Flying an Airbus A320 Simulator with MileagePlus Exclusives

May 22, 2015

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Airline and hotel program auctions might be an easy way to blow hundreds of thousands of points without even taking a trip, but they also offer exclusive experiences that you couldn’t otherwise buy. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele shares one such experience, flying United’s Airbus A320 simulator.

Redeeming your miles for international first-class tickets is great, but ultimately these seats are available to anyone with enough miles or money. I recently had a chance to redeem miles for something the general public normally can’t purchase (at any price): logging some time in the pilot’s seat of a United Airbus A320 flight simulator. You can redeem your miles to purchase this and other exclusive experiences with United’s MileagePlus Exclusives program.

So today, I want to share how you can participate in MileagePlus Exclusives to win some priceless rewards, and then detail my amazing day at United’s Denver flight simulation and training center, which was the subject of a recent auction.

About MileagePlus Exclusives

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While some auctions are for great tickets to public events, others are for experiences exclusive to this program.

MileagePlus Exclusives, which is run by United, was launched in 2012 as MileagePlus Headliners, in order to offer unique non-air awards for MileagePlus members to redeem with miles. The program started with a range of experiences including destination travel packages, theater and sporting events.

Later, the program expanded to include some “buy now” events that you could purchase instantly with your miles, rather than just bid on in an auction. For example, there was a private batting practice with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a private screening at the Tribeca Film Festival and VIP United Fairway Club access at the 2015 World Golf Championships.

Last year, the program added Cardmember Exclusives, which are only available to holders of Chase’s MileagePlus cards, including the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and United Club cards. In addition, there are occasionally some Premier Exclusive auctions that are only open to those who hold elite status in United’s’ MileagePlus program (although there are none as of this writing). Since the program’s inception, there have been more than 1,000 auctions and “buy now” offers.

Some of these rewards can be purchased by the general public — club-level seats to a Washington National game, for example — but many of them are completely exclusive events, such as a royal night out with Broadway’s “The Audience” staring Helen Mirren, including airfare, hotel, show tickets and a visit with cast members after the show. Another example is a chance to play golf with some NFL greats at the Denver Broncos Alumni golf tournament.

How United MileagePlus Exclusive Auctions Work

To participate in an auction, you place a bid (in miles) for the item you choose, keeping in mind that you cannot bid on Cardmember Exclusives unless your United MileagePlus profile recognizes you as a Chase United MileagePlus cardholder, and you can’t bid on Premier Exclusives unless you currently hold United Premier status.

The best ways to earn United MileagePlus miles include having a United MileagePlus Explorer or United Club credit card. Otherwise, United is a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, and you can instantly transfer points from your Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold to United. And, finally, you can always earn United miles from flying United (albeit on a revenue basis), or any of its Star Alliance and non-alliance partners.

Tips for Winning An Auction

As with eBay and other auction sites, there are few things you can do to increase your odds of placing a winning bid. In this case, you need to have the miles in your account when you bid, and according to the terms and conditions, you must have the miles available should you win, otherwise you forfeit your prize. If you do win, the mile are automatically debited from your account. And if there is a tie, the winner is the person who bid first.

If you don't have enough miles in your account, you can't bid.
If you don’t have enough miles in your account, you can’t bid.

So you’ll want to bid on auctions while you have a high mileage balance, which might mean before you book any large award tickets or redeem a significant amount of miles some other way. Afterward, you should keep tabs on your auction to see how you’re doing, and if you think you might win, make sure to transfer enough miles from Ultimate Rewards before the auction closes.

Another popular technique for winning online auctions is known as bid sniping, which is when you try to make a winning bid at the last moment. This can lead others to think that they may win with their existing bid, which keeps them from increasing their bids to match yours before it is too late.

The United Flight Simulator Adventure

For years, I drove by United’s Denver flight simulation and training center (near the grounds of the former Stapleton Airport), and caught glimpses of their enormous, full-motion flight simulators through the windows. I never thought I would get to go inside, as it is only open to United employees and authorized flight crews.

The now-expired auction listing for the Denver Flight Simulator Experience.
The now-expired auction listing for the Denver Flight Simulator Experience.

