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The High Life

Do the increased legroom, better food and free drinks of a first-class ticket make the skies any friendlier?

September 02, 1997|NANCY WRIDE and STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The pipsqueak bag of nuts lands on your tray, joined by the complimentary slurp of soda. The reclined seat in front of you begins a rhythmic bounce. The tapping feet behind you are on round 10 of "My Sharona." With a sigh, you lean out into the aisle and gaze longingly through the first-class curtain. . . . Is that the aroma of freshly cooked garlic up there? Are those real linen napkins? And was that Pauly Shore they just called sir?

Because most of us fly in the back of the plane, we can't help wondering who's up front, what they're getting and how much they paid for it.

This summer's tiff at 30,000 feet between the preacher and the steward has simply renewed our interest.

The Rev. Robert Schuller and United Airlines flight attendant Khaled Elabiad have staged dueling news conferences since the incident in late June. To avoid trial on federal charges of assault, the Garden Grove preacher apologized "if" he did anything to upset the crew member, who has claimed Schuller shook him after being refused all the grapes in the plane.

While debate resumes over who provoked the first-class fracas, we had a few other questions.

1. Is the worst that happens in first class that you can't get an offending cheese removed from your plate or hang your robe wherever? (Schuller requested both).

2. How much more does it cost to be served free highballs by people who have memorized your name?

3. Are the first-class seats really as roomy as Homer Simpson's Barcalounger, or are they more akin to the coach legroom experience requiring a modified fetal position?

Once the domain of the rich and those with liberal expense accounts, first class now is routinely open to even coach tourists, thanks to airline mileage programs.

American Express estimates that 8.8% of airline passengers within, to and from the U.S. fly first class. But airlines are not telling how many of these passengers are paying full first-class fare. Insiders believe those who do pay rarely are spending their own money. There can be thousands of dollars in the balance.

"Unless you're wealthy or your company's paying for it or the 'Today' show is flying you out or you just don't care about money, first class is not worth the cost," says Marty Salfen, senior vice president of the International Airline Passengers Assn., which has 400,000 members in 150 countries.

Who buys those tickets?

"Attorneys on cases fly first class, some companies allow their top executives to fly first class . . . a lot of contract people like consultants, speakers, actors, actresses. Anyone on a talk show, that's all first class."

Lawyers and the guests of Jerry Springer--what an image.

While some see this democracy in the skies as a good thing, others wish a little more class awareness could be restored in the skies.

"Few in the American airline business even begin to understand what real service, let alone first class, means. . . . And then they introduced 'rewards' programs, which forever changed the quality of the first-class experience," Ted Carter, editor in chief of Biztravel.com, wrote in an opinion piece for the Web site.

"Me, I'll stick to the likes of Singapore Airlines, British Airways, or friends with Gulf Streams--enjoyable miles for which each has been fully paid."

Carter later admitted by phone that the piece was written to provoke, and that--whether you get there with dough or with miles earned--his bigger gripe would be that first class is not what it used to be.

Basically, he added, the countries with a more pronounced class structure produce better commercial airline service.

"It is true that in some European airlines there is a sense of class distinction. In the United States, we are all born equal, and that's the way it goes. In England, they respect class distinction. So they treat some [people] as aristocracy."

The British seem to have the upper hand on the best first-class service, say travel observers such as Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, based in San Francisco.

He said the trend in the industry seems to be toward adding amenities in first class while "essentially doing nothing" for coach travelers.

And international first class, he said, is the poshest.

What do you get there?

With Virgin Atlantic, the transatlantic first-class experience starts at your front door if you are traveling from Heathrow in London. A limo will fetch and deliver you to the airport. Later this year, all flights out of L.A. and San Francisco will offer complimentary in-flight beauty treatments.

This month, the airline announced it has ordered a fleet of airbuses that will serve top-drawer passengers with private bedrooms, double beds, showers, lounge and gym. Debut date: 2002.

Traveling abroad on British Airways' Boeing 747 is widely viewed as the ritziest of international airline travel--if you don't fly the Concorde or your own plane.

Say you are going to London. Prepare to spend a lot more than your coach ticket of about $1,100. First class runs $10,000.

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