Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The "plane" truth

I have been flying over the Pacific and the Atlantic on business for almost 20 years. If I include both oceans and my trips to South America, I have taken approximately 400 long haul (more than 8 hour and some as long as 19 hours) overnight flights since 1995. 
Fortunately, since these are business trips and my airlines of choice generally upgrade me, about 90% of the flights have been in first class. Most of the business class flights are on Singapore Airlines where I feel no need to upgrade since their current business class seat is nicer than most airlines first class seats.
Although it is true by “salaryman” standards that I am probably spoiled in my travel habits; I also learned a long time ago how to pay less for my tickets than most of my peers. Sometimes I pay $4,000 to $5,000 less than my co-workers or about 50% less on a transpacific ticket. Beating the airlines at the pricing game has long been a hobby. Using  'Around the World' tickets, upgradeable discount business class and a travel agent overseas all help ensure I get good value. 
We don't always fly on the big airlines
I fully understand that people who fly over the ocean once a year or once a lifetime think 
paying for a few thousand dollars more to fly business class is over the top. My counter argument is: “if you were spending a month a year sleeping on planes, you would not be happy having a cramped economy class seat where you can hear the stomach noises,  teeth grinding and see the drool of your slumbering “bunk mates”. Since the business I am responsible for brings in tens of millions of dollars a year in profit to the company I work for; I ride guilt free in the front of the plane.

Since almost all airlines use either Boeing or Airbus planes for long haul flights, the main hardware is roughly equivalent. Airlines compete with the quality of the seats and entertainment and of course their ground and in the air staff. Generally speaking American carriers do a reasonable job in the seat competition but are inferior to the top Asian and European airlines in all other areas - especially flight attendants in first and business class. For the most part, US airlines allow the most senior flight attendants to have first choice for routes and class of service so often times the first class cabin has the most senior and the least service minded staff. Of course there are exceptions, but painfully few.

Once on the plane, I normally get a newspaper and magazine (which I almost never read), lather up with moisturizer, make sure my blanket and headphones are close at hand and settle in. I also try to establish some level of rapport with a flight attendant and make sure I check the menu (which doesn't change very often) and know what I want to eat when they ask. About 99.5% of the time, United Airlines flight attendants will ask you what you want to drink but don’t know what wine they have. Singapore Airlines flight attendants always know and if you are an elite flyer they know your name before you tell them and without having to look at the manifest as they make their way down the aisle. Before take off, I pick the movies I want to watch but normally sleep intervenes after or sometimes during the first movie. I normally sleep at least six straight hours on a long haul. My record is 12 hours.

First class cabins on long haul flights generally have between eight and twelve seats. For each airline I use (United, Singapore, ANA, Lufthansa, etc) and each type of plane (747, 777, A-380, 767) I have a specific strategy for where to sit. I like to be the first one off the plane in the race to the customs line but I also like a good angle to the toilet - almost every passenger tries to get in the toilet to freshen up before landing. After spending more than half a day crossing the Pacific eating and drinking without moving much, most people’s bladders are quite active toward the end of the trip. If you see a fellow passenger with a make-up bag in hand you know you want to get your last visit to the toilet in before she closes the door and sets up shop in front of the mirror. 

One dirty little secret of air travel is my strategy to vent my occasional flatulence without detection. Actually, it may be best to keep that to myself..........