Flying Business Class as a Millennial

My bag, checked. My privilege, not so much.

Mary Altaffer / AP

I flew business class for the first time in my life last week. It was an overnight, 10-hour flight for a work trip.

STOP, do not click the comment button. I am not a luxurious person! I don’t own designer anything. I hail from a family of proud “Dr. Thunder” drinkers.

The thing is, going into this trip I was already exhausted. All the items on those Internet “self-care” guides—showering, going outside—had fallen right off my increasingly lengthy to-do list. I knew sitting upright with my elbow touching another human for longer than a standard workday would only wear me out further, that I would “wake up” from this flight more wrecked than possibly ever, and that I would immediately have to jump into several days of marathon interviews.

Also, I love sleep. I love it so much, in fact, that it's a wonder I’m not better at it. I can’t sleep in cars, or in most hotels, or even in my own bed whenever work is going badly, or when it’s going suspiciously well. I can’t sleep after I eat a big meal, or after I accidentally say “you too!” back to someone who wished me a happy birthday. And I definitely, without a doubt, can’t sleep on planes.

The prospect of all of these forces converging made my brain feel like it was going to liquefy and dribble out through my nostrils.

So when the one-word question—“Upgrade?”—popped up on the check-in computer at Washington Reagan, I thought I would honor the spirit of the airport’s namesake by at least looking into the best thing unfettered capitalism has ever visited on mankind: business class.

Don’t worry, my momma raised me right: When the ticket-checker told me the cost of upgrading, I played hardball.

“I dunnnooooo,” I said, “that’s a liiiiiiiiiittle pricey.”

“Let me know what you decide,” he said, turning back to his computer. I excused myself to Google Wall Street Journal stories about what constitutes a good deal when upgrading. The price he was quoting me was hundreds of dollars less.

“Okay fine I’ll take it.”

One credit-card swipe later (so easy!) the man's attitude toward me brightened considerably. “Okay, as a first-class passenger, you now have access to the Admiral lounge.”

“What’s that?”

“Just go in that little black elevator to a special room. It’s one of your perks.”

I did so. Inside the wood-paneled room are: Old people, guys who look like they could be start-up founders, and women who looked like they could be actresses. ‘Tis not an ordinary path that leads to the Admiral lounge.

People were having extremely quiet in-person conversations and extremely expletive-filled phone calls. My fellow Admirals gave me the side-eye, but I flashed my business-class boarding pass at them, Pretty Woman-style. (Except of course it looked just like a regular boarding pass so the effect was diminished somewhat.)

I spent my time sending decisive-sounding emails and chugging a free glass of wine. When they announced my flight, I got to wait in the “priority” line, rather than the clearly inferior “main cabin” line immediately to its right.

Below is a brief log from inside the aircraft:

9:30 p.m.: I sit down in my pod-seat, and, within 30 seconds, a man comes by and thrusts lavender lotion into my right hand. A minute later, a second man places a bottle of spring water in the other. A third man sets champagne on my table. Then the first guy comes back and brings me the kind of headphones that envelop your entire ear in a loving cocoon.

Olga Khazan / The Atlantic

I immediately began photographing every square inch of my space, including the little wedge where my feet go, and sending them to all my friends with the caption, “Someone please tell him who the eff I is.” I realize this is conduct unbecoming of an Admiral, but I can’t help myself.

There are two of these buttons in my area and I still don’t know what they do. Leave your guesses in the comments.

Olga Khazan / The Atlantic

9:40: They offer me dinner. I’ve already eaten, but I order my free steak anyway. Steak on a plane! I don’t actually eat steak normally, but since I can only afford to do this once, I want the full experience. The man who takes my order asks me if I’d like to “be awakened for breakfast.” It’s like Downton Abbey in the sky!

9:50: Lotta empty seats up here. I bet this is why they don’t let let the coach people use the bathroom in front—everyone would try to illicitly occupy a pod and anarchy would reign.

9:55: Oh, it turns out everyone gets dinner. Oh. No, no that’s good. No everyone should get it.

10:00: One of the flight attendants comes back and hands me a hot towelette. It reminds me of a British Airways flight I took as a kid in the early ‘90s, before flying got crappy. Even in coach, they brought us towelettes, toothbrushes, and free drinks for my parents. I wonder what else has gotten worse since the ‘90s, and the answer is most things.

10:22: Hot nuts and merlot.

10:27: Someone pulls out my tray table for me and drapes a white tablecloth over it. This is when things start to seem excessive, as opposed to just fancy-fun like the Kentucky Derby.

10:34: The first-class bathroom is pretty much the same as the regular one. The only difference is that the faucet has better temperature controls.

Don’t upgrade just for the bathroom, is what I'm saying.

10:36: A flight attendant swings by to ask me if I'd like dessert.


“Ice cream? Mousse cake? Cheese and berries?”

“Ice cream”

“Hot fudge? Caramel?”

“Hot fudge”

“Whipped cream or nuts?”


It arrives and I scarf a few bites.

The man comes back. With a glimmer in his eye, he points to the uneaten portion and says, “You want to leave a little bit? You don’t want to be guilty?” Sir, I’m well past the guilt phase and into full-blown entitlement.

10:40: All I can think about is how uncomfortable the people behind me are. I wonder if people should be allowed to arm-wrestle or draw straws for the empty seats.

10:41: On second thought, that would probably disturb the peace up here, and I can’t have that now that I’m One of Them. I distract myself by watching all the shows from the channels we don't have at home. (The Knick!)

11:30: I have an empty, plastic iced-tea bottle—a relic of my former life—that I need to throw away. On my way to the trash, I see the flight attendants eating their dinners standing up in the galley by the bathroom. I try to remind myself that Communism was not a perfect system, either.

11:45: I set about learning to operate my chair, which is controlled by a miniature tablet affixed to the right side of my pod. I nearly have my ankles crushed in its unsparing mechanism.

11:53: Guys, I’m laying perfectly flat in the air! As is usually the case, I’m slightly too tall for this to be optimally comfortable. I scrunch up onto my side, pull the airplane-provided eyemask over my face.

I don’t remember the next six hours.

* * *

I wake up with my lips covered in red-wine stains, and with a stiff neck and slight hangover, like I went to a rich-guy frat party and slept on the floor of said frat house. Still, it beats how I feel after a normal red-eye by miles.

The most notable thing about breakfast is that it comes with coffee from a real ceramic mug.

It’s time to disembark! Waiting at the front of the passport-control line might be the greatest perk of them all. Under the glare of the fluorescence, I am able to size up my class-mates for the final time. I come to the conclusion that rich people look rich because they: are thin, wear black, and have special “flight clothes,” such as linen button downs, instead of what I would choose, which is yoga pants and a ratty t-shirt that says “jonesin’” across the chest. No neck pillows, obviously.

Should you upgrade at your next opportunity?

It depends, of course, on how much money you have in your bank account. If that figure is more than the amount it costs to upgrade, you should ask yourself, “How important is the sleep I get on this plane?”

Think of it as the most expensive hotel room you’ll ever buy, in other words. Do you have a major sales meeting awaiting you on terra firma, or just the first day of a relaxing vacation? If it’s the latter, perhaps save your money for fun things to do on land. And try not to let your life deteriorate to the point where one night of poor sleep would end you.