An ever popular topic in the media is to write articles reminiscing about the so-called “Golden Age of Air Travel”, referring to the 1960s to 80s. A quick Google search will throw up dozens of write-ups about how amazing and luxurious air travel was in those days with big comfortable seats, beautiful air hostesses and sumptuous meals, and how today air travel has become uncool, tedious and uncomfortable. But is it so?
Truth be told, the Golden Age of air travel is now. Airplanes today are faster, safer and more comfortable than “those days”, connecting the world in ways never thought possible, with comforts and amenities never imagined then. Flying today is faster- you can fly across the world non-stop from Dubai to Auckland (Emirates), or Sydney to Dallas (Qantas), or Atlanta to Johannesburg (Delta) in under 20 hours, safer- number of accidents being in the order of 1 in millions of flights compared to a much higher number in the 60s and 70s, cleaner- smoking was allowed in-flight then, quieter- try flying on an MD-80 to get a feel, and more comfortable with mood lighting, TV screens and Wi-Fi at 35,000 feet. Big seats were nice then, but today we have lie-flat beds and private suites with multi-course gourmet meals and drinks.
You must be wondering, what are you talking about? Flights today are about sitting in a cramped seat with one tiny bag of peanuts and a soda, staring at a dull blue seat in front, waiting for the ordeal to end. Well, this is the difference- flying today has become a lot more affordable than it ever used to be, and with that comes the compromise on extra amenities. Typical flight fares in the 60s and 70s, accounting for inflation, were typically 2 to 3 times higher than what we pay today. This makes all those “golden age of flying” articles an apple to oranges comparison. If you want to pay that kind of money to fly, you can still do it and get an enjoyable experience. It is called flying on international Business Class or First Class!
If you are like me, a budget minded traveler who has always traveled Economy class, walking past those fancy Business Class seats looking in envy, here is a virtual tour of experience from the other side- the Golden Age of air travel in 2016-
The special treatment for Business class fliers starts even before boarding the flight. Airlines such as Emirates and Etihad offer a complimentary chauffeur driven car to pick you up from home to the airport. Once at the airport, no need to stand in long queues for check-in and dropping off bags. There is a separate counter with no queue with smiling staff waiting for you. Drop off the bags and you get a card for lounge access.
The next privilege- dedicated security and immigrations counters. Breeze through security in 2 minutes, departure immigration done in another 2 minutes and instead of waiting by the gate, head to the swanky lounge. The GVK lounge at Mumbai may seem a bit over-the-top to some but the complimentary meals, snacks and drinks are a nice start to the trip.
Once boarding is called, First and Business class passengers get priority access to get onboard. This flight from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi operated by Etihad using a Jet Airways plane (Boeing 777-300ER for those who care for details) has Business class laid out in what Jet calls “herringbone layout” so everyone gets an individual seat with a privacy partition and direct aisle access, no need to worry about pesky co-passengers. There is an amenity kit, a big pillow and a very soft blanket present at the seat.
While the rest of the passengers are boarding, a friendly Etihad attendant (they are NOT “air hostesses”) comes to greet and offer a pre-boarding drink- a lemon mint juice, and the meals menu. The food and drinks variety is impressive for a 2.5 hour flight. Meal is served soon after takeoff. The meal comes with fruits and a variety of bread, butter and jam on the sides, all served on real china, not plastic trays.
The biggest differentiator between Business and Economy class travel are the lie-flat seats which turns into a bed at the press of a button. Ah! Gotta love this!
At the layover in Abu Dhabi, Business class passengers get their dedicated security line, much to the disappointment of Economy class passengers whose queue is huge and would take at least half an hour to clear. Once cleared, awaits the Etihad signature lounge (Abu Dhabi is Etihad’s main hub) which is very spacious with a wide spread of food and drinks. The lounge also has a spa where you can register for free massages or shower.
From the lounge, time to head for US pre-clearance. Abu Dhabi has an arrangement with the USA to clear passengers’ immigration during the layover itself, so you can simply walk out once reaching the US. Once again, Business class passengers are directed to an almost empty immigrations area, where for a change, the officers wait for you, instead of you having to wait an hour in queue!
Once the boarding is announced on time and once again First and Business class passengers get to go onboard before others. This is an ultra-long flight of 16 hours and 40 minutes to Los Angeles, operated by one of Etihad’s Boeing 777-200LR (the plane that holds Guinness World Record for longest non-stop flight ever). Unlike the previous flight, this has Business Class seats arranged facing the front, not angled, but staggered so that everyone gets direct aisle access. Very comfortable for such long journeys.
For the long flight ahead, provided is an amenity kit with slippers, eye mask, toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturizer, lip balm etc, a big fluffy pillow and the softest, most comfortable blanket! The friendly attendants for Business class greet everyone by name, provide the menu and offer pre-boarding drink of either orange juice or champagne.
Unlike most other airlines that have a fixed meals schedule, Etihad lets Business and First Class passengers decide their own meals and mealtimes on long flights. The menu lists everything that is available, and the choice is yours when you want to get breakfast, lunch, dinner or a combination of anything from the list!
After finishing the delicious meal, either pick something from the wide variety of movies and TV shows to play on the huge screen in front or turn the seat into a comfortable flat bed and get a nice comfortable sleep for many hours. On such long flights, you can complete an entire night’s sleep, wake up and realize we are only halfway! To make up for it, there are mid-flight snacks such as these amazing madeleine and chocolate cookies-
Finally after 17 hours and almost 14,000 km on non-stop flying the plane touches down in Los Angeles, and it is such a relief it is to just walk out instead of going into a excruciating wait for immigration at the end of such a long flight!
So, you might ask, how much does this experience cost? Answer- can be as low as $40. Yes, that is not a typo, forty dollars and a truckload of frequent flier miles! To be specific, 65,000 American Airlines miles. It sounds like a lot, but if you are in the US, an easy way to get there is to get a travel or airlines branded credit card, many of which offer 50,000 miles as signup bonus if you get it at the right time, and then the dream flight is not that far away! Keep looking and you too can experience what the “Golden Age of air travel” feels like today!