Sunday, April 5, 2009

04/04: The concept of Mileage Running

It's a Saturday night, I'm enjoying a glass of an earthy and nutty Bordeaux, and though an early morning alarm awaits, I'm quite in the mood to describe an endeavor that is simultaneously an important component of how I've spent my free time over the past few years, yet also seemingly illogical, boring and just-plain misguided (in the eyes of some illogical, boring and just-plain misguided critics, at least). I'm talking of the humble Mileage Run (MR).

What is the MR? A general definition might assert that it's a trip whose sole raison d'etre is the accumulation of frequent flier program benefits (chiefly redeemable miles and elite qualifying miles; more on the difference between these later). Yet oftentimes a MR may also be influenced by the actor's enjoyment of the flying experience or -- and this is anathema to some MR purists -- by a desire to enjoy the traveled-to destination for some days (or hours, or sometimes even minutes).

Illustration of my first-ever MR serves as an insightful example. The time was December 2004 -- n.b. December is the prime month for MRing, as airline elite-status-qualification periods typically end at the end of the year. A relatively heavy travel schedule over the preceding eleven months (keep in mind that I was a student at this point, not a consultant or Fortune 500 executive) had my United Mileage Plus account quite close to the first elite status level, Premier. To my youthful eyes, of course, Premier represented a hallowed flying achievement, which set my mind scheming: how could I earn this status in the few weeks remaining in the year?

And then it dawned on me. Just fly, stupid; somewhere, anywhere. So, I booked a trip from Washington to Fort Lauderdale, via Chicago to increase the mileage. Being a complete novice, I arrived at FLL in the late evening without plans for how to spend the night (I was to leave on a 6am flight the next morning). Naively, I hopped a bus into the city centre, but the area unto which I stumbled started closing down at the too-early hour of midnight. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I dashed to another bus, this time bound for Miami, an area that surely never sleeps. But fate intervened; this being the night's last run for this particular route, the bus journeyed no further than the intermediate point of Hollywood, FL. Everyone off!

Terrified of how I'd spend the remaining hours of the night, I wandered to an area of town with some nightlife, but soon felt too awkward sitting on the public benches around the bars, settling instead for sitting on the curb before a 24-hour convenience store. I was periodically joined there by an assorted coterie of the homeless. Could I have actually revealed that I was foolishly spending the night in vagabond style because of ridiculous motivations for frequent flier status? No, I must have fabricated some lie when confronted with the obvious question: what's a guy like you doing here?

The experience thankfully ended without instances of violence, theft or other examples of gross discomfort. I made it home, and I was now Premier.


The concept of the MR does not, however, revolve around the imagined consequence of a label. It is a value-maximization scheme at its core. In essence, the value a frequent flier program provides is tangible, and once someone figures out what that value is in her unique case, she can determine whether she can create value by taking extra trips that, while costly, also increase her frequent flier program benefits.

For example, I have a need for periodic transatlantic travel. Suppose such a ticket might cost $600. I can instead get a ticket for 50,000 United Mileage Plus miles, but this ticket contains concrete benefits vis-a-vis the $600 revenue ticket:
  1. The mileage ticket is fully refundable and can oftentimes be acquired with little or no advance purchase. (I once booked a ticket for Warsaw in the morning and flew the same evening.)
  2. The mileage ticket allows for complicated itineraries that include a stopover or open jaw, and that can include multiple destinations so long as one stays for less than 24 hours at stops other than the final destination or stopover point. (I personally enjoy short visits to a succession of cities.)
  3. The mileage ticket allows for the inclusion of exciting, more service-oriented airlines that are part of the same airline alliance.
  4. The mileage ticket opens up the possibility of travel in international business or international first classes of service, options that are prohibitively expensive if acquired by cash.
As such, $600 does not equal a 50,000 mile ticket. Some simple trips might, indeed, be better served by the plain-vanilla cheap revenue ticket, but other, more ambitious trips pair very well with award travel. Suppose I value the 50,000 mile ticket at $1300.

If I was to pay $1300 for a revenue ticket, I'd accrue about 10,000 miles. If I was to pay 50,000 miles for an award ticket, I'd have to pay about $100 in taxes (and accrue no miles during the trip). Thus, in this stylized example, 50,000 miles is equal to $1000, or 1 mile is equal to 2 cents.

