The Curse of Perspective

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On July 4, 1997, I couldn’t believe my luck. It was my first summer as an intern at America West, and this was my first attempt at traveling on my benefits. I, and every other person working for America West in Phoenix, had the same brilliant plan. Let’s get the heck out of Phoenix and head to the beach. I was hoping just to get a seat on the airplane, but incredibly, I found myself in First Class, sitting in row 1 on our decade-old 737. It was all downhill from there.

The Curse of Perspective

Sure, I had flown up front a couple times before, but it was a rare and special event. That’s how it felt on this short flight as well. I was downright giddy at having what was effectively a free drink and a slightly wider seat for an hour in the air. And I know I’m not alone. For a lot of you, an upgrade on even a short flight is a remarkable thing worth enjoying.

After this flight, however, I began 5+ years of interning and then working full time with America West. I traveled a lot, and a First Class seat became pretty routine. I’ve had more than 100 flights in a premium cabin since that day. With routine comes a sense of normalcy. In some cases, I’d pick my flights based on the chance of sitting up front. I became disappointed and jaded if I didn’t get the upgrade.

Of course, this was a domestic airline, so I could still be wowed. Fast forward to May 23, 2001. A friend in the alliances group was able to get me approval to upgrade on British Airways on a trip I had planned to visit a friend in the Army stationed abroad… if there was space. I agonized over the plan for days, trying to pick the flight that would give me the best chance. A friend of mine at BA looked at the aircraft routings to find one of the airplanes that had a flat bed in Business Class, one of the earliest examples of that now ubiquitous product.

I settled on flying through Newark, and on a dreary day, I landed myself in my first flat bed in the sky. I was more excited than a kid at Disneyland. I may have had a flat bed, but I didn’t go flat for long. I was just too amped up playing with everything. I watched movies, I listened to music, I stared at the moving map endlessly. Morning came quickly, and I should have been tired. I wasn’t.

Since then I’ve had my share of highs, but like a drug user, it takes more to get me going now than it used to. I’ve flown British Airways in Club World a few times since then, and each time it becomes less captivating. I’ve flown several other airlines in a variety of different types of seats. I’ve even turned down short trips that were only offered in coach because I didn’t think I’d get enough rest. My experiences to date have ruined by perspective. I simply can’t appreciate flying up front nearly the way I did on that short flight from Phoenix to Orange County nearly two decades ago.

So why do I bring this up? I was reflecting on the trip report I just posted flying back from Honolulu in First Class on Hawaiian. I was bothered by so many of the little things on that flight… the overbearing seatmate, the mediocre chicken, the dry dessert. How stupidly entitled does that sound?

Back in 1997, that report would have been completely different. I would have marveled over the seat not only being wider but having a foot and leg rest. I would have been incredibly impressed by the attentive service from the smiling flight attendants. Heck, I would have been taken aback by the multi-course meal, regardless of how it tasted. But this isn’t 1997, and I’m a lot more jaded.

Of course, I’m not alone in this. The road warriors out there have it far worse than I do. Sitting in First Class, or at least in an extra legroom seat, becomes a bare minimum to survive the grueling week. But for the vast majority of people in this world, a ride in First Class is a special event worthy of far more enthusiasm than I can muster these days.

I wish I could deliver trip reports that captured that sense of awe that I used to feel so much more frequently, but it’s incredibly challenging. Certainly some trips will naturally give me that feeling (like a trip I recently booked for next year flying in Suites on the Singapore A380), but that bar keeps moving ever-higher. Despite my best efforts, I know that I won’t be able to write a report that captures the feeling that so many of those who are lucky enough to sit in a premium cabin have.

So what can I do? I can certainly keep this in mind when I write up my reports, and hope that I can use this to bring perspective to my trips. But other than that, I can just consider this post to be a disclaimer for my future trip reports. I’ll do my best to write something that you can relate to, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have some pretty amazing flying experiences that can color my point of view. Of course, you always have the comment section to smack me around as well.

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39 comments on “The Curse of Perspective

  1. Well, at least you, unlike a great number of travel writers, do not moan like you are undertaking the Labors of Hercules if you suffer the horrors and indignity of setting back in Steerage/Cattle/Torture/etc. Class.

    You would not believe the number of columnists that seem to not notice that coach class is where the majority of the flying public always flies, and most of them don’t whine nearly so much about it as a member of the travel media.

