Is business class worth the stretch?
Business class ensures that the holiday begins on the plane
I am writing this from freezing New York, fresh off a 31-hour journey that brought me via the Gulf to the Big Apple’s icy streets.
The jet lag is minor punishment to be endured for having transited half the globe in little over a day to one of the world’s most exciting cities. My body still thinks it’s 1pm when in fact it is 5am, but if the option had been cattle class or staying home, then I would have gone to the beach.
What flying at the correct – which is to say the front – end of the aircraft has done is ensure that my holiday began around the time I strapped into the lie-flat bed and contemplated the pleasant hours ahead.“The flight actually is the holiday,” my girl said and she’s not half right. I am 6'3" which means even on those few airlines who have generous seat pitch in Economy – rare as a unicorn in this cost-crunching era – any flight over a couple of hours is torture – a torture I have become increasingly unwilling to submit to.
It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of commercial passenger aviation – when flying really was for rich people – engineers gave little thought to passenger comfort.
“Aircraft cabins offered insufficient headroom, cramped seating and often poor ventilation,” aviation historian Matthias Hühne writes in Pan Am History Design & Identity, his spectacular history of one of the airline business’s most famous carriers.There was only one toilet to be used by men and women, which was a considerable inconvenience for conservative female travellers of that era.
Hühne also remarks on the airline food of the time – there were no proper galleys and in order to save weight, in-flight meals “were sometimes served on paper plates”.
He might have been talking about the average passenger experience on a state-run, cash-bleeding dinosaur such as Iberia - before it was bought by British Airways – but until the arrival of the Douglas Sleeper Transport, the first version of the venerable Douglas DC-3 Dakota, long-haul flying was largely a miserable experience.Sit in a Dakota today and you will marvel at the size of the seat which is bigger, softer and eminently more usable than even a Premium Economy seat on a 21st-century airliner.
The Jet Age changed everything. Bigger, faster aircraft such as Boeing's globetrotting 707 allowed more people to be carried longer distances.
There was a trade-off, though: to make flying affordable to the general public, airlines had to stuff more people into their pressurised tubes, which meant more seats, tighter seat pitches, eventually bringing us to the current disgrace of having to pay for everything from each extra checked to a paper cup of revolting coffee.Which brings me back to New York City. Unless one one else is picking up your tab – and that is increasingly rare too as corporates follow the airlines’ example and slash travel budgets – a business class ticket become a stretch of the imagination and wallet.
Every now and then, though, you have to spit on your hands, hoist the black flag and (metaphorically) begin slitting throats as Henry Louis Mencken didn’t say. I had a free ticket, earned from taking a downgrade on another long-had flight a year ago. Between my girl and I we had earned quite a few air miles over the years.
America beckoned. So we swallowed the pain of a full-fare, unrestricted economy ticket, used every air mile we had to upgrade to business class, and took the limo to the airport.
That comes free when you ride at the sharp end of the plane.
Flying business class has transformed our holiday. The reason is simple: business class is the difference between being treated as a human being, or as a a piece of self-loading cargo.
How to fly business class
Dressing nicely to impress the check-in staff is not going to get you an upgrade. That bird has flown long ago, so to speak.
Instead, if you are a regular traveler, pick an airline you like and stick with them. Join the carrier’s rewards scheme and rack up those miles. One day, they will go a long way to buying you an upgrade.If an airline wants to bump you, ask what’s in it for you. If it’s a free ticket, take it. And if you’re flying out of the EU, insist on the compensation which can be a very tidy sum ... in euros.
Think about flying via a hub. Direct fares are expensive and business class can be ruinous. There are many good reasons to flying via the Gulf or hubs such as Istanbul or Addis Ababa, not least of all are highly competitive fares.
• Ash is the editor of Sunday Times Travel