November 7th, 2010

The party plane

There's a particular flavor of insanity that happens among certain frequent flyers-- it's called a mileage run. The idea is that you fly somewhere, not because you want to go there, but because you want to rack up miles and you found a cheap flight. The usual reason is maintaining status on the airline so that you get perqs, but people occasionally do it because they want to use the miles to go somewhere and they don't quite have enough. As often happens in situations like this, there's a forum where people get together to share fares, discuss arcane routing rules, and generally geek out about airlines.

I've done a few mileage runs this year, and I have a couple more to do before the end of the year. I did one today, in fact. It involved getting on a flight to Chicago at 6 a.m., transferring to a commuter jet to fly to Nashville, hanging out there for a few hours, flying to DC, then quickly getting on another plane back to San Francisco and landing a bit past midnight.

IF you think this sounds like lunacy, well... I won't argue. On the flip side, I've discovered that I rather enjoy it. It's enforce downtime for me, time where I don't have anything that I can do beyond reading a book, watching a movie, or sleeping. I don't make enough time for reading and movies, so mileage runs are a good time out from the rest of life.

One of the nice perqs of having status on United is that whenever you fly domestic, you automatically get put on the list for a free upgrade to business or first class. Your standing on the list is determined by a few factors, but one of the big ones is how high your frequent flyer standing is. I think I'm currently batting better than 50% for upgrades, which is why I'm mileage running to keep my status.

I scored business class on a 747 on the way to Chicago. That means extremely comfortable lay-flat seats, among other things. Apparently I was next to a screaming infant for most of the flight, but I only learned that when we landed-- I took off, flattened the seat, and then slept until we started our final descent. Chicago to Nashville was on a commuter jet, and I managed to score one of the six first class seats. I'm normally not a big fan of the CRJ, but in first class it's pretty comfortable. Plus, it's a short flight.

I had a three-hour layover in Nashville. I considered cabbing into town to find lunch, but instead parked myself at a passably-good barbecue place in the airport and ate pulled pork. There was live music at the bar next to the restaurant, and the singer was quite listenable. The airport was pretty nice but had a sleepy feel to it-- it wasn't wildly busy, and most people weren't moving all that quickly.

Back at the gate, I learned that I'd scored an upgrade on the commuter jet to DC. As I'm waiting for the flight to board, I hear a guy on the phone next to me swearing about the DMV. I chuckle at this universal annoyance. Then he mentions the Redwood City office, and my ears perk up. Indeed, I'm in Nashville waiting for a flight to Washington DC, and sitting next to someone who lives within 50 miles of me.

We board, and the DMV-hating guy winds up in the seat behind me. And then his seatmate shows up and says, "Hey, weren't you on my flight from San Francisco this morning?" I turn around to say something, and then my seatmate shows up and joins in the conversation. At this point, 1C, 1D, 2C, and 2D have all flown in from SF that morning (though via two different routes), and we're all heading to DC then back to SF. A lively chatter breaks out.

Seat 2A boards-- it's the person I sat next to flying from Chicago to Nashville. Now there are five of us, all doing a same-day-turn mileage run. Seat 1A is conspicuously empty, but fills shortly before takeoff. I recognize him as also having been on my earlier flight. We now have the entire first class cabin filled with people on mileage runs from San Francisco to Nashville and back, all of whom are users of the frequent flyer geekage forum that I mentioned earlier.

As one might expect, it's an entertaining flight. 1A sleeps through most of it, but the rest of us are having a grand good time. We even took a group picture in the middle of the flight. The flight attendants are amused and astonished that none of us have met before, and that we're all doing exactly the same thing. By the way, there's free wine in first class, even on short-hop commuter jets.

We land in DC and head over the boarding gate en masse, only to run into someone that one of us recognizes-- he's on a mileage run too, this one to Tampa and back via DC. He's the only person in the group who has managed to score an upgrade from IAD to SFO, and we're all jealous. Well, I had an exit row with a middle seat, so I'm only a little bit jealous. Plus, he sent the first class flight attendant back to deliver wine, cocktails, and snacks to us.

And can I just say that it's really nice to have a netbook that has enough battery life to last all the way across the country, tethers to my phone for net access on the ground, has a highly-usable keyboard and 1366x768 screen resolution, and lets me run whatever software I want? That little machine was a huge win.