Saturday, August 8, 2009

A brief musing on wealth, class and coach class

OVER THE PACIFIC -- This item is being written retroactively, two days after our arrival in Hong Kong. But the memories of undeserved luxury linger.

We came here on Cathay Airways, flying Business Class, thanks to cashing in about five years worth of Alaska Airlines credit card miles. If you were to book this trip through Expedia, the price for Business would be about $4,153 versus about $1,163 for Coach. Is Business worth four times as much as Coach? Well, it's 10 times as much fun. For me, its the difference between sleep or no sleep, between 13 hours of someone's elbow in your gut, between French Champagne and seltzer, and lay-flat seats (pictured) with massaging magic fingers that remind me of La-Z-Boy recliners. (Check out Cathay's dreamy introduction to its service.)

I have one friend who prides himself on traveling around the world in coach, even as far as Africa from the West Coast. A fairly good sized person, especially when his girth approaches 190 lbs., he can't always sleep on flights but is happy to read books. To him, privation is more interesting than luxury. I once traveled with him to Limerick, Ireland, where we landed in the middle of the night and checked in to a hostel and were escorted to a crowded room full of double bunks of snoring men. Recoiled, my mind immediately went to the steerage scenes in "Titanic" and I felt the presence of disappointed ancestors who had traveled in steerage to America. To the contrary, my friend inhaled the odor of 16 men in a confined space and chuckled in the darkness. He welcomed what he regarded as adventure.

And to that, I say: nuts. I am not a greedy person. I don't envy the rich... except on a few occasions such as air travel. The rich are different from you on me. On airplane flights, they are treated to real plates, French wines, chocolates, more booze and a vastly improved chance of arriving in a distant place refreshed and ready to enjoy a vacation.

You experience these distinctions especially on Cathay, the Hong Kong-based airline with some of the best service in the world. (One exception: my daughter had a lousy recent experience; another story.) On Cathay, coach has the same hip-hugging seats found everywhere but the food in the rear cabin is excellent, the service is warm and there's an open bar with booze and good snacks for the entire flight. In Business, riding in the upper deck of a 747-400, you might want to stay on the plane and skip the beaches of Bali.

I especially enjoyed how the flight attendant addressed me by name, "Mr. Gore, would you like more champagne?" I said yes three times. Then switched to a French red for the meat course, followed by a glass of Port with the cheese service. I hadn't enjoyed Port as much since my brief days at the Bodleian. I think I made a grab a little too quick when she came by with chocolates in a wooden box. I made a mental note to blog about this extraordinary service. How could she remember my name with so many others Business?

On her third pass, though, I discovered her secret: a slip of paper taped to the service cart. No matter. At least she took the time to write it down.

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