Now, suppose that I love to fly and can think of few more enjoyable ways to spend a free Saturday than flying to San Francisco, Los Angeles or Seattle and, straight away (to minimize incidental costs), back. With a creative routing (i.e. multiple connections in out-of-the-way places), I can earn 12,000 miles on the roundtrip (assume I'm earning a 100% bonus over actual flown miles, typical for most airlines' higher frequent flier status levels) and pay $200 for the ticket. Thus, I'm earning miles at the rate of 1.67 cents a pop, a true arbitrage opportunity when I'm redeeming the miles at 2 cents each.

The above example is, of course, grossly simplified. In reality, the appeal of MRing can be much greater. For one, frequent flier programs offer more than redeemable miles (RDM). One extra is the elite-qualifying mile (EQM). With EQMs, one qualifies for the upcoming year's status level, and as such, accruing enough of these in a calendar year is to some people an obsession. Furthermore, some airlines dole-out upgrade certificates in proportion to one's amount of flying, opening up the possibility for roomy seats, decent meals, and the chance for real sleep on MRs. Finally, most MRers will enthusiastically agree that they love flying -- the experience of scrutinizing an airline's product and operation in minute detail; the thrill of the take-off roll and of flying through turbulence; (on United) the option of following live a flight's play-by-play communications with Air Traffic Control (via the proprietary Channel Nine of the in-flight audio); the chance to stumble upon exciting places and people in far-flung cities -- or even just in the airports of these cities; the chance to wine and dine like a rockstar in international premium cabins; even the simple occasion to get away -- legs stretched out, drinks and hot nuts served by an attentive flight attendant, brilliant sunrise occurring on cue over a majestic cloud layer just outside the window, Bose noise-canceling headset engaged, the crisp Weekend Financial Times just begging for perusal -- for some "me" time; the list goes on-and-on.

This post has sought to scratch the surface of the MR. An excellent resource for further information is the online message-board Flyertalk. In my personal experience, MRing has brought me into intimate closeness with both travel and with the airlines, an industry about which I've been fascinated from long before I ever pondered the concept of MRing. I've flown well over 100,000 miles each year for the last four years running, and this year I'm on track for 200,000. I've this year also expanded my airline relationships beyond United and its Star Alliance: I requested a status match with Northwest, and have since taken several journeys with Skyteam airlines.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

04/04: Markets over the past week

This week's action on the equity markets featured an uptick in volatility, and hence in trading opportunities.

The Dow began the week with a collapse on Monday but then built a strong upward trendline throughout the rest of the week, culminating with fresh highs (over 8050) and a strong close (8017):

10-day chart of the Dow; source:

Particularly surprising is that the markets recorded a strong gain on Thursday, April 2: the day of London's G20 summit. I'd expected markets to rise on expectations of the event, as they did in the three preceding days, but to sell-off on the event's actual occurrence, i.e. behave in their oft-repeated buy-on-the-rumour and sell-on-the-news fashion.

With regards to my own trading strategy, I have focused my energies this week on closely tracking and opportunistically trading shares of Bank of America (BAC). Several reasons make trading BAC attractive given my risk-seeking investment strategy:
  1. A high beta, meaning that price movement of the stock, in percentage terms, amplifies the percentage movement of the broader market, e.g. the S&P500 index.
  2. Well-defined patterns in price movement; generally, the movement is less "random" and more pattern driven.
  3. Deep liquidity, which both facilitates the execution of large trades and also minimizes the spread between the bid and ask prices.
In fact, I have practically given up in recent days on the trading of other stocks, an outcome that admittedly appears laced with laziness but, actually, is motivated by simple profit-maximization motives: why would I closely track, say, Apple or Boeing, in hopes of harvesting a one or two percent intra-day gain, when Bank of America is regularly trading in a broad envelope of 10%?

While on this topic, I might add my thoughts on what I perceive to be one of the most important elements of successful trading: staying emotionally level-headed. At first glance, the goal seems odd, even misplaced; aren't markets driven by the interminable struggle between fear and greed? It's true that fear and greed drive a trader's actions, but these emotions are generally productive only when channeled towards the objective measure of price, not towards the charged issue of one's personal profit/loss. Based on my experience, it's critical to appraise a trade in a strictly objective way, as though one were simply making a judgment call that did not involve one's actual money and, by extension, subjective metrics such as: one's potentially growing indebtedness if the trade fails, one's potential ego boost if the trade prospers, how impressive/embarrassing one's P&L (profit & loss) sheet will look with this trade's outcome, etc.

