I am an Australian, but I have been studying in Barcelona since September 2019. When cases of Covid-19 first rose in March, I considered leaving, but I shared a lease with my then-partner, and the time difference meant I would have had classes at 2am. By July, I had finished my thesis and my lease. With no hope of work in Spain, I booked a flight.
Australia hugs the edge of the world, and Melbourne is closer to Antarctica than Bali. The federal government’s decision to limit entry to 4,000 people per week (now 6,000) shattered the fragile air corridors connecting Australia to the world. With only 30 seats per flight sometimes, airlines started encouraging passengers to upgrade to business to guarantee a seat.
By September, I was squatting in someone’s spare room, with the tenuous promise of a make-up flight in November. My flight had been cancelled twice already. I got the message. So I steeled myself, drained my savings, and spent A$7,000 on an upgrade.
It was the first time I had flown anything but “promo economy”, so I was unsure what to do when I arrived at the gate. I was the only business class passenger. Too embarrassed to stand alone in the queue next to the long rows of impatient travellers, I settled for loitering nearby with the silver (really more of a grey) trimmed edge of my ticket exposed. With my hand angled just right, I hoped the stewards might notice, and save me the humiliation of asking to board the plane before anyone else.
In the end, a bell chimed, some muffled words rang out, and I was spirited forward – completely alone – towards the gate. “Mr Jackson” was murmured exactly eight times before I was lowered into a soft, almost comically large seat. A glass of pink champagne appeared next to me. The cabin was all soft edges and neat folds. It hummed softly, spotless without smelling like bleach or pine. Somewhere, about 25 metres ahead and to the left (still queued to board) people still shifted their weight while kids ran in circles.
I looked out my enormous porthole.
Inflight the stewards moved silently around the cabin, monitoring desire like a barometer. Shortly after take-off I was approached by a steward with a clipboard and gently quizzed: When would I like my meal? Bread type? Sparkling or still? Was I sure there was nothing else I wanted?
I received a heartfelt thank-you for each answer, as if I were resolving an issue that had been troubling them for some time. On the rare moments when I rang to order something, the stewards were apologetic, as if sorry for a failure of telepathy.
The first leg was a blur of luxury. The drinks menu was campaign-length. The bathroom was enormous and always pristine, panelled in mahogany-toned faux wood. Scented moisturisers peeped out at me from little nooks, while I washed my hands under a surprisingly generous stream of warm water. When I got back, my chair had been transformed into a bed and I dozed off 35,000 feet over Turkey.
Business class strips away travel’s mundane frustrations: the long lines and narrow seats, the awkward elbows over armrests, the circular pots of water with lids that must be peeled off, the dense scent from 200 hunched bodies and 400 feet. You float isolated in a niceness so total it is almost oppressive, although not as oppressive as being unable to afford the privilege of coming home at all.
Luxury like business class sells a kind of separation. Separation from life’s frictions – the little jarring skips in what might otherwise be the perfect recording. It differentiates you, while also affirming you as especially deserving; not only is life effortless, but it deserves to be (for you). It is incredibly seductive, both fulfilling and validating our desires.
For 24 hours, I was indulged in that primordial, incorrect, intuition we all have: the world, and everyone occupying it, exists primarily in relation to me.
Intoxicating as it was, I knew it was fleeting. Once I stepped off the plane, I would be back to my mum’s house, many thousands of dollars lighter. I am grateful to be home, but I wish I had my seven grand back.
In Doha I switched planes for the final leg. A chance question led a steward to suddenly confide in me. Forced furloughs in Sao Paolo. Getting squeezed between airline margins and ever-higher customer demands. Already 39. Where had the last 13 years gone? Friends with tenure and kids. Some savings in Dhaka. It should be OK. I sat wordless through his outpouring of fear and pain. Then it was over, and he was refilling my wine with a smile.
Later I discovered why the toilets were always so clean. Walking up the aisle I saw a steward slip in after the last passenger. They were being cleaned after each use. Every trace of filth and fluid was scrubbed away so I would never feel the slightest inconvenience.
On landing we were shuttled to a CBD hotel. A young soldier escorted me to my room. What did she do in the army? “Play the bassoon.”
She stacked my bags inside the door and shut it. My first (and last) business class trip ended where it began, in isolation.