Audiophile Lessons Learned While Flying First Class

AR-BlueSky450.jpgIt's hardly news that commercial air travel in the United States post 9/11 is nothing short of agony. Check-in and security clearance can be an hour-long process, if not longer. TSA Pre-check helps, and Clear helps even more for a frequent traveler like me, but the process is still pretty brutal. I carry enough airline credit cards, including an AMEX Platinum Card (along with the Priority Pass club card), which helps makes the post-security time not as painful. 

That's not why I try to always fly First Class, though. Other than the fact that coach seats aren't sized for anyone over five-foot-five and the service reminds me of the time I spent in prison, the real compelling reason to fly up front is that you never know who you might sit next too. Allow me to share some of my stories - both good and bad.

Before the Consumer Electronics Show crapped the bed a few years ago, I was heading back from a trip to the show and I was not feeling well. The number one reason not to attend CES, even before it became a non-audio show, was the fact that 185,000 people packed into Las Vegas like a ten pounds of excrement in a five-pound bag made the costs insane but influenza nearly unavoidable. I was sick as a dog and had a 120 MPH ride to McCarran Airport from the worst Uber driver ever (whom I reported and they fired, I believe). 

My flight back to Los Angeles on Virgin America, the best of the best in terms of domestic airlines before being bought up by Alaskan Airlines and quickly ruined, was unexpectedly delayed and delayed again. I was rocking a fever and ultimately found out that I had strep throat. I dealt with both of those problems at the American Express Centurion Lounge (world-class airport lounges in a growing number of U.S. cities that have ready-made food, showers, top-shelf booze, massages, and more) by drinking a few really nice Balvenie 12-year scotches to burn the hate off the back of my throat. 

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I wished I was back in my "free" suite at The Mirage more than once, but after four hours of waiting, I got to board my flight. To the left of me was Perry Farrell, the lead singer of Jane's Addiction and the founder of the Lallapaloosa concert festivals, and his wife. To the right of me was his manager. We hit up a conversation and he told me that a major Las Vegas company had brought his entourage out to Sin City to try to learn how to bring a more "experiential" music festival vibe to their casino properties. Starting with events like The Hard Rock Hotel's "Rehab" summer pool party, Vegas learned quickly that Millennials will spend money in their town but not on beefy steaks, stiff Martinis, and table games. They want experiences that are a whole other thing. They want DJ Easy Dick on the 1's and 2's (that's turntable talk, folks) spinning that uber-annoying bass-laden music at an ear-splitting 120 dB while tweaked out of their minds on Molly. 

Their willingness to spend money on events versus tangible assets is a key difference between Millennials and Gen Xers like me and the Baby Boomers that helped make Las Vegas what it is today. For 45 minutes, I got a master class in entertainment. I was able to tell Perry about how I went to the second show of Lallapaloosa at a ski resort in rural Pennsylvania where the second act back in like 1991 was this new band from Seattle who had a really tight playlist. I think they were called Pearl Jam. He laughed. We parted ways and I learned a whole hell of a lot on that flight - far exceeding the $500 that I paid for the round-trip First-Class seat. 

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Last year, I was in a tricky position as a true travel-bitch. I was invited to go to Sound United's first-ever dealer event held in New Orleans. I travel a lot, and despite my goal of trying to play the Top 100 gold courses in the United States according to the Golf Magazine 2014-15 list (I am at 71 of the top 100 and 19 of the top 20 as I type), I had never been to New Orleans. 

The problem is: how do you tell the really awesome people at Sound United that I can't fly coach? I apologized about 10 times and insisted on paying the difference between a coach seat and a pretty lousy First Class seat on this Los Angeles-to-Louis Armstrong Delta flight. The guy sitting to my right in the window seat was pretty friendly and we got to chatting. His name is Leroy Bennet (not any relation to Tony, as far as I can tell) and it turns out he is pretty much the greatest concert set designer ever. He was going to New Orleans to meet with Sir Paul McCartney on his then-tour. 

Leroy told me that he worked with Prince for a good 14 years and was super-cool about allowing me to ask any and all of my Prince super-fan questions about how he hurt his hip, how Prince got converted from one kooky religion to another, and more. I had my theories before I plunked my fat ass into seat 4E, but now I had first-hand confirmation. After working with Prince, my new buddy worked with post-David Lee Roth Van Halen on tour and, once again, I had a bunch of question that he was more than willing to answer about Sammy, but I was more interested in the role of Alex in the pantheon of Van Halen. Hours into this 3.5-hour flight, Leroy took a nap and I did what any reasonable and curious human being would do: I cyber stalked him on LinkedIn. He has worked with about four generations of the biggest musical artists at every meaningful venue including Super Bowl shows and more. This guy was the real deal. While flying most of the way across the country is normally pretty awful, in this case I learned so much cool rock and roll information that I couldn't believe it. 

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Much like you, I have had my travel nightmares that First Class can't fix. I tried to go see my parents in Philadelphia one Christmas, but thanks to the "shoe bomber" I couldn't get even close to the front door at LAX and summarily canceled my trip to enjoy the holidays at 70 degrees with my toes in the sand. I once flew back from Phoenix to Los Angeles with a 737 full of Raiders fans so loaded and so out-of-control that the plane was pulled out of approach from the 60-minute flight to land early and have the LAPD pull the people off of the plane and get arrested. But the true low point in First Class was an early flight on a US Airways 767 back to Los Angeles where I was sitting in an aisle seat on the wide-body jet. My seatmate was a much older man who told me that he owned a Harley Davidson dealership in rural Pennsylvania. He seemed fine as he ordered a pre-flight cocktail but then actually and literally shit his pants. 

This, my friends, I am not making up. This is not hyperbole. He crapped his BVDs while I am watching my DVDs. You have to be kidding me? I went to the purser on the flight and she said there were no other seats (not even in coach) so she let me hang with them at the front of the plane for hours and hours. They were great. 

My last nightmare was from JFK back to Los Angeles when United flew their swanky "premier service" between these two key airports. First Class was full sleeper seats, but in Business Class where my wife and I were sitting, there was epic legroom, DVD players, nice food, and so on. The problem was that I had gotten food poisoning (something that I had never had) from the sushi bar at a well-polished Long Island Jewish wedding event place and when I sat down in my seat, I turned green. There were two kids in front of me who saw the discomfort that I was going through. Pepto Bismol from the airport newsstand wasn't cutting it. We went wheels-up and I went knees down in a fancy but old 757 bathroom where I barfed my way nearly all the way to California. To make things even worse, I actually knew the purser, "Leslie," who was adorable yet super-concerned about my issues. She did everything she could to help me not want to open the plane door and jump out. 

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Despite my tales of woe flying commercial all over this fine nation of ours, the lessons learned and fascinating people that I have met sitting at the front of the bus have been worth it over the years. The value of today's domestic First Class tickets are nothing short of pathetic. If you can squeeze into Coach, you can put away enough money to get a pretty serious upgrade to your preamp or DAC from Audiogon.com or your local dealer. But then again, what is the value of a good rock and roll story? I'd argue it's priceless.

How do you fly? What are some of your best domestic flight stories? What are some of your worst? Share with us in the comments below.

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