March 21, 2011


I decided last minute to go visit my mom in London. She purchased the ticket using frequent flyer miles and surprised me with a first class upgrade for the trip there. It seems that just about everyone I know has some experience flying first class. They've flown with a wealthy relative, or traveled for business, or been bumped up by the airline. They all get the same dreamy look in their eyes when they talk about the experience. Well, all except my sister who bemoans her decision to wear purple cut-off sweat pants.

I've never been interested in flying first class. Why would I be? I've loved my experiences in coach. I never have problems stowing my luggage, I almost always sit next to interesting people, and most importantly, I'm getting an almost identical product for 1/5 of the price, right? I mean, okay, sure, you get a bigger seat and a free toiletry kit in first class, but certainly those aren't worth thousands of dollars.

Oh God. I was so wrong. There is much more to it. The delight began when I checked in. "Hello. May I have your passport?...Oh my! What a lovely passport photo. (Lies.) But then you're a lovely girl. And where are you traveling?...Oh very good....Ok, you're all set! Would you like a jacket for your boarding pass? Now, here is your baggage claim. I've put a priority tag on your suitcase so it will be out first when you arrive in London. From here just head straight down the escalator to first class security. I don't believe there's much of a line...."

My short flight to Chicago was perfectly lovely. Then I had a five-hour layover before going on to London. I whiled away the time in the Admirals Club. I sat in a plush chair and was offered free drinks. I chatted easily on my cell phone without the near-constant interruptions of squawking announcements and golf cart sirens.

Almost as soon as I boarded the second plane, my seatmate, a large businessman flying from Texas to Turkey, began what would become a running complaint about the fact that one of his three tray tables was broken. He made frequent half-serious jokes to the flight attendant about being reimbursed for his ticket. But how can you be upset when they keep bringing round little dishes of warm nuts? (Cashews, almonds, and pistachios only—no lame nuts.) They also offered orange juice, champagne, and water beginning before the door to the airplane was even closed. (I've never understood the appeal of getting on the plane first. I should have realized it something to do with maximizing alcohol consumption.)

Proof of copious leg room. 
I flipped through the movie options. Available to travelers at a moment's notice were Burlesque, The King’s Speech, Black Swan, Harry Potter 7, True Grit, RED, Megamind, Waiting for Superman, The Social Network, Unstoppable, plus a dozen or so year-old movies and a few classics. If you don’t feel like a film, that’s okay. You can watch episodes of Mad Men or Glee or Arrested Development. Or, you can fully recline, get out your full-sized pillow and large comforter, and sleep.

Of course, anyone who knows me at all knows exactly what I selected.

The flight attendant had learned my name. “Miss ______, your dinner menu.” Dinner menu! Four entrĂ©e options. Dressing options. Dessert options. Everything came in real glasses and on real plates. There were tiny salt and pepper shakers. Of course, when there was sudden turbulence, it was no fun to see people trying to steady their glass wine glasses.

There were too many other amenities to completely enumerate. They hung my jacket in a closet, they provided me a copy of the New York Times, I received noise cancelling Bose headphones (helpful for tuning out my neighbor’s tray table complaints). Everything was endless. Would I like more water? More juice? More nuts? Did I care for another roll? Yes? Cheese, pretzel, or sourdough? I thought that business with the hot towel was made up, but they came round with those, too.

All those things were nice, but most impressive was the attitude of the flight attendant. Constant politeness. Helpful suggestions. When she noticed I had my phone out, I was shown a little drawer for personal items. When I precariously held my glass of water aloft as I attempted to pull out my second tray table so the flight attendant could throw a table cloth across in preparation for the arrival of the shrimp and fresh pineapple appetizer, what it must have cost her to smile and say kindly, “Maybe you should put your water glass down on your other tray table while you do that.” Such restraint! Such tolerance! Not even a hint of sarcasm or judgment, though I’m much mistaken if she wasn’t secretly very irritated with my stupidity.

It was lovely being treated like a human being rather than semi-fragile (but super-stupid) cargo that must be regularly fed and watered. Why don't we all treat others with such kindness? I suppose because it's difficult, right? It takes a lot of energy to be upbeat, to be thoughtful, to watch others do something that will create more work for ourselves and not get irritated.

So here's what I've taken away from the experience—I need to marry well.

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