May 28, 2018

∴ A first-class experience

I joined Kelly for a short vacation in Seattle a week ago, after she completed her annual Spring Quilt Market work. Market is a quilt shop owner’s buying opportunity where vendors show off the latest products and wholesale orders may be placed for delivery later in the year. It’s moved from city to city each year and was in Portland this year. We met up in Seattle afterward.

I flew out on a much-delayed coach-class reservation, but we flew back together seated in the first-class cabin. The differences between the two experiences were stark enough to render air travel pleasant. Those are three words that almost never go together in a sentence.

I departed Virginia on a non-stop from Dulles, our closest airport. It’s only an hour and a quarter from our home in rural Culpeper county.

(Dulles possesses a somewhat aging neo-futurist style terminal designed by Eero Saarinen, and a set of gates used by United that have survived as “temporary” for nearly thirty years despite United being the dominant carrier. Security lines are usually long, but membership in the TSA PreCheck program solves that. Transport between the land-side terminal and air-side gates is by modern automated train, a recent improvement. The terminal parking area is currently in the process of getting a Metro subway stop; eventually, this place is going to be a great airport.)

Some days flying coach is, at best, not miserable. At other times, most times, it’s awful. Complaints of narrow seats, near-nonexistent leg room, cardboard meals for purchase in a cardboard box, overworked flight attendants, and the need of booking a window seat and checking in a day before departure to get a chance at the overhead bins are de rigueur. Checked luggage fees are an insult atop already pricey coach-class fares.

My outbound flight day also brought with it a mechanical problem on the aircraft that was to fly me west. Its flight north from Tampa was canceled altogether as a result. United managed to rebook some of the passengers while leaving the rest to wait for another aircraft, which departed, oh, five-and-a-half hours later.

I managed to bump into a friend at Dulles who has status with United, so my wait on the outbound flight was more comfortably spent in the United Club. I was a late sardine upon arrival, though, walking away from my Seattle arrival gate dazed.

The return trip was like air travel in Bizarro World. It was everything that flying coach is not.

To begin with, I have a financial issue with booking air travel. I look at the first-class fares, grunt, and book coach. Before last year I’d flown in the first-class cabin exactly once, during a familiarization flight as a young air traffic controller. The pilot excused me from the cockpit to sit “in the rear.” The rear turned out to be up front, which was nice. I was relatively young at the time and hadn’t begun my years of flying coach, and so didn’t fully appreciate what I’d stumbled into.

I flew first class to visit my pal in Bozeman, Montana last year, scoring a bonus A320 ride up from Denver that’s usually operated with a regional jet. I booked the flights with frequent flyer miles, and first class was a relative bargain one-way on award points. There were no award seats in coach, so the choice was the bargain up front or pay for it in coach. I flew coach on the return trip, looking longingly forward through the curtains.

Our return from Seattle last week was as I remember last year’s flights to Bozeman. In order, the process of making air travel both pleasant and even pricier includes electronics, the TSA, and the living room I typically walk through on my way to sardine hell.

We arrived at the airport already checked-in with electronic boarding passes on our phones. Nothing new there. The TSA PreCheck line was, as usual, shorter than the regular security line. Our wait in line for a coffee was longer than it took us to get from the airport hotel, through the terminal, and past the TSA. $85 for three years of shorter to non-existent lines is well worth it.

Then began the best part of the trip. We sat across from the gate and read news headlines as we drank our coffees. As soon as the first passenger got up to stand in the group 1 boarding line, we walked across to join him. Ten minutes later we were walking down the jetway.

Boarding as a first class passenger was like walking into a restaurant. The lead flight attendant greeted and welcomed us aboard. There was no rush; plenty of time to place carry-ons in the overhead bin in which there is always room for your bag. There’s no crush squeezing into a window seat; the leg room in each row is like another aisle.

I’ve been a coach-class passenger eyeballing the first-class passengers already seated as I trudged through the first-class cabin many times. The experience sitting in first class is the exact opposite. Once seated, I spent the next twenty or so minutes getting situated and forgetting about the rest of the boarding process. The wait wasn’t unpleasant; it wasn’t all that much different from waiting in the gate area. And it’s very easy to completely forget there’s anyone sitting behind you, which amounts to the bulk of the passengers. All I saw were people comfortably lounging and a blur of bodies walking past.

That’s the first significant difference between seating classes. The boarding process for coach class is almost always a hassle. The wait to board is long, the line in the jetway is long, the trudge back to your seat is long, and there’s almost always someone who has pre-boarded (i.e., elderly or with small children) already seated in the aisle and middle seats who then has to unbuckle, stand, and move out of the way, negating the benefit of pre-boarding.

About five minutes after I sat down a smiling flight attendant (They always smile in first class. I’m not making this up; it’s all smiles. It’s like you paid for the smiling with your fare.) asked whether I’d like something to drink. It was eight am, so I opted for orange juice. It was served in a glass. Whatever they have onboard to drink, it’s yours free of surcharge. Morning Mimosa? Check. Bloody Mary? Check. Wine? Check. Bourbon? Buffalo Trace, check.

The door closed and we were off, taking a brief ground delay for Dulles by slow-taxiing to the end of the runway. So, no delay.

Breakfast service began about twenty minutes into the flight. Breakfast was the second big difference. Meals are, of course, free of extra charge. And they come on ceramic plates, with metal silverware and a linen napkin, served on a linen-lined tray. Mine was a savory egg and vegetable soufflé, a cup filled with fresh fruit, a decent sized cup of yogurt and a sweet roll, which I declined. Oh, and a glass of water to wash it down.

As I was wondering about that Buffalo Trace bourbon a couple of hours later, the flight attendant came through again smiling and asking whether we’d like something more to drink. I wasn’t in the mood for whiskey, so I opted for water. I’d taken them up on the complementary bourbon on my first-class flight last year, though, and enjoyed every drop. So much so that I went ahead and paid for it on the way back, in coach.

Arrival is the third significant difference flying first class. Best begin buttoning up any books, tablets, or earphones as soon as the aircraft rolls off the runway because getting off the jet is a speedy process for someone accustomed to the stand up-and-wait of coach class. Many first-class passengers stand-and-wait, as well, but the difference is that there isn’t a line. There’s just a group of people pulling and assembling bags from the overhead and under-seat storage and looking in the general direction of the lead flight attendant. With a wider aisle and longer leg room, it still feels more like a living room than an airplane. The door opens within about a minute, and off you go.

No more airplane. No more passengers, no line, no hassle. In an instant it’s like the whole trip didn’t happen. If you’re using carry-on luggage only, you’re probably on the conveyance to the main terminal by the time the last row of coach empties.

I remarked about all of these conveniences to Kelly during our drive home. We’d split at the end of the automated train; she headed to the baggage carousel for her luggage while I went to free our car from the garage where I’d parked. She had her bags before I reached the car; I saw later that United fastened “priority” tags on them. I guess they rode first class, too.

First class is hands-down costly compared to coach, which is merely expensive. There’s a fair argument to be made as to whether what you get in exchange for the price bump is worth the extra money. Having flown many miles in what I derisively refer to as steerage, I’d say yes, if you have the coin to spend, the first-class cabin makes air travel the exact opposite of what most of us experience every time we fly. It turns mental and physical torment into actual pleasure.

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