While Business and First Class are an enclave shrouded in mystery and romance, Economy seems to exist merely as a means to an end. Or as I like to call it, Life's Great Leveller' (when I'm feeling Shakespearean).
Economy can be cramped, stuffy and reminds us all that as individual as you might feel, you are but one of many. And nobody likes to feel like a statistic.
As someone who can say that they've experienced life on both sides of the Iron Curtain between Economy and everything above (we can talk later about the imposter syndrome that comes from sitting in a Business Class seat as a member of the press rather than a bonafide suit who can actually afford it), I can confirm that the back end are all missing out on hot towels and welcome champagne.
They also have individual packets of moisturiser up there for when the recycled oxygen dries those pores. And yes, the seats, they do go flat. More horizontal than a pensioner on a cruise ship.
I'm not going to lie, turning left at the gangway is a wonderful thing.
But here's the thing -- good character was never formed on a comfy chair. Like diamonds, it takes a bedrock of high pressure and the centre seat of a plane's 3-4-3 arrangement to forge legitimate sparkly greatness. Only once you have survived a red-faced, tear-moistened baby on one side and a passive aggressive war over the armrest on the other can you find out who you really are and what you're capable of.
Only after which will you gain the kind of great qualities that combine to make something that resembles a solidly decent person.
Things such as...
This starts before you even get on the plane. Scientists once tested four-year olds, saying they could have a single soft and delicious marshmallow now, OR if they were willing to wait 15 minutes they could have two. Famously the results of this test of willpower revealed that waiting is for jokers and instant gratification wins every time.
As you get older though, the rewards became more complex than a single sweet treat and you start to value other things more. Things like the bonus of lessening your time at the no-mans-land of a boarding gate. Most people will even endure a coffee filtered through battery acid at an airport fast-food chain rather than sit at the gate and watch the crew teasingly consider opening the gangway door.
At the gate there are no bars or TVs to entertain you. There is simply... nothing. It is surely what The Bible was talking about when describing Limbo.
The effect of this is, even though you and your Economy class comrades are well aware that your seats are already assigned and even though there's nothing waiting for you except a 45cm wide chair, there's a little screaming child-like voice inside that says "please let me on first if it just means I don't have to be here anymore".
The airlines know this. And you know that they know this. And every time they ask "all the passengers in rows G and above" to board first it's like a tiny plastic fork in your heart and they hope that you'll bump up to Premium Economy just to avoid this (it's nice there, we'll discuss that next time).
But in this struggle comes an opportunity, the chance to display the quiet zen-like dignity of a person who simply and quietly waits. I have often looked at the man who is able to view the boarding line with relaxed indifference right up until the crew have almost closed the gangway doors, only to suavely pick up their bag and saunter on to the plane completely unencumbered by their fellow passengers.
This person has mastered their sense of urgency and truly figured out their...
A standard science-grade priority test involves asking a person to complete more than one task, each seemingly as urgent as the next, in a short amount of time. You might not think that there's not much else to do on a plane except stare at the back of a chair or ponder your Duty Free options, and you would be right, if you weren't forgetting humanity's greatest foe. The Kyryptonite to all comfy plane journeys from Los Angeles to Laos, Toronto to Timbuktoo...
Yes, nowhere is your ability to organise your needs better exercised than next to a perfect stranger in Economy as you stare down the launch procedure of your body's increasingly vocal Exit door.
Try as you might, like a mosquito buzzing around your ear at night, there is no tuning out the inevitable. You will have to get up. You will have to wake your neighbour. The only question is when.
This is where being able to decipher what's truly important is the crux of being a decent person. Is your neighbour asleep? God help you.
Indeed you will ask yourself many questions on your journey. Things such as "how badly do I really need to visit the bathroom?", "do I hold it and wait for them to deliver my chicken curry or go now and risk not getting it at all?" and "would my neighbour prefer my front side or my back side?" as you climb over them for the lavatory.
The answer to all those questions boils down to our third and most valuable positive trait...
Excuse me, I'm about to get crass (and I realise the irony of that in a section about all things gentile) but being able to sensibly consider your posterior is fundamental to successful integration into airplane society.
To start with, there's nothing more humbling that an economy meal. Trust me, I know. I've seen what they eat up in the pointy end and it doesn't come wrapped in foil. Everything is delivered on a plate with a white table cloth and it's glorious.
However, here's a fact about airline food, from First Class to Cattle Class one thing is universal -- all food must be slathered in sauce.
This is less about epicurean flair and utterly about necessity because at 30,000 feet in the air your tastebuds take a nice trip down to Playa Del Carmen and pickle themselves right to about 30 percent of their usual power. Your nose sees that your tongue has basically clocked off and calls the union calling for a strike, drying up all its precious nasal mucus and effectively reducing you to half the food critic you normally are.
Airlines work hard to combat this issue, hiring special chefs to strategise extra spice, salt and thick, deliciously rich sauces. The outcomes are mostly successful and, I'm going to say it, airline food these days is pretty darn good.
However, sauces and seasonings often result in a completely natural function that starts with an 'f' and rhymes with 'hearts'. The unnatural part is you have 200 other people in a confined space all doing the same thing...
This is where it takes a certain level of ingenuity and thoughtfulness to wrap the plastic off the blanket and create a Bio-Dome cocoon around your lower regions. The effect being a sort of mock-filtration system by which your neighbour might be spared a tête-à-tête with your tummy.
Their noses are more than likely dulled by the air pressure but still, it's the thought that counts. And for that, you deserve a medal.
But man cannot get by on a plane with politeness alone. There's a fourth element to the quadrant of excellent personhood that cannot be ignored...
They say, "A Dairy Milk in the air is worth two on the ground" and by golly is it true. You've devoured your saucy chicken cacciatore, apologised a few times to your neighbour about having to exorcise your right to urinate (and climbed back over them to your seat, fondling your blanket back around your legs) and essentially been brought back to the basics of your humanity. It's been a weird journey that's seen you conjure patience from the depths of your character and thankless MacGyver-like innovation from the unassuming corner of real estate that is your seat.
Congratulations, for you have almost reached the Nirvana of virtue. The final and most important element of being a first class human stuck in the hindquarters of a jumbo is this...
The stark and crushing realisation that you have no wings. In fact, according to evolution, you are literally not meant to comfortably exist at 45,000 feet in the air. At all.
And yet, against the odds and all that is good and Holy, a giant metal tube weighing approximately 439,000 kgs is going to take you and 200 other people to the other side of the globe and land you right where you want to be. All in a matter of hours and mostly on time. That's kind of awesome when you break it all down. Everything else, including a hot meal and chocolate bar is a pleasant bonus.
Okay so, no, it's not perfect but it's something I like to remember whenever I'm on the red eye.
And for the record, the left armrest is always mine.