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Flying with dietary restrictions? Increasingly, that’s not a problem

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When it was time for dinner on my July flight from Lisbon to New York, a flight attendant brought me my special-request gluten free meal.

I was found to have celiac disease almost three years ago, and this sort of request for what airlines describe as a special meal — in this case, steamed sea bass with vegetables, gluten free bread and fruit salad — has been a constant on my frequent air travels ever since.

A gluten free meal offered on Turkish Airlines: chicken breast over rice, with a caprese salad and chocolate mousse.
A gluten free meal offered on Turkish Airlines: chicken breast over rice, with a caprese salad and chocolate mousse.  (TURKISH AIRLINES)

But on that flight and on a slew of ones before it, I noticed that several other passengers, more than I had ever seen before, had also ordered special meals.

Both international and domestic airlines report an increase in special requests in recent years, and many are trying to accommodate them by broadening their special meals categories.

American Airlines expanded its category last July when it went from offering seven types of special meals to passengers on long-haul international flights to 14.

A low-sodium meal option was added, as was a halal meal prepared without any pork or alcohol, and a bland one prepared with limited seasonings for those with sensitive digestive systems.

Russ Brown, American’s director of in-flight services, said that the airline decided to offer more kinds of special meals because passengers were repeatedly asking for them.

“People are a lot more specific with their diets today and try to be healthier overall and kept requesting meals that we didn’t have,” he said.

Since the expansion, Brown said, the airline has had a 66 per cent increase in special meal orders: American served approximately 106,000 special meals from January to June 2017; for the same period this year, that number was close to 250,000.

For flights within the United States, both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have also expanded their special meals categories in response to customer requests.

International airlines, though, tend to have a more robust selection of special meals and have expanded them even more in the past several years.

Qatar Airways now has 17 types of special meals, while Tap Portugal and Turkish Airlines started offering 24 varieties last year, compared with the dozen or so before that. On Turkish, flyers can now order not only a vegetarian or vegan meal, they can request a raw-food vegan meal, or seafood- or fresh-fruit-only meals.

The airline has more than 10 menus for each meal type. In its gluten free category, entrees include lamb with sautéed spinach and rice, prawns with ratatouille, and herbed chicken with eggplant salad. Warm gluten free rolls and olive oil accompany every dish.

And on Tap Portugal, special meal orders have gone up more than 50 per cent in the last two years, according to Joel Fragata, the airline’s head of in-flight product.

Historically, flyers have ordered special meals because of religious or medical reasons. So why are they asking for them more today than they did before?

Airline experts say that it now may be a matter of personal taste and also because the current generation of travellers adhere to diets that have proliferated in popularity.

Michael Holtz, the owner of SmartFlyer, a global travel consultancy specializing in airlines and airfare, said that many of his clients follow diet plans such as no-carb, gluten free, low-carb and vegan and want to stick to these plans when they’re in the air. “I even have one person who prefers to drink only green juices and tried to order a green juice meal for a recent flight,” he said. “Needless to say, that wasn’t an option.”

SmartFlyer sells around 25,000 tickets each year, and in 2017, a few thousand of these came with special meal requests, Holtz said, compared with a few hundred in previous years.

There’s also a perception that special meals taste better, according to Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “People think, especially those in economy class, that special meals are fresher, healthier and tastier,” he said.

But one flight attendant, who has worked for a major U.S. airline for more than three decades and requested anonymity to protect her job, said that special meals aren’t a step up from regular meals and are definitely not healthier.

“It’s all airplane food,” she said. “The gluten free and children’s meals are the most terrible. Gluten free is usually just a pile of pasta and bread without gluten, and kids get a few chicken tenders, a cookie and a measly portion of vegetables.”



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A scramble, but worth it for the rewards points

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On the shortest day of 2017, a day with less than eight hours of daylight available in my corner of the Northern Hemisphere, I squandered any opportunity I had to soak up some vitamin D, choosing instead to sit in planes and airports. I was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Three weeks earlier, I had decided to fly from Baltimore to Providence, Rhode Island, have lunch with a friend, then return home in time for dinner. Projected time on planes: two hours, 30 minutes. Projected time in airports: three hours. Projected time in cabs to and from airports: 70 minutes. Estimated time in Providence, not counting airport or taxi: two hours, 20 minutes. And that was if nothing went wrong — a big “if” four days before Christmas.

