Mile-High Class Warfare

Not long ago, I was accidentally seated in First Class on a flight from Portland to Houston. Accidentally, because there were no seats available back in steerage when I booked the flight, courtesy of my husband’s frequent-flyer work miles. The news of my good fortune came via my check-in 24 hours prior to the flight.

Do clouds look better from First Class?

Do clouds look better from First Class?

I did a happy dance right there in the living room with our hound, Scout. Scout was born in an undisclosed location, then discovered in a dumpster off highway 219 in Cherokee county, North Carolina living with her two brothers. She landed in the lap of luxury when she was adopted by us. When I say luxury I mean two squares a day, a faux sheepskin-lined dog bed, a rolled-leather collar and owners who don’t mind a French kiss now and then. Scout understands accidentally finding yourself in First Class.

The morning of my flight I awoke at 2:00 a.m. and touched my toes to the wood floor beside the bed. Recalling my lucky break, I decided to begin my travel day feeling a titch less resentful of the major airline I was flying than I almost always am. I was chatty and magnanimous with my taxi driver, a young woman planning a second solo trip to Thailand a few months off, and offered free advice on travel and writing. I smiled at the TSA folks. Granted, I also got to go through the pre-check line, which already had me in my happy place.

Normally relegated to boarding group 5, which is reserved for the unwashed, the unfaithful flyers, the ones who shop for the best deals on flights rather than go for reward miles, and who think an airline-sponsored credit card is just an inch away from pandering, I stood casually elegant yet hyper-aware in group 1. In my left hand I held a $12 magazine I had snagged off an empty seat in the airport terminal, which promised upscale living, luxury getaways and how-to-tie-a-bowtie articles. The paperstock was so luxurious and heavy I could barely lift it. Premier boarding was mine, but I glanced surreptitiously around, thinking the entire time, “Soon they will recognize that I don’t belong in group 1. My seat will have been double-booked. I’ll be slut-shamed into the economy cabin where I belong. There sits my ilk.”

I got away with it. I stretched out and still could not use up all my leg room. First, I perused my $12 magazine. Yawn. Then I read the inflight magazine reserved for first class passengers. It’s called Rhapsody. I kid you not. If I tell you too much about it, I am certain that I will be shot by my new handlers: the stewardesses of the First Class cabin.

I read about $10,000 cell phones, those bow ties, and Lenny Kravitz, who is super cool for rich folks now. I took pictures out the window of cloud formations because I could enjoy a window seat and still get out to use the toilet any damned time I wanted to without disturbing my neighbor. No one spoke above a whisper. Including my seat mate, who never said a single word to me in a nearly 5-hour flight. God bless him. The stewardess-wait-staff knew my name and offered me so many beverages that I availed myself of that ease of toilet usage more than I normally would. More than a 6 year-old would even. I received a lemon-scented towel before a hot breakfast of my choice was offered on a cloth-covered tray. Did you know they give first class passengers metal utensils? There are no terrorism concerns in First Class.

A Bloody Mary with my name on it accompanied breakfast, but that was okay because I turned my watch ahead to Central Daylight Time which made it nearly 8:00 a.m. It was the first Bloody Mary I have ever had on a domestic flight which did not require me adding my own smuggled-aboard vodka. Ditto for the second Bloody. My seat mate ordered a “fresh” Diet Coke when his old one had sat too long, which by my watch was 12 minutes.

Morphing into a faux-wealthy person happened so quickly my neck hurt a little from the snap. I found myself being more polite. My inner curser, who doesn’t tolerate stupid well and operates pretty much continually, was quieter and forgiving to a such degree that I wondered if she were banished forever. I even had better posture. Screw yoga.

Was the sunrise really this gorgeous back in steerage? I think not.

I started saying things like, “I think not.”

Five practically pleasurable hours later, I landed in Houston, with 24 minutes to make my connecting flight. On which I would not have a First Class seat. I headed with my roller bag toward the moving walkway. The one with the big sign above it stating clearly, “Stand Right, Walk Left”. Ahead of me, a couple stood conversing on the moving walkway. On the right and on the left.

“Excuse me,” I said, still polite from my First Class experience and because I was raised in Minnesota where politeness is taught in schools. Along with snow shoveling techniques and the rules of ice hockey. In fact, in Minnesota, you don’t even say “ice hockey” because the other kind is stupid. Except we’re too polite to say that to your face.

The illiterate woman standing in my way on the moving walkway, turned to me and said, “Well, SOMEONE’S in a hurry.” I felt my First Class sotto voce curser rise to the surface.

“It’s an airport. We’re all in a hurry, asshole.” The guy behind me added “Yeah!” in a squeaky voice. He needs advice on being a wingman, but I appreciated the effort.

After settling into seat 26D I looked around. My seat mate seemed sweet, despite the odor coming from what I guessed was lunch in the bag on her lap. My seat wasn’t three feet wide, but it reclined and was covered in leather. The stewardess joked around, and even though the soft drinks weren’t freshened every 12 minutes, we all accepted that as our lot. We even worked out the whole getting-up-to-go-to-the-toilet ballet without pepper-spraying each other. I managed to survive the 40-minute flight among my ilk, the compadres of Economy Class and came back down to Earth.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. A rare glimpse into that shining and distant Promised Land. Don’t get too used to it.

