The first time I flew business class on a long-distance flight was when I was 13. My uncle worked at Gatwick Airport in London, near where I grew up, and got me upgraded when I travelled alone to visit him in Dubai. The experience was wasted on me. I sat there like Little Lord Fauntleroy on my luxurious chequered throne next to a guy involved with racehorses who got drunk on champagne and sang David Bowie songs at me.
The second time I flew business was 20 years later. I arrived at the boarding gate at London Heathrow for a flight to Cape Town to discover that in my hand I held not a boarding pass, but a veritable golden ticket. Beep! I would be going upstairs. “At last,” I thought, “I have arrived.” My assiduous harvesting of air miles and “tier points” had paid its first dividend. I had just been promoted to Silver Status with British Airways. This was my reward, my ennoblement into the upper echelons of international air travel. Look at me, mother! I have taken my rightful place among the corporate nabobs on the palanquin of privilege!
I quickly shut away my socialist leanings in my carry-on luggage and prepared to settle down for an excellent supper, with fine wines and Belgian chocolates, before retiring to my warm, lie-flat sleeping contraption with its cosy duvet for a good night’s sleep. Twelve hours later I staggered off the plane with a toe-curling hangover, having overdone it on the free champagne and not slept a wink, because, well, business class doesn’t shield you from turbulence.
The third time I flew business long distance was much like the second: I drank so much that I can’t remember a thing about it, apart from the fact that I hardly slept. The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh times were like some kind of beautiful dream. I was offered an inexpensive upgrade to Southeast Asia from Joburg via Doha: four connecting day flights, there and back. Business class on Qatar was half-empty. I discovered mid-air luxury is all the sweeter if you don’t need to get a good night’s sleep. I ate, I drank, I napped. I sent back a glass of champagne for being flat.
What had I become? In those heady years of frequent flying, I was a finely greased cog in the flywheel of global travel, speed-walking through airports to the priority lane, my compact portable luggage trailing in my wake with all the necessary accoutrements of maximal comfort (earbuds, sleeping tablets, eye masks), engaging only in minimal interaction with all the other wretched homo sapiens. I would seek to slip through the whole experience like a baby seal being calved, plopping into my destination without pain or inconvenience, an airport-lounge lizard in a grey melange leisure suit, hermetically sealed under a hoodie and noise-cancelling headphones.
Flying is like the gastric flu: it’s unpleasant, but you know it will pass
A recent report in Corporate Traveller suggests that, post-Covid, more people are flying business class than ever before. But who on Earth can afford to fly business class in this day and age of inflation and economic pain, where even the humble onion costs an eye-watering sum?
After the seventh time, my upgrades dried up. Was I prepared to pay for it? Hell, no. Why would anyone pay out the price of a beach holiday for four to suffer a modicum less discomfort for 12 hours? Flying is like the gastric flu: it’s unpleasant, but you know it will pass. Just be thankful you weren’t travelling that distance 300 years ago, when it would have taken you three months.
Since Covid, my privileged status has been annulled, the value of my tier points plummeting like crypto. No more lounge access or priority queues. When I flew back to London in 2021, it felt like the ultimate humiliation for the fastidious long-distance frequent traveller. But as I did my walk of shame to the back of the plane, I wondered: does the business-class traveller cast a mournful gaze at the chosen few in first class? Do the chosen few in first class gaze wistfully at the oligarch being chauffeur-driven across the tarmac to a private jet? Does the oligarch in the private jet howl in anguish at not having a personal space shuttle? It’s all about the levels. It’s about the smug feeling you get when you go upstairs or turn left.
Nowadays, my social-media feed frequently features an advert for British Airways business class, with an image of a man reclining in his lie-flat bed. Yet, his expression is ambiguous: he may be enjoying a pleasant nap, or he may have contracted Covid or scurvy, or he may just be writhing in the inescapable discomfort that comes with spending 12 hours in a pressurised iron tube at 40 000 feet.
It’s been five years since I’ve sat in a business-class seat. Capricious finances, and the unremitting bureaucratic vagaries of the British Airways tier-point system, have conspired to put me back where I belong: in cattle class, my own chicken-or-beef purgatory, among the panicking neophytes of intercontinental air travel and their unwieldy baggage.
No matter. I don’t miss it. I am grounded. My socialist values are intact. I happily take my place among fellow common travellers, the class from whence I came, with my humble G&T and an industrial-strength sleeping pill. Besides, the best sleep I ever had on a plane was in economy. Also, I harbour a secret: a particular seat that, 90% of the time, always has an empty seat next to it. And if you want to know which seat it is, you will just have to earn that privileged information the hard way.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2023.