There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.
There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.  (Ariel Davis / The New York Times)

No, I was not delivering an organ for transplant, although that should have been my cover story. I was on a quest to earn 297 TQPs — tier qualifying points — in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Since 2009, I have effortlessly qualified for the airline’s A List program, in part because I was on book tour every year except 2013. In the heady days of 2014, I made it to the next level, A List Preferred, minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, however, I once again didn’t publish a book. As the year wound down, the graphs showing my progress toward the A List remained stubbornly fixed at 34,703 TQPs and 20 flights.

To qualify for 2018, I needed either 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights by Dec. 31. There was no weekend in which I could travel, no weeknight available for me to be away from my chaotic household. My one business trip in December was to New York, where it made no sense to fly Southwest, as the only non-stop flights are to Islip on Long Island. The almost-three-hour regional Amtrak was the far better bargain in terms of time.

You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travellers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004 to 2005 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.

I’m also a grade-grubber, and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.

So I found the two easiest day trips out of Baltimore: Providence and Raleigh, N.C. No contest: While Raleigh is closer, Providence is both cheaper and home to my friend, novelist Ann Hood, who is always up for lunch. And as a former flight attendant who has more airline miles than any civilian I know, Ann understands insane loyalty to a loyalty program. She evinced no shock at my idea, just booked a table at Camille’s, an Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighbourhood.

You may wonder what was at stake in all of this, what benefits one reaps from Southwest’s A List. There are four: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25 per cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.

Because I’m a Global Entry Program member and therefore usually a TSA Precheck flyer, Southwest’s “Fly By” priority lane doesn’t matter to me. But given Southwest’s open-seating policy, priority boarding is important. If you’re A List, the airline automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight, all but guaranteeing a spot in A, the first boarding group. Otherwise, the ticket-holder needs to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight to get the best boarding position available — or pay an extra $15 (U.S.) for Early Bird check-in.

I know, I know: I’m playing for peanuts, a teeny, tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts, but I care about priority boarding. There is only one cabin class on Southwest, so one can’t aspire to an upgrade. If I didn’t qualify for A List in 2018, I would have to pay for Early Bird or resign myself to a year in the B or C groups. If I flew 20 flights on Southwest, as I had in 2017, Early Bird fees would add up to $300. A round-trip ticket to Providence, booked three weeks in advance, cost $230.96. That represents a saving of almost $70. The Points Guy blog values Southwest A List benefits at $685, with priority boarding accounting for $250 of that total.

But those are all facts gathered after the fact. I got on that plane to Providence — which left 20 minutes late, cutting into my on-ground, out-of-airport time in Rhode Island — sure of only two things: I would have the 297 points I needed even if the plane had to turn around after takeoff, and I was probably going to have veal parmesan for lunch.

Why does A-list status matter to me? First, modern plane travel is dehumanizing and demoralizing. I am loyal to Southwest because the employees tend to be cheerful, instead of giving off the prison-guard vibe I’ve encountered on some other airlines. It’s also the busiest carrier at the airport 20 minutes from my house, with the most flights in and out.

Finally, I am conflict-averse. I don’t want to scramble for bin space or aisle seats. Boarding early limits testy encounters.

Yet I feel squirmy admitting this. The rigid delineations among tiers in loyalty programs are uncomfortably vivid metaphors for the way we live now, no matter how euphemistic the terms. (I’m “Ruby” on OneWorld flights, which sounds impressive. It’s not.) In the spring of 2015, I flew to New Orleans with my mother, a once avid traveller who had been homebound in the last years of my father’s life. I accompanied her in the regular security line; in the time it took us to clear it, my husband and daughter sailed through the PreCheck line and ate a sit-down lunch. This irked me. No one enjoys a perceived drop in status, no matter how small the stakes. Once you stop taking off your shoes in airports, you want to keep them on.

