Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Day On The Red Carpet

Red Carpet Chicago
My perch in the Quiet Room at the C Concourse Red Carpet Club.

When I secured my business class seat this morning in Tokyo, I didn't realize how fortuitous that was going to be. Unlike Domestic First Class, International Business Class actually gives you access to United's Red Carpet Club (more reasons why domestic first class is just a joke).

I spent about an hour this morning in the Narita Red Carpet Club where I enjoyed automated beer, Pepsi and some snacks. My layover in Chicago turned out to be over eight scheduled hours and while I thought about renting a car and hitting some restaurants, the $85 fee Alamo was going to charge, plus the crappy Chicago weather, made my decision to pursue standing-by for a flight back to Baltimore.

That was about nine hours ago.

After hauling my overstuffed flight case, ukulele case and Narita FaSoLa Duty Free shopping bag across O'Hare, enduring the seemingly endless line of summer tourists, submitting to the Totalitarian subjugation that is airport "security" and hiking underground to Concourse C, I was told by a typically curt United Gate Agent that I had to remain with my original ticketing because I had checked baggage.

I've just flown halfway around the world, hiked across the airport in the heat, after both the International Agent and two International Phone Agents told me to go stand-by, and now I can't go??? Well, fuck you bitch.

Of course, I didn't actually say that. I just thought about saying it and that was enough. Afterall, I had just cruised across the world stretched out in the lap of luxury that is Business Class so I was feeling a bit refined, thank you very much.

United's Red Carpet Club in Concourse C is the usual mix of leather seating and tables arranged to allow small groups to mingle. Since this is United's largest hub, it's also a pretty busy and loud place to be. Happily, they have a quiet room where cell phones are verboten and where I have made camp for the day.

Sandwiched between gates C16 and C18, I've got a commanding view of the airfield, as well as the two wide-body jets sitting here at any one time. From my perch, I've seen the weather change from hazy to low-hanging black clouds to cloudy to drizzle to hard rain, and then back to beautifully sunny.

I've also watched how planes stack up here on the ground because of the weather. It's like a dance. A symphony, if you will, of aircraft and weather. I've watched the weather roll in and forcing what looked to be a complete ground stop of operations here. Which is probably the reason behind my flight back home being delayed for over an hour.

Throughout the day, I've watched the two gates do their thing. It's mostly Boeing 777s, with the occasional Boeing 747 thrown in for good measure. I'm amazed at how long it takes for the ground crew to refuel a 777. I'm fascinated with how the baggage carts follow in a near perfect arc as the driver makes a turn.

Sitting here in the lounge, one sees a slice of life. The ebb and tide of United's Hub System. Things were really hopping around here from 5pm to 7pm, then really died off after 8pm. For awhile, the main lounge was a raucous - filled with business travellers, tourists and the occasional interloper, like myself.

Now that it's nearly 9:30pm, it's quiet all around. There's still some loud women in the main lounge. C16 is getting ready to board another flight, except this time, it's a smaller jet, perhaps an A319 or B757, while the B767 at C18 looks as though its' getting powered down for the night.

I've spent an entire day sitting in this leather chair under the air conditioning vent where it's been so cold that I've had to seek out some blankets to keep myself warm. The blanket, paired with the blindfold from my business class personal kit, has been a lifesaver. I've taken at least four naps throughout the day since my body knows it's been nighttime in Tokyo.

I have to say that it's been a nice day here at the Red Carpet Club. The nine hours have gone by pretty smoothly. I've had beverages, snacks and a small meal while sitting here. I can't say I'd feel the same way if I had to fend for myself in the public gate areas...

Back In The High Life

Mission Control in seat 12F, just south of the Aleutian Islands. And yes, that's this blog on the screen.

The bane of travel is the incredible amount of time dawdling about in security checkpoint lines, waiting in airport gate areas, sitting on the tarmac, flying about the world, waiting for your stuff at the baggage carousel and commuting to and from the airport itself. All in all, it's a horrible experience no matter how much you enjoy traveling.

To add insult to injury, we are forced (usually due to economic restraints) to endure all of this as herded cattle. Mushed onto the airplane and into cramped seating that seems to get more uncomfortable with each passing year. There you are, wedged into your seat and, if you're really unfortunate, sandwiched between burly guys in a center seat.

To my right, the little girl got sick on landing. I remember those days.

Most of us sitting in "coach" or "economy" (read:steerage) peer desperately into the cabin ahead of us, past the flimsy curtains separating the haves from the have nots. We wonder what it must be like to sit in Business Class, sipping mimosas and being massaged by nubile, young flight attendants.

