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It was supposed to be a dream trip to Australia but I was dreading it.
Thirteen hours crammed into an economy seat when you’re six-foot-three inches tall is a painful endurance test.
Splurging on first-class seats for the first time made perfect sense to me, if not to my wife, who, at just taller than five feet, considers every seat on the plane to be first class. Assuring her that I would not spend more than the cost of a good used car, I went in search of “affordable” luxury seating. We found an airline that promised we could lie flat in their business-class seats. What could go wrong with that? Looking forward to sleeping our way to Australia, my wife and I headed for the business-class check-in counter at the Vancouver airport and then on to the first-class lounge.
I had often walked by doors to these exclusive lounges with little clue of what was on the other side. I had this vision of a leather-chaired private club with a bunch of Thurston Howells in blazers and flannel slacks enjoying martinis and cigars while their wives toyed with their jewellery. I was worried that I would stick out like Gilligan in that crowd.
What I found instead was a bit of a shock. It looked and sounded like the bar scene in Star Wars. People of every description speaking a melange of languages, some that were familiar and some that were anyone’s guess. Neither a blazer nor a cigar in the bunch but an abundance of sweatpants and, surprisingly, a big crowd. The queue of travellers at the bars and the buffets reminded me of the crush at the Costco lunch counter.
Less intimidated, we joined the line of people scarfing down the “free” food. Of course, we knew it wasn’t free – far from it. In reality, it was without a doubt, the most expensive meal we had ever eaten. We enjoyed our time in the lounge, our expedited trip through security and our whisking onboard ahead of everyone else.
There is a joy in being escorted to your private “pod” with its wide seat and foot rest that doubles as a chair for your partner if she cares to join you for dinner across your linen-clothed table with its silver cutlery and wine glasses. Or maybe the best part is the giant overhead bin that is just for you and is big enough to hold a large sheep.
My wife seemed especially pleased by the complimentary beverage she was offered as soon as she took her seat but the grumpy old guy in me couldn’t help but think, “Enjoy it, honey, that orange juice costs about 500 bucks.”
At the risk of ruining the fantasy, I started to do the math in my head breaking down the approximate $7,000 we had paid extra for this experience. Sure, in a little while, the attendant would come and fold my chair flat and add a mattress, pillow and blanket. What an extravagance for an old pensioner like me. But the killjoy in me kept thinking we were paying more for these beds for the night than those bungalows over the water in Tahiti.
But hey, you can’t take it with you, right? And we were going to sleep through a 13-hour flight stretched out flat on our own beds arriving rested and refreshed, in contrast to the zombie walk I usually did getting off these long journeys. That’s priceless, right?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I would not have switched my “bed” for any amount of money if it meant being cramped into a middle seat with my knees jammed against the seatback all night, but the experience of the pod is more Princess and the Pea than Sleeping Beauty.
The problem is that the people in the front of the plane experience basically the same noise and turbulence as the people in the back. I had just never experienced it lying down. Imagine you’re riding in a truck down a bumpy road. You bounce around a bit in the seat. Now imagine going down that same bumpy road lying on the floor of the truck. With each bout of turbulence I felt like I was being tossed like an omelette. My much smaller wife flopped about like a landed carp.
When I did manage to doze off for a few minutes, the turbulence would start again. It was like trying to sleep with someone shaking your shoulder every 15 minutes.
While I lay there not sleeping, I wondered why anyone, including myself, would pay such exorbitant prices for this. Then it struck me like a beverage cart to the knee. It wasn’t because the experience in the front was so great; it was because the experience in the back was so dreary.
Thinking of the long lines, the jostling for the overhead bins and the cramped seating, it all became suddenly clear. The anticipation of the bad experience makes one desperate to avoid it no matter what the cost. For the front of the plane, airlines could charge outrageous prices because they had made and were continuing to make things worse in the back by shrinking spaces, reducing service and charging for features that were once free.
Riding back there, I had always thought the cheerful message from the pilot to “sit back and enjoy the flight” was a cruel irony, like a dentist saying, “You’re going to feel a small pinch,” before he rams a steel needle into the roof of your mouth.
Now I understood. The pilot was only speaking to the people in the front.
Paul Patterson lives in North Vancouver.