The Business of Flying First

Last Saturday I arrived at Mumbai airport to find I had been upgraded from Business to First. You may scoff at my excitement but I had often wondered what it would be like to turn left of those waiting stewardesses at boarding point. Breathless as a bride, I allowed myself to be escorted down the aisle. I discovered only two of the nine seats were occupied. The silent space in the mood-lit cabin was surreal.

I was not going to pretend I was a regular; I humbly asked the stewardess to show me the gizmos and gadgetry of First Class. Good move. How else would I have known about the massage at the flick of a button? My new toy. I was already enjoying neck and back vibrations during take-off. A whole new feel to the term “air-borne”. Once the seatbelt sign was switched off, the crew stayed at a discreet distance, quickly pulling the cubicle doors shut. Plane paradise. To test the privacy and legroom, I grabbed the headphones, tuned into the jukebox library and tested upper body salsa moves and bhangra shoulder lifts to circular (there were also a horizontal and vertical option) back massage. Now I know why amorous dalliances among passengers in First Class go undetected. Total seclusion, flat bed.

Then something strange happened. My gratitude and awe changed to sober assessment. What do paying passengers get in First that they don’t get in Business — apart from the enviable legroom and privacy? The seat itself was no superior in comfort or fabric texture. In fact, the accompanying pillow was as limp as my bank manager’s handshake. The headphones were lightweight, the audio and video entertainment merely standard. Granted, the white dining cloth was laid out on the table with flourish, but the cutlery and gold-rimmed plates were a bit tarnished. The meal menu was the same as the one offered to Business Class passengers although I suspect the wine  – had I drunk it — would have been of superior vintage.

A problem had unexpectedly occurred. Each time I wanted to slip into massage nirvana, the adjacent “Call” button seemed to activate by default. After I had apologised half a dozen times to the swiftly appearing steward, it did somewhat dampen my enthusiasm for clicking on the massage button. I switched to in-flight magazines thereafter.

On the ground, clambering onto a waiting golf-style buggy for the inmates of First Class was, however, a pampered experience. As we overtook other wearily trundling passengers, I wondered for a moment if we were going to speed past the barriers of the Immigration Hall and hurtle directly into Baggage Claim to smartly retrieve luggage and breeze out. Not quite, but close. As an equal opportunities supporter, I did feel a bit foolish and a bit of a fraud. My seat in the buggy would have been better used by an elderly or pregnant passenger.

I ran into Michael at Baggage Claim. Now Mike had told me years ago  he was an ambitious executive. His idea of achievement was to have the six-figure salary, fancy car, penthouse, luxury holidays and First Class travel. Then he would have “made” it. Mike was now Senior Vice-President of a global company. I rushed up to him as he proceeded to collect his luggage off a carousel for a flight from New York. Naturally I told him I had travelled First Class.

‘No big deal,’ he said. What? I probed, he explained. After a few years of flying First, he said he was no happier. He had thought he would be, but he wasn’t.

‘Why not?’ I persisted.

‘Because there’s nowhere to go after First — apart from the private jet, that is — and the thought makes me depressed. I’ve got everything I wanted, and there’s no ambition to achieve any more, and I’m only forty,’ he said wryly.

‘Oh,’I said. The pursuit of happiness is a tricky thing indeed.

It did occur me once I had reached home, that the proximity of the Massage and Call buttons might not have been a mistake. Too late.

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