Losing Status…

This weekend I flew to Minneapolis for a travel conference. Living in Atlanta, my primary airline has always been Delta Airlines. Years ago, prior to moving to Europe, I flew out of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport easily five to six times each month on Delta. As a result, I was a Platinum Medallion member of the Delta SkyMiles Program. (This was before Diamond Status was created in 2009). Yes, I quickly got used to getting upgrades to 1st class seating on every flight. And that’s VERY easy to get used to. With the number of miles I was flying, I was fortunate to always be near the top of the upgrade chart.

Then in 2008 I relocated to Rome, Italy. Living overseas for five years, I rarely flew Delta – we only came home twice in those five years. As a result… I gradually “lost status” with Delta and after a few years of limited Delta activity, I had NO status.

Now “losing Medallion status” does not mean much living in Europe… until you move BACK to the USA and start flying out of the Atlanta airport. As this has been my home airport for years, I LIKE the Atlanta airport. That’s probably not a popular statement but when you spend so many hours each week coming and going, you “adapt” to the good and bad attributes of this airport. I like the terminal arrangements… it’s so linear! As a Platinum SkyMiles member I knew the locations of all the Delta Crown Rooms and used them often.

So I headed back to the Atlanta Airport this week, and marveled at all the “changes.” Yes, the renovations I had lived with for years were all done. No more missing ceiling tiles, unpainted walls, and stained carpeting. When you’ve been gone a few years, the changes to the airport are far more apparent.

I had purchased my ticket using my Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card card so I had the free checked bag option and I was placed in Zone 1. I am also a Trusted Traveler (see our post, Trusted Traveler Advantage!) so I was able to move through security in about 2 minutes – a huge advantage at ATL. Thus, as I headed to the gate, I was feeling pretty good.

Because I bought my ticket late, and the plane was almost sold out, I purchased a Delta Economy Comfort™ seat so I could be on the aisle and near the front of the plane. “Economy Comfort” strikes me as somewhat of an oxymoron, but it was fairly inexpensive and I didn’t want to do a “middle seat” for 2+ hours.

I trundled up to the gate about 5-10 minutes before boarding time and there was a massive gathering near the gate and access-way. I figured they MUST be giving something away because the plane had not started loading. Who were all these people?

When they started boarding the plane, the “gate-keeper” (what an appropriate title!) initially called for first class passengers. People outside the “ring” started to push their way through the crowds who barely parted to allow access. “Protecting your turf” was apparently essential.

Then the “gate-keeper” called for the Upper-Level Medallion members and the hordes descended! It was like the entire crowd moved forward in one huge surge. This group was off their marks faster than an Olympic sprinter. Stunned by the exodus I could only watch as 100+ people jockeyed for position in an ever-widening line.

Having lived overseas, I was used to charging the gate. It’s part of the sport of flying in Italy! For one of our first trips out of Roma Ciampino (CIA), I purchased an upgrade to board first. That did not work out well as everyone pressed to the gate and my pre-purchased status was swallowed up by the crowd. I probably got on the plane somewhere in the middle of the pack – despite having paid for first-on-access. This was the first and last, time I bought “boarding status” in Italy. The airlines in Italy just can’t (or choose not to) control the mass of humanity that charges the gate. (Of course living there, we adapted to folks not queuing up and also became adept “gate-chargers”).

On another occasion in Europe, I was flying a low-cost airline in Germany or Austria. It was an open-seating airline on a flight that was sold out. Rather than fight for a place in line, I spent 10 EURO and purchased a “first-on” option. This was handled wonderfully, and I was very impressed as everyone waited in line patiently. My “purchased” status ticket was called and I headed down the gangway joyful that I was going to be first on the plane and could select any seat I desired.

Yes, I feeling great …until I got to the bus. My “first on” status – for which I paid extra – got me FIRST on the bus that was to take us out to the plane. And then everyone behind me – who had not paid extra – got on MY bus! My dreams of an empty plane dissolved rapidly. Now, it became a game of roulette as you tried to determine WHICH side of the bus you wanted to be on so you could rush out one of the four bus exit points… Needless to say, I never again bought “boarding” status in Europe.

Now, in Atlanta, as the entire plane seemed to be loading, I looked at my ZONE 1 boarding pass and faced a harsh reality. Years ago – maybe fifteen years ago – I remember looking at at my boarding pass and seeing ZONE 9! So today, Zone 1 seemed liked a pretty good deal (until I got to the gate area). You have to think in terms of your environment… and I was in ATL, the Mecca of Delta Airlines. In Atlanta, it has been said that “Whether you’re going to heaven or going to hell, you’re going through Hartsfield.” Yes, everyone connects here – and everyone has Delta SkyMiles status – well, everyone except me…

So I watched as my “preferred” ZONE 1 boarding status became irrelevant. Worse, all those Gold, Platinum and Diamond Members seemed to be carrying everything they owned. The “two” piece carry-on limit was apparently graciously waived for this group. I saw some people boarding with FOUR pieces? As we were flying on an older 757, I looked down at my carry-on bag and started sweating. Finally, after the entire terminal seemed to empty through our gangway, they called the ZONE 1 level… and any SILVER MEDALLION MEMBERS. Again, like a swarm of locusts, what few people remaining in the gate area headed for the gangway. What happened to those ZONE 9 people?

But having boarded many planes in Europe – and dealt with people calling me names I did not understand (thankfully) – I was tactically positioned to be the first NON-ELITE member to board. I entered the plane and immediately faced the reality of CLOSED overhead bins. We all know what that means – FULL. Not just FULL, but “Don’t you even dare opening these to rearrange my things” FULL!

My seat was perhaps 4-5 rows back from the mid-plane entryway… but the closest open bin was probably 12-15 rows back from the door. I now faced the challenge when we landed of a salmon swimming upstream. I knew immediately I’d bet on the salmon being more successful. I walked back to an open bin, thinking, “Why didn’t I use that “free checked bag option?” Then I practiced my salmon-technique as I headed back through the boarding crowd to my seat… hoping this practice would come in handy when we landed…

It didn’t. Upon arrival in Minneapolis, and 10-12 rows from my overhead bag, I could only watch as the ENTIRE plane filed past me. Yes, maybe checked luggage WOULD have been faster? Or at least a gate-check. Finally, I was able to walk back to my bag – no salmon techniques required – and gratefully exited the plane. Zone 1 status, an ECONOMY COMFORT seat… and LAST off the plane.

So what did I learn? I NEED STATUS to fly out of ATL! Or I need to buy first class tickets until I get STATUS!

When you have status for years, you forget the painful journey moving up the SkyMiles status ladder. But once you don’t have STATUS (and my points on Air Berlin, Norwegian, Vueling and other Euro-liners are not transferable), you will face these challenges when flying out of ATL.

Now that I am back in the USA, I know I will eventually move up in Delta Status, but I’ll have to adjust my flying habits when flying Delta out of the Atlanta airport. Until then, I’ll be that guy “positioned” near the gangway!

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