Podcast #104 — Status Free Fall; TSA Knife Fight

Felix Baumgartner Losing United 1K Status (Redbull via YouTube)

Travel has been a bit less glamorous since I’ve fallen from the top tier status, especially when I’m doing “stupid” travel — up-&-backs across the continent in 48 hours. One of my recent flights was on a new United 737-900; the interior is a significant step up. Prepping for a vacation in Spain, I find it’s easier and cheaper to get an unlocked phone to use with a local SIM card. And it wouldn’t be a proper TravelCommons episode without a TSA story — the fight over the new knife rules misses the point. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.



Here are the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #104:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago. I was trying to get this written in time to do the show from the bathroom of the Vintage Plaza hotel in downtown Portland, or perhaps from the hottub that I found on the balcony of my room, but that just didn’t come to pass.
  • I’ve been on the road more than not since the last episode — a couple of days in New York, 18 hours in Detroit, but mostly in Portland, OR. 4 trips since the last episode. So I’ve experienced the full range of Portland weather — 38 degrees and drizzle all the way to 58 degrees and drizzle. But I’m nowhere near close to tasting the full range of Oregon beers, no matter how hard I try. And the listeners who are friends on Untappd have seen how hard I’ve been trying. My face has scrolled across the top of the digital menu at Bailey’s Taproom a few too many times.
  • And though I joke about the weather (and who doesn’t — even the natives apologize) I enjoy flying in Portland, taking the Max light rail into the city center, and having a 10 min morning walk from the hotel to the office. No rental car, no traffic. There is the occasional street person, but they’re much more polite than, say, the SF or Phila homeless.
  • One of those Portland trips was in the midst of what I call “stupid” travel — when I get committed to back-to-back meetings thousands of miles apart. I think I told the story a couple of years back when I did Chicago to London to Denver in two days. That was probably the stupidest trip I’ve done. This one wasn’t as bad — Chicago to Portland to Detroit and then back to Chicago in two days.
  • It went OK, as well as can be expected, right up until the last day. I had a breakfast meeting in lovely scenic Livonia, Michigan — a western suburb of Detroit — that has the redeeming value of not being very far from the airport. Good thing because it started dumping snow that morning. Not a big problem. I called Amex Travel — there’s an earlier flight to Chicago with seats available. I book it to the airport. Once there, I go up to the kiosk to change my flight, but it tells me that there’s no flight available. Hmmm… I walk up and down the concourse trying to find the right line to change my ticket. I have no status on Delta, so I can’t get into any of the Medallion lines. I’m not flying first class or internationally so I don’t qualify for those lines. I finally walk through an empty line that is for self-service baggage drop. Can you help me? She points to the kiosk — you can make all your changes there. But I can’t. She shrugs and turns away. I’m trying to play nice and follow the rules, which has gotten me into a black hole bounded by poorly programmed kiosks and indifferent employees. Luckily, the baggage claim woman’s shrug is not shared by all of her co-workers. On another lap of the terminal, looking perplexed and annoyed, a couple of red-jacketed Delta employees stop me. I tell them my story and they take me directly to the front of a Medallion line and I’m taken care of. I thank them all multiple times and head to the gate.
  • The flight is delayed 30 minutes because the inbound plane is late. Not surprising given the snow. No big deal. We finally board the plane. And wait. Now I know that deicing at Detroit Metro isn’t done at the gate — it’s done mid-field — so I know we’re not waiting for the goop truck. Hmm… 30 minutes later, a maintenance guy shows up with a screwdriver to replace the latch on an overhead bin in first class that was stuck shut. Then we wait 20 minutes for the paperwork to clear, and then we head to deicing. I eventually got home 30 minutes earlier than if I had just stayed on my original flight. That’s the definition of stupid travel.
  • Bridge Music — 7 Ghosts I by Nine Inch Nails

