Brian Northgrave

5pm, November 5th and it is cool, rainy and windy in Ottawa, but I arrived here in Montevideo yesterday and am soaking in the sun in T-shirt weather, under clear blue skies. But can it be possible that I travelled with Airmiles?

 I have always had lots of Airmiles, and occasionally, I call their FLD (Front Line Defence) and try to use them. I don’t get far as FLD quickly discourages me with brutal travel arrangements like red-eye flights, out-of-the-way routes, huge connection times. I tried again a few months ago, for travel to Montevideo and nothing had changed. FLD could get me there but it would involve twice the normal number of connections, a 6am departure, a hotel because one connection would involve arriving in the evening and catching the next flight the following noon. About two and a half days of travel.

Normally that would be the end of it and I would shrug my shoulders and boot up Expedia. But there was another possibility this time. My brother Paul and sister-in-law Ann in Toronto had been taking COPA to Montevideo, leaving at 7:30am and arriving at midnight the same day. I knew COPA was a member of the Star Alliance, and I hoped that it had some seats with Airmiles. “Any chance of getting to Montevideo with COPA?” I asked FLD. “Not from Ottawa” was the reply. “Why?” “That’s the way it is. For a COPA ticket you would have to get yourself to Toronto.”

FLD probably figured that would be the end of it, and he could turn to disillusion the next caller. But I could drive to Toronto and stay overnight at Paul and Ann’s. “If I got to Toronto, what would be the routing?” “An early departure, two stops in North America to get to Panama (COPA headquarters). Then Panama to Barranquilla on the coast of Colombia, then Bogota, then Montevideo. Connections not great.” “One other thing” I said, “I have heard you can use your miles to get an upgrade.” “Yes, you have enough Airmiles for an upgrade to Business.” “OK” I said, “I’ll take it.” FLD surprised, but couldn’t back down. He sent me the confirming email with the details of the flights, and the calendar on my iPhone magically showed everything.

I suppose that FLD had to call DD, Airmiles’ Deterrence Division (I assume there is one) and shamefacedly admit that he had allowed someone to use Airmiles to get an air ticket. This would have put DD into the game.

Being unfamiliar with Business class, the night before leaving Ottawa for Toronto I decided to check on how much my suitcases could weigh. Talking to Air Canada and to COPA about weight allowances and seat selection, it dawned on me that we were talking about different routings. My route Toronto to Montevideo had been changed and I had only found out about it by accident. I was astonished. I asked the COPA agent to email me the new ticket routing. Big improvement. Instead of having to get up at 4:30am to get out to the airport for due time before the 7:30am departure, now I could get up at a civilized time and leave at 9am for a noon departure. The new routing involved two less connections and was several hours shorter.
Why the last-minute change that was not communicated to me? I thought it over and concluded that the Deterrence Division had been at work. I could imagine them rubbing their hands and saying to each other “Can you imagine his face when he arrives at the airport, brutalized from his 4:30am alarm, scrambling to get here on time, only to find out he could have slept in until 8:30am?” He will be so angry at Airmiles that he won’t even consider bothering FLD again, they will chuckle to each other. “And since he is going anyway, we might as well save some jet fuel and give him a shorter routing” perhaps one of them would have said.

Travelling Business Class on COPA was great. They boarded us first, so no jamming up at the gate and at the end of the tunnel in front of the aircraft door. They always seemed to be bringing me a small dish of smoked salmon. A good dinner and our steward, Edwin, treated the sixteen of us attentively. With the seat controls I could bring the seat well back, and the footrest up - lots of room and a decent sleep on the longest run, Panama to Montevideo.

But I just arrived in Montevideo yesterday and already I am starting to worry about the return trip, on November 18. Despite itself, Airmiles spoiled me with the trip down. Is it going to allow that to stand and permit me a comfortable return in two weeks? It would become a bad precedent, an example to encourage more hopeful travellers to bother Front Line Defence. The Deterrence Division may go into high gear against me on the return to Toronto - flights delayed or cancelled, missed connections, a cluster of some of the awful problems that air travel routinely throws at us. But it is only a possibility and I won’t let it prevent me from enjoying Montevideo - the sun, the warmth and the charm of a shirt-sleeve meal with friends on the terrace of a restaurant when it is 8:30pm and the sun has yet to set.

November 19 and I am back in Ottawa with a new respect for Airmiles Front Line Defence and its Deterrence Division, and their ability to dash expectations. When I booked the flights, with all the scrambling and attention to the different possible routings, I hardly paid attention to the fact that there was a 6 and ½ hour wait between flights in Chicago. To the extent I thought about it at all, my reaction was that there was an opportunity to search out a present for Marie-Rose, and then relax in one of those comfy VIP lounges. I have an app that gives me access to them, at about half price.

