When going First Class was really special, part one

Today’s international First and Business Class cabins can be as sumptuous and sybaritic as they are unaffordable, at least at the posted retail price points.  More’s the pity, as none of us is content to be stuck in cattle class on long overseas flights.  That’s increasingly where I find myself, though, because it’s harder and harder these days to convince consulting clients to pay for even a cut-rate front-cabin fare.

My longing to escape from coach into the so-called “premium” cabin had me recently reminiscing on many past grand experiences in aluminum tubes way up in the stratosphere.  Way back in 1978, for instance, I was once booked in First Class on a United Airlines 747 flight from JFK to LAX, the proud carrier’s premier evening flight that departed at 6:00 PM.  It would prove to be a seminal flight for me, one that sealed my love of flying for the rest of my life.

United 747 1970s

At the time flying domestic first class on business, as I was that afternoon, meant you always wore a coat and tie.  The airlines took their service seriously then.  It was going to be spectacular, they promised, and the airlines expected their sharp-end customers to dress for the occasion and to act accordingly.  I was therefore outfitted in a conservative navy blue three-piece suit, white shirt, and an Hermes tie (my first one; over the years I accumulated more than one hundred Hermes ties, each one a gem of artwork).

I was still pretty young then, of course, but I’d already accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles in the air because I had managed the European operations for an NYC-based European charter flight business in 1975-76 called Educational Flights.  The mid-70s found me hopping back and forth across the Atlantic regularly on 747s, DC8s, and 707s.  Rarely, Sabena, the Belgian flag carrier from whom I was purchasing large blocks of BRU/JFK coach seats for the student travel market, would even upgrade me to First Class on SN 541 or SN 547, their two daily 747 flights to New York.  Most often, sadly, I was riding a ratty jump seat with the cabin crew in a rickety first generation four-engine intercontinental jet that was relegated to charter flights.  The venerable aircraft would often suffer multiple mechanical problems, some serious.  But we kept flying anyway.

I recall one flight on a Capitol Airways DC-8-63 aircraft that lost both its Doppler radar systems before we’d reached the west Irish coast and just kept flying by compass alone.  The cockpit doors were always open then, and i could hear the pilots occasionally radio a waypoint like Iceland and mumble something about their radar being wonky and ask for a verification of their location.  Then they’d make a slight course correction.  Somehow we made it all the way to JFK doing that.  Here are a couple of photos I shot on the tarmac in Brussels of the airplane and carrier in 1976:



Back to my memorable United 747 transcon flight:   Just as now there was fierce competition in the JFK/LAX market in the 70s, but the players were different.  United and Pan American World Airways were the big boys then, and both boasted 6:00 PM 747 departures to their largest California destination.  They each went all-out to win over business travelers by making First Class service something to write home about.

I remember having a frisson of excitement when boarding the plane in UA’s JFK terminal.  It was a “Casablanca” sensation of dash and romance, the kind of excitement that hooked me on air travel like heroin ever since: the magic of flying per se melded with the outrageous 747 first class experience of the era.

I settled comfortably into my cushy seat in the last row on the port side of the tapering front cabin of the spacious 747.  At the time I was a smoker, and the last two rows of First Class were for smokers.  We were allowed to light up during boarding, and I did.  A flight attendant soon came around with Champagne and canapes and left menus for the dinner service.  The boarding bubbly was real French Champagne, mind you, not the cheap stuff from California or Spain.

A loquacious Brit came in talking a mile a minute, and he sat in the center seat directly across from me.  First Class 747 cabins of the time, whether for domestic or international service, were typically configured with 6 seats across in the last row where the fuselage reached full width.  Those two center seats were considered by many to be the best since there was no one behind or in front and because it gave those sitting there a commanding view out of all the front windows on both sides as the plane tapered to a point at the nose.  The view alone vastly inflated one’s ego; it gave the impression of owning the gigantic aircraft.

United had denied my request for those seats (I was traveling with a business partner), and so naturally I was curious to see who was anointed by the carrier as special enough to deserve them.  Too, the British accent sounded somehow familiar.

Here is a PanAm 747 seat map from the 1970s that depicts the First Class compartment configurations of the decade, including the UA 747 First Class cabin:


When I turned to see who it was, I was delighted to recognize the English TV star David Frost.  Mr. Frost was engaged in an animated discussion with his seatmate.  When he finally came up for air, I introduced myself and told him how much I had enjoyed his short-lived American TV political parody show called “That Was The Week That Was” (nicknamed TW3).  Way ahead of its time–and ultimately too much for staid American audiences–TW3 was sassy and viciously funny and full of razor-sharp barbs aimed at the establishment.  Kind of a blend of SNL, The Daily Show, and Colbert.

I mentioned to Frost that I would never forget the outrageous song performed on TW3 during the Alabama voting rights marches and bloody attacks called “Everybody votes in Selma, Alabama!”  Frost howled with laughter and told me how much he had enjoyed making that show and especially that song.  Suddenly we were friends; he told me to call him David.