Following Up

  • A couple of Sundays ago, Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler podcast pinged me on Google Talk. “What to be a guest on This Week in Travel with Jen Leo and me?” “Sure, when?” “Now” And then an invite to a Google Hangout popped up. Oh, video! I had just finished working out. I grabbed a baseball cap before I clicked into the Hangout. It was a lot of fun — Chris, Jen and another guest — Corey Taratuta of the Irish Fireside podcast. After about an hour, we wrapped it up, but then when Chris went to save the Hangout, he couldn’t find the button. He looked all over the console. Turns out he had set up the Hangout as private instead of public. So no recording and probably the smallest audience of This Week in Travel ever. The next night, Chris pinged me again — Are you free? I have it set up correctly this time. And so we all popped back in. We started with a rundown of the week’s travel news headlines. Corey then talked about The Gathering, which is not the latest teen vampire book, but instead is this year’s big tourist program in Ireland. Which reminded me of my favorite Ireland travel moment — running low on clean clothes during a post-graduate tour of Ireland, I found a laundromat next door to a pub in Cork. And it was run by two very nice Irish women who took pity on me. They took care of my laundry while I had a couple of pints of Murphy’s stout. And yes, I did tip them. It’s a good fun. I have a link to the YouTube video on the TravelCommons site. I’ll also put a link to the audio podcast in the show notes.
  • In the last episode, I talked about a post in a FlyerTalk thread that said “The content of the Travel Commons podcast is interesting, but the guy’s voice is monotone and metronomically slow”. I said that it was probably from a former listener. Well, not true. The person, who asked me not to use their name, dropped me a note last week saying
    • “I’m still very much a regular listener and enjoy your podcasts! I’m Irish but living in China.
    • “It’s tough for a single podcaster to inject variety and drama into his voice. By definition it ends being an unspontaneous scripted monologue. That’s why it’s always easier to listen to an ‘interview’ format or a ‘two friends chatting’ format”
  • This is spot-on and the point was driven home to me again being one of four voices in “This Week in Travel”. And being part of four folks chatting, you’re not responsible for all the content. Trying to write 20-some odd minutes of interesting content is the main reason for the longish gaps between episodes. But, thanks for the note and I’m glad to hear that I’ve kept it interesting enough to keep you subscribed.
  • I’m heading out to Madrid and Barcelona at the end of this week for Spring Break with my wife and daughter. We have some tours set up — a market tour in Madrid suggested by Craig Martin from the Indie Travel podcast and a wine tour in Priorat (my favorite Spanish wines) — so I figured it would be handy to have a local Spanish phone number. I’ll often do this when we’re somewhere for more than a week — bring an unlocked phone and buy a local SIM card. When we visited Cape Town, the pre-paid SIMs were sold at the checkout line next to the register — gum, breath mints, SIM cards — just another impulse buy. There were two or three brands. I was flipping through them trying to figure out which one to buy when the guy behind me in line tapped me on the shoulder — “You looking to buy a SIM card?” Uh, yeah. “Don’t buy any of these. None of the numbers are good. I have better ones in my car.” Uh, OK…. So we bought our groceries and I followed the guy out to the parking lot. He opened his trunk and had about 50 SIM card packages. He started thumbing through them “Nah…, Nah…, Ah! Here’s a good number.” I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between this one and the one I was looking at in the grocery store, but whatever. I gave him some rand, put the SIM into the Motorola V551 that for some reason Cingular had shipped unlocked, and booked a table for dinner down the road. Very handy.
  • I still have that V551 in a plastic bin, buried under a bunch of other semi-obsolete electronics that I keep thinking I’ll have use for, but no, it’s time has passed. When we’re in Spain, I’ll perhaps want to make a couple of calls, but will be more likely to be sending texts or getting directions or looking at a map or posting pictures — not something that 7-8 year phone is going to handle. Looking around a unlocked smartphones, the market is getting a lot better. Google’s Nexus 4; BLU Products just announced a new Life series that looks good. Tempting, but I pulled out my old iPhone 4 outta my desk drawer and filled out AT&T’s on-line unlock request. They spun on it a couple of days and then sent me an e-mail saying that I’d been approved. But then I needed to find a non-AT&T microSIM to finish the unlock. I tried to cut down the Simple SIM that I’d used to unlock my iPhone 3G, but I must of clipped a contact because it didn’t work. Then I saw a T-Mobile offer — $1 dollar to have a microSIM shipped to my house. Done. It showed up a couple of days later. I dropped it into the 4, synced it to iTunes and it told me I was unlocked. I’ll buy a local SIM when I hit the ground in Madrid. However, unlike Cape Town, I understand that I need to register with my passport to buy one. Doesn’t sound like I’ll be riffling through some guy’s trunk.
  • And finally, we’ve talked in the past about old planes. I talked about how I avoid flying American’s MD-80s. I ended up on Delta’s version on one leg of my Portland-Detroit flight. Must’ve been an old Northwest plane because the interior looked like one of their renovated DC-9s, the predecessor to the MD-80. Quite a change when I walked onto a brand new United 737-900 on Monday for a flight back out to Portland. I think it still had a bit of that new plane smell. It had mood lighting and regular electrical plugs a la Virgin America; the push-up/sloping-up overhead bins a la 777. The air vents were some goofy leaf-like construct that took me a minute to figure out. But what caught my eye was what was missing — there were no video screens anywhere. Was this a new trend — was United cutting weight and maintenance costs, acknowledging the trend of passengers bringing their own entertainment devices? Uh, no. As we were pushing back, the flight attendant apologized for the lack of video. She said that the plane was so new, it hadn’t yet had a chance to be retrofitted for in-flight entertainment yet. So much for trend spotting.
  • But hey, If you spot a trend, or have a question, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along.  The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — use the Voice Memo app on your iPhone or something like Easy Voice Recorder on your Android phone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to @mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge music — Stupid Now by Bob Mould

