Here’s a variation on that old chestnut employed by some local TV stations announcing the first New Year’s baby: Meet Randall Stempler, the first long-haul flier of the new year — or at least the first one I have heard from.
Bolstering the idea that hope springs eternal, Stempler said he was looking forward to a trip from Newark, N.J., to Singapore commencing before the crack of dawn on New Year’s Day. As a new travel year begins, he could be seen as an inspiration for those of us who have become, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about getting on an airplane.
The flying distance between Newark and Singapore is about 9,500 miles, but Stempler plans to take the long way around the globe. His flight departs Newark at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday.
“To get some extra miles, I’m flying through Houston, then Houston to San Francisco, San Francisco to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong to Singapore. It adds up the elite-qualifying miles, which are essential for 1K status,” said Stempler, a lawyer. He is flying United, and he is already working on accumulating enough miles to continue for 2015 his Premier 1K status, the highest of United’s four levels of elite status, earned by flying at least 100,000 miles in a calendar year.
“I know there a lot of people out there who fly a lot more than I do, but I like to think that for at least one day, I might be the No. 1 flier in terms of the number of miles,” he said. The trip will put about 23,000 elite-qualifying miles into his account this year.
More power to him, I say from the opposite end of the air-travel joy scale. In 2014, I expect to finish writing a novel about a travel writer who hates to travel. On Tuesday, New Year’s Eve, I need to fly to Atlanta — and as usual, I’m viewing the prospect of going to the airport and trudging onto an overcrowded airplane for a long, uncomfortable cross-country flight with about as much enthusiasm as someone contemplating same-day surgery.
While I’m certainly cognizant of the value of frequent-flier miles, however that value may decline year by year, I agree with Michael Boyd, president of the consulting firm Boyd Group International, who made predictions for air travel in 2014 on his website last week. Among them are a further diminishing of air service, and a growing awareness that a “frequent-flier account is now a union card you earn to qualify for certain non-inconveniences, not an award of great appreciation for your loyalty.”
Speaking of the year ahead, let’s return to a subject that elicited a lot of reader response recently, the move by American Airlines and its credit card partner, Citigroup, to unceremoniously bounce American Express Platinum Card members from American’s Admirals Club airport lounges, effective March 22. The move came as American and Citi heavily promote their splendidly named Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard, whose annual fee of $450 includes free access to Admirals Club lounges.
Scrambling suddenly to show that the Platinum Card is still worth its $450 annual fee despite the loss of free access to lounges operated by American and its merger partner US Airways, American Express has been pointing out that the card’s various benefits still include free access to Delta Air Lines Sky Club lounges, and free membership in a worldwide airport lounge network called Priority Pass. And some readers who frequently travel internationally have been telling me they value that Priority Pass perk, with access to about 600 various lounges in airports around the world (most major airline lounges in the United States excluded).
Reviews on Priority Pass lounges are mixed, however. Brian Kelly, publisher of ThePointsGuy.com, which evaluates mileage programs, describes them as “a smattering of random lounges around the world.” Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst at the consulting firm Hudson Crossing, said of Priority Pass: “It’s a nice perk, but the issue is the quality of the individual lounges. The perk is only as good as the lounge itself, and that quality can vary around the world.”
Stempler, incidentally, says his “airport vice” is sampling various lounges around the world. “I try to go to every lounge that I have access to,” he said. “I’m often running from lounge to lounge — the Priority Pass lounges, the regular airline ones and, since I’m United 1K, I also have access to the Star Alliance lounges, though not their first-class lounges.”
Airport lounges, a business traveler’s best friend, can vary widely from airport to airport, airline to airline, alliance to alliance — and especially (like everything else in the extremely stratified world of air travel) by class. To get a lively conversation going among international business travelers who fly in premium classes, ask them about their favorite first-class or business-class lounges. They’ll wax eloquent over the luxuries of the Cathay-Pacific business class lounges at Hong Kong, the Virgin Atlantic and British Airways premium lounges at Heathrow in London, the spectacular Lufthansa First Class Terminal and lounge at Frankfurt, Germany, and on and on.
Also among those who remain sanguine about air travel, there is always the lively topic of upgrades to premium cabins, the currency of elite-status programs. Hope, as I said, springs eternal. Contemplating 2014, Stempler said: “I’m going to keep up my 1K status, mainly because I do enjoy flying in general, especially when I get upgraded. And on this trip I’m upgraded all the way to Singapore.”