Tag Archives: first class

Upgrade or not to Upgrade

To Upgrade or not to Upgrade

For all of those passengers that are lucky enough to sit in the business class or first class section of an airplane, you may well imagine how important you are to that airline.

Airlines are trying to sign you up for their frequent flyer cards, give you their Silver and Gold cards, and adorn you in incentives because you happen to be sitting in the part of the plane that makes money and they want you back. They are using all of their tricks to sway you in the decision to upgrade or not to upgrade. Those airline seats that you occupy have been well thought out and optimized for your comfort, convenience, and their dollars.

Not to say that if you are in the back of the plane, it’s all misery.

There is a trickledown effect due to the fact that the airlines are smarting up the front of the plane. After all, you do not want class warfare at 35,000 feet in the sky.

Well never mind because in the front they want your business and they are prepared to pamper you. But it is going to cost you money. A round-trip transatlantic fare in first class on British Airways costs between $16,000-$22,000, business class around $7,000, premium economy around $2,200, and lowly old economy about $1,500. So you can imagine how much money these guys are making on that tiny piece of space given the fact that you are sitting in the same cylindrical tube as everyone else.

When you look at that value proposition, you have to say that economy is a pretty good deal. I mean seriously, who is paying $20,000 for a first class seat when you can find a deal out there for $1,000 in economy. If you fly between London and Boston, you are on a 5 hour and 50 minute flight. I do not care how good the service is, I can always find a sandwich, a couple glasses of wine, and a decent movie or two to wind my way across the Atlantic while I think of how I saved $19,000 on a bit of extra leg room, a very average meal, and a wash bag that you wouldn’t even re-gift. Incidentally, in business class, the wash bag on most flights is something that amazes me even more. It’s like how could they design a bag with so much space and so little in it? Where do you find toothpaste that small? Why the socks? I have my own socks and if I go to the bathroom truly I am going to wear my shoes. Guys are messy!

So differentiating the front of the plane is critical to these guys.

There are three kinds of configurations at the front of the plane. There is the yin-yang design that BA employs, the staggered herringbone that Virgin employs, or the “stacked-V’ of other airlines. Have you ever wondered why if you are sitting in business class on a plane, such as BA, that you are facing a person that you do not know and awkwardly trying to figure out how to put the screen up between the two of you without looking to offend? Ever wondered why when on a Virgin plane that the shape of the seats is in a fishbone? It’s feast or famine here. You are either lying flat down or sitting straight up. There is no in between. Then there is the Delta setup where everyone mysteriously is fitted in a certain way so that you never actually see too much of the person next to you…thank God. The reason they do all of this of course is because they can give you more room, your own space, and more importantly they can fit more of you in that huge expanding revenue-generating area.

Designing airline seats for business and first class is an art within itself; creating a space that feels like your own space with a flat bed and video screen with endless options for watching TV and movies. Not long ago in 1995, British Airways introduced the first flat-bed seat in first class, and in 1999 introduced it to business class as well. Up until then, business class passengers had no advantage other than a slightly better meal. Nowadays the game is played around bed, board, and beyond! At the higher end, airlines compete for your business with lavish meals including caviar in first class. They entice you with a goody bag that contains scents, oils, and perfumes from boutique distributors. New 32-inch video screens (bigger than some we have in our kitchens) are being introduced into a private cabin. On real long hauls in first class you now get a shower (of course!) plus a potential for a double bed. Just when you thought you got your marriage around twin beds you can now bring it back again!

Image courtesy of DesignBoom.com: http://www.designboom.com/design/singapore-airlines-first-class-interior-design-by-bmw-designworks/

Distrito Federal Pietro Place Peter Jones

The 9AM Flight to Mexico City

Great news for Bostonians. AeroMexico has begun a nonstop flight to Mexico City four times per week.

With departures at a very civilized hour, New Englanders can escape the frigid temperatures and within six hours are in Mexico’s capital.  Formerly known solely as Distrito Federal (Mexico D.F.), the entire sprawl including the D.F. is officially called Mexico City although it is still quite trendy to say D.F.  Of course that’s what I’ve been calling it all the time.

