Once flying sharp end meant something more than a lie-flat bed and a walled-off compartment for the duration of a flight. Gone from today’s premium cabins in the sky are lively conversation and social interaction. Those humanizing exchanges were encouraged when First and Business Class compartments were arranged in an open configuration where passengers could see and speak to each other, like the 747 Pan Am First Class compartments in the pictures.
The 747 aircraft was originally laid out in the early 1970s with an upstairs lounge for First Class passengers (there was no Business Class then) and configured with conviviality in mind. These designs were refined and matured into the 1980s before the upstairs lounges were eliminated and stuffed with more seats.
Okay, so the seats did not recline into a fully flat position, but I never had trouble snoozing on those flights, even on long international legs. My first flight on Singapore Airlines in the 1980s was a nonstop 747 San Francisco to Hong Kong (and from there onto Singapore), and I slept like a baby in their comfy First Class chairs after consuming my fill of Dom Perignon and Beluga caviar.
Point being, the cabin layouts, including the design and placement of the First Class seats, were focused on being able to get to know your neighbor if you both desired to talk rather than the social sterility of modern premium cabins where virtually no contact at all occurs between and among passengers.
Who might be worth talking to? I remember conversing with almost all my seatmates and others in First Class over decades, most just businessmen like myself. All were interesting, some fascinating.
Sometimes my fellow passengers included the rich and famous, too, like four-time Oscar winner Sammy Cahn, David Frost, the namesake Tissot watch heir, Buddy Hackett, Jane Fonda, John McAvoy, Elizabeth Dole (when she was Secretary of Transportation), and others. I met them all in First Class.
These experiences were interesting and enriching and occurred because in First Class the airlines configured their cabins and service in a deliberate spirit of pizazz, fun, and congenial sociability. Take Sammy Cahn, for instance, the man known as Frank Sinatra’s songwriter and composer of such well-known tunes as “Let It Snow!” Mr. Cahn proved to be a true gentleman and great raconteur. We spent a six hour United 747 flight JFK/LAX (the 6:00 PM departure) in the upstairs lounge together drinking real French Champagne (which in the 1970s UA was still serving), with Mr. Cahn recounting one story after another about his life in New York and then in Beverly Hills. He said he couldn’t bring himself to sell his brownstone walk-up in Manhattan, and he always went back to New York to ground himself because Hollywood “was so phony.” Mr. Cahn told me that he had paid $25,000 for his house in Beverly Hills, and that he thought that was a fortune when he bought it! “But now,” he said, shrugging, “You can’t get a cup of coffee in Beverly Hills for that.” This was 1978. Mr. Cahn had me in stitches.
It was, amazingly, the same flight that David Frost was on. Mr. Frost had asked for one of the two center seats in the back row of First Class–the only two center seats, for those who recall the standard layout–because, he told me, he could smoke cigars in that row and nowhere else. I was still smoking cigarettes then, which is why I was in the row across from him (the last two rows in First on 747s were smoking rows). He and I struck up a lively conversation after boarding when the FAs brought around Champagne because I told him how much I had admired TW3 (“That Was The Week That Was”) when he hosted the sassy, impertinent, and politically-incorrect weekly show on NBC in 1964 and 1965. I reminded Frost of the song they had sung on the show after the Selma troubles, “Everybody Votes in Selma, Alabama!” which caused Frost to howl with laughter and spill his Champagne. Turned out he loved TW3 and thought it was some of his best work.
After that I couldn’t shut him up (and didn’t want to). He said he had just come back from the funeral of the Rolling Stone’s Keith Moon in London. Mr. Frost told me about all the contemporary era celebrated folk he had hobnobbed with at the funeral. I guess remarking to him in detail about TW3 made me an instant insider with him. At any rate he was genuinely fun to be with, and it was Mr. Frost who pointed out Sammy Cahn on the flight.
Mr. Cahn was sitting in the very first row of First Class on the left side of the 747’s pointy end and had boarded ahead of me (guess Cahn was a nonsmoker). Frost went up to pay his respects, and when he came back to his own seat across the aisle from me, I asked who he was talking to. Frost’s eyes got real big, and he said in a reverential tone, “Oh, that’s Sammy Cahn!” Frost went on, whispering (for the first time—Frost’s voice was loud and boisterous until then), about what a great honor it was to know Mr. Cahn.
As soon as the 747 was in the air and the seat belt sign dinged off, I jumped up and made a beeline for the circular stairs just behind me to the upstairs lounge. I already knew that in the First Class upstairs lounges of TWA, PanAm, and United of the time that it was first-come, first-served, with limited seating, and as far as I was concerned, there was no place more like heaven on earth than the bubble lounge in a 747. Whenever I flew cross-country and overseas, if I could wangle my way onto a 747, I would park myself in the upstairs First Class lounge and never leave except to nap. At the time a flight attendant was dedicated solely to the First Class lounge upstairs, and she would not only serve Champagne (or any damn thing you wanted), but would serve full meals up there rather than in the seats downstairs if you preferred.
So I made myself comfortable, having beat even the dedicated FA up there by 30 seconds or so, and asked for a bottle of Champagne. She brought it in an iced bucket and put it on the table. I began to imbibe. Not a minute later up walks Sammy Cahn, the second passenger to reach the lounge. I introduced myself and told him how much I enjoyed his songs, rattling off a title or three, and I told him I thought he lived in Los Angeles, so why had he been in New York.
That started it. Turns out he loved Champagne, too, so he joined me at my small table (like a cocktail lounge table), and a beautiful six hour friendship ensued. We drank two bottles of Champagne together, and he told stories, jokes, and even hummed a few tunes. David Frost came up, too, and sat with friends at another table, and the two men would quip back and forth. We all ate dinner together up there, and by the time we made the approach to LAX, the magic of conviviality had infused us all. It was a party atmosphere in the upstairs lounge, with several flight attendants and the United captain joining us (but not drinking).
Mr. Cahn was so nice that as we walked out of the terminal together he offered me a ride to my hotel. I declined, but I wish now I hadn’t.
There were other memorable flights with other luminaries. Of course such occasions were not common, but the point is that they happened because we all shared the same space in an open cabin which allowed interaction.
Sadly, I contrast those rich experiences with the sterile loneliness of today’s First and Business cabins: a Dilbert-like land of beehive cubicles that guarantee separation and privacy. I lament the loss of gregarious conversation. The pictures included here are from a recent 777-300 international flight in Business Class. Note the lack of distinguishing identifiers; you cannot even tell what airline it is, and it doesn’t matter. They all sport the same look and feel now, as if one is flying on a hospital ship. The nurses (FAs) come around with antiseptic efficiency every so often to take your temperature and to change your bladder bag. If you take your glasses off, it’s impossible to tell one set of flight attendants from another. The whole First/Business experience has become predictable, hygienic, and bleak.
Naturally, I am aware that airlines have responded to what their corporate soothsayers claim are market forces that define the cabin and service we get. And they say it’s seclusion and separation that today’s premium passengers want for their seven or eight thousand dollars in Business.
So be it. But I miss the contact with my fellow man hurtling through the stratosphere inside a jet-powered aluminum and carbon fiber tube. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed flying recently to Asia in Premium Economy, which is laid out in a conventional open cabin, more than I have ever enjoyed the cold, dehumanizing pods of today’s Business and First compartments. Yes, you can sleep horizontally in those cubes, but let’s face it: There is no magic to flying up front any more.