I Was an American Airlines Elite. Now I'm Loving Delta
Ten years ago I took a new job that was going to require me to become a "road warrior". As a points and miles enthusiast, I was looking forward to the prospect of getting to travel a lot for work, and of course the first step was to choose an airline to maximize returns from the time spent on the road.
From my base in Eastern North Carolina, my options for airports were limited. The closest was Pitt-Greenville (PGV), a quick 20-minute drive; Raleigh-Durham International (RDU) was a good hour and 45 minutes away. Flying out of PGV meant my flights would be limited to US Airways, now American Airlines — but the short drive and ease of use of a small airport won the day.
Eventually, I held Gold status for a number of years with US /AA.
I never had a bad experience in a decade as a passenger with US Airways and AA, and I have no doubt that my status helped. I didn't have a single lost bag, though my checked luggage did make a round trip to Minneapolis once without me due to weather. I got frequent upgrades, and for a while I was sitting up front on more than 80 percent of the flights that had a first-class cabin. I always got great service.
But a few years ago the amount of travel I was doing began to decline, and I eventually lost my status with AA. When travel picked up again — at the start of 2019, I already had quite a bit of travel on my calendar — I needed to make a choice: stick with AA, or try a new airline. Not having status made me a free agent. One inclined to try out Delta, in fact, after AA switched hardware on the PGV-CLT route, introducing the cramped Embraer E-145 regional jet.
Even with all of its small-airport benefits, PGV would be a no-no for me with those planes. I had started flying out of RDU — which also happens to be a Delta Focus City — a couple of years earlier for what little travel I was doing. Already being in the groove of flying from RDU on mainline jets meant I had options when it came to airlines, and I settled on making the jump to Delta.
A flight from Atlanta (ATL) to RDU and a round trip to Washington-Reagan (DCA), however brief, have convinced me that I made the right move. From the Fly Delta app, to check in, to inflight service and on to baggage claim, Delta feels better than what I was used to with AA.
The Fly Delta app sent me push notifications as soon as the 24-hour window opened that I had been automatically checked in. Obviously I don't have status with Delta yet, but automatic check in will hopefully come in handy in the future. I didn't have to answer any questions or check any boxes or confirm anything, the app simply checked me in at the right time, which was great. With the AA, I may or may not get an on-time notification to check in for my flight. The AA app also requires me to open the app, and confirm my check in before completing the process and offering my boarding passes. The Fly Delta app is simply a more streamlined process, mainly because there isn't anything I actually have to do to check in for a flight.
I arrived at the boarding areas for these flights to find Delta's new multi-lane boarding system . AA, with a large number of boarding groups just like Delta, uses two lanes — a priority lane and an "everyone else" lane — which often makes for a very crowded gate area. It's not a great experience for any of the passengers, let alone the airline's elite flyers. Delta's system kept the boarding area in front of the gate agent's desk open for passengers with questions, or who wanted to courtesy-check their bag. The environment around the gate was calm, not a feeling I have ever had waiting for my group to be called to board with AA. Everyone seemed to have found their lane easily, and the boarding process was smooth and orderly.
On those three flights with Delta, I just happened to be in first class, on paid — not upgraded — tickets. The first thing I noticed was a bottle of water waiting at my seat when I boarded. I certainly never had a beverage waiting for me when I took my seat on a short-haul flight with AA. Little things add up.
Along with my bottle of water, I was promptly offered a pre-departure beverage. On AA, this can be hit or miss — it happens or it doesn't, with no apparent reason. My Delta flight home from DCA was delayed, with a gate change to boot, and I still got offered a drink before takeoff.
Once we were airborne, the flight attendant again returned to ask each passenger if they wanted a beverage. The FA came through the cabin with a pad and asked each passenger for their drink order, returned to the galley, and brought all the drinks out on a tray to hand them out. On most AA flights the FAs work row by row, asking for a drink order, returning to the galley to make the drinks, deliver them and then repeat the process with the next row, often only working a single side of the aircraft at a time. The Delta FA's approach to service seems to be much quicker than the norm for my time with AA.
Delta made me change my mind about inflight entertainment too. AA's approach to IFE is that everyone has their own device with them, so why do we need seat back monitors? That more and more common " bring your own device " approach was fine with me.
But having the IFE in front of me meant not having to get my laptop out and open up the tray table to watch a movie. It meant I had a lot more space to comfortably enjoy my flight. Granted, my flights were short hops. But having the IFE at my disposal to waste some time, or simply watch our flight path, without having to dig around in my carryon and break out another device was an additional benefit I didn't even know I was missing.
