Thursday, June 26, 2008

First Class/Business Class

Recently, I flew three long legs (Frankfurt-Bangalore, Bangalore-Frankfurt, Dusseldorf-Toronto) on Lufthansa First Class (on points, I might say). The first leg of the trip, from Toronto to Frankfurt was on Business. There is a difference.

Back in the seventies and early eighties, flying economy was quite pleasant, even for long distances. You'd be served a drink (on Canadian airlines, usually a double) -- during the recession of the early eighties, you'd usually have a seat open next to you, and drinks were free. Then, you'd get a hot meal, with a choice between two main courses. Wine of a mediocre standard would be served. And then they'd come around with brandy.

(That was in the seventies and eighties. Back in the thirties, there was only one class, and here is how it looked (on three different airlines):

The New York Times, from which I got this illustration, points out, however, that flights were much bumpier in those days -- with smaller aircraft and lower altitudes. Indeed, I remember flying prop planes in the fifties -- when you boarded, you hit an olfactory wall of eau de cologne, sprayed to cover the smell of airsickness upchuck.)

When bigger aircraft were introduced (747s), their length demanded an extra galley and toilet station in the middle, and so the plane was divided into separate cabins. Soon airlines started reserving a small cabin in front for people who wanted a little quiet -- no children, no movie, that kind of thing. That was the start of Business Class. Gradually, it became quite a bit fancier, as economy class slid into greater and greater squalor. To compensate for the steep price of full fare economy, airlines introduced some perks, primarily fancy seating and good leg room, and somewhat better food.

Today, business class inside North America, or Europe or Asia is very little different from the economy class of the early eighties. It is attractive only because utter misery prevails behind. Lufthansa's business class from Toronto to Frankfurt was a lot better than even ancestral economy, but it too bore the stamp of its origins. Meals came from a cart; you could get a drink only when the cart passed by; the main course is loaded pre-assembled and heated up on board.

First Class is a different matter altogether, starting with the airport lounge, which is sumptuous, has luxurious meals, bathrooms with a tub you can soak in -- the works. Above, you see a tray in one of Lufthansa's Frankfurt lounges: malt whiskies from Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and Austria. Now who would have thought of that?

First Class too has its origins in the old days, where it was an experience quite distinct from the pleasant but plain fare in the back. Here, there is service. You are addressed by your name, usually by charming, more senior stewardesses, who know how to entertain in the grand style. Meals are assembled in front of you, or in the on-board galley, and brought to you individually; you taste the wine before it is poured; you are not tied to your seat -- there is a bar from which you can serve yourself and chat with the other members of the elite. And there is luxury. Today, brand names are a kind of currency of hospitality, a way somebody knows how much an arms dealer or lobbyist paid to entertain them. This is how it is in First. The champagne is vintage; the wine is from a well-known chateau; the Scotch is 18 years old; caviar is always one of the entrees.

And there was something I thought quite unusual on a plane: soup!

And that most German of delicacies -- fresh white asparagus, which happened to be in season:

By the way, Air Canada has something called Executive First on intercontinental flights; it is a mixture of both. It has the service of First, but not the luxury. The flight attendants address you by name; they are charming senior staff; and included in the crew is a cook who assembles each main course plate on board; there is a stand-up bar. On the other hand, the champagne is Drappier; the Scotch is 12 years old; neither caviar nor fresh white German asparagus is available. But you get a good appetizer, and a main course "cooked" for you on board, and served individually.

A while ago, Joanne Kates wrote a column in which she strongly preferred Lufthansa's Business class food to Air Canada's. I find this hard to believe. (Was she actually flying Lufthansa First?) How can a meal assembled off plane and heated up in a closed container be better than something assembled on-board? Moisture and pressure are the enemies of airline food, and that's why this procedure has mediocre results -- in Economy you have no choice, of course. The Business Class service on Lufthansa's Toronto-Frankfurt leg was almost comic. Everything was served from a cart. When I asked for another glass of red wine, I was told to wait for the next cart -- which happened to be when dessert came through. They had the cheese and nuts on the meal tray, but whisked it away when the main course came -- Did the others eat cheese before meat? The first was nice enough: a warm duck salad, but the main course came with the foil cover on: it was a over-soyed Chinese-"inspired" meat dish with plain white rice and mixed vegetables, which had been steamed under the cover.

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