Flying With the One Percent

A Ride in Business Class on the Airbus A380. Plus: My Strange Childhood of Airlines Real and Imagined.

Emirates A380 Seat

STORY AND PHOTOS BY PATRICK SMITH

 

August 25, 2014

A FEW WEEKS AGO, for the first time in my life, I walked up to a bar and ordered myself a cocktail.

On an airplane, I mean.

You can wax nostalgic about the long-ago days of the Pan Am flying boats, when tuxedoed stewards served caviar on the finest china, and passengers retired to Pullman-style sleeping bunks (only 37 hours from New York to Rio!). But the truth is, up in the forward cabins of the world’s elite airlines, flying has never been more downright luxurious than it is right now. It’s a sleeker, 21st-century style of luxury, but there’s no denying it.

Others agree. Maybe you caught David Owen’s recent New Yorker piece, “Game of Thrones”, about the investments that carriers have been making in their first and business class cabins, and the remarkable transformation of high-end business travel. Earlier this month, Joe Sharkey wrote a similar story for his “On the Road” column in the Times.

“If you fly a lot,” writes Sharkey, “you have heard the nostalgia about a long-gone Golden Age of air travel. During this fabled time, which is said to have occurred as commercial aviation expanded through the 1950s into the jet age of the 1960s, passengers dressed up to fly on airplanes where glamorous stewardesses wearing white gloves served beef bourguignon on fine china. Baloney. The Golden Age of air travel is actually today — if you are among the lucky ones flying in first class or business class on a premium international airline.”

I’ve made this point before, almost to the letter. “If ever there was a golden age of flying,” I wrote last year in a blog post, “I’d say it was right now.” And chapter seven of my book says, “While people will never stop complaining about the discomforts of economy class, it happens that premium class, be it first or business, has never been more extravagant.”

I know this because I’m an airline geek who follows the industry closely, keeping up on the various trends and innovations. Normally this keeping up takes place from afar, quite jealously. I am certainly not well-heeled enough to be hopping around the world in first class on Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines, and neither do my employee benefits grant such things. I am fortunate enough, however, to occasionally fly in long-haul business class. Which brings us back to my cocktail…

This was an Emirates flight from Bangkok to Dubai, leg number four of an east-to-west global circumnavigation, and my first-ever ride on the mammoth Airbus A380.

Emirates currently operates about fifty A380s. The upper deck is split between 14 fully-enclosed first class suites and 76 business class cubicles in a four-across, 1-2-1 configuration. My cubicle was a window seat, left side, about midway down the cabin.

It was immediately obvious that this would be the swankiest airplane seat I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.  About the biggest compliment you can pay an airline is not wanting to get off one of its planes, and that was definitely going to be the case. Settling in, I was angry that flight would be only seven hours long. (I say “settling in,” but like I told you, I’m an airline geek. My adrenaline was rushing and I spent the first fifteen minutes taking pictures. How cool is this? How cool is this?)

The seat is a full-flat sleeper with a console and minibar to one side (see photo above). It’s not a totally enclosed suite like you’d find in first class, but the chair is set deeply within the cubicle. You feel cozy and ensconced, and the side console acts as a privacy barrier, putting a good deal of space between you and the aisle (or, if you’re in the center section, your closest seat-mate). Window seats have thigh-level storage compartments along the side, similar to those in the upper deck of the 747.

Emirates A380 Minibar

Emirates A380 Video

All seats have a small minibar, conveniently placed USB and power ports, and a shoe locker. The window shades are electrically controlled. Emirates ICE system (Information, Communications, Entertainment) is accessed via touch-screen or through a remote-control handset. There are more than a thousand movies, television and music options to pick from (including a large number of films from India, China, and elsewhere; this is Emirates after all). The video screen is huge and crystal clear, and the carrier’s noise-reduction headsets are the most comfortable I’ve ever worn. On the information channel passengers can choose between three different external camera views, including one from high atop the A380’s tail. Inflight Wi-Fi and mobile phone calling are available for a fee (the Wi-Fi is reasonably priced; cell calls are expensive). If you’re not an Emirates regular, you might have some trouble deciphering the workings of the various seat and ICE controls. During boarding, one of the cabin attendants sensed, quite correctly, that I had no idea what I was doing and kindly gave me a tutorial.

The cabin lighting is changed depending on the phase of flight. For boarding it’s a soft red.

The purser’s pre-departure announcement reminded passengers that the evening’s inflight staff “speaks seventeen languages.”  No real surprise, Emirates being the most global of global carriers, but I have to ask: does somebody actually count?

Next came a PA from the cockpit.  As with its cabin attendants, Emirates’ pilots are a polyglot of expats.  Our captain was a Brit and the first officer was from Jamaica.

There are separate menus for the meals and wine.  The food is served on Royal Dalton china.  There was only one meal service, however, which I found a little stingy for a relatively long international flight.

Later, a crew member came around offering mattress pads.  I declined because I didn’t see the need; my seat was plenty comfortable for sleeping as it was.  In the 180-degree position there’s ample tossing and turning room both at the feet and shoulders.

Behind the last row of business is a spacious lounge with a pair of sofa-style bench seats for a dozen or so passengers. The benches have seat belts, so you’re welcome to stay during turbulence. That’s where I had my vodka tonic. There’s a full bar staffed by a flight attendant, and a countertop spread of pastries and hors d’oeuvres.

