Frequent Flier: The Strange Perks of Business Class

Over the years I’ve lived in Italy, I’ve ended up travelling to the US far more than I ever expected, mostly for work. The first such trip occurred soon after Incat Systems moved to California, in late 1993. I was the technical writer, so I had to meet with the engineers from time to time, and later with other sorts of colleagues. I got into the habit of flying to California four times a year, sometimes staying for extended periods and visiting other parts of the US as well.

My first day at the US office, Whitney, the new American vice-president of the company, asked me if I’d flown business class. The idea had occurred to me, but I didn’t think the big boss would want to pay for it, and had been afraid to ask. “Next time, fly business,” said Whitney. “I’ll take care of Fabrizio.” I was nervous about this, but no one complained when I booked a business class ticket for my next trip.

When I saw Whitney, he immediately asked: “Did you fly business class?”

“Yes.”

He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially: “Good. Never look back!”

And I didn’t. I continued to fly business class on long-haul flights (Europe to San Francisco is at least ten hours), which meant that I was more likely to arrive in working order than if I had spent the trip with my long legs cramped into a cattle-car seat. I racked up the frequent-flier miles, initially on KLM, which we had habitually used for family trips. One of the perks of KLM business class is a gift: a little Delft china house full of gin. I have a shelf of them (still full of gin), but we never figured out how you’d get the big palace (half a litre’s worth) that we saw on display at Schipol airport.

Sometime during all those years of flying, I responded to a piece in theInternational Herald Tribune about business class service on various airlines. I was trying to be funny, something about how on Alitalia there’s no personal video, only a single big screen, so they had to edit James Bond for the family audience – which made the film quite incomprehensible. This letter was printed in the paper. I hadn’t mentioned why I travelled, merely that I worked for Adaptec. So they quoted me as “an executive for Adaptec, a California company.” I guess they figured that anyone who flew that much had to be an exec.

Just as I was beginning the (later aborted) move to California in 2000, British Airways put fully-reclining seats into business class. I have never been able to sleep on my back, and in a partially-reclining seat it’s very difficult to lie on your side. On BA, I was able to really sleep on a plane for the first time in my life – and I needed that sleep. So I became a BA frequent flier, and made so many trips that I shot to Platinum level within six months.

The California thing went sour, and I made my final flight home to Milan in late March, 2001. I was so physically and emotionally drained that, driving my rental car to San Francisco airport, I was seriously afraid that I would have an accident. But I made it, dragged my 200 pounds of luggage to the BA check-in, and collapsed in the lounge. I was grateful to crawl onto the plane, where I wouldn’t be responsible for any person or task for at least 12 hours.

The purser came to greet me: “Ms. Straughan, we see that you’re a very frequent flier with us, and we want to make sure that you’re happy. If there’s anything at all we can do…” I was impressed with this display of customer relationship management, and didn’t tell him that this flight was probably my last, through no fault of BA’s.

I haven’t flown much since quitting Roxio, and never business class. I’ve used up the mileage I’d accumulated on various airlines (not only on myself and my family), but haven’t acquired much new mileage. BA has steadily demoted me; now I’m at plain old Blue level, so I no longer get preferential check-in (I’ll miss that) or lounge access.


Received by email:

“Hi Deirdre,

Just stumbled upon your site whilst reading about travel to India (LP thorn tree) and ended up spending half an hour browsing the various sections! It was very interesting to read your travel experiences but also the Op/Ed pages. You must put in quite some time, my compliments. The reason for sending you a message is this:

“…we never figured out how you’d get the big palace (half a liter’s worth) that we saw on display at Schipol airport.”

A friend of my parents used to be a board member of KLM (now retired). He told me once that this special bottle/house, depicting the royal palace on Amsterdam’s Dam Square, used to be presented to KLM business class passengers flying on their birthday! Of course I don’t know if this is still the case but I thought you might like the answer to your mystery.

Keep up your web site, best regards,

[name deleted for privacy]”

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