The Unspeakable Decadence of Lufthansa's First Class Cabin

I hurried through the low ceilings and narrow walkways of LaGuardia Airport, a monument to poor design and the sort of spaghetti engineering that quick fixes to the poor design requires, to get to the taxi queue. As with most things at LaGuardia, there are signs everywhere but no clear indication of how far away it is, so you can figure out the "where" pretty well, but the "when" is more nebulous. I was in a hurry, though, and racing past passengers with my new rolley carry-on bag and small leather shoulder bag1. I was in a hurry because I had about four hours to make the transition from LaGuardia to the (much nicer) JFK for my JFK -> FRA flight, flying on Lufthansa's 747-8i, in the nose of the plane, in First Class.

"Champagne wishes and caviar dreams" is the evocative cliché Robin Leach created to talk to the Rest of Us at the conclusion of an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". This show, and early ancestor of the modern reality TV/internet media obsession with how people who are nothing like most of us live. The show began airing in the mid-80s, at the height of America's love affair with its own capitalist Id, and ran for nearly a decade. The sentiment really nailed the selling point of the show: "wouldn't it be wonderful if you could live like this?"

This year, I decided that I would not cross an ocean in less than Business Class. This may seem like some seriously bougie shit, but when you're losing a week at a time to jet lag when you cross an ocean, and you do it four or five or six times a year, this becomes a matter of spending a few extra hundred (or a thousand...) dollars to buy back a week of your precious time.

When it was time to book the flights for a recent trip to Europe for a mixture of work and vacation, making it the first time I've enacted this rule on myself, I noticed a what I assume was an error fare that put me in Lufthansa's First Class cabin for around a hundred dollars more than Business Class for the trans-Atlantic leg of my trip, and did not hesitate. What follows is a description of "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" come literally, decadently true at 11,000 meters.

Being that I booked my flight through United, I had to arrive in New York LaGuardia Airport and transfer by taxi to JFK, since United (foolishly) gave up landing rights at JFK in favor of saving a few bucks and most of the international flights out of New York operate out of JFK. Traffic in all parts of New York is a reminder that all our advanced technology and engineering and evolution as a civilization has led to spending a long time waiting to get between two points while amusing ourselves2. I spent mine having my coworkers question my logic in booking a First Class ticket with my own money over chat on my phone as my cab driver navigated the western side of Long Island at 20 mph.

Sitting in a New York taxi stuck in traffic and in a hurry creates a funny-weird emotional state. There is literally nothing you can do to make the taxi go faster -- the driver is doing his thing, a wall of cars sit in front of you, apathetic to your plight, and there's really only one route to take. But, in the way the brain does when under mild stress, we get fidgety and want to do something.

So I spent most of the taxi ride on my phone, in a group chat with my co-workers, where they asked me snarky questions like "Did you choose to change airports just for a bigger chair?" or "Did you pay that much more just for nice pajamas?"3. I had, and was suffering some headaches because of an LGA ground stop due to fog tightening up my connection from five hours to four, with traffic cutting it down to three. Which is fine and I'm not going to miss my flight, but I really wanted to check out the Lufthansa First Class Lounge at JFK Terminal 1.

Luxurious air travel has accelerated in the last ten years, particularly with the Gulf State carriers entering the market. For the US domestic market, long haul flights used to be three-cabin affairs, with First, Business, and Coach4. Business got better faster than First, and the airlines started consolidating the two into fancy-sounding names like "BusinessFirst", naming things very literally in the way a small child does.

Meanwhile, the foreign carriers were going in the opposite direction. In the same way that every modern luxury feature on a car seems to have first appeared on a Mercedes S-class first, so did Singapore tend to lead the way with air travel luxury. At this point, the toppest of the top end foreign carriers -- typically Japan, Singapore, and the Middle East -- have first class cabins with fully enclosed suites where you can sit in total privacy, only to be bothered when your post-lunch cappuccino is ready.

SkyTrax, which gives out star ratings for airlines based on the many aspects of air travel from on-time arrivals to the quality of service in premium cabins, has never rated a US legacy carrier about 3-stars, a C grade. This year, there are 9 five-star airlines, and all of them are either East Asian or Middle Eastern carriers. A perennial contender, though, is Lufthansa, whose First Class and Economy cabins garner five star reviews, but is weighed down by having a merely above-average Business Class product.