Status Free Fall

  • A couple of episodes ago, I talked about how my summer travel sabbatical was going to significantly impact frequent traveler statuses. I was reminded of that on Sunday, St Patrick’s Day, when I was playing The Pogues and the song “If I should Fall from Grace with God”. For a couple of years, I was Global Services on United — the top of the top of the Mileage Plus heap. It was rare I didn’t get an upgrade. And when I consciously chose to sit in coach — like when I was flying with my family — flight attendants would come back, ask me why I was in the back, and then bring me free drinks from first class, which would generate quite a hairball of emotions with my wife — some tangled mess of amusement and disgust.
  • When I fell out of that rarefied air to just plain 1K, it was a bit of an adjustment — where did all the kissing up go? But this year’s fall was going to be steeper — from 1K to Premiere Silver, the lowest level of status. I was close to keeping Gold — I probably should’ve done a mileage run to the West Coast — but the holidays crept up on me faster than I thought. United graciously offered a couple of times to sell me the 3 or 4 segments I needed for $650. I passed. And so I dropped to Silver on Feb 1. Just in time for me to start these Chicago-Portland hauls where United has the only convenient direct flights available. I get dropped down one boarding group — from 1 to 2 — which hasn’t been a big deal. I haven’t had a problem finding overhead space. The bigger pain is not being able to pre-book Economy Plus seats for free. For all of United’s faults, the extra legroom of Economy Plus has always kept me coming back. But as Silver, I can’t book Economy Plus from free like I could as 1K. Now I either pay for it, or wait 24 hours before flight time when I can book it for free. I haven’t had a problem yet, but the ORD-PDX flights don’t seem to be the highest volume legs. Not a huge issue — more of a discomfort than anything — but when you’re spending 8-9 hours a week — or more — in a plane seat, a couple of extra inches starts to matter.
  • It’s interesting, though, to compare United’s approach to the approach taken by hotel brands. I’d been Marriott top tier — Platinum — for many years — earning it the hard way by spending 75 nights in the Ren Cen Marriott in downtown Detroit, a property legendary in its awfulness. When I changed jobs three years ago, Hilton properties were much more convenient to my offices and so I switched. That first year I made Hilton’s top tier — Diamond — and certainly didn’t re-qualify for Marriott Platinum. But Marriott didn’t drop me. They soft landed me, dropping me one status level a year. I appreciated that, and it kept me staying with them, even if not as frequently. And this year, Hilton kept me at Diamond even though I didn’t meet their thresholds. I’m sure they’ll start to drop me next year, but they too will keep some business.
  • And these programs are businesses. What started out as a way keep passengers loyalty in the early scary days of airline deregulation has turned into a cash-generating business in its own right. In 2010, it was estimated that Citibank paid American more than $1 billion for miles it distributed to AAdvantage credit card holders. Makes sense then that one of the first things American did when it filed for Chapter 11 was to tell everyone that their miles were safe. Employee pensions may take a haircut, but not AAdvantage balances.
  • Now it’s one thing to be “de-statused” because I didn’t thresholds, but it’s a whole other thing to get crammed down a peg because they make a new level above you. Now, this has been going on for a while. At the beginning of American’s AAdvantage program — the original frequent flyer program — there was only one status level — Gold. And then they added a new level, Platinum. And then Executive Platinum as ways to further differentiate level of frequent fliers, and give them a new “brass ring” to chase. Kinda the original “gamification” play, but with early boarding instead of badges as the reward. Of course, if you’re just hitting the top of the old structure, you’re now down a peg when the new level gets created.
  • Which you can understand for the annual award levels, but what about if it’s associated with a lifetime status award. United Million Mile fliers used to receive lifetime Premier Executive status — the middle status akin to American’s Platinum level. Both these levels would earn 100% mileage bonuses — earn 2 miles for each mile flown. American is still that way, but when United merged with Continental, Premier Exec became Premier Gold, the mileage bonus was reduced to 50% and a new level, Premier Platinum was inserted above it. If you’d invested dollars and time hitting a million miles on United, the return on that investment just got cut in half. And, of course, someone sued. And last month, the judge rejected United’s bid to throw the case out, saying “the court finds it plausible that defendant (United) had a contract with Million Miler members which differed from the contract they had with other Mileage Plus members.”
  • So I guess if you’ve been around long enough, even the airlines have to bring you in for a soft landing.
  • Bridge music —When Irish Eyes are Burning by the Ike Reilly Assassination

