The flight attendant escorts me to my seat in 2B. She waits as I put my things down, and offers to hang my jacket. I spread out my books, journal, and iPod over the seat next to me, because I already know the front cabin is half-full and they've blocked the seat next to me at my request.
Not that I need the room - the seat is huge. It reclines fully flat so that I can go to sleep after the five-course meal.
As I'm getting settled, another flight attendant comes by with a tray of orange juice, champagne, and water. If I hesitate, he'll ask, "Would you prefer a mimosa, or maybe club soda with lime?"
It's a nice touch. Over the next 30 minutes, the other passengers board the plane, but I never see them - the skybridge comes to the front middle of the plane. When I come onboard, I turn to the left to find my seat, while they turn to the right. (This works out best for everyone involved. I don't have to feel guilty about sitting in the front, and they don't have to see what they're missing.)
Right before we take off, or sometimes right after, I'll get a Bose headset, a hot towel, an amenity kit with toiletries, and a menu for the 9-hour flight. The menu has four choices of the main course for dinner. As a vegetarian, I usually have only one choice, but everyone else can choose between steak, chicken, some kind of seafood, and some kind of pasta.
The main course is preceded by an appetizer and a salad, and then followed by cheese and dessert. The wine menu has at least two reds, two whites, one sparkling, and one port wine. After dinner we have coffee or tea and a selection of Godiva chocolates.
For the next four hours, there is no meal service, but I can help myself to a snack tray and minibar in the galley. One or two hours before landing, breakfast is served - another big meal that includes fruit, yoghurt, cereal or muesli, a selection of breads, and some kind of main course, typically an omelet.
Still Reading? You might be wondering if that's really how it works... well, the answer is "Yes and No."
I wrote the story above, but it also could be written by an airline's marketing department trying to push its customers towards the premium cabin, the cost of which is usually several times the cost of Economy seats. Naturally, the airline wants to put on a good face, so that's the kind of description of a perfect experience you'll usually read about.
The best answer to whether First Class travel lives up to the hype or not is to say that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. In 2,500 words, here's the real story.
How Am I Able to Fly First or Business Class?
With the exception of Round-the-World fares, I don't buy First or Business Class tickets. All of my premium cabin travel comes from a) Round-the-World tickets, where premium fares can be much lower than ordinary tickets, b) Awards tickets, thanks to all of my Frequent Flyer Miles, or c) being upgraded due to my elite status on several different airlines. In other words, I spend my fair share of time in the back of the plane -- but when I can make it work, I definitely appreciate my time in the front.
Domestic First Class in North America
In contrast to international flights, where very little upgrading takes place, at least 50% of premium travelers in the U.S. are usually sitting in the front due to being upgraded. Most of my domestic flights are now upgraded to First Class, for which I'm certainly grateful - but at the same time, there's not that much to get excited about. In the U.S. and Canada (and somewhat in Europe now, too), flying in the front cabin is all about avoiding the pain of Economy class.
Even on transcontinental flight, you can no longer order a special meal, leaving vegetarians like me to fend for ourselves when the only option is chicken. Instead of good meals, the main highlights are a bit more legroom and unlimited drinks. Since I'm not a big drinker, having one or two glasses of wine is nice, but mostly I appreciate the additional space.
On a short flight, I'll sometimes trade my boarding pass for someone else who looks like they need a break. It's a win-win since I fly often enough and don't always care where I'm sitting, whereas someone who doesn't know what real First Class should be like will always be happy. If you can make someone else happy without causing any real harm to yourself, that's great.
In short, domestic First Class isn't much to get excited about. Things get a lot more exciting (sometimes) when you head overseas on long-haul flights.
Business Is the New First Class
Over the past 10 years, airlines have been consolidating their premium cabins to the point where many of them have switched to a Business and Economy-only model. Several Asian airlines, and a few U.S. and European airlines, have not followed this trend - but on the whole, Business Class cabins are now considered the main premium cabin on most flights.
This actually works in the favor of most travelers, since it often means that Business Class is now better than First Class was a decade ago. Lie-flat seats, for example, are the norm rather than the exception in the Business cabin on most long-haul flights now.
I've been fortunate to have flown First or Business Class on at least two-thirds of the major airlines - among the best are Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic, but I've also been on most of the U.S. and European airlines. Let's break down the experience into a few different categories: lounge, seat, meals, and service.
First or Business Class Service
LOUNGE - For me, one of the most important aspects of premium travel has to do with being able to hang out in the airline lounge prior to flying. When I know I'll have access to a good lounge, I frequently arrive at airports four hours or more before a flight so I can work and relax.
Airline lounges range from meager to luxurious. Check out this article from the early AONC archives for my experience at the Virgin Atlantic Heathrow Lounge one of the best in the world about three years ago. Some of the best lounges, like this one, have full meal service, a champagne bar, and even some basic spa treatments. (I was especially proud of getting my hair cut in the same chair where Richard Branson sits during his frequent trips through this lounge.)
These kinds of lounges, unfortunately, are the exceptions. Most lounges fall into the category of functional, nice places that improve the environment of the rest of the airport without offering meal service or haircuts. Wifi is usually available (and free), some basic snacks are laid out along with free newspapers, and a lounge attendant can help with changing seat assignments. These are the most common kind of lounges.
At the low-end are basic lounges, most commonly found throughout the U.S. These lounges are good for a cup of bad coffee, but not much else. Drinks other than water or coffee are usually for sale, and any available wifi will also be a paid service. Hopefully there is a business section with desks I can use to work for a while, but I try to avoid spending more than an hour or two in these lounges.
