They say that alcoholics often remember the first time they got drunk as a peak moment in their lives. Misty-eyed, dhuey tells me, "I'll never forget the first time I got bumped. …"
"I was in college," he continues, "and my original flight had mechanical problems. They asked me if I'd mind taking the next flight, which was in one hour. Did I have an hour to spare??! I was a college student! I had a hundred hours! They gave me a free trip to wherever they flew!
"I thought it was the greatest deal in the world. To me, this was gold. I started wondering how I could increase my chances of this happening. I wanted to learn the system."
I say I don't think it would work for me. I only fly a few times a year, mostly to Minnesota, where I'm originally from. "It adds up faster than you think," MSYguy assures me. "FlyerTalk got me Gold on UA [an elite membership status earned by flying a certain number of miles on United Airlines]," he adds with some emotion.
"One thing the conventional flyer doesn't understand is that miles depreciate," he says. "I used to hoard them, but the airlines will ratchet up the amount it takes to get a ticket. And the airlines make it harder and harder to qualify for miles." (And to use them for a flight—even I know that.)
"I did BWI [Baltimore-Washington International Airport] three times when United offered triple mileage. I learned about that from FlyerTalk. Once I had the Gold, I went on another trip where the lowest possible fare was $215. But someone on FlyerTalk said, 'Book $300 and you're guaranteed first class [a free upgrade available only to those with elite status].'
"Is it worth it? I don't know. If you're going to do enough traveling … In London, United has a club. You get a hot shower, a hot breakfast, and they press your clothes. Once, I flew somewhere with my colleague. I got the upgrade and she didn't—because she didn't know the rules."
From the FlyerTalk.com glossary:
CLASS OF SERVICE/TRAVEL: Usually refers to airline travel; indicates the level of travel, size of seat and surrounding area, cabin position, and amenities offered. Generally first class (F), business class (C) and coach (Y).
SEAT PITCH: The distance measured between a seat back and the seat back in front of it.
FOC: This dreaded disease is considered contagious by members of frequent flyer programs who choose to redeem their miles and benefits for upgrades rather than free awards. The disease is FOC—Fear of Coach.
MILEAGE RUN: A series of flights taken in a very short amount of time, solely for the purpose of accumulating frequent flyer miles, with a blatant disregard for the destinations.
YIELD MANAGEMENT: The process whereby airlines allocate seats at different prices depending on actual vs. anticipated demand. Yield management also pertains to the process of allocating frequent flyer award seats.
"The point is, if you're going to do a long trip, how do you get there comfortably?" explains MYSguy. (Personally, I just take a couple of Valiums and I don't know where I am, much less care.) "But it's true that some people totally lose track of the reason for traveling and are obsessed with the process," he acknowledges.
When I first discovered FlyerTalk, I'd read posts where people were noting their "cost per miles," the goal being, of course, to get as many miles for as little money as possible. Somehow, people find flight listings for bizarre routings with equally bizarre low fares. I assume the reason they're so cheap is random; the airlines don't expect anybody to actually fly those exact routes, just to use the separate legs. But what do I know?
"Some of these people are maniacs," says MSYguys. "They'll re-route their trip three times. Seattle to Florida via Minneapolis, New York, Memphis. Or they'll fly Houston-Minneapolis-San Francisco for $200 if the opportunity comes up."
One of these maniacs is David Phillips, aka "The Pudding Guy," a FlyerTalker who made it into the national media when he purchased over 12,000 packages of Healthy Choice pudding at 25 cents each in order to earn over a million frequent flyer miles.
You do the math. I wonder what he did with the pudding.
"I never pay for a flight," says CiaoManhattan.She has a boyfriend in Milan, flies back and forth a lot, and (illegally) sells her miles to a broker. "I get a good rate," she says. "Two cents a mile. So as long as I don't pay more than $500 for a flight, I break even." (FlyerTalk explicitly forbids, and actually deletes, posts condoning illegal buying and selling of awards.)
CiaoManhattan lacks deep pockets, but, says MSYguy, "There are clearly people on FlyerTalk who are very wealthy. Why do they do it? It's the game. How can I milk the system? How can I screw the airlines?"
He describes an example of a perfectly legal scam: "You can buy gift certificates on X airline, pay for them with your frequent flyer affinity credit card, go to Y company and buy a money order, and deposit it in your bank. By the end of the year you have a trip to Hawaii.
"It's a game. The airlines are this magic game. They cry poor-mouth. But US Air is in bankruptcy, and they have a billion dollars in cash. That's more money than any of us will have ever."
Our ludicrously cheap fares were perfectly legal as well. It turns out, one FlyerTalker learned, that airlines and travel agents subcontract out the loading of fares into the computer to a data-entry company. It was this firm that had made the manual error we'd been lucky enough to find out about.
Incidentally, we weren't the only ones who got a kick out of it. The Iceland Tourist Board did, too. They even wrote a press release about it.
I spoke to Einar Gustavsson, director for the Americas. "This was in the press in Iceland, pretty big, and there were a lot of smiles over it," he said. "Radio stations had it, some newspapers. We're an island, and flight prices are a constant bone of contention." (Icelandair has a lock on many of the routes coming to and from the country.)
And though "notsosmart," who'd written the original post about this fare, had said it was "clearly a mistake," that wasn't necessarily true. As MSYguy explained to me, "Take Ryanair. They have an amazing number of destinations to Europe. They'll fly you for $5. People thought our tickets were a promotion, because Ryanair will sometimes pay you to fly. So how could we know our deal wasn't something along those lines?"
How can that work for them? I wonder. "They put pressure on the little businesses at the airports and say, we'll fly to your airport if you pay us to do it," he explains.
Listening to MSYguy talk, I realize that there's something familiar about the deep knowledge, the attitude, and the behavior of the FTers. Eventually, I figure out what it is: They're hackers. I remember this stuff from the earlier days of the Internet. Some hackers did illegal things, but most of them just sort of trespassed or got free phone calls. The FTers, too, are hacking the system. They force corporate rules, designed to wring money out of them, to twist back upon themselves, shedding excess profit margin into the hacker's laps. If they did it in a loft in my neighborhood, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they'd be famous artists, like Matthew Barney, Björk's significant other.