I
Come fly with me, we’ll fly, we’ll fly away
If you can use some exotic booze
There’s a bar in far Bombay

On September 30th, 1968, the world’s press joined distinguished guests outside a purpose-built aircraft hangar at the Boeing production plant in Everett, Washington.

They were there to witness what promised to be a seismic leap in the advancement of the passenger jet: something not only new but something unimaginable. As the doors that stood higher than churches were slowly rolled aside, the Boeing 747—what the press immediately dubbed “the Jumbo Jet”—was pulled out into the sunlight to gasps and, then, amazed applause.

Nothing about it was normal. Two-thirds the length of a football field, it was two-and-a-half times the size of the largest existing jetliner. Onlookers then noticed that the front section ballooned at the top, and three windows high on either side were spaced out along the hump above the rows of windows below. Hold your horses—this son of a gun had an upstairs? Indeed it did have an upstairs. But unlike today, where the upper cabin contains rows of business class seats, back in 1969, when travel was still cherished, the Boeing engineers knew that passengers would need one thing more than anything else.

The entire upstairs cabin contained the pub.

Up a spiral staircase from the main deck you and your traveling partner trod. The decor was bold and orange. “A little psychedelic,” you thought to yourself as you entered a room with a stand-up bar and vividly colored couches set out so you might meet and powwow with your fellow flyers.

Did any of this make sense to the airlines? Certainly not financially, because this was all valuable space that could have been kitted out with more seats for more paying customers. This was a deck full of heavy, fuel-burning furniture where gallons of expensive booze would be given away for nothing. The entire joint was a cash incinerator. And yet at the same time, it made perfect sense. This is what they could boast to their customers about. This is what would make their guests feel special. Just as importantly, the cabin would make their guests happy. In 1968, you, the passenger, mattered.

Fifty-three years on, not only has almost everything about the airline industry changed, but the pandemic has brought even this unglamorous and cheap version of its 1968 ancestor to its knees. People are asking, will it ever recover? Certainly it should in time, so surely now is a chance for it to reset? To rethink how customers might wish to travel and be treated? But part of that responsibility toward change lies with us, the passengers. If we don’t change our habits, if we can’t learn to travel like Sinatra and Farrow, then why should airlines bow to our list of new demands?

The following words aim to offer the drunkard advice on how to fly, even on a budget, like it is still September 1968. All it takes is a little original thinking — and what better kerosene for the imagination than that first zesty gin and tonic of an outbound flight?

But before we embark, and if this article is to succeed in its sincere aim of letting the drinker travel in considerably better surroundings and for potentially less cost, then we need to first clear the desk of admin. We’ll soon be off on our jolly way, but this stuff is essential.

First, consider which airline you’re going to fly with and don’t just let a ticket that appears a few dollars cheaper sway you. All airlines are not built equal and you want to direct your business at one that still has at least the inkling of mischief left in its soul somewhere.

Internationally, especially intercontinentally, this is particularly critical. Competing airlines charging roughly identical fares will offer service that ranges from the hideously awful to the ridiculously regal. And there are no two ways about it, you want to be flying a Middle Eastern airline (Emirates, Qatar, Etihad) or failing that an Eastern one like Singapore. These cats don’t just lose money on flights, they lose hundreds of millions to make themselves the best—and that’s all to the tippler’s considerable advantage. They all want to lose money with you, leaving some ballsy bastard billionaire to pick up your tab and keep his airline in the sky. You win.

I once enjoyed an Emirates flight from London to Dubai on which I was staggered to find a full bar, in its own room, at the aft of the A380. I ordered a Plymouth martini very dry with a twist. The young Malaysian hostess (to her enormous credit) regretfully confessed that she wasn’t 100% sure how to make it perfectly, so she invited me behind the bar to make it for myself. Then a few of my fellow passengers wanted one, too. Forty thousand feet over Iraq, as dawn began to break over the turquoise horizon outside, it was cocktail hour.

Etihad has even had the audacity to install an apartment on their A380s where one passenger (flying alone or with a companion) gets a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom all to themselves. And their own butler.

We might as well stop and say that again. You get your own, personal butler. In your own, personal apartment. On a commercial jetliner.

“But I’m working a regular job, Buster, and even the price of gas is a bitch. Just how much is this apartment of mine up there in the blue?”

Well, if you’re beginning to warm to this whole idea of romping around in your new pad seven miles up with a bottle of Billecart-Salmon 2006 in the ice bucket, then you might be intrigued to know that for the shrewd boozehound it can be totally free.

The savvy traveling tippler shouldn’t be paying for airline tickets—even premium ones. They should instead be squeezing every juicy drop out of their credit card perks. And so very finally, before we set off on our jolly, this must be touched upon so you can go away and investigate in more detail for yourself.

Those bar tabs down at your local tavern? From now on, you pay with American Express. American Express cards give you Membership Rewards Points and these are the best to transfer for airline tickets. A bar is classed as a restaurant by these characters, which means some of their cards will give you 5x the points for every dollar spent in a bar. That bar tab’s $58? You tip $12, so that’s a $70 charge. 70 x 5 is 350 so there are 350 points in your pocket in one evening.

You go to the bar seven days a week and repeat the process. That’s 2,450 points. In a month it’s 17,150 points. That can be a flight within the US. For nothing.

If you do it all year it’s 205,800 points and that’s the apartment in the air with the butler and that oh-so-fine Billecart-Salmon. For free. Are we now on the same page?

All you’ve done is spend every evening down at the pub whilst paying your way and making sure your bartenders are taken care of. But you were always going to be doing that anyway, except paying cash. Now you use those same smackers to pay the credit card off yet all of a sudden you’re Burt Lancaster floating off to Acapulco in First for zilch.

It’s time to head to the airport. But very finally, the credit card you choose for your new life of lie-flat flights must come with a free Priority Pass attached. This is where you make back all (and more) of any annual charge the card might have. Priority Pass gets you into a lounge at virtually any airport in the world for no charge. And in lounges, the booze and food are utterly free. Without question you’re going to be getting wrecked in there, so that’s $100-plus saved per visit.

How can all this be true? Because credit card companies don’t expect everyone to be a lush. They didn’t intend them for our crowd. Certainly, you work a regular job. Sure, you finish up at 5pm and you head to the bar. But now when you fly you’re in First Class, friend, without changing your daily behavior one little bit.

Are we packed? Then we’ve dallied too long already, and our flight leaves in eight hours. To the airport.

 

 

II

You’re in the back of the Uber, looking through the front windshield at the freeway signs. But your driver is glancing back at you in his mirror. What is he inspecting or critiquing? Is it the flask that you’re sipping from as your attention turns to the right-side window where the vast spans of concrete and your first sight of jet planes are coming into view? No, it’s a handsome flask, but that’s not what’s got his eye.

What he’s noticed is your suit. He’s noticed the magnificent torque of your tie knot. He’s noticed the cheerfully colored pocket square that brings that flash of fire to your tailored jacket—the precision of your shirt collar. Because you are dressed. You’re dressed like it’s Dean Martin’s wedding.

And what the driver can’t see is the razor crease down the front of your pants that’s sharper than a Japanese sushi knife. He can’t see the fedora resting on your knee, or that your socks are being worn for the first time because you keep a box-fresh pair for occasions such as this. He also can’t see your shoes, the ones that you remembered to put into their little bag the last time you went downtown so you could visit the railway station and have them shined up by Harry on his box before carrying them carefully home.

And why are you dressed sharper than a dictator’s corpse? Because if we are going to establish a new set of values based on the old standards, we have work to do. So very few people still dress for flying (especially in First and Business class, where, infuriatingly, comfy casuals rule the roost) that even if the airlines did show us some newfound respect we wouldn’t currently be paying it back.

