There’s no First Class without Coach

Enjoying a Bloody Mary in the United LoungeI recently had to travel home to South Carolina. On my return flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to Chicago, I had a courtesy upgrade to First Class.

Gone are the days where I could be assured of an upgrade. Before computers ruled everything, my good looks and charm and finely-honed flirting skills with the middle-aged homosexual gate agent got me way more first class seats than ticket price or status deserved. By the time my youthful appeal had faded, I was a frequent traveler and could dictate not only that I be in first class but even direct them to hold planes for me and arrange one of those golf-cart things to transit me between gates (United’s Global Services status means something).

Because I’ve flown a million miles, I have lifetime gold status on United, which I suspect was granted at some point to every Cubs fan in Chicago. My upgrades are now few and far between. But on the 6am flight from GSP to Chicago’s O’Hare, there were few elite members traveling, so for that one hour and forty-five-minute flight, I was in the front of the bus. The flight attendant welcomed us on board and made us aware that she considered us special. She stopped other passengers from boarding (strategically of course so as not to slow down the overall process), so that she could move around the first class cabin and take drink orders. (As I’ve mentioned before, the pre-flight drink is a right of every first-class passenger, and I don’t understand why Congress did not interrogate the airlines executives about that point.) A passenger in the back tried to use some of our first-class overhead space, and the flight attendant chided him. “I’m sure you can find room for that in the back,” she said, and then explained to us that she was guarding the overhead above seats 1-4 for us. “Y’all paid to be here, and I’m not letting anyone take your overhead space.” At that moment, she was providing me not just a first-class seat, but a first-class experience.

Let me just be honest for a moment.

As much as I love my fellow humans, I’m still affected by having read some Ayn Rand in college. Those of us in the front have either earned that right or paid for it (I’m assuming the inherited rich don’t fly commercial). We deserve to be treated as special. Some people in the back seem on the verge of a class war when the flight attendant closes that thin see-through curtain. But for me, it’s a tradition that must be honored. It’s unfortunate to have one bathroom for twelve people and two bathrooms for one hundred, but when I’m in coach, I use the bathrooms at the back of the plane. On my flight from Chicago to Palm Springs, I was sitting in the bulkhead. The first-class bathroom was ten feet away, and I knew that I would have to fight the hoi polloi and a flight attendant with a cart or two to get to the back. I dreaded the wait in that cramped area at the rear of the plane where social mores require that you not make eye contact with the person who’s been cursed with having that last row seat. And there’s always someone there who thinks you’re trying to cut in line when you move to a position to allow the person to get out of the restroom. But I’ll be damned if I disrespect the sanctity of first class. Except in the case of an emergency, I won’t breach the curtain.

It may not seem fair, but as I was telling my 12-year old nephew who was complaining about a teacher, “Life will never be fair, and the sooner you learn that lesson and learn how to adapt, the better you’ll be.” Don’t complain about that teacher who’s making things hard for you. Thank her for teaching you how to deal with difficult people.

Let me break it down for you: I know coach travel, and I’m thankful for it. If I hadn’t had to fight the guy beside me for armrest space on the four-hour flight from GSP to ORD; if I hadn’t gotten the evil eye from the flight attendant in coach when I wasn’t ready to immediately give her a drink order because I had on my headphones; and if I hadn’t gotten scolded by the flight attendant when my seat was one millimeter away from being upright (a defect in the seat I think); I wouldn’t have appreciated first class.

The moments in life when you are special, when you are treated differently, and when things are going great – How can you cherish those unless you’ve been through a lot? We only get to enjoy first class because we’ve spent most of our times in coach. I encourage you to relish those moments at the back of the bus because they’re training you for when you get your moment. If everything is first class, then nothing is first class.

WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t fly Delta. The last couple of times I’ve flown them in economy, the flight attendants were delightful and the seats were comfortable. They had good food and beverage options and great in-flight entertainment. I don’t feel like Delta is doing enough to make economy a dreadful experience so I’d recommend that you always fly United.