Sitting Up Front

Life behind the curtain is filled with luxuries -- and tough decisions.

| June 21, 2002

The problem of the safety demonstration is greatly exaggerated in Business Class.

You know the problem: Do you watch, perhaps making awkward eye contact, as the robotic flight attendant snaps the seat belt and points out the exit doors? Or do you not watch, thereby making her show seem pointless, her time wasted, and you arrogant?

It's a whole different problem when there's only about seven of you and the attendant is looming overhead, her hip about a foot from your face. You imagine she's taking inventory of her little brood of passengers, noting which ones will make it in a crash and which ones aren't worth saving.

In my case, she was probably thinking, Here's another business-class rookie, because during her belt-snapping show, I was torn between watching the pilots twist mysterious knobs in the cockpit and trying to negotiate the controls of my laptop-sized seat panel. The pilots had a plane to fly, sure, but I couldn't get my video screen unfolded because I couldn't find a place to put my drink.

This is life in Business Class: a barrage of distractions and decisions, like how you deal with the stares of the coach-class folks as they board through your section. I know what they're thinking, because I thought the same thing on every previous flight of my life. They're looking at us, sitting up front with our pre-taxi snacks, and thinking, Who do these folks think they are? So when I was the one sitting there sipping orange juice and reading the paper, I was thinking, Stop looking at me! It isn't my fault!

My parents are getting close to retirement and are starting to cash in on their lives of work. Part of this was to go to France for 10 days, take me along, and, by golly, fly Business Class the whole way. On most airplanes, that just means you sit up front and get your own flight attendant -- an attendant who (and I know they'll deny this) is always better-looking than the ones behind the curtain.

But on the 747 from Chicago to Amsterdam, sitting up front means you're in a space nicer than any apartment I had in college. Your seat is wide and soft, and it leans back to darn near horizontal. Even when you lift the leg rest (leg rest!), you don't come into contact with the person in front of or behind you. Everybody can stretch out in Business Class.

They give you headphones too. I always wondered why some airlines charge a few insulting dollars for headphones after you've paid their absurd prices for a seat. It turns out that if you're further abused by the Business Class fare, they just hand those things out, along with booties, blankets, blindfolds for sleepy time, and a little tin gift pack with soaps, shampoo, toothbrush, moisturizer, and shoehorn. I wanted to ask my dad if he had worked out the per-shoehorn rate, but he was arguing with Mom over which button on the seat panel did what. One of them, I'll have you know, was the lumbar support.

The stewardess wanted to know which meal I would be having. I stared at her blankly for a moment, not quite making the connection between "airplane" and "options." So I grabbed the menu (menu!), which had the date and flight number printed on it and was called "Spanish Food and Wine Festival." I chose the chicken with horseradish potatoes instead of the peppered beef tenderloin and crab ravioli then wondered how I would ever go back to honey-roasted peanuts. When the attendant came back with my hot, wet towel, I decided I couldn't and wouldn't go back.

The flight itself borders on absurd. On any transatlantic flight, it seems like the attendants are constantly coming around with food, but, up front, they mix it up with free booze, seconds on dessert, chocolates, duty-free shopping, and (on the Dutch airline KLM) a little ceramic Dutch house filled with Dutch gin held in by wax over the little Dutch chimney. It's a veritable carnival in the sky.

And then there's the home entertainment system they call a seat. Again with the options: There were half a dozen radio stations and five movies. I could have watched Ali, Kate and Leopold, The Majestic, French Kiss, or Glitter with Mariah Carey. So I read.

The final happy moment was the arrival. It was enough that we had crossed the ocean blue and wound up in Europe. And it was more than enough that we had checked in and boarded via the short lines. But after years of sitting in something like seat 37F (window behind the wing), I cannot express the sublime joy of actually standing up as soon as the plane comes to a stop -- because, after all, there's no luggage compartment over your head and no mother of two rounding up her offspring in the aisle -- and then, as soon as the door is opened, immediately walking off the plane.

That's what people get to do when they sit up front.

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