  2. Next time you are in Europe, could I suggest trying a 7am flight for 4 hours from Stansted on a Saturday morning in summer too see how some of us fly ? It’s not hell whatever journalists might say but should give you a good idea of how those of us who pay from our own pockets without FF miles have to fly if we want to fly often…

    1. Or try connecting in the evening in FRA with 45-50 minutes connecting time during any period of heavy traffic – you’re more likely than not to end up in an airport hotel…

      Don’t worry Cranky, we get it. We all get spoiled after a while… If you feel bad enough to take one for the team, how about doing a trip report on Spirit or Allegiant? I’m super curious to hear how they stack up against others. More precisely, if I’m looking at 2 hour weekend hop while carrying just mu backpack, are they good enough option?

  3. Excellent points. I’m a road warrior (in a plane at least twice per week every week for the last two years) and am fortunate enough that my employer, or my status, puts me in an F seat about 85% of the time. It becomes something you expect, and when it doesn’t happen – particularly on a mid-con or transcon flight – you worry about how you’re going to get through the trip.

    Of course that sounds petulant and entitled, because it is. I flew Chicago to San Jose in Y last week (the F cabin was sold out completely and *nobody* was upgraded) and the flight went by uneventfully. I felt fine when we landed, I was given a complimentary snack and alcoholic drink thanks to my status, and I had an exit row seat with *more* legroom than the folks up front. So even in Y, my experience wasn’t representative. But initially I was a little bit panicked, because it had been awhile. As you’ve said, it does cause one to re-examine perspective.

    In short, I get it. I was an airplane geek since before I can remember, and I flew in premium cabins occasionally as a child and young adult (maybe once every other year or so), but in the last couple of years as I’ve begun traveling every week, my view of the experience has completely shifted. The perks, both big and little, are the tiny difference that enables me to keep doing it week after week instead of quitting or begging for teleconferencing.

  4. I hear you on this. I remember my first flight was on a Cessna and that was fun. My first commercial flight was on a United 737 in 1987 (737-200?). It was fun. The seats seemed spacious in coach and they served finger sandwiches and cheese on a 50 minute flight (you don’t get that in F anymore). My first flight in F was awesome (except for the smoking) and my first flight in int’l J was in a British Airways recliner in 1989. After that, I was spoiled.

    Today, the flight experience is just not what it was back when I first flew. It’s just transit. No one offers meals anymore in Y (I was hoping that UA would keep them after merging with CO, but CO management went cheap) and the seats lack padding they used to in order to cram more chairs into the plane. I hardly ever have to fly in a “regular” Y seat thanks to having status and I get upgraded about a third of the time. So, I don’t have it too bad.

    Even when I flew on a flat bed J seat earlier this year, I thought that the seat was awesome, but the food just wasn’t very good. Back in 1989, I would have loved every bit of the food and the long service, but it’s just not the same.

  5. The times I’ve been to Europe was always in first class and I’m not sure I could ever make a long international trip in coach, I give credit to the thousands of people who do it every day.

    I do think it’s funny on a narrowbody when everyone loads from the front door that first class passengers (mostly upgraders) will be sitting in their F seats while coach passengers line up in the aisle to board. What’s funny, well the first class aisle passengers who forced their way to the front on the line to board first, are now sitting there with every coach passengers butt in their face. So coach passengers remember, if you know you’ll be on a narrowbody eat plenty of beans prior to your flight. That’s one way to ‘pass’ a message to those F-seaters who think they are so special……LOL

  6. My first experience in First Class was on Delta, probably a 757. I was headed to LAS for a job interview, the flew me out in first. This was probably the 3rd or 4th time I had ever flown, it was post 9-11 (as all my flying has been). I was not the AV geek I am now.

    I was so nervous about the idea of the job interview, the thought of moving from Ann Arbor to Las Vegas, I barely noticed the 4 hour flight. I was offered a hot towel and I looked at the FA like she was crazy. I turned down the meal, I was not hungry. I knew it was first, realized it was special, and totally didn’t notice or care. I sat in my seat and looked out the window.

    Fast forward about 4 or 5 years and I am walking on to an Alaska 737 when I ask the gate agent if I can ride up front. Sure he says, only $50. Hell yeah, $50, 1 hour flight, totally worth it. Walking on the plane the FA called me by name, later I was served a meal. I was not hungry, but is paid $50 and I was going to eat it. It was terrible, but I was in F!.

    Perspective.