Emirates A380 Lounge

Emirates A380 Map

Now, as maybe you’ve noted from the photos, Emirates’ cabin decor isn’t in line with everybody’s tastes. The details are a touch ostentatious, in a certain Arabian-luxe sort of way. But it’s hard to complain. As you’re sitting there, all that gold trim and gleaming faux-wood only enhances one’s guilty pleasure. As my old friend James Kaplan once put it, it’s Vegas, but Vegas in a good way.

(And as something of an aside, you might notice that Emirates is one of only a few carriers to have developed its own proprietary typeface, which it uses in everything from its advertising to its inflight menu. I don’t know who designed this font, but it’s very attractive and distinctive. In an era when carriers are becoming more and more similar to one another, it’s a small but elegant way for Emirates to set itself apart. More airlines should do this kind of thing.)

I’ve been ridiculing the A380 for years, calling it, among other insults, “a travesty of industrial design” and “the ugliest commercial jetliner ever built.” It remains both of those things, at least on the outside. On the inside, however, I have to admit there’s little to complain about: the plane is spacious and comfortable.

It’s also remarkably quiet — maybe the quietest jet I’ve ever flown on.  Even during takeoff the only sound was a deep, distant rumble and some rattling from the galley.

Down below, meanwhile, was the economy cabin, with as many seats — 427 — as an entire Boeing 747. Because the upper deck has its own boarding door and dedicated jetway, I never saw economy  — or first class for that matter, with its shower and fully enclosed passenger compartments — is cordoned off by curtains and decidedly off limits to the curious. The main benefit of this segregation is a much quicker boarding process, but one drawback, perhaps, is that the experience feels less like flying on an airplane than merely relaxing in some cavernous rectangular function room.  This feeling of disconnectedness is exacerbated by the poor view from the upper deck windows, which are mounted deep within the side panels and angled upward. I much prefer the oversized windows of the 787.

Emirates A380 Lav

The final leg of my round-the-world journey was a 13-hour nonstop from Dubai to Boston. Emirates opened its Boston route this spring using a once-daily Boeing 777-200. The service was immediately popular, especially with passengers connecting to and from India, and has already been upgraded to the larger 777-300.

Business class on this aircraft isn’t nearly as fancy as on the A380.  It’s a standard, forward-facing recliner with a retractable privacy barrier — comfortable, though a bit of a let-down after being so spoiled on the A380. And seven-abreast (2-3-2) is a tight fit on a 777, even with a full-flat sleeper.

Emirates 777 Seats

Emirates 777 Aisle Seat

By the way, those side-mounted screens you see above, and in the earlier photo of the A380’s console and minibar, are the removable seat control panels, not the ICE video screens, which are much larger and mounted to the seat-back ahead of you.

Emirates Seat Controls

The 777 has textured sidewalls and constellation patterns that illuminate through the ceiling panels. The bulkheads are decorated with fresh flowers (I checked, they are real) and a desert dune motif.

Emirates 777 Bulkhead

Emirates seat 9K  copy

Now, for some nitpicking…

Emirates’ business class amenities kit is the largest I’ve ever seen, though not necessarily the best stocked. Two essentials are conspicuously absent: earplugs and a pen. And somewhat oddly, slipper-socks and eyeshades are supplied separately, in a plastic bag of their own.

And the meal service. Although Emirates’ menu has some great multi-ethnic entree choices, I was disappointed by the presentation. At my own carrier, the business class meal presentations are very choreographed.  The wine, cheese, and dessert courses, for instance, are elegantly served from an aisle cart. At Emirates the whole thing feels random and discombobulated, with flight attendants running to and from the galley with plates and trays.

On the Boston flight, breakfast was served shortly after takeoff.  Choices were an omelet, a mixed grill, paneer bhurji or a cold plate of meats and cheeses. The mixed grill was very good, if skimpy on the portion sizing.

According to the menu there was supposed to be a midflight meal called “Light Bites,” with a choice of a spinach calzone, chili prawns, or methi chicken.  But passing the eight hour mark nothing had been served.  After hungrily waiting around, I walked up to the galley and politely inquired.  “Oh,” said the flight attendant.  “Did you want that?  I can make it for you.”

Apparently you have to ask?

About two hours later it was lunch time.  Steak, prawn biryani, or chicken tikka masala.

While the service felt disjointed, the staff were nonetheless gracious and attentive.  Despite having to ask for that snack, there was never a time when a flight attendant wasn’t nearby.  Walk-throughs were constant.  In this regard there is no comparison with most American carriers, where, once the meal service is over cabin crew promptly disappear.

Passing near Isfahan, Iran, on the DXB-BOS leg.

Passing near Isfahan, Iran, on the DXB-BOS leg.

By the way, if you exclude the U.S. domestic market, Emirates is now the largest airline in the world measured by RPKs. The carrier takes advantage not only of a strong local population, but ideal geographic positioning — its Dubai hub is a perfectly placed transit point for the millions of people traveling between Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The carrier’s slogan is “Hello Tomorrow,” which I find annoying. Clearly its slogan ought to be “The Airline of Planet Earth.” (Note: This is my idea, and if the airline ever adopts this motto, I expect recognition in the form of at least two business class — nay, first class — tickets annually, valid anywhere in the company’s network!)

Though I have to say, I was quite underwhelmed by Dubai airport.  Emirates’ celebrated concourse A, opened in 2013, manages to feel awfully claustrophobic for such a gigantic building. There are too many shops and not enough pedestrian space, with overcrowded corridors and absolutely nowhere to relax, every gate and seating area jam-packed with passengers and their endlessly shrieking children.

Speaking of children, to escape the racket I found myself at an Emirates souvenir shop, where the little kid in me couldn’t resist spending $50 on the latest addition to my toy airplane collection. Thus, my A380 journey was officially commemorated in 1/400-scale die-cast:

Emirates A380 Diecast Model

Funny. Here’s something I used to do as a kid:

I imagined a city-state. It was a huge new metropolis, purpose-built from scratch — like Brasilia or Abuja, except much bigger. A gleaming new capital of the world.

As a global crossroads, my city-state needed a strategic location, equidistant between the world’s most populous regions. The spot I picked was along the Mediterranean coast of eastern Libya, where an atlas told me (perhaps not entirely accurately) there was ample empty space and access to the sea.

But it wasn’t sea routes that I was interested in. My reason for creating this imaginary place was to create the imaginary airline that would have to come with it. It would be one of the biggest airlines in the world.

Bored at school, or in the evenings at the dining room table after pretending to finish my homework, I would sketch out the route network of this fictitious carrier. I’d mark off my capital city (it never had a name, and neither did its airline) with a red circle, and from there the lines burst outward like a great spiderweb; down into Africa, up into Europe, through the Middle East and into Asia. I got pretty specific: flights to Kinshasa went nonstop, but getting to Jakarta required a layover in Bombay. We served Victoria Falls three times weekly for the benefit of European safarigoers. Other destinations were undecided. Taipei? Should we fly to Taipei, perhaps through Hong Kong, or via our prized route to Guangzhou? I could sit for an hour or more pondering the network choices of an imaginary airline.

(I trace my enthusiasm for geography precisely to these route maps, by the way. Airlines turned me on to geography, travel and culture; not the other way around.)

I went so far as to determine which aircraft types were assigned to various routes, and drew meticulous seat maps (two-class cabins on the shorter routes, three classes for the long-hauls). Each individual plane was christened after a different world city, mountain peak or river, and this name would be lettered along the forward fuselage — in the style of KLM’s planes (“Kilimanjaro” — what a fantastic name for a jetliner). Naturally we had a lot of 747s.

I created blueprints for a spectacular hub airport, including detailed sketches of the terminal and the world’s grandest control tower. There would be two pairs of runways, parallel-staggered so that planes never had to cross the adjacent strip. Advanced 3-D versions of this airport involved a terminal built with Legos and runways laid out with masking tape.

And so on.

In many respects a version of this fantasy actually came to exist. The place where it happened is Dubai, and the airline is Emirates.

I don’t know, maybe I fell into the wrong line of work. Looking back, it’s curious the way seating charts and route maps infatuated me as much or more than cockpits did (a backyard project to construct a replica 727 cockpit using plywood and spare electrical parts never came to fruition). Mine was a peculiar route to pilothood. I have never met a colleague whose formative obsessions were quite like mine. While I was outlining terminals and fantasizing about Taipei, they were probably at air shows watching the Blue Angels, or at the local airstrip watching Piper Cubs practice touch-and-goes — two things that would have bored me to tears. Pilots, as a general rule, are not into airlines. They are into flying.

You could say I’m into both. I love what I do for a living, don’t get me wrong, but I also would enjoy being on the side of the business that builds, plans and strategizes. I want to be the guy who launches the new routes and decides which planes to deploy on them. (Why does no US carrier fly to Poland? Mine would.) I want to be the person who chooses the livery and logo; the person who picks the seat designs and the color schemes in the cabin (green; we don’t see enough green). I’d be good, I think, at branding.

 My rendering of a Delta L-1011, circa 1975.

My rendering of a Delta L-1011, circa 1975.

Here’s another fantasy: A seaplane shuttle between Boston, New York, and Washington. Imagine stepping onto a plane on the banks of the Potomac, or at the downtown edge of Boston Harbor, and stepping off again 45 minutes later at a pier on the Hudson River, a block or two from the subway. Imagine being within walking distance of the airport — at both ends of your journey. Easy-on, easy-off. No lines, no congested taxiways.

Of course, this particular daydream is fraught with almost as many complications as building a giant metropolis from scratch on the coast of Libya. You’d need an economical, relatively high-capacity seaplane built to airline specs — one of which does not exist. (Could you put a Q400 on floats, I wonder?) And what of those days when the waterfront was frozen or fogged-in? There are no ILS approaches into the Hudson.

I don’t care, it’s still a neat idea. Maybe Richard Branson or somebody could make it work.

Most of you would amazed by the sheer number of airlines that already do exist in the world. We can haggle over the definition of an airline, but My J.P. Worldwide Airline Fleet Directory is over seven-hundred pages long, with detailed entries for nearly three thousand commercial operators on six continents — from giants like United, Delta, and the aforementioned Emirates, to single-plane bush outfits in Tanzania. I’ll pick the volume up, open to a random page and start scanning. I’m ashamed to admit how much time I can spend with this book.

In a lot of ways it’s the oddball companies that intrigue me: the shady African freight-haulers with their unpainted Antonovs registered in Kazakhstan; the sightseeing outfits in Nepal; the Russian and Turkish charter lines; the old 727, or even a DC-3, tucked away somewhere in Latin America.

“Niche carrier” is a term we don’t hear much anymore. These are small independent airlines in business to serve a very specific market. They are content in their smallness, able to make do without fancy code-shares or partnerships. They’re still out there, even in America.

Here on the East Coast, for instance, we’ve got the feisty and resilient Cape Air, whose twin-engined, nine-passenger Cessna 402s have a been a fixture at Boston-Logan for many years, carrying commuters and vacationers out to Cape Cod and the Islands, up into northern New England and westward into New York State. The airline runs separate, satellite operations out of St. Louis, San Juan, and Guam. And although Cape Air code-shares with JetBlue, it wears its own livery, retaining a distinct identity and company culture.

Cape Air is maybe the closest thing to what we used to call a “commuter airline.” Today we hear of “regional airlines,” but this is a relatively new term, and really a new business model. The commuters, as we knew them, carried people from small, outlying cities into the majors’ hubs. (Here in the Northeast we had Bar Harbor Airlines, Air New England, Pilgrim and PBA.) Commuters fed the major carrier networks, they did not fly on behalf of them. The commuters went where the majors couldn’t. You rode a commuter plane from Pasco to Seattle, or from Rutland to Boston. You didn’t ride one from New York to Houston, the way you can nowadays.

Not long ago I came across an old aerial photograph of LaGuardia airport. It was taken from a few thousand feet, looking straight down at the terminal complex. Judging from the aircraft types, I dated the picture somewhere in the mid to late 1980s. What most struck me was an almost complete absence of regional planes. There were three or four commuter turboprops, but everything else was major-league metal: 737s, 727s, even some widebodies: 767s, DC-10s and L-1011s. That same view today would be dominated by 50, 70, and 90-seat RJs, with mainline aircraft a minority.

Over the past two decades the regional sector has come to account for a full fifty percent — one half — of all commercial departures in America. That’s simply astonishing. How did this happen?

One way it happened is that the majors learned that it was cheaper to farm out a lot their flying to regional affiliates than to do it themselves. Regional airline employees earn a comparative pittance, while technological advances in small jet design made even longer journeys viable on a cost-per-seat basis. One can hardly blame them. And with the right coat of paint on the fuselage, who would know the difference? Nowadays the vast majority of passengers can’t even tell you which airline — whose plane, whose pilots, whose mechanics or whose flight attendants — is actually operating the Canadair or Embraer jet they’re sitting on.

It’s good and bad for the passenger, I guess. There are RJs going everywhere, all the time. They’re fast and safe and relatively comfortable (certainly compared to the commuter planes of old). On the downside, they’re an inefficient use of air and ground space, and a prime contributor to congestion and delays.

Getting back to that desktop airline of my youth, with my route maps and Legos. How old was I, you’re wondering? I’m not saying, except that I was probably older than I should have been.

I still dabble in imaginary airlines from time to time, if I’ve got nothing to do or if somebody sticks a blank sheet of paper in front of me. I sketch routes, logos, liveries and the occasional seating diagram. For example, the South American nation of Guyana no longer has its own national airline. So, bored one night at my desk, I invented one. Its logo and livery were an adaptation of the “Golden Arrow” of the Guyanese flag. Yellow and green. Miami, Port of Spain, New York and Toronto (a lot of expat Guyanese in YYZ) were on the route map. Cessna Caravans had the in-country routes, and a Dash-8 few daily up to Caracas and over to Paramaribo. Could an old 767-200 make money on a route between Georgetown and London, maybe with a stopover in Trinidad? I’m not sure. But it’s fun to think about.

 
 

Portions of this story appeared originally on the website Salon

Related stories:

A RIDE TO TOKYO ON THE 787

ECONOMY CLASS, DONE RIGHT

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF U.S. AVIATION

 

Airplane Shop Banner Ad 1

 

Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!
Leave a Comment


9 − = 8

52 Responses to “Flying With the One Percent”
  1. flymike says:

    Nice piece. Thanks, Patrick. It does make me feel really poor and out of it, but maybe I am . . . I’m just your average American.

  2. Simon says:

    I’m sure business class on Emirates was a very nice experience. But I do wonder about their priorities. All this faux wood yet you have to pay for wifi? Seriously?

  3. Emirates is one of many trusted airlines in the world. Its facility, feature and service is almost perfect. I think we have the same childhood that we want to buy a replica of an airplane. And until now I always buy and collect souvenir of other airplanes every time I get flight to foreign countries.

  4. OldRedNed says:

    ‘….Emirates to set itself apart”. Yes, isn’t Emirates the airline that refuses to employ its own female nationals as cabin staff?

  5. Andy S. says:

    Perhaps those seaplane commuters could come up to coastal Maine in the summer? I would love to see less of those “Massholes” on the road!

    • Caz says:

      Not surprised by this…when I was working in Toronto, I was fortunate enough to stay in the same hotel as the Emirates Crews, and they had the most beautiful flight attendants that I had ever seen. They looked to be from pretty much every corner of the world as well – Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

    • Funny word! We get a huge influx of winter visitors here in Florida from all over the country and call them ‘snowbirds’. They can’t drive, either!

