A First-Class Experience

I love flying and still get a little thrill every time I board a plane.  The first time I flew was in 1995 when I was going on a summer package holiday to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. Being pre 9/11 and flight security being totally different to what it is 20 years on, I and my brothers got to go up to the flight deck and speak to the pilots mid-flight!  I loved the take-off and landing and the food that came in the little foil containers on a tray, I remember thinking it was all a great adventure. Although I now fly regularly for work and have been lucky enough this year to have flown to New York, Copenhagen and Glasgow to attend different conferences, I still get a thrill from flying and always look forward to it. So I was in a bit of a dream like space in August when I was flying to Vancouver to begin my new research project and I received an unexpected upgrade to first class.

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I have a family contact who works for a leading British airline so I am able to get drastically reduced economy flights. However, these are always standby seats, so I am unsure when I arrive at an airport if I am going to get on the plane, as full-price passengers always come first. On some occasions I have not been given a seat till entering the plane. This time I was told that there were plenty of seats available, so I was checked into the flight, and given a seat in economy. But I was told to ask at the gate in case there had been any changes and there might be a chance of an upgrade to business or first class. Arriving at the gate my ticket was taken from me by the assistant and I was told to listen out to an announcement for my name. A short while later I heard my name called over the public address system and I received a new boarding pass and found I had indeed been upgraded. As I walked onto the plane, with my new boarding pass in hard, I was directed by a member of the cabin crew to a little flight of stairs inside the plane which lead to the upper level and into the dome of the aircraft. As I had only ever walked past these stairs before on my way to the less spacious conditions at the back, and I am more used to flying with budget airlines like EasyJet, I could barely containing my excitement and feeling like a little child, climbed the stairs into this unseen world.

I was met by a steward and stewardess who smiled and glancing at my passport and boarding pass, and I was then showed to my seat. From my seat at the front of the airline I could see into the open fight deck and the pilots getting ready for take-off. As I was putting my bag away into one of the many spaces I had been allocated, and taking in my surroundings, I was offered champagne by the steward. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth I accepted! When the stewardess returned with my drink, which came in a real wine glass (obviously first class passengers can be trusted not to break such things and use the broken glass as an implement to highjack the plane) I was handed a menu and wine list to peruse. The stewardess informed me she would return to take my order in a little while and if I wanted anything, to let her or her colleague know right away.

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As I watched other passengers board the plane and take their seats, the socialist in me was beginning to feel a little guilty at the air of exclusiveness portrayed here, but the sociologist in me was fascinated by this side of air travel that I had never had access to before. So over the next 9 hours of the flight, whilst enjoying myself immensely, I did not want to waste this experience, so I heeded Sara Delamont’s advice and put my ethnographic skills to the test by recording my observations through taking field notes. They are quite brief but I wanted to share them somewhere and this blog seems to the place to do it, so here’s a list things of things I noted down.

  • The compartment was made up of 16 reclining bed seats [photo], which made for a much more pleasant travel experience with more space for each passenger and the abiity to ignore others around you.
  • A small number of cabin crew to deal with all passengers, who seemed to remember the names of everyone and used them repeatedly when serving means and beverages. Uber polite and uber efficient. I wonder if first class cabin crews get paid more?
  • Champagne in real glasses
  • Some rear facing seats
  • Hot towels (a long forgotten delight in economy)
  • No cider in first class!!!
  • A wine list with a variety of different vintages, not the usual ‘red or white’ choice
  • A choice of newspapers, with plenty of copies of the Daily Mail being selected by other passengers
  • Multiple opportunities for further drinks (and nuts)
  • Provided with a menu with a variety of food choices [photo] (Salmon, Beer and Mango and Raspberry tort btw)
  • All meals delivered with metal cutlery, china plates and tea served in china mugs (again first class does not seem to have the same issued with security!)
  • A small leaflet explaining how the seat works and which buttons to press to turn it into a bed

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  • Bigger TV screens
  • Bigger Trays
  • Dividing screen between passengers, which the cabin crew operate on passengers behalf
  • Bottled water instead of little plastic cups.
  • Multiple tea and coffee service
  • The ability to sleep and therefore feel good when landing. I imagine this would help business types perform important business type decisions on arrival!

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One of the biggest things I took away from this experience is that other passengers didn’t look ‘super rich’, so it challenged my ideas of what types of people travel first class and how social class is not always so easily defined by just having access to capital. In my last post I talked about Goffman’s theory of social inattention, and while there were certainly instances of passengers ignoring each other, for example when the steward or stewardess was leaning over one passenger to pass meals to the other, there was a general friendly atmosphere.

However, the biggest thing that came out of this flight and in keeping with all good social science research, l think a lot more further research (and in particular participant observation of first class flights by myself) needs to be conducted into these issues!

Next Friday I will write a little bit about my ongoing project as the interviews are taking place thick and fast here in Vancouver.

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