Because I was flying in first, I didn't have to pay to check a bag. I never paid to check a bag in years on AA flying no matter my class of service because I had status, and when that went away, my Red Aviator MasterCard still got me a free checked bag with AA.
My experience — and that of other AA frequent flyers I know who fly out of RDU — is that it takes about 20 minutes for bags to hit the belt. To my surprise, by the time I got down to baggage claim on the Delta flight from ATL, our bags were already popping out. I assumed this was just a stroke of good luck. But a week later when I returned from DC, a ping from the Delta app told me that my bag was waiting for me at baggage claim 3, only eight minutes after getting off the plane.
This is another example of how the Fly Delta app is far better than the AA app. While I can check the AA app to see at which baggage claim my bag is supposed to be, the Fly Delta app simply sends me a push notification when the bag hits the belt and tells me which claim to head to, all without ever opening the app.
I can't tell you that Delta is always going to have my bag out super fast at every airport. But I can say that knowing they seem to outperform my previous airline at my home airport is a big deal for me.
Earning and Redeeming Miles
SkyMiles and AAdvantage are just about carbon copies of each other when it comes to earning miles. Both programs start with a base earn of 5 miles per dollar spent and increases that amount for those holding elite status. The big difference comes when it's time to redeem all of those miles for award tickets.
Delta threw out its award chart and now uses variable award pricing that is tied to the current ticket price for the flight along with a few other factors. This means that with a bit of digging, flexible dates, or plenty of lead time, you can find some great value on rewards. As an example I looked at flying from RDU to LAX in June. I was able to find award availability with both airlines. The trip on AA hardware would set me back 60,000 miles for a round trip in coach. The same trip with Delta I was able to find for a mere 26,000 miles. Delta also likes to do "SkyMiles Flash Sales" and even has a dedicated page on its website for promotions and deals for award travel. TPG readers voted Delta SkyMiles as the best frequent flyer program for the inaugural TPG awards in 2018.
It seems that in a number of ways AA is making it harder to redeem those hard-earned miles . While AA does do MileSaver awards, the flights are rarely convenient for travel leaving in the very early morning hours and if you are connecting, normally coming with ridiculous layover times —sometimes overnight — essentially making those awards worthless for most travelers. This means that if you want to find flights that won't have you headed to the airport before the sun comes up only to sleep in your connecting airport that night, you will be turning over more of those miles for flights.
TPG currently values AAdvantage miles slightly higher than SkyMiles — 1.4 vs 1.2 — but the variable award pricing used by Delta means it's still possible to find good if not better value for those miles on Delta. Just like the RDU-LAX example I could book two tickets on Delta for less miles than I would burn booking a single ticket with AA.
While I will grant you that the sample size is small and that all of these flights were flown in first class, my overall experience was simply better. I've never had a bad experience with AA, and I would have no problem flying with them again — which I am sure to do based on my AAdvantage miles balance — but I can easily say that for any non-award travel in 2019 I will be flying on Delta hardware.
For elites who have sunk so much time — not to mention money — into a brand to gain and then keep elite status, the idea of jumping ship might be a bit nerve-wracking. It certainly was for me. The thought of abandoning a decade's worth of travel towards Million Miller status on an airline bothered me quite a bit, but after my first few flights with Delta, I'm glad I did.
Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG
What's the Difference Between a Samurai and a Ninja?
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In the Land of the Rising Sun, samurai movies are a century-old tradition. Pop culture frames the swordsmen as near-mythic figures. We're told samurai belonged to an elite class of Japanese warriors who always fought fair, loyally defended their medieval lords and hewed to a unifying honor code known as "bushido."
Scriptwriters thrill in pitting them against dark-robed ninja assassins . A fearsome mercenary, the standard movie ninja carries razor-sharp throwing stars and has mastered a unique martial art called "ninjutsu." Things get even hairier when the director gives him supernatural powers like flight or invisibility.
Magical talents aside, just how accurate is our modern outlook on samurai and ninjas? To find out, we interviewed three historians — and learned some surprising things in the process.
War and Peace
Waxing nostalgic, the lowdown on ninjas.
Japanese history is broken down into eras and periods. Particularly relevant to our discussion are the Sengoku Period of 1467 to 1603 and the successive Tokugawa (or "Edo") Period that lasted until 1868.
The Tokugawa Period takes its name from a shogun family that assumed control of Japan in 1603. Shoguns were hereditary military dictators who'd been ruling the country since 1192. On paper, they served Japan's emperors. Yet in practice, these figures were far more powerful and it was they who truly called the shots.
