Chicago. Dec. 8, 5:30 a.m.: I am at the coffeepot, steeling myself for a grueling day in the air. O'Hare to LaGuardia at 7:40 a.m., Central time. LGA to Dallas at 11:29 a.m., Eastern. DFW to San Francisco at 3:45 p.m., Central. And then SFO back to Chicago at 6:20 p.m., Pacific, landing here again a little after midnight.
I booked this bizarre itinerary not, as one friend suggested, so I could do all my holiday shopping from Sky Mall. Instead, I am running a mileage marathon to retain my Executive Platinum (EP) status on American Airlines.
To reach EP on American - or 1K on United, Platinum Medallion on Delta, Chairman's Preferred on US Airways or Platinum Elite on Continental - the requirements are similar. All the frequent flier programs count only miles or segments (meaning basically a trip takeoff to landing) flown on paid tickets during a calendar year. Executive Platinum, 1K and Chairman's Preferred require 100,000 qualifying miles or 100 segments (120 on US Airways). The Delta and Continental programs put you on top with 75,000 miles.
What's so great about being Executive Platinum? A lot, frankly. As an EP, I outrank other passengers for first-class upgrades on routes in North and Central America. The upgrades are free for EPs and seem to come through on about 90 percent of my flights. First class brings a bigger seat, a power outlet for my computer, a free meal (usually) and first crack at storage bins for my carry-ons. Plus, eight times a year I can move up gratis to the next class of service when I book my ticket on routes anywhere in the world, so coach tickets to Buenos Aires become business class the minute I buy them.
It's a collection of perks I - and many others - are loath to give up.
Randy Petersen, the founder of FlyerTalk.com and the editor of InsideFlyer magazine, estimates that about 50,000 passengers take off on what he calls "mileage runs" from mid-November to the end of the year. Most of them, according to Petersen, have the same agenda: "Don't spend much time or money." After all, it's not a free perk if you have to work hard or pay much to get it. My assistant, Kathleen Conway, who plotted my trip, has me circling the United States and flying more than 5,400 miles in one day for a total fare of $510 - and all of it in first class.
6 a.m.: When the garage door rises, I see I have hit my first rock. It's snowing. Anything but flurries backlogs ORD, often for hours. I have close connections all day. Miss one, and I'm cooked. But there are factors in my favor: It's an early-morning flight, so the plane should already be waiting on the ground, and my flight will probably land and then depart from Terminal D at LaGuardia, so my next gate should be just a quick walk away. All considered, if we get off the ground by 8:30 a.m., I will still have a chance, especially because all my boarding passes were printed in advance. I head to O'Hare.
7:09 a.m.: Plane was indeed here, and boarding begins. As I get on, I see a rep I know from the airline's VIP service program, called Concierge Key. When I tell her what I'm up to, she laughs and recounts a snowy day like this one last year, when she had an EP booked on a three-leg trip from ORD to Los Angeles. The Chicago flight was delayed, meaning the passenger would miss his connections, so she rebooked him direct from O'Hare to LA. The passenger pitched a fit. He needed three segments to reach 100.
The door is closed by 7:34, but with de-icing, we don't push back from the gate until 8:10. With any traffic jam on the runways, my whole plan will crash and burn. Instead we taxi right out and take off at 8:21, nine minutes ahead of my drop-dead time. Better yet, there is a strong tailwind, giving us a projected arrival time of 11 a.m., 29 minutes ahead of my Dallas flight.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is on board, and my seatmate tells Huckabee he's awesome. "You should be upgraded on every flight," Huckabee replies.
10:59 a.m. ET: We arrive at Gate D4 at LaGuardia, and my Dallas flight is boarding when I dash down to Gate 8. The only bad news is that I learn on a brief call that O'Hare is socked in by now. Will I actually get home from SFO? The suspense never ends.
11:30 a.m.: I declined the continental breakfast on the way to New York, opting instead for an Egg McMuffin before boarding. I knew that one of the hazards of today might be four meals and no exercise. Still, with the scheduling uncertainties, it's hard to turn down food. I choose salmon salad for lunch, decent enough, which comes with some knockout hummus and pita chips. I eat about half as I converse with my seatmate, Ramon Wu of Tulsa, who is a Platinum. The director of wholesale sales for Tata Communications, he flies about 100,000 miles a year, but enough of it is on other airlines that he can't quite reach EP. Nonetheless, he values his Platinum. "If your flight cancels or gets delayed for hours, you really need your status," he says, pointing out that premium mileage fliers get rebooked by the airline service desks first.
2:12 p.m. CT: We are on the ground in Dallas and at Gate C4 about 10 minutes later. Early! I have time to dash down to the Admirals Club to get on Wi-Fi and send the e-mail I typed on the day's first two flights. I explain my adventure to the woman checking me in at the club, and she recalls a December when she saw the same man come in three times the same day. He'd flown Dallas to Austin, then back, then Dallas to Oklahoma City, then Dallas to Lubbock, piling up six segments.
Upstairs at the service desk, I learn that my next flight to San Francisco is on time. But the storm is now lashing Chicago, and air control has announced ground stops averaging 75 minutes until 10 tonight.
3:15 p.m.: I am back on an airplane for the 3 3/4-hour flight to San Francisco. I've hit the jackpot this time because the equipment, which arrived in Dallas yesterday, is a 767 with lie-back sleeper seats in first class. One more on-time departure.
4:15 p.m.: Meal No. 3. A beef fajita salad. And a glass of champagne. Things are looking good.
5:40 p.m. PT: We are nearing San Francisco, and I have been so busy working that I realize only now that this flight has hit a furious headwind. We were supposed to be on the ground at 5:30. We're going to be 15 minutes late at best. Suddenly, I'm worried that the flight to Chicago will actually take off on time.
Once we land, the instant update message that comes to my hand-held shows that my flight home is on schedule. Apparently, I have flown through the eye of a needle: out of O'Hare before the storm worsened and back when it lightened up. I sprint off the plane to find that we've arrived at Gate 65, a couple of hundred feet down the hall from 62B, where my Chicago flight will depart. The plane boards a few minutes after I arrive there. And takes off on time.
11:50 p.m. CT: We touch down in Chicago 35 minutes early. I actually pulled all this off. Sixteen hours in transit, 12 of it airborne, 5,432 qualifying miles. Three connections made. Four meals, three ramekins of mixed nuts and a full day of work some as a lawyer, some as a writer and some good reading - James McManus' "Cowboys Full." I get off the plane with my Executive Platinum renewed. But my heart is restless. Come Jan. 1, the counter on my qualifying miles will be reset to zero: 2011 looms.
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Scott Turow is the author of legal thrillers such as "Presumed Innocent" and "The Burden of Proof." His latest book, "Innocent," debuts in May. He documented his quest to retain his Executive Platinum status on American Airlines, similar to the goal of the fictional corporate executive Ryan Bingham in the new movie "Up in the Air."