We were standing in the first-class check-in line in front of the American Airlines counter at D-FW when my wife said, “If I hear ‘wheels up’ one more time, I’m going to scream.” No one had said “wheels up.” She was lost in some waking nightmare of suffocating jealously. I was firmly planted in the here and now, fuming that every yahoo with a gold- or platinum-level AAdvantage mile rating was allowed to stink up the first-class line. You see, most of our friends fly private, a fact we’re reminded of by their constant chorus of “wheels up.”
At a child’s birthday party at Brook Hollow: “We decided on the spur of the moment to go to La Jolla. I stuffed the kids and the dogs into the Suburban, and we were wheels up by 3 pm.” Sitting in the golf cart on the third tee at Dallas National: “Wheels up, it’s only three hours to the ranch in Montana.” In the technical sense, “wheels up” means liftoff or the time spent aloft. In the more important sense, “wheels up” signifies that the person flies by private jet.
There’s the rub. We all used to be members of the same elite club. Before AAdvantage miles and upgrades and the lowering of standards dumbed luxury down to the lowest common denominator; before the cost of a coach seat was priced at the equivalent of a bus ticket, allowing the steaming pile of humanity that had once been safely consigned to out-of-sight bus terminals to crowd our airports; before 9/11 and the shoe bomber forced us to take off our John Lobbs and Manolos and shuffle across the dirty security checkpoint floors, cradling our laptops and boarding passes and photo IDs like prisoners being strip-searched into Rikers—before all that, first-class air travel used to be first class.
Your bags would be tagged so that they came off the baggage claim conveyer belt first, thus obviating the need to have to take your bags onboard and wrestle them into the overhead storage bins. You would be conveyed from the Admirals Club Lounge (in those days, less crowded, less democratic) in those gliding carts, which are now reserved for the infirm and elderly—just the people who have no business flying at all. Dinner was served with linens, china, and a freshly made ice cream sundae. And for heaven’s sake, what happened to the curtain between first class and coach?!
Back then, we were all first-class co-sojourners, with an easy camaraderie. Now I’m stuck in a sick parody of what first class used to be while my friends, owing to some unearned kiss of Lady Luck Stock Market, soar above it all, nearest heaven to thee, in their Gulfstreams and Hawkers and Citations.
If you’ve ever stowed along on one of your friends’ jets—or, a pox on you, have one of your own—then you know what I’m talking about. The chauffeured town car drives you right out onto the runway at Love Field or Addison Airport and parks within 10 yards of the plane. Someone takes your bags. Your shoes stay on your feet. There’s laughter as you board the plane, the burled wood accents on the seats and table winking at you under the flattering overhead lights. You flop into an overstuffed leather seat. A drink? Thank you very much. Your friend’s dog is chewing on a knotted sock. More laughter, and the warm blanket of privilege envelopes you as the pilot asks you to prepare for takeoff. And then the plane lifts effortlessly into the air with coordinates for Aspen or Cabo or Nantucket, or wherever such glistening jets tend to congregate. “Wheels up!” you say, and the thought of the huddled masses yearning to board a double-booked plane for a delayed flight would bring a sympathetic smile to your face. Another drink? Why, I think I will.
I was snapped out of my own bitter reverie when my wife elbowed me to contemplate the even longer line to get through security, with signs on the hallway wall advertising things like “20 minutes from here,” the last of such signs being a quarter of the way from the far end of the line.
We began our stoop-shouldered trudging when I spied a sign that provided an immediate entry for first-class passengers. (Lord knows why the purchase of a first-class ticket on a commercial airline would grant you privileges above the populous in a public facility, but who am I to question the droit du seigneur?)
We shifted uncomfortably in our worn leather first-class seats, the ramekin of stale warmed-up nuts sliding on the dirty trays as we leafed through tattered issues of Celebrated Living. The zombies filed past us into the rear of the plane. I wasn’t even finished with my drink when the stewardess collected our glasses. I unbuckled my seat belt before the plane left the runway, my impotent show of protest, as I daydreamed of the embarrassingly few times I have flown on a private jet. The landing gear clunked into the underbelly of the plane. Wheels up.
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