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.



The Abandoned One Schedules a Visit

Finally, tickets have been booked for the Abandoned One to visit.

It’s been a long process.  Abandoned has a full social and musical life, and only two weeks vacation, so he finds little time for travel.  He’s also gotten a bad case of the travel-time distortion syndrome that afflicts so many people who live in the city and who judge every trip against what is available within five subway stops.

People in New York use that yardstick, or some variation, to avoid being overwhelmed by choice.  The subway simplifies life so that one need never consider restaurants, bars, music venues, museums or even friendships that fall outside the magic route.  Without it, life would be overwhelming.

Trying to entice city folks to visit was bad enough when I lived in Staten Island, but is far worse here.  At least when the folk is my own son.

First, because he has inherited the miserly DNA of both his paternal grandfather AND his maternal grandmother, he began looking at flights by price.  Yes, you can get a relatively cheap flight to Montgomery if you don’t mind two or more layovers. American, for example, offers an itinerary that takes you to Chicogo’s O’Hare and then to Ft. Worth before nearly closing the circle by coming to Montgomery.  It’s a good way to build up your miles, I suppose.

But it takes about twelve hours.  So I advised that he should limit his search to the single stop-over, which means either Charlotte, Memphis or Atlanta.  Generally it takes about five hours.

Which equates to a completely unacceptable subway ride.

“I can’t find anything less than five hours,” he told me.  “It’s a lot less time if I fly to Atlanta. What if you pick me up there?”

“How long does that flight to Atlanta take?” I asked.

“About two-and-a-half hours.”

“Well,” I explained, “it will take about two-and-a-half more hours to drive from Atlanta to Montgomery, so the trip will still be five hours.”

“OK, I’ll change planes in Atlanta.”

Next obstacle down.  Yes.

“Looks like I can’t get into Montgomery until late — about 10 at night.”

What?  Does he think we’ve started going to bed at 9?

“Not a problem,” I replied (this was happening via online chat).  “It’s only 20 minutes to the airport from the house.”

“OK, well it looks like I can arrive at 10 pm on Friday and leave at 5 on Sunday.”

I did some quick calculations.  He would arrive on Friday, sit up with us for a while and then go to bed and sleep on Saturday until 3 pm.  Then we’d have about 24 more hours to visit.

“Why don’t you come in on Thursday night?”

And thus, through a series of small decisions, we negotiated our way to an actual visit the third weekend of May.

I should let him know what shots he’ll need.

Fatigues at the Gate

Charlotte, Memphis, Montgomery, Atlanta, Savannah, San Antonio.  Airports, like malls, tend to look alike, but airports in the South differ from their northern counterparts in one or two important ways.

For one thing, they have rocking chairs.  The kind of wooden-slatted rocking chairs you see on wide porches that sit in the deep shade.  I’ve yet to see one in an airport north of the Mason-Dixon line or the Ohio River.

There’s one other thing you see a lot in southern airports that you rarely see in New York airports, or in New York much at all.  Military personnel, in uniform (fatigues).  They’re traveling, not doing guard duty.  Actually you do see men and women in uniform in New York, but it’s either during festive “On the Town” kinds of events (Fleet Week every year, Op Sail events every few years), or when they’re dispatched, rather alarmingly, to places like the ferry terminal, Grand Central and the NY subway system to deter terrorists (post-9-11 and major UN events).

It’s neither the dashing sailors nor the automatic-weapon wielding soldiers one sees in airports of the South.  It’s men and women in all the services en route to somewhere.  Some of them are very young, maybe off on their first posting after boot camp.  Others are older, career military on what is for them business travel.   You see them partly because there are a lot of military bases in the south.  Montgomery has both Maxwell and Gunter Air Force bases, for example. Plus the Air Force College at Maxwell.

It’s a reminder of a reality that you just don’t get much in New York:  first, that we’re involved actively in two wars; and second, that there are a lot of Americans in the service.  And that they make sacrifices–and are prepared to make more sacrifices–that lots of us don’t have to make, and don’t have to think about very much.

That New Yorkers are shielded from this reality is something we rarely think about, but should.  Although there I’m sure there are lots of New Yorkers in the service, they’re rarely on the streets of the city.  On Broadway, you’re far more likely to walk past hipsters, lawyers, waiters, bankers, web designers and fashionistas than you are to cross paths with a staff sergeant or lt. colonel in full military garb.  In Montgomery, I stop into Louisa’s Cafe for lunch — our closest shot to trendy and hip — and find myself waiting behind a major as I contemplate whether to get the smoked turkey with avocado or the Neapolitan panini.

One part of America hidden to me when I lived in New York, now visible.  And on my mind.

Postscript to Back in EST

Cancelled  flights, long waits on the tarmac, missed connections … they’re a routine part of air travel these days. 

Simply because of the miles they rack up, business travelers endure more than most.  We who travel frequently pride ourselves on following a few simple rules:  a) Be resourceful and ready for a Plan B; b) Carryon luggage; c) Find the electrical outlet in the gate area and monopolize it; d) find the fastest  security lane and wear slip-on shoes (thanks “Up in the Air”; d) Be patiently indulgent when amateurs (people who only fly on vacations) tell “horror stories” about their recent airport adventures.

The good news?  New evidence that airport karma exists.  Or maybe it’s just the odds; at some point the angles have to line up in your favor rather than against.

Yesterday I posted the unlikely but true story of my hitchless journey from Montgomery to Washington via Atlanta.  The ease of getting out of Montgomery more than makes up for the pain involved in knowing that every trip from here on in — unless my destination is Dallas, Memphis or Atlanta — is bound to have two legs. 

Other elements of the trip, from the emptiness of the DCA-bound flight to the on-time departures to my ability to change today’s flight lest I get trapped in Washington under two feet of snow, were icing on the cake, rare instances where the air transport gods smile upon you. 

The good luck held up today.  Already checked in for the 8:30 Delta shuttle, I did not worry when last night’s local news covered “snowmageddon” by featuring footage from the airport and advice to travelers with later flights to avoid cancellation by getting on earlier flights.  My travel arrangements were made.  I went to bed knowing the only thing that could screw up my plans was if the snow started hours earlier than anticipated.

When I opened my eyes this morning I looked to the curtains I’d left open and saw heavy clouds but no snow.  Then I looked at the bedside clock-radio, the whose alarm I was unable to set last night.  Instead I used my trusty Blackberry.   The red digital numbers read 7:32.  NO!!!  But I set the Blackberry to 6:15 — how could this happen? 

Well, turns out time has been organized over the years.  First, there’s this thing called time zones.  I was sleeping in the Eastern zone; my Blackberry lives in Central.  Next, for those of us who don’t live by the military clock, we use AM and PM to distinguish morning from night.  My BB also thought it was nighttime. 

But here’s the miracle:  I jumped in the shower, pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater, grabbed my stuff, checked out, jumped into a cab, got to DCA and waited on the security line where I pulled off my cowboy boots and set my laptop into the separate bin.  Once through security, I sprinted to the gate and, at 8:20, walked onto the flight. 

Landed in New York around 9:45 and was home in Staten Island by 10:30.  My cats did not greet me at the door.  In fact, I had to search the house for them.  But the house is clean and neat.  There’s a new black dishwasher that looks good in the kitchen.  A lot of stuff is gone, including a jug with eucalyptus that I’m hoping is around somewhere. 

And now, after a few hours, there’s a cat sleeping by my side.

It’s good when the gods smile.