Earlier centuries had been plagued by constant warfare. But things stayed calm under the Tokugawa regime. International trade was tightly regulated and the shoguns took pains to discourage political squabbling.
This was also a time when Japan redefined its relationship with samurai. As Thomas Conlan — a professor of East Asian history at Princeton University — told us via email, "The samurai became an identifiable social status only in the 1590s. Before then, all of society was militarized and there was no distinction between peasants and warriors."
Such ambiguity didn't sit well with General Toyotomi Hideyoshi. A game-changing warlord, he issued a nationwide "Sword-Hunt Edict" in 1588. This prohibited farmers from owning weapons of any sort. Under the new rules, only samurai — and samurai alone — could bear arms.
"Basically, people who were known to have fought in battles recently were considered samurai and were forbidden to go back to farming, and people who were known to be currently farming land had to surrender their weapons," says historian Nick Kapur of Rutgers University in an email. "In a lot of cases, it was self-reported and people basically got to choose."
Hideyoshi's reforms carried over into the Tokugawa Period. In effect, they laid the groundwork for a rigid, hereditary caste-like system that put samurai above artisans, peasants and merchants. By then, the feudal wars that defined the Sengoku Period had long passed. With no battles to wage, the samurai were given bureaucratic and administrative roles.
Hindsight has a way of glamorizing warfare. Just ask Sarah Thal, a historian of "early modern and modern Japan" who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"During the long peace of the Tokugawa era, when samurai came to work more as administrators than as fighters, many romanticized the earlier times of war (in the 12th to 16th centuries for instance) when samurai actually fought," she says in an email.
The last shogun was overthrown in 1868. Afterward, Japan entered its reformative Meiji Period, which embraced industry and centralized governance. Historically, the samurai had served feudal lords and enjoyed special privileges. But all that soon changed.
"The official status of samurai was abolished in 1869 and their privileges revoked in the early 1870s," Thal explains. "With the abolition of their lords' domains, many former samurai were out of work, unable to get jobs in the new government.
"In the 1890s, they, their children, and many Japanese began trying to define a 'Way of the Samurai' that operated both as a nostalgia for the supposedly moral, good old days and as a critique of the modernizing trends of the time," Thal says.
Enter Nitobe Inazō. A diplomat and author, he radically transformed the way future generations would look at samurai. In 1899, Inazō published an influential book called "Bushido: The Soul of Japan." The text presents itself as an introduction to "bushido." According to Inazō, this was the traditional, universal code of conduct observed by real-world samurai.
Except it wasn't. "The so-called 'samurai code' of bushido did not exist in the [Sengoku] heyday of samurai warfare," Kapur notes. The word "bushido" itself wasn't coined until the peaceful Tokugawa Period.
But it's from "Bushido: The Soul of Japan" that we get some of the most pervasive myths about samurai values and behavior. "Samurai were not all the moral, noble, well-to-do spiritual swordsmen depicted in film," Thal says. "They did not have a single, coherent moral code that defined how they thought and acted."
"Just like warriors anywhere else," adds Kapur, "samurai raped and looted and pillaged and were constantly betraying their lords."
Speaking of misconceptions, it's time to talk ninjas. Supposedly, they were sellswords who performed covert operations, gathered intelligence and — last, but not least — assassinated people in the cover of darkness.
The neighboring Iga and Kōka regions in southeastern Japan are usually cited as the training grounds where all ninjas honed their deadly skills. Sometimes, you'll even hear that ninjas formed a hereditary class or caste, not unlike the samurai.
Scores of Japanophiles, movie buffs and martial artists have embraced ninja lore. Every year, some enthusiasts get dressed up in jet-black garb to celebrate "Ninja Day" Feb. 22.
Not to rain on anyone's parade, but the storied mercenaries are ... kind of fabricated.
"Ninja as we know them today did not actually exist," Kapur says. The word ninja, he says, comes from "two Chinese characters meaning 'stealth' and 'man' (忍者)." By the way, "shinobi" — and not "nin" — is how most Japanese-speakers pronounce the first character.
Medieval Japan had its share of folks who snuck into castles and embraced undercover warfare. Historical records show samurai weren't above such tactics. "We have a lot of documents about these activities, but [they] were carried out by a variety of people," Kapur says. "There was never any specialized class of assassins living in hereditary clans and selling their services for hire. This is pure myth which, like the myths about the samurai, was created during the long and peaceful Edo period."
Despite this, ninja fables are nothing new. "Even by the 18th and 19th centuries, ninja had become a pop culture phenomenon in Japan," Thal says. "So there were all sorts of fantastic, fictional depictions in art, literature, drama and the like."
