Robbie: Oh, my! I’m sorry. I’ve never been on First class before.
Flight Attendant: My name is Joyce. Just buzz if you need anything.
Robbie: Sir, is that Billy Idol?
Flight Attendant: I believe it is.
Robbie: Oh my God!
Flight Attendant: Would you like some champagne or some orange juice?
Robbie: How much is it?
Flight Attendant: It’s free.
Robbie: It’s what? Holy shit! This is incredible.
Billy Idol: Good afternoon, everyone. We’re flying at twenty-six thousand feet, moving up to thirty thousand feet. And we got clear skies all the way to Las Vegas. Right now, we’re bringing you some in-flight entertainment. One of our first class passengers would like to sing you a song inspired by one of our coach passengers. And since we let our first class passengers do pretty much whatever they want, here he is.
—The Wedding Singer (1998)
All it took was to be bumped up to business class once and it was hard to be stuck back in economy class again—at least on Thai Airways International.
It was back in the summer of 1994 and I was flying back to the States—from Seoul to LA on Thai. I had been a frequent flier on the airlines for a year (when I was off to Thailand every term break) and when it came time to fly back home for a week’s vacation I chose Thai, which was back then not too expensive.
Overbooking flights, especially in Korea during the summer months used to be a very big problem in Korea back then when many Koreans would make two or three different reservations and then, once they bought their tickets, did not cancel the other ones. Then there was the practice of travel agencies having their own internal waiting lists for tickets—could never figured how that worked out when you called a travel agency and they told you that you were on a waiting list. Add to this the number of Koreans who travel to the States each summer—usually to bring their kids there so they can go to school—and what you have is a traveler’s nightmare of a crowded airport (back then Kimpo) with friends and family members there to say goodbye and overbooked flights.
And that is exactly what happened to the Thai flight to LA that hot, July Saturday. The flight, which had originated in Bangkok, was overbooked. While I was enjoying a beverage in the departure lounge, I heard my name announced over the PA system telling me that I had to check in with the Thai ground staff. Great, I thought. There’s a problem.
As I walked to the gate where the flight to LA would depart from, I’m thinking that I am going to be bumped off the flight or something. Instead, when I got there I was told that because the flight was overbooked, I was being bumped up to business class.
Sweet. I guess if you’re going to be bumped up to first class, there’s no better time than when you’ve got a 12-hour flight in front of you. I won’t go into all the details of how superb Royal Orchid Service is on Thai Airways, but as Robbie said in The Wedding Singer, it was incredible—or in this case, royal.
Well, once you’ve feasted on filet mignon it’s hard to go back to a greasy burger or once you’ve tasted some of life’s finer beers; it’s not easy to go back to good old Pabst Blue Ribbon. You know what they say, “champagne taste with beer money” – or something like that.
A few years later, when I was flying to Thailand, I used some of my Thai frequent flier miles to upgrade to business class. I probably could have used them for a free ticket around Asia, but I wanted to fly in style again. At the same time, business class from Seoul to Bangkok was not too expensive—not too much more than an economy ticket and the next thing you knew, I flew business class a few more times (and racking up more frequent flier miles). Maybe I did go a little overboard pampering myself, but it was worth it every mile of the sky that I flew.
And then I pulled something, well not actually pulled something per se, but requested something a little out of the ordinary on a flight from Seoul to Bangkok in 1998—because after all passengers in business class and first class can pretty much do, as Billy Idol said, “whatever they want”—that could never happen in a post 9-11 world.
I asked if I could sit up in the cockpit.
There were not too many people in business class on that flight, in fact on most flights from Seoul to Bangkok that year because it was just a few months after the Asian economic crisis had hit Indonesia, Thailand and Korea very hard. The exchange rate was lousy as far as buying dollars went, but interestingly the crisis had not really affected airfare rates, so it was still cheap to fly to Thailand even though it cost more Korean Won to buy dollars.
As such, the flight attendants got to pay a little more attention to the handful of passengers, including myself who had put away, by the time the in-flight meal had been served, nearly a bottle of wine. I didn’t have to ask for any refills—the flight attendants kept on filling up my class.
It was right about this time, when I thought about how cool it might be to sit up in the cockpit. It must have been a combination of all that wine and how excited I was looking forward to two weeks in Thailand, including my first visit to Phuket, when I asked one of the flight attendants if I could sit up in the cockpit. I might have said something like, “I’ve never been in the cockpit of an airline before” or “I was once in the U.S. Air Force” – whatever it was I said, it worked because the next thing I knew I was escorted to the cockpit.
It was either 1997 or 1998 when Thai started using Boeing 777’s, which only required two crew members, so it wasn’t like I was going to be in the way. Besides, the plane was flying on autopilot. I sat down behind the co-pilot and for almost an hour I talked to both the pilot and the co-pilot about life in Korea, traveling to Thailand, speaking both English and Thai. And when I wanted another drink, the flight attendant brought me one.
If I thought flying in business class was sweet, this was real sweet. What was real cool was looking out the window as we flew through some clouds.
After about an hour in the cockpit, I figured it was time to go back to my seat—didn’t want to wear out my welcome; besides, the crew had to start getting ready for the final descent into Bangkok and Don Muang Airport.
A few passengers stared at me when I went back to my seat probably thinking where I had been for the past hour or for those who had seen me go into the cockpit, wondering how did I rate to be able to that.
Hey, I just asked.
I would never have the chance again to do that again, though a few years later I would sit in the cockpit of a different kind of aircraft, an F-16 to be precise, when I flew in one over Korea.
And in a post 9-11 world, you know that airlines are not going to let one of their passengers sit up in the cockpit again.
I wouldn’t call it a thrill of a lifetime or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—even though that is what it ended up being; instead, it was just a neat thing to do.