The morning after my flight to Providence, my Rapid Rewards account showed me back on the A List. I needed only 34,813 more TQPs or 28 flights to get onto A List Preferred; the catch was that I had only nine days left to achieve this. The only way to do that would have been to fly Business Select round-trip to Los Angeles at least three times, which would have cost more than $3,000. I passed.

But now the game is afoot again. This year, I have angled to take Southwest flights whenever possible on my book tour. (Email to publicist: “What if, instead of flying from Gainesville to Baltimore via Charlotte, I drive 90 minutes to Jacksonville and take a non-stop Southwest flight home?”) By April 9, I qualified for the A List. Now, A List preferred — valued by the Points Guy at $2,935 — is 13,685 points (or 14 flights) away.

So maybe this December I’ll return to Providence for another veal parm and a glass or two of nebbiolo. Although I was careful with the wine at lunch: I know from watching “Airline” that inebriated passengers will be denied boarding. Not even A List status can save you from that. Although I do have four drink coupons for qualifying again.



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Travel & Escape

A scramble, but worth it for the rewards points

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On the shortest day of 2017, a day with less than eight hours of daylight available in my corner of the Northern Hemisphere, I squandered any opportunity I had to soak up some vitamin D, choosing instead to sit in planes and airports. I was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Three weeks earlier, I had decided to fly from Baltimore to Providence, Rhode Island, have lunch with a friend, then return home in time for dinner. Projected time on planes: two hours, 30 minutes. Projected time in airports: three hours. Projected time in cabs to and from airports: 70 minutes. Estimated time in Providence, not counting airport or taxi: two hours, 20 minutes. And that was if nothing went wrong — a big “if” four days before Christmas.

There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.
There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.  (Ariel Davis / The New York Times)

No, I was not delivering an organ for transplant, although that should have been my cover story. I was on a quest to earn 297 TQPs — tier qualifying points — in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Since 2009, I have effortlessly qualified for the airline’s A List program, in part because I was on book tour every year except 2013. In the heady days of 2014, I made it to the next level, A List Preferred, minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, however, I once again didn’t publish a book. As the year wound down, the graphs showing my progress toward the A List remained stubbornly fixed at 34,703 TQPs and 20 flights.

To qualify for 2018, I needed either 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights by Dec. 31. There was no weekend in which I could travel, no weeknight available for me to be away from my chaotic household. My one business trip in December was to New York, where it made no sense to fly Southwest, as the only non-stop flights are to Islip on Long Island. The almost-three-hour regional Amtrak was the far better bargain in terms of time.

You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travellers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004 to 2005 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.

I’m also a grade-grubber, and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.

So I found the two easiest day trips out of Baltimore: Providence and Raleigh, N.C. No contest: While Raleigh is closer, Providence is both cheaper and home to my friend, novelist Ann Hood, who is always up for lunch. And as a former flight attendant who has more airline miles than any civilian I know, Ann understands insane loyalty to a loyalty program. She evinced no shock at my idea, just booked a table at Camille’s, an Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighbourhood.

You may wonder what was at stake in all of this, what benefits one reaps from Southwest’s A List. There are four: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25 per cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.

Because I’m a Global Entry Program member and therefore usually a TSA Precheck flyer, Southwest’s “Fly By” priority lane doesn’t matter to me. But given Southwest’s open-seating policy, priority boarding is important. If you’re A List, the airline automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight, all but guaranteeing a spot in A, the first boarding group. Otherwise, the ticket-holder needs to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight to get the best boarding position available — or pay an extra $15 (U.S.) for Early Bird check-in.

I know, I know: I’m playing for peanuts, a teeny, tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts, but I care about priority boarding. There is only one cabin class on Southwest, so one can’t aspire to an upgrade. If I didn’t qualify for A List in 2018, I would have to pay for Early Bird or resign myself to a year in the B or C groups. If I flew 20 flights on Southwest, as I had in 2017, Early Bird fees would add up to $300. A round-trip ticket to Providence, booked three weeks in advance, cost $230.96. That represents a saving of almost $70. The Points Guy blog values Southwest A List benefits at $685, with priority boarding accounting for $250 of that total.

