Travel achievement unlocked: million-miler status on United Airlines

The past three months of travel have returned me to many of my usual winter destinations, which has been great all around. But one flight in particular also took me somewhere I’d never reached before: past one million miles on United Airlines, a line I crossed 75 miles before landing in Frankfurt on my way to Barcelona for MWC last month.

Boarding passes--one for the IAD-FRA flight that put me over 1,000,000 miles, followed by older ones from United and Continental, with foreign-currency coins placed to hide my frequent-flyer numbers--sit atop a route map from United's Hemispheres magazine on which Dulles and Newark are visible.

That’s not one million frequent-flyer miles earned: United, like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, offers a separate set of benefits to long-term customers based on miles flown. And United is both stricter about welcoming passengers to them and more generous afterwards.

Where Delta simply totals expenditure-based elite-qualifying miles and American factors in flight distance on paid flights on its aircraft plus base miles earned on paid partner-airline flights, United counts just miles aboard its own planes with only two minor accounting exceptions (read after the jump if you want the details). Its reward for the first million miles is MileagePlus Gold status for life–still the best mid-tier status you can get on the big three carriers.

My journey of a million miles started with an ignominious single step: I misplaced a paper ticket and flew Continental Airlines a day late from Newark to Paris to visit my family in the spring of 1989. (I didn’t have a CO frequent-flyer account until my father opened one for me in January of that year; thanks, Dad.) After a couple of years of that transatlantic lifestyle, I barely left the ground for the next few years and flew Continental even less. Fortunately, that airline didn’t enforce a miles-expiration policy–allowing my wife and I have a wonderful ride to Italy and back for our honeymoon, upgraded with miles I’d earned a decade ago.

I didn’t open a frequent-flyer account on United itself until 2003. (My Washington Post colleague Keith Alexander’s business-travel coverage and my belated introduction to FlyerTalk were instrumental in making me realize the utility of focusing my business on the airline with a hub here.) E-mail statements from United are the only records I have left that long ago of my lifetime miles, and they show the number slowly ascending–from 52,056 in February of 2007 to 92,926 in February of 2009.

A blue United tag, with a 737's engine and the Pacific Ocean visible through a window in the background.

But then two things happened within about six months: United and Continental completed their merger in October of 2010, and then the Washington Post got rid of my column and my job. The first development combined lifetime miles mostly accumulated on flights out of Newark in the previous century with those I’d clocked more recently out of Dulles and National; the second freed me to travel, both on my own money and that of conference organizers.

By February of 2016, I was up to 581,205 miles; by February of 2018, two years of covering and speaking at events across oceans had me at 750,291. Along the way, I developed an exhaustive acquaintance with the seat maps of United’s fleet, increasingly detailed mental maps of its hubs, and an enduring fondness for George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” even after hearing snippets of it thousands of times in United ads, safety videos and hold music.

At the start of 2020, I finally added a column to my status-tracking spreadsheet (if you don’t have one and you’ve read this far, you should fix that) to record my million-mile progress. And then that progress stopped.

Last year saw this journey resume in earnest, and I finally crossed the million-mile mark on Feb. 26. Some avgeeks have had their flight crews celebrate the occasion, but I didn’t want to make myself too much of the story.

Because my newfound lifetime status wasn’t just about me: United lets million milers designate a companion to share their benefits, meaning I could elevate my wife to my own status. Sending an early-morning e-mail from a lounge in Frankfurt to surprise her with that news felt as good as any upgrade clearing ever has.

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An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

Weekly output: value-priced Android phones, Star Alliance lounges, Howard Schultz, bots and bias

AUSTIN–I’m here for my eighth SXSW conference, but only my second with a speaking role. And this one, unlike the tech-policy panel I moderated here in 2012, came together much later in the game.

3/4/2019: MWC highlights include affordable smartphones, not just foldable ones, USA Today

This MWC recap covers a few phones coming to the U.S. market, plus one that’s not–but whenever Xiaomi does bring its budget-priced Android phones here, a lot of other vendors will find themselves in serious trouble.

3/6/2019: The Lounges You Didn’t Know You Could Use on Domestic Flights, The Points Guy

I’ve had this how-to post in my head ever since the first time a United 1K elite told me he had no idea he could use the Lufthansa lounge at Dulles.

3/10/2019: Howard Schultz just showed he doesn’t have a grasp of the issues, Yahoo Finance

I saw not one but two talks by the former Starbucks CEO–his morning SXSW talk and a later appearance before an entrepreneurs’ group. They left me convinced of Schultz’s ethical-capitalist aspirations and of his fundamental unseriousness in talking about such issues as health care and the definition of “socialism.”

SXSW 2019 mic

3/10/2019: On Bots and Bias: When What Machines Learn Is Wrong, SXSW

I basically vultured my way into moderating this panel. Speakers Anamita Guha, with IBM Watson, Pandorabots’ Lauren Kunze, and Dashbot’s Justina Nguyen had gotten their topic approved months ago but needed a moderator, and when my friend Mike Masnick asked in a Feb. 20 tweet if any journalists he knew wanted that gig, I replied almost immediately that I did. Fortunately, the short-notice panel prep did not turn out to be a problem. My fellow panelists were all aces and capably explained this complicated subject.

Watching concrete dry on the way to Dulles

I find watching paint dry as dull as anybody else, but concrete’s another thing–when it’s reinforced by steel in the service of a large construction project that I will enjoy at some point in the hopefully not indeterminate future.

That’s why I don’t sit on the bus from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro to Dulles International Airport. I stand so I can get a better look at construction of the Silver Line’s extension to IAD and beyond.

Silver Line construction at IADThat project’s opening seems painfully far off when I look at a calendar and note how many months stand between now and 2020, the current if-all-goes-well estimate for its opening. It annoys me to observe how slow we build a railroad on mostly open ground–it’s not like we’re trying to thread the Second Avenue Subway under Manhattan, people!

But seeing bridges placed over roads and streams, the structures of stations emerge from the dirt, and columns rise out of the ground to carry aerial tracks through Dulles reminds me that there is a payday coming… someday.

Gawking from the bus or a car is also one of the few ways to monitor this progress. The Dulles Metro project sends out an e-mail newsletter every few months, and a thread on railroad.net (I know, nerd) sees a post maybe once a week on average, but there’s no Flickr or Instagram account to follow and no construction webcam to check.

Peering through the windows of a packed Silver Line Express bus is not a great substitute for that… or for, you know, having a one-seat and traffic-immune ride to my city’s international airport. But at least it gives me an excuse to give my phone a rest.