In an effort to win back high-revenue passengers, some airlines are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new, first class seats that can be transformed into offices, media centers and flat comfort beds. And while I have enjoyed using these futuristic seats on international flights, I also have a few problems with them.
1. As the first class seats get ridiculously bigger, the economy seats just get smaller. It’s like a modern-day Robin Hood, only backwards: stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. I was in an economy seat the other day and was so cramped that I could barely open up my laptop. The seat in front of me was reclined into my lap, my arms had no leeway to type, and my knees were wedged against the tray table. Come on! Only so many sardines can fit into the tin.
2. The new first class seats have control panels that rival the ones in the flightdeck. They control the VCR, the rotating lumbar support, the noise-cancellation headsets, the privacy screens, the laptop power sources, the mood lighting, the video-on-demand, the video games and much more. Some airlines train their flight attendants on the basic functions, but most don’t. Have you ever asked your flight attendant what some button or switch was for, or how it worked, only to hear, “I don’t know”? I have not only seen it, I’ve said it myself once or twice. A young male passenger with a frightened look on his face once asked me what the “Eject” button was for. I explained it was for the VCR, not for unruly passengers — but what a good idea.
3. With more functions comes the inevitability of more breakdowns. The airline mechanic is not trained to fix the new seats, and while we wait months for the manufacturer to send a repairman, they go out broken flight after flight. There is nothing worse than getting a broken seat in first class. You feel ripped off, especially if you feel that you are paying way too much for your ticket to start with.
4. Even though the airline industry just came out of a gigantic financial crisis and had to slash the paychecks of its frontline employees, millions of dollars are going into these seats. So where did all the money come from all of a sudden? Oh yeah, I guess from my paycheck.
5. Here is another question: With all this fancy technology, why can’t U.S. carriers offer in-flight Internet access? After all, many international carriers offer plug-in and wireless access. And while I am on the subject of computers, what’s the deal with all these different types of power cords? This one works with Sony computers but not with Gateways, or that one works on Delta but not on American. Would it be so hard to just put plugs at the seats? Oh, but wait, that technology is already available — on foreign carriers. I recently flew on ANA, an Asian airline, and they had U.S. plugs at every seat. I was embarrassed that my own country was falling so far behind. Can you imagine actually charging your iPod or answering your e-mail in flight? It sounds too good to be true.
The other day, a passenger actually complained that his seat was too big. That was a first for me, but I can remember an in-flight occurrence that made me feel the same way. I was working a night flight to Europe, and my first class passengers were fast asleep. The sun would be rising soon, so I decided to close all the window shades. But those first class seats convert into beds, making it very difficult to reach the windows.
Improvising with a coat hanger, I managed to close most of the shades, but I lost my footing while closing the last one and landed in bed with a passenger — unfortunately, a very buxom woman. As I struggled to get to my feet, I grabbed the wrong leverage points. She woke up and started to scream, and all the passengers in the cabin instantly awoke in fear. There I was, face flushed, hair mussed, standing over an amply endowed, screaming woman with two buttons ripped off her blouse. How was I going to talk my way out of this one?
After profuse apologies, we regained our composure. I asked the woman and a female flight attendant to join me in the galley for a discussion. Luckily, the woman was an airline employee, and after I explained what had happened, she let me off the hook. She could tell by my demeanor that I was very distraught, and she half-heartedly laughed it off, although I sensed she still had her doubts. I can’t say I blame her.
I wrote up a report just in case the misadventure developed into something bigger. I mean, what if this lady wasn’t as understanding as she seemed to be? She had 12 first class witnesses to an apparent grope-and-fondle.
What was I going to say? “The seat made me do it”?
James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit or .