Two Champagnes later, David boldly lit up a Cuban cigar, which caused me to raise an eyebrow.  Not to worry, he told me, because UA allowed cigar smoking only in First Class and only in the two center seats in the last row where he was planted.  That’s why he always asked for those seats, he said.  A passing flight attendant gracefully scooped up our flutes and confirmed that “Mr. Frost is correct, but we are about to close the door.”  She politely took his barely-smoked Havana and promised to keep it safe for him until they were airborne, which she did.

We pushed back dead on six o’clock and were quick to taxi for takeoff.  Even then delays at JFK were common, and I surmised that some other flights were likely idling while we rolled majestically along to our runway.  Soon we were in the air and heading west.  It was a six hour flight, and the flight attendants told us to get comfortable as they brought us ever more Champagne and finger food as a tease before the advertised six-course dinner.

While on the ground at the gate, David Frost had gotten up just once, and that was to go up to row 2 of First Class to greet and laugh with someone he knew.  During climb-out, I asked who it was, and David gushed that it was none other than four-time Oscar winner Sammy Cahn.  Known as “Frank Sinatra’s songwriter,” Mr. Cahn was very famous.  We all still hum his well-known songs, even at Christmas (“Let it Snow” and “The Christmas Waltz”).  A full list of his songs can be found at Cahn’s Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sammy_Cahn.

On the runway and during takeoff, David Frost regaled me all manner of stories about London and Hollywood and Washington.  It was a fascinating encounter, but the best was yet to come.  As soon as the seat belt sign went out, I unbuckled and scurried up the spiral staircase to the First Class lounge on the top of the airplane.


As I passed the galley I asked the busy flight attendants if I could please be served my meal upstairs instead of at my seat.  They were only too happy to oblige me.

Once at the top I went to the small but well-stocked bar and found an frigid bottle of Dom Perignon chilling in an ice bucket.  Before I could pop the cork, a flight attendant was there to open the bottle and fill a crystal flute for me.  Very happy and looking forward to the delicious meal to come, I settled in at one of the small, two-person tables.


Before I could take even one sip of my Champagne, up the steps bounded Sammy Cahn himself.  He made a beeline for the Dom Perignon just as I had, and I invited him to join me at my table.  To my great surprise, he did, and thus started a five hour conversation over two bottles of Dom and our respective six-course dinners.

My meal started with fancy hors d’oeuvres , then a farm-fresh mixed salad, followed by a huge lobster claw appetizer, then filet mignon cooked to perfection with haricot verts and baked potato, and finished by a scrumptious peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream.  The came the cheeses and fine brandies, but by then Mr. Cahn and I were into our second bottle of Dom and didn’t want it to go to waste.

Apparently Mr. Cahn had many friends on board, because virtually everyone from First Class visited the upstairs lounge during the flight, and he seemed to know them all.  Well, except for me, but by the time we descended into Los Angeles airspace, we had shared a lot of experiences with each other. Everyone called him “Mr. Cahn,” even David Frost who, when he came up for a cocktail, was very deferential.

“They treat me like the Pope,” he said humbly, after some luminary or other had kissed his ring, “When really I’m just a Jewish kid from the Lower East Side who wrote a few songs.  Sheesh!  What can you do?”

Mr. Cahn told me all about growing up in Manhattan during the last gasps of Vaudeville and his early days trying to write songs.  When I asked him why he was in New York, he said, “My wife and I still own a brownstone in Manhattan.  It’s where my heart is.  I have to go back often to get my bearings because Hollywood is so phony.  You know I bought a home in Beverly Hills years ago for $25,000, and now it’s worth a million bucks!  Crazy!  Why do people want to live there?  I’ll take Manhattan any day.”

Mr. Cahn liked his Dom as much as I did, and the UA crew hovered over us throughout the flight and kept our glasses topped off.  Pretty soon we were both plastered, and Mr. Cahn was humming songs and even singing lyrics he’d written.  He sang risque lyrics to some of his most famous tunes that had everybody in the upstairs lounge in stitches, including the pilots who had come out to thank the First Class customers (I didn’t know or care by then who was actually flying the plane).

It was a dazzling experience, and United kept it going.  The Champagne, wine, cocktails, and plate after plate of food never ended.  Pretty much everyone in First Class was soused upstairs and down by the time we lined up to land at LAX, and yet the FAs kept pouring premium liquids even on approach.  They took our glasses only as we taxied to the gate.

Mr. Cahn and I walked out together and collected our luggage at the carousel.  It had been fun, a lot of fun, and I could tell from Mr. Cahn’s comments that he was enjoying the afterglow.  I sure felt a sense of contentment.  He and I and David Frost said goodbye to each other as if we had known each other for years.  I remember waiting for the Avis bus outside and thinking how special the flight had been.  I knew there wouldn’t be many like that one.

But there would be some rich experiences to come in First Class all over the world, mostly on international flights after that.  I’ll try to dredge up memories of other grand flights next time.

2 thoughts on “When going First Class was really special, part one

  1. I worked for Capitol and appreciated your mention of the airline no one remembers, but what a great story about David Frost and Sammy Cahn! Only it’s too bad you didn’t all choose to fly COACH on American, because there were electric pianos in AA’s cavernous coach lounges. Imagine the possibilities with Sammy Cahn on board!

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