The logic of why foreign carriers are head and shoulders above the US legacy airlines in the quality of premium cabins was made apparent when I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in the UK, and she said "For us, every flight is an international flight".

It's three hours on a flight, give or take, from Denver to New York. It's three hours by train from Paris to Geneva, and about half the as-the-crow-flies distance. But the train has almost no overhead to go with it; you just show up at the train station, drink a watery mass-manufactured German lager, and board the train. No security lines. No crowded concourses. No trying to quickly get three hundred people through one door and to their seats. In the end, the flight from Denver to New York can eat up five or six hours between entering one airport and leaving the other. So, in this sense, trains are much, much more time efficient than a comparable flight (never mind dealing with CDG...).

The role of the US legacy carriers, and their main business model, is to economically move as many people as possible across the vast distances that separate the major cities in the US. This is a sort of mass consumer grade consumption. The role of the foreign carriers, given that domestic trains are as fast and more convenient than domestic air travel, is to fly long-haul (say, 6+ hours at a stretch). So the big ones we see in the US have the big Business class cabins and the luxurious First Class cabins because they are catering to a more monied, more travel-savvy clientele. And that clientele is going to demand creature comforts that just don't get noticed on a three hour flight5.

Lufthansa operates out of Terminal 1 at JFK, which is the smallest terminal at the airport. This is relevant because Terminal 1 does not have a TSA PreCheck lane, and you have to have a physical, printed ticket to take advantage of your PreCheck status, which amounts to not having to take your shoes off. This is next to worthless, and a potential problem for someone who's used to taking ten minutes to get through security (such as, say, me).

To my right in security was an older couple who were demanding, after I walked right up to the front, to know why they didn't have PreCheck listed on their Alitalia ticket. The security guy told them, at least twice, that they have to make sure to register that with each airline. Eventually the guard gave a characteristic New York eye roll and stopped answering their question with the same answer, and they continued mumbling about this all the way through the security line. Let this serve as your reminder that you have to register your Known Traveler number with every airline you book with.

That interaction highlights something that I keep coming back to, which is that air travel is one of the few times when people who do something professionally (vis-à-vis navigating an airport and getting on and off an airplane as quickly as possible) surrounded almost entirely by confused novices. Nobody lets a rec league softball pitcher throw in a Major League game, nobody has a first year law student present their arguments in front of a federal Circuit court, nobody has someone with their learners permit drive a taxi. Efficient travelers have ready access to almost everything, at the top of their bags, wearing shows that are easy to slip on and off, and all that stuff to participate in the post-modern off-Broadway theater performance that is airport security. Novices do none of these things. There are no studies I know off, but I suspect it takes a first-time traveler twenty times longer to navigate an airport than a pro.

The upshot of all this is that it took about forty minutes to get through security, when under normal conditions it should have taken ten. But waiting just on the other side, so close I didn't even bother putting my shoes back on, was the Lufthansa Senator's Lounge in JFK Terminal 1.

I don't cotton to crowds. I find them distracting and tiring and stressful, probably more than most other people. I also travel a lot, mostly for work. These dueling demands have taught me a new appreciation for the value of the airport lounge.

For the uninitiated, an airport lounge is a space above, besides, or otherwise separate from the terminal proper, run by typically an airline but could also be an independent company, which has some conditions for entry, usually related to some sort of airline loyalty status. The lounges operated by the US carriers tend to offer well drinks and mediocre wine and beer for free, with a food selection that ranges from "solid" to "depressing", depending on the airport, the company, and the traffic through the lounge.

The Asian and European carriers, on the other hand, tend to treat the lounges as actual loss leaders, and make them well worth your time. The food tends to be restaurant calibre, the alcohol selection tends to be good, and it's all free. The environment is quiet, and the seating is arranged so you don't have to spend any time looking blankly at strangers if you don't want to.

On a recent trip, I used my Priority Pass membership to spend half an hour in the Swiss Airlines Business Class lounge at the Geneva airport. I had a cappuccino and a croissant, sent a few quick emails, and had a half hour of mostly silence. When I walked back to the main terminal for my flight, it was all crying babies and people's conversations mixing into an incomprehensible multi-lingual din.

