Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
First Class travel still captures the imagination.
You tell yourself that it'll be such a contrast from sitting in the back, praying it will all soon be over.
So I decided to treat myself to two First Class flights on two different airlines, just to compare the experiences.
First, I took a JetBlue flight from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
A week later, I returned on an American Airlines flight from Miami to San Francisco.
Each ticket cost more or less the same. Each flight was in the most exalted cabin -- Jet Blue's Mint Class and American's First Class.
And each flight was, miraculously, on time.
One was a morning flight, one was an evening flight.
The difference, I'm sad to say, was night and day.
JetBlue's Mint Class.
I'm not so much of a morning person. I'm the one who gets on a morning flight with the sort of expression that suggests I'm still in mourning for the night before.
Still, JetBlue's check-in was blessedly simple, even if there were a couple of people in the line who seemed to think every seat was Mint Class.
The Gate Agent was friendly, without being unbearably chirpy.
And when I got on the plane, I received an equally friendly greeting from a Flight Attendant.
I sat down and there was a little Hopper pouch containing hand lotion, lip balm, socks, natty fingerless gloves, toothbrush, toothpaste and eyeshades on the armrest, as well as a card.
It read: "Welcome to Mint. Should you need anything through out your flight, please let us know."
It also suggested the airline's signature drink, called RefreshMint.
The card was signed: "Jackie and Jeff."
This was oddly, ridiculously pleasant. It felt, indeed, like flying at an exalted level internationally.
Wait, who were Jackie and Jeff? They were the two Flight Attendants who'd be Minting me on this flight.
Indeed, Jackie wandered over, asked if I'd ever Minted before, explained that the seat -- which felt remarkably comfortable -- reclined to the lie-flat position, showed me where a bottle of water was perched and generally made me feel entirely welcome.
Oh, and she also gave me a White Peach and Raspberry Smoothie.
Soon, I received a menu, which suggests you choose three things from a selection of five.
Sadly, there was nothing that looked like breakfast to my eyes.
Yes, there was Smoked Gouda and Caramelized Onion Omelet and something called a Panetonne Bread Pudding, but neither felt right.
So I had a Tomato Soup, Smoked Salmon on Rye and some fruit.
It was all nicely presented and was reasonably tasty, if not what I really would have wanted.
I slid my seat back, relaxed, read a book and appreciated the calm. Jackie would wander over occasionally to ask if I needed anything. The whole atmosphere was utterly delightful.
But then we hit turbulence. A lot of turbulence.
As a former freaked-out flyer, the one thing I'd prefer the captain to give me is an estimate of how long the rocking and bumping might last.
In this case, there was nothing. The turbulence went on for two hours and not one word from the captain.
This, though, was one of only two real unpleasantnesses of the whole experience.
The other was the Live TV, which didn't work at all throughout the flight.
Jackie explained that this had been a problem the previous day, too. She was extremely apologetic.
On the other hand, Wi-Fi was free.
And when I got to the baggage claim, my bag came out within a minute. It was the first off the belt.
In sum, this was truly a First Class trip.
American Airlines had a lot to live up to.
American Airlines First Class.
Let's be honest,
Miami airport is one of the messiest in America.
Somehow, chaos always reigns there.
Still, I figured if I was flying First Class, there wouldn't be a line to check-in and I could soon be on my way.
I might as well have figured that the moon and the stars were going to buy me Christmas gifts.
The line for the First Class check-in and bag drop was long and painful.
I'd already checked in, so I just wanted to leave my one suitcase and go.
Then a harassed American Airlines employee explained to me that the machines that print the luggage tags were broken.
So I stood in line for at least 30 minutes, before a miracle occurred.
The machines were reprogrammed and I slipped out of the line -- there were still at least a dozen people in front of me -- found a functioning machine, printed my tag and handed my suitcase over to another entirely harassed American employee.
Still, I had First Class to look forward to.