The drunkard will always look their topmost when traveling, not simply to maintain bygone standards, but to fool all the people we’re about to meet into thinking we’re respectable. Going that extra mile might be key to being allowed to travel any miles at all.

The Uber arrives at the drop-off stand. You thank your driver, knock back the remainder of your flask (this is vital, as we’ll soon discover), and then sit perfectly still. If he wants that handsome tip you’re about to punch into the app then he’s going to have to get out and open your door. He looks back at you and again the suit hits him. He knows what’s right.

Thanking him for also handing over your case from the trunk, which should always be a simple, good quality carry-on and only contain one change of clothes, you top yourself off with the fedora, adjust the brim’s angle of attack to something just the right side of rakish, and make your way into the terminal.

This side of the security line there is only one thing of interest to the tipsy traveler: The ticket counter. It takes a sturdy trooper to arrive at an airport without having booked a ticket to anywhere, or indeed have any idea where they’re going, but it comes with huge advantages. Firstly, the giant departure board is your cocktail list. What are we in the mood for this morning? Something chilled, sir? Stockholm perhaps? Or are we in the market for the exotic, madam? Guadalajara? Or perhaps adventure, perchance in the unknown? Panama City anyone?

Each airline’s ticket desk will be staffed by good folks with two jobs. One: sorting out the jerks who’ve missed their flights, and Two: selling tickets as cheaply as possible to fill seats on planes about to leave.

And here you come, with the hint of a sway in your stride, looking like a million bucks, to improve their day.

Your smile tells them you’re the sort who knows the world and immediately they return it. Your pocket square alone divulges that you’d be an asset to any cabin on any plane in the world.

If you’ve not already booked your free flight using credit card points, set a low figure in your head and ask them what they’ve got leaving in around forty minutes.

That’s cutting it fine, they think and hit the keys.

$150 return ticket to Santiago in pocket, you pick up your pace as you head for security because now you’ve got to work fast. TSA bullshit isn’t going to stick to you today because your flight leaves in thirty-seven minutes and you’ve got a ticket to prove it. Straight to the front of the line, shoes, empty flask (see, you drained it in the Uber, so perfectly legal—no liquids) phone and watch into the tray and through you dance. Dressed again in a moment, you’ve now got to find the gate for this damned flight that you never had any intention of catching that’s already finished boarding.

Gate agents have seen it all before, but they’ve not seen anything like you. You approach with your valid ticket and that tie knot of yours and touch your hat before explaining a desperate situation (wife into labor, husband down with a heart attack) that means you can’t be on this flight but have they got anything for later that evening so you can exit the airport to deal with the crisis and then return?

It sounds like a tough ask, but they perform this sort of task with dazzling dexterity and after apologizing that “we only have a Lima this evening, you could connect?” you surprise them by graciously accepting without any fuss. Not only that—but you’ve also now entered their hearts and so the seat they rebook for you might very, very realistically now be in First.

This is critical. Don’t look like an amateur and try and smarm yourself an upgrade when you check in. Do it at the gate. Gate agents are like bartenders, they can have loose wrists or 86 you depending on the cut of your jib.

New ticket for Lima leaving in seven hours safely inside jacket, and with the effort of it all now blissfully behind you, you can pause to survey your new kingdom.

The airside airport terminal. The drunkard’s mall.

What you’ve just earned yourself is a drink, and thankfully there are now several options available to you. It’s unfortunate that the Santiago ticket was $150 because that’s just about all you had. But on the other hand, you’re now in the perfect environment to spend as little as possible. Take a look at those bars along there, for example. What do we have? Some wretched Route 66-themed affair to the left. A more upmarket proposition called SkyBar on the right.

Airports have the reputation for being expensive but it’s nonsense. They’re places where people forget what they’re doing, forget themselves, forget time itself, and therefore have to drop everything to rush for a flight. And that means a lot of abandoned hooch.

Walking through Route 66 you spot a lonely Stella on a close-by table with only two mouthfuls taken from it and neck it in three gulps. Did you need that after the morning you’ve had. And that over there…looks like a half-had gin and tonic? You give it the nose—no, vodka and tonic. Cheerio, and down it goes.

Now you effect that innocent-looking walk towards the bar you’ve practiced so well, passing one of the more junior servers cleaning tables whilst taking a mostly good Sam Adams from his tray and tipping it back in two.

Whilst he calls for “Darrell!”, whoever Darrell is, you steer yourself back out to the concourse and head towards that SkyBar that thinks it’s so high and mighty. What it wants is to be taught a damn good lesson, and what better way to do just that than to stride in and neck that abandoned sauvignon blanc? Then, gliding around the curve of the joint to the other side of the bar, helping yourself to the dregs of what was probably a very palatable pinot noir.

Don’t worry, they’ve seen it all before: that’s why you’ve just taken and sunk that woman’s flute of champagne. You’re a busy man with places to be. And the speed in which you jog back out into the terminal proves as much. If anything, they respect you all the more for it.

Now check that Lima ticket. Did they bump you to First? They did? Then you’re all set, amigo.

The cheap jerks didn’t? Well, never you mind, you’re still more than in luck. What you need to look for now is the sign that reads “Lounges.”

For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, the airport lounge is a place of constant and almost unimaginable wonder. There are the full-blown first-class affairs used by international carriers that are really free hotels complete with private lounge beds, showers, and maybe even a spa. In fact, I heard of some ill-behavior recently where some freeloading maverick was in the habit of booking an $8,000 first-class ticket, arriving at the airport and getting access to the lounge, canceling the flight via his phone with a full refund, and then living in the lounge rent-free, with all meals and drinks thrown in, for the next week.

Further down the scale are the far more modest domestic lounges for frequent fliers. But both high-end and domestic share the same essential ingredient: everything is free, and consequently at least fifty percent of the clientele are three sheets to the wind.

Imagine a fantasy bar where the staff is friendly, strangers chat openly, and it’s impossible to get a tab, let alone pay for it. That’s an executive/first/frequent flyer lounge, and they are perhaps the greatest places on Earth.

Even without a first-class ticket, or frequent flyer status, you signed up for that credit card with the free Priority Pass access we talked about, didn’t you, and so you’re hot to trot. Presenting that at reception, you sweep into your new oasis. Why did we leave for the airport eight hours before our flight? This is absolutely why.

First, let’s get that flask full again. You’ll be needing that later. You’ve remembered your little funnel? No? Check the side pocket of your case. There she is. Now, put that into the top of your vessel and just grab the complimentary bottle of Jack and pour away.

Spilled a little…but there we go…full flask.

Now let’s head over to the main bar where those bartenders are looking at you. Anchor your ass down.

“I get a gin and tonic?”

Sure, you slurred that a little but so you should. What it does in an airport lounge is attract, like a jam sandwich to a hornet, the sort of people who are just like you and are going to be your buddies until you set off for Liverpool.

Lima! Not Liverpool. You check your ticket: you’re going to Lima!

“I’m going to fucking Lima,” you tell the guy who’s just sat down beside you.

He tells you that he’s on the Red Eye to London.

Huh. Interesting. Thinks he’s so good going to London, does he? He’ll have two red eyes in a minute, you think.

Five minutes later you’re hugging, and you get the drinks in. It’s literally the least you can do for saying that about his dead wife and besides, they’re totally free.

And for seven hours you sit there, taking in your surroundings, your new friends, the sheer bounty of it all.

One of the most convenient things about lounges is they have a huge screen behind the bar with live flight information. And even better, the bartender you gave your ticket to and asked to remind you when your ride is leaving can read it.

“It is time to go,” they tell you.

And with this new intelligence, you thank her and wave goodbye to your new pals. You’ve all arranged to meet up for New Year in Norway so that’ll be terrific.

