Ask the pilot

Is first class worth the fuss? Or is all we want in the age of egalitarian air travel a mere modicum of courtesy?

Published April 9, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

As was helpfully pointed out by more than a few of you, an early version of last week's column contained a numerical error. It was not a 1,000-yen bill that launched my little adventure into the smiling, white-gloved monster of Japanese bureaucracy at Narita airport, it was a 10,000. An "ichi man."

It is only fitting that I formally apologize using a bit of homespun Janglish: The zeroes of the yen were of the idiocy, and to honor you are changed.

Cut me some slack, I was returning from Laos, remember, where you need at least a 10-digit calculator just to buy a Coke. Still not as bad as the Turkish lire, which on my last visit was fast approaching the 2 million mark, but one American dollar yields a pocket-stuffing 11,000 Lao kip.

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Pilot Report:
United Airlines
Business Class, Hong Kong to Tokyo-Narita

Maybe it's a local station thing, but the agents are calling out the riot act on carry-ons. I'm asked to check a small canvas backpack that normally makes the bin restriction with no trouble. This policy is either a welcome enforcement or an annoying hassle, I suppose, depending on your tote.

The 747-400 is tired looking, with ugly beige bulkheads and the standard (for this model) 2-3-2 business class configuration. Although the chairs are done up in a cheerless navy cloth, the soft fabric, at least for me, is always more comfortable than leather. Also welcome are the manual seat controls. I might be something of a comfort minimalist, but I appreciate being able to adjust the leg-rest and recline functions through intuitively placed levers that are easier to use -- and less likely to be broken -- than electric versions. There's a powered massage function, and a liftable thigh-rest. A swivel-neck reading light branches from the side of every seat.

United's headrests are movable along three axes, able to angle inward/outward for added neck support. They also slide vertically above the edge of the seatback, providing a few extra inches of stretch-out room when fully reclined at about 160 degrees. (By the way, there's a new twist to the deep vein thrombosis, aka "economy class syndrome" controversy: A judge recently dismissed a lawsuit in which the plaintiff contended that his business class seat was so comfortable it dissuaded him from getting up to stretch, bringing on the illness.)

Before pushing back, the purser makes a P.A., introducing himself by name. He gives a brief rundown of flying time and weather, then reads off a list of languages spoken by the crew. For its Pacific Rim ops, United carries both American and locally based flight attendants. No Maltese or Urdu speakers, as had been the case aboard Emirates two weeks earlier, but the purser wins points for a very articulate and professional-sounding oration. You had to be there, maybe, but it was the kind of speech passengers both listened to and appreciated -- succinct, useful, and free of that nasally, semi-lyrical, thanks-for-flying-with-us piffle we've grown so accustomed to.

A different attendant next introduces himself to everybody in the cabin and takes meal orders from a cardstock menu printed in English, Japanese and Cantonese. Lunch will be a choice of steamed salmon with daikon, stir-fried shrimp with garlic and rice, or a creamed spinach omelet with potatoes, sausage and fruit appetizer.

A newspaper cart is wheeled around, laid out with a buffet of Asian periodicals and the ubiquitous USA Today. As far as I know, USA Today's circulation is based entirely on copies given away on airplanes or slipped beneath hotel room doors. After a week of living on the Bangkok Post I hungrily snag one, and the headlines hit me like morphine.

Predeparture refreshments consist of a choice of champagne or orange juice, both from plastic cups. After a 15-minute taxi, the lightly fueled Boeing fairly leaps into the air for the three-hour and 20-minute flight to Japan.

Armrest consoles contain your video screen, dinner tray, and a smaller, fold-out beverage tray, while entertainment controls are found on a conveniently arranged central riser. I'm pleased to discover United's famous "channel 9" will be switched on, allowing passengers to eavesdrop on air-to-ground communications from the cockpit.

Otherwise it's a pick among six movies, BBC, CNN and the usual assortment of tepid, nonthreatening, market-neutral broadcast fare. Now, is it just me, or do other travelers shudder when faced with yet another ESPN documentary about the life and accomplishments of Joe Namath, or the chance to watch some tooth-bleached hack shilling business tips? Those with laptops can avoid all this by taking advantage of the in-seat power port, or you can opt out entirely and make use of that fleece blanket and oversized pillow.

Once asleep, you might dream of first class. Just a few rows ahead, tauntingly beyond that curtain, is a whole other level of comfort. The carrier calls it United First Suite, where customers relax in private mini-capsules with work consoles, privacy screens, and seats that convert into fully-flat, 6-foot beds.

Watching the theater of business class unfold around me, I am comfortable, yes, in my big semi-sleeper with its fancy levers and fold-away TV. My feet are up, my appetite sated. But at the same time I'm awkwardly bemused. What the hell, after all, is a daikon?

To resurrect one of my recurring frustrations: Most airlines still fail to acknowledge the recontextualization of air travel in 2004 -- the reality that customers, regardless of where they're seated or how much they've paid, no longer desire or expect an onboard experience resembling some bourgeois fantasy of the 1940s. What people want are basic, wholesome comforts and efficiency. Flying has become almost fully egalitarian, yet in many ways the airlines are clinging to the outmoded pomp and pretensions of decades past.

