Black caviar, designer pyjamas, French champagne ... there are some plane trips one never wants to end, writes Dugald Jellie.
Can we truly know a lobster at 30,000 feet? It's an existential question asked some time ago, on my first flight in first-class, insouciant in seat 1E with more legroom than was necessary, cotton napery in my collar and confronted with a crustacean and silver cutlery somewhere high over the Pacific.
The flight was from Sydney to Santiago. A TV monitor said the distance to our destination was 11,822 kilometres, which was hardly far enough. Champagne flutes appeared on white marble. I was served fresh figs. Offered Valrhona chocolate. And could lie perfectly flat whenever I wanted. It was my welcome to Zen and the Art of First-Class Travel - or how flying up the pointy end of an aeroplane elicits an inner calm in direct proportion to the number of time zones crossed. A four-hour flight in first could never be long enough. These are journeys one wants not to end.
As it is on Lufthansa, there's black caviar on bone china to be had. Or on Emirates, with its mile-high lounge bar and showers on board. Or Singapore Airlines, with its first-class sleeping suites with Givenchy pyjamas.
"It's about luxury and comfort," a Qantas spokesperson says of the expectations of the first-class jet-setter. "Our customers love the Marc Newson-designed suites for their privacy and exclusivity, and they love the signature bedding-down service."
No doubt there's love also for the onboard sommelier. And what's not to love about the first black pepper prawn or spiced lamb pancake of the trip? Neil Perry's eight-course tasting menu has only just begun.
St Christopher, the patron saint of upgrades, has looked down on me favourably. In this lifetime I have flown at least 32,577 first-class miles, and many more in business. My name's been called at the gate for all the right reasons. I've seen behind the curtain, been up the stairs, and returned with tidings that there are better times in the rows ahead.
If the great affair of travel is to move, then doing so up the front of the plane makes it an affair more likely to be remembered.
"Champagne is more popular with our guests than water," a barman at the Qantas First Lounge at Sydney Airport once told me, in a declaration perfect for its logic. I had arrived at the lounge early, for the code-share LAN Chile flight to Santiago, but mostly for the duck-liver parfait for breakfast. The barman offered Moet. I paused. He reassured, "It's midday somewhere in the world."
News is that parsimonious economic times and the ill winds of airline cost-cutting have not dulled the lustre of first-class. It's a way to travel that knows not of the idea of belt-tightening. Black limousines still chauffeur Etihad first-class flyers to and from the airport. Foie gras and crab congee are unmoved on the Qatar Airways first menu. Front-end Cathay Pacific travellers still receive an Ermenegildo Zegna toiletry bag (for him) and Aesop products (for her).
At Qantas, with the last of its A380s to be reconfigured in June, first-class travel has become only more exclusive. The airline announced in 2012 the reconfiguring of seating arrangements on its super-jumbos, adding 39 economy fares in a move it says better reflects changed travel plans. That is, more people are flying, but most want to pay less for it. The maximum payload on the Qantas A380 fleet will increase from 450 to 484 passengers a plane, with a loss of eight business-class seats (72 to 64) offset by three premium-economy seat gains (32 to 35) and the jump to 371 economy seats.
First-class comforts remain untouched. Since the days of the Grand Tour, travel has been an opportunity to negotiate and confirm status and identity, and the 14 suites in Qantas First now only further separate the haves from the
have-nots. Now it's less than 3 per cent of passengers who can buy into the French bubbles, the Payot Paris toiletries and the sheepskin mattresses on the fully-flat beds.
Prices start from $13,460 for a Qantas First return ticket to London, or $20,291 return to LAX. Expect to share the experience with rock stars, Hollywood A-listers, sporting gods, business tycoons, federal politicians (entitlements allow the equivalent of one first-class around-the-world airfare for them and their spouse in the life of each Parliament), off-duty Qantas pilots (their right to commute in style is currently before Fair Work Australia ) or anyone with pockets, trust funds, expense accounts, sugar daddies or a balance of frequent flyer points generous enough.
Then there's the travel writers.
They're the ones usually without savoir-faire, never entirely comfortable with the borrowed privilege. For them, it's a fleeting tease, a glimpse inside a closed world for reasons of reportage - and the report is that cabin staff all have better legs and higher cheekbones and glossier lipstick than yours.
A confession is that on my first upgrade (moving upstairs on a Malaysia Airlines flight to seat 6C), I was gripped by moral panic. Previously, I had been at ease with economy. I was at one with a fold-down tray table. I knew my station in life and it was in an upright position knocking elbows with fellow passengers. A free seat on either side was the best one could hope for.
Now I found myself in a seat I could not understand. A steward laid out a tablecloth, my chair reclined and gave me a back massage. Among cabin talk of coal-buying contracts, medical qualifications ("Are you a general practitioner or do you have a specialty?") and frequent flying ("Changi's still the best airport I've been to, and I've been to a few"), I couldn't find the voice to ask how the seat worked.
Nor did I wish to make a fuss about where the TV screen would appear.
Ever since, I've kept every international boarding pass on which my seat number's been a single figure. They're like winning tickets. I've been upstairs on an A380. I've been offered still or sparkling water, ice or lemon, in the nose of a British Airways jumbo. And not a half-hour before boarding a Finnair flight from Helsinki, I've rubbed myself in ice after a sauna and a facial, all with the delightful prospect that seat 1H awaited.
Self-evident truths about air travel have been learnt. It is always better when boarding a plane to turn left rather than right. There is beauty in a cheese trolley. One can never have too many hot towels. Bubbles taste better in first. And there's nothing inherently wrong with an upholstered toilet lid. If you are to seek self-contemplation and transformation through travel, then look not into the belly - but instead into the front of the plane and the wonderful circumstance that is the conspicuous consumption of leisure.
Dugald Jellie is a freelance travel writer who travels courtesy of whichever airline cares to fly him.