SEAT - The best airlines all have variations of seats that recline completely flat. I don't often sleep on planes, but if I'm going to sleep, this is my best bet. Some seats recline at an angle, so it's not a true lie-flat experience, but it's still usually enough to create a comfortable sleeping position for a few hours.
Even better, some airlines - led by Virgin Atlantic - have created seats that are essentially your own "sky suite" where you have a partially private section of the cabin to yourself. The seat comes with a duvet and much nicer pillow than you get in Economy class, and when you're ready to sleep, a flight attendant will make up your bed for you. If you don't want to sleep, you've got Bose headphones to use with an extensive audio-video system that usually includes at least a few dozen movies to choose from.
MEALS - the food in the First or Business cabin on an international flight is supposed to be a major highlight. Like every other aspect of premium travel, sometimes the expectation is met and other times it's not.
Here is a sample menu from a New York-Hong Kong Cathay Pacific flight:
Applewood smoked duck and rock melon
Mesclun salad with raspberry vinaigrette
Main Courses (choose one)
Stir-fried prawns and conch steamed rice and mixed vegetables
Grilled beef tenderloin, rosemany roast kipfler potatoes and mixed vegetables
Braised chicken and chestnut egg fried rice, pak choy and black mushroom
Truffle porcini muschroom ravioli with Parmesan cream sauce
Cheese and Desert
Camboaola, Chaumes, Manchego
Fresh seasonal fruit
Morello chocolate mousse cake with raspberry coulis
Snacks (available throughout the flight)
Wontons with kailan in noodle soup
Joe Shanghai crab dumplings served with dark vinegar and ginger
Chicken tikke with mint yoghurt sauce
The menus aren't always this elaborate, and since I am vegetarian, my choices are much more limited. However, even with the limitation I've still been able to enjoy some really great meals over the years. Singapore Airlines serves an excellent stir-fry, and ANA (Japan) made some of the best Indian food I've ever had when I was en route to Mumbai last year.
Wine and premium liquor are also a heavily-promoted aspect of any international First or Business Class experience, which again isn't that big of a deal for me since I don't drink that much. I'll usually have a cocktail or glass of champagne at the start of the flight, and then one or two drinks with the meal an hour later.
I have often sat next to businessmen (always men in this case) who start drinking from the time we board the plane and don't stop until they've had eight or more drinks a few hours later. I'm always amazed when I see this - if I were to do that, my body would definitely not respond well. On the other hand, I sometimes sit next to people who don't eat anything and drink only water for a 10-hour flight, which also seems odd to me.
Lastly, I've noticed that while almost every airline has a wine list that is part of the menu you are presented with at the start of the flight, it's not uncommon to find that the actual selection of wines is much more limited. I'm not that picky about wine myself, but my impression is that more thought goes into the marketing (i.e., designing a fancy menu) than in making sure each wine is consistently available.
SERVICE - this is the huge variable of flying in premium cabins: sometimes the service will be fantastic, other times it will be surprisingly mediocre.
On a good flight, the service schedule usually breaks down like this, beginning from when you board the plane:
- Welcome from a Flight Attendant
Naturally, there are some variations, and on good airlines, some of these steps are repeated in the Economy cabin. For example, most Asian airlines will give out hot towels to all passengers, Air France provides welcome drinks to everyone, and so on - but you get the idea.
Throughout the rest of the flight, flight attendants are usually available to replenish drinks or answer questions.
When the System Breaks Down
On a bad flight, the whole system breaks down. Yes, the basic meal will be served, but otherwise, don't count on anything else. Just before landing they'll return your jacket, if they remembered to take it earlier in the flight. You might get a customer satisfaction survey to fill out - although interestingly, on flights where the service is especially poor, I've never been given a survey. Hmmmm.
While some airlines have better service reputations than others, you never really know what you're going to get until you take any particular flight. Since I'm usually traveling on a relatively cheap ticket (or many times for free, thanks to my miles), poor service doesn't always bother me too much. I try to keep it in perspective: maybe the crew is having a bad day; I could always be in the back of the plane, etc.
However, I do wonder how I would feel if I were one of the people spending $5,000+ for the flight, only to have the cabin crew disappear behind the curtain for hours at a time. When I flew to South Africa on Swiss Airlines a couple of years ago, I encountered an unusually rude flight attendant who ignored my request for more coffee before saying, "We'll serve more coffee in the morning."
I felt ashamed for asking, and then I realized - hey, wait a minute, the average fare for this cabin is $4,400 each way. True, I'm not paying that much, but the flight crew doesn't know that... so shouldn't I be able to have coffee whenever I want? Here's the lesson: don't pay an incredible amount of money for your flight, and you won't get frustrated when something goes wrong.
As a result of sitting in the front (or middle) of the plane, I've been able to meet a few interesting people. Among others, I've met the Executive Producer for CNN's Middle East coverage, various CEOs, an Ambassador to New Zealand, a professional cellist, and the whole entourage for the rock band Hanson.
Of course, most meetings are not that interesting. On domestic flights, many premium cabin travelers are just people who travel for work a lot and are therefore upgraded like me. I'm not really a flight conversationalist, so I usually keep to myself and spend the time reading or journaling.
I realize I'm fortunate to be able to travel around the world, and even more fortunate to fly First or Business Class on many of the flights. At the same time, I know that these things don't just happen on their own. I spend a great deal of time planning my trips and looking for creative ways to allow me to live the way I want.
As mentioned, I've never paid for a full-fare premium ticket, but acting on the principle that there is usually more than one way to accomplish something, I've appreciated being able to sit in the front of the plane dozens of times.
The experience is not always as the airline would describe it, but of course it's almost always better than being in the back -- or, of course, not traveling at all.
Cathay Pacific First Class Cabin Image by Richard