AeroMexico has elected to leave its super Boeing 737-800 airplane on the JFK route and instead offers a pretty old and tired product to Bostonians.  I was in First class, if you can call it that.  The ticket was not that expensive…and it showed.  By the time that the disinterested flight attendant had reached the third row of first class seats, the hot meal was not available.  So it was all down to a yoghurt, soggy croissants and dreary fruit with cornflakes!  God knows what was going on behind in the economy seats but I bet sensible people in the back had stocked up before the flight.  I foolishly thought there would be something awful, but passable, and made an Airplane 101 mistake. It’s a simple rule of thumb really and I preach it all of the time.  But goddamnit I forgot!  Never, under any circumstances, eat the food on an airplane unless you are so desperately hungry that you would contemplate eating an old sock.

The video situation was no better. There were countless reruns of old TV shows that had long left our orbit to be sent to some other part of the world for regurgitation (including AeroMexico!).  But I jest as I was so happy to have a nonstop at my disposal on my doorstep to one of my favorite destinations.  I’ll take a bad seat, a tired meal, and a very disinterested flight attendant over many, many connections any day.


Late Flight to Istanbul Pietro Place

A Late Flight to Istanbul

The great thing about flying on Turkish Airlines from Boston is that they have a very late flight at 11:40 pm.  In addition, if you are heading onwards to Tel Aviv, as I was, connections are pretty good.  Package that with a business class fare that is not one of those jaw dropping dreadful price points that make you wonder who ever pays for those flights at full fare, and you have it.  Dinner at a good restaurant in Boston and a late night flight departure is a great way to spend the first part of a transatlantic flight.  The preparation at least is going to be decent!

Turkish Airlines, as I found out, unfortunately did not have flat beds, but staff were pretty good, seats were decent for business class and the rest I simply can’t remember as I took an Ambien! Next stop was Istanbul about 9 hours later.  Istanbul is a funky airport.  Old bits shoved onto sleek new bits makes for a decent transit stop.  Tel Aviv was next on my journey and flight time wasn’t bad.  Actually, service on the Tel Aviv flight and leg room was better than the long transatlantic flight.  They must know we all take Ambien for the long hauls!

Does Size Matter?

Does size matter? according to Emirates airlines, it sure does. They have staked their airline on the A380 Airbus. A larger than life plane with a seating capacity of 460. Its wing span is 54% larger than a Boeing 747 and yet it is super efficient. With 320 miles of wiring inside the plane, it is also super state of the art technology. Add to that a comfort cabin that boasts in first class a shower and discreet sleeping and you get the picture.

So, why are BA and most other airlines not buying the Airbus and why is the A380 not realizing its early potential? Because BA sees the future in the Dreamliner 787. A smaller and more cost effective plane with 214 seating capacity and the ability to travel long distances and land in smaller hub cities. Add to that a fleet of 777 and you can see that nobody at BA is craving the move for a monster plane.

Emirates is dreaming that Dubai will become the new world hub of all routes to Australia and the far East. But from the USA, nobody is going that way, and from Europe, the traffic to Dubai may not be able to sustain a full plane of business travelers on such a grandiose scale. Did Emirates gamble wrong? Maybe. But as Emirates is wholly owned by the government of Dubai, I am sure that at least for the time being, the money is not going to run out. And at least they haven’t been so foolish and made a bid to bail out Alitalia which is still shopping itself around. Etihad didn’t take the bait. Oh well.

On the Subject of Seating…

On the Subject of Seating… have you ever wondered why you feel like a million dollars when you get an upgrade to business or first class? Is it because you have escaped the back of the plane? Well, partly of course. Who really wants to sit cramped up for 8 hours playing elbow war with your fellow passengers? Or worse still, knee war with the person in front of you who actually thinks that it’s cool to lower his seat so you can barely breathe or function. But the reality is that this feeling of elation as you settle into your semi luxurious environment and as you watch the coach passengers cramped into their seats has been carefully stage managed. After all, it is still the same long tube. Imagine if I said, “How about a hotel night for $24,000 with a lousy meal and your bed is a single bed and you’ll be sleeping next to someone you don’t know who snores all night?”


