It began when I was four years old on a preschool field trip to Burbank Airport. United Airlines hosted us and although I don’t remember much, I remember receiving a set of United wings and proudly wearing them around the house.
My first flight was an Alaska Airlines flight from Burbank to Seattle when I was just a year old, but the first flight I actually remember taking was a trip from Los Angeles to Denver on United Airlines in 1994 to pick-up a car with my two uncles and drive it back to California. I was so excited to be on a plane and remember gulping down cranberry juice and honey mustard pretzels as I watched the clouds below.
United was the launch customer of the 777 and one of my fondest childhood memories was traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago in 1996 onboard a brand new 777. Sitting next to my brother, we enjoyed watching Disney cartoons from our seatback monitor and were served McDonald’s Happy Meals and even received a toy.
Each year my family took a vacation within the USA and I can recall several great trips and even some specific flights, like my first and only United Boeing 727 flight from Denver to Burbank (I distinctly recall the third engine above the fuselage).
Travel ramped up in 2004, with a trip to New York in July and the Dakotas in August. We flew United back when it still served JFK and used aging 767-200 aircraft on that route. I remember my brother and I playfully being called “milk babies” by a German FA who served us breakfast and my brother and I referring to her as “Deutsch Mark” for the remainder of the flight (to ourselves, of course).
For the first time, I noticed business class…a bigger seat and nicer food…and I wanted it. On the trip home from New York I boarded and spied there was one business class seat open in the last row of the cabin and took the liberty of upgrading myself.
Moments later a FA came over to offer me a pre-departure beverage and I smiled while sipping my orange juice, smugly thinking that I had pulled it off.
Then the real passenger showed up.
I feigned confusion as best a 17-year old could and retreated back to my assigned seat in the back. As I gathered my belongings I heard the FA remark to the real passenger, “I knew he didn’t belong here”, which was a stinging rebuke.
I remember being angry that flight and vowing to sit in business class next time I traveled, which was only a few weeks away on a trip to North Dakota with my grandmother to see the farm where she had grown up.
But how? I couldn’t afford a business class ticket. Googling for answers, I found a website that suggested having your travel agent (wow, that dates me) put in a remark in the PNR stating: “CIP: Please upgrade”, with CIP indicating commercially important passenger. So I called my grandmother’s travel agent and she chuckled a bit but agreed to add the info to the reservation.
But when we arrived at LAX for the 6am flight I was not upgraded (I had even put on a jacket and a tie). We were supposed to fly a 757 to Denver before connecting to Bismark on a regional jet and our aircraft had been upgraded to a 767-300 with fancy business class seats. I asked at the gate if I could upgrade and the agent typed away at her computer for a few moments and said, “Yes, you can do it for $1627”.
My eyes lit up. I thought she meant $16.27 rather than $1627 and handed her my United CollegePlus Visa card, my very first credit card. She looked at me and said, “You do know this is sixteen hundred twenty seven dollars, right?”
Oops. No upgrade for me.
With the equipment upgrade, the business class cabin was mostly empty onboard and I approached a FA once we had reached cruising altitude and asked him how much it would be to upgrade to business class.
Rather condescendingly, he remarked, “$3500. I can charge your card right now”. This was before United had credit card machines onboard so clearly he was just being rude. I returned to economy class.
Now the flying bug had bitten and I began to research upgrading on United in more detail. I found that United sold e-500 miles upgrade for $50 each in packets of four, which meant I could have upgraded that LA to Denver flight for only $100. That made me so livid I wrote a note to CEO Glen Tilton expressing my displeasure that neither the gate agent at LAX nor the FA onboard the Denver flight mentioned the e-500 mile upgrades.
I received a letter back from United apologizing and depositing four e-500 mile upgrades into my account. I was elated! The question was how to use them?
That fall I was starting my undergraduate studies at UCLA, which follows a quarter system. Consequently, I had an extra month of summer and noticed that United was running a daily 747-400 between LA and Chicago and fares were under $200 r/t. I talked my uncle into going (also an aviation enthusiast, he was an aircraft designer for Lockheed and was on the L1011 team, so it did not take much to convince him to visit his hometown).
