Exploring the Other Side of the First Class Curtain

I’ve flown on a lot of planes. I mean a lot. Not only passenger planes, but almost 300 rides in various cargo planes and puddle-jumpers with an aim not to get the free peanuts, but instead to jump out … and skydive.

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When I’ve traveled on planes in the more conventional sense though, I’ve always been resigned to the dreaded Economy Class. The Barn. You know ”¦ how the low-lives of the world travel. The cramped seats with mediocre arm rests where inevitably a screaming baby is strategically placed near you, and maybe two if it’s an especially long flight.

First Class Seating
© tylerdurden1

Third Class Days of Yore

Once upon a time they used to call it 2nd class or 3rd class travel. Then they (“they” being the big airline gods in the sky) decided it might be degrading to be labeled in such a manner and started creating euphemistic titles like Economy, Budget, and Basic seats. As if paying thousands of dollars to fly is something “basic” for the budget-minded.

And of course, the amenities on such flights have decreased as time goes by. Years ago in the heyday of airline travel, you would be delightfully served free drinks, given all the peanuts you could choke back, full meals, and more free drinks. A “good” flight meant you could barely stand up straight when disembarking.

These days you’re lucky to get one non-alcoholic drink without being charged, and forget about the peanuts or meals. Airport food concession stands are now equipped to pack up your order so you can eat it on the plane.

I for one miss airline food. I so enjoyed getting the little plastic tray compartmentalized to resemble a TV dinner. I would eagerly peel the saran wrap off the frozen bun, try to discern what my mystery salad contained, and peel back the foil covering my main course to discover what weird, wonderful (and often unidentifiable) food it held. And don’t even get me started on the delightful desserts. The tiny salt and pepper, the plastic cutlery and cups, and laminate trays always screamed adventure to me.

And inevitably, as soon as the meals were cleared and coffee was served, turbulence began. Good thing the peel-back trays attached to the seat in front of me had the quarter inch indentation in which my cup could rest … goodness knows what havoc might have ensued without that secure resting spot. I might actually have spilt all my coffee and not just half in that turbulence.

Imagining First Class
Momma, what’s First Class like? © Solar ikon

Imagining Life on the Other Side of the Curtain

In all my years as a lowly Economy passenger, I wondered what life was like in First Class (now euphemistically called Business Class so as not to offend the Third Class passengers). They always got on the plane first. So when I was boarding, I had to be paraded through and beyond the comfortable First Class passengers, who were already enjoying a complementary newspaper, pillows and blankets, or just watching the Third Class herd get paraded through their section to our less luxurious seats. At times I could have sworn people were pointing and laughing.

But what really got my goat was that curtain – the curtain to definitively separate First Class seats from the rest. Shortly after the seatbelt light went off a flight attendant would close the curtains to block our view of the inevitable celebrations and dancing taking place on the other side. And I know the attendant had an air of snobbery in doing it too … I always detected a “hmph” and an upturned nose in their curtain-pulling antics.

I became obsessed with what transpired on the other side of that curtain. Not enough so to shell out the sticker price – often triple the cost of my low-life, Cattle Class ticket – but enough to devise ways to investigate the other side. I often heard stories of travelers being magically upgraded to first class, either because they happened to be unwittingly schmoozing at the airport bar with the right person, or because they were just so darn well dressed.

How Not to Get an Upgrade

So I dressed to the nines for flights, kept my eyes peeled for the right people, and did everything I could to get the upgrade. Upon checking in I would beg for an upgrade, to no avail. Even when I flew away to get married, the lady at the counter checking my luggage had no sympathy.

Just when I had decided that the first class life was all a sham, a thought struck me. Why not ask the gate attendants? They process stand-by tickets, and they seem to have all the flight information at their fingertips. And besides, what harm was there in asking?

Well, the first few times I asked for an upgrade, it was laughable. I was so nervous I stuttered. I never felt like I had a good enough reason to be upgraded, and I usually waited until people were actually boarding to get up the nerve to ask at all. So the answer was always a laughable “no”.

I learn quickly though, and the last time I flew I applied all my lessons to date.

Schmoozing My Way to First Class

I had accidentally arrived at the airport three hours early for a domestic flight. This was rather unusual for me, since I had boiled down the flight experience to a fine art, printing boarding passes off at home and breezing into the airport no more than an hour in advance. But on this particularly oppressive day, riddled with jet lag and knowing there was a terrible accident on the roads near the airport, I sorely miscalculated the time. I was two hours early at the gate. Yikes.

Already tired of my book and coddling a recently injured knee, I sat back and started to watch the activities of the gate and surrounding areas. About an hour before the now long-anticipated departure the gate attendant arrived and settled in to start the check-in process. I noticed she was in an especially good mood, cracking jokes with her colleagues.

So I sidled up to her with the saddest, most tired look I could muster, wincing with each step from my injured knee. I told her a heart-wrenching tale of jet lag, arriving early, a sore knee, not forgetting to add that I am a travel writer who has been on the road for a (sob, sob) three month stint, and wondered if she had any room “up front” for me.

And this time, it worked! I was told not to expect a meal, and whamo — my boarding pass was magically traded for the upgraded one: seat 1D. I finally got to see what happened on the “other side” of the curtain.

And of course, I would like to share the uproarious events of my first class flight with you, however now that I’m in the club, I have sworn an oath of secrecy, and am forbidden to divulge the secrets of the “other side of the curtain”. Suffice to say, there wasn’t a piece of plastic cutlery in sight, I actually enjoyed the three course meal, and I wasn’t exactly walking a straight line by the time I disembarked.

Here’s to sob stories, injured knees, arriving at the airport hours in advance, and very kind gate attendants. Thank you Air Canada!

This article was originally published at Life Happens and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

  1. Wow! Air Canada is certainly not known for its service to third-class passengers. I’ve flown intercontinental with AC in both business and economy, and the difference is great. If you’re not going far (four hours or less) it’s not a big deal, but thirteen hour flights over the Pacific are worth the cash if you can possibly afford it. The only time I was upgraded was with Air China (Seoul to Beijing to Ulanbataar). The return trip (13 hour delay for political reasons and sleeping on the granite floor of the Beijing Airport as a consequence) rubbed out the Karma, though.

  2. Very nicely written, Nora, from one writer to another. Breezy, funny and very informative.

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