Friends often ask if I’ve ever seen the 2009 movie, Up in the air. Although I hardly watch movies, this one I happened to see – on a plane no less! I could relate to some of George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham – especially when he pulled out all of his different cards and awards. Although frequent flyers rarely are that possessed with a need for acknowledgement, the perks are sometimes surprising … which leads me to a discussion of the more recent perk I received from Delta.

First, allow me to establish my Delta credentials. As of this writing, I’ve flown 3,913,795 Million Miler qualification miles and have accumulated more than 5 million miles since I first took to the air. Delta admitted me into its inaugural 2009 class of Diamond flyers, its highest designation. Now in my second year as Diamond, I’ve surpassed the halfway mark for 2012, and it’s only the beginning of March 2011. (You need 125,000 miles or 140 flight segments to make Diamond.) By year’s end, I’m expected to pass the 4-million-mile mark, enough to get deemed Permanent Platinum. (I’m already Permanent Gold.) There are a few reasonable perks that go with all this, all of which are listed on Delta’s Web site.

I’ve enjoyed a great working relationship with Delta – most of the time. The current management bunch is so much better than it was under Leo Mullin that the urge to blog about how Mullin ran a great airline into the ground is attractive; but that’s old news. The story of my newest adventure with Delta begins like this:

 A Delta event organizer called and invited me to a half day of presentations and discussions by Delta management at Delta headquarters followed by dinner at one of the nicest restaurants overlooking Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta. Since I couldn’t do a half day (was training one of our newest recruits) dinner was appealing just to rub elbows and get the scoop. My curiosity was pricked.

A creature of habit, I arrived at the restaurant on time. But there were very few non-Delta guests there! Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted someone in a Delta flight attendant’s uniform who looked awfully familiar. NO, I thought …. could it be true? It was the woman from the safety video Delta shows at the beginning of its flights. You know, the one who shakes her finger at you when she says, “Smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight!” Shaking my finger as I approached, I introduced myself. Katherine Lee is as pretty in person as she is on the video. I enjoyed talking with her and asking questions. She is indeed a “real” flight attendant, although I have never seen her on one of my flights. It was announced that night that she was transferring to the marketing department. 

All of a sudden buses began arriving outside the restaurant and hordes of people rushed through the doors. While most were casually dressed, there were some business types like me (suit and tie) and a few who looked rather odd. After a while, I decided to circulate amongst the group in the hopes of meeting any interesting people.

After talking with a few folks, I ran into Steve Dickson, Senior VP of Flight Operations for all of Delta. Aha; a man who could answer all my questions! A nice guy and very engaging, we spent more than 30 minutes in give and take. Turned out he’s a pilot and now a member of management. Soon after we exchanged cards, we were called to dinner.

I found my table, and was seated next to a married couple. We introduced ourselves, and I asked the man sitting immediately next to me to repeat his name. “Gargoyle,” he said. I replied, “Uh huh, that’s an interesting name.” He told me his real name was Jay Hall Carpenter, but he uses the screen name “Gargoyle” on FlyerTalk. Dumbfounded as I was, he explained to me that FlyerTalk is a blogger community of frequent travelers who discuss airlines and air travel. Delta had invited this community to a three-day event at Delta headquarters. (I was an add-on to the main event.) As it turns out, Delta monitors FlyerTalk with a vengeance as it provides the airline with lots of feedback. By the way, “Gargoyle” came up with that screen name because he sculpted the gargoyles for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Now this was getting interesting. 

The dinner was atypical in that Delta officials didn’t get up and espouse the merits of the airline. There was much interaction with the audience and many prizes to be won. For example, one award went to the person who knew Katherine Lee’s nickname on FlyerTalk when her video first aired on Delta. It was “Deltalina” because those big lips reminded the blogger of Angelina Jolie. Funny, huh? Anyhow, a trivia contest ensued with the winning table splitting a million frequent flyer miles. My table didn’t do well as the contest was, as you would imagine, extremely hard. 

Sitting on my opposite side was a young Delta employee known as “David.” He refrained from giving me his last name because he worked in Revenue Management. Revenue Management is that black box at headquarters that prices tickets and allocates space for free tickets. In addition to getting an earful from me, I gave him my business card. David had made the leap from accounting, so I told him all of my accounting jokes.  

The night came to a close, and truthfully, it was one of the best outings I’ve had in a long time. I really enjoyed myself and was in a great mood. The next morning, I received an e-mail from the event planner, to whom I expressed my appreciation of her note and congratulations to Delta on an excellent event. Later I received an e-mail from Steve Dickson inviting me to be his guest to fly on the Delta 777-200 simulator, Delta’s newest $10 million addition. Whhoppeeeeeee! 

I arrived at Delta headquarters near the Atlanta airport. After checking in and going through security, I was met by Steve Dickson’s assistant, another pilot. He took me on a tour of headquarters on the way to the simulator room. (The Boeing 777-200 is that great long-range jet on which I flew to Sydney last year.)  In the cockpit, I was assigned co-pilot. Our first excursion was Atlanta, so we took off from a runway at the Atlanta airport. Giving me the option of where to go, I decided we should buzz the office. We flew north from the airport and dropped to 2,000 feet, flying over my office building and the Chattahoochee River. It was SO cool; I even took the controls and banked over my house.

Then the technician caused us to travel in rain, fog, snow and then a thunderstorm, all by pushing a button. The landscape outside was extremely realistic as the simulator uses Google Earth for its graphics. We then returned to the Atlanta airport and landed. What an experience. 

The pilot then asked where I wanted to go next. “Well,” I said, “I told my assistant, Kristen, that I was going to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge.” He agrees, and confesses, “I’ve never done that.” With a push of a button, we were on the runway at the San Francisco International Airport. We took off and flew out over the Pacific. You could see the waves crashing on the beach as we flew. We headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge, dropping lower and lower. Soon alarms rang in the cockpit. We pushed on, lower and lower. The alarms grew more insistent – pull up, pull up. Finally we were there! The nose of the plane made it under the bridge, and then it happened! CRASH! Red lights flashed. Our tail hit the bridge, and we were done.

This was a terrific experience. My sincere thanks to Delta and Steve Dickson for the opportunity. I hope all frequent flyers get an opportunity to fly the simulator. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to have goodwill toward Delta … until my next flight delay.