First Class is now un-American

On our return flight from Denver last Saturday, the woman across the aisle coughed so many times I lost count before I had a sip of my complimentary beverage. Another woman ten rows back had a speaking voice so loud you wondered how she could hear herself think. And then there were the backpacks, so… many… backpacks. Nothing wrong with carrying your stuff on your shoulders, except when walking down the aisle and the slightest turn of the hips gives me a not-so-gentle whack as I sit in my aisle seat. Which pretty much confirmed what I already knew.  I should’ve flown First Class.

Heads up, weary travelers.  If your brand of travel abroad is a first-class seat, you’d better book one while you can.  American Airlines (AA) just announced they’re removing those premium seats in favor of several more in Business Class. Why? Because nobody wants them.  It’s not rocket science.  Airplanes need to be full (like, 97% full) or airlines don’t make money.  If a class of seat doesn’t interest a passenger the airline will find one that does.  Put the champagne on ice, flight attendants.

Even if dropping the very best seats makes good business sense, it doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.  I’ve never deliberately flown First Class but I still get to walk down their aisle on the way to the cozier confines of Cattle Economy.  As I do, I steal a glance to the left and to the right.  What are they wearing?  What are they drinking?  Most importantly, what are they talking about?  After all, these are America’s movers and shakers.

Except they’re not anymore, now are they?  Tell me who (or “what”) you see the next time you pass through First Class.  The domain of the rich and famous is now diluted with passengers who simply rack up enough frequent flyer miles.  Thus, next to the woman in the stylish suit with the glass of Pinot Noir, wrapping her important business call, you have the young tattooed character in tank top, shorts, and sandals, slurping a Rockstar energy drink while obliterating his latest Call of Duty foe.  No wonder these seats aren’t selling anymore.

My kids don’t believe me but there was an era when people dressed up to travel.  When I was young I wore a suit and tie on airplanes, as spiffy as a Sunday morning in church (although church attire has changed too, sigh…).  Instead of a palm-sized bag of peanuts in Economy, you still got something of a meal.  Flying was, back then, a classy step above other forms of travel.

Just because I can – and knowing American’s about to crash the party (poor choice of words) – I decided to book a first-class ticket to London for Thanksgiving.  Get me to jolly ol’ England the day before (so I can overcome jet lag before the big meal) and have me back in my own bed by Sunday night.  I know, I know, it’s practically Halloween already but guess what?  There are still plenty of first-class seats for my un-American Thanksgiving. They’re just a little – ahem – pricey.

My least expensive option on AA is $6,054, which includes two stops, choice of seat (but isn’t every first-class seat equally wonderful?), free baggage, and a full refund if I have second thoughts (which I will).  My most expensive option is $12,966, with identical terms as the first option except this ticket is nonrefundable.  Huh?  Whatever.  Even the least expensive option is more than my annual grocery bill.  Let’s not book this trip after all.  Let’s have turkey at home instead.

You can see where this is headed.  Next thing you know AA will get rid of First Class on all of its flights.  Then passengers will lose interest in Business Class so that’ll have to go too.  Premium Economy will be the last to fold, until all we’re left with is a planeful of Cattle Economy, every row and every seat.  But given the attire and attitudes of passengers these days, isn’t Economy a perfectly-fitting shoe?  As a friend described it, air travel these days is effectively a Greyhound bus with a couple of wings.

I just ran another itinerary on the AA website.  I can visit my son in Dallas over Thanksgiving, flying First Class, for just over $1,000 roundtrip.  That’s a bargain compared to London and I can get my turkey from a smoker (delicious!)  Maybe I’ll splurge.  After all, there may come a day when my grandchildren ask me, “What’s ‘First Class’?”

Some content sourced from the Fox Business article, “American Airlines ditching first class…“.

