Over the seas in a thin metal tube

There are few things as dehumanising as flying economy-class in a big plane like a 747. Everything about the experience, intentionally or not, reinforces the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ that pervades international travel. Queue here; queue again over here; no laughing allowed; queue over there now please.

But you’ve got to hand it to British Airways. In a system already designed to stratify passengers, the British manage to make it worse in about eighteen different ways. Just for the hell of it, let’s look at them chronologically.

Or, rather, conceptually. Most airlines are happy to split up the travelling public into three groups—super-rich, wealthy (or just as likely, travelling on the taxpayer’s dollar), and the rest of us. Some, like KLM, even refine it down to just two groups, normal and extra-snooty.

But for a country whose class system still makes it tick, this obviously wouldn’t do. So the chaps at British Airways have come up with a genius system that makes everyone on the plane—except, of course, the majority of the passengers—feel exclusive.

You can be in First (which, in a bit of marketing that no doubt made some consultants very wealthy, is called just ‘First’, which is designed to make it sound even loftier—it’s not a class of travel, it’s a state of mind), or Club World, or World Traveller Plus (plus what, I wonder?), or World Traveller.

In the old days, we called it ‘economy’, not World Traveller, and, to be honest, ‘economy’ is a lot closer to telling the truth. People with more far-flung childhood holidays than mine might never have taken the train from Sydney to Perth (where the real kicker is that you still have to get home again). On the train, those who want to pay as little as possible travel in upright seats for three days and nights, all the way across the country, before stumbling out onto the platform in Perth wondering what on earth just happened to them.

That, too, could realistically be described as ‘economy’. ‘World Traveller’ conjures up—exactly as it’s supposed to—images of fit, tanned adventurers, slinging their swags onto the back seats of their Land Rovers before heading bravely off to parts unknown. The reality is tiny seats, screaming children, and a curious snack I’ve never seen before called ‘pretzel nuggets’. These are the bits of pretzel that got mashed up in the pretzel-making machines and can’t be put into the packets that people have to pay for. Instead they become food for World Travellers.

The other brilliant way British Airways keeps the plebs in line is to segregate boarding. Now, every airline does this to some extent. After all, if you’ve just paid five figures to travel at the same speed, through the same turbulence, in the same plane as everyone else, you want a few perks for your cash. Getting into the aircraft ahead of everyone else (although not, it’s important to note, actually getting to take off any sooner) is one of the most popular perks, and good luck to them, I say.

But BA, bless their stratified cotton socks, put up huge signs saying ‘fast track’, and scrupulously guard them from the hungry-eyed World Traveller, even when there’s no-one actually using them, and even when they simply get you to the same check-in staffer as the other queue. The idea is taken to its glittering conclusion at Heathrow, where the Fast Track is a separate entrance to the whole terminal, with, and I swear I’m not kidding, a red carpet.

I suppose you can’t blame them, really, because other than strewing class superiority about the place, there’s not a whole lot else they can get right first try.

This trip begins for us in Sydney, boarding a BA 747 to fly for seven-and-a-half hours through the evening sky to Singapore. We leave half an hour late. In the traditional British way, this is announced with an explanation but not an apology. This is an idea that BA has picked up from London Underground, I suspect—delays on the tube are explained by big signs saying that ‘the delay to your journey this afternoon was caused by the wrong type of leaves on the track’.

In our case, the captain kept muttering about ‘getting some cargo on board’, which is the kind of thing you’d expect a global airline to be be able to sort out without holding up the passengers.

The in-flight safety video provided our next highlight. On the first attempt, a chirpy London voice piped up ‘welcome to London, home of the 2012 Olympics. We will shortly be arriving into Heathrow Terminal 1. Before we arrive, here’s some useful—.’ At this point, the voice retreated in confusion, perhaps having noticed the very distinctive Sydney skyline outside the window. Attempt two was a short buzzing noise and some dancing static on the screen. Attempt three consisted of the purser (sorry, ‘director of cabin services’) coming on the PA and saying in a rather stressed voice ‘cabin crew, stand by for manual demonstration. Manual demonstration!’

For any other airline, this would have been plenty for one flight. But you’ll be pleased to know that BA didn’t disappoint—next, they had to ‘reboot the inflight entertainment computer’.

‘This usually clears any problems,’ said our Head of Passenger Wrangling, ‘and it’s a bit like rebooting your home computer. It should take about ten minutes.’ I suppose it is a bit like rebooting my home computer, in fairness, except that I don’t generally have an impatient audience of 400 passengers, all of whom are beginning to wonder if there’s anything else on the plane that’s going to require rebooting for us to get to Singapore safely.

Imagine for a moment a meal at your favourite mid-priced restaurant—somewhere you might go on a weeknight if you can’t face cooking. Got something in mind? Now, one by one, do a few things to the image in your head. Make the table the size of a small laptop computer. Wrap each item of the meal in devilish plastic. Now have everyone in the restaurant face the same direction and, ideally, have the person in front of you lean back so you have the chance to really get to know the back of their chair. Using whatever material you have to hand, bind your arms to your body so you can only move them from the elbow down.

This is roughly what it’s like to have dinner when you’re a World Traveller. For added realism, make sure you spill something brightly coloured—or smelly, or, ideally, both—on yourself, and butter your bread using your credit card. Once you’ve done this, of course, you need to wear it proudly—a World Traveller badge, if you like—for at least five hours. If you’re lucky it might be a long flight and you might get to keep the memento of your meal for up to twelve.

You might get the mistaken impression that all these little irritations might put me off international travel. Nothing could be further from the truth—in fact, they provide blessed relief from the reality of having nothing to do for seven hours, nowhere to go, and nowhere to be except a chair so narrow and hard that you emerge at the other end not entirely sure if you still have legs. I remember someone once suggesting that the frequency and regularity of meals on international flights is designed entirely to break up the monotony. It’s true. No-one actually wants ‘breakfast’ at 4.30am, but as you arrive into a foreign airport, it gives you something to do. If nothing else, you can make witty remarks about the component parts of your meal to the wry amusement of your fellow travellers.

And yet, for all this, and with apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins, patience is never spent. I’m already scouting the web for good fares to London next year (if you think seven hours to Singapore is bad, 22 hours to Heathrow is another kind of awful), joining the throng of people who enjoy overseas travel just that little bit more because to get there is as far as possible from fun.