Classic literature is full of obsessive quests: think of Sir Gawain looking for the Holy Grail or Captain Ahab hunting the whale as if “possessed by all the fallen angels”. Today’s travellers pursue upgrades with equal devotion. Respectable people fling themselves to their knees like beggars. Some people put on their best bib and tucker for flights, in the hope that looking like a member of the upper crust will see them bumped up to upper class. On receiving an OBE, a friend of mine immediately sent her passport for alteration in the hope that Order of the British Empire would translate into Always Upgrade Julia.
The desperation for upgrades is understandable: life in cattle class is hell. The seats get smaller and the people get fatter. Fellow passengers behave like yahoos – they oppress you by reclining their seats, yammer at the top of their voices and constantly clamber over you to relieve themselves. Your only hope is that the adjacent seat will be left vacant. But this is less and less likely as airlines cram in as many people as possible. I remember my tremulous emotions as I sat down for a flight from Singapore to London. My heart beat faster as departure approached and the seat next to me remained tantalisingly empty. But just as the door was about to close a giant fatberg burst through it, groaning, sweating and stinking, and deposited himself next to me. For the next 18 hours his flesh oozed into my personal space and his stentorian snoring kept me awake.
And yet upgrades are not always all that they’re cracked up to be. You can be liberated from cattle class only to discover some unexpected snare in business class. From the high that follows the magic incantation, “You’ve been upgraded”, you are brought rapidly down to earth as you taxi down the runway. On one flight from New York to London I sat next to a man who insisted on ripping articles out of the New York Times for the entire journey.
On another from Dubai to Vienna I was not just upgraded to first class, but granted my own mini-cabin complete with personal valet. I sat there in a state of delirium: eight hours in hell had been transformed into a paradise of houris and sherbet – or at least perfectly mixed Virgin Marys and an infinite supply of nuts. But after a while my valet’s attentions began to pall: every few minutes he knocked on my door to ask if I needed anything. He brought hot towels and sacks of nuts and gallons of Virgin Mary refills. It was overwhelming: rather than relaxing over my meal and a film, I had to constantly fend off my valet’s unwanted attentions. But since he was such a charming fellow, I didn’t have the nerve to tell him to leave me alone. As we landed I entertained myself by studying the elaborate handset on my seat. It was only then that I noticed that the button marked “immediate service required” had been left in the “on” position.
Upgrades are also an invitation to dangerous self-indulgence. I once boarded a midnight flight from Hong Kong to Johannesburg only to be bidden to turn left rather than right. Promotion to first class! And on Cathay Pacific, an airline famed for its service! My fellow passengers all donned their eye masks and immediately went to sleep. I decided to have a six-course meal that investigated the full range of beverages available – starting with iced vodka and caviar, accelerating through champagne, white wine, red wine before climaxing with port and cheese. By the time I arrived in Johannesburg my fellow first-class passengers bounded off the plane refreshed. I, on the other hand, was refreshed in a very different sense. At my meetings, I could barely keep my eyes open, let alone ask penetrating questions.
I’m still haunted by the mother of all upgrade malfunctions: on my honeymoon. My wife did a number on the check-in lady – only a double upgrade could make this wonderful moment even more blissful. We required a business-class love seat to plan our futures. The check-in lady was sympathetic but could only find one available spare seat: in the smoking lane in premium economy. My wife immediately nabbed it, explaining that she could just about bear to be separated from me now given that we would be spending the rest of our lives together. A couple of hours into the flight I ventured forward to discover my beloved, cigarette in one hand, large drink in the other, deep in conversation with a recent divorcée who was delivering an alcohol-fuelled lecture on the evils of marriage.