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When the Sky's the Limit : First-class airline passengers pay thousands more than coach. But what do they get for it?


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"?

Since 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 other questions.

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?

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

Are the first-class seats really as roomy as Homer Simpson's Barcalounger?

American Express estimates that 8.8% of airline passengers fly first class. But airlines are not telling how many of these passengers are paying full, first-class fare, which can be 10 times as much as economy fares. Insiders believe those who do pay rarely are spending their own money.

"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.

"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."

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, wrote in an opinion piece for the Web site.

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

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.

International first class, he said, is the poshest.

So, what do you get?

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 you 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.

Once aboard, expect that you will have a good 6 feet of leg room--fairly standard in first class, travel industry sources say. That's compared with coach, where you typically won't find more than about 35 inches between your seat and the next row.

Stretch out flat, if you like, in the "seat" created by yacht designers. You are in your own mini-cabin now, with partial privacy screening in pear wood finish and your own retractable entertainment center, a guest seat for visitors.

When you are ready for a snooze, your own electronically adjustable seat folds out into a 6-foot-6-inch bed where you can wear complimentary pajamas and tuck under a duvet or "tartan blanket." There are two double mini-cabins for couples.

A nonstop parade of food and spirits is offered throughout your flight. Cocktails and canapes arrive first, followed by this typical menu: selection of smoked salmon, grilled Mediterranean vegetables with fresh herbs, salad and a choice of entrees.


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