What I miss about First Class

November 16, 2020

AA and UA reneged on 50,000 lbs of fancy nuts the carriers had requisitioned for first class service, which by itself isn’t surprising during this austere Covid travel period.  What upset me was their subsequent decision never to serve those nuts in first class again—or at least that’s what they told their suppliers. 

What the heck?  Why trouble myself to get in United’s or American’s first class if they’ve eliminated every vestige of being special?  The trappings of first class service have dwindled: no nuts, no alcohol except in prepackaged cans or plastic bottles (wine that comes in cartons is not for me), and no meals—just snacks previously sold in coach. 

Call me naïve, but in my youth and middle years of air travel I imagined that what’s now called premium cabins (domestic first and international business) would have improved as in-flight service matured over the decades.  Instead, it seems the airlines are using the pandemic as cover for chopping what little is left of “premium” and leaving us with nothing more than a bigger seat near the front of the airplane on domestic routes when the plague abates.  If that’s the new normal, maybe the carriers should drop the pretense, throw in the first class towel completely, and go back to the all-coach cabin configuration that Piedmont made famous and that Southwest emulated.

But if the domestic front cabin persists—and I hope it does—then here’s what I miss about it that I consider essential (I’ll leave expectations for service in international business class cabins for another post):

  • Acknowledge me a little.  If I pay for first, then I’m contributing a greater share of profits to the airline’s bottom line than the good souls in the last row.  Just a smile and a simple, courteous thank-you for flying up front; no butt-kissing required.
  • Give my checked luggage real preference.  Not just a gaudy tag, but retrieve my bags ahead of other suitcases when I get there.
  • Let me board ahead of the mad rush.  Okay, board me behind folks in wheelchairs, but BEFORE all others, including BEFORE those who need “a little extra time in boarding” and BEFORE babies and military personnel and such.  And also BEFORE super-grandee-deluxe-imperial-royal snoot-face status flyers (well, maybe that includes me on some airlines).  If those gals and guys are so special, they’ll hold seat assignments in first class anyway and can board with the rest of us.  If they are in the back, one wonders why. But if so, they can board right after first class. I want to get on the plane, get my luggage stowed, settle in, and tune out, avoiding the conga-line boarding stress rearward.
  • Hang my jacket.  Used to be that as a business flyer I habitually wore suits on planes so I could go directly to work on arrival.  Sartorial mores have relaxed even for business, but most men wear a business jacket even if they fly tieless, and in colder months I always don outerwear.  For decades flight attendants always took and hung up my jacket and returned it on final approach.  It’s a small but important gesture if I pay for the privilege to be in first class.
  • Keep first class overhead compartments only for first class customers.  This includes flight attendants and pilots.  I have often found FA and cockpit crew luggage in first class overheads.  This is especially important in the bulkhead row which lacks underseat space—and I often choose the bulkhead row.  Delta does a good job here, which I greatly appreciate when flying their planes.
  • Serve mixed drinks and palatable wine from real bottles, along with good beer in cans.  When the pandemic passes, go back to G&Ts and Bloody Marys and other cocktails served with lemon or lime wedges, as the discriminating passenger (like me) requires.  I maintain it’s not really a gin and tonic or Bloody Mary without a slice of lime.  Keep a variety of decent bourbon, single malt scotch, and VSOP Cognac on hand, too, along with the usual popular liqueurs like Bailey’s and Kahlua.  After all, it’s “first class” and should feel like it, not like some cheap saloon in rural Alabama.
  • Always offer a beverage of my choice, whether coffee or cocktail, during boarding.  More than one if time permits.  On longer flights, like transcons, make it Champagne (a good Cava or American sparkling will do and isn’t expensive).  ‘Nuff said!
  • Restore hot meal service on flights of 90 or more minutes, cold snacks on shorter flights.  Especially at breakfast times.  It’s hard to screw up morning meals, and the food must be heated.  Getting off an early flight with even just a warm biscuit or bagel in my stomach gives me energy enough to hit the ground running at destination, and I always remember the airline that launched me thus.
  • Come around multiple times to offer drink refills and to chat during the flight.  Of course not possible during turbulence, but otherwise, why not?  It builds relationships, a warm human touch, and makes me happy.
  • Let first class “deplane” ahead of coach passengers.  This may seem obvious from typical narrow-body planes with the premium cabin up front, but for 757s and some wide-bodies that board and deplane from the second-left door (in airline parlance), coach and first customers often merge at the door, slowing everyone getting off the plane.  Northwest routinely enforced the practice to hold coach until all first class flyers had left, as do some foreign carriers.  This should be every airline’s discipline.

Some colleagues and friends who sit often in first class grumble about coach passengers wandering up front to use the lav during flight, but that doesn’t bother me.  Modern aircraft often skimp on toilets, and so why not share?

Now that I think about it, that’s not a long, complex list, nor are the services expensive.  It’s all the little things that made first class “first class” for as long as I’ve been flying (since 1960).  These elements are not new, but they are indispensable and make flying up front feel exceptional.  I sure hope they survive this period of cost-cutting asceticism. 

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