One of life’s greatest indulgences is flying first-class. I had the opportunity to do so in 2002 when my husband Dave and his brother Dan got the idea in their heads that we should leave a freezing cold November in Pennsylvania and take a trip to Las Vegas and splurge by flying there in style.
Here’s how we were punished for wanting to live a little.
If you have never flown first-class, you absolutely must try it once before you die. The entire experience is a ridiculous display of lavishness that only a $1,000 ticket can buy. From the time you set foot on the plane, people are waiting on you. The ratio of flight attendants to passengers is about 1:3. Back in coach, it’s 1:3,000,000. There is a reason the tickets cost so much. You’ve bought yourself a servant.
Seated comfortably in cushy, wide leather seats, you can really kick back, breathe easy, and relax. Since first-classers are seated before anyone else, you have the pleasure of watching all the coach- and business-class people salivate over your seats while they walk back to Sardine Land. You know what they’re thinking as they pass you. "I hate you and if the plane crashes, you’ll die first."
But we soldier on and ignore the stares, grunts and eye rolls from the less fortunate passengers, and prepare to be waited on by one of the five attendants dedicated to us. The first thing they do is take your coats and hang them up in a closet so that you are completely unencumbered by your travel paraphernalia. Next, they put your bags in the overhead compartments for you so that you are not inconvenienced by common folk duties. Up next, real pillows and real blankets. You can put your seat back just about all the way without disturbing the person behind you.
Were we not flying at ten thousand feet and had a remote control for the TVs in the seats ahead of us, we would have thought we were laying on our couches at home in our living rooms. And even there, you don’t get someone asking you every ten minutes if you’re comfortable enough and whether you need anything. They ask you all the time if you’re cozy and how they can make your trip more enjoyable.
Once we’re in the air awhile, we are served the first course of our meals. Yeah, first course. There are more to come. We’re given a selection of cheese and fruit, served on a restaurant-quality plate with real silverware. There is no plastic in first-class.
After we finish our fresh fruit and cheese, we are served our second course of chicken cordon bleu with rice pilaf and warm bread. Again, served on real dinnerware with real knives and forks. The suckers in the back are handed sandwiches with meat-of-questionable-origin in plastic wrap, and if they’re lucky, a pack of crackers. We finish up dinner with an assortment of cheesecake, mousse and more fresh fruit. So this is how the other half lives…..
It’s impossible to be too full on a plane unless you’ve brought your own meals, but here we are, fat and happy in first-class. All this eating has made us a little tired. Propping up our pillows and pulling our blankies up to our chins, we lie back in our virtual beds and take cat naps. You can’t do that in coach unless you take coma-inducing drugs that make you forget exactly where you are — seated millimeters next to smelly, irritated people who, if given the chance, would kick you out in the aisle if it meant they could have five more inches of space.
After a thoroughly enjoyable flight that felt much shorter than it was, we deplane and begin our adventures in The City That Never Sleeps. For the first few days, we win and lose some money here and there. We vary our time between soaking up some sun, hitting the casinos and the pool and strolling up and down the strip taking it all in.
We’re having a great time until …..
Dan hails us a cab from one resort to get us back to our home base and we all pile in. The cab driver is chit-chatting with us about where we’re from and where we’re staying and whether we’re enjoying ourselves. Then he drops the bomb.
He mentions how there are hundreds of travelers scrambling to get flights back home because they just got the news that National Airlines, our airline, has just filed for bankruptcy and they’ve canceled all of their flights.
All together now….. Say WHAT?!?!?!
We go from zero to depressed in two seconds flat. This news means that we’re going to have to make other flight arrangements to get us back home and now we’re not even sure we can leave when we planned. Once back at our hotel, Dan makes a flurry of phone calls and secures us a flight on We’re Not Flying First Class Anymore Airlines. Because we had to take what we could get, we can’t fly back in luxury. We had been given keys to the Emerald City and now they want them back.