04/04: Wknd w/ Skyteam, part 2: PDX-SEA-JFK / JFK-DCA

It’s been just over a month since my last great jaunt across the bosom of the United States, back and forth and back and forth; but given the amount of novelty and adventure that the trip brought forth, I think it’s worth to return and complete the trip report that I began here.

I’d just filled up with a crisp Portland microbrew and that favourite meat entrée of outdoor shindigs – the humble Polish sausage – when, on the late afternoon of Sunday, March 1, I completed the first installment of the trip report.

Arriving at PDX, Portland’s well-located, pleasant and airy airport, I was feeling quite good with myself. I had a dash up the coast aboard Horizon Air’s Q400 turboprop to look forward to – not just any flight, this would acquaint me with: a) Horizon’s superior in-flight product; b) the Q400, a next generation of Bombardier’s workhorse Dash-8 series, and an aircraft which I researched in some depth for a class presentation on Bombardier vis-à-vis the WTO; and c) Horizon’s self-branded Shuttle Service on the PDX-SEA corridor.

And I was certainly not disappointed. There was a priority security line for Shuttle passengers, the dedicated gate area featured counter space for one’s laptop along with plentiful power outlets and free wifi, and boarding proceeded to occur efficiently via the ramp. Once onboard, the cabin of the Q400 is spacious for a regional aircraft, seat pitch was sufficient, and seat upholstery was in very good condition. Furthermore, cabin noise and vibration were not especially noticeable (as is often the case with other models of turboprop aircraft), although I was seated towards the rear of the aircraft, an area where these bothersome effects are generally less pronounced.

Moments after the mid-evening takeoff down runway 10L, flight attendants sprang into action and – imagine this – provided a full snack and beverage service, including complimentary local wine or beer, on this 129 mile sector. This is the standard for which East Coast regional operations should aim!

Arriving at Seatac, I was quite pleased with my travel on the just-completed sector; little did I know that a challenge of significant magnitude would await for my brief stay at the Emerald City's airport. The account of this challenge, along with the remainder of the trip report, is drawn from an email I composed soon after the fact, and will be arranged into three “time zones” to coincide with the distance I bridged in this last phase of my travels, from Seattle to the District:


Zone one: Global services, 1K and First Class only. Indeed, I felt like in First class – and on Cloud Nine, at that – when I miraculously found my roll-aboard bag just moments before my SEA-JFK sector was to push. I had lost the bag some ninety minutes earlier, right after arriving at Seatac from PDX. Here's how it all went down:

As I disembarked my Q400 turboprop, I distinctly remember picking up my brilliant Samsonite roll-aboard plane-side and then lugging it up a flight of stairs to the terminal. Then, I remember walking to the other end of the airport, the A concourse, where I looked up some flight information on the Wifi network and then proceeded to speak at length with a Delta agent. And, that conversation concluded, I turned away from the counter and reached for my bag, only to discover with utter disbelief that it was nowhere to be seen!

Zone one, final call: I maintained surprising composure at this point, but I was hurting bad inside. Where is my bag? Did I leave it near where I worked on my laptop? In the restroom? No, and no, I soon learned upon rapidly setting about the re-tracement of my steps. Did someone steal it, then? Or was it reported to the airport as an unattended bag and promptly confiscated? I scurried back to the gate, where, sleep deprived and feeling low on confidence about how to proceed, I inquired for the agents' opinions about what to do. The next step was talking to some TSA agents "standing around" nearby, and then I even questioned a janitor who was prepping his cleaning cart near a bathroom. Alas, everyone yielded little in the way of helpful information. Back to the Alaska / Horizon gates I then dashed, but I received nothing more than sympathy from their fine agents. Out of options, I picked up the receiver of a payphone and called 9-1-1.

