As a developer evangelist, I am a road warrior. “Road warrior” of course being a term that people use to try and make their failure to get a job that doesn’t require constant travel sound like a cool thing. It’s not a cool thing. It’s miserable.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s also great. I love travel. I’m in Seattle right now and it’s an awesome city. I’ve had the weekend to myself and due to some serendipitous travel planning failures it’s been a long weekend, too! I went up the Space Needle and watched people throw fish at each other. It was great.
I don’t even complain that much about air travel. Yes, it’s miserable, but I still think of airports as magic portals. I can enter through a door in Berlin and less than 24 hours later I can be almost anywhere on earth. Sure, those 24 hours are miserable 24 hours, but still! That’s pretty amazing.
In many ways air travel has never been better. People like to complain that flying on Economy is uncomfortable, everybody is grumpy and you are getting nickel-and-dimed every step of the way. All of this is true, of course, but the upside is that you can fly to the other side of the world for as little as a few hundred Euros. That’s pretty amazing!
It didn’t use to be that way. People are nostalgic for the wonderful days of pre-deregulation air travel, where you could board a brightly colored Braniff plane with unlimited leg room, amazing food and flight attendants who changed into a different uniform every hour.
But here’s the thing. If Economy back then felt more like Business class today, it’s because it cost as much as Business class today. And that was your cheapest option. I have some bad news for those of us complaining about the Economy experience today, pining for the good old days: we wouldn’t have experienced the good old days, because we wouldn’t have been able to afford a plane ticket. Sure, your flight may be miserable today, but at least you are flying.
Let’s be clear on this as well: we trained the airlines to make flying miserable. We don’t buy our plane tickets based on service quality, legroom or even brand. We buy our plane tickets based on price. Every single time. So airlines compete on price, which means no leg room, no service, no hand luggage and no free coffee.
Do you feel that gate crews are grumpy and constantly overwhelmed? Well, if we want them to be friendlier and less overwhelmed, we need to hire more of them and pay them better. Turns out that’s a price we’re not willing to pay. Literally.
Of course if you could have afforded a plane ticket back then, you’re even better off now. Even ignoring the epic sexism of the “air strip” (yes, that was a thing), I doubt that things were all that great back in the day. Check out this promo shot for Braniff International Airways’ First Class on a 747.
Yes, those are big seats with great leg room, but they’re not exactly lie-flats, are they? You might think the food was better, but does that “Branwich” on the right (yes, also a real thing) look all that appetizing to you? It’s not like the physics of air travel were any different back then. They still had to reheat the stuff, the fish was overcooked (to prevent it from killing you) and to make you taste anything at 30.000 feet they had to add way too much salt. Just like today. You will also notice the lack of individual screens with a selection of recent movies at your disposal. (And that’s an improvement that’s often available in Economy as well. Not everything has become worse at the non-pointy end of the plane either.)
The reality is that Business Class today often goes way beyond even First Class back then and I’m not even taking into account some of the truly premium offerings like The Residence. Yes, you can have your own room on a plane these days if you pay enough.
What I’m working up to is that I got an upgrade into Business on my flight over here. Which was nice and I want to brag about it. More importantly and by popular demand, I want to write a review of the experience. (When I say “by popular demand”, I really mean that one friend indirectly suggested that I might do so and I’m nothing if not accommodating to my friends. Hi Justin!)
There is a large body of work on the Internet with definitive advice on how to get one of those coveted surprise upgrades, also known as “op-ups” among the kind of people who think excessive air travel is somehow a badge of honor instead of a questionable use of earth’s finite resources. You know, people who refer to cities by their airport codes instead of their names and brag about getting upgrades. People like me.
Anyway, as far as I can tell all of this advice is wrong. Show up really early! Show up really late! Be super-polite! Get mad! NEVER WEAR JEANS.
Every time I’ve gotten an upgrade I’ve worn jeans. I always wear jeans while travelling. They’re comfortable, warm and robust. If it’s good for riding a horse, it’s good for riding an A380. I never get mad, but I’m also not the super-friendly type of person while flying. Or ever, really. I couldn’t fake it if I wanted to. (By the way, if I’m leaving you with the impression that I regularly get upgrades, then that is intentional if not at all reflective of reality.)