Recently, American Airlines released research that showed the two things First Class passengers care about most is the Flight Attendant knowing their name and giving them a drink before takeoff.
I got on the plane, only to receive no greeting at all.
The Flight Attendant had turned the other way and was merrily chatting to the man who was loading food onto the plane.
It wasn't personal.
She didn't say hullo to the person in front of me or the person behind me.
Yes, I was offered a drink before takeoff.
What was clear, however, is that there wouldn't be the welcoming touches preferred by JetBlue.
The legroom felt like the equivalent of Premium Economy on an international flight.
The seat reclined hardly at all. Lie-flat? Ah, no.
And as for Live TV, which is available on some American flights, no, not on this one.
Wi-Fi? That'll be $40 to Gogo, thank you. I paid $8 for 30 minutes. The signal was Stopstop.
Still, I was at least looking forward to receiving a menu and perusing the choice of wines.
JetBlue had a fascinating wine selection, which included Leo Steen's very fine Chenin Blanc. This wine I've named in my second Alcohol By Volume column as one of my five favorite volume wines of the year.
On this American flight, I waited for the menu to arrive after takeoff. And waited.
I was really looking forward to something very much more advanced that the old days in Economy when the Flight Attendant would hiss: "Chicken or Pasta?"
Here, the Flight Attendant -- who was clearly being overworked, as she was largely alone to look after 16 First Class passengers -- sidled over and said: "Chicken or Pasta?"
I confess to being stunned.
This was First Class service?
I asked about the chicken dish.
"It's a chicken breast with, I think, green beans on the side and rice," replied the Flight Attendant.
I chose it.
What arrived was a dried-out chicken breast over what was likely couscous with a few vegetables mixed in.
As for the wine, here was the array of choices: White or Red.
At no point did the Flight Attendant tell me what they were. I ordered the white, which tasted like some sort of blend.
The pour was generous, so I still had half a glass left when the Flight Attendant asked if I wanted something more to drink.
"Just water, please," I said.
She took away my wine glass.
Was this some kind of economy measure? Had I taken too long drinking my wine?
I waved after her, as if to explain that no, I'd said water, not wine.
She brought my wine glass back and said: "Oh, but everybody wants more wine."
Sometimes, that's true. Especially when one actually knows what one is drinking.
The best part of the meal was the sundae -- something I remember being regularly offered in First Class by Continental Airlines.
I needed the taste of strawberries and fudge to mask the taste of Kentucky Dried Chicken.
Still, this was all a touch disappointing.
It was made slightly worse by the man seated next to me grabbing my water glass and placing it on his tray.
"Excuse me, you've taken my water," I said.
"Oh, really? I thought it was mine."
He begrudgingly handed it back.
He hadn't ordered any water. He had, though, had a couple of beers and at least one glass of wine.
Arriving in San Francisco wasn't quite as pleasant as my arrival in Fort Lauderdale.
It took around 30 minutes for the bags to emerge.
As for the First Class bag privileges, I estimate that my bag may have been around the 127th to arrive on the belt.
There's Only One Winner.
This was only one flight on each airline, but I tried to make the comparison as fair as possible.
Similar price, similar route, each within a week of the other.
On this evidence, though, these two offerings simply aren't in the same league.
It was like the difference between a well-thought out, one-star Michelin restaurant that really considers its customers and a chain steakhouse that's run by accountants.
I felt sorry for the lone Flight Attendant in American's First Class, who was rushing up and down the aisle and seemed simply to want to get it all over with.
Then again, I didn't feel too sorry for her when she couldn't even be bothered to offer a greeting as I got on the plane.
She was such a contrast with the JetBlue staff that it was quite bizarre.
The whole American offering was such a contrast with JetBlue's Mint that even I, in my life-addled cynicism, hadn't expected a gulf so great.
If I worked for American, I'd be embarrassed by the difference.
If I worked forJetBlue, I'd be wondering how on earth American gets away with it.