Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tom Stuker: "Meeting" The Real Up-In-The-Air Flyer

Just before Christmas we ran across this ABC News travel article, titled Frequent Flier VIP: Meet the Guy Who Never Waits at the Airport - Secret Frequent Flier Clubs Aren't Just for George Clooney and His New Movie, 'Up in the Air.'

It's an interview with Tom Stuker, a Global Services member of the United Airlines Mileage Plus Program who flies about 700,000 miles annually and has racked up nearly 8.8 million lifetime flying miles with them. As the article makes clear, UA and other major airlines maintain somewhat secretive invitation-only VIP programs to treat their highest spenders like royalty - UA's is Global Services or GS. Kathy and Brian, although UA 1Ks, definitely do not fall into that category, but enjoy reading about it.

We posted it on FlyerTalk here under our FT nom-de-cyber Fredd. Lo and behold, partway through the thread Tom Stuker himself weighed in, his FT handle being ua1flyer. In Post #71, he patiently explains to some incredulous FTers how he manages to fly so much more than they do:

About the miles. This year I will have flown just a little less than 700k, and yes that is BIS. With all this DEQM, my Total EQM will end up just shy of 1.5 million. As far as what I do, Ido sales and managment training. Where cars are sold is where I have the ability to work. Ifell in love with Australia and it's people about 25+ years ago and have trained there regularly since. I also vacation quite regularly. The woman I am involved with and I have taken at least 50 honeymoons in places all over the world. Life is to short. A while back I decide to work to live and not live to work. As I have mentioned previously, I have 2 sons, one in high school and the other works and travels with me a lot. He will become a million miler next month. P.S. I don't know who YOU work for , but if you work in the Auto industry, maybe you could use my help.

In the midst of this, Tom was also interviewed on Fox and Friends. United Airlines has to be happy with all of the favorable publicity Tom has generated for them, especially considering that the hero of the movie flies with American Airlines.

It was informative and fun to make contact with UA's highest flyer through FT. Maybe it also makes our 140,000 or so flying miles this year seem a little less eccentric. Maybe...

Incidentally, the director of Up in The Air, Jason Reitman, was interviewed on Oprah's website. He mentions FlyerTalk early on. You can find the interview here.

October 30 2011 Update: We finally get to really meet Tom Stuker in person.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Our 2009 Cruises

First, let's get the confession off our chests. We overdid it, at least by our own standards. We'd planned two transatlantic cruises, one spring and one fall, allowing us to buy round-trip air tickets and take advantage of the attractive pricing of a repositioning cruise. As we were concluding our March transatlantic on Oceania's Regatta, the price they were offering for a Baltic cruise was fairly amazing, so after thinking seriously we jumped at it.

And that's how we came to spend 42 days cruising in 2009:

March 2-23 Regatta 16-day transatlantic Miami to Barcelona

June 1-15 Regatta 14-day Baltic Cruise Stockholm to Dover

September 2-14 Jewel of The Sea 12-day transatlantic Harwich to Boston

We shared some thoughts about our cruising experiences back in August.

Our favorite cruise line? Still Oceania but we haven't found a cruise line yet that we wouldn't return to, if the price were right.

Our favorite cruise? Still the transatlantic. We love sea days and prefer them to the more crowded ports.

We're not heavy-duty cruisers. No, really! There are folks who practically live on ships. Still, it's hard to turn down a bargain.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Our 2009 Flying Stats

2009 has been another great travel year for us with cruises, including a Baltic Cruise that took us to some places we might not have found on our own, and a variety of other trips to Thailand, Europe, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, London, and of course Alabama.

United has already sent us our 1K cards for 2010, indicating that we've flown at least 100K, that is 100,000 miles. Our actual BIS (butt-in-seat) miles total up to 139,931, but with a couple of crazy DEQM (Double Elite Qualifying Miles) promotions that United has run to stay competitive with other airlines, the EQM (Elite Qualifying Miles) totals in displayed our mileage accounts are over 225,000 miles.

Our lifetime flight miles on United are closing in on 800,000 miles. If we keep flying until we reach the million miles mark, we'll have a few ongoing perks from UA, even if we cut down our flying.

In January we're planning our fourth trip to Singapore, where we plan to meet up with some other FlyerTalk members for the SIN Do.

After three weeks in Alabama playing with Riley and meeting Blane, it's good to have a little time to catch up on things around the house.