But those are all facts gathered after the fact. I got on that plane to Providence — which left 20 minutes late, cutting into my on-ground, out-of-airport time in Rhode Island — sure of only two things: I would have the 297 points I needed even if the plane had to turn around after takeoff, and I was probably going to have veal parmesan for lunch.

Why does A-list status matter to me? First, modern plane travel is dehumanizing and demoralizing. I am loyal to Southwest because the employees tend to be cheerful, instead of giving off the prison-guard vibe I’ve encountered on some other airlines. It’s also the busiest carrier at the airport 20 minutes from my house, with the most flights in and out.

Finally, I am conflict-averse. I don’t want to scramble for bin space or aisle seats. Boarding early limits testy encounters.

Yet I feel squirmy admitting this. The rigid delineations among tiers in loyalty programs are uncomfortably vivid metaphors for the way we live now, no matter how euphemistic the terms. (I’m “Ruby” on OneWorld flights, which sounds impressive. It’s not.) In the spring of 2015, I flew to New Orleans with my mother, a once avid traveller who had been homebound in the last years of my father’s life. I accompanied her in the regular security line; in the time it took us to clear it, my husband and daughter sailed through the PreCheck line and ate a sit-down lunch. This irked me. No one enjoys a perceived drop in status, no matter how small the stakes. Once you stop taking off your shoes in airports, you want to keep them on.

The morning after my flight to Providence, my Rapid Rewards account showed me back on the A List. I needed only 34,813 more TQPs or 28 flights to get onto A List Preferred; the catch was that I had only nine days left to achieve this. The only way to do that would have been to fly Business Select round-trip to Los Angeles at least three times, which would have cost more than $3,000. I passed.

But now the game is afoot again. This year, I have angled to take Southwest flights whenever possible on my book tour. (Email to publicist: “What if, instead of flying from Gainesville to Baltimore via Charlotte, I drive 90 minutes to Jacksonville and take a non-stop Southwest flight home?”) By April 9, I qualified for the A List. Now, A List preferred — valued by the Points Guy at $2,935 — is 13,685 points (or 14 flights) away.

So maybe this December I’ll return to Providence for another veal parm and a glass or two of nebbiolo. Although I was careful with the wine at lunch: I know from watching “Airline” that inebriated passengers will be denied boarding. Not even A List status can save you from that. Although I do have four drink coupons for qualifying again.



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Travel & Escape

A scramble, but worth it for the rewards points

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on

By


On the shortest day of 2017, a day with less than eight hours of daylight available in my corner of the Northern Hemisphere, I squandered any opportunity I had to soak up some vitamin D, choosing instead to sit in planes and airports. I was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Three weeks earlier, I had decided to fly from Baltimore to Providence, Rhode Island, have lunch with a friend, then return home in time for dinner. Projected time on planes: two hours, 30 minutes. Projected time in airports: three hours. Projected time in cabs to and from airports: 70 minutes. Estimated time in Providence, not counting airport or taxi: two hours, 20 minutes. And that was if nothing went wrong — a big “if” four days before Christmas.

There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.
There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.  (Ariel Davis / The New York Times)

No, I was not delivering an organ for transplant, although that should have been my cover story. I was on a quest to earn 297 TQPs — tier qualifying points — in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Since 2009, I have effortlessly qualified for the airline’s A List program, in part because I was on book tour every year except 2013. In the heady days of 2014, I made it to the next level, A List Preferred, minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, however, I once again didn’t publish a book. As the year wound down, the graphs showing my progress toward the A List remained stubbornly fixed at 34,703 TQPs and 20 flights.

To qualify for 2018, I needed either 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights by Dec. 31. There was no weekend in which I could travel, no weeknight available for me to be away from my chaotic household. My one business trip in December was to New York, where it made no sense to fly Southwest, as the only non-stop flights are to Islip on Long Island. The almost-three-hour regional Amtrak was the far better bargain in terms of time.

