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First Class

Started: 2012-06-15 09:49:19

Submitted: 2012-06-15 11:22:32

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator hops on a plane for the other side of the world

I woke before my alarm on the morning of my second trip to India after a hot night in a hot house, exacerbated by our unwillingness to turn on our air conditioning until we've had the chance to have it properly serviced, on the theory that it hasn't been serviced in years and probably needs serious attention. (Somehow it seemed like an omen.) I finished my packing, ate breakfast, told Calvin where I was going (pulling out the globe to demonstrate where India was), and waited for my SuperShuttle pick-up at 09:05.

My van meandered through Boulder, picking up a random collection of students and vacation travelers, before finally dropping me off at the airport with more than enough time to reach my flight. (When I made my reservation, SuperShuttle asked if my trip was domestic or international, and when I selected "international" they insisted on dropping me off at the airport three hours ahead of my flight, which seemed excessive. I booked my trip with "domestic" selected, and I ended up with just over two hours.) On the ride, I recycled my two-year-old Soundtrack for India, and though my objectives and destination were wildly different, the soundtrack seemed to work.

Almost by accident, I found the one security lane at DIA that did not feature a millimeter-wave scanner, saving me of the choice an "enhanced" pat-down versus a dignity-stealing virtual strip search. My brand-new laptop bag performed beautifully; I didn't have to take my laptop out of the bag, and I didn't have to put it back in the bag at the other end. My other optimization for air travel was a nylon belt with a plastic buckle, rather than a metal buckle, so I didn't have to remember to take it off before the metal detector and put it back on after the metal detector.

I boarded my flight for Newark and took my seat at the very front of the plane in the first class cabin. I felt like a bit of an impostor, but my employer's travel policy specifies business-class accommodation on intercontinental flights, and my route featured only two classes of accommodation, so I settled in, began to survey the new amenities in the seat, and tried to not get used to the experience. I was flying on an ex-Continental (now, post-merger, "United") 757-200 with a lie-flat bed in first class. I couldn't figure out where to stow my bag for takeoff, so I put it in the overhead bin. The flight was a little bumpy at first, and I wasn't able to access my bag at first.

Lincoln, Nebraska, as seen from the air
Lincoln, Nebraska, as seen from the air

Once I finally managed to get my carry-on bag from the overhead compartment, half-way through the flight, I put on my new Bose noise-cancelling headphones and the result was magical. Powered off, the noise reduction was impressive, and once I turned on the active cancellation I barely heard the engine at all. I put on the rest of my Soundtrack for India playlist and sat, transfixed, as Chicago glided by past my window. The soft, atmospheric music combined with the smooth panning to make me think I was watching the opening scenes of a movie, rather than actually looking out a plane window in flight.

Wing of N*118
Wing of N*118

As we approached Newark, I studied the landscape of eastern Pennsylvania from the air and wondered about the geographic forces that had created it. I ended up on the wrong side of the plane to get a good view of New York City on our approach, but after landing (while waiting on the tarmac for an interminable delay caused by congestion on the ground) I could spot the Freedom Tower under construction in lower Manhattan, and make out the distinctive outline of the Empire State Building in midtown.

Lie-flat seat in United's BusinessFirst class
Lie-flat seat in United's BusinessFirst class

I called Bethany (across the Hudson River in Midtown Manhattan), left her a voicemail, and ate supper before queuing to board my 20:30 flight for Delhi. The gate staff analyzed my passport with greater scrutiny than the cursory glance it received in Denver and stamped "DOCS OK" on my boarding pass. As I was queuing, surrounded by throngs of Indians and Indian-Americans, I felt like I was in India already. (Bethany called back at that exact moment, and when I shared my insight with her, she said that, sometimes, Newark feels like a third-world airport to her.)

N78004 waiting at Newark to take me to Delhi
N78004 waiting at Newark to take me to Delhi

I took my place in the first-class cabin at the front of the plane (on the second row, this time, still with a window seat on the right side of the plane) and waited for the flight to depart. After waiting parked at the gate, and a lengthy wait queuing for a departure slot, the massive jumbo jet lumbered onto the runway and took off for India.

We flew well south of the great circle, striking out across the Atlantic near Boston and flying off the coast of Nova Scotia. I kept track of our progress on the in-flight map while eating an elaborate multi-course meal. Some of the amenities of first-class seemed reasonable, or even sensible, for a member of the upper 10% (like the wide seat, the lie-flat bed, and the reasonably-sized pillow and blanket), but the meal and accompanying service seemed way over the top. (The tiny cloth tablecloths were probably excessive, but the cloth napkin -- large enough to actually protect my lap from crumbs from my food -- may actually have been sensible. The complimentary newspapers were nice; I snagged a copy of The Wall Street Journal but noticed I had already read many of the articles online.)

Halfway through supper, I looked up and noticed that the red light I had seen out the window at eye level wasn't actually a reflection from inside the cabin (as I had originally thought) but the newly-risen nearly-full moon. I thought immediately about my camera (riding in my suitcase in the cargo hold), then for the camera on my smartphone, and decided it wasn't worth trying, since I wouldn't be able to get a reasonable picture anyway. Instead, I watched the moon out the window and wondered what affect my being inside a plane had on the moon's appearance.

When supper finally finished, it was 23:30 EDT, and I decided it was definitely time to go to sleep, since morning was already well underway in India. I expanded the seat into a bed, unwrapped the blanket and pillow provided for my use, and settled in to sleep.

I woke up eight hours later over the Caspian Sea, and decided it was time to get up. I popped open my window shade but found the outside world was too bright to get a good look outside. (It was 17:30 IST -- well into the afternoon of my new time zone -- and I began to worry whether flying first-class would negatively affect my adaptation to jet-lag.) According to the flight map, our course had bisected Great Britain, then flown across Germany, Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. We flew over Turkmenistan and I watched Ashgabat glide past before turning to the in-flight entertainment system to keep me occupied in my not-quite-awake state.

Mountains in Afghanistan en route to Delhi
Mountains in Afghanistan en route to Delhi

I wasn't especially hungry for the late-flight "breakfast" meal. We flew over Afghanistan and Pakistan on our way to India, and descended into the sprawl around Delhi for our final approach to Indira Gandhi International Airport.

In-flight map on descent into Delhi
In-flight map on descent into Delhi
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