“I have some good news”, my husband texted me with a smiley. “Call me.” I was in Calcutta, eating mangoes*, and missing him sporadically. When I called, he announced, “I got you first class for your flight back.” First class on Emirates from Calcutta to New York costs 25K to 30K dollars. We definitely do not have that kind of money to throw around. Even if we did, I would not want to blow it on a single flight. But, it turns out, with points on the right card, you can get a first class seat for little more than the price of coach, which is what my clever husband had done.
I was excited. This promised to be the decadent experience of a lifetime. First class on European or American carriers means comfort. First class on the Middle Eastern carriers is reputed to be pure unadulterated pampering.
The experience begins. When you board the plane in Calcutta, you are shown to your suite. Yes, suite. It occupies the space of 6 or 8 seats, and comes with a full-wall TV, mini bar, and “privacy” door.
You may already have raised eyebrows at this point, but the real shock doesn’t even come until you get to Dubai and use the First Class Lounge. It is, I’m told, the biggest in the world, with fountains and bedrooms and restaurants and free massages and excellent service. Most interestingly, it is on the second level, and has its own exclusive entrance to the plane (so that us folk do not have to mingle with the hoi polloi).
The plane from Dubai to JFK (the NYC airport) is an A380, the newest and largest in the fleet. You have the same suite, but this time, you get just that much more. Too much, really. You are given an elegant tote bag with a full set of soft pajamas, slippers and tons of expensive goodies – lotions, perfumes and so on. The large, leather-bound menu has a host of delicious choices, all of which will be cooked specially for you by the chef on board, at any time you please.
On my flight, there were 3 flight attendants for each passenger. Every time I pressed the call button (twice, for dinner and breakfast), three lovely ladies would show up instantly. I swear they keep an eye on you. I had just started opening the packaging of my duvet, when someone materialized and said, “Madam, please let me make your bed for you.” And she did. And this bed was possibly more comfortable than my bed at home!
The full-wall TV can be operated in three ways. It is a touch screen, there is a remote, and there is also an iPad from which it can be controlled. When the flight attendants discovered my iPad was not working, this was cause for major consternation. No matter how much I tried to assure them that it was okay, that I was using the remote, and it was no bother at all, they remained gravely concerned. Several crew members were called in to assist until they finally got it fixed.
There is, apparently, also a janitor on board. His job is to clean the bathroom every single time someone uses it. Each time you walk in, you will find a fresh paper seat cover laid down (I assume, so that you don’t have to touch it yourself), and the seatback lowered on it. After breakfast, when I got out of my seat, the flight attendants apparently divined that I wanted to shower, and one came running over. “Please give us just 5 minutes, madam, while we get the shower ready for you”, she said.When I was led into the bathroom, I found that a fluffy foot rug had been put down, towels had been laid out, and there was two of everything (soap, shampoo, loofah, etc.) waiting for me. Someone demonstrated all the features of the shower to me, including the thermostat to adjust the temperature of the floor, should I feel the need.
When I was back in my seat after my shower, a flight attendant enquired anxiously if the shower had been okay. When I assured her that it had been perfect, she looked relieved. The shower, you see, is on a timer — there being, of necessity, a limited amount of water on board an airplane. There is an indicator that shows half-full, quarter-full, and so on. There really is plenty of water — I take pretty long showers, and I used only half the allotted amount. It turns out, though, that this is a frequent cause of complaints; hence, the anxiety.
I knew there was a bar on board, and I eventually asked where it was. “In business class”, another lovely lady explained apologetically. “You can use it, of course, but we just have an exclusive lounge in first class because our guests prefer not to mingle.” Yes, who would want to mingle with those low-lifes in business class?
The cherry on the icing of this cake was when the person serving my breakfast said, “Please forgive me for being a lefty.” I couldn’t stop myself. “Why on earth would you apologize for that?”, I exclaimed. A faint expression appeared on her professionally pleasant face. “Well, I deal with Arab sheiks all the time, and they would be very offended if I didn’t”, she explained.
To tell you the truth, I found the experience troubling. I mean, who are these people that expect all this bowing and scraping? In what world do they live? Standing in line for a cab at JFK, I thought to myself, “Welcome back to reality”.
*Footnote: Calcutta mangoes are vastly superior to mangoes found in any other part of India or the world. With their taste, texture, flavor and aroma, these are fruits fit for royalty. There are several different varieties, each available for about two weeks, going from mid-May to early July. My favorites are Himsagar (known for its sweetness, available in early June) and Langra (known for its delicate flavor, available in late June). The mangoes are typically grown elsewhere (in states like Bihar and U.P., or other parts of Bengal), but seem to find their way exclusively into the Calcutta markets. Summers in Calcutta are incredibly hot, and winters are lovely, so I tend to visit in January. I hadn’t tasted a Calcutta mango since the summer of 1999. And yes, they were just as good as I recalled. Even better.