You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travellers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004 to 2005 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.

I’m also a grade-grubber, and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.

So I found the two easiest day trips out of Baltimore: Providence and Raleigh, N.C. No contest: While Raleigh is closer, Providence is both cheaper and home to my friend, novelist Ann Hood, who is always up for lunch. And as a former flight attendant who has more airline miles than any civilian I know, Ann understands insane loyalty to a loyalty program. She evinced no shock at my idea, just booked a table at Camille’s, an Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighbourhood.

You may wonder what was at stake in all of this, what benefits one reaps from Southwest’s A List. There are four: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25 per cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.

Because I’m a Global Entry Program member and therefore usually a TSA Precheck flyer, Southwest’s “Fly By” priority lane doesn’t matter to me. But given Southwest’s open-seating policy, priority boarding is important. If you’re A List, the airline automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight, all but guaranteeing a spot in A, the first boarding group. Otherwise, the ticket-holder needs to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight to get the best boarding position available — or pay an extra $15 (U.S.) for Early Bird check-in.

I know, I know: I’m playing for peanuts, a teeny, tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts, but I care about priority boarding. There is only one cabin class on Southwest, so one can’t aspire to an upgrade. If I didn’t qualify for A List in 2018, I would have to pay for Early Bird or resign myself to a year in the B or C groups. If I flew 20 flights on Southwest, as I had in 2017, Early Bird fees would add up to $300. A round-trip ticket to Providence, booked three weeks in advance, cost $230.96. That represents a saving of almost $70. The Points Guy blog values Southwest A List benefits at $685, with priority boarding accounting for $250 of that total.

But those are all facts gathered after the fact. I got on that plane to Providence — which left 20 minutes late, cutting into my on-ground, out-of-airport time in Rhode Island — sure of only two things: I would have the 297 points I needed even if the plane had to turn around after takeoff, and I was probably going to have veal parmesan for lunch.

Why does A-list status matter to me? First, modern plane travel is dehumanizing and demoralizing. I am loyal to Southwest because the employees tend to be cheerful, instead of giving off the prison-guard vibe I’ve encountered on some other airlines. It’s also the busiest carrier at the airport 20 minutes from my house, with the most flights in and out.

Finally, I am conflict-averse. I don’t want to scramble for bin space or aisle seats. Boarding early limits testy encounters.

Yet I feel squirmy admitting this. The rigid delineations among tiers in loyalty programs are uncomfortably vivid metaphors for the way we live now, no matter how euphemistic the terms. (I’m “Ruby” on OneWorld flights, which sounds impressive. It’s not.) In the spring of 2015, I flew to New Orleans with my mother, a once avid traveller who had been homebound in the last years of my father’s life. I accompanied her in the regular security line; in the time it took us to clear it, my husband and daughter sailed through the PreCheck line and ate a sit-down lunch. This irked me. No one enjoys a perceived drop in status, no matter how small the stakes. Once you stop taking off your shoes in airports, you want to keep them on.

The morning after my flight to Providence, my Rapid Rewards account showed me back on the A List. I needed only 34,813 more TQPs or 28 flights to get onto A List Preferred; the catch was that I had only nine days left to achieve this. The only way to do that would have been to fly Business Select round-trip to Los Angeles at least three times, which would have cost more than $3,000. I passed.

But now the game is afoot again. This year, I have angled to take Southwest flights whenever possible on my book tour. (Email to publicist: “What if, instead of flying from Gainesville to Baltimore via Charlotte, I drive 90 minutes to Jacksonville and take a non-stop Southwest flight home?”) By April 9, I qualified for the A List. Now, A List preferred — valued by the Points Guy at $2,935 — is 13,685 points (or 14 flights) away.

So maybe this December I’ll return to Providence for another veal parm and a glass or two of nebbiolo. Although I was careful with the wine at lunch: I know from watching “Airline” that inebriated passengers will be denied boarding. Not even A List status can save you from that. Although I do have four drink coupons for qualifying again.



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