Junior Manson Tung will be teaching at Hong Kong Summerbridge from June 21-August 15. He will be writing periodic blogs about his experience living, working, and traveling around Asia.
“Mr. Tung, is there anything I can do to make your trip more comfortable?” the flight attendant asked. For 11 hours (SFO to Tokyo Narita, approximately 5,801 miles), I was greeted with only happy chirps of “Mr. Tung.” Why this privileged existence? I was flying first class.
My mother and I made a bargain when I applied for my internship in Hong Kong. If I could get it, she would use our miles for business class round trip. The odds were stacked in her favor. Nearly everyone I had talked to about Hong Kong Summerbridge told me to apply, but quickly added, “Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get in.”
To my surprise, when I was accepted, my mother held up her end of the bargain, and here I was four months later sitting in the first-class lounge at San Francisco International Airport.
To be completely honest, United Airlines’ attempt at first-class luxury at SFO was halfhearted at best. I have seen the incredible lengths that some global airlines (mainly Asian and Middle Eastern) go to, to please their top clientele.
Although the check-in-counter was strategically placed closest to the security checkpoint and sheltered from other aisles, there weren’t any real additions besides a token fake orchid and a small rug.
At the Hong Kong airport, passengers merely take seats on Italian leather couches while attendants swirl around them, checking passports and confirming seat reservations while the clients play on their phones.
In comparison, San Francisco seemed pedestrian.
Another negative of the first-class experience was the dismal food selection inside the much vaunted first-class lounge.
I was expecting white glove service. After all, this trip was costing us hundreds of thousands of mileage points. Even my Singapore uncle (he flies business, thanks to his company) told me that the lounge food is the best part of the experience.
So I was taken aback by the mediocre sandwich spread, sad sushi selection (the unagi felt like a car tire on my tongue, whereas typically it melts in my mouth), and Velveeta-like cheese. On the other hand, the bar (carrying both soft and alcoholic drinks) was well stocked.
The feeling I got from United was that it’s cheaper to keep clients plastered than to give them world-class food.
Another negative surprise about first class is on the plane itself. One of the biggest changes from coach to first is the lack of human interaction. Just as technology has dehumanized the flying experience, so has physical distance. My seat position, 1K, meant that I didn’t see another passenger unless I went to the restroom.
At times, it was easy to forget that other people were even on the plane. The only conversation I had was with the flight attendant.
The other negative to first-class travel was the slight pang of guilt that I felt as I zoomed ahead of the jockeying masses eagerly awaiting their turn to step on the plane.
I barely had to slow down as the attendants parted the sea of swarming humans. I held the elevator door open for several elderly passengers in wheelchairs, but I got pushed up by the surging crowds.
But just as I was feeling bad, United Airlines stepped in to remove any remorseful feelings. First- and business-class passengers are separated on the skywalk, by partitions originally and then by entire levels of the double-decker plane. After this point, I didn’t glimpse a coach passenger for the entirety of the flight.
But it wasn’t all negative. My favorite part was the food on the plane. Spring rolls, chicken cutlets, omelets, shrimp tempura, sushi rolls, cheese and fruit selections and Alaskan halibut were all available to us at any time.
The main difference in the culinary department, besides the sheer amount of selections, was the setting. Gray linens, glass cups, and actual silverware greatly enhanced the experience. Another improvement: the tray table tripled in size and folded out rather than down, giving me more freedom of movement.
But the seats were what made a really positive difference. At the push of a button, my chair turned into a lounge chair and then a fully flat bed. This was by far the biggest difference, and I walked off the plane not in lumbar area agony, but refreshed and ready to roll.
I guess that’s the real point of first-class, to feel excitement after 11 hours instead of exhaustion.
But until I find an employer or the hundreds of thousands of mileage points to pay for it, you’ll find me jockeying for space with the masses in the future.