    Another 2 years later and I am flying Air Canada on my first super long haul soon, YVR to PEK. I am excited that we go on a 767. I get the window, the Mrs. Gets the aisle. A 787 for the ride home, and I’ll be on a 787. The Mrs. Gets the aisle, so I’ll be in the middle. And yet, some part of me wishes for business class, so I can have a window, and she can her aisle. I can’t just settle for “I am on a 787!” Or “I am on a flight from PVG ! ”

    Perspective…

    Thanks Cranky.

  7. Bret,

    What you describe Is similar to the concept of diminishing returns.

    Is this why the blog is called The Cranky Flyer as aposed to “The Jated Flyer?” LOL

    As I was thinking about what to post, you jogged my memmery on my various trips to Las Vegas over the past 20-years. When I first went back in 1994 the city & the Strip were much different then compared to today. Looking back, MGM was the only megaresort & it was a lot easier to get around then now. But to watch the regions transformation on so many fronts has been nothing short of breathtaking.

    In short, I know where you are coming from.

    1. james – Well that’s not on the list, but here at the GBTA convention I was able to sit in the mockup of the Etihad Residence. Close enough? (And yeah, it’s going to be silly over-the-top nice.)

      1. IMO one neat things over the past 10 years is the advent of really good YouTube/Go Pro videos people have done.

        Whether you’re making a purchasing decision based on product, or just checking it out for the “wow” factor as an avgeek – you can put together a really solid aggregrate of an experience.

        It’s a good compliment to the reporting side as well.

  8. I used to work for a US airline. Back in the 1970s, we flew coach to Rio for our honeymoon. We didn’t get very good weather, so the next month we flew on a pass to Saint Thomas. The only other people in First Class were the pilot’s wife and son. (It was on thanksgiving day.) It was a great flight (except they couldn’t find the bags at Saint Thomas for a while).

    I definitely agree that if you can flew in a premium class, go for it!

  9. It’s really good of you to notice this. For what it’s worth, I’ve never noticed you sounding particularly jaded.

    I still get mega excited when I get to sit up front, even if I’ve paid for it myself. Last time, it was on Air Canada and I was so giddy that I tweeted them that I loved them just before takeoff.

  10. I think apart from the fact that your perspective that has changed, the airlines have changed, too. The upfront product is now so “generic” across airlines that it all feels the same (unless you are lucky enough to be able to go for the super-first-over-the-top service). I have flown on many, many different airlines in Business and it all feels the same, more or less.

    I remember flying on British Airways when the “sleeper service” was introduced, only my flight originated in the UK (as I lived there at the time) and being amazed at the idea of a bed in the sky. I remember when the IFE screens became inter-active, with a library to choose movies from and they would start and pause on command. I was amazed (BA flew me out to NY to demonstrate that innovation at the time). I remember the BA scones, clotted cream and jam “high tea” before landing. It was all very special.

    Today, BA’s Business product is pretty much the same as any other airline across the pond. Although I think the scones are still part of the product.

    I would not worry too much about being “jaded” because of your perspective. I think you provide “fair and balanced” commentary, and I think that a dry chicken in economy would have had a similar review.

  11. I hear ya. I never flew much, let alone in a premium cabin, until I was nearly 30. Then, my former employer asked me if I’d be interested in working with our fledgling practice in India. Said employer’s travel policy allowed business class for flights in excess of 7 hours, so needless to say, I got hooked on international business class really quickly. After I was done with that role, I ended up in a new one that required a decent amount of domestic flying, and thanks to the status I’d built up from years of buying international business class tickets, I’d get spoiled with upgrades to domestic F about 2/3 of the time. It got to where I used to look at the free drink and crappy meal as a reward on a Friday evening for being such a good foot soldier – and not as the treat I would have viewed a trip in First Class say 10 years ago. So yeah, I get your feeling of jadedness…

    Incidentally, I used to tell co-workers that once you’ve flown business class internationally, you’ll never want to go back to coach. I had to fly coach to India for the first time in about 9 years earlier this year. Not only did I survive, I have to say it wasn’t even that bad…

  12. To add to your perspective, make sure you write some reports from the back of the plane, including flying international. I can’t fly in business for my job, even intl, so the travel planning takes longer and the trip is more painful. Just reviewing the front of the plane is not the full story. My most recent DL flight was probably the best ever, partly due to new Y interiors and new IFE. I didn’t know it would be that good; it was dumb luck.

  13. When I asked a BA flight attendant whom I met at a social gathering, I asked which aircraft he flew. Usually 747; sometimes 777. When i asked if he ever worked in coach, he looked horrified. Never! There are more than passengers who want to be up front.. And it shows.

