A Year of Commercial Flying

Kotzebue in the winter

I live in a remote village in Alaska that is only accessible by air. I suppose you could get here by boat, but that would be both costly and dangerous. I live in a hub village that gets passenger jet service twice daily from Alaska Airlines. Living in a hub presents the fewest possible barriers to traveling out. Boeing 737s can take off and land safely in a broader range of wind and visibility conditions than the smaller aircraft that serve the outlying villages. Extreme weather results in long delays and cancellations. Mechanical issues can do the same.

My first year here, I flew on commercial aircraft more than I had the prior 30 years of my life. As I have become more involved in my union and taken on other leadership roles, this has unlocked meetings, conferences, and training opportunities that require air travel. I even occasionally manage to just go for no other purpose than to get out of town and shop where my dollars go much further. Over the past 5 years, I’ve learned how to streamline all aspects of the traveling process that I have any control over. I’ve also learned how to have a more comfortable flying experience which is the part of traveling that often contains the most variables. Being able to travel frequently has been very much a privilege. I’m writing about my experiences not to boast but to inform.

TSA PreCheck is worth every cent.

In 2017, I applied for TSA PreCheck. It costs $85 for 5 years and involves getting fingerprinted and submitting to a background check. Once I was issued my Known Traveler Number, I was eligible to enjoy a streamlined airport security experience. I went through TSA 24 times in 2019. At what works out to be $17 per year, I was able to keep my shoes and jackets on and not remove any items from my backpack. That works out to $0.71 per trip through security. I also purchased a pair of non-metallic belts, so that I can forever avoid the time-consuming and debasing act of donning and removing my belt in public. The biggest benefit of PreCheck is that at large airports, there is often a dedicated line for expedited screening, and it is a shorter line 100% of the time. This increased speed through security has allowed me to push the envelope to exciting new cliffs as I arrive at a major airport at times closer and closer to my flight’s departure. This is such an integral part of my travel norms that I already have a calendar reminder set for 2022 to renew.

It’s all about the frequent flyer miles.

Alaska Airlines has a pretty super loyalty/rewards program, Mileage Plan. For residents of Alaska, they offer another exclusive rewards program called Club 49. Club 49 allows me to take 3 free checked bags on all intrastate flights. I am allowed 2 free checked bags on interstate flights. This year, I earned miles from a variety of sources. I got 10,000 free miles from my bags being late to the gate 4 different times (2,500 miles each). I earned more than 2,700 miles by just letting my phone/internet provider know that I was a Mileage Plan member. I earn one mile for every dollar spent on cell and internet service. I earned 50% bonus miles beyond those actually flown by being in the MVP tier of Mileage Plan. My friends that fly a lot more than me that have MVP Gold or MVP 75K get even more bonus miles and other awesome perks that I thirst for look forward to earning someday.

The biggest source of miles this year was my Alaska Airlines credit card. Being in a remote place, many goods are unavailable or in short supply in our stores. Anything you can get locally also comes at a premium price. I buy many household items online which requires using a card. With the Visa Signature card, I now earn miles for all of those dollars I was already spending on bills and Amazon toilet paper.

In the air

I have a few non-negotiable items that accompany me on every flight. Chief among those items are my Bose noise-canceling headphones. I once balked at the price, but they have been pivotal to me flying peacefully over the past 3 years. Sometimes I don’t even listen to music. I’ll just turn them on so that people won’t talk to me, and they block out all of the engine noise, screaming babies, and middle seaters who can’t keep from telling their life’s story to anyone within earshot. These have more than paid for themselves, and they comfortably fit over my hearing aids. When I do listen, I listen to my Spotify offline playlists or to soothing music via the Calm app. Calm is great for those rare occasions where I try to sleep on a plane or for background noise while I read. I’ve compiled some of my favorite Spotify tracks into a playlist below. If there are episodes of Chopped or Beat Bobby Flay available on the in-flight entertainment app, I might check those out instead of listening to music, but I’m usually just listening to music while I do the airline magazine crossword.

I have my favorite in-flight beverages and snacks, and I am fortunate to sometimes be the recipient of an upgrade to First or Premium Class. I prefer aisle seat D in any given row. I avoid the forwardmost exit row and the row immediately before it as those seats do not have the ability to recline. I prefer D on the right side of the aircraft so that my dominant left hand is not competing for space with my likely right-handed seatmate as would be the case across the aisle in seat C. In seat D, I need only watch out for the refreshment cart and passersby. Why the aisle seat? If I should need to visit the tiny bathroom, I appreciate having unfettered access to it. I don’t mind standing to let seats E and F out either.

On the ground

I’ve had a lot of experiences in the air, but my favorite part of every flight is being on the tarmac at my destination. I’ve been on flights with unruly drunks, prisoners in handcuffs, screaming babies, the Governor of Alaska, and many other characters both savory and otherwise. I’ve had many smooth landings, but also several very memorable bumpy ones. I’ve all but arrived at my destination only to be unable to land due to snow, fog, and forest fire smoke.

When I arrive in Anchorage, which is usually my final destination, I collect my suitcase and any empty totes or coolers I brought and either pick up a rental car, catch a hotel shuttle, or get an Uber to head to my digs. When traveling for work, the hotel has been selected for me, so I don’t earn enough points with one hotel chain to really earn any rewards with them. I rent cars exclusively through Enterprise which has allowed me the occasional free upgrade. I got to drive a Mercedes around in Tennessee this summer. Being in Anchorage affords me the opportunity to drive, something I only do on my 4-wheeler or snowmachine in my village. I usually rent a car because it is the most affordable option, but sometimes I rent one just for the opportunity to drive.

When I make it back to my village, I usually have my maximum three pieces of luggage in tow. The luggage belt at my airport is filled with large totes and boxes filled with groceries and good deals from the big city. After I collect mine, if I don’t have a ride arranged, I bum one from someone at the airport or get a cab for $7 if one is there. When I get home, I unpack any perishable groceries, start a load of laundry, and then collapse onto my couch.

By the numbers

I’ve been on 28 aircraft this year: 26 Boeing 737s and 2 Airbus A320s. The Airbus were former Virgin America planes that hadn’t been fully retrofitted and were less than comfortable. Consequently, these were the planes I was on for my longest flights of the year, Seattle to Nashville (1,977 miles) and back.

I have landed in Kotzebue 11 times, Anchorage 13 times, Seattle twice, Nashville twice, Juneau once, and several unfortunate stops in Nome on the way to Anchorage. Nothing against the people of Nome. I’ve never actually been off an airplane there. The evening flight to Anchorage includes a stop on the tarmac in Nome to swap some passengers. It turns an 80 minute flight into a 3 hour one. The Tuesday evening flight goes directly to Anchorage, but I almost never fly out on a Tuesday.

I flew 20,070 miles this year that I was credited for. You don’t earn miles for flying all the way to your village only to get diverted to Nome and then back to Anchorage. You should, but you don’t. 20,070 miles can also be quantified as:

  • Down and back Denver’s Colfax Avenue 203 times
  • NY to LA round trip 3 and a half times
  • Provo to Little Rock round trip 7 times
  • 8.66% of the way to the moon
  • 19,138 trips back and forth from my house to school

How do you travel? What makes it special for you?

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