Zone one, paging Mr. Daaaaniiiiiiiielllllll: "What is your emergency?" I felt like a bit of a fool to be calling this last-resorts number. I did not have a hijacking or a bomb to report but, rather, a mere lost bag. The responder on the other end was pleasant and -- like all the other wonderful Pacific Northwesteners I encountered, genuinely sympathetic -- but unfortunately reported that no one had reported an unattended bag in the recent past. He suggested the airport lost-and-found office, which I ambitiously decided to visit despite its land-side location (i.e. pre-security) and my JFK flight's imminent departure in a mere 35 minutes. Alas, I found the office closed, and the agent manning the 24-hour help desk that I phoned did not have any good news. It was time for the walk of shame back to the gate, er, the mad dash back to the gate, combined with a simultaneously-occurring mental tally of the hundreds upon hundreds of dollars of loss that I'd just suffered. Security cleared, I dashed into every men's room en-route, hoping to see the distinctive bright-orange, neoprene, SAS-logo-emblazoned strap of my jet-black, handsome Samsonite rolly. But I only found wet floors and quizzical glances. Finally, in a supremely climactic moment, I noticed a distinctive all-glass, amorphous sculpture through my peripheral vision as I positively ran down the long corridors of the A concourse, hearing hallucinating echoes of "final boarding call" in my mind's ear. And, suddenly, something clicked; "I remember admiring this work on my sojourn down this hall nearly two hours ago, so reminiscent it is of Chicago's new Bean; didn't I stop to rest -- and call my friend -- in the gate area immediately beyond, when I walked here earlier this evening?" And there it was.

I was on the verge of a happy flow of tears, discovering my long-lost bag at the 11th hour, 59th minute. There it was, all alone, in a deserted gate area. Before the wide glass panes, peering longingly at the empty, dark tarmac beyond. Like a scene from Wall-e, that epitome of personification. Deliriously happy, I ran with a new life towards A-14, at the very end of the airport. Scanning my boarding pass, the gate reader emitted a shrill sound and announced a seat change; no longer in an over-wing exit row, I'd now be in 1B.

Zone two: Our 737 stepped uncertainly down the long ILS approach corridor into JFK. Two steps down, one step up, a hesitation leftward, an uncertain lurch rightward. A skip, a step, a fall. We danced as though the sunrise outside was that of New Years' Day, our having just imbibed far too much. Yet our contact with the runway was firm and decisive, what we needed for steady deceleration on the snowy surface. In the new environs of JFK's Terminal Two, I proceeded for necessary sustenance at Starbucks and then re-booked myself onto an early afternoon Delta Shuttle flight on the LGA-DCA sector. And then I was off towards Penn Station.

The journey down the Airtrain tracks was positively surreal. Immense blizzard outside, snow piling over the tracks at times, my mind still happy after the prior night's luck and stimulated further with energetic European dance music. Out into the civilization of Manhattan, I was again struck by the fairy-tale scene of snow. I must have certainly wielded an unconscious, broad grin. I began walking towards Times Square, where I'd catch the N or W subway towards LGA, but diverted to an independent, eclectic-looking diner for a seat at the empty bar. Some over-easy eggs, grape-jellied toast, and constantly topped-up coffee later, I settled my bill, tipped the friendly Eastern European waitress, and set off again.

Not long afterwards, I was at the hallowed Marine Air Terminal, a shrine to aviation and a location that I was most pleased to finally visit. The structure did not disappoint, having all the cathedral-esque elegance of a fin-de-siecle railway depot; most notably, it featured a grand rotunda in the style of the Pantheon, embellished by a grand mural of flight by James Brooks and punctuated by a grand, angular bust of the smiling Juan Tripp, legendary Pan Am manager. After a spell at the in-house cafeteria (delightfully unaffiliated with any chain restaurant), I cleared the lone, deserted TSA security lane and headed down towards the small handful of gates. To my surprise, I discovered no sterile waiting area but, instead, a veritable lounge -- so I christen it because of free newspapers, fashionable seating arrangements, and computer workstations. My name was at the head of the upgrade list, and I soon boarded the E75, bound for seat 1D.

Zone three: Arrival into DCA occurred after a panoramic overview of the capital's city-centre and further sightseeing of the southern suburbs. The downwind leg was exceptionally long, in fact, and tacked on about ten minutes to our wheels-up time. But soon we were on the ground nonetheless, and I dashed all the way from my seat to the Metro platform, where a blue line train was conveniently waiting for me. This must have been one of my fastest airport-grounds egress experiences ever, quicker than with any taxi! Yet even with this good fortune, I did not succeed in moving time backwards; it was already 3:30p. Thus, I ventured home and straight to bed for a sorely-needed nap.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

01/04: Last week's markets; weekend travel to New York City

Markets over the last week have consolidated their gains from the run-up earlier in March, and the sideways-trend has proven more difficult to trade. On my own end, I took a highly-leveraged position that did not pan-out as hoped, forcing a liquidation at below cost to meet a margin call. It's never pleasant to get a margin call, needless to say. My fortunes have improved this week, however, with a profitable trade of a financial company.

