Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lift off: How we flew first class to Rome

On Tuesday when I got home from Spain I wrote in my blog post that "everything went off without a hitch." Then I forgot: the start to our trip is the one thing that did not go according to plan, and in the end, it worked out better. We flew first class to Rome.

So, that's the end of the story.

Here's the beginning:
On the day we were supposed to leave, Monday, June 28, the weather starts out great, but then as our friend Cara is kindly driving us to Dulles airport, we let out sounds of collective terror as we look at these enormous clouds staring at us straight ahead. The flood gates open about five minutes after we make it into the airport, and the downpour is over within about 15 minutes.

But that is enough to delay our connecting flight to Charlotte just long enough for us and 10 other people en route to Rome to be guaranteed to miss our flight.

About an hour after the quick storm ends, a U.S. Airways employee instructs us all to call a special number to get our flights rebooked. The lady we speak with on the phone tells us the best she can do is get us on a flight Tuesday, same time, same place, but then she says the people at the gate at Dulles might be able to get us a better deal.

Four hours later Matt and I are the two remaining people waiting to figure out our travel plans. Everyone else has either managed to squeeze onto that Tuesday flight, or they've been told that the soonest they can leave is Thursday. Thursday! It's Monday!

The conversation at the gate goes something like this:
U.S. Airways employee: "I can get you on a flight on Tuesday, but we only have first class remaining, and you'd have to pay $500 each for the upgrade."

Me: "We're not doing that."

U.S. Airways employee: "Well then the soonest I can have you on a plane is Thursday night."

[Lady needs to help some other people on another delayed flight, so Matt goes and calls the number we'd called five hours earlier while I continue to stand by the gate.]

Five minutes later...
U.S. Airways employee: "Ma'am, how are you doing?"

Me: "I'm at the end of my rope...[and then I start crying, of course, hanging head in shame] You're telling me that there is not a single flight from somewhere on the east coast of the United States of America heading somewhere in western Europe anytime before Thursday night that we can get on. We've prepaid all our hotels. If we get to Rome Friday morning that will be almost all our time in Rome lost. We've saved for this trip for years...[and then, ladies and gentlemen, I did it:] We're teachers."

U.S. Airways employee: "Let me see what I can do...[in a muffled yet still audible voice, she makes a call, the only part of which I could hear was, "But I'm a manager, so I can just upgrade them myself, right?"]...."

U.S. Airways employee gets off the phone, pulls me far away from the ticket counter and says: "Here's what I can do. You're the last people waiting to get your flight settled. Tomorrow you and your husband are going to fly first class to Rome, connecting in Philadelphia, and I'm going to give you a lot of time between your flights so that there's no question you'll make your flight."

So I start bowing down at her feet, and I run to get Matt to tell him to get off the phone because we've got it all settled. The point of all this, besides the fact that we got the free upgrade of a lifetime, is that how you negotiate matters. The people in front of us were kind of yelling at the U.S. Airways employee, and you know what? They got to Rome on Friday morning. We at least landed Wednesday morning. Also, I knew there was something the employee could do for us besides have us leave 72 hours after our initial scheduled departure. I'm not proud for having cried, and if I could have stopped myself I would have, but everything I said was completely honest and probably earned me the sympathy vote.

Now, a quick summary of first class. 
I had only flown first class one another time in my life, but that time was a domestic flight to my brother's California wedding, and the free upgrade was the result of the airline screwing up and trying to compensate. As you might have guessed, though, there is little comparison between first class domestic and first class international.

The joys begin with the first class airport lounge, which I realize is open to first-class domestic passengers as well, but this was my first time inside one. Let me recommend this as a nice place to hang out for several hours between flights at the Philadelphia airport. You know, eat some brie, some tapenade, some various salads, some complimentary beverages.

This is about one-tenth of the lounge space
This food is just the beginning

Then, hours later, stand amidst hundreds of people waiting to board their flight to Rome and then wait for a U.S. Airways employee to invite all first-class passengers to board. You know what happens? Everyone looks at you, wondering why you're that guy in Row 1. And you wonder to yourself, "When is someone going to call my bluff? When is someone going to grab my ticket and tell me I can't be here?"

But, of course, it never happens, because you earned this, so you walk up to Row 1 and say, "Why yes, I would love a glass of champagne as I place my carry-on items in the overhead compartment."

So you put up your pinky and drink, drink, drink
So you look at your menu and decide what you'll have for your entree, because, you know, in first class you actually have a choice
Before dinner is served, the flight attendant lays a miniature tablecloth over your tray table, because that's absolutely necessary. (But in all seriousness, the actual utensils are a nice touch.)
But you know what you didn't get to pick? Your appetizer. But it's ok, because they bring you your iceberg lettuce wedge covered in more blue cheese and blue cheese dressing than you've ever seen in one place in your life and you think, "How did they know I love blue cheese!?"
And even though your lactose-intolerant husband can't truly enjoy his blue-cheese-smothered food, he can still play with the world's tiniest salt and pepper shakers

You ordered the vegetable lasanga
And your husband got the halibut
And you both got this chocolate dessert

Gin and tonic in hand, you recline 180 degrees and watch When In Rome, thinking that although it will probably be a horrible movie it will at least let you see images of the place you'll be in a matter of hours, but the movie winds up being not only as bad as you thought but also hardly set in Rome. But it doesn't matter, because you don't even need that Tylenol PM you packed because you are perfectly comfortable and tried and wrapped up in a warm blanket, so you fall asleep and wake up in time for....breakfast! People, you have real, actual breakfast before you land.

As you land, you gather your belongings and you're the first to exit the plane as you make your way, well rested with a full stomach, into Rome.

Next up...our time in Rome: Where we stayed, what we did, what we ate, what we learned.

1 comment:

  1. Um, I watched "When in Rome" in coach class on a Continental flight to New Orleans. I found it at least amusing enough to keep my mind off the utter lack of personal space and the horrendous airplane food. So I'm very jealous of your upgrade, even though you had to go a day late!