Monday, December 14, 2009

There's No Place Like Home

So here we are back home again in Birch Bay Village after three weeks in Alabama. Our sleep in the BHM Holiday Inn was very poor, no fault of theirs. It's just that planning to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight makes us a little jumpy.

We flew up to ORD (Chicago) on a regional jet, then transferred to a 757 for a First Class flight to Seattle.

David picked us up with three little girls who seemed happy to see us. After a pleasant 24 hours or so, we hit the road this afternoon, drove through ever-lowering temperatures until it hit 29 degrees in Blaine, where we picked up our mail before stopping at the market to buy some staples before returning to home sweet home.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Having A Ball With Riley

Little brother Blane has come home now, but we've had a lot of fun reading books, watching videos, and especially playing ball with Riley, a southpaw with a wicked arm.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Welcome Blane!

Two of our greatest joys in life are our grandkids and, of course, travel. The opportunity to travel to visit grandkids and, most recently, to welcome our seventh grandchild is something incredibly special.

So we offer a very special welcome to Blane Hildenbrand, born December 7 at 11:25 a.m. in the Shelby Baptist Medical Center, Alabaster Alabama. Blane weighed 7 lb. 9 oz. and measured 20 inches. He and his mommy and daddy hope to come home Wednesday. Blane's big sister, Riley, has been very helpful and picked out some flowers for Mommy and a stuffed animal for Blane that she'll deliver later today to this bright-eyed little guy.

Riley has already spent quite a bit of time holding Blane and getting to know him.

Riley's spent a lot of time up in Mommy's bed too. It's fun to kiss Blane but even more fun to get a hug from Mommy.

Grandma and Grandpa have been getting a turn too. There's nothing better.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Small-Town Alabama Christmas Parade

It was a chilly morning in the Birmingham area December 5. We all dressed warmly and headed over from Helena to nearby Alabaster for the Christmas Parade. The theme is apparently "Christmas Is The Giving Season" and there was a lot of giving going on at the parade. Candy, pounds and pounds of candy... Kathy and Brian have been involved in a few dozen parades during our band days, from Santa Barbara's Old Spanish Days Fiesta Parade (Brian was a member of a youth band sponsored by a music store) to the Hollywood Lane Christmas Parade (Brian was drum major of the San Marcos HS Band from Santa Barbara) to the Portland Rose Festival Parade (Kathy was a member of the Durango HS Band) to the Hope BC Brigade Days Parade. Never in all those parades have we seen so much candy handed over and thrown out. Granddaughter Riley must have collected well over a pound during the two-hour event.

Here she is awaiting the start of the parade, not knowing quite what to expect.

Of course, she has no recent memory of parades so doesn't know why Mommy brought a bag along, but she soon caught on.

Most of the half dozen politicans in the parade, running for everything up to and including Lieutenant Governor, were throwing candy as well. What a metaphor! So did local businesses, churches, and community organizations such as the Shriners.

Near the front of the parade was the Thompson High School "Marching Southern Sounds" Band. The band, color guard, and dance team / drill team took up most of the length of a city block. They must put on quite a halftime show at home football games. We're surprised that some of those girls weren't covered with goose bumps, but then we were too polite to peer closely.

The windchill factor blew the temperature down near freezing, and it was fortunate we had a car to retreat to during the frequent gaps in the parade. Still, it was worth waiting for the cacophony of sirens wailing from an assortment of ambulances and fire trucks that announced both the end of the parade and the arrival of Santa.

We know one Mommy whose Christmas wish is that her new baby arrive well before the Rose Bowl Parade.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Rainy Alabama Day

Living in the Northwest, it's always interesting for us to find out firsthand how hard the rain can be in other locales. It poured here for some time this morning, but now it's more or less overcast. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, with more rain to follow Wednesday.

We're still keeping pretty close to home as we await Riley's new baby brother. Mommy and we took Riley to the park yesterday - it was shirtsleeve weather - and she went to the Birmingham Science Center with her daddy this morning, and Grandma and Grandpa will probably take her back there at some point.

Riley enjoys the zoo too so that'll be another destination whenever the weather permits.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Find! Great Independent Italian Restaurant in Birmingham - Joe's Italian

Joe's Italian is actually in Alabaster, a suburb not too far from Kim's and John's house in Helena. We'd found it through a couple of websites with enthusiastic reviews and made the 15-minute drive to it tonight.