George Lucas has said that one of his inspirations for the original "Star Wars" movie was a 1958 Japanese samurai film called "The Hidden Fortress." Another classic samurai picture, 1961's "Yojimbo," was loosely adapted into the Sergio Leone western "A Fistful of Dollars."
Ninja or Samurai FAQs
What is the difference between ninja and samurai, were ninjas good or bad, do ninjas use samurai swords, can a ninja beat a samurai, which of the two is more powerful, samurai or ninja.
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Covering gaming and movie entertainment since 2002
Sniper Elite 5 review
Rebellion’s Sniper Elite series has arrived at its fifth main entry in the series with the launch of Sniper Elite 5 for PC, PlayStation and Xbox – we couldn’t wait to check it out.
The Sniper Elite games have been around since 2005 (the days of the original Xbox and PS2), but it’s been five years since Sniper Elite 4 launched. Not that you’d notice though, because there seems to be a near-constant stream of content coming out for the franchise – we just checked out the last piece of DLC for spin-off title Zombie Army 4 a few weeks ago. There is little doubt that Sniper Elite 5 will follow a similar pattern when it comes to DLC and season passes, but after last year’s Sniper Elite VR we were excited to go hands on with a brand new entry in the franchise again.
If we don’t count games like Hitman, fans of sniping generally have two choices – Sniper Elite and Sniper Ghost Warrior (Contracts). The latter is a much more serious approach to the life of a sniper, requiring careful planning and an ability to factor in variables like wind and elevation with a high degree of realism, while Sniper Elite simplifies the experience – favoring adrenaline and generally a larger body count over a life in the shadows. With Sniper Elite 5, those who were missing the opportunity to go for a more stealthy approach are well catered for.
With bigger maps than before, and some gorgeous environment (the game takes place in France), this is a sequel that definitely pushes the franchise forward – even though it does so in small increments. The scenery is wonderful though, and (as with the Italian setting that came before) offers plenty of variation. From industrial areas to luxury accommodations and from quaint towns to nazi bunkers, there is a lot to see here – very often even within a single map. Levels have also been designed in a much less linear fashion, so creativity and replay value have both been enhanced.
If you want, you can even play Sniper Elite 5 like you would a real time tactics game like Desperados III , carefully taking out enemies one by one by luring them away and killing them without any sound. Or, if you prefer, you can alert a bunch of enemies by taking out one of them, and then make bombs go off as they all panic and start to get into position to try and find you. Both the levels and your arsenal of weapons are well suited to a variety of gameplay styles, which is a credit to the developers.
Doing well in missions means you gain XP, which you can spend on a skill tree that improves your abilities in combat, your ability to carry stuff and your base stats. While this creates a natural sense of progression throughout the campaign (although your progress also carried over to the multiplayer portion), the way your sniper rifle works doesn’t change too much and is going to be instantly familiar to veterans of the franchise.
The same can no doubt be said about Sniper Elite’s kill cam, a staple of the series at this point. When you line up a shot and pull the trigger, this instantly tells you that you did a good job when the camera switches to a view of the bullet leaving the chamber, traveling across the scenery and into the enemy body – where you see a gruesome image of it shattering bone, piercing through flesh and taking out your target. New is that other weapons can now also trigger this effect, and when using a machine gun that means seeing multiple bullets hit their target in quick succession, for a devastating effect. You can adjust how often you want to see this effect, or you can even turn it off completely, but it’s gratifying and didn’t get repetitive during the course of the campaign.
That campaign is incredibly enjoyable because of its strong campaign, though its story and narrative delivery isn’t great. The “American hero” plot has been done too often in B-movies at this point, and the voiceover work is similarly lacking in nuance at times with some cheesy delivery, so this is one you play for the gunplay and stealth rather than the story. Unless, of course, you like B-movie pulp, like us.
Replayability doesn’t just come from the different ways in which levels can be tackled, but also from collectibles (and trophies) than you can chase after on subsequent playthroughs. Some of these rewards are tied to specific playstyles as well (like stealth), so it’s fun to see you get encouraged to try and play in different ways. This also carries over to the game’s multiplayer aspect, though the lobbies weren’t populated enough during the review phase to give this a good look.
Sniper Elite 5 doesn’t radically change anything that Sniper Elite 4 did earlier, and someone walking by will instantly recognize it as a Sniper Elite game. It does improve on the previous game in a number of impactful ways though, with better visuals, excellent map designs that allow for multiple gameplay styles and a higher emphasis on stealth that is a welcome alternative to the more action-oriented style of the other games in the franchise.
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