So, architects have to create a dream or illusion. A great article in the New Yorker called “Game of Thrones” by David Owen tells the story of how it all started. In 1995, British Airways was the first airline to introduce fully flat beds in first class. From then on in, horizontal sleeping in airplanes became a competitive war of out-maneuvering and upping the ante, eventually spreading to business class while the poor coach fliers felt their knees touching the backseat of the passenger in front of them more and more. I recently went to an Emirates launch where they boasted of having showers for first class passengers.

One of the amazing things about the experience of flying in comfort is that it becomes addictive and can often be the highlight of the trip. A company based in the Shoreditch area of London designs airline seats for both Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. James Park, its founder, started the company in 1974. His job is to create a space that is compliant with the safety regulations with a cool entertainment system and seating that can be acceptable in coach and astonishing in first class. All of this comes at an enormous cost. One of the amazing things is that the small video screen in coach which serves as your in-flight entertainment can cost around $1,000 per inch. That means that it’s roughly $10,000 per screen in coach alone. Not a bad precaution as it ensures that there are no cross wires so that somebody in 33C is not suddenly flying the plane. Seats have to be refreshed and ready for immediate re-boarding. Think of a wine spill or something even more grotesque!

Both Singapore and Cathay have been number one and number two in alternating years in airline comfort and first class/business class travelers’ choice for many years. The amount of design that goes into creating the space that you are sitting in is where the architects make their money. If you are flying on Alitalia in “Magnifica” class, then you know that they did not spend any money on their interior architecture. If you fly Delta, United, or American, for the most part you will not experience that same dream sequence as Singapore, Cathay, or Emirates. These are the big players in comfort zones and it stretches from the front to the back of the plane. No detail is left behind. You can even sleep with your wife in a double bed with a private curtain if you want to.


British Airways reaches for a place in the upper hierarchy and even though their fleet has been upgraded, it is still miles away from the design and style of those three airlines. The fishbone-style seating in Virgin is cramped and out of date. Even on American Airlines, which has just upped the ante on its New York – London route by refitting its first class cabins, it misses the most important aspect of all of flying which is the service, the attentiveness, and the enthusiasm of the flight attendants from the top to the bottom of the plane.

Ultimately, you can spend all the money you want on refitting a plane but the flight attendants have the potential to undo it all in one second. That is the most reassuring part of the ever-changing tube we spend our lives flying in. No matter how fancy they make it inside, the fact is that the winning formula has to have the human element. The smile, the special attention, and imagining that every single person especially in coach is doing this for the first time and you have only one chance to make a first impression.

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The Airline Blues

When you get on a plane, do you ever think about how bizarre it really all is? We queue up and are herded into our designated sections of coach, premium coach, emergency exit priority seats, business, or first.

The plane essentially is a long narrow tube with varying degrees of comfort depending upon what you pay. We pray for upgrades to try to escape the nastiness of coach and use miles wherever we can to increase the likelihood of better seating and then get ready for the long journey across the Atlantic or Pacific or down the east coast. We expect to be served the worst food in the world, are grateful for the small bag of peanuts (unless there is someone on board who has a peanut allergy in which case you are forbidden from that small pleasure), pay for dreadful wine and warm beer, purchase the earplugs that are so bad that it’s not worth the cost, and put up with for the most part dreadful service from flight attendants who really gave up liking their jobs 30 years ago.

Well good news on the food front. Airlines are starting to understand that there is revenue to gain in food. Most people on long haul don’t invest in sandwiches or carry on food at airports. Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay have made inroads here but we still anxiously wait for the moment when we are handed the menu and pick the plastic chicken with congealed rice.


Now overseas airlines are offering special cuisine food. On Air France you can choose from a variety of food options. There is French cuisine foie gras, duck confit, or Asian healthy or the usual but dramatically improved vegetarian options. Different from the past is that they charge you more for this service. The cost is between $20 – $30. But the food is actually decent and it’s worth it simply to watch the passenger in the seat next to you with the congealed and shriveled piece of over cooked meat (animal not known) stare at your appetizing concoction longingly.

It’s being rolled out in Europe first and American carriers, ever slow to move on this, are evaluating. Evaluating! This is a business opportunity. You can make money and have well fed happy fliers in coach. Hang on. Let’s not rush into this. They are our clients after all!!

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