The day before leaving I thought I better go online to check whether somehow Airmiles had done another last-minute change in my routing – COPA Montevideo to Panama and Panama to Chicago, and finally Air Canada Chicago to Toronto. They hadn’t but going over the routing turned out to be a shock. For the first time I focused on the fact that the layover in Chicago was in the middle of the night. I would arrive at 11:30pm and leave the next morning at 6:15am. I checked the VIP lounges and was surprised to learn that they closed at midnight and only opened at 8: am. There would not be enough time to go to a hotel. I would be stuck in the terminal, trying to doze in one of those seats with the metal arm-rests for five hours, alone with the cleaning staff. At about 5am, I would pull my aches together and stumble to the Air Canada desk with my luggage and check in for the 6:15am flight for Toronto. I would arrive there at about 8:45am, get to the empty house of brother Paul and sister-in-law Ann, totally whacked. In bad shape for the 5-hour drive home to Ottawa. It was a disaster scenario.

I called Air Canada hoping for some advice on how to pass those five hours in Chicago – perhaps learn about some corner of the airport where I could stretch out in relative comfort. The Air Canada lady was patient and a good listener, but after forty minutes, it was clear that once my ticket had been written by Airmiles, no one else could change it (and clearly Airmiles Deterrence Division wouldn’t), and no, there did not seem to be any kind of a refuge to spend mid-night to 5am in the Chicago airport - I suppose it was an option no sane person would choose.

We arrived at the Montevideo airport at 9:30am for the 11:30am COPA flight to Panama. Arturo and I wheeled up my big, near-empty suitcase to the lady at the COPA desk. I was desperately trying to think up alternatives to my flight through Chicago. “Could I change my Panama to Chicago flight to a Panama Toronto flight, and pay any difference in the two tickets?” No, my ticket could not be changed, only Airmiles could do that. And I would have to follow my bag to Chicago. “What if I leave the bag here and only have carry-ons.” Well, I could try calling COPA client services to see if I could buy a new ticket Panama to Toronto, assuming there was space and enough connection time, because I would only get one boarding pass in Montevideo, and then would have to check in again with COPA once in Panama. “Couldn’t you just issue me both boarding passes here?” No, I would have to arrive in Panama, leave the secure area and go to the check-in counter, get the boarding pass, then go through security again, and get to the gate.

I knew from previous COPA flights that Paul and Ann had taken that there was only an hour to make the connection in Panama, so that appeared unworkable. But we would try. We left the lady at the COPA counter, and Arturo took up the challenge with COPA client services of trying to book a new economy seat Panama to Toronto. If we could get a seat and pay for it, I would take a chance on trying to get a new boarding pass in Panama and scramble to make the connection. Only a calm and thoughtful Arturo could have managed it, as his phone connection kept breaking off. After it had broken off the second time, but we thought we had paid for the ticket, we went back to the COPA counter. The COPA lady was helping someone else, and since it was getting close to boarding my Montevideo-Panama flight, I gestured to her to suggest we take our case to her colleague at the next counter. She nodded yes. The man looked relaxed and sure of himself. He would check his terminal to see if our payment had gone through. The ticket reservation had been made but the payment had not, we would have to try again to pay. Arturo put away his fancy Samsung phone and tried his old flip top one. This time the connection was clearer, and we did not lose the signal. We paid the $ 460 (I had decided that if the ticket was over $500, I would face up to the seats with the metal arm rests in Chicago). Our agent nodded, the payment had gone through.

Just to try him, I asked if he could give us boarding passes both for Montevideo-Panama, and Panama-Toronto. The COPA lady next to us, over-hearing the request shook her head negatively to our man. But he spread his hands in a “why not” gesture, punched his computer and handed me the two boarding passes.

From there on it was straight-forward. The happy Business Class to Panama – plates of smoked salmon, constantly filling my wine glass, good meal, that wonderfully spacious, comfortable, way-back reclining chair, then into the zoo of economy. That meant milling about in front of the gate in Panama, where they set up a security screening right there, and where the security lady confiscated my empty water bottle. I wasn’t going to argue, but I told her it was a first for me.

I was assigned a window seat in the crowded plane – lucky there had been any seat free. It was tight, and the seat reclined only about ten degrees. I chose the spaghetti and chicken dinner although I never found any chicken, and the glass of wine was offered well after the meal had been consumed. Standard stuff, but it got me to Toronto before mid-night and I arrived at Paul and Ann’s house and a bed before 1am. A decent sleep and in good shape for the drive to Ottawa at 9:15 the next morning.

The air travel was over, and there were good bits all related to travelling business class, but I don’t think I will ever try travelling on Airmiles again. I realize now that I am out of my league with Airmiles Front Line Defence and their Deterrence Division. If they ever end up issuing a ticket – and that would be with much reluctance – they know how to make you wish you had never bought it.

Tags: Brian Northgrave