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Tony France on the Decline of First Class

I’m going to be nowhere near the internet today, and actually I’m probably sleeping right now. Why, you ask? Well this weekend is my bachelor party, and things kicked off last night. Of course, I didn’t want to leave you without anything today, so I’ve got a great guest post for you from Tony France, The Traveling Optimist.

I hope you enjoy the read, and I’ll approve any comments that need to be approved when I get back on Sunday.



In the earliest days of air travel the skies were the purview of the rich and the foolhardy. The train was the chic, convenient and classy way to travel, all in one. It stayed on the ground, traveled at speeds the human mind could understand and the Pullman services, since they had all week to reach New York, Chicago or Boston, were second to none. Crisp linens, sumptuous meals, porter service for every whim.

C. R. Smith in 1934 wanted some of that Pullman business for his fledgling American Airlines and called up Donald Douglas about an airplane that could convert to the first sleeper seats for overnight service. Thus with a phone call arose the DC-3. Needing an edge of its own, TWA made a phone call to Boeing about something larger and faster with the first pressurized cabin, the Stratoliner. After the Second World War the even larger Stratocruiser gave us private lounges reached by the first circular staircase to an alternate level on a double-deck airliner. These three silver birds would be combined in to one almighty aircraft, again, seemingly out of little more than a phone call between Juan Trippe at Pan Am and Bill Allen at Boeing:

“If I buy it will you build it?”

“If I build it will you buy it??”

All hail the 747, the first wide-body and featuring a First Class cabin (nose configuration) that arguably remains unsurpassed to this day.

Right up to the mid- and late-eighties the seat in First Class was never more than a large Barcalounger, wide enough for fat-cat hips with a deep enough recline to attempt some sleep on a flight rarely more than 10 hours in length. It was the food as well as the human touch that made First Class what it was.

I joined American in 1986 as a “B-Scale” baggage handler for American Airlines in 1987, thankful to have a job. My first vacation as a nonrev traveler was to Paris the following April to visit a friend from college. I was lucky enough to get a seat in First Class on the redoubtable “AA-#48” and what happened over the next eight hours lingers blissfully on my mind to this very day.

Leather and lambs’ wool covered the seat, American’s signature upholstery at the time. After take-off, the 767-200 we flew was transformed in to a Michelin rated restaurant. Linen carts to set the table, each set piece hand presented as if setting the stage for a magnificent culinary performance. Drink orders were taken and returned with the ubiquitous warm mixed nut offering. An appetizer followed – salmon in dill with capers and hard breads. A crust scraper was deftly deployed after every course.

The full caviar service was a first for me and it came with gracious assistance and a knowing smile from the flight attendant on how to prepare the treat to my liking since I’d never done it before! She enjoyed sharing in my first experience as much as I was enjoying sampling a world far beyond my means and imagination at the time. The salad cart followed, generously tossed with flourish and cracked pepper while we were somewhere over Tennessee.

“Sorbet?” “Don’t you mean sherbert?” The flight attendant chuckled softly as I contemplated another first, sorbet, of the grapefruit variety. I just stared at this unheard of frozen concoction and tiny little spoon in a fluted glass. “Savor it, let it linger so it will cleanse the palate,” my flight attendant advised. Wow, all this just to prepare for the main course? Was this only because we were flying to Paris, a local market thing, or was this on every long haul international flight American operated? Heck, what were the other airlines doing compared to this?

The main course followed, an exquisite filet in Madeira wine, followed by coffee or tea. Next came a cheeseboard with at least six varieties of English, Dutch and French cheeses along with grapes and accompanying port wines but the meal was hardly finished. The dessert cart appeared, offering something fancy and something simple; I settled for the simple – vanilla and chocolate ice cream with hot fudge and whipped cream. Aperitifs appeared to finish it all off, all traces of an elaborate production removed and I was left in the dark with a single glass of water, fantasy over, back to reality. I looked out the window at Cape Cod drifting into the indigo night behind me, open ocean, about three hours of sleep and Paris ahead of me.

Two hours before landing and the onboard crew is at it again. Hand set trays of linens and silver, hot towels and orange juice, warm croissants to start. A yogurt service was followed by a choice of cold cereals or a “Dutch” breakfast of breads and cold meats with butter and select jams. I’m well tucked in to my Euro-food when my flight attendant stops by and asks how I would like my eggs cooked. A small dribble of milk runs down my bulging cheek as my bewilderment takes in the question put to me.