"Among the casualties of the 9-11 terrorist attacks," writes Michael Walker in a Los Angeles Times Magazine piece last December, "was a concept as wispy and sentimental as the cirrus in the pale blue yonder: that flying was somehow inevitably linked with style, glamour and sophistication."

As Walker does, we can lament the general, hand-in-hand slide of standards and expectations, but my point is slightly different. A 747, awe-inspiring in its own ways, is not the grand ballroom of the Queen Mary. Holdover affectations of prestige do not compensate for the inherent discomforts of modern-day flying, they conflict with them. Even in business class. Faux-glamour extravagances might induce some guilty pleasure, but how much of your fare is budgeted so the galleys can be stocked with 10 varieties of cheese and nine choices of wine and champagne, when all you truly want are improved creature comforts and one or two enjoyable distractions? Less Leon Beyer Alsace 2002 ("intense flavors of yellow-skinned apple"), and maybe some wider video screens instead.

Meanwhile in economy, menus promise "authentic Italian minestrone with garlic and herb croutons." In much the way Burger King looks silly when it gives upmarket names to down-market food, the airlines aren't fooling anybody through puffy over-flowering. While passengers are picking out the stale croutons with skinny plastic forks, the real need is for bottled water, a wider armrest and, judging from the filthy carpets and scuffed sidewalls found on most jets these days, some token custodial work. High over the Pacific, the kabuki goes on, a game that appears more about impressing people than actually making them happy. And that's a game, with limited resources and the public's evolved mindset working against them, most airlines are destined to lose.

At least a few airline analysts -- and cynics -- will claim the whole service theater is a ruse, a needed way of gouging fliers into forking over absurd sums of money for the assumed privilege of a seat up front. How to quantify luxury, exactly? And as something of a corollary to society's own evolution, the class distinctions within a cabin have become much sharper in recent years. Those near the nose are snacking on wrapped-to-order sushi as stewards perform turndown service, while out back fliers are begging for something to drink and growing nostalgic for PeopleExpress. In terms of revenue, those coach seats are little more than filler -- college kids crossing the Pacific for $359 while it's six grand or more for a seat in Row 1.

But getting back to business, as it were ...

Anachronisms notwithstanding, all in all UAL's biz class is very nice, if hardly on par with that of the world's more esteemed airlines. British Airways is one foreign competitor now offering 180-degree sleepers both in first and business. B.A. has raised the service bar high, probably beyond the ambition not only of United but of all U.S. airlines.

To get the grading out of the way ... .

Check-in and preboarding: D (fascist, unapologetic carry-on mandate, chaotic Jetway clog)
Punctuality: B-plus (departure 10 minutes behind schedule)
Aircraft cleanliness and decor: C-plus (bland and tired; very clean)
Seats, amenities, and accoutrements: B
Food and drink: A-minus (tasty, if over the top)
Crew attitude and attentiveness: A

Critically for United, which remains in the throes of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, its staff seem energized and upbeat. While not meaning to echo one of those awful motivational plaques for sale in SkyMall, a crew's attitude can more than compensate for a few material shortcomings. It won't be the plastic cups or thickness of a pillow that stick in a flier's mind when employees come across as surly or uninterested.

Of course, as any frequent traveler knows, service on a particular airline can vary markedly. The enthusiasm of a crew, the cleanliness of a plane, the palatability of a meal -- each of these is subject to a host of variables. My readers, for one, certainly attest to the fickle facts of flight. One day I'll get a letter nominating United, American or Northwest for the Nobel Prize, and the next day a different letter is complaining how that same company shipped his luggage to Vladivostok and killed his cocker spaniel. In the end it's probably a wash. I won't argue that our nation's airlines are, or will ever be, in league with the Singapores of the world, but if nothing else, they're all about the same.

By the way, Condé Nast Traveler has voted Singapore Airlines "Best International Airline" for the 14th of the past 15 years. Travel & Leisure gave them an identical award for the eighth year in a row, while the U.K.'s Business Traveler International hails them "Best Airline in the World" for the 13th straight year. An acquaintance of mine who recently endured Singapore's record-breaking 18-hour nonstop from Los Angeles reports that the flight's economy section -- sold as "Executive Economy" by the airline -- is at least as roomy and satisfying as first class on many U.S. domestic flights.

Clearly the time has come for an Ask the Pilot readers poll. You are hereby requested to e-mail your choices of favorite airline, be it foreign or domestic, and/or your least favorite airline, with results to be published here in the coming weeks. Competing picks of the same airline will not cancel each other out, but will stand in separate tallies. The winner shall be presented with Ask the Pilot's prestigious Readers Choice Round of Applause, while the loser receives my dreaded "Golden Pretzel" award. Obviously this is an unscientific survey in which only those who choose to vote -- i.e. those most unexpectedly pleased or vindictively pissed off -- will do so, but I'm curious to learn if the results, even as they're rendered from extremes, might mirror the more canonical industry rankings.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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