  14. When I met a BA flight attendant whom I met at a social gathering, I asked which aircraft he flew. Usually 747; sometimes 777. When i asked if he ever worked in coach, he looked horrified. Never! There are more than passengers who want to be up front.. And it shows.

  15. I like this post. I think the best thing to do is just to recognize it. That’s probably the best way to combat the issue, but even there, it’s probably a bit hopeless. I feel the same thing happening to me, especially with hotels. We try to keep it in mind when booking things, but it’s hard to fight the upward creep.

  16. Personally for me sitting up front is still a big deal. I get it maybe 2-3x per year and it’s always a treat. Heck, getting free lounge access is appreciated. Maybe that’s why the trip reports aren’t always my favorite posts. Ho-hum, another write up about luxuries that I probably won’t experience anytime soon. Meanwhile I’m hoping that my next flight is at very least on mainline metal and not another CRJ!

    That said I have a friend who is a true road warrior. Flies out every Monday and back on Friday with easily 4+ flights between cities in-between. He said that he hasn’t seen a coach seat in over a year. He also said he’s going to quit his job and find one with ZERO travel. “No first class experience is better than spending time with your family.” That’s perspective and I promise to complain less about my meager flying, even if it’s in the back.

  17. Hi Brett,

    As a former airline employee, there was a stretch where a confirmed seat in coach was actually something to look forward to. There was some strange feeling of satisfaction knowing that the airline *has* to get you there, even if the timing isn’t guaranteed. (While on-time percentages suck, completion factor is generally higher than 98%, so if you’re on a non-stop flight, you can pretty much count on getting there that day. Missed connections are a different story.)

    I hear you on how the “impress me” bar keeps moving higher and higher. I’ve done really, really with the FF game, and have flown business or first class all over the world on a variety of international carriers. Next up is the Singapore Suites to Sydney, return on Qantas F connecting to the new AA A321 premium product. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. The sad thing is, like you, premium cabins to me are becoming more like transportation and less like a “luxury” experience.

    But where I think you’re a bit off in your thought process is how you’re feeling a bit bad about your criticisms of your HA inflight experience. Keep in mind that if you actually had to pay for your ticket, you’d be looking at a fare that is a multiple or three of a coach fare. Because I have had the flight experiences that I’ve had, I have a good feel for what’s out there and what’s worth it. If [fill in the blank] carrier wants to charge $500 for a r/t transcon in coach, and $1500 for F, they have to convince me it’s worth the extra money. The more they take away from the premium product, the more likely I’m either to fly coach, or even worse, just not go.

    1. AFAIK, Alaska lowered the price of their first class to aim for selling more seats instead of upgrading folks, for this very reason. They’d rather fill the cabin with people who have been selected to sit there. CF, Has there been any news on how that has been going for them?

      Although the last time I was in AS first, it was the only seat that I could redeem my DL miles for on that plane.

      1. I think its done quite well, although as an MVP Gold I can buy into First Class (Y-UP) for sometimes $100 – $200 more than the fare I am looking at buying, including the longer hauls to Hawai’i. I think that averages about $100 over the fare we presently pay.

        It has been a bit more difficult to upgrade this year compared to last – at least on the flights I’ve taken. And I’m buying more-and-more Y-UP tickets than I previously had.

  18. If you haven’t seen it, check out Louis CK’s rants about everything is amazing and nobody cares. At one point he’s talking about how when the high-speed internet went out on a flight, the guy next to him was complaining that it was BS, and Louis CK says, “How can you be disappointed that this thing you only found out about ten seconds ago is broken?” And, “Are you disappointed? Are you disappointed that you get to ride in a chair, in the sky?” And further, he lays into people complaining about delays, saying, “You fly from New York to Los Angeles in five hours. You realize that used to take years, right? And people died on the way?”

  19. Why do I feel this photo needs some caption, like the Dos Eques most interesting man commerecials.

    “I don’t always fly, but when I do it is up front with a scotch in my hand and protectors over the head phones.”

  20. Back in 2002 I finally went on my first long-distance flight. I didn’t know anything, so I was late for check-in and got a middle seat way back in an overbooked A340. I couldn’t even plead my case, no knowing what 51E on my boarding pass promised: hell on wings. And, because this was Frankfurt to Vancouver, it just wouldn’t end.
    I dreaded the return flight. Waiting in the boarding area, my name was called and a stern German lady (in itself a shocking thing after two weeks in Canada) demanded my boarding pass and instructed me: “You are now in business class.” It took all the discipline I could muster to not dance around the gate and kiss strangers.