As far as I can tell, the way to get an upgrade into Business is the same way to get into Business in the first place: spend a lot of money. Every time I’ve gotten an upgrade I had the most expensive type of (Premium) Economy ticket available. Having status might help, too. But then again having status is just a way to confirm that you’ve spent a lot of money, isn’t it?
So when we’re on a 639€ ticket from Berlin to Vegas, we shouldn’t get our hopes up. It’s probably not happening, so let’s just wear jeans, politely decline the awful food and enjoy our chance to catch up on some superhero movies. It’s just 12 hours, we’ll make it.
Of course I still haven’t started the review that was supposed to be the whole point of this article. I may be procrastinating with good reason. There’s two ways to look at it, really. First, nitpicking a free upgrade really seems kind of ungrateful. Second, nitpicking a Business class flight in general really, really feels like #firstworldproblems.
But what are friends for, if not premium cabin reviews, so here goes.
First, let’s talk about the upgrade itself. I got it right at the gate. My boarding pass bleeped red, the gate agent went “oh” and I was certain that I was completely screwed. (But not royally screwed. BA sometimes uses a suggestive crest-like logo but doesn’t actually hold a Royal Warrant.) My suspicions seemed confirmed when the agent asked me “so how would you like it if you could sleep through your flight?”
Keep in mind that it was early morning and this was a day flight, so my first instinct was that he was rebooking me on a later flight. A much later flight. Turns out it was just an awkward way to sell me on the joys of a lie-flat seat. Anyway, here’s my review:
10/10, would get a free upgrade again.
Things are a little different if you’re paying for the seat, though. While still way better than anything further back in the plane, BA’s Business Class is not exactly a top-notch product. The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s really no storage. There’s a drawer for your shoes and, well, that’s it? You’re apparently supposed to put the rest of your stuff inside your shoes.
Not knowing where to put your things contributes to the claustrophobic feel of the overall experience. The seat is very narrow, so narrow that you almost feel like you might roll into the aisle at any time. Then again, at least I had an aisle seat. Many seats don’t have direct aisle access, so people kept clambering over each other.
You know, like the PEASANTS back in Economy. Ugh.
Seriously, it’s just not a well-designed seat. There’s only half an armrest on the right, the buttons aren’t in easy reach and you need to contort yourself to get to the power outlets. There’s also this really weird “foot stool” that requires its own manual to be operated and looks like a jump seat, but can’t be used as such. It feels…British. You know, ambitious but rubbish.
The headphones you’re provided with are also surprisingly uncomfortable. Seriously, just bring your own. That said, the entertainment system was excellent. The flight was on a refurbished 747, which comes equipped with the latest Panasonic in-flight system. The screen is great, the interface is very responsive and BA always has a decent selection of recent movies. I watched Dr. Strange which made for a good in-flight movie, which is to say it makes the same amount of sense whether you doze off in the middle or not.
Speaking of doctors, BA is really keen on calling me “Dr. Süselbeck”. I’ve previously noticed this at the desk and gates, but when you’re flying Business they really double down on it. I’m always worried they’ll ask me to help with a medical emergency. “Yeah, he’s suffering from a race condition. Have you tried turning him off and on again?”
Then there’s the food. I’m not a food person. Possibly because I’m allergic to most organic substances in the known universe. I did enjoy the crayfish salad thing they had as a starter. I wouldn’t usually have chosen that, but it was the only thing that looked like it wouldn’t try to kill me. The chicken was bland, but then again the beef would have been dry, wouldn’t it? I don’t know, you have to ask someone else about food.
I did learn however, that there is such a thing as an official wine of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. It’s called the “Purple Cowboy Trail Boss” and I had it just because of the name. It tasted like red wine I guess? Again, you need to ask someone else. Do you even drink red wine with chicken? Turns out I really am a peasant.
So yeah. It was brilliant, but mostly because it was free. I’m heading back home today and given the British Airways Travel Chaos ™ of the last few days I’m a little worried. On the other hand I bet the flights are overbooked and there might be more opportunities for more free. If so, brilliant! If not, at least I’ll be flying Premium Economy. Knowing Justin I’ll have to review that, too.