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Visiting the Frugal Promised Land: Business Class

Seth Kugel
Friday, 11 May 2012 | 11:31 AM ET

No sooner had the captain turned off the “fasten seat belt” sign than the flight attendant on Air Pacific Flight 411, headed from Fiji to New Zealand, performed the same dispiriting act I’ve seen dozens of times around the world: He drew together and Velcroed the flimsy gray curtains, separating the coach cabin from business class.

British Airways
Getty Images
British Airways

This time, though, I smiled. In a few days, I’d be on the other side of that polyester divide, finding out what really goes on among the business consultants, rock stars and — I’m guessing — bejeweled countesses that sit up there.

It’s not every day that a frugal traveler, let alone the Frugal Traveler, sits in business, so first a brief explanation. A credit card offer had netted me over 100,000 nearly free British Airways miles (mostly through a sign-up bonus), and I planned to use them to fly from New York to New Zealand and back via its partner Qantas, for the standard 80,000 miles. But British Airways miles are legendarily difficult to redeem, and this time was no exception.

When I called the airline last October, I offered to fly any day in March — the off-season — with a flexible return time. To my astonishment, nothing was available. The next best alternative was to fly New York to Auckland, then back to Los Angeles, wait four days, and pay 25,000 extra miles (which I had, barely) to fly the rest of the way back to New York on another partner, American.

There was a twist: only a business class seat was available. In my many years of flying, I had never sat in business class. Here, finally, was my chance.

So, on a sunny April Friday at Los Angeles International Airport, I headed to my gate and right into the business class line, more excited, for once, to get on a plane than to get off.

The advantages became apparent before boarding even started, when I was pointed not toward the regular, jampacked security line, but upstairs and into a disconcertingly friendly and rapid process. “Hello, how are you today, sir?” said a disturbingly smiley man, checking my ticket. “Have a wonderful flight.”

I did still have to take off my shoes, but there was next to no line. I eased right through. A few paces down, our business class passenger tributary flowed into the rushing river of the harried coach classes.

At the gate, another luxury: I’d be able to board early, before even the families traveling with small children and passengers needing special assistance. Was that a glint of jealousy I spotted in a toddler’s eye as I waltzed past him onto the ramp? I had never felt so alive.

The seat: I was not expecting some masterpiece of design — this wasn’t Emirates or Singapore Airlines, after all — and indeed, it was not a thing of beauty. But it was big, with a luxuriously winged headrest, a mini-table in addition to the awkward fold-out tray table, and controls to move the seat every which way. I sat down and stretched my legs out … and out … and out some more until I practically fell off the seat.

This was a morning flight, and though I don’t generally drink in the a.m. hours, there’s always room for an exception. Whom do you have to bribe to get some 11 a.m. Champagne around here?

No one, it turns out: it arrived within moments. I sipped as I read the menu. Thai curry shrimp with couscous? Sounded good. Glenlivet Scotch? Nice, though a bit too high proof for this early in the day. I noticed we would soon be served “warm mixed nuts” – I had never thought of mixed nuts as heatable.

I was a bit concerned that there was no screen, let alone a 15-inch LCD one, built into the seat in front of me. But no problem – we business-classers soon each received a Samsung tablet preloaded with plenty of movies, television shows and many other options I didn’t end up taking advantage of.

An announcement came over the system: food was available for customers in coach. And yes, you could pay for that brisket sandwich with a credit card. Ah, how adorable, paying for food delivered in disposable plastic packaging. I envisioned my Thai curry shrimp arriving on actual china with actual silverware on an actual tablecloth.

As it turned out, I underestimated American: it came on two tablecloths. The shrimp was just spicy enough, and it paired nicely with the chardonnay (lucky guess). The best part, however, was what came next — a choice between Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with marshmallows for dessert, or a cheese plate. I chose the ice cream.

I would have asked for both, but that seemed like overkill, especially considering what came toward the end of the flight: warm cookies and cold milk. I was too stuffed to accept — but did anyway.

Though I didn’t need to go to the bathroom, I was still excited to see what might be in store for me in the business class lavatory. Cinnamon-scented potpourri? Antique silver fixtures? Extra-plush Charmin? Alas, it was strikingly similar to the coach class lavatories, with one delightful exception: those in economy class weren’t allowed to use it, making for shorter lines.

Most business class passengers must be as happy to land at their destination as those in coach. Not me. Might heavy air traffic force us to circle J.F.K. long enough to call for another round of Ben & Jerry’s? No. As a consolation prize, my ragged, ripped rolling suitcase, a priority tag contrasting with worn stickers from Turkish and Brazilian bus carriers, emerged first on the belt.

On the subway ride home, I concluded that I saw the appeal: Roomy seats, smiling service, no lines, warm cookies. But what if I had been paying for a regular ticket? Later, I checked the prices on American’s Flight 40 over the next few weeks. The one-way coach price bounced around a bit, averaging $300. Business class was almost always $1,710.

Some companies and wealthy people think that extra $1,410 is worth it; I’d guess most of the rest of us think it’s loony. A middle ground of fliers use miles they could use for additional free flights to upgrade to double-tablecloth land. To that, I say to each his own.

I did, though, think back to a moment soon after our flight was aloft. Just as I was settling in to my new, temporary life of luxury, a flight attendant up ahead pulled shut the curtains separating my new friends in business class not from coach but from the real high rollers, in first class.

What, what in the world, could be going on up there?

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