How To Fly First Class On An Economy Class Salary
I travel a lot. I’ve been in a loving commuting relationship for eleven years and so I’m on a plane at least twice each month flying between Chicago and New York. I go to Europe at least three or four times per year—once for vacation, two or three times to give lectures on my book and academic research. I also love to fly. The thought of getting into an airplane fills me with excitement. I’m like a boy anticipating adventure and sheer joy.
Perhaps because of enthusiasm for flight time, I bring good karma to the agents who check me in right before I board. So, having said all this, let me say that I’ve enjoyed the luxury of being upgraded to First Class all the time on transatlantic flights to Europe without paying a single dime. How does this happen? Is it mere chance? Good luck?
The first time I got upgraded was on a flight from Amsterdam to Chicago on KLM. I’d been standing in line for a long time and this man was giving one of the agents a really hard time. I mean, he was being a royal asshole. Other folks, frustrated that he was holding up the line, sought out other agents. I remained in line, made eye contact with the agent and rolled my eyes while motioning my head in the direction of the guy who was causing the ruckus.
“What an asshole,” I said to her as I presented my passport and ticket. She smiled gratefully and, without looking up, said: “Mr. Hill would you like an isle in business class or a window upstairs in First Class?”
Without missing a beat I said: “Window upstairs will be fine. Thank you.”
YES. I call this rule: Bond With The Victim.
On a flight two years ago from Chicago to Frankfurt via London on British Airways I orchestrated my move. On the way to the airport I said to my friend: “I’m going straight into First Class Today.”
Now during the last five years I’ve had serious health problems. I almost died drowning in my own blood during simple surgery for a sinus problems (I heard them say, he’s not gonna make it); I had blood clots in my lungs right after that. The following year it was Viral Meningitis, and the year after that it was pneumonia. The next year I was hospitalized for bipolar and a near accidental overdose.
Needless to say, I had a shaving bag filled to the brim with bottles and bottles of pills. I already had a pre-assigned seat—a middle one on a 777 aircraft—and I knew that British Airways did not upgrade for free. Those Brits will make you pay. I didn’t want Club World Class, I wanted what Virgin Atlantic calls: Upper Class; First Class on British Airways. I asked for an aisle seat and the agent told me the flight was full and that I already had a pre-assigned seat. Yeah, right. I knelt on the floor (she probably thought I was a terrorist getting out my bomb to blow stuff up), retrieved my humungous shaving kit full of bottles of pills, opened them up, and unabashedly showed them to her.
“Ma’m I put myself at your mercy. I’ve had blood clots roaming in my lungs.” I took out the cumadin and branded it in her face. Then I dug up some old medicine for nose bleeds and explained what they were and on, and on, and on until with a distressed look she said: “There’s a seat in First Class,” She whispered those last two words like prayers. I call this rule: Put Yourself at The Mercy Of The Powerful.
On a Lufthansa flight (my favorite airline in the world) from Chicago to Prague via Frankfurt, seventeen passengers including myself were bumped from the flight. The flight was overbooked. People were screaming and shouting, saying they had to get on the flight. They must. Others were threatening lawsuits. One woman rushing in late on a flight from Denver, said her thirteen year old was on the flight and he had no way of getting home once he reached Frankfurt.
Sorry. Can’t help you.
The agents were exhausted, testy and overworked. I watched the 747 pull away and calmly went up to one of them and in the sweetest of voices said: “Is there anything that you can do for me? My luggage is, perhaps, on that plane and I really need to get to Prague. I’m a philosopher and I have a very important talk to give.”
She got on a phone, had the plane stopped (this was pre-9/11) ordered whoever was in charge to have my luggage removed and then said to me: “You’re the sweetest passenger I’ve ever met.” Why, thank you. She wrote me a voucher for $600 to fly anywhere Lufthansa flew which enabled me to spend New Year’s Eve in Lisbon for free that year. Then she handed me a boarding pass and said: “Run, run. There is a Munich flight leaving now at gate 7 and yes, your bags will be in Prague to greet you.”
The doors to the Munich flight were almost closing. I barely made it. Inside, I ran to the middle of the plane and looked down on the boarding card. Seat 4A. First class—here I come! I call this rule: Be Nice And Charming To Those in Power When You Need Their Help. The screamers and yelpers were still there haggling over lost seats as I sat back and sipped my Rémy Martin before takeoff. I thought of that poor thirteen year old all alone without his Mummy.
I could go on and on by describing an agent batting her eyes and telling me it’s my lucky day on a flight to Warsaw, or a male agent telling me I looked like Obama and then sending me into the sky high on style and luxury—but I won’t. Be merciless with yourself, get rid of shame tendencies and be prepared for rejection. Pray for good luck, carry good karma and, least of all, if you see an empty seat in First Class midway during your flight, simply do what I did: I went up to the flight attendant and asked him if I could sit in it.
“Well, I suppose…”
“Thanks!” I said, and pulled back the curtain separating those in Upper Class from the rest of the commoners