“First class can now board,” the loudspeaker blared. I perked up. This was my moment. I pushed through the tight crowd that blocked my gate at Los Angeles International Airport.
Still, I hesitated as I approached the ticket counter. A voice behind me asked, “Are you in first class?” Another bellowed, “Are you going?”
“Yes,” I said taking a deep slow breath mostly just to keep them waiting,
They didn’t know it was my first time in first class. Nor did they realize that Brian Tyree Henry - the actor who plays Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on FX’s “Atlanta” - was standing between me and the counter. I wasn’t about to push past him.
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Crossing paths with an actor at LAX wasn’t a surprise, but this time I was sitting an aisle away from one, enjoying the same food, drink and entertainment. Up until I introduced myself, there wasn’t that much difference between my economy-class routine and the premium setup.
(I did relax in the complimentary Delta Sky Club before the flight, but left prematurely to be sure I didn’t miss out on the wonder of priority boarding, which got me caught in a rolling hour-long delay.)
I’m what you would call a frugal airline customer. Last summer, I traveled with a single 11-pound carry-on for a two-week European trip to avoid baggage fees, and I enjoyed every second of it. So I found what was surely the cheapest genuine first-class ticket available on a domestic flight, and I didn’t take the cost, (which exceeded the amount of my monthly student-loan payment) lightly.
Making the switch
I arrived at my single-occupant row and was greeted by Westin Heavenly In-Flight Bedding, noise-canceling headphones, bottled water and a Tumi amenity kit filled with goodies, plus an overhead compartment to myself. A flight attendant popped open a bottle of champagne.
I hadn’t picked just any old premium ticket. I chose Delta One, available on long-haul international flights and select cross-country ones, which sports flatbed seats. Once in the air, I could activate the blue leather seat and go fully horizontal. I booked a red-eye to John F. Kennedy International Airport to see if I could achieve genuine slumber at 30,000 feet.
Before I tried out the 180-degree option, I pressed the massage button and the inner workings of the seat applied pressure to my lower back. I took a sip of bubbly and waited for zone three to board.
I was nestled in my oversize duvet watching “Fences” when the dedicated flight attendant asked, “Will you be joining us for dinner?” It was 11:30 p.m. I chose the hamburger over the cold chicken salad. My tray was quickly covered with a cloth napkin - the white tablecloth of the skies.
What appeared to be a microwaved burger arrived with a selection of condiments, potato chips, an apple tart, some fruit - and my requested wine. I was promptly asked if I wanted a refill.
Time to recline
After my dinner was cleared and I’d watched most of “Fences,” I joined the rest of the cabin and triggered the 6-foot-plus bed. This was where I was supposed to fall asleep. In a reclining position, however, it became unequivocally apparent that I was trapped in a tin can shooting through the air.
I tossed and turned, and twitched into sleep only to be awakened by the sound of flight attendants moving through the aisle. I gasped awake 20 minutes before landing and hastily put my seat in the upright position.
On the ground in New York, the humidity seeped into the cabin. That’s when I truly appreciated the controlled environment of Delta One. I never once worried about the temperature - or anything else. Thirst, hunger, invading someone else’s space - or vice versa. From boarding to exiting the aircraft, I felt cared for.
But I was still uncomfortable. Not physically, of course, but because being seated and stretching out in an “exclusive” seat felt wrong to me at a time when the discrepancies between sections are stark and steadily increasing.
I don’t regret reveling in my heavenly blanket or saying “hi” to Paper Boi in the interest of journalism, but I’m going back to my roots. My next flight is booked in basic economy.