If you go through this whole airport-airplane-airport process once or twice a year, this may all seem excessive. But if you want to understand how this affects someone who travels with some frequency, imagine trying to work remotely from a busy mall food court for four hours every week. That particular combination of loudness, children, uncomfortable chairs, sometimes peculiar smells, and people coming and going across your field of vision is a close facsimile to an airport terminal. After a year of trying to operate under these conditions regularly, you will begin to appreciate the value of an airport lounge.

The First Class Lufthansa lounge at JFK is not a dedicated lounge, but a second floor balcony overlooking the Business Class lounge. The space itself is not large, but it is probably mostly empty most of the time. While I was up there, two Lufthansa staff took care of about a dozen people over two hours for the one Lufthansa flight of the day.

I got to talking to some of them, because I was the only one traveling alone and they weren't too busy, and I was reminded that some people shouldn't be allowed in public. Apparently, the worst guests are the ones who arrive with someone else who has the lounge access (you can bring up to two guests iirc). These are the people who act like entitled little shits, get excessively drunk-and-loud, and then get upset when they get kicked out of the lounge when their host leaves for his (probably, typically, the correct pronoun) flight that they are not even on. Then there was the comment that will stick with me a while, which was when one of the staffers responded to my "You must see some crazy stuff" with "We have a shower..."

To avoid belaboring the point, allow me to enumerate the foods and beverages I consumed over the course of my First Class experience:

1x glass of a nice Côtes du Rhône

2x fingers of a 23 year rum

2x fingers of a 25 year single malt scotch

3x glasses of champagne

2x glasses of riesling

1x glass chilled vodka

1x glass port

1x cappuccino

1x glass orange juice

1x plate of dry aged beef with mashed potatoes

1x plate of grilled vegetables

2x plates of caviar

1x monkfish dish

1x cheese plate

2x dishes warm nuts

1x bowl muesli w/ yoghurt

in ten hours of real human time. The cash value of all this, assuming restaurant prices, is probably around $400.

What's important, and what's lost in getting obsessed with cash value and some sort of value/dollar metric that a lot of travel hacking nuts love, is that this luxury is fun, and the level of service is absolutely top notch, and for a relatively brief flight5 it is quite comfortable and the time flies by, what with the meal service taking the better part of two hours.

And the meal service is top notch stuff. White linens, utensils that are room temperature instead of frozen6, the wine keeps flowing in a way that is impossible in an actual restaurant what with the cost, and the flight attendants are friendly and professional and when you think about how much training an experience goes into being a waiter at a really top notch restaurant, and then add in all the things about doing that while being a safety officer on a metal tube at 35,000 feet, and you start to realize that these people are Serious Professionals in a way most people who work in business aren't. They are the Ginger Rogers to a standard flight attendant or standard waiter's Fred Astaire, doing everything they do only backwards and in heels.

There are plenty of photographs of the First Class cabin of Lufthansa available, and if you're curious what it looks like, you should just throw it into Google. The wide seats and endless legroom. The large high-def screens. The red rose sitting alone under its own light. The large bathrooms (two) with the window (unfortunately nowhere near eye level, but still) and the rose.

As anyone who's tried to pull it off can tell you, minimalist design is very hard. We as a species have an impulse to add, and it takes discipline to stop yourself from putting one more feature, one more flare of color. But in a small space, like a small apartment or an airplane cabin, minimalism is key; a maximalist approach can make a small space feel smaller. The best minimalist designs make calm, relaxing spaces where you can choose to focus, or not.

Lufthansa pulls off the minimalist aesthetic. There's maybe three colors and some wood paneling along the windows, with a very soft color palette excepting in dark seat. All the surfaces cleanly mesh with each other, and the space feels much larger for it. Compare this with, say, Emirates, with its lights and gold and mirrors and bling.

The flight home was in Lufthansa's business class, which is by no means an industry leader but is a far sight better than being at the back (or, since I was on an A380, the bottom) of the plane. Walking into the cabin and into my seat at the front row, all I could think was "Did I just walk into a cow pen?" First Class totally fucks with your expectations. The level of personal attention (my flight had two flight attendants, who were clearly very experienced at this, for six people in the cabin), the white glove level of service, and the way you've bought an all-you-can-consume buffet of luxury with your ticket distorts reality, turning business class into an uncomfortable and coach into a Central American chicken bus.