TSA Knife Fight

  • The TSA’s announcement that they’ll allow small non-locking knives and various pieces of sports equipment past airport security checkpoints seemed to be executed with the agency’s typical obliviousness. They didn’t warn or try to pre-sell the idea to folks that have a stake in the decision — airlines, flight attendants, even air marshals. Instead, they just dropped an announcement and expected everyone to just go along. Are they surprised that everyone is questioning their judgement? Remember, this is the one federal agency that’s more despised than the IRS.
  • Even if the TSA’s threat analysis is correct, what good does it do to announce this change? I can’t remember the last time I was in a TSA line and heard someone say “Dammit, I should be allowed to take my pen knife (or hockey stick) on a plane!” People complain about taking their shoes off, they complain about having to dump their water out, but no one complains about having to leave their knife behind. And yet this is the issue the TSA decides to make a stand on. Sheer brilliance
  • The sports equipment change — that doesn’t make any sense to me. But the pen knife thing — the better approach would’ve been to change the policy and not announce it. Anybody who’s observant has noticed that the TSA has eased up on semi-liquid toiletries. While you still can’t bring a full-sized bottle of shampoo onto a flight (and really, who needs to? Hotels provide an unlimited amount of toiletries and if you’re staying in a vacation rental, you’re going to the grocery store once you arrive, so buy it there), I haven’t had a screener pull out my hair stuff or a travel-sized toothpaste in years. They’re still technically forbidden and the screeners can still see them, but they’re rightly focused on more dangerous things. A more practical TSA would let their screeners ignore pen knives and leave it at that.
  • The September 11th attacks changed many things — including how passengers react to a terrorist attack. Before September 11th, the counsel to passengers was always to be passive, not to put yourselves in harms way. You’re just a bargaining chip. Let the professionals negotiate with the terrorists — give them money, safe passage — and odds were, you’ll get out OK. The attempted attacks after September 11th — the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber — were all subdued by the passengers around them. Nowadays, even unruly drunks get jumped and zip-tied by their fellow passengers. In this environment, I just don’t see someone taking down a 767 with the knife on a corkscrew.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #104
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from Nine Inch Nails and the Podsafe Music Network
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
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