Recently on Twitter, one of my 365,000 followers responded to an article about getting a better seat when you fly. True enough, he was tweeting from a first class seat on @AmericanAir for which he paid the economy class fare of $124 plus a $90 upgrade. But another Tweep (@Clint7981) chirped in; "I mean, is it really that luxurious to have a foot of extra space for $90 extra?"
So we went back and forth a bit, but I think he wasn't quite convinced that yes, it is worth it. His final word? "I guess subjective value is a thing after all."
As my mother used to say, "We all get there at the same time." But mom, bless her soul, never flew in first.
So I got to thinking: what besides "a foot of extra space" does first class (and I'm talking just domestic U.S. travel) get you? Let's get this out right away: for me, it has nothing to do with "status"—although for some, that's the main draw.
1. More than just the leg room
You can get more legroom in "economy plus" or "main cabin extra" -- or whatever your airline calls those extra legroom economy class seats. Or you can fly JetBlue, where the economy seats have a few extra inches. And even with the extra legroom, unless you're seated at the bulkhead, you still have to climb over your seatmate if you're in the window seat (unless you're on a plane like American's 777-300ER where all business and first class seats have aisle access).
2. Then there's the meal
Okay, airline food is airline food, but lately it's been getting a lot better. There are imaginative fresh salads, ice cream sundaes and fresh baked cookies on American, for example. Delta is working with New York-based restaurateur Danny Myers to improve its offerings in business/first. But the meal isn't it either. You could bring your own food on board from your favorite deli or gourmet shop and eat better.
3. Free booze
Some people love this, but that's not it either. You shouldn't drink when you fly anyway, because it's dehydrating.
4. More privacy
This is important, at least to me. There are fewer people in first class. Seating is two-by-two. Seats are wider so there's no fighting for the armrest. There's no chance of ending in the middle seat. And of course, if you're lucky enough to have a seat by yourself, such as on American's new A312T in first class, you're in airline heaven. Bottom line: It's just less crowded.
5. Padded seats
Now we're really getting somewhere. And this is the main reason why I pay for first class, either heavily discounted non-refundable first or business fares, with mile upgrades, or last minute upgrade offers when checking in online. As I explained to @Clint7981, when you reach a certain age (Clint looks like he's 20 by the way), your poor tired bones, muscles and posterior aren't as padded or limber as they once were. First/business seats, unlike those rock-hard new, fuel-saving "slimline" seats in economy, still have lots of padding. They remind me of the seats in those Lockheed Constellations and DC-7's I used to fly as a kid. (Yes, I'm that old.)
6. Easier access to the lavatories
When you gotta go, you gotta go. Sometimes the line at the back of the plane to use the lavatories can be five-people deep. Not so in first and business.
7. Nicer flight attendants
I'm not saying that economy class flight attendants aren't nice; many are. But they're a lot nicer in first or business. It just makes traveling more pleasant when someone addresses you by name and smiles a lot.
8. Priority boarding and TSA lines
You can get some of these perks with airline-branded credit cards and by paying a bit extra on an economy fare, true. And some people argue that it's not worth getting on board early.
9. No fighting for overhead bin space
There's generally plenty for everyone. And if somehow there isn't, the nice flight attendants will put your stuff in the forward closet. No "gate checking."
10. Power ports
On some older planes, only first or business class seats have them at all seats. A must if you're planning to work (or play) inflight and you need juice.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.