We flew economy class on the way to Chicago, but were able to upgrade the return flight to business class – four whole hours on the upper deck of a 747-400! Boarding finally came and I climbed the stairs to the upper deck with a huge grin on my face.
Finding our seats, I proudly settled in and leaned back feeling like my life was complete. The two FAs working the upstairs cabin were exceptional and when my uncle informed them that this was my first time in business class, they took extra good care of me.
I remember the meal on the flight was a chicken breast with salad and cheesecake and that I ate every last crumb of it. The FAs continued to pamper my uncle and me and were happy to pose for a picture when we finally reached LA.
The captain, Ed Yost, also invited us up to flight deck and showed us around and presented me with a 747-400 trading card. That was it…I was sold on United.
As a student and a studious one at that, time was limited because I also held a part-time job, but by this time I was only 5,000 miles away from Silver status, the 25,000 mile threshold.
So for the first time in my life, I booked a “mileage run”; a solo trip to Washington DC – out on a Friday night from John Wayne airport to Baltimore via Los Angeles (back in the day, United Express had flights from Ontario, CA and Santa Ana, CA to LAX) and returning the following evening. The ticket was only $231 but I blew a lot more money on securing round-trip upgrades. I enjoyed the flights so much…especially the ice cream sundae on the flight home from Baltimore.
I began to travel more, though still only domestically. In 2006, though, I planned a month-long trip to Europe with a friend from UCLA and booked my first international flight, from San Francisco to London on United. Another friend had given me a systemwide upgrade and I sat obsessively babysitting the reservation for weeks hoping that my upgrade would clear.
48 hours before the flight it did and I snagged the last seat upstairs. United took me overseas for the first time and I was able to do it in business class.
Years passed and I went from Silver to Gold then Gold to 1K, eventually requalifying for 1K status for six consecutive years. I did a lot of mileage running, including a few trips with Lucky, and when I lived in Philadelphia for three years for law school I took frequent trips back to LA on the weekends, including just about every weekend my final year when I scheduled classes only on Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday. This was back in the day of sub-$250 round-trip fares so I racked up hundreds of thousands of miles on the cheap and redeemed them for lucrative first class trips on Star Alliance partner airlines.
It reached a point at which I never even bothered to check prices on other airlines…I just booked UA. United used to have a Los Angeles to Frankfurt flight on its own metal and I remember taking my brother Andrew to Germany, his first time to Europe, on that flight in 2008. I had just left the Air Force Reserves at the time and had a big collection of “challenge coins” I used to send up to the flight deck with a note to the captain either thanking him for having Channel 9 (live ATC communications, a uniquely United feature at the time) or encouraging him to turn it on.
Almost always I received a note back and on this flight Captain Joe Yanacek personally came back and thanked me, handing me a handwritten note on United stationary that I still have in my scrapbook:
United took me to Asia for the first time, Australia for the first time, South America for the first time, to Istanbul, and Lagos, and Kuwait. It took me back and forth between Germany so many times as I courted Heidi and was always there when I needed it (something I’ll share more about tomorrow).
Any relationship has its ups and downs and I will never forget being thrown off a flight for taking a picture of my seat in 2013 but United more than made up for it with a memorable MillionMiler flight that included special onboard announcements and a bottle of champagne waiting for me upon landing in New York.
Now I have a son and his first flight – a trip to Germany – has already been booked. It will be on United. I can only hope that all the joy I have had flying on United over the years might be experienced by my wife and son as well.
Loyalty is a funny thing. It’s not so much the route network or pricing that kept me loyal to United, though that was certainly important: it was the people; the agents at Burbank who used to call me at home if my flight was delayed or even a United Club agent who I have greeted for years who welcomed me by name into the new United Club at LAX this morning. It was the notes from captains and the warm service from so many wonderful FAs and gate agents over the last decade that made me feel like a valued customer, a human being, and rarely made me question my decision to fly over one million miles on United.
I’m 30 now, which feels old but I hope I have many years ahead and as I sit on a United flight this morning enjoying a cup of illy coffee and stroopwafel, I look forward to flying United for decades to come.