  6. Reenie says:

    Oh my! My son did these same things. Complete airports built from Jenga blocks, Legos, die-cast planes and cars. And the drawings… I have an entire file of hand-drawn airplanes and airports. And now? He’s a junior in college, studying Aviation Flight Sciences on his way to becoming a commercial pilot. :-)

  7. Eirik says:

    Great read, Patrick!

    YOU got the best seat, by the way. I would not replace that with 1st class, even if I got it for lifetime free.

    But its cool to experience it now and then, I guess.
    I have never tried.
    I was lucky once to have my company pay for business on British Airways 747. My idea of 1st class is window seat on exit row.
    That`s how picky I am.

    On a side note; I really don`t understand why some people (like my friend once did) pay a couple thousand dollars to upgrade to business on a 7 hour flight. When we landed, he seemed more grumpy than before he upgraded. Maybe he just wanted to show off and was disappointed with service, view, food – or whatever he was expecting.
    But we are all different and some are more spoiled than others.

    Your boarding experience with separated cabins (“I never saw economy”) made me think of Titanic. I wonder if they would save the people in 1st class first, in case of emergency?? ;)

  8. Chuck says:

    Great piece. The drawing you included made me laugh a bit. In my elementary school art classes, drawings of commercial aircraft were a huge component of my artistic output, but I could never figure out what to do with the other wing. It would stick out of the roof. My teachers would always say “this is good, but what’s that on top?” I didn’t really appreciate perspective. The other wing couldn’t just not be there.

  9. Tod Davis says:

    I flew from Sydney to London on the Emirates A380 (economy) and even the lower deck is quite nice, by all means it is still economy but fresh and roomy feeling. My main gripe with Dubai airport was the boarding process through the holding areas, they said they were boarding but when we scanned our boarding passes we were put in the holding area for about 40 minutes. The facilities in the holding area included a toilet and drinking fountain, a couple of vending machines would have been a nice touch.

  10. Pillai says:

    Great post.

    I got lucky a few years ago – when I got upgraded on a flight from Dubai to JFK on Emirates. All the way to First Class on the A380.

    Quite an other worldly experience, and I did feel completely out of place.

    Some photos:
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/103556992082224708314/albums/5279311748195771505

  11. Steve MacIntyre says:

    In 1998 I more-or-less circumnavigated the globe flying Cathay Pacific’s First-Class service. The amenities, equipment and level of service in what was Cathay’s First Class then were on a par with your description of Emirates’s Business Class today. One can only imagine the luxe level of service in the First-Class cabin of either of these airlines today.

  12. “Could you put a Q400 on floats, I wonder?”

    Here ya go: ;-)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/news46/2949821322/

    • But seriously – something like your NY – Boston or NY – Washington seaplane service exists on the left coast between CXH (Vancouver harbour) and YWH (Victoria harbour).

      Harbour Air and West Coast Air are the airlines – Harbour Air purchased West Coast Air in 2010 according to Wikipedia. Harbour Air’s fleet is DeHavilland Turbine Single Otter, DeHavilland Turbine Twin Otter and Beaver seaplanes. CXH was the sixth busiest airport in BC in January 2013 and the 37th busiest in Canada by aircraft movements.

      The business driver is that Vancouver, B.C. is Canada’s third largest metroplitan area and Victoria is B.C.’s capital.

      • Julia says:

        It also helps that the flight time between Vancouver and Victoria is half an hour, compared to 90 minutes on the ferry, plus driving time to and from terminals that are even farther from their respective city centres than YVR and YYJ are. It isn’t even that much more expensive than taking a car across on the ferry. I’ve only flown on Harbour Air a handful of times, but it’s a fantastic way to get around.

  13. Cam says:

    Very nice entry Mr. Smith. Emirates looks very lux, in an ott sort of way.

    Your drawing of the Delta jet is very, very cute.

  14. Hello from Albion Street–

    I read this column shortly after reading a story in the Boston Globe about skyrocketing rents here in Somerville, Mass. Both made me feel the same way: priced out of the market. I used to earn occasional first-class upgrades on Northwest with frequent-flyer miles between Sioux City and Newark, but what you’re describing seems to me a whole new level of class distinctions. I guess it makes sense, given our increasing global inequality, but turning the upper deck of big planes into self-contained palaces strikes me as anti-social in some fundamental way, like private railway cars in the nineteenth century. At least on a private jet or yacht you don’t have the lower classes literally beneath you, in steerage.

    Fine writing, nevertheless, as always! Thanks–

    • Richard says:

      The Times got that figure wrong: a first-class roundtrip flight from New York to Dubai on Emirates is only (ahem) $25,000. (Checking the number this morning for a flight next week.) They got the $32,000 figure from Etihad’s new first-class apartment on its A380, a three-room affair (well, “room” is a bit grand, but three spaces) that includes its own personal bathroom.

  15. Sheila Hartney says:

    Patrick,

    Back in the day those smaller local service airlines were called Regionals. I worked for Mohawk until they were taken over by Allegheny. Piedmont, Southern, Frontier, Ozark, Lake Central, North Central, and Trans Texas were among them. Bonanze, West Coast Airlines, and Pacific Airlines merged some time in the 60’s to become Air West, which Howard Hughes bought and renamed a few years later. They all started out flying older equipment the majors no longer wanted, and after a while flew the same jets they were flying.

