Flying business class: The great class divide
Do you turn left or right when boarding an aircraft? The difference can cost thousands of euro, but it can also mean a choice between folding yourself up like human Swiss-Army knife, or (shock, horror) enjoying a long-haul flight. The difference is business class.
Aer Lingus cut back on its US routes last winter, but the plushest seats in its cabins went the other way, with seven of nine A330s now retrofitted with 'lie-flat' sleeper beds, 10pc more personal space and an on-demand entertainment system. The seats cost from €859 one-way, but are they worth it?
My business-class experience begins even before boarding. Checking in at a dedicated desk at Dublin Airport, I proceed to loll about in the corporate lounge, grazing on free pastries and plugging into power points (as rare as hens' teeth in the B gates). Alas, there is no bypass of the annoying, hour-long immigration queue -- that alone would justify the ticket price.
Pre-boarding the A330 (another perk), I turn left to locate my seat, 3H. The only other person standing in the aisle is a cabin-crew member with a silver tray of drinks -- water, Champagne or orange juice. "I can mix the juice with the Champagne if you like," she offers.
I take a juice; fresh, chilled and served in an agreeably heavy-bottomed glass.
Next comes a 500ml bottle of Tipperary mineral water and a complimentary toilet bag (containing mouthwash, travel socks, ear plugs, a mini-toothpaste and brush, and l'Occitane shaving cream, lip balm and face cream). It also contains a plastic Ziploc bag, should I plan to carry liquids or gels further in my hand luggage.
This is what the golden age of air travel must have been like. Looking around I see smiles on faces and a complete absence of crankiness. There are magazines and newspapers on tap, everybody gets a window or an aisle seat, and nobody threatens to fit coin-operated locks to the toilet doors.
Within minutes, I'm stretching out in a 57in pitch that would eat economy for breakfast.
After take-off, a bar and canapé service arrives, including four wines served by the glass (among them a 2002 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru and a 2008 French Riesling). I order a Coke, which comes in one of those silly 150ml cans, but the crewmember is on the ball. "I'll leave another [can] here for you because there isn't much in them," she says, handing me a glass full of ice.
Lunch is served in a flurry of white linen, with a selection of warm breads. My prosciutto and melon starter is perfectly good, but a main of mushroom tortellini with roasted vegetables and fresh asparagus tastes more like standard airline fare -- the asparagus has been nuked, and the pasta tastes stodgy and reheated (which, I suppose, it is).
The menu also offers fillet steak, roast duck and grilled sole, and dessert options include cheese, sticky toffee pudding and apple custard cake.
After the meal, I go to work on the entertainment. Controlled by a fairly intuitive handheld console, it offers 18 movies, 30 games and 60 hours of TV. None of your Toytown headphones either -- these are sizeable and softly padded and, needless to say, not sold at a pernickety fee.
Next it's time for a snooze. The buttons on my armrest show seats in straight-backed, reclining and 'ZZZ' positions. I press the latter.
Alas, though light-years ahead of the old cradle seats, the blurb on 'lie-flat' misses a key word -- 'angled'. My seat comes to a halt at what I reckon to be around a 15-degree angle, leaving me to nod off on a slight, but noticeable, slope.
Regular business-class travellers will know the difference between 'angled lie-flat' and 'full-flat' seats -- usually a feature of first class -- but it's worth re-iterating. Having said that, I doze off on my side (a real treat), and a passing crew member offers a blissful whisper: "Do you want a duvet?" (100pc cotton with a polyester filling.)
I've flown in several business-class cabins over the years, and although the wines were better on Air New Zealand, and Qatar Airway's entertainment system blows them all away, I've yet to find an airline to beat Aer Lingus's service.
Also, the seats are ergonomic, the corporate greys and legacy greens make a tidy colour scheme, and there are laptop power points at one's feet.
Quibbles? On my trip there is nothing special about the bathroom (other than its low user ratio), my personal storage space is gobbled up in full recline, and I wake to find my seatbelt trapped between the seat and the partition.
It requires cabin staff to get it out, by detaching and re-attaching it, but the whole thing is handled good-humouredly. "It was designed by men," the cabin staff laughs.
About an hour out from New York, afternoon tea is served with a choice of scones.
I still feel as if I've been flying for seven hours, but whereas long-haul economy class can shave weeks off your life, this journey leaves me ready to hit the ground running.