Last weekend (and the run-up to it) provided some classics in spontaneous travel. First off, late-night drinks with my friend Owen spawned the sudden idea of heading with him to New York for part of the weekend. As though that weren't enough, I found a fantastic <$300 fare to Moscow that same night, which I naturally booked; I'll be off to the Russian capital in late April.

As for the travel itself, I was ticketed on a 2:15p United Express flight from Dulles to JFK. I did not, incidentally, have any intention of taking that flight, as I have class on Fridays until 2:30p, but this particular flight priced out cheapest and I intended to standby for a later one. Unfortunately, the afternoon's travel did not prove as seamless as I'd hoped; here's an account I recorded in an email of the experience:


Have had the displeasure of one of my worst airport transit experiences in recent memory, with a number of factors compounding to produce rolling delays and seemingly incessant opportunities for frustration. In chronological order: a) I boarded a shuttle bus for Rosslyn, VA at 3:05p but it did not leave until 3:20p, despite the schedule promising a 3:10p departure; b) An extraordinarily lethargic bus driver combined with abnormal traffic on the Key Bridge towards Rosslyn tacked on further minutes of delay; c) The orange line train on which I was riding held at Courthouse station for nearly two minutes; [aside: the minutes here and there may seem trivial, but on my high-risk, tightly-compressed schedules the sum of their effects proved most significant] d) My cab driver began lecturing me on the importance of a clean driving record when I gently urged him to depress the gas pedal more firmly -- he would not exceed 60mph; e) Most significantly of all, the TSA would not permit me through security with my boarding pass, which admittedly was for a flight some two hours earlier, but this draconian interpretation of the rules was upheld despite my exerting every effort towards being polite and, furthermore, despite escalation to the attention of the shift supervisor; this necessitated a trip to United's check-in area for printing of a standby card -- and, of course, United's EasyCheck-In machine was not up to the task.

Here, my fortunes witnessed a brief glimmer of sunlight. As I approached the manned check-in area (i.e. with actual flesh-and-blood United agents), my heart sank to see the 1K line some twenty bodies long; but upon explaining my precarious situation (vis-a-vis both my travels and my sanity) the maitre-d' of the "premium lobby" mercifully directed me to use the unpopulated Global Services / Intl F line, where I saw an agent straight-away.

But in the grand scheme of things, it was too little, too late. Despite my best efforts through security and then dodging to mobile lounge and gate, I managed to arrive only two minutes before scheduled push-back. United, like most airlines, closes their flights ten minutes before departure, and while the time of close is sometimes delayed for operational reasons (which happens more frequently with regional jet -operated flights, as mine was), this particular departure for JFK was spot on-time.

I hustled then to the pit of DullASS, in many ways the source of this poor play on the airport's true and noble name: the A gates. The bus depot in Boston served by the Fung-Wa bus lines is better designed. At the A gates, standard operating procedure dictates that six flights operate from a single gate, with the scarce agents shouting pathetic destinations over each other (think the likes of State College, Johnstown, Altoona, Shenandoah) and, as a golden rule, never willing to help customers. In this environment, I attempted to join the standby list for a 5:20p departure for La Guardia. As though he were granting me a great favour, the unsmiling and harried agent added me to the standby list but, alas, I did not clear.

I proceeded next to assuage my hunger at the only eatery in the terminal -- the greasy Five Guys. While the meal did prove a suitable antidote to my ever-increasing, hunger-induced headache, I felt absolutely abysmal upon completion of the fatty meal.

I was off to the relative tranquility of the C gates at this time, where I attempted standby for yet another flight, another LGA-bound sector. I took my rightful (joke!) place atop the standby list but, in a demonstration of superior skill by United's revenue management elves, the flight went out 50/50 with confirmed passengers. So it was not to be yet again.

In conclusion, I finally managed to get aboard UA 7278, bound for JFK, and departing some 150 minutes after I'd arrived at the airport. Despite being on CRJ equipment, the journey was exceedingly pleasant and allowed me to leave firmly behind my afternoon and evening's misadventures.