To en­joy first class, it can take a se­cond or two

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ALEXA MCMA­HON alexa.mcma­hon@wash­post.com

“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.

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.

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 a bot­tle of cham­pagne.

I hadn’t picked 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.

Af­ter my din­ner was cleared and I’d watched most of “Fences,” I joined the rest of the cabin and trig­gered the six-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.

IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY BEE JOHN­SON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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