Flight of the Humble Bee

Travelling to faraway places – weeks at a time – sprouts a dual bloom of stress and excitement. The stress buds from the interruption of life at home; the need to keep things clicking and intact while away. The excitement buds from the unknown of what lies ahead; the anticipation of new sights and experiences. My keyboard tap-tap-tappings come from one of those faraway places today; Northern Europe, but it’s not my destination I’m keen to talk about. Instead I’m drifting a few days back to the start of the trip, to my outbound flight from Denver to New York. There, in a moment of rarefied air, I mingled for a few hours as a first-class passenger.

First Class. You know – the initial several rows on the airplane, dripping with white tablecloths, champagne flutes, and fluffy pillows. The wider, more comfortable seats. The dedicated flight attendant. Complimentary drinks, WiFi, movies, and magazines. Sounds so clean and expensive, with an almost regal attitude about it, don’t you think?

But what if I said, nein? What if I told you my first-class experience rated – yes – better than coach, but only with the slightest of differences? Wouldn’t you want to know why?

For starters, let’s deplane and go back to the terminal. A first-class ticket entitles you to a dedicated always-short line at the check-in counter. You already know that. Me, I missed that line. Whether the signage was on its morning break, or the harshly voiced commandant-of-the-queue distracted me with her “line up he-ah!”, or “print your boarding pass he-ah!”, or “do not leave your luggage he-ah!” (add German accent), I missed first-class check-in. Me and the “coachies” dawdled together in the snaky commoner line for a good forty-five minutes instead.

Fast-forward to the wait at the gate. My wife shrewdly pointed out the “Delta Club”, which I assumed was an exclusive members-only hideaway. Turns out, a business-class international ticket (i.e. the only reason I got first-class on the domestic leg) gets you and I access to the Club. Through a set of dark, imposing doors, past a couple of guards (who really do “guard”), we were treated to a light-but-no-cost breakfast buffet, comfortable chairs and tables, and blissful quiet (except for the gent next to me with the persistent cough). I hereby admit, the Delta Club was a sweet perk of first-class, if only to hang with less rats in the airport maze.

When a flight is even slightly delayed, and the passengers have nowhere to escape to outside of the boarding lounge, the ensuing chaos is a predictable study in human nature. No matter what kind of ticket you hold, “pre-boards” walk the plank first (defined as anyone needing extra time to get to their seat). After, Delta welcomes a mix of military, first-class (me!), and “Sky Priority” frequent flyers. But here’s the thing about rats. The line to board the plane is hopelessly windy and long, snaking between the walls of the concourse and the rows of boarding lounge seats. Try pushing to the front of the line – first-class ticket frantically waved above your head – when you’ve been standing in the back. Not-so-nice stares from other rats.

After taking my seat in 2a (or spoken with attitude, the second row), the complimentary glass of orange juice or champagne (or both please – mimosa!)… never materialized. Then I realized why. The logistics of serving drinks in first-class is virtually impossible when all the coachies board down the same aisle. No, this was not one of those planes where you “turn left” for first-class and “turn right” for everything else. One door. One aisle. All rats in the same maze after all.

<Cue disconsolate, sad music – solo violin or muted cello.  First-class is dying on the vine.>

How about breakfast? First-class meals are pre-ordered – on-line. That’s cool. Choose from blended steel-cut oats/quinoa with fruit, or an egg/cheese souffle with chicken sausage. My wife chose one and I chose the other – borderline-healthy airplane food requiring forks and knives! Not only that (insert smirk), turbulence prevented the flight attendants from serving anything in the main cabin, not even so much as a glass of water. Hope y’all bought some pre-packaged self-serve snacks before you boarded.  Ha!

But there it is. Attitude. Just when I think I can comfortably digest my first-class privilege; attitude rears its ugly head. Suddenly the passengers in row five and beyond are – ahem – somehow lesser. Not right. Time to pull my head out of – ahem – the clouds, and drift back down to reality. First-class may start out a little sweet, but the aftertaste can be a little bitter. Better to take my rightful place with the coachies from now on.