Saturday, July 17, 2010


As infrequently as I fly I am relegated to the cattle section. On my last trip to North America, airline personnel shuffled me into the first class check-in line to speed things along. For a short while, society’s elite, middle class, and heroin smugglers all stood together in the queue, leaving a few of the first class passengers perturbed. A well-dressed man in his late fifties turned to me and sneered about a backpacker who was getting checked in before him: “He doesn’t look like first class material to me.”

A bit put off by his snobbery, I gave the man a conspicuous onceover. “Quite frankly,” I said, “I’m a bit worried about you.”

“What do you mean?” he said, examining his clothing, stunned that I might question his perfect suit and designer bag.

“Well, you could be undercover. What if you’re an Al Qaeda man who’s had plastic surgery? Or worse. What if you’re just some middle-class Joe in an expensive suit.”

He wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. “Look there,” I said. “I believe it’s your turn at the counter.”

I haven’t flown first class in years. Or Upper- or Business- , or Elite-, or Grey Poupon-, or Up Yours Class, or whatever more recent name they’ve dreamed up for it. In the day I flew first class, the airline TWA (The Worst Airline) was still around, and I got to sit in the wide seats only because I flew so often that I was automatically upgraded. But even when I basked in the comforts of first class, I always thought they were overrated.

The food wasn’t that much better, and eating with a metal fork wasn’t significantly more gratifying than eating with a plastic one. The movies were fine, but if you wanted a good one you still had to bring it yourself. Drinks in the first class cabin were free in North America, though every passenger knew they weren’t really free, and first class passengers generally aren’t much for getting drunk on airplanes. Sure, the reclining seat and extra legroom were nice on flights over the Atlantic, but for me those were few and far between. However, there was one benefit to first class that was certainly not overrated: Stewardesses were always nice to you.

Part of the general nastiness of American stewardesses has been attributed to the fact that these poor women joined the airline when they were starry-eyed twenty-year-olds. Flying was a good way to see the world and, back before women’s liberation, working as a stewardess was a pretty sexy job. The ladies joined the union, jetted in and out of Paris, and by the time their fun became work they weren’t twenty years old anymore. They were locked into careers, condemned to serve Coca-Cola at forty-thousand feet for the rest of their working lives.

As the mood of stewardesses began to turn nasty, the US skies saw deregulation, which meant competition and a precipitous drop in fares: the common man could now afford to fly. Soon after deregulation, life got harder for stewardesses when low-cost airlines entered the fray. Anyone who’s had a basic chemistry course knows that if you take a bitter middle-aged woman used to serving the wealthy, pour in a planeload of middle-class boors, all the fun will soon be gone from air travel.

Coach passengers are indeed sometimes the raggedy-assed multitudes who fly once a year and think that the flight attendants are their personal slaves. I’ve more than once seen a stewardess blow up at a coach passenger, informing him that she is first and foremost responsible for his safety. Which is true, but she’s also responsible for getting him a drink and a meal, and I’ve always thought we’d all be better off if a stewardess could just smile her way through a difficult situation.

Of course it isn’t just North America. Even in Scandinavia, under whose socialism we enjoy double extra equality, there’s a difference. First class stewardesses are a bit cooler, but since there isn’t usually a Finn puking in the forward lavatory, they are decidedly more at ease, which translates to a superior flying experience.

Now that the Estonian state will soon have the majority of Estonian Air and is starting to think about change, I’ve got an idea of my own: Make every Estonian Air seat a first class seat.

Estonians are enamored with the idea of first class. During a recent ETV news segment about a manor home, the manager mentioned at least three times that they were targeting “elites.” I recently bought a used Skoda, which an Estonian man deemed a chick car—“Very simple,” he said. “Not enough buttons,” which, he felt, made it “inappropriate for business use.” And more than two Estonians have told me my telephone number is too long. “Prestige numbers come from EMT,” one said, “and your number says ‘cheap plan’.” Move too much beyond Maseratis and designer clothes, and I am useless at recognizing the symbols of Estonia’s upper class.

Coming out of the throes of Soviet poverty, Estonia is understandably caught up in a chase for status. It may take years for people to come back down to earth, so why not simply embrace this quest to be elite by making every Estonian Air seat first class?

But it’s not about giving everyone a wider seat, a metal fork, gourmet food, and unlimited amounts of alcohol, though of course we’ll need those, too. And I’m not talking about stewardesses helping each passenger off with his jacket and hanging it in a dust-free environment, though let’s do that, as well. My idea of first class is that no one will sneer at a backpacker in line. That even the most absurd behavior by the most vile economy-class passenger will be met with an approving smile. Like when dining at Buckingham Palace and the Queen of England blows her nose using the tablecloth because the Latvian president has done so first: Indeed, Her Majesty may be offended, but she knows it’s more important to make the guest feel welcome. I envision the same for Estonian Air.

What if every passenger were addressed as härra, preili, or proua? What if the check-in worker was still glad to see you at six a.m.? What if stewardesses were thoroughly versed in the English language? (They’re the only stewardesses I’ve seen who can make “safety” a three-syllable word.) And let’s teach them to be more assertive. Currently, they’re so quiet they might as well not even be there.

It won’t be easy, of course. We’d need to bring in Peep Vain, possibly the only man who can get an Estonian to smile without the use of artificial stimulants. Or maybe we just forget hiring Estonians and get all our stewardesses from Singapore Air. That would be expedient, but probably not doable, given state ownership.

But what if every passenger exited an Estonian Air plane remarking, “Geez, they were so damned nice to me…” and was somehow dazzled by a positive flying experience. Sure, Estonian passengers may not give a damn about being dazzled, but they’ll fly Estonian Air anyway, no matter how bad it gets. The fact is that if Estonian Air is going to be financially successful, then foreigners are going to have to like it, too. So perhaps this elite business is something Estonians and foreigners can agree on? I, for one, am always ready for someone to dazzle me.


Illustration courtesy of Hilde Kokk De Keizer