    I believe it was Allegheny that started the Commuter system as we know it today. There was an Allegheny Commuter, othewise known as Ransom, based out of DCA and their flights departed from the Commuter Terminal which was then located north of the North Terminal. This was in about 1970 or so. Allegheny handled their reservations and maintenance, but had its own pilots and ground agents. At some point, if I recall correctly, Allegheny added another commuter service elsewhere on its route, and eventually a lot of other airlines caught on to doing the same thing.

    There was, back then in the late 60’s, some kind of a special deal for Europeans to fly on the Regionals. I’ve long since forgotten all the details, but they’d pay some set amount before they left their own country, and arrived with something called Miscellaneous Charge Order (MCO) that could then be used to pay for flights only on the regional carriers. Truly enterprising types saw an awful lot of this country in the thirty or so days the MCO was valid for.

    We ticket agents also had a lame joke about the reason Moses spent all that time in the Wilderness, never even making it to Israel was that he ad a Discover the Sinai MCO good for forty years. Which makes me think the one I was talking about was probably called Discover America. Maybe Discover the U.S.A. It was a very long time ago.

    Sheila Hartney

    • Patrick says:

      Yes, Ransome is considered by many to be the “original” commuter carrier. I remember Ransome’s Nord-262s at BOS in the late 1970s, in the “Allegheny Commuter” colors.

      Later the company became part of the Pan Am system, if I’m not mistaken.

      Good point, too, about the original “regional” designation. Texas International was another.

      There were some Canadian regionals too: Nor-Ontair, Quebecair…

  16. John Desmond says:

    There was a Philadelphia-New York seaplane service back in the ’80’s, IIRC. Think it folded from too-small planes and too many weather cancellations. Sorry can’t look up the details now.

  17. Irwin says:

    Patrick… I think we are about the same age, and I also had an imaginary airline (two in fact!) when I was “probably older than I should have been”. One of my imaginary airline was based in of all places you mentioned – Taipei. On the map, Taipei was ideally located geographically (political realities aside) for transit from North America to China, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and India – a strategy that is replicated in real life today by Korean Air with its hub in nearby Inchon, Korea.

  18. James says:

    I guess I’m in the 1% — I always fly business or first if the flight is over three hours.

    That said, I must quibble about your complaint about the mid-flight snack. Many international business and first class flights operate their meal service on passenger demand, not a clock. As a one-percenter ( ;-) ) you eat when you want to, not when you are told!

    • Patrick says:

      Normally, though, don’t they specify on the menu that it’s an “on-call” service?

      I’ve always assume the menu selections are standard service, unless otherwise noted.

      Then again, the number of carriers on which I’ve flown premium class can be counted on about three fingers.

      • Msconduct says:

        Hmm. Air NZ only leave out packs of potato chips and the like in the galley; Singapore do do noodle dishes (which I suspect are instant) but I don’t think either are specified as on-call. But maybe it makes a difference if the flight is overnight? On the flights I take they correctly assume that most people are paying to sleep and don’t want to be woken up to be stuffed with more food: nobody but me is ever awake. I wouldn’t know about day flights, though. No matter how long it is, if it’s during non-vampire hours I suck it up and sit in the back.

      • Catherine says:

        Singapore Airlines call it ‘Light Bites’ as well, even if you’re sat in economy. They sometimes bring round a tray, but often you just have to go and ask.

        I always fly on a380s if that’s an option, because they are noticeably quieter than anything else. Sufficiently quiet that it’s background noise, rather than distracting noise. It’s great.

  19. Msconduct says:

    I laughed at the 1% styling. I’m not in the 1%, yet I fly business regularly. When you live in New Zealand, you are more than eleven hours from the US and the flights are always overnight. I can’t sleep on a plane and sitting up in economy all night is like being tortured by sleep deprivation. My sole criterion for picking a business class flight isn’t how much faux-wood panelling there is or how much fawning the attendants do (hate that). It’s how comfortable the lie-flat bed is. Air New Zealand got this perfectly right when they added an extra layer of memory foam to the Virgin-style lie flat, so they get my business. It’s an expensive way to travel, yes, but I consider it an acceptable tax on living in paradise. (PS: you always have to request the mid-flight snack thingy.)

  20. Guy says:

    I agree with you about the shortcomings of Dubai airport especially since my connections on Fly Dubai were in Terminal 2, accessible only via packed micro-buses that run at 30 minute intervals. I have no complaints however about the new business class lounge which it sounds like you missed out on. It is pretty much a concourse unto itself with direct boarding access so you need never be aware of the existence of steerage passengers (me, usually) and their screaming babies. In addition to the usual lounge amenities there were a couple of buffet stations with at least a half dozen hot selections, even well after midnight (0300 departure to JFK). Not that I actually had to get up and serve myself. There was always someone around to take a food order or fill my glass. Flights are called to board just a few minutes before departure so you just do up your seatbelt and go.

  21. Toto from Houston says:

    Patrick, thanks for sharing and great article. I also commemorate the flights that I take by obtaining a die-cast replica of an airline that I flew with. I thought this was unusual but I got hooked with flying as a six year old taking a trip with my dad, it was a 60 minute flight with a BAC-111.

