Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wealth is wasted on the rich

One thing I never discussed was my flight over here. By spending 110,000 out of my 113,000 frequent flier miles on American Airlines, I was able to obtain a round-trip business class ticket for my trip on Cathay Pacific Airlines. This represented my first foray into the world of the fabulous, wealthy, corporate, and frequent-flying.

Well, corporate and frequent-flying, at least. The fabulous and wealthy were up in first class, and I must say, the feeling of exclusivity that I was hoping for in business class (and to which I had no real entitlement, having gotten there on miles) was rather undermined by the vastness of the section, which was in turn a function of the enormity of the plane.

Lack of exclusivity aside, I can best summarize my reaction to flying business class as yes, please. By playing on the sympathies created by my then-well-sprained right ankle (and the extra-exaggerated limp I adopted in the presence of airline employees), I was able to get a window seat in a bulkhead row. As I beheld my seat for the first time, I was nervous. What was this splotchy green upholstery, which looks like it was conceived of by a designer in a drug-hazed hangover in the late 1970s? Where was my finely-appointed black leather? I traced my finger along the seatback skeptically...seemed comfortable enough. Realizing the absurdity of my concern - and the fact that I had no choice anyhow - I sat down.

Into resplendent comfort. Whatever misgivings I might have had about the design choices involving the seat's exterior, there was no question that this overstuffed, over-wide beast was designed for one purpose and one purpose alone: to cushion the human ass. Lush, but firm. Like a well-trained geisha, at once subservient and proud. And then I realized, perhaps the seat was not quite so perfect...perhaps it was just the best seat I'd ever used on a plane. This would be the theme of the night.

Relaxing at last, I glanced at the surprisingly complex recline controls. "Back down, legs up," I observed to myself. "And what's this button? This little man appears to be laying down in a totally horizontal position...that can't be... I guess I'll have to push the button."

Back went the seat and up went the legs. I was already more reclined than I'd ever been in coach.

Back went the seat and up went the legs. This would be good for elevating my sprained ankle, come to think of it.

Back went the seat and up went the legs. Little icon man was no liar.

I pushed the button to automatically return to the fully upright position, and not a moment too soon, as a flight attendant arrived with a tray of flutes bearing champagne, orange juice, and water. Champagne or water, I asked myself, which should I have? Oh why not, I'd just have both! As I reached for the tray, both hands outstretched, I looked over my shoulder and saw the masses cascading into the coach section behind. Oh, how often I had been one of those masses, and oh, how often I would be again. As I leaned back into my seat, double-fisting my flutes, I resolved to enjoy this flight to the fullest. I took a long, pensive drag on the champagne, quickly reminding myself that I don't actually like champagne. Nevertheless, I was resolved to take full advantage of the experience. To facilitate my drinking in light of the somewhat unpleasant taste of the (undoubtedly cheap, but what did I care) champagne, I gulped it down faster.

Another flight attendant approached with a tray of more flutes, and I reached for my empty, which rested on the small table built into the window-side armrest (ensuring that, even with my tray table securely stowed for takeoff and landing, I would not be without a flat surface on my disposal). Oh no, she stopped me. Someone would be coming by for the empties later. Would I like a second?

Yes, I would. And there appears to be an unusual plug for laptops in my seat. Could I get a converter?

Of course, sir.

The flight itself proceeded smoothly from there. There was much reading, much sleeping, and a selection of literally dozens of in-flight films (note to self, fly Cathay Pacific more often). I chose 300 and Blades of Glory for my in-flight entertainment. When dinner came, I examined the various options on the menu and selected the salmon sashimi salad, beef stew, and raspberry cheesecake, followed by a dark chocolate candy of my choice. When I my dinner arrived on a lovely tablecloth that the flight attendant set down in front of me, I discovered one of the enduring truths of air travel. Even in business class, airline food is airline food. The piece of dark chocolate aside, the quality of food was comparable to, say, British Airways, another high-quality airline (and one that I've only flown coach). But everything came on a real plate, next to real silverware (chilled), and the drinks in real glasses. In everyday life, this would, of course, be entirely unremarkable. But on a plane, the chilled metalware feels special and sturdy, pleasantly cool to the touch. As I sipped from my glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (estimated retail value: $1.25), I made a specific effort to conceal the reflexive cringing of my facial muscles and the sub-mediocre wine. Yet somehow I enjoyed every sip, a seemingly perfect complement to the beef stew.

In the end, was it worth it? Because I paid $25 in airport tax for my ticket, I think the answer is a resounding yes. And it was the perfect time to do the business class thing. The flight was nearly 15 hours long, the time difference was extreme, rest was important. And I was able to stay off my ankle and keep it elevated for so long, it felt markedly better by the time I got off the plane.

But really, business class (and I assume first class) is only worth it when you never fly business class. Business class derives 99% of its value from contrast with economy class. The seat is amazing because it isn't actively and injury-inducingly uncomfortable. The food is amazing because it's being presented more palatably and sans-humidified shrink wrap. In objective terms, it still sucks. You are stuck in a chair for 15 hours, sitting next to a stranger, staring at a tiny monitor with poor resolution, breathing recirculated air, and even having your freedom to use your beloved electronic devices restrict for seemingly arbitrary reasons (I never turn off my iPod...I just take out the earbud that's closer to the aisle and keep the iPod itself in my pocket, and none of my flights have crashed yet). But especially with the more attentive service, you just feel like you're being afforded marginally more dignity through the ordeal than the shlubs sitting 10 rows behind you. If you don't know what that's like, then you have no basis for knowing why you should be happy.

But of course, just like driving a $500,000 Ferrari that can't possibly be 5 times better than a fully-loaded Mercedes SL550, let alone 25 times better than a Toyota Prius, people fly business class just because they can.

Or because their bosses/clients are paying for it. From now on, that'll be my way.

No comments: