Many people who cannot normally afford to fly first class, like myself, sometimes get an opportunity to do so, courtesy of those great frequent flyer miles or the occasional corporate perk. However, while I relish those rare occasions when I do fly first, it’s now virtually impossible to tolerate having to fly coach the rest of the time. I’ve tasted the good life and I don’t want to go back. I am a first class wanna-be.
The first time I used miles to upgrade to first class was on a trip to Europe. My wife and I got to the airport late, but it was no problem because first class passengers have their own check in line. Mind you, there’s maybe 20 people in the whole section, which certainly did not justify a dedicated attendant. But the airlines’ motto to first class passengers is ‘spoil ya rotten’ and that experience begins with check in.
You also board the plane before anyone else, save perhaps small kids flying alone or people with wheelchairs. We were given champagne and hot towels when we sat down.
Then, in a clear fit of sadism, the airline attendants forced the coach passengers to board the plane by walking through the first class section. I’ve done that walk, and it’s a cruel one. It’s bad enough sitting in coach, merely knowing about the existence of a first class section. But to have to walk through it, and see the Barca-loungers they sit in compared to the anatomically challenged seats in coach, that’s tough stuff.
Here I experienced a brief identity crisis, for I used to be the one who resented the first class passengers. But now I was on the other end, and, despite my humble coach roots, I was surprised at how easily I slipped into the mentality of a lifelong first classer. I couldn’t wait for the endless parade of lowlifes to walk by so that the genteel calm of our section could return.
And then there are those adorable little amenities kits they gave us. Like giddy children we showed each other the razor with shaving cream in the handle, the blindfolds for sleeping, the mints, the moisturizer. We glanced around and realized we were dead giveaways for upgraders. The real first class passengers, the ones who pay for their tickets and fly first all the time, looked over at us with disdain. We were given a free pass into an exclusive club, their club, and we had to get with the program.
I won’t go into the vastly improved passenger-to-bathroom and passenger-to-flight attendant ratios, or the fact that the flight attendants in first are much nicer because they have fewer passengers to serve. Or the wines offered with dinner. We all know the night and day differences. But whereas ‘upgraders’ marvel at every little pleasantry, true denizens of first class seem to barely notice them. And that’s how you must behave if you want to pass yourself off as someone who truly belongs in first class.
For starters, you must accept all the privileges of first class as though you are entitled to them, and under no circumstances can you widen your eyes in astonishment when your meal comes with real cutlery. When, for example, the attendant takes the liberty of giving your drink a refill without your having asked for it, you may nod thanks, but should not look up from your newspaper.
When the periodic brave passenger from coach boldly slinks through the curtain to use the first class bathroom, you must feel indignation. You show the flight attendant a puzzled look, then glance back at the coach section. Is somebody not manning their post? Invariably the attendant will go back and firmly close the curtain as soon as the person returns to her seat, sending a message to all other would-be bathroom poachers: you are not welcome here. Stay in your section; two toilets for the three hundred of you should be just fine
When you sporadically stand to stretch your legs and can catch a peak into coach, you can come to no other conclusion than that it looks so . . . so . . . crowded! And you realize that next time it could be you. You could be the one without enough miles, the one in the cattle car.
And therein lies the root of the problem: relativity. Coach would be fine if there were no first class to compare it to. In fact, if the people in coach only had a curtain behind them, a section even worse, even more cramped, in which passengers had to stand and hold onto railings like in a subway car, then they’d think coach was pretty darned good! But alas, we know there’s nothing worse, and we also know that there’s a select few living the good life up front.
By the same token, I was once inside a private corporate jet, not as a passenger mind you, but to pick up a client at the airport. (Not the same airport the rest of us fly out of; they have their own airports, which you don’t know about). And if you think first class is impressive, this was like a living room with wings. Fortunately, there’s pretty much no chance in hell I’ll ever travel on one, so I don’t have to worry about comparing it to first class. But there’s definitely a group of people who normally fly this way who view first class as steerage.
The truth is, those few passengers paying exorbitant fees to fly first class pretty much underwrite the cost of coach for the rest of us; we just don’t realize it. If the whole plane were coach, the cost of a ticket would at least double in price. So what the airlines should do is simply offer passengers a choice. You can fly coach from NY to LA for $900 on a plane with no first class section at all, or you can fly virtually the same flight for $450, but there’s going to be a small section of the plane in which people will be treated better than you.
Far, far better than you.