We didn't pull into the nearly full parking lot until a little after 6:00 p.m. On a Tuesday night there was a 45-minute wait and luckily Riley used the time profitably to nap in her car seat. We were inside and seated in crowded European-style quasi-trattoria conditions in about 35 minutes, and it was a pleasure to find out it was worth the wait.

Riley enjoyed her spaghetti immensely, and the rest of us dined on a variety of dishes. Brian really enjoyed his lasagna bianca, the first lasagna he's ever tried with a white sauce. Three of us enjoyed the house tomato basil soup as a starter.

We'll see if our new grandson is in the mood for Italian, once he's arrived. Joe's would be a great place for him to start.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Back in Birmingham

A good day to fly yesterday. We obviously beat the Thanksgiving rush by flying Sunday. Our biggest delay was when a TSA screener in SEA spotted the doll in our roll-aboard. "I don't see no kids here," he muttered to a colleague while peering at the x-ray, but the present from Uncle Dave and Aunt Dana passed inspection the second time around.

SEA-ORD was in a 757-200. The 24-seat F section wasn't quite full and we dozed a bit after breakfast. There was a fair walk from our arrival to get to the E concourse for our Express flight to Birmingham, complete with the walk through the psychedelic underground passage that connects terminals but we had enough time to turn it into a fairly leisurely stroll.

The CRJ 170 flight was quite pleasant as well - it helps to be sitting in the first row of F - with hardly any bumps along the way.

Almost before we knew it we'd landed in Birmingham and picked up our rental car from Hertz. It appears they upgraded us to a Prius. A nice change from the sleazy Alamo operation on the previous trip that we described just a few weeks ago. Very pleasant and interesting on first drive, although the first impression includes the sense that there's very poor visibility in the rear-view mirror, due to the shape of the hatchback. Maybe we'll get used to it.

And here we are, being entertained by Riley as we await the birth of her new baby brother. The countdown continues...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Wall Street Journal Covers The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO

Although we weren't mentioned by name, it was Kathy who asked about the snowplows at ORD (O'Hare). Written by Scott McCartney, who was on the trip, his WSJ Middle Seat column makes for a fair and entertainingly descriptive article.

We've previously met Will Steele, the "20-year-old...who lives with his mother in Auckland, New Zealand," and he is somewhat chagrined by the description, for which he's being gently teased on the FlyerTalk forum. We won't mention it, other than to ask Will how his mother is.

You can spot Kathy swooping in with her camera for a split second in the video.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO - The Go-Around at TLS

It was too snowy to accomplish this in OSL but our Condor charter pilots managed a go-around for us at TLS. It's described as a "missed approach" but that doesn't seem quite fair since it was deliberate; therefore, we'll call it a go-around, which is what it was.

Video screens throughout the cabin allowed us even those of us sitting in the back (and Row 45 is waay in the back mini-cabin of the 757) to watch it in detail, as well as the subsequent "real" landing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

the Lufthansa Market Place and a Bus Tour of FRA

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO
Nov. 6
Frankfurt Lufthansa Marketplace - A day of tours and activites at Lufthansa's main base, with some special surprises!
•09:00 CET Pick up at the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport
Meet in the Sheraton lobby
•16:30 CET Return to Sheraton Frankfurt Airport.

Friday found us back at FRA, somewhat exhausted after the previous day's flight, but still looking forward to Lufthansa's "Market Place" and a tour of the airport.

Because there were only so many tour guides available, our group's guide was Dr. Peter Pfragner, the Fraport Marketing, Sales Support, Boards and Committees Marketing Manager, who had been one of the dignitaries welcoming the Flyer Talkers. He proved to be a charming guide. Brian told him if job became too stressful that he had a future as a fulltime guide, a joke he appreciated.

Lots of chances to take photos as we rode around the perimeter of this huge airport.

Then it was back to the Market Place in one area of the airport, where one of our speakers was the CEO of Lufthansa, Wolfgang Mayrhuber. He came across as a charming and humorous gentleman. We certainly appreciated the significant time he invested in a speaking to our group of fanatic flyers.

From there we took a bus ride out to Seeheim, experienced a lapse in typical German efficiency when it took a long time to check in at the Lufthansa Conference Center, ate dinner, went to bed, and got up early enough Saturday morning to catch the transfer bus back to FRA, from where we caught a train to the Frankfurt Hilton and the final night of our quick trip.

