17 MAY 2003, Page 46

Flights to fancy

Jonathan Ray

Ihave always really, really hated flying. The first whiff of an airport and I'm scared out of my wits. But not only am I terrified; I also loathe and resent the contempt in which passengers are generally held by the airlines — the way we're herded like cattle and the way we're expected to eat unspeakable food with a neighbour's elbow in the face. Even a short London-Paris hop fills me with utter dread, and I start to fret about the flight at least two or three days beforehand. I always expect to die, and I dislike the prospect of dying in such discomfort and without a decent meal inside me.

So when I was commissioned to write a book, the research for which would take me round the world, it wasn't long before the initial exhilaration gave way to a chill feeling of terror and gloom when it dawned on me that I would actually have to fly to these far-flung places. The butterflies began their familiar swarm in my stomach as. with an awful obsession, I calculated that in the month I'd allowed myself to travel from London-Cape Town-Johannesburg-Perth--Melbourne-Auckland-Santiago-Li a-Los Angeles-San Francisco-London, I was going to be in the air for a total of three and a half days. I all but threw up over my calculator.

The one teeny-weeny crumb of comfort I had to sustain roe was that if I was going to die, at least on this occasion I was going to die in business class. Apart from a couple of unexpectedly successful blagged upgrades several years ago, I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm a businessclass virgin. While most of my friends seem to be urbane veterans of the BC experience — both for work and for family holidays, the rotters — I'm invariably obliged to slum it in the cheap seats, and I had no idea what I would get for my £4,470 ticket.

At the outset I felt like a new boy at school, not quite sure what I was entitled to or where I had to be, when. I envied the practised ease with which regulars strolled up to check-in with barely an hour before take-off; how they knew exactly where the business-class lounge was; how they would wander off to the shower, log on to the Internet, browse through the newspapers, sip at a glass of Chablis or pick at a tasty morsel, as I sat, sweaty and panicky, nibbling on my Boots sandwiches and clutching my WII Smith bag full of unnecessarily purchased magazines and papers.

Nor was it much better on the plane, where I paraded my ignorance to all and sundry. The steward and I had a tug-of-war with my jacket before I realised he was trying to put it on a hanger, and it took me more than an hour to read the PhD thesis which explained how my seat, video and headphones worked. It will be a while, too, before I forget the withering look my neighbour gave me when, rather than betray myself to the cabin crew, I asked for her help in erecting my foot-rest.

On the first flight I was so terrified — and by my sixth or seventh flight so bored — that I became obsessed with the minutiae of air travel, finding myself giving critiques on everything from the flowers in the loo on board to the weight of the blankets, and to the comparative quality of the airlines' food and cabin service. Initially I found it difficult to sleep on the night flights, fearing that if I dropped off and loosened my grip on the arm-rests, the plane would plunge into the ocean. Crazed with lack of sleep, I began to imagine the headlines: 'Airliner crash blamed on passenger in seat 10A who fell asleep'. However, as my journeys continued — ten flights in all — I began to relax, and can almost say that I enjoyed myself. I hadn't realised that the gulf between economy and business was so large, but so it ought to be, given the crushing difference in ticket prices. The seats are much more spacious and comfortable — crucial for night flights; the food is miles better; and it is a real treat to be served wine of real quality from a proper bottle rather than vinegar from those poxy 50c1 insults. In my view, though, the best value comes from using the business lounges, either before departure or after arrival. These make a real difference, and I found that I boarded each plane and arrived at each destination not only less frazzled and bad-tempered, but also — most importantly — clean.

Anyway, so as not to waste my exhaustive and paranoid research during my journeys around the world with Air New Zealand, American Airlines, British Airways, LanChile, Qantas and South African Airways, here are my conclusions: Best business-class lounge: LanChile. Almost all airlines' lounges have the usual mod cons (showers, broadband Internet, etc.) but LanChile wins by a head on account of having the prettiest staff and pisco sours to die for. Honourable mention goes to Virgin for their lounge at San Francisco: BA's lounge there doesn't have any computers and, despite my not flying with them, Virgin welcomed me in, serving me regular chilled glasses of champagne as I sent my emails.

Best cabin crew: British Airways. Although I find trying to get any sense out of this monolithic, inflexible and bloodyminded organisation nigh impossible (especially their executive club and travel clinic), their cabin crew are second to none.

Best food and wine: British Airways. By a whisker over LanChile, but BA's dinner of smoked duck breast with fruit compote, braised steak and creme brill& was hard to beat, as, indeed, were their breakfasts. Least parochial and most interesting wine list, too.

Best seats: British Airways. Delightful to sit in, the seats convert into completely horizontal and quite astonishingly comfortable beds. Wonderful.

Best washbag: LanChile. By far the bestequipped; someone has really put thought into this. Unlike any of the others, it includes a razor and shaving foam, a hairbrush and even a shoehorn, along with the usual shampoos and unguents. Also the most elegant and the most easily re-usable.

Best blanket: LanChile. Weighty enough to give comfort but light enough to prevent sweltering.

Most gung-ho pilot: American Airlines. On hitting the wake of another jet landing ahead of us at San Francisco and plummeting several hundred feet, the captain came on the intercom simply to say, Wheeeeeeer Best celebrity-spotting: Qantas. Sadly, the standard was appallingly low overall during my travels, even when arriving in LA on the eve of the Oscars. In fact, the best I could do was sit behind a grumpy-looking Jason Gillespie. the Australian fast bowler, returning injured from the Cricket World Cup. Perhaps they were all in first class, the snobs.

Dottiest passenger: The old trout who sat next to me from Johannesburg to Perth and who, on the cabin lights being dimmed for take-off, insisted I turn my own overhead lamp out 'because the plane needs all the available electricity to get off the ground'.

Most inconsiderate passenger: My neighbour from Auckland to Santiago who, on unlacing his shoes, addressed his only words to me during the entire flight: 'My wife says my feet stink.' She wasn't wrong.

High point: Being nudged gently awake by a stewardess over Greenland, not for a fantasy-fulfilling snog but to open my blind to witness the twinkling, dancing Northern Lights.

Low point: Finishing my round-theworld odyssey and going back to where I belong, flying steerage round Europe, while unsophisticated slobs and ingrates take my place up front.