  22. Bob says:

    I flew more frequently in the ’80s and ’00s than now, mostly in Economy.

    In the ’80s we got meals served on china, with metal tools. Even in the back of the bus. You could get dropped off at the airport 1/2 hour before scheduled departure, and still make your flight. The main downside was that I always seemed to get seated near the smoking section, and that was awful. Also some of the short-hop airlines were flying smallish planes, and they would bounce you around a bit if there was any hint of weather. But you could look out the cockpit window.

    More recently: Fee for everything, including meals. Non-refundable tickets with hefty change fees. The TSA. No slack in the system, so if a flight gets cancelled due to weather, tough luck — you might get stuck for a day or three. My one experience flying Air France from CVG to CDG was a reminder of how pleasant air travel used to be.

    • Patrick says:

      Now wait a minute Bob. I get the gist of your point, but I flew economy class quite a bit throughout the 1980s. Economy class meals were not served on china.

      And metal silverware is no longer banned.

  23. Wendy says:

    HI Patrick,

    I am loathe to publish this lest anyone think I am anywhere near the 1% which I am not.

    What I have are so many miles on Amex and other planes like El Al and American because as a journalist I flew constantly to the Middle East and other hotspots.

    I always flew coach but those miles on Amex accumulate and since I had and still do in a far milder form a fear of take-off I was one bumped up to First Class on an EL AL from Tel Aviv to JFK and it was utterly divine. Since then I only use my points for Business class and occasionally, very occasionally, for first.

    It really upsets me that pilots do not get First or Business as a rule. But I loved your excitement and description.

    I fly a lot less now but the good thing about Amex travel is that points do not disappear. I have no other use for them as I am not a shopper so I could not agree more and wish that coach was upgraded as I am now less fearful than embarrassed! And my daughter called First Class “First Crash” which may have some truth but the great service and seats make me feel safer even if that is pure bunk. Love to you… WO

  24. Youtube has dozens of videos showing current state-of-the-art business class service. A 4 hour trip on Southwest it ain’t.

  25. JuliaZ says:

    Patrick,

    I was drawing route maps and airport floor plans when I was “older than I should have been” — what the hell does that mean? Are you implying that at some age, we should turn off our imaginations?

    Anyway, check out Seattle’s Kenmore Air. They are a successful floatplane commuter airline. http://kenmoreair.com/mapdestinations.aspx Their destination map is crappy, but the flights are good and not too expensive when you consider what it is. Their airport at South Lake Union is a very short walk from the South Lake Union Trolley (you can do the acronym in your head, and that’s what it’s lovingly called), so it’s totally doable without a car. Here’s what they fly: http://kenmoreair.com/Our-Planes

    Locals-only tip: If they have empty seats, you can joyride from South Lake Union to Kenmore for less than $20 each way (it was $12 last time we did it but I got the sense that the counter person had authority to set the price). This is a blast… 30 minutes of flying over some of the prettiest scenery in our area, lunch, and then a short flight back again with all those lovely exciting lake take-offs and landings, which let’s face it, are the thrill of flying on a floatplane.

  26. Judy G says:

    Hi Patrick,

    As always, I greatly enjoy reading your blog.

    A couple of points to make about the “good old days”, as ex-flight crew for CP Air (Canadian Pacific), which eventually merged with Air Canada.

    We did serve Economy meals on china in the years I flew (1981-83) – with a common offering being a grilled strip loin, mashed potatoes, and topped with a couple of dangerously delicious deep fried onion rings (all reheated in the on-board ovens – major sin to overcook!). We also passed around hot towels at the beginning and chocolate covered cherries near the end, in Economy, on every Trans Con flight. Every flight over a half hour had some kind of food and beverage service – I recall the crazy routing of Alberta and northern British Columbia (fondly dubbed the milk run) in which we made at least six stops in a day in such illustrious places as Grand Prairie, Fort St John and Terrace. On every sector we served something – we worked our arses off! Working in Biz and First Class was a joy (not available on these 737 milk run flights – only Trans Con and International) – passengers up front were generally well-heeled and gracious. In First, we brought out a dessert cart on the wide bodies (in those days 747 and DC10) and flamed up some cherries jubilee to order! Crazy when I think of it ;^)

    I long ago gave up flying for a living, but I still do fly quite frequently. My better half travels a lot for business and collects a big stash of nice juicy Aeroplan point in doing so, which we cash in for Business Class seats on long hauls on the Star Alliance network. So far, I’ve flown Air Canada (numerous times), United, Singapore, Thai Airways, JAL, ANA, Lufthansa, and Air New Zealand – all in the business cabin, and once flew First Class on Thai Airways, within Asia. Every flight has been on Aeroplan points. In my experience (and I haven’t had the joy of flying Emirates yet), Air Canada is offering up the best Business Class at this time – and that includes the Biz Class that we did in the top deck of a A380 in Asia on Thai Airways). The Air Canada pods are great (although they are converting to a new, higher density configuration – much like the one you described on your flight) – large on-demand video, lots of privacy (downside being it is tough to visit with a travel companion), comfortable lie flats, decent amenities, decent meals (although they could use a rework as the menus are getting pretty stale). The only thing that is inconsistent is the flight crew. On some super senior routes the cabin crew are also super senior – and I mean literally – on a 15 hour non-stop from Vancouver to Sydney a couple of years ago, the average age had to be 60, and a couple of them looked like they would benefit from a walker or cane. The service, not surprisingly, sucked. They did one round with the bar, tossed a meal at us, left out a basket of snacks and plastic (!) glasses of water, and disappeared, not to be seen again until about an hour out of Sydney when the roused themselves long enough to toss a sandwich at us. On the return, the crew was generally younger and keen as all get out. The contrast was quite staggering, and is one of the real challenges for any airline that has to deal with union crews and seniority.