The Airbus Factory in Toulouse France


Another top secret tour - no pictures allowed but we'll try to find some later. Now, this is one huge facility. Our visions of some kind of assembly line proved to be inaccurate. Most of the work being done while we were there was inside the planes. We saw relatively few employees and only heard the odd sound of a hammer. The various parts of the fuselage are assembled in different countries and assembled in Toulouse. The tails of the planes are painted on the ground in advance so the planes themselves sit covered in slightly differing shades of the green protective paint that is removed prior to the final painting, but the tails are fully painted with, say, Lufthansa colors and symbols, and give an idea of what the finished plane will look like.

A Day's Quick Flight Around Europe - FRA-OSL-TLS-FRA

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO...
Nov. 5
Frankfurt Charter flight across Europe - Frankfurt departure for Oslo aboard a Condor 757-300.
•05:20 CET Latest time to meet at the gate
•05:50 CET FlyerTalk charter DE9254 departs Frankfurt for Oslo
•08:30 CET Charter flight arrives Oslo.
•08:45 CET Charter flight parks at the SAS hangar. Program continues.
•11:30 CET Charter flight departs Oslo for Toulouse.
•14:40 CET Charter flight arrives Toulouse
•15:30 CET Exclusive inside tour of the Airbus factory
•19:40 CET Charter departs Toulouse for Frankfurt
•22:00 CET Evening reception / party

Yes, morning came early but we were there and so was the plane, a Condor 757. Our seats were in Row 45 in the very back cabin.

Two of the DO's three major organizers, Oliver (on the left) and Tommy were at the door to greet us.

It was snowing as we landed in OSL, but the SAS hospitality inside their giant hangar was warm.

Even an airport fire truck appeared planeside to greet us.

It was nice to enter the "cozy" hangar, especially since we'd left our jackets back in the hotel room in our rush to be ready to board by 5:00 a.m.

A flight attendant welcomed us with a professional rendition of "Fly Me To The Moon" as she descended the stairs of a 737.

A group of dancers performed enthusiastically to equally enthusiastic applause.

The Norwegian Army provided an interesting demonstration of the medical evacuation service they run in co-operation with SAS, converting a 737 passenger plane into a medivac plane within 24 hours. It surprised us to learn here and elsewhere how quickly airline seats can be installed and removed.

We enjoyed the chance to get up close to the equipment.

It was interesting to read the label showing that this Ford truck unit with its built-in stairs was manufactured in Minnesota.

We also got a good look at jet engine pulled out for maintenance, and a chat with the jet-mechanic instructor showing the fine points.

Another highlight of the program was the deployment of an evacuation slide from the back door of the 737.

Organizer Tommy777 got to slide down and you can just see his upraised arms over the crowd. Update: A video is now available here.

The rest of us who wanted to got to pose at the bottom.

The musicians serenaded us as we headed out to the buses to return us to our plane.

The folksy friendliness of everybody in Oslo made our stop there a real highlight of our tour.

Lufthansa Technik Tour

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO...

Bus to JFK Transfer to JFK - Bus transportation from Newark Airport to JFK Airport.
•17:30 EST Buses depart EWR
JFK Airport Scheduled Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt - Lufthansa flight 405
•21:35 EST Flight departs for FRA

Nov. 4
Frankfurt Sheraton Frankfurt Airport - Frankfurt Lufthansa training facilities visit and dinner - A special visit through the Lufthansa training facilities in Frankfurt, including moderator flight attendant training and simulators.
•19:00 CET Star Alliance Dinner
•21:30 CET Bus transfer back from Star Alliance Dinner

After a good overnight flight (Brian managed to pick up 5-6 hours sleep), an efficient check-in at the Airport Sheraton, we started an extensive tour of Lufthansa's operations.

No photos were allowed inside, unfortunately, but we may get hold of some from the Mega DO's official photographer, who was allowed to snap them. In the meantime, here we all are at an outstanding buffet banquet that evening, hosted by Lufthansa. One of the speakers was Jaan Albrecht, CEO of the Star Alliance.

Continental Shows OFF EWR

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO...
Hosted by Continental Airlines at Newark

Continental Airlines, the new member of Star Alliance, showed us great hospitality as well, including a tour of operations. EWR lands "only" 44 planes an hour, less than than half of ORD, but it's still an impressively large operation and the control tower appeared more spacious than that of ORD.