After Dave picked me up off the floor, I came to and got all the details. First, there’s the no first-class thing ("Stop telling me that!!!"). Then there’s the problem of seating. We can’t get seats together. Lastly, we have to cut the trip short and leave that night on the red-eye. It is called the red-eye for a reason. If you have been up since 5AM and have to leave town at 11PM, then take a six hour flight, you will have red, bleary, Marty Feldman eyes that will scare small children when it’s all over.
After I recover from this news, I try to make the best of our last day in Vegas by sinking a few bucks into a slot machine. Maybe if I pray hard enough, a first-class ticket will fall out. Later in the day, we sulk as we pack our things and prepare for what would become the worst flight ever.
Just a few days ago, we were secretly laughing at the people who filed past us on their way to coach. Now we were those people, cursing under our breath at the people who were going to get nice soft pillows and blankets, and delicious food served on real dinnerware. All we could think as we walked past them was "If the plane crashes, you’ll die first."
As we approach Sardine Land, we get into position for our separate seating arrangement. Dan got a spot next to a window in one row, while Dave sat in the row behind him in a middle seat. I wind up in the same row, but on the other side of the plane.
I am not a good flier. It is almost a requirement that I be allowed to dig my nails into Dave’s thigh during take-off, the part of the flight that makes me the most anxious. I doubt now that I’ll be able to dig my nails into the thigh of Random Traveler next to me, and now I don’t want to because I find out soon enough that my seatmate is a crazy person.
He is wearing a sleeveless camouflage T-shirt, camouflage pants, combat boots and has no reading material or other things to keep himself occupied for six hours. He begins talking to me immediately about where he’s from and how his girlfriend just dumped him. Sure, take away my first-class status and sit me next to Psychotic Nothing-to-Lose Guy.
Dan and Dave have their own little traumas over on the other side of the plane. Dan has the misfortune of getting seated next to a very large man whose body is spilling over the edges of his seat. I later learn that Dan was just about to reach into his pocket and pull out a wad of hundreds to make an offer to ANY OTHER PASSENGER to give up their seat so he doesn’t have to take the seat with half another person in it. But the lights go dim and he won’t be able to get anyone’s attention.
So he sits down in the little room he has left and curses National Airlines for hitting the skids. One of the only ways that Dan can get enough room is if he holds and bends his left arm over his head and scoots over so that he’s plastered to the wall. Dave is seated directly behind Very Large Man. I cannot count the ways that this will make for a bad flight.
In the air for a few hours now, I reflect on the fact that we’ve all been awake for over twenty hours now and are beginning to get Marty Feldman eyes. At some point, I glance out the window past Nothing-to-Lose Guy and see the sun coming up on the horizon. I’m in such a no-sleep stupor that I forget where I am for a minute. Am I dead?
I glance over at Dan and Dave and notice the interesting contortions they’ve been forced into because of Very Large Man. Dan is still stuck with his arm over his head. I can’t tell if he’s sleeping, but if he is, when he wakes up he will probably not realize that the arm is his own and will come out swinging.
Very Large Man has, of course, reclined his chair and appears to be resting comfortably. With the reclined chair four inches from his head, Dave decided to make the most of things by planting his forehead into the back of the seat and sleeping on his face.
When I see these twisted configurations and consider that neither of them are good travelers to begin with, I laugh inappropriately loudly, which unfortunately wakes up Nothing-to-Lose Guy. I look at him and explain that we flew to Vegas first-class and I’m supposed to be up there with all the lucky people and instead I’m sitting here! He shrugs his shoulders and goes back to thinking of all the ways he can get revenge on the girl who dumped him.
Another hour in flight, I’m counting down the minutes until I can get on the ground, get in a car and get in my bed. All told, by the time we fell asleep at home, we’d been up for 27 hours. We looked like we felt and it took two days before we got our normal eyes back.
The lesson of the story is that if you do manage to fly first-class, check out the financial situation of your airline and make sure they’re solvent. We were reimbursed the cost of the return ticket, but it hardly mattered. I’m left wishing I’d never flown first-class.
Because having it ripped out from under you is worse than not having had it at all.