Thankfully, United was kind enough to allow me to tag along with the participants of the United Flight Simulator Adventure, and it turns out that each of the winners (of the package for 2) was a licensed pilot like myself. To give you an idea of how coveted this prize was, the winning bids were approximately 300,000 miles each, and one of the prizes was claimed by a father and son who had piloted their own private jet to Denver in order to participate! The other winners were accompanied by their spouses who were not pilots, but did seem to really enjoy the event.

Our day started with a briefing from United’s flight training center leadership, including the director of flight training and the manager of flight training standards. We learned how United creates and implements its pilot training program. Next, we received a tour of the center, which includes training facilities for all flight crew members, not just pilots. We learned about emergency exit protocols, and spent some time in a cabin mock-up that is used to simulate an emergency situation with smoke, loss of lighting and the entire cabin tilting over. Crew members use this simulator to learn how to operate the exits and assist passengers in the event of an emergency.

We got to practice using the emergency exit door simulator.
We got to practice using the emergency exit door simulator.

While real emergencies are deadly serious, it was incredibly fun to practice using the inflatable aircraft exit slides. Before climbing up about two flights of stairs, I was instructed on the proper technique, where you just jump on the slide, shoes and all, and then try to bound back onto your feet in the end. While it was no big deal for able-bodied adults in a well-lit gymnasium with a padded floor, it’s easy to see how others might sustain minor injuries, especially in an emergency evacuation. Nevertheless, it was made clear to us that the flight crew’s job in an emergency is to encourage everyone to jump down the slide as quickly as possible, keeping the flow of passengers moving by any means necessary.

Going down the slide is a lot of fun when it's not an actual emergency.
Going down the slide is a lot of fun when it’s not an actual emergency.

Flying the A320

After a nice catered lunch (which was better than in-flight food!), we were all looking forward to the main event: spending some time in the Airbus A320 simulator. These simulators use actual aircraft hardware to replicate the cockpit, along with nearly 180 degrees of video outside the cockpit. The entire room, complete with additional seats for instructors and simulator operators, is set about 20 feet off the ground on hydraulic jacks that create motion to simulate the sensations of flight as realistically as possible. To enter, you had to walk on a drawbridge that retracts before the simulator is set into motion. These simulators cost about $20 to $30 million each and are used for training not just by United pilots, but also by other airlines from around the world to train their flight crews.

Each simulator costs $20-30 million and is very expensive to operate.
Each full-motion flight simulator costs $20-30 million and is very expensive to operate.

While I’ve logged dozens of hours of flight training in basic, non-motion simulators of general aviation aircraft, I really had no idea what to expect from a full-motion commercial aircraft simulator. My first impression was that the simulator was even more realistic than I could have imagined. The engine noise was accurate, and the cabin tilts to simulate the acceleration of takeoff and the deceleration of landing and the deploying of thrust reversers. And with no visual references to the outside world, my brain was easily tricked into believing we were in the air.

Yes, I am having fun!

I used my simulator time to fly around the San Francisco Bay Area and to practice takeoffs and landings at San Francisco and Chicago O’Hare, both of which are frequent destinations for United pilots. A United instructor accompanied all of the participants into the simulator, helping operate the “aircraft.” If there is one weak point in these simulators, it’s the video representation of the earth, which relies on technology that dates to the introduction of the Airbus A320, back in the mid 1980s. So the graphics are a bit more like playing the original Sony Playstation than using a new XBox 360 — but, knowing that it’s good enough to train the professionals, it really didn’t detract from the experience. Finally, United’s instructor pilots were happy to endorse all of our pilot logbooks to reflect our simulator time, as permitted by FAA regulations.

So the graphics aren't quite state of the art anymore, but so what?
The graphics aren’t quite state-of-the-art anymore, but so what? The cockpit is essentially that of the actual aircraft.

Final Word

The winners of this auction were clearly people with mileage balances so large that they could have redeemed for premium-class travel to almost anywhere in the world, but they chose to spend their miles doing something that wasn’t otherwise available at any price. And at the end of the day, it really seemed like they got their miles’ worth from United MileagePlus Exclusives.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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