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What First Class Should Mean

An excellent blog post at Cranky Flier about a first class experience with American Airlines in 1987 has me pining for the good ol' days (even if I never actually saw them in person).

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In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were REAL men, women were REAL women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were REAL small furry creatures from Aplha Centauri
- Douglas Adams, Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Ah, the good ol' days. Sometimes I feel like I've really missed out on a few things, being born when I was. Not to complain too much, because I have had the opportunity to take part in some really cool things, but in a lot of ways the past can strike us as being a lot more glamourous then what we have as options today.

I recently flew from Toronto to London on Air Canada, and despite my best hopes for an upgrade as one who both paid a full-fare Latitude class ticket and an Aeroplan Elite member, I wound up sitting in the Economy section of the plane with all the unwashed masses. I never quite got comfortable in my seat, so sleep never came, however I was at least able to watch 3 movies on my personal entertainment unit - Jumper with Hayden Christensen, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets with Nicolas Cage and the majority of 27 Dresses with whats-her-name from Grey's Anatomy and Knocked Up. I didn't actually see the end of 27 Dresses, but I am pretty sure based on what I saw that the lead girl from Grey's Anatomy was going to end up with Cyclops (or at least the actor James Marsden who played Cyclops in X-Men).

Despite the films, it was not a really pleasant experience, and my first thought on arriving in London was, "how quickly can I get to a bed and have a nap." Nothing against Air Canada (because it's not like any of the other airlines are better with their Economy Class offerings), but long distance air travel isn't that great.

There was a time, at least in my mind, when this probably wasn't the case. I imagine days in the past when silver bodied Lockheed Constellations flying New York-Gander-Shannon-Paris with all the passengers wearing suits and dresses, being served Lobster Thermidor by beautiful, young, blonde stewardesses.

I wrote about this previously in a blog post about my visit to see the Concorde, now grounded on a barge in the Hudson River as part of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Seeing the china place settings and bottle of Champagne, it got me thinking about the age of luxury air travel that I had missed. I wrote:

It was luxury air travel. I can imagine what it must have been like on board, flying from London to New York, sipping champagne and eating off Wedgwood china. It was a chance to forget about the drudgery of air travel. It was an opportunity, if only for a few precious hours, to forget about overcrowded airports, cranky security people and weather delays, and be part of the adventure and glamour of flying. It was the physical embodiment of what the phrase “jet set” conveys: fashion, wealth and privilege beyond the masses.

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I was reading a post today that made me think of this topic again today, and got me a little moist-eyed at the thought.

A blog called "Cranky Flier," which usually covers airline news and events, today had a guest blogger today by the name of Tony France, who wrote about the Decline of First Class.

Mr. France joined American Airlines in 1986 or 87 (the post is a little muddled at that point), just a few years before the accountants and bean-counters got a hold of the airline industry. Mr. France says:

The big picture visionaries with outsized personalities who kept one eye on the future and did business with a handshake were slowly, inevitably replaced with Ivy League micro-managers who knew only P&L and ROI. Atmosphere is not quantifiable ergo luxury inevitably loses out to utility and optimization. Glamour, even my first fleeting taste of it, wasn’t to remain on the scene for much longer.

Mr. France writes about his first experience travelling first class on a trans-Atlantic flight, going to visit a friend in Paris. Mr. France, as an employee of American Airlines, got the privilege of flying across "the pond" as a "non-rev" passenger (i.e. he didn't pay, as in non-revenue) in the mid-to-late 80s. Mr. France describes an absolutely excellent meal (you need to read it for yourself, it had my mouth watering), and compares what he received back in the last 80s to what first class means today:

Today’s First Class is not about the food at all; Robert Crandall (former president and chairman of American Airlines) himself once said as much. It’s the seat. As flights have gotten longer and markets more competitive it is the onboard hardware, a combination of a Borg energy pod and a spa cubicle that allegedly drives the customer’s decision.

While I could certainly appreciate the joy of a lie flat seat after trying to manoeuvre myself (unsuccessfully) into a position that would be comfortable for sleeping on my recent flight, I do have to agree with Mr. France when he bemoans the passion for beds that lie flatter or TV screens with more on-Demand options at the expense of the atmosphere and experience of trans-continental travel:

So keep all the movies and shows, fellas, my laptop screen offers a larger and better picture. Better yet, send that huge library of stuff back to the masses in coach since they don’t have onboard power but for the most part have individual screens. Do something with the walls other than the usual mood-neutral blues and beiges. How about a world mural, like TWA used to have, or commemorative artwork like Pan Am once gave away? Could Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” as a bulkhead piece help turn Alitalia around? Italian art, Italian food and hospitality, Italian wines and leathers? How could they go wrong? But I digress - at least it would be something, anything, to evoke the old romance and glamour of flying, of discovering new destinations, even if the guy in Seat 1K is a million-miler who has seen it all before.

I too miss the old romance and glamour of flying, and would be happy to see it come back. Whether I would be willing to pay extra for it, now that's a whole different story, but there is something that is lacking in today's air travel.

Luckily for me, Rail Team is right at my doorstep. From St. Pancras station to Marseilles in just 6 hours and 17 minutes. Connections from London to as far as Japan, if you so choose, with a wide variety of classes of service.

Heck, I bet I can get a little caviar aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (even if it isn't quite the "real" Orient Express).

Posted by GregW 10:34 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged air_travel

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Hey Greg,

Thanks for the great article, I think its easier and better traveling by train, I am planning a trip this summer and I have opted for rail to take me on my journey.

I found that www.raileurope.co.uk offers a good range of tickets throughout Europe!

Thanks again

by traingeek2011

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