But so when I was flying back, in the cow pen, after lunch service, the flight attendant, who addressed me by name, asked if I would like anything to drink. I asked if I could have a cappuccino, and he told me that cappuccinos were reserved for First Class, but that if nobody was using the machine he would get me one. He did. At the price of maybe $2, Lufthansa got themselves a loyal customer.

And this is the thing with First Class. It seems over the top and decadent and at times absurd, and it really is. But when people list the best business class, and the best coach cabins for international flights, they almost always correlate with the best First. Service like that is a culture, not some specialized instructions. That thing often attributed to Aristotle but actually written by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy, that "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit."

  1. Some time in my early twenties, I either dislocated my elbow and had it pop back in, or otherwise hurt it pretty badly. The style of rolling luggage available to my graduate student budget had handles that were too short, and being taller than average I would end up kicking the suitcase, causing the handle to twist violently in my hand with a lot of weight behind it. This hurt my elbow. A lot. So as normal wear required, I replaced my rolling suitcases with so-called "weekenders", sometimes going a week or more out of these bags. The added benefit was that, unlike a wheeled thing on an uneven surface, if I had to run, I could really sprint.

  2. Many writers have written many words about how our post-modern Information Age culture is built around entertainment. Few of them seem to focus on how much of this is just a long distraction between moments where we actually have to engage with the outside world -- the upshot of mass transit and air travel and long taxi rides is that when we are faced with an eight hour flight we are desperate for at least five hours of pure, unadulterated distraction after we get on the plane but before we must re-engage with customs in a new country. Other symptoms of this are binge watching entire television series & the associated Golden Age of Television, the analog equivalent airport thriller, in-flight entertainment and now in-flight WiFi, &c. I've started trying to spend at least half an hour spread out over a flight focusing very intently on my thumb nail. Ever try to focus on your thumb nail until you can feel the blood pumping in it? It actually becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Buddhist monks spend hours at a time engaged in exercises like this, and I think they may be on to something, especially as a way to rebel against our infinite-stimulation Amusing Ourselves to Death world.

  3. I did, sorta, and the pajamas I bought with the ticket have replaced my old pajamas, and they are much more comfortable than any sleepwear I've ever owned before.

  4. I refuse to indulge the simpering marketing tactic of describing cramming a human being into a rectangle that is less than four square feet of footprint as "Economy". It is, and always will be, coach.

  5. This is not excusing how miserable domestic air travel has become in the last few years. Miles are difficult to come by, upgrades for customers with loyalty program status have become more rare, seats have gotten small, and you get hit with fees for everything. Even this is ignoring the recent (as of May 2017) trend of using law enforcement to deal with customer service issues, and the simultaneous bragging about record profits and walking around with a hand out begging for help against the big mean Gulf Carriers who are heavily subsidized by their sponsor countries, sorta like the Big Three remaining US legacy carriers. In short, someone in the Justice Department needed to be a little stricter in their interpretation of the Sherman Act when all these mergers were happening in the late-90s and early-00s.

  6. It is 7.5 hours from JFK to Frankfurt, assuming good weather and all that. On the scale of international flights, this is a short one. Denver to Frankfurt is 9.5 hours, trips from just about anywhere in the US that isn't a gateway airport (Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Boston, DC) will involve a layover at a gateway, and then anything over the Pacific will be at least 11 hours. SQ21 and the return SQ22, direct flights from Newark to Singapore, were the longest flights in the world by both distance (8,285 nautical miles EWR->SIN, and 9,000 nautical miles back, which itself illustrates how long the flight is, that a combination of the earth's rotation and the way great circle distance works adds a good 10% to the flight distance going against the rotation of the earth versus with) and time (about 18 hours), until it was discontinued in 2013, probably because it couldn't have been a profitable route for Singapore Airlines. Singapore will start these flights again when they take delivery of the new, more efficient Airbus A350-900ULR in 2018. Until then, the longest flight in the world belongs to Qatar Airways, which flies from Auckland to Doha in about 17.5 hours.

  7. I've noticed this a lot, that on most flights where I end up with metal cutlery, that said metal cutlery is actually quite cold. Like it had been stored in a freezer for the first hour or so of the flight. I do not understand this, and since one of the miracles of air travel is that airlines can provide a hot meal at all, it seems doubly odd that they'd undermine the hot meal by having utensils that totally throw the temperature off. It's a relatively minor quibble about airline comfort, but it's just so damned odd.