  2. so you. Soooo you. Love it.

  3. I’m so jealous. I could only dream of getting bumped into first class. With my long flights coming up this weekend I contemplated getting first-class seats but I backed off. Yes once again I will ride coach style or 12+ long grueling hours. But it will be worth it in the end. Glad you made it to Houston. Hope all is well.

  4. Such an enjoyable read even though you used multi-syllable words.

  5. I really enjoyed this as that happens to me a lot with the FF mile upgrades I get. Always brings me back down to earth when I’m back down with the cattle.

  6. Wonderful. It’s fun to be the Star-Bellied Sneech every once in a while.

  7. I had been upgraded several times flying! It’s not fair, once you know what’s going on beyond that First Class Curtain…it’s hard to go back to babies crying, sweaty guys next to you, smoosed in between too many people, seating. Even though…I still love to travel!

  8. This is such a great story. I ended up a couple of years ago accidentally on first class and didn’t realize it. I told my friend to watch out for the drinks cause it would cost a fortune. She said …. nope we are in 1st class baby. I was still scared to ask for anything for fear I would be told to move to the right section.

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  10. My husband and I took the first flight of our lives together in our mid-fifties. We are now 62 and 65 and have taken one flight a year since them. I still consider us novices, although the panic is gone while going through baggage, security, and finding our gate. We sat in economy on one trip to Palm Springs, my husband by the window, me in the middle and a gentleman in the aisle seat. The stranger was totally wired with ear buds, iPad, iPhone and totally ignoring everyone around him. The flight attendant came around with drinks, which all three of us ordered. I half-turned in my seat to hand my husband’s drink to him as he was snoozing already. While I was turned, the flight attendant set my drink on the edge of my tray. I did not know she had done this and when I turned back to get mine, my hand knocked an entire glass of orange juice into the man’s crotch next to me. Ice and juice, he was cold cocked and this was at the begining of a four-hour flight together. He was understandably SO upset. He stood and yelled Jesus Christ and went to the bathroom and the flight attendant said “too bad”. The quiet cursing, the sighs, the head shaking and eye rolling during the next four hours was unbearable. I felt terrible and apologized and after constant barrage of disgust, ended up crying a little. My husband pretended we didn’t know each other. When the flight ended, the stranger totally apologized for being so upset and said he realized I did not know the flight attendant had set the glass there. AWKWARD! (I’m from MN too.)

    • Oh, Denise. I hope you’re laughing about it now, because I sure am. Thanks for the great story! I learned a lesson on air travel a couple of decades ago, from a pair of brothers who were in their early 20s. Mark told me his brother was a new and nervous flyer and on a recent flight, Mark had made an effort to help him relax: telling jokes and ordering beverages. Their row-mate in the aisle seat an older guy, frequent flyer-type who brooked no nonsense in his row and continued to put a damper on their eagerness to enjoy themselves. Mark finally asked the stewardess if they were disturbing anyone by their chat or behavior. “Nope!” she told him, and added that she was getting a kick out of their enthusiasm. Their seat-mate never said another word.
      As uncomfortable as modern flying is, my husband and I still make an effort to have the best time possible and we toast Mark and his brother, Michael each flight. Now, I’ll add you to our toasts, Denise. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Oh yes, we are the standout tourists. Our first trip to San Francisco, we took public transportation (bus) to Golden Gate Park. We were very excited passing Haight/Ashbury. We had purchased brilliant yellow jackets in China Town that said “San Francisco” on them and had cameras. Two young women across from us said “You’re tourists aren’t you” and we said “yes, how can you tell?” and they replied “well first of all your jackets, and you’re sitting in the handicapped section holding hands.” Sure enough, the big sign we didn’t see above us said reserved for handicapped. They soon got off and we were the only two on the bus. An obviously inebriated man staggered on the bus with a piece of pizza on a paper plate, took one bite, got off and left the pizza on the seat. Another man got on the bus and said “Oh, pizza!” and finished eating it before he got off. Sad and interesting all at the same time. On the street a man came up to us, looked very poor and ragged, and told my husband that he should put his billfold in his front pocket because he would be an easy target for a pick pocket. The two couples we were with looked disgusted and walked as far away as possible. Bob thanked the man for telling him and the man looked at him and said “You’re nice, you’re not from around here are you.” More of a statement than a question.

        Life is so interesting. I only wish we could travel more. It’s like a fever especially when Minnesota winter sets in. We just got done blowing snow and shoveling after the big winter storm.

        Have a wonderful time traveling. I love your stories on referral from Terri Eastvold Markle.

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  13. It sounds like a wonderful experience! I haven’t made it to first class yet!
    Also – as a Canadian – the hockey comment is so true! It’s not ice hockey, it’s hockey!

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