Before you read this, there are three facts you need to know: #1: I fly a lot. #2: I hate flying. #3: As someone who flies a lot but doesn’t have much money, I fly economy.
My bag is usually hauled and stuffed into the over-head compartments and I am stuffed into chairs that are too close together in every direction. Since I usually travel solo and look a good 5 years younger than I am, I am the first to be asked to switch seats because a couple wants to sit together, a child wants the window seat or simply because someone doesn’t like the seat they were given. As soon as the flight takes off the person in front of me is bound to make use of the few inches of inclination authorized in coach, bringing the top of the seat a few inches away from my neck. Even in the best economy flights, stewards are slow to respond through no fault of their own, there are just too many of us.
Usually flights for me are barely tolerable; however, for the first time on my eight hour plus journey from Istanbul, Turkey to Hyderabad, India I actually enjoyed myself. Introducing fact #4: This time I was travelling Business.
The luxury started as soon as I arrived at the airport. Instead of standing in the long economy line for check-in, I strolled through the non-existent business line, walking on the red carpet laid out especially for non-economy passengers but laid right beside them so they know what they are missing out on. After checking in my bags I was handed a fast track card. I apparently didn’t need to stand in the regular line for immigration either. There was a fast lane for us loaded passengers, cutting my airport time to a mere 15 minutes instead of the usual hour.
What should I do with these extra 45 minutes? The business lounge of course! Laden with food, drinks and wi-fi, this was a great waiting spot, except that I barely used it. I was so used to aimlessly wandering around the airport book shop reading the blurbs of every book on the best seller shelf and never buying any that sitting in the lounge with my laptop on just didn’t feel right. But then who can say no to free food.
I fixed myself a plate and when I had my fill of grazing and watering, I went back to old habits and wandered around the airport in search of nothing. A bit of my discomfort in the lounge also stemmed from the fact that among the suits and briefcases of business level travel, I clearly looked misplaced. Many looked up at me and my dismal backpack from their newspapers and magazines as I must have looked like a lost poor child who someone took pity on and let in.
If I was trying to hide how out of place I was, I wasn’t doing a very good job.
I arrived at my gate, waiting for my seating zone to be announced and strategizing how to avoid the crazy families who are dying to get to their seats 5 minutes earlier than everyone else, but then there was the announcement ‘Business and First Class passengers may board at their own convenience’. Convenience? What is this alien concept? Now given the choice I didn’t know what I preferred. Should I go through early and get settled in my seat, should I walk around some more and go in at the last call, should I wait and see if they call my name on the speakers like they do in the movies? While still debating pros and cons of each situation I found myself in my seat. My bag had been involuntarily taken off my shoulders and put in the overhead bins without the usual struggle of using my non-existent upper body strength to push my overladen backpack into the already full bin.
A stewardess came and personally identified herself. She would be taking care of me tonight. Would I care for some pre-dinner drinks. No? Oh! Not everyone gets the complimentary champagne? She looked at me with curious surprise as if it was a waste of a business ticket if I wasn’t going to drink something.
Dinner was served in true style. The tray was brought out and a white cloth was set with aplomb along with a salt and pepper shaker set and a little vase with a very little flower. A basket of bread was brought around. In true middle class style, I extended my hand to take the bread of my choice. The steward pulled away the basket showing me the tongs in his hand, he would serve me, I shouldn’t get my dirty fingers into the basket for everyone. If I was trying to hide how out of place I was, I wasn’t doing a very good job.
While I usually sleep in flights to block out the discomfort as much as possible, I was too excited to sleep through this experience. Was there more coming? Another round of dessert? Magic tricks perhaps? But alas I was left with the same entertainment options as available in economy but with a bigger screen. Hence, I played with the buttons. One converted the seat into a bed in one touch, another raised and brought down the division between me and the seat next to me. A whole panel was dedicated to seat adjustments which also included options to change the regular chair into a massage chair, complete with specifications as to where you want the massage, in what pattern and with how must intensity.
I almost didn’t want to get off but we landed in Dubai airport where more luxury was waiting for me. The business lounge at the Dubai International Airport is a whole floor. An entire elevated portion of the building. There is everything from food to a spa to gourmet coffee for your pleasure inside this world. The sad part however is how frustrated everyone looked. Granted it was two in the morning and I doubt anyone had slept in hours, yet – there was no appreciation of the luxury surrounding them. Their pissed complaining eyes followed others around trying to find some peace in the fact that everyone was miserable together but in comfort. Maybe that’s just what being rich is about. We are all bound to be unhappy so why be unhappy in an ugly setting, let’s be surrounded by wealth and wallow in our sorrows in style.
Are you not happy? He asked. I laughed. It’s not that. I’m just not sure I can handle first class.
I kept with tradition and left the lounge as soon I was fed to wander around the shopping mall which is the Dubai International Airport. At the boarding gate I was given another surprise. The attendant at the gate tore up with boarding pass I gave him and gave me a new one. Seat 1B. I had been upgraded to first class. I looked at him with bewilderment, he looked at me shocked – Are you not happy? He asked. I laughed. It’s not that. I’m just not sure I can handle first class.
I half expected a cello and violin player to greet me in first class, but it was mostly just like business. The only difference was that first class seats had their own little closet of drinks. Alcohol seemed to be primary purpose of these seats. Again someone greeted all of us with smiles, this time armed with an iPad with all our names rather than regular pen and paper. Again the white cloth was draped on an even bigger tray table. Except this time I didn’t feel as out of place. The man next to me had gone to the kitchen and grabbed at least 8 boxes of the complimentary Godiva chocolates they served at the end of the meal. When I eyed him, mostly out of surprise, he felt ashamed and offered me one. I beamed, I’m not the only cheap person in first class, this was feeling more like home.
The experience more or less ended when I left the aircraft. At baggage claim, I stood around the carousel like everyone else and waited for my suitcase which I hauled off the carousel also all by myself. I was back in the world of economy, a humbling experience, where we lug our own bags and get back to our economy lives. Regardless, this was the best flight experience of my life.
After getting home, I excitedly shared my stories with my family. There were unimpressed. Unlike me they travel in business and first fairly frequently. They looked at me with pity. The first class flight they went on had seats with doors that you could shut so that you had your private room in the air. Their baggage had been tagged with a Priority sticker so that it came out first before everyone else’s. Also, apparently there is complementary car service with business and first class which I was completely unaware of.
Apparently my luxury wasn’t luxury at all.