“Uh, scrambled, please?”

Fresh, scrambled eggs, breakfast meats and potatoes with onions and peppers are placed before me with another flight attendant right behind pouring out yet another cup of tea to wash it all down. Amazing! No sorbet this time, but fresh fruit to take the garlic edge off and then, the telltale droning from outside the window. The engines were idling down, announcing we are beginning our vectors to land. One last glass of ice water, the immigration landing card, all window shades up and my Michelin rated restaurant was for the second time merely a cabin in a plane as if nothing special at all had happened. Rather, something special had indeed just happened and to probably the most impressionable passenger on board that night.

Rumblings were beginning even then, however, that the glamour was going out of air travel as carriers struggled to re-invent themselves. Bitter labor fights over B-scale wages, seriously fuel hungry fleets of 707s, 727s, dying airlines and the rise of fortress hubs dominated the headlines. The bottom line was coming in to ever sharper focus as airline realities changed from high-end travel options to complex economic engines where costs and profits were measured in pennies per mile. The big picture visionaries with outsized personalities who kept one eye on the future and did business with a handshake were slowly, inevitably replaced with Ivy League micro-managers who knew only P&L and ROI. Atmosphere is not quantifiable ergo luxury inevitably loses out to utility and optimization. Glamour, even my first fleeting taste of it, wasn’t to remain on the scene for much longer.

The caviar went first, a victim of conservationist activities as well as the most obvious “waste” on board the plane. One by one, everything almost down to the steak itself was removed and cost cut. Fresh eggs died an omelette with red sauce death long ago. Today’s premium passengers are essentially left to feel lucky they receive a meal at all. The entrees have become “lighter, healthier” and cheaper. The carved roasts and Maine lobsters are all in your dreams if you’re old enough to remember them at all.

Today’s First Class is not about the food at all; Robert Crandall himself once said as much. It’s the seat. As flights have gotten longer and markets more competitive it is the onboard hardware, a combination of a Borg energy pod and a spa cubicle that allegedly drives the customer’s decision. Like both of these entities, however, regardless of all the push-button gadgetry, the seat is neutral, impersonal and designed for isolation (except the double bed on Virgin Atlantic). Comfy but cold.

After the AirMap some airlines boast 600 titles of films, shows, music and games via “on demand” entertainment technology. What a waste. I used to think my own personal library of 1800 CDs and 600 DVDs was impressive until some of my more savvy friends corrected me. The iPod and the laptop each obviate the need for massive onboard libraries. Savvy, techie, family and busy travelers alike will have all they need with them in their own unedited hard drives so long as they can access onboard power.

The cabin real estate and cost to the airlines for these contraptions explains retail fares surpassing $12,000 one way (Qantas.com, LA to Sydney, First Class). Whether or not anyone actually pays that much, I feel the airlines have missed the point of what true First Class was, should and could be – the seat, the atmosphere and the food, in balance, to create the world discerning passengers want and airlines need to truly distinguish themselves. For $800/hour, at least Qantas brought back the caviar!

So keep all the movies and shows, fellas, my laptop screen offers a larger and better picture. Better yet, send that huge library of stuff back to the masses in coach since they don’t have onboard power but for the most part have individual screens. Do something with the walls other than the usual mood-neutral blues and beiges. How about a world mural, like TWA used to have, or commemorative artwork like Pan Am once gave away? Could Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” as a bulkhead piece help turn Alitalia around? Italian art, Italian food and hospitality, Italian wines and leathers? How could they go wrong? But I digress – at least it would be something, anything, to evoke the old romance and glamour of flying, of discovering new destinations, even if the guy in Seat 1K is a million-miler who has seen it all before.

Bring back the food, plain and simple. It’s been 21 years and numerous premium cabin experiences since that first time on American, but give me the complete experience I had again on that first, First Class flight to Paris. Carpeted walls textured the cabin and each course was a sequence of events in a grand adventure expertly guided by an inflight crew that exuded pride in their role while being willing to initiate the neophyte through the finer points of their rarefied world.

With their reputation for engineering, I can well believe that, back in the day, Lufthansa had better seats but it was a no-brainer that Air France had better food! Thanks to mergers and acquisitions, economics and alliances, the unique touches once offered in the front cabins of the flag carriers of the world seem all to have sadly gone to ground with the great luminaries who created the great planes that introduced them all to begin with. Varig, I barely knew ye.

Shampag-knee, anyone?

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