As I write this, I'm sitting on United 884 from Tokyo to Chicago in seat 12F in one of the hallowed chairs of Business Class. We're at flight level 330 - that's 33,000 for those of you not familiar with pilot lingo - due south of Cold Bay, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

To my left, this guy worked the entire way to Chicago, making use of the words "business class."

If you've ever sat around wondering if those people in the upper classes are enjoying themselves as much as you think, I'm here to report that you're right - we are.

The fun begins once you've passed through security, and a visit to the Duty Free store for liters of alcohol (Johnnie Walker Blue for my dad) and some Montecristo Cigarillos (illegal in America), where your Business Class ticket means your welcome at the United Red Carpet Club.

The Red Carpet Club your first step in refined travel. Warm tones, comfortable and quiet seating, Japanese-influenced interior and drinks and snacks for free. This country (Japan) is so cool they've even got superautomatic beer machines that correctly tilt the pilsen glass before dispensing and then gives it a foamy top!

When it comes time to board, there's no rush. Board at your leisure. None of that "boarding by numbers" tomfoolery those other people have to subject themselves to.

Once onboard, you're greeted by friendly flight attendants offering your choice of water, orange juice or champagne. The choice is yours. For barbarians such as myself, I'll take all three, please.

Part of my usual M.O. while traveling is to stop at the nearest McDonald's or whatever and grab a burger for my bag - in case I get hungry along the way. In Tokyo, I picked up some McDees burger with bacon and thousand island dressing but have no idea what it's called. I'm predicting now that the burger will never make it out of the bag.

They talk about fattening cattle before slaughter, if that's true then we're probably on the way to the slaughterhouse.

The mid-flight snack cart. Filled with sandwiches, cookies, Twix bars and noodles for the taking.

Once airborne, the fun begins and the food starts rolling out. Crap. I wish I hadn't eaten lunch before boarding because the Japanese Bento lunch comes in two trays. The first filled with appetizers like smoked fish, daikon, green tea and cold soba. The next tray is the actual bento itself with salmon, shrimp, more miscellaneous fish and rice. Drinks are available a plenty - green tea, black tea, water, two Cokes, champagne, port wine - and that's within the first 90 minutes of the flight!

The feeding continues with an open galley bar of whatever you desire. There's a cart filled with Twix bars, chocolate chip shortbread cookies, pretzels and ramen noodles for the taking. And, of course, you can drink to taste - beer, wine, whiskey, vodka - it's no problem. It's times like these that I wished I drank more.

So refined, even the rest room has linens.

In spite of the constant ability to feed, the whole thing is refined. Want to take a whiz? We've got our own rest rooms. Need to take it now? There's never a line. Want to take a nap? Then stretch out on the near flat bed/chair and cover your eyes with the provided blindfold. Want to work or watch movies on the laptop? No problem, just plug into the DC outlet in your seat. Need to stretch? Take a walk around the cabin, there's plenty of room.

The staff is so accommodating, I bet you could waltz with a partner if you so desired.

So what's the downside?

Knowing that it's only temporary and in just a few hours you'll be back in America resuming your role as cattle on the flight to Baltimore.

If only I could stretch this trip a little further...

Beeru O-Kudasai

Beeru O Kudasai
One of the porcelain girls at the Red Carpet Club Narita.

There are moments in life when you just sit back and enjoy. My time at the Red Carpet Club at Narita was one of those moments.

It was the period between shopping at Duty Free and boarding the long flight back to the United States. Just sitting there in the rich, Japanese-inspired interior, under the constant gaze of porcelain dolls that I enjoyed a reall nice, tall beer. Don't know what brand it was, since it came out of an automated dispenser, but it sure was good.

In Japan, they've found a way to automate just about everything, and beer has not escaped their clutches. Overall, it's pretty simple. Just grab a pilsner glass from the freezer, place it under the nozzle and hit the button.

Beeru O Kudasai
Tilting and filling to prevent foam.

The machine tilts the glass to the correct angle to prevent foaming and let's her rip. The icy cold beer flows smoothly into the frosty glass as if poured by an expect bartender (without his constant neediness to stroke his ego).

Once the proper amount has been dispensed, the unit stops, then reorients the glass into an upright position where it finishes dispensing with a perfect foamy cap for the perfect proportion.

Beeru O Kudasai
Getting all nice and sudsy!

There's no waste, no muss, no fuss, no trying to get the machine's attention to serve you. It's just flowing golden goodness.

Best of all, it was free!

If only you could buy a beer this easily in the real world...

Beeru O Kudasai
Is there any better way to spend your time before a flight? I bet I can think of one.