The Curse of the Upgrade

We travel a lot, and our airline of choice is American. They have their own terminal at Raleigh/Durham (the nearest airport) and they tend to be competitive with our second airline choice, Southwest.

The benefit that pushes the needle in favor of American is their BusinessExtrAA program, which give points to both travelers as well as businesses. So we earn points good for travel and the poor soul who has to fly a lot gets ’em too.

Now a little while ago I noticed that I had these things called “upgrade points”. I found out that I could get upgraded from coach to first class using them.

But I didn’t know about the curse.

The class of airfare when you get upgraded is “X”. For me that means “Cancelled”.

The first time I upgraded was from Chicago to Raleigh. We are heading for the runway when a passenger gets ill and we have to pull over while they bring stairs and an ambulance to the plane. They decided to place him in the first class lavatory until it showed up. As this is a family blog, let’s just say I really, really wished I was as far back as possible.

The second time I upgraded was also from Chicago to Raleigh. The flight was cancelled due to heavy rain and I had to stay in Chicago for another day.

The third time was Chicago to San Francisco last week. I made it on the plane when they announced that something to do with keeping ice off the wings was broken. After an hour and a half they decided to fly without fixing it. So I finally got to ride in first, although I was slightly more nervous than usual.

This brings us to last Saturday, the return trip from San Francisco. David and I are waiting to fly back, and once again I was upgraded to first class. The equipment arrived 30 minutes late with the announcement that due to high winds, all flights through Dallas were cancelled.

Now the modern air travel industry tends to only fly packed flights. Which means that there isn’t really any room to suddenly dump 300 or so passengers into the system on a weekend and expect them to get home. While I waited on hold with American, David started researching our options on-line. He found a couple of flights that would, say, get us to Chicago or New York but wouldn’t get us home until late on Sunday. As we waited for American to answer, we saw even those flights become unavailable. It was looking like we wouldn’t make it back until Monday.

I really, really wanted to be home. So I was trying to think of what options we had. Was there an airline that wasn’t represented in the main reservation system? Aha! Southwest.

There was a flight leaving in one hour. Unfortunately it was at another airport. We decided to risk it.

I bought two tickets and we started running for the taxi stand. David stopped and said that we should print out our boarding passes.

For those of you that don’t know Southwest, they use “open seating”. The first 45 people to get boarding passes get Group A and get to board first (well, after all the elderly, injured and those with small children). The next 45 people get Group B and the last Group C. So it really helps to have your boarding pass before you get to the airport to insure a decent seat.

I pointed out to David that I wasn’t carrying a printer with me, and he pointed out that it didn’t matter – you can reprint boarding passes at the airport, all that was important was reserving one. So I stopped, opened the laptop, and checked in on the Southwest site. We got 89 and 90 – the last two spots in Group B.

The next challenge was getting from SFO to Oakland. We got in our taxi and I said “To the Oakland Airport, and floor it!” (I always wanted to say that). The cabbie took us to heart, and after doing 90 mph over the Bay Bridge we arrived in plenty of time for our flight.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. While standing in line my phone rang. It was Southwest wanting to insure that I had, indeed, purchased two tickets. I guess they usually don’t see people buying them that close to takeoff.

We flew to Las Vegas, then Phoenix, changed planes and made it to RDU two hours later than we’d planned. We hopped into David’s car and as he was backing out of the spot I said “Man, it’s good to be home” when, of course, the car refused to engage the drive gear. The laughter bordered on maniacal.

Eventually we got the car moving and I got to spend some time with my wife over the weekend. From now on I think I’m just going to bank my upgrade points.

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