sort of exciting. Even though I wasn’t a rock or movie star, it was as close as I was gonna get to being a member of the “jet” set. Flight attendants still were relatively attractive, there was hot food, (even in coach!), planes were relatively empty and business people and the wealthy comprised a higher percentage of the passengers. Although we had airport screening, the process was a lot looser. You kept your shoes on, laptops remained in their bags. You could pack as much shampoo as you wanted and leave it right in your carry-on, no questions asked! Ticket prices were a lot higher then, in some cases as much as 800% higher, so there were fewer babies and vacationers. There were also fewer seats, more overhead space for luggage and more room for your knees. The movies still sucked on American (and for the most part, still do) but overall, it was a much less stressful experience.

Of course, all that changed on September 11, 2001. I happened to be in the middle of a trip that morning, having flown into Chicago the previous day. I got temporarily stranded, but eventually was able to fly back. The terrorists didn’t just succeed in taking down the towers that day. They also made life miserable for every American flyer, for every flight, from that day forward.

September 11 affected everything from the screening process to the toilets. During the first few months, screeners confiscated nail clippers, tweezers, scissors, corkscrews, batteries, and many of the other nefarious implements you can find in any American bathroom. Apparently, personal grooming devices become lethal once they reach 30,000 feet. Flight attendants, already a bit surly, became far more so, and used the drama of the hijackings to justify treating passengers like cattle. Bitter labor disputes, widespread bankruptcies (except for American) and general paranoia contributed to a poisonous atmosphere aloft. And that was before they cut back on the cabin oxygen to save money.

Now there was no “congregating” in the aisles. Sit in your seat til it’s your turn to pee. No, we don’t have any (effing) blankets. No magazines, either – they are apparently a security risk (seriously.) The captain’s gotta pee! Block the aisle with the drink tray. The new rules were, “Sit in your seat, shut up and just be happy we’re not headed for the Empire State…. building.” And, the passengers, sheep that we are, pretty much accepted them.

Later came fewer flight attendants, many more seats, “Honey, I’ve Shrunk Your Legroom (Again)” and The End of Free Food. Now the only tolerable way to get through a four plus hour flight was to get upgraded to first class.

If there is one thing I can tell American I appreciate is their policy of offering the big, usually kid-free, seats in the front of the plane to regular flyers that are willing to pay a little extra for the privilege. If they did not have a comprehensive upgrade plan that I have religiously taken advantage of, I would have never made it to three million. There’s food up there, and although it’s not great, it’s not bad – and eating it ever so slowly kills about an hour. You can sleep, you got tons of legroom, there’s always room for your bag and the flight attendants treat you with slightly less disdain. Plus you get to feel superior to all those poor bastards in the back.

I don’t fly that much anymore. I’ll be lucky to log 50K this year. I hate going through the security line so much that I just stay in Chicago over the weekend rather than fly home and fly back. Too bad that the Saturday stay over doesn’t save any money anymore! The airlines probably foresaw this development when they were changing the rules.

But American’s loss is Hilton’s gain. My extra days at the Palmer House (the beacon of historic elegance and service in downtown Chicago) have catapulted me into the rarified rank of #1 Guest of 2011. The Hilton still has free food, there’s plenty of room for my legs and they don’t scrimp on the oxygen.

I probably won’t make it to four million miles. I’m too old, the TSA isn’t getting any nicer and I’m just not that in demand anymore.

Plus, American just announced that, if you want to get those luggage tags in the future, you have to actually fly the full million.

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