You don’t realize how much you need business class in your life … until you ride it. (Photo: Thinkstock)
If everyone could fly business class, there would be no more war, is the somewhat heady conclusion I came to after being upgraded from economy on a recent return flight from Munich to New York City.
Before last week, I had never flown business class, and, truth be told, never thought much about doing so. Most of the flying I do is either on airlines that have a reasonable economy set-up or too short to merit spending the extra dollars on a few inches of leg room.
I’m also a bad flier. When I say bad, I mean the sort of flier who gets worked up about a flight days ahead of departure and then for the duration of the trip, is entirely convinced the only thing keeping the plane safely aloft at 30,000 feet is my total and undivided attention.
This makes me feel ridiculous spending the extra money for business class since I am so busy sitting upright and willing the plane to stay afloat … with my mind. Even if I could afford it, it was hardly worth it. Or so I always assumed.
Boy was I wrong. About everything. The flight to Munich — where I had been asked to moderate a panel at a conference, all expenses paid — is just over eight hours. Add to that the time spent on the runway at JFK International Airport when you are number 47 in line for takeoff, and you’re looking at an extra 90 minutes. Much to my surprise, the economy seats on Lufthansa were tiny even by economy standards. By the time we finally rolled onto the runway, a solid hour after boarding the plane, the four inches between my knees and the seat back in front of me became increasingly panic-inducing. Not four minutes into flight, the woman seated in front of me slammed her seat back. All the way. Four inches became two, and I spent the next few hours getting up close and personal with Ingrid Bergman (“I ran away from you once. I can’t do it again.”). (Side note: Why hasn’t anyone banned reclining seats in economy? They are, in my opinion, a hangover from the days when travelers’ comfort was an actual business consideration, but they have since become a force used only for evil.)
If Dante were alive today, he would create a new circle of hell for the inventor of economy class. (Photo: Thinkstock)
By hour six, I was gazing at the aisle floor as though it were some sort of luxury spa, contemplating how much I would be willing to pay to lie down flat on it, and wondering if, in fact, I would ever lie down flat again.
Slightly more than 48 hours later, I returned to the Munich airport, dizzy with jet lag — my newfound revelation that this turnaround was somewhat nutty confirmed on the faces of the passport control officials — only to discover my flight had been delayed six hours due to “technical difficulties.” Those of you who share my fear of flying know this is the last thing you want to be told, particularly during a week in which the news cycle was dominated by terrible airplane stories.
Many hours, and one extremely large Milka bar later, we were finally called to board, at which point the agent at the desk announced there would be seat changes. Whatever civility remained in the crowd of tired and cranky travelers waiting to board our much-delayed flight quickly disappeared as everyone simultaneously considered the torment of the middle seat and rushed the gate, where after you scanned your original boarding pass, a ticket dispenser punched out your seat fate. If I hadn’t been so tired, the dread might have overwhelmed me.
But then, in the immortal words of Rick Blaine, destiny took a hand: I had been upgraded.
Seat 14A BUSINESS CLASS.
As I shortly discovered, it’s not flying I’ve been terrified of all these years. It’s flying economy.
This is what it’s like to fly business class. The first and most important thing you need to know is that the seats recline all the way. ALL THE WAY. It’s like flying in your bed. It’s like flying in your bed if your bed came with a waiter who served you endless glasses of Champagne and three meals (“Ms. MacNicol, would you prefer the steak or the halibut?”) and brought you glasses of water and juice and turned down the lights when you got sleepy. It is that good.
What actually happens is this: Once you’ve been seated, stored your carry-on in the vast overhead space, and gazed triumphantly at all the plebes making their way back to the morass of steerage, there is time to consider your surroundings, or in my case figure them out (the older gentleman seated beside me, obviously an old hand, had already removed his shoes, retrieved his earphones, and reclined his seat). The seat, or the pod really, comes with a blanket that is essentially a clean sheet on one side and a comforter on the other. There’s also a large pillow and stored below, a little case that contains clean socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste, sleep mask, fresh foam covers for your earphones, ear plugs, and a small tub of Nivea cream.
What more could a girl ask for? (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
The armrest contained headphones, a remote for the TV, and a rocket-launch level control pad that lets you adjust just about every aspect of your chair. While I was considering the particular angle of support I wanted for my lower back, a flight attendant came around and handed me a large dinner menu. On my particular flight, I had a choice of three appetizers, including rare steak, deviled eggs with Roquefort, or prawns. For the main course: two types of fish or beef (one variety of beef was served in July, another in August), and cheese or fruit for dessert.
The same flight attendant returned, this time with a drink cart. Champagne? Absolutely. (The drink cart reappeared every time I emptied my glass, but I stopped at three.) Shortly thereafter, a hot towel was handed to me so I could clean my hands, and this was then promptly collected with silver tongs. Dinner was served on a white tablecloth. Afterward, a small box of chocolates was placed before me. And then, the crowning glory: Time to RECLINE. ALL THE WAY. Which is what every single person in the cabin did. At one point, the impossible occurred: I looked at the clock and wished my flight was longer.
Wait, my seat goes how far back? (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
Before we landed, I was served some tomato soup, a salad, and chocolate cake.
It is heaven in business class. Maybe literally. Let me put it this way, if heaven turns out to be seat 14A on a longhaul Lufthansa flight, I actually won’t be disappointed. Business class is essentially the solution to every problem incurred in economy class, except for the financial aspect (Note: You still have to pay for the Wi-Fi in business class, which essentially just provides a handy excuse not to get on it). This, I realized, is how people who have to do these sorts of business turnarounds do it. Voila!
But what about the fear? There is no fear in business class. Perhaps the greatest discovery I made on this trip (other than this BBC series about bears in Alaska) is that comfort is a great antidote to anxiety. It turns out that I’m not actually scared of hurtling through space at 30,000 feet in a metal tube; it’s that I am scared of doing it while strapped into a tiny, endlessly uncomfortable seat, which simply exacerbates the feeling that things are totally out of my control and destined to end badly.
This was put to the test, by the way. After a mostly smooth flight, we hit a bad thunderstorm an hour outside of Newark, N.J.; flight attendants were instructed to sit down, and lightning exploded just outside my window repeatedly. The plane bounced. A lot. Normally, I would have been petrified (in the literal sense of the word), heart exploding, limbs shaking. But up in seat 14A? I simply laid back and adjusted the angle of my leg rest so that my feet fit more snuggly into my footrest.
Ninety minutes later, I was safely on the ground and ricocheting along the New Jersey Turnpike in the $16 shuttle to Grand Central, where I could catch the 4 train home. For the first time in my life, I wished myself back on a plane.
Now, my only fear is that I’ll never be upgraded again.