Flying First Class

New Yorkers enjoy one big advantage over many other folks when it came to flying: three airports and plenty of carriers.  Traveling on business to Los Angeles rarely cost more than 300 bucks, if you were willing to haul yourself out to JFK.  And with town car service, it was no big deal.

The downside for the business traveler?  It took a lot longer to rack up those frequent flyer miles or qualify for the perks they could bring when you took a different airline for every trip.

But when you live in a small city, life is simpler. Montgomery is at the end of a short radius in the hub-and-spoke air travel system that emerged in the late 70s.  Although three airlines fly into the Montgomery airport (MGM), two of them provide service that is more theoretical than actual.  American runs one flight a day to Dallas. Perhaps two U.S. Air flights take you to Charlotte.  Otherwise, you’re flying Delta, to Memphis or Atlanta. Mainly, you fly Delta.

Since virtually every trip involves two legs in each direction, and since Delta counts “segments” toward Medallion status (of which there are three levels) it only takes six flights to qualify for Silver Medallion.

And what does that get you? A special luggage tag. Zone 2 boarding, before the overhead storage is full. Seating closer to the front of the plane. Fees waived for checked baggage.

But the best perk?  When you’re a Medallion member, you are automatically put in for a first class upgrade.

Delta’s policy is to fill first class.  Keep that in mind next time you travel: those people in rows 1 through 4 most likely did not pay $1,000 for the seat.  They just paid their dues by flying.  A lot.

When you book a coach seat on Delta, there’s a bit of a thrill at the end when the message appears, in red, that an upgrade has been requested automatically.  Sometimes, a message arrives in your email a day or two before the flight that you’ve hit the jackpot: You’ve been upgraded and your new seat assignment is 2A.  Mainly, though, you get to the gate and watch the TV to see what position your name has on the upgrade list.  All those gold and platinum members are ahead of the mere silvers, so when you’re number 18, you figure you’ll be flying coach.

This week, I got the prize, an early upgrade on my return flight from Boston to Memphis.  And then the snow started.  My flight was pushed back an hour, and the risk of missing the connecting flight in Memphis was just too great.  I switched to an earlier flight to Atlanta, and saw my first class 2A seat assignment morph into 33E.  And I was cast into Zone 4.

But then, just as they began boarding, my name wafted from the PA system.  Come to the desk, it said, for “reassignment.”  In other contexts, this could be alarming, I know.  I drifted to the desk and traded in my boarding pass for one inscribed 2D.  I had scored.

On the inbound flight I’d sat in row 18, and watched as a restless three year-old, followed closely by his mom, approached the first class cabin.  He wanted to visit, but she held him back, explaining that they weren’t allowed in there.  It was weird.  I kept expecting him to hold out his hands and ask, “Why do they have food?”

Because that’s one of the things you get in first class: food, served on plates, with real metal forks and knives.  They’re dull, it’s true, but that is beside the point.  When you arrive, the flight attendant (one, just for the folks in first class) takes your coat and hangs it in a closet.  You arrive at your seat to find a bottle of water sitting on the broad armrest that has ample room for your elbow, your seatmate’s elbow, and the two bottles of water.

Almost immediately, even while the folks in steerage are jostling aboard, you’re offered a drink.  Wine and beer are part of the service.  But really, anything for you.  After all, you’re first class.  Your coffee is hot and it comes in a ceramic mug.  No styrofoam here, except perhaps in the extra-wide seat cushions that envelope your body.

The steward winks when you inquire about stowing your laptop in the seat pocket prior to takeoff.  Those rules don’t apply to you, ma’am.  She offers another drink.  Would you like that water in a bottle or in a glass with ice.  That’s right.  A glass.  Your wine comes in a stemmed glass.  Soup is served with your southwestern salad.  It’s a Thai tomato, and it’s good.

After the meal, the steward offers you a hot towel.  She picks it out of a bowl with bamboo tongs and places it directly into your hands, murmuring, “Be careful, it’s hot.”  As soon as you’ve finished removing the grime (no doubt drifting forward from the nether regions of the plane), she appears again to remove the used towel from your sight.

It’s quieter in first class, and there’s plenty of room to set up your laptop, spread out your papers, and work.  If that’s what you want.  Otherwise you can recline and burrow into the spacious seat, ask for a blanket, and doze off.

What did you do to deserve this?  Not much really, and therein lies the problem.  The absurd difference between the treatment in first class and coach is, frankly, disturbing.  I kept imagining that scene in Dr. Zhivago, when Yuri returns home from the war to find his once-aristocratic in-laws’ home transformed into a commune for the comrades.  He is welcomed by the comrade-in-chief who explains how the previous arrangement was wasteful and bourgeois.  “Yes,” Yuri stammers, “This is much more … fair and egalitarian.”  He explains to his wife as he climbs the stairs that he really means it, it is more fair, but at the same time he knows he’s being seen as a decadent aristocrat.

Which is kinda how I felt when it was time to deplane and I saw the final perk of being in first class.  This was a 757, with the boarding door located between the first class cabin and the coach seats.  As we pampered first class passengers, having been handed our coats, skipped up the aisle, I saw that the flight attendants were physically blocking the aisle in coach so we could leave the plane first.  The rabble in steerage would follow later.

 

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5 Responses

  1. When I was at USA Today, a colleague and I flew first class (we both had American upgrades) from Dallas to Washington. It was my first first-class flight, and what I noticed is that every other passenger was a man. During the entire trip, we got disparaging glances from a couple of them — probably sure that we hadn’t “earned” our seats.

  2. I can hear you in my head saying this line. “As soon as you’ve finished removing the grime (no doubt drifting forward from the nether regions of the plane), she appears again to remove the used towel from your sight.” 😛

  3. …oh…I know a few people to whom I shall forward this immediately….and if they’re in flight, they can probably receive it anyway

  4. I’ve always wanted to travel in first class. Now I’m not so sure. It doesn’t seem fair, somehow. We should either all get first class, or all get coach.

    I’m still jealous. Did you get cookies too?

    • I’m sorry to report that, yes, I did. After we were all settled in and enjoying our first drink, a basket of goodies was offered. You had a choice and could take as much as you wanted.

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