Although it sounds absurdly materialistic, one of the next best things to dying and going to heaven may be flying first or business class aboard a commercial airliner for the first time. It happened to me when I turned 50. After decades of parading by that rarefied territory and wondering what it must be like, decades of cramped quarters, decades of envy, curiosity, and frustration, it was finally time.
I was 50 years old and it was high time, by God, to take a sip of that delicious first growth Bordeaux called first class and just relish the moment. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess to not having paid for the ticket myself, proving once again that in this world it's not what you know, but who you know.
Which, of course, only made the wine taste that much nicer. It was a transatlantic flight, and as we entered the spacious first-class environs of a US Airways Boeing 767, my wife and I were greeted by a smiling flight attendant - and a mimosa. (Since actual first growth Bordeaux sells for over $1,000 per bottle, that particular lapse in service was understandable.) Between the overall very good food, comfortable seating with fully reclining seatbacks, a variety of entertainment and nearly constant attention, the experience was fantastic and - most notably - restful.
The only problem is that once you go there, it's awfully difficult to go back. There's little real advantage to flying first or business class intracontinentally, but the comfort of it on overseas flights is too enticing, to the point of irrationality, almost as if you have an helpless urge to listen to the sirens without being tied to the mast.
It's irrational because it involves real money - lots of it - which most people either can't or shouldn't spend. Multiples of typical coach fares, in fact. And the competition for the world's most discerning consumers who fly a handful of true luxury airlines has created a cost basis that has become over-the-top crazy. But the airlines realize it's a definite moneymaker if they can haul in the right customers.
Here's some of the background of just how much first-class air travel has changed as reported recently in a New Yorker article "Game of Thrones" by David Owen:
"In the early nineties, the best seats on airplanes were still just seats, even if they reclined almost all the way back. Then, in 1995, in first class on some long flights, British Airways introduced seats that turned into fully flat beds, and within a relatively short period airborne sleeping became a potent competitive weapon. ...
"A first-class passenger on the upper deck of some Lufthansa 747s gets to hop back and forth between a reclining seat and an adjacent full-length bed. On some of Singapore Airlines' A380s, a couple traveling in first can combine two 'suites' to create an enclosed private room with a double bed and sliding doors. On some flights on Emirates, first-class passengers who make a mess of the treats in their personal minibar can tidy up with a shower before they land."
Although I'm a lucky guy, I can personally guarantee you I ain't never seen nothin' like that.
Competing for travelers in this way can also be risky. Some first-class cabins on Kingfisher Airlines, based in India, at one time advertised a bar with bartender, a spacious lounge area, as well as a chef who prepared delicacies to order. But guess what? The debt-ridden airline has been grounded since 2012.
Luxury airliners have the challenging tasks of maximizing space efficiency to give those paying sky-high prices the impression that it was absolutely worth it, while considering passenger density outside of first class. As might be imagined, the amount of money spent by airlines on engineering and R&D of these facilities is mind-boggling.
On the other hand, moderation can be risky too. If done properly, premium cabins will contribute disproportionately to an airline's performance through high-ticket prices and by solidifying relationships with well-to-do customers who'll keep coming back for more. Business class can be even more valuable, because those passengers tend not to be so high maintenance, which indirectly reduces overhead.
So it sounds like luxury first-class airline travel is just unbelievably enjoyable - and expensive. But you better watch out. Once you taste that wine, it may be difficult to go back to water, and then you're in a real fix.
Call it the smart phone phenomenon X 1,000.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth