Last night I had the chance to find out how far American airlines (not THE American Airlines, but airlines in general) have fallen in terms of how we define “first class travel.”

On August 3rd, I suffered a broken back courtesy of a fractious horse in Kazakhstan. After spending five days in a BYO hospital in a very rural part of that country (BYO toilet paper, soap, towels, food, hot water, medicines, source of sanitation, meds to deal with horrific food, used syringes left on the floor overnight, you get the picture) I was flown by air ambulance into the perfection of the Canadian Specialist Hospital of northern Dubai. There for six days I almost got to the point of missing the benign neglect of my KZ predecessors. Staff marched in nearly every twenty minutes to make sure I liked breakfast, the staff, the care, the meds, the fruit, and by the way, we’re going to take a pee break right now so we won’t be available for 33 seconds, do you mind?


World Nomads worked hard to find a way to get me home swiftly as soon as my doctor gave me fit to fly orders, so a United Arab Emirates flight was secured with a connection to Air Alaska. My doctor was explicit. I was not to be sitting up. Doing so fired the muscles around my four broken vertebrae, and I had to have access to a reclining chair. So, Business and First Class. Full reclining chairs ONLY.

Doctor’s explicit orders. Communicated to both airlines.

The 12 hour plus UAE flight in Business Class was a picture of luxury, care and kindness. When things cramped, hot water bottles appeared. I slept flat out. I could at least get some rest. Four busted vertebrae are hard to manage but they did all they could to help.

An easy shift through customs given my GOES card sent me to Alaska Airlines where I was booked into first class. I was really looking forward to my first experience with them, given that their CEO Brad Tilden is an Eagle Scout and proud of it, and I planned to use them to head far north some day.

Not now if I can help it.

First of all, while Jeff the attendant helped me load my backpack in the overhead compartment, he professed utter helplessness with the remarkably cold environment of the aircraft. I had already donned my down jacket and I was still freezing. This caused my lower back to start spasming, which isn’t exactly fun in normal circumstances. With four fractured vertebrae it’s a downright party. Even Jeff bitched about how icy it was on board. “Nothing we can do.” He threw up his hands. That was the first class cabin’s stock answer.

I inquired: no blankets. Not even in first class. Oh, and no pillows either. Not even in first class.

I had warm gear. In the hold.

Since sitting back is excruciating, I had to lean forward on takeoff. So as soon as we were airborne, I hit the recline button. The chair went back about three inches.

You have GOT to be kidding me. Really? That’s it? Three inches. That’s what steerage gets you in most planes, but only if you upgrade. This position placed my back in precisely the most painful position possible. Exactly what I can’t tolerate. Now I’m looking forward to a three hour flight of this. Freezing, no pillow, no blanket, and a spasming back.

That’s it. This is what you get for your top dollar, $600 or so first class ticket. No amenities, no reclining seats. You get a fat chair, a cheap salad and they ply you with champagne so that you don’t complain.

Only I couldn’t do that. I had to sit leaning over forward for nearly three hours, my forehead pressed against the bulkhead, the only position I could tolerate, my back in agony, for the entire duration of the flight.

I’d have been happy to get on another flight to avoid this.

First class service, folks. Alaska Airlines style. Oh, and by the way, the wifi didn’t work. I did my level best to get on it, tried to pay the exorbitant, ludicrous $15 for two hours. The online service told me I had an existing account. Okay. So it asked me my secret question: the name of my first pet. I only had ONE first pet. She only had ONE name. It wouldn’t accept that. We went around and around. Then it locked me out. Jeff the attendant was so helpful he asked a helmet-haired woman on another aisle, had she gotten wifi?

“Well of course,” she said. Jeff proudly announced this news to me in that supercilious way that people like to tell you your colonoscopy results in a crowded room.

And this is helpful in what way? This moves the conversation forward how? Because the implicit message, after I had spent half an hour of trouble shooting, was that she clearly could figure it out, and clearly I couldn’t (stupid). Neither could anyone else on the staff. Their service, happy to pay for it, anything to relieve the boredom of jamming my head into the bulkhead for nearly three hours with my back screaming bloody murder at me. Pain meds can only do so much and you cannot be comatose while traveling. Walking is at times required.

At this point, my best guess is that I’ve racked between 1.5 and 1.75 million air miles. A few of those I’ve flown myself as a pilot. I’m also a skydiver, paraglider and bungee jumper. I know and love the air. I’ve flown steerage on Air China with my big toes lodged behind my ear lobes and I’ve flown first class on some of the world’s finest airlines. I do NOT mind giving up some comforts in order to get to an exotic destination and I have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining Bernoulli’s principle to terrified passengers (the theory of lift). I’ve got hours in ultralights and do not mind being in coach one bit if it means I can get where I’m going. I don’t give that much of a damn about privileges. I often take the middle seat because I can. I’m tiny.

And while it’s true that the older I get the more the attendants treat me as though I’ve never set foot on an airplane before (I was flying when their fathers were locating their reproductive equipment) I learn patience, and remember that the young always assume that those of us with deep crow’s feet are universally stupid and inept and can’t possibly ever have done anything interesting.

However when I am severely, dangerously injured, in severe pain, and my condition is clearly communicated in advance to an airline which does absolutely nothing to provide even the slightest of comforts such as a bolster pillow or a blanket, given that my day had begun in Dubai at 2 am, information that they had available, this kind of treatment was beyond my comprehension. It was a total breakdown in every way, shape and form, and I am going to make sure that my entire network knows about it. From my travel community who needs to understand what they are paying for, to those thinking about who to use next.

I checked pricing for first class tickets on Alaska Airlines today. The fare was $600 for the same one way ticket from Seattle to Denver. For an ice cold airplane that even Jeff, the attendant complained about. No pillow, no blanket, nothing more than a fat chair up front and a crummy bottle of cheap lotion in a marginally more pleasant bathroom. A wilted salad that I couldn’t eat, booze I don’t drink and a headache from shoving my head into the bulkhead because of non-reclining first class seats.

Makes a good story.

But not a good performance. When an overemphasis on cost cutting and returns to the shareholder result in this kind of service, we are in trouble. When we as a public accept this kind of crap service, performance, delivery and call it, smiling, “first class,” we are by definition, delusional. If you as a thinking human being are willing to slap down the better part of a grand for nothing more than boarding early and a glass of cheap champagne? A slightly wider seat? The temporary illusion of superiority over the masses in the “jungle” (as as economy is called)? you have been taken for the proverbial ride of your life. And they are laughing all the way to the bank.

Shame on all of us. Indeed. Shame on ALL of us for accepting junk for fine jewelry.