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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Business Time

For the March edition of "Across the Cafe Table, asked contributors to describe exceptionally good or bad airline experiences.

When you're sealed into an aluminum tube with a few hundred assorted strangers, then hurled through the air for half a day and a night, you look for what creature comforts you can find.

So we arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport five hours before our flight to London. We dressed "respectfully" and wore our best "We're great passengers and will be lovely to the flight attendants" smiles. All in the hope of persuading the British Airways gods to switch our assigned seats in the middle of the plane to my favorite spot in the last row.

Scoff all you want, but due to the 747's tapering fuselage the row in the plane's posterior consists of only two seats rather than the usual three. Plus there are opportunities to get up, stand and stretch while you peer through the emergency exit's porthole at the Greenland landscape creeping by seven miles below your feet. These amenities more than make up for the pungent aroma of Eau de Lavatory suffusing the space.

Sea-Tac is not Heathrow. No surging, 24/7 mobs of dashiki- and sari-clad passengers racing down the corridors to catch the next flight to Jakarta or Jo'burg. Here in my quiet corner of the world it's intermittent queues of the fleece-ed and fanny-packed headed for Disneyland or Dulles. Between spikes in activity there are long stretches of fluorescent-lit quiet.

It was during one of those peaceful intervals that I marched up to the BA counter, drew myself up to my full five-foot-two, cleared my throat like a seasoned world traveler, and asked if we could move from our assigned seats in the middle of the plane to the back row.

"I'll do better than that," said the bored-looking agent, snatching our tickets out of our hands. While he clicked away on a computer whose screen I couldn't see, I wondered what could possibly be better than the last row. A cone of silence banning crying babies and garrulous fellow passengers? A lifetime supply of British Airways socks? Free drinks?

The agent handed us new boarding passes, then stepped aside. I studied the slips of paper but couldn't see anything distinctive about them other than a possible error in our seat numbers. "That agent clearly screwed up" I said, handing the passes to my husband. The son of a Pan Am flight engineer, he's my guiding light in all matters aeronautic. "I'm going to ask him to reprint these," I said to Steve. Instead of nodding, my better half picked up our passports, grabbed my elbow and hustled me away. "It's business class!" he whispered into my ear. "Act casual and head for the gate!"

Business Class! The mythical land behind the curtain! For reasons known only to himself, the gate agent had granted us admission to the Oz in the front of the plane.

To turn left when boarding a plane is to travel back in time. To enter the old photos in saturated colors, with smiling flight attendants carving slices of prime rib for smartly-dressed, delighted-looking customers. To relax in comfortable seats. To have fine food, china and wine in the jet stream. It's what air travel was when I was an excited child dressed in my Sunday best and clutching my mother's gloved hand as we boarded an Air France 707 for my first trip to Europe.

But Business Class is also represents a less fortunate aspect of the past.
In 1950 a Pan Am round trip flight between New York and Frankfurt was $745. That's equivalent to approximately $5000 in today's money, a fairly typical modern Business Class airfare. The front of the plane is a throwback to a time when flying was only for the privileged few.

And now, thanks to a capricious agent, Steve and I were among them. I did my best to act nonchalant, graciously accepting the Champagne from what appeared to be our personal flight attendant and settling in to a "seat" that seemed more like one of those Japanese capsule hotels. We had plenty of storage, personal entertainment systems, soft bedding, and of course seats that slid at the touch of a button into any position from "bolt upright" to "Eames Recliner" to "fainting couch" to "flat bed."

Then there was the food. After selecting from an array of wines, we had the cheese course, the steak, the fresh salad, more wine, the pastries, the truffles and a nightcap. Hoping the "real" Business Class passengers wouldn't notice, I stuffed the menu into my carryon bag as a souvenir, behind the ziplocks of granola and gummi worms I had brought in anticipation of a more ordinary flight.

Did I sleep? Not a wink. Determined to savor every morsel and moment, every proffered hot towel and glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, I undoubtedly arrived in London more tired (and with more indigestion) than most of the economy-class passengers.

The experience ruined me forever, of course. Like an opium addict "chasing the dragon" I have scrimped and saved for the opportunity to fly in the front of the plane another time or two.

Some might call Business Class travel a needless extravagance. I call it a memory I'll carry forever.

Location:Front of the plane

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