You may have seen Emilia George’s recent article in the London Telegraph, titled “10 things I’ve learned working as a VIP air stewardess.” It describes what it’s like to travel with the super-duper, richie-rich, tippy-top one percenters. For us mere mortals, it’s mind-boggling cute and creepy to process it all, as, for instance, an on-board pet monkey dressed in Burberry. Outrageous! I thought at first.
Coming back to the piece a few days later when the shock had worn off, I began to compare and contrast Ms. George’s ten points to my own business flying on the Skid Row Big Four of United, Southwest, Delta, and American. Suddenly, it all seemed rather more relevant.
- Money is no object
GEORGE: “£1 million dinner service to a $700 bag of salad, money is no object when you can afford your own private jet. Many people treat them as a taxi service. Rather than having to see each other, a divorced couple who had shared custody of their dog would send the pampered pooch back and forth on their plane.”
ME: While no scheduled airline has yet had the temerity to charge $700 for a measly salad, my wallet seems a lot lighter after each flight; I’m nickel-dimed for everything. It’s only a matter of time before they charge to use the lavatory. That will open the door to pay for lav occupancy by the minute like downtown metered parking places. Point being, it seems like the airlines regard my money as no object even if I do not share that thinking.
- The planes are out of this world
GEORGE: Bespoke jets of the finest quality and with state-of-the-art technology; the more lavish the decoration, the better. Every super-wealthy owner wants to have the most impressive plane around, so personalization is key, with such things as on-board gyms, disco rooms featuring poles for girls to dance on, and even a solid gold throne.
ME: Some of the planes I fly on sure seem out of this world; that is, they appear to have come from the third world: stained and torn carpet, dingy dividers, broken seats, ripped seatback pockets, faded paint jobs, and outdated logos. No solid gold thrones on those planes, either; heck, I’d settle for simply a functional aluminum throne in the lavatory rather than an oft-seen “not in service” sign on the door.
- It is a challenge
GEORGE: “Resources are limited when you’re 38,000 ft in the air or stuck on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. When the client requests something special, it’s your responsibility to make it happen, doing tasks that might see you paying a £500 taxi fare just to get a tin of caviar, or desperately trying to source a 200-piece brass band to welcome your client upon arrival.”
ME: I’m pretty happy if the beverage cart isn’t out of Diet Dr. Pepper by the time it reaches me—or if the cart reaches my row at all. The closest thing most U.S. carriers have to caviar is a tiny bag of goldfish crackers (both have something to do with fish, I guess). Once a guy in the seat next to me put his Sousaphone in the overhead locker above us and crushed my suit jacket, constituting my sole contact with a brass band when flying.
- You will be propositioned
GEORGE: “Clients seem to think that chartering a private jet gives them an automatic invitation to join the Mile High Club. If you mix powerful businessmen with pretty girls eager to please, then it’s a recipe for…well, you get the picture. Invitations to intimate dinners, visits to your hotel room, and inappropriate touching are common. A private owner even had his cabin crew dress up in kinky outfits rather than uniforms.”
ME: Used to be that some flight attendants—then called stewardesses—had the reputation of being available after work hours for cavorting with customers, but I’ve never seen it happen. With the current tense atmosphere in the age of chronic terrorism, any such intimation might today be answered with a Taser to the neck rather than with a wink and a nod. I’ve been subjected to plenty of inappropriate touching from fellow passengers on both sides when jammed into a center seat, though of a different sort from what the writer meant to describe. Just the same, I didn’t enjoy it any more than I imagine the writer did.
- Plenty of perks
GEORGE: “Staying in some of the world’s most expensive hotels and dining at the finest restaurants are among the perks. As is having all your expenses paid while you’re away. Clients like to show their gratitude, so it’s not unusual to be offered a generous tip. One crew were given £3,000 each in cash; others have been given Rolex watches and Hermès bags. If you look after someone particularly famous, you might find yourself being invited to party in the VIP section of an exclusive club or being given backstage passes to see your favorite band.”
ME: My perks when flying commercial tend to be along the lines of not being involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight and one time grudgingly being allowed to use the first class lav when the aft lavatories had long lines.
