It was my 42nd birthday last week. A few days after the event, one of my brothers called to see how it had gone. As we chatted I mentioned something I had done earlier that day with my kids, in Melbourne.
“You’re in Australia?” he asked, somewhat dumbfounded. “But weren’t you just in South Africa? I assumed you’d go back to London from there – I mean, seriously, who flies from South Africa to London via Australia?”
Or as my other brother put it once: “Whenever I call you I have a little bet with myself beforehand – where in the world is Eytan? – it is like a real-life version of the computer game”.
They are right, of course – I do get around a bit. As a result of which I am way too familiar with travel related “stuff”, like entry visas, and how to obtain them (see my previous post: Uliel’s Law); airports, and how to behave in them (previous posts: Heathrow Terminal Three – Welcome to the Third World and Top Tips for Getting Through Immigration, Quick); annoying fellow travellers, and how to avoid them (A Handy Guide to Twelve Types of Terrifying Travellers); mileage schemes, and how to game them (Eight Tips to Make the Most of your Travel Dollars and Miles); etc etc.
I am also thus slightly jaded when it comes to the travel service industry. So whilst airports can be mildly bearable or deplorably bad, I now see them as all fundamentally the same – modern-day cattle herding stations. Security queues might be pleasantly fast or painfully slow, but they are still annoying. Airline staff may be of the happy-smiley type, or may be of the “I-hate-your-guts-and-if-murder-was-legal-I’d-claw-your-miserable-eyes-out-with-my-bare-hands” type. Doesn’t matter though – I still have to deal with them, like it or not.
Once you have seen one airline lounge, you’ve seen them all. There are only so many airline meals you can eat before you become totally indifferent – First, Business or Economy, in the end you’re still being served a pre-cooked meal reheated in a microwave. By around the 15th of every month, I have watched every new movie on the in-flight entertainment system, and by about the 25th of the month I am so bored I start exploring the “special interest” channels. Like Hindi movies and Asian chart toppers (thanks to which I have developed an unhealthy addiction to K-Pop and Canto-Pop, God help me …..)
I could go on, but you get the gist: very little surprises me on the road these days. When it comes to my travelling, it mostly all blends into an amorphous, indistinguishable glob.
All of which made my flight experience last week – on my birthday, no less – that much more extraordinary.
First though, some background.
I did indeed decide to travel the slightly odd route of South Africa to London via Australia (and also via Singapore, to be completely accurate about it). This was because I had promised my kids I would spend my birthday with them (we did yum cha, the Lego movie and pancakes, in case you’re interested). The plan was to leave South Africa two days before, and owing to the fact that the direction of travel is forwards, I would be landing in Melbourne early on the morning of my birthday.
There is a direct Qantas flight that plies the South Africa to Australia route. But owing to the impenetrable vagaries of airline ticketing systems, flying with Emirates from Johannesburg to Dubai and then connecting to Australia was considerably cheaper. Even though it was two flights not one, and eight hours more flying time. Go figure.
We left Johannesburg late, and the transit time in Dubai was pretty short anyway. So on landing I rushed straight to the boarding gate for my onward flight to Melbourne. I was one of the last to arrive. I handed over my boarding pass, the check-in assistant scanned it, and rather than the chirpy “all OK” beep you normally expect to hear, I got a much more alarming “uh-oh” sound.
“Sorry sir”, she said, looking up with a concerned frown, “there appears to be an issue. I will need to check your boarding pass”. She began pecking furiously at her computer, and after a couple of seconds looked up again and uttered five words you never, ever, ever want to hear at a boarding gate: “Sir, this flight is overbooked…..”
You see, airlines are allowed to sell more seats on the plane than there actually are. They do this on the basis that some people often cancel last minute or just don’t show up, and so in the end it normally all evens out. But every now and again, it doesn’t. When this happens, some poor schmuck has to be “un-boarded” (the technical term for the airline kicking you off the flight). Unfortunately, it now appeared that the poor schmuck was going to be me.
Even before she had finished her sentence I began planning a counter-assault. I would first beg, then plead, then get angry, and then seek sympathy by mentioning it was my birthday. If that didn’t work, I’d bring out the ultimate weapon of compassion: needy children. I would explain to the attendant that if I did not board this plane three innocent babies were going to be left standing on a pavement waiting for their Daddy, alone, hungry, cold, shivering in the rain, not to mention heartbroken, and surely she would not want that on her conscience forever?
“…… in your cabin class, so we have upgraded you to First Class”, she finished.
Oh. Well. That’s fine then. I suppose. I quickly mumbled my thanks, collected my new boarding pass, and headed down the aerobridge and straight onto the front of the bus.
Apparently there is a Travel God, after all.
The plane in question was a new Boeing A-380, and I was personally ushered to my seat. That being a slightly inaccurate description, because really what Emirates A-380 First Class amounts to is a series of private travel compartments, where you sit down, press a button, and two doors slide shut enclosing you in a personal cocoon all of your own.
A spacious personal cocoon at that, dominated by a huge leather-upholstered seat that is able to be extended into a fully-flat bed. Which a very helpful flight attendant made up for me a few hours into the flight, with a soft mattress, fresh cotton sheets, plump pillows and a thick duvet.
For my part, by bed time I had already sent some emails (thanks to in-flight WIFI), and watched a movie (the Emirates in-flight entertainment system is by far the best I have ever encountered – literally hundreds of movie selections, thus sparing me the joy of having to explore the Middle-Eastern music channels). I had also changed into my snazzy Emirates designer pyjama set, enjoyed a light snack of caviar (with all the trimmings, and emphatically not pre-cooked or microwaved), sipped a thimbleful of freshly brewed Arabic coffee (with walnut-stuffed dates on the side), and enjoyed a cold beverage from my own personal in-seat mini-bar. All while being massaged. Although banish those naughty thoughts, you sicko. The massage in question was provided by my seat, which I discovered had four different kneading functions programmed into it.
So I can personally report to you that the Emirates’ A-380 First Class offering is pretty bloody good. But at the same time, there was nothing truly new in all of this in-flight luxury. In a constant war for customers, many long-haul airlines nowadays offer fully flat beds; PJs and quilts and amenity bags are fairly standard; Singapore Airlines also has private suites; and I have even encountered massage chair functionality before on other planes.
No, the really extraordinary stuff on this particular flight came eight hours later, when I woke up.
After enjoying a thoroughly restful sleep, I opened my eyes somewhere over the Indian Ocean, as we were nearing the west coast of Australia. So it was officially Happy Birthday to me.
A flight attendant, noticing I was awake, brought me a cappuccino. While I was enjoying it another came over and asked: “Sir, would you like to use one of the Spa Suites?” I must have looked confused, because she explained: “On Emirates we now have showers on board, exclusively for use by First Class passengers”.
My jaw dropped, clearly revealing me to be the in-flight shower virgin that I was. “Sure”, I said, and the attendant smiled and told me the Spa-Suite would be readied for me. Twenty minutes later I was ushered to the very front of the plane, where I was met by one of the two dedicated in-flight shower attendants (no, I am not kidding you). She in turn showed me into the Spa-Suite, which was essentially an airplane bathroom, only about ten times larger, and fitted out with wood paneling and marble.
On a bench the attendant had already laid out a robe, a fresh fluffy white towel, and a pair of slippers. Also waiting for me was a box filled with “for him” amenities – shaving cream and razor, after-shave, toothbrush, deodorant, soap and shampoo. Not to mention that the floor beneath my feet was pleasantly heated, lest my tootsies got cold.
But the piece-de-resistance was the shower itself: a full-sized cubicle, just like any shower you’d find in any hotel room. The only difference being a time limit – onboard, each bather has ten minutes of allotted hot-water time, and the attendant showed me a little electronic dial above the tap that would indicate how much time I had remaining (an alarm sounds when there is only one minute left….).
I was immediately curious about what would happen if, mid-shower, the plane encountered turbulence? There were no seat-belts inside of the shower, and it occurred to me that it might be difficult, not to mention a touch embarrassing, to have to return to my seat buck-naked and covered in soap. But before I could ask about this important subject, the shower attendant had already left me, locking the door behind her.
So I put aside my turbulence concerns (luckily there was none) and for the first time in my life I proceeded to join the Mile High Spa club. Which although being as simple as washing my body was one of the more memorable travel experiences I have had lately.
To be lathering away under a steaming hot shower knowing that I was not on the ground, but actually inside of an airplane, was surreal. The whole experience felt new, giggly funny, absurd, weird, and utterly decadent, all at the same time. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t totally love it.
I mean, come on – I was 29,000 feet up in the air, and taking a shower, for fuck’s sake.
When done I stepped out of the Spa-Suite, and was met again by one of the shower attendants. She had prepared a cup of relaxing herbal tea for me, and invited me to sit in a special “relaxation zone” to chill for a few moments. I did so while the attendant immediately began readying the Spa-Suite for the next lucky passenger.
Feeling refreshed and on top of the world, so to speak, I made my way back to my seat. I thought the fun was over, but it seems there was to be one final act to that day’s Emirates sky-show.
Just as I was settling back a group of about eight flight attendants came over. They placed a plate with a piece of cake, surrounded by an assortment of mini-pastries, and a glass of champagne, on the table in front of me. They had found some candles, which were lit and placed in front of me too. And then they all sang me Happy Birthday, rather loudly. A few of the other passengers turned around to see what the commotion was – some even joined in as well – and I went bright red.
Then I blew out the candles, everyone clapped, and a few hours later, we landed in Melbourne. It was only 6am on the morning of my birthday, but already it had been one to remember.