    Anyhoo, I ramble too much. Thanks again for your blog. Always a pleasure to read.

  27. Bumblebee says:

    Tailwind Air is making that seaplane shuttle between NY and Boston a reality (apparently there will be a NY to DC as well): http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/05/23/seaplane-service-boston-without-water/AWRDw1jbQWNlXAD5fhZjfL/story.html?s_campaign=8315

    Also, must differ with Judy G about age of flight attendants. In my experience, youth does not necessarily equate with excellent service, nor age with slow and surly. The best inflight service I’ve had has consistently been with age 55+ former PanAm crew. These were professionals who’d learned the art of truly gracious service who had clearly stayed in the biz so long because they loved their work, not because of seniority.

    • Patrick says:

      I agree. Not to disrespect the many hardworking younger cabin staff, but at my carrier, as a general rule, the best of the best are the older, former Pan Am attendants.

  28. Jane Meyer says:

    Thanks, Patrick–cannot wait to show this post to my 10 year old son. As I have previously mentioned, my apartment is just a stand-in for his international airports (Istanbul in the kitchen, Lima near the couch…). In addition to drawing liveries, his current passion is drawing the entire seat lay-out for the jets in his yet-to launch Air Cloud enterprise. Love your posts!!

  29. Katie says:

    Great L-1011 drawing, Patrick! I also loved drawing Concorde and the VC-10 when I was a child – pretty strange for a girl…

  30. hackintosh says:

    I’m leaving to Dubai today from Boston in Economy! I’m also glad I’m not the only person who used to sketch planes as a kid.

  31. Michelle says:

    That’s one of the ugliest looking interiors of a plane I’ve ever seen, and I can only imagine how much you have to pay for the ‘luxury’ of sitting in it and staring at it.

    I normally love Emirates, but I’d be incredibly disappointed if I’d paid a nice chunk of money and was then met with that.

    Lovely article, though :)

  32. Jeff Guinn says:

    Excellent writing, Patrick. As always, a real pleasure to read.

  33. Brian R says:

    I have thought the best slogan for Emirates would be:

    “You say Dubai, and I say hello”

  34. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    Ah, the things we did as kids. My next door neighbor and best friend Del loved to fly and decided one afternoon to plan the longest airplane trip ever. He used a printed airline schedule (this was back in 1969 when airlines printed schedules like trains did) and planned a trip that didn’t land in the same city that was two months shy of fifty years. I tried to call him to get the cost of all the tickets (he’d computed it back then) as I forget, but it wasn’t much over ten million dollars if I recall correctly. He’d still be flying today with another five years to go if he’d had the money. Ten million dollars was real money back when we were 12.

    After receiving a perfect SAT score (in those days, 1,600) he double majored in physics and political science. He worked for a travel agency for two decades and now makes a living playing in blackjack tournaments. He’s good enough the casinos comp him room, meals, and entry fees if he will attend. He drives from casino to casino all across the country and seems to do well. He treats me to a nice show and a meal when he’s at a casino near our home town of Sacramento.

  35. Ian B says:

    re comment “Though I have to say, I was quite underwhelmed by Dubai airport. Emirates’ celebrated concourse A, opened in 2013, manages to feel awfully claustrophobic for such a gigantic building.”
    Being a premium customer, did you not find the “lounge” which at DXB is the next level up (& another level for first) for the entire building. Very convenient to relax, enjoy the food and beverage service while keeping an eye for optimal boarding. A true “gate lounge”.

  36. John Clements says:

    I recently returned to Adelaide after a two and a half month US/Canada holiday, and flew Emirates First Class, just amazing! and not that expensive as my travel agent got me a aud $15,000 fare special.

    The most amazing thing was the shower, crazy to realize where we were and able to have one.

    Dubai airport is crowded, but the First Class lounge is excellent, perhaps try the business lounge next time you fly that class.

    I flew Delta and Air Canada first or business and they were great, was invited to have dinner with the purser about two hours before landing in Adelaide, got shown his controller with the different language options for the messages broadcast to passengers – thought it cute that they can turn off the call bell should a child be constantly ringing it.

    Most fascinating of all was the revelation that the plane was a glider towards the end of the flight, interesting to talk to a kiwi pilot, who was flying her back to Dubai that same night.

    Mind you, once I started handing the crews a $5 Starbucks card there was opportunity to chat when the crew weren’t busy, really nice to learn about the plane and various locations.

    Am back to the USA in November Qantas A380 First Class which will be interesting – hopefully the service will be as good as Emirates.

    Compliments on the book which I discovered (autographed) in Dubai, just wonderful.

  37. […] MY STRANGE HISTORY OF AIRLINES REAL AND IMAGINED […]