Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Second Chance at a Once in a Lifetime.....

Not often in life do we get a chance to relive one of the greatest experiences of our life and make it even better, but this weekend I am getting to do just that!

As most of my readers know I travel a lot for work, and in past years it was even more than it has been this year. I am what is often known as a road warrior...spending a significant amount of my time on planes, sleeping in hotels and driving rental cars. And as glamorous as that seemed when I started this career 7 years ago, it really isn't. Instead of seeing the great cities of the world in style like people imagine I am usually shuffling from town to town often seeing little more than the airport, the hotel and the clients office. And the travel involves delays, tight connections and crowds of people.

But for as frustrating as that lifestyle can be there are times when a few great perks do come your way. Some of those perks are the published benefits of the frequent flyer programs, and some are less known. A smart traveler picks an airline, a hotel chain and a car rental company and becomes very loyal. Not only because of banking the rewards miles, but also because despite the negativity around how callous companies are these days, loyalty DOES matter to these companies. And when the chips are down having that connection to a travel company does smooth the path. My loyalties are to Delta Airlines, Hilton and Hertz.

Hilton and Hertz have treated me well, but my the place my heart lies in all this is with Delta. Through some unique twists of fate I have had the sheer pleasure of getting to know some of the Executive Management at Delta and it has afforded me some great behind the scenes opportunities.

Originally my alliance to Delta was completely for selfish reasons, they code shared with El Al airlines and I saw that partnership as my chance to use my frequent flyer miles as a way to get to Israel. I would never have guessed at that point how unimportant that would become in this relationship.

It's no secret to anyone who reads the news that the last 10 years have been a roller coaster for the airlines, and Delta. Bankruptcies, mergers, strikes and the like are everyday news now. But through all that Delta has kept focus on its frequent fliers and made sure we weren't left behind. Ironically it was many of those low moments that truly drew my heart to Delta.

When Delta was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2006 many choices had to be made to protect the airline. One of those was to retire "The Spirit of Delta".

This 767 is a part of Delta's lore. Purchased in 1982 the Spirit was a gift to Delta by her employees. The effort started by three flight attendants resulted in $30 million dollars of fundraising to buy the plane. This plane could not be lost in the bankruptcy and so was retired and now lives in the Delta Heritage Museum. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the chance to fly on one of the Spirit's private retirement flights in Cincinnati. To be part of sending her off in style with the employees who had purchased the plane, who had kept her flying (her nickname was the Hangar Queen for how often she was out of commission) and who had been with her from day 1 was beyond emotional. I was one of the few who got to be part of that history. Oh yeah and being on board when the pilot buzzed the runway was pretty darn cool too *smile*.

There were many changes during the bankruptcy, but Delta made a concerted effort throughout to reassure their staff and frequent fliers that they would survive and thrive. They started hosting a chain of invitation only events in major cities around the world, their "Behind the Velvet Rope" tour. Where the executives stood up, told it like it was and also showcased how the new Delta would emerge stronger than before. I was lucky enough to attend this event with a few of my flyertalk friends in Atlanta in 2006. It was at this event that I forged friendships that would forever change my relationship with Delta.

As the bankruptcy was completed Delta became ready to embrace her future, but at that point the future was unclear, as Delta became the target of a hostile takeover attempt by US Airways and Doug Parker.

Again those that loved Delta rallied. A grassroots campaign "Keep Delta My Delta" was started by the employees and was soon embraced by many frequent fliers like myself.

Luckily the takeover was defeated and Delta did emerge intact. As part of their rebirth Delta hosted a huge block party for its employees on May 12, 2007 at their headquarters in Atlanta, and through a couple great relationships I got to be part of the day. Myself along with three other frequent flyers (Jim, Brian and Carol) had the experience of our lives. Not only did we get to attend the party, including watching then CEO Gerald Grinstein dance to YMCA with thousands of his employees, but we were giving an amazing behind the scenes tour of the Delta campus. We got to see the Heritage Museum, the Operations Centers, the office complex and many other parts of the complex usually kept off limits.

But the highlight of the experience was being able to fly the flight simulators. Wow doesn't even start to explain what it is like to control one of these birds. They are as lifelike as it comes without actually taking off. I was paired with Brian and we got to fly the 737 and 777 simulators in and out of NYC, Washington DC, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. It was a chance of a lifetime I will never forget.

But I have to admit for as amazing as all these experiences were, none of them was untainted by my physical limitations. I look back at the Velvet Rope event and remember struggling and feeling like a fool because I couldn't take the stairs and had to ask many people for help in finding an elevator to the main floor of the receptions. I was embarrassed and felt completely out of place.

On the Spirit retirement flight it was the battle to find a seat belt extension. And the worst was the Delta Block Party Day. For as wonderful as it was to see the campus it was also torture for me, and unfortunately my limitations impacted those with me too. Not only was it extremely hot, which when you are over 300 lbs in a huge issue, but I was not up to the walking it required. We had to stop over and over again for me and my leg. I couldn't full enjoy the event in any way. Even flying the simulators I backed down and let Brian take over the "left seat" because I couldn't control the rudders.

The pain of how hard it was has kept me away from similar chances. Last year I passed up attending the Delta Road Warrior training event because I knew I couldn't get through the door easily of a plane, I knew I wouldn't be able to easily jump down the slide and would hold others up.

For as great as those experiences I have had were, that is what I most remember, my limitations. And I thought that would be the memories forever. But this weekend I am getting the chance to re-write them, on a huge scale.

Since the four of us took our in 2007 Delta has embraced this experience for its frequent flyers and this weekend I will be one of over 100 people who again will be invading the Delta campus. For four days we will meet with the Executives, attend dinners hosted for us by Delta, American Express and SunTrust at three great hot spots in Atlanta ,we will visit the museum, the technical ops center, the fire houses and again get to fly the simulators. I will also get to take part in the Road Warrior Training I passed up last year (this time 2 days long).

And beyond being a little nervous about food, I get to come into it this year as a totally new person. What would have kept me away a year ago, like reading "be prepared to walk over a mile", now holds no limitations for me at all. I know that my body will be able to keep up, that I will not be the weak link in the group. I won't need to worry about hiding when the cameras are out or give excuses for why I can't participate.

I am getting the chance to rewrite all the pains of the past and I can't wait! Oh yeah, and I intend to do it in cute shoes!!!!

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