    I swore then to never say a bad word about Lufthansa, and I won’t, even if they lost my loyalty last year with their changes to the mileage program.

    But twelve years and half-way back from the moon later, one does get a little jaded. And then earlier this year, I flew west again up front. Business class was about half full (probably the reason why I got an award ticket on that flight to begin with), so I had a double seat of those new Lufthansa units all to myself. Almost like First: a bed by the window and a seat by the aisle for dining. The crew was excellent (the crew, more than flat bed seats and champagne, makes or breaks an experience in the premium cabin).

    Somewhere over the North Atlantic, I looked out of the window and down below a company 747 was slowly catching up with us and overtaking. She was close enough to see the decals. It was such a perfect moment: Way above the clouds in a lonely corner of the planet, this graceful bird was eerily floating by. The beauty of it all makes your heart ache.

    I suppose where I am trying to get to is this: Routine is a good thing. It helps to avoid 51E. One just mustn’t allow it to drown out the wonder. Thankfully, the nature of aviation itself keeps that risk a bay.

    I for one think that the fascination and wonder still radiates from your flight reports even if it is just on a cranky old CRJ down to Phoenix.

    1. add “getting downgraded from First to Economy, only to find yourself in 32E.. middle seat, last row” ^_^

      (but Alaska flyers beware — that is one reason to avoid booking in row 4 on shorter-haul flights. If Alaska swaps out a 737-800 for a 737-400, your seats will vanish. *pOoF*

  21. Much of life is exactly as Brett has written about regarding his airline experiences. Things get mundane and we tend to seek something better,

    1. I believe the phrase is “chasing the dragon”. It’s as real for premium cabin travel as for any other drug.

  22. What Brett says is sharp & honest, but as said above flying itself has degraded over time in the persute of market share & so called profitability. This has caused some great & legendary names such as TWA, Eastern, Midway & Western to vanish or be swallowed up into the quad that is now Southwest, American, United & Delta.

    Also how much of the legends of flying in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s before deregulation are just that – legends with little basis in truth.

  23. Another aspect of memories relates to the standards of “then” vs “now”.

    My first trip that I can recall was in a Douglas DC3…and I was sick.
    The second in a Douglas DC6b…sick again.
    I managed to keep my food down in the next, which was a Vickers Viscount, but it was a noisy screaming aircraft.

    However, the food, seat pitches and reclines were better, and for a young boy, probably luxurious relative to his four foot height. I also remember that after handing in the luggage, it was a short wait to get on the plane. No airport dramas at all.

    However, how weekly travellers today can stand the cramped cabins, I just don’t know. Added to the security system and airport suckiness generally, air travel today is something to be endured, rather than enjoyed in economy class. I suspect that this is not just my rose coloured view of the past, but the truth as evidenced by declining seat pitches and airport hassles.

    International First on the other hand… :)

  24. An airline cuts back on meal service, and customers cry bloody murder because they’re not getting a cheap drink and TV dinner they’d never consume willingly on the ground.

    The couple of times a year I travel long-haul in a premium cabin, I piss and moan if I’m stuck in a non-fully-flat seat or on a “crappy” airline like Air Canada or United. I remember showing up in Bangkok and being livid that I was going to be stuck in a recliner for a five-hour redeye to Beijing. And yet, I regularly commute two hours in Y on a Q400 without complaint.

    One of my colleagues is a rather large (400 lbs.) gentleman who routinely flies the Q400 in Y for two hours as well. He always chooses row 1 despite the fact that these seats are narrower due to the tray tables in the arm rests. His rationale – “My status entitles me to a premium seat.”

    It seems to me there is far more emotion than logic when it comes to premium cabins.

  25. Brett, it’s good for you to be introspective about your reviews and potential biases, but IMO the pros of your breadth of experience far outweigh the cons. By having flown a bunch of different products, you know if a configuration is well-designed, makes good use of space, is comfortable relative to others of similar type, etc.
    I think it’s interesting to note the several comments from people who prefer reviews of “seats they’ll actually fly in” and think that there is an under-filled niche for reviews of Y and Y+ products, along with innovative C and F.
    I think the biggest challenge as a reviewer is overcoming the “sample size of 1” issue…. There are so many factors unique to any given flight experience that will be different from most others — from the condition of the particular airplane you get, the friendliness and service levels of the GAs and FAs you encounter, how full the cabin is on your particular flight and if you have a pleasant or not-so-plesant seatmate, etc.
    I think you do a good job with this — just saying I think it’s by far the bigger challenge for you to keep in mind than your level of jaded-ness.

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