- Unusual food requests
GEORGE: “Being asked to serve salmon that’s had classical music played to it all its life is not an unreasonable request, apparently. Neither is having your food served at a particular temperature or only eating desserts covered in gold leaf. But if you think it’s all champagne and caviar, then you’re mistaken. Sometimes having £70,000 worth of food to choose from simply won’t cut it when all you fancy is a McDonald’s and demand the plane land at the nearest airport so one can be delivered to you.”
ME: I made what was deemed by flight attendants to be a very unusual food request: Please, PLEASE, I said, serve me ANYTHING to eat! I was in coach. It prompted some snickering from the cabin crew that I could be such a demanding upstart, and one FA sarcastically asked me if I wanted them to land the plane so I could get a bite. Does that count?
- It’s a waiting game – and can be very wasteful
GEORGE: “Unlike flying for an airline, there is no set schedule. Often VIP stewardesses can be away for months at a time as clients like to have crew on standby ready to go. On the day of departure, it’s a common occurrence for them to arrive late or even not at all. However, it’s still necessary to be ready to depart at a moment’s notice, so you can spend days upon days going out to the aircraft, prepping and waiting. This means that everyday you’ll have to order expensive fresh food only to throw it away.”
ME: My experiences in the waiting game have been the other way around. Mainly I’ve had to wait for the planes, rather than the planes and crew waiting for me, usually because the flights were delayed, sometimes for hours, and sometimes they never turned up at all. The silver lining, compared to Ms. George’s experience, is that no food was wasted because (a) the airlines don’t serve much in the way of comestibles any more in coach, and (b) on the rare occasion that a meal is presented, it’s unlikely that any bit of it could remotely be considered “fresh.”
- You’ll cover up affairs
GEORGE: “Sometimes you will see a regular client travelling with a different female companion to which you’re usually expected to turn a blind eye. Other times you’ll be asked to make sure no traces of the other woman are left behind. This entails scouring the aircraft for giveaways and cleaning lipstick off shirt collars. Some people, however, don’t want the hassle and just bring their wife and lover on the same flight.”
ME: I’ve had to cover up unsightly messes left by previous occupants in seatback pockets, and I’ve sometimes covered up my ears in desperation trying to avoid listening to foul-mouthed loudmouths blather on. That’s about it. No being discreet about others’ indiscretions.
- You’ll be treated like a princess (or prince)
GEORGE: “Not only will you serve royalty, but you’ll be treated the same way, too. Obviously this is dependent on the owner/client, but if you’re lucky you’ll be given your own driver and assistant while you’re away. Designer uniforms are common, and you may even be given a personal credit card or spending money. And you needn’t worry about going hungry as the plane’s chef will create whatever you like.”
ME: I am familiar with royalty when flying; that is, being royally peeved off with the airline for not being on time, for poor on-board service, for cramped seating, for high fares, and for a host of other shortcomings and aggravations. One February night I was given “my own” van driver to share with 20-25 other passengers being transported on slippery Interstates at 2:00 AM when snow cancelled a flight ORD to Peoria. The heater didn’t work. Our chauffeur spoke no English, had never been to Peoria, and had no map. Neither was there an “on-board chef” to quell our hunger. But I think we were all glad to arrive there alive.
- And carry precious cargo
GEORGE: “People with the luxury to be able to afford a private jet will usually have quite an extravagant nature, so expect them to bring along some rather weird and wonderful ‘hand luggage’. One lady brought an enormous box full to the brim with Tiffany’s jewels in beautiful bright blue gift boxes. And one man boarded with an extensive collection of guns. Animals are also a must-have travelling accessory – I’ve seen falcons, playful lion cubs, and even a monkey dressed in Burberry.”
ME: I certainly identify with and embrace extravagance, though, sadly, luxury is not a component of today’s commercial flying experience in coach. On the other hand I’ve witnessed plenty of people acting like apes on airplanes, though none at all decked out in splendid Burberry garb. More’s the pity. An uncouth actor is made slightly more tolerable if at least draped in fine garments.
On reflection I’ve decided that next time I get an itch to fly some place, instead of scrimping and saving for months to suffer in a lousy sardine class center seat to Barcelona, I’ll hitch a ride with that pampered pooch ping-ponging back and forth between its divorced masters. All alone on a private jet, the miserable mutt must want company. Who knows? Maybe Fido flies with a solid gold pooper scooper.