Down on the concourse, though, things don’t feel so fun. Where’s gate 34…

Thankfully, people are always on hand to help but still, you feel unsafe. Unsure of yourself. That’s the gate right there, but the gate agents aren’t the friends you made earlier. They’re strangers, and look tired.

The trick here is to just look straight ahead and show them your ticket and passport. No small talk.

“I’m saying, sir, that I can’t come on vacation with you and I’m going to ask you to board immediately,” one of them says. He’s a great guy and nods when you tell him you’ll be back to see him again.

You’ve just had the most wonderful afternoon in the airport terminal, and it’s shame it has to end at all. But look—the airbridge slopes away ahead of you. The plane’s down there. Where’s your hat? You look around the floor. That sonofabitch back at the lounge must have taken it. But as the gate doors close and bolt, you decide you’ll be the bigger man. He can keep it. The most wonderful part of the trip is about to begin.

Let’s fly.

 

III
Once I get you up there
Where the air is rarefied
We’ll just glide
Starry-eyed

 It’s a well-worn truism that when boarding a large airliner, you want to be turning left and not right. Left is First, right is Worst. Your boarding pass might indicate you’re in 56F and after the cabin crew has inspected it they do indeed indicate to the right to confirm your seat is way down toward the back.

But turn left anyway. “Sir? Excuse me, sir?”

Breathe it in. Here are the lie-flat seats, the space, and the free copies of the Wall Street Journal. This is First Class, and this is the life for you—so take a spare seat. And what’s this! These controls to the side cause it to slide back like a La-Z-Boy!

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to move to your designated seat.”

It’s headline drunkard protocol to improve the lives of everyone around you, and the last thing you want to do is give the crew a hard time. Remember, the fashion in which long-haul cabin crew has behaved for decades on international layovers means they are very much paid-up members of the club. Many of them only got into the profession in the first place not to fly to or experience new destinations, but to demolish far-flung hotel rooms.

So they might be frowning, but this is a comrade you’re talking to and it’s important to keep them on your side. Sure, you’ll move down to 56F, First Class is for suckers anyway—and you make sure that all the suckers in here are aware of it. You’ll move along just as soon as you can find your hat.

“Sir, we will bring your hat to you when we find it.”

Ambling on down through Coach toward the aft of the aircraft, you realize that this isn’t so bad. As you hike past your fellow passengers you understand that these are your people—the same folks you’d be spending your Tuesday night with down at the tavern. But when you tell them that they’re all good people they don’t look back at you, and why? Well, don’t start taking it personally. Remember: many are nervous flyers; they’ll be focusing on keeping it together.

But now you’re in your seat it’s you who feels uneasy. Looking at the last of the passengers putting their bags up into the overhead bins gives you The Fear. Why haven’t you got a bag?

Well, it’s probably back up there in First with the suckers, and they’ll be bringing it down with your hat. The important thing now is to settle in and enjoy yourself—yet there are 30 minutes until this bird is getting airborne and another 20 until they start rattling down the aisle with the bar. But don’t you fret: you’ve brought your flask—safe and full inside your jacket.

Where’s your jacket? That sonofabitch back at the lounge must have taken it. But patting yourself down you discover with an upsurge of glee that the joke’s on him! There’s your flask! In the pocket of your pants! You sly old goat—you hid it there so nobody would find it!

Taking a deep pull, now you can relax. You’re off to Liverpool, home of the Beatles, and now you can take a good look at the other passengers. The guy to the side of you seems like a dweeb, reading his magazine about computers, but remember to say, “Hi.” We’re all friends here, and it’s a long way to Lima.

“Can you fasten your seat belt please, sir?”

You look down into your lap and see that it’s already fastened—so what the Devil is he talking about? No…that’s your tie. That’s your tie around your waist, that special tie that gets all the admiring glances.

You take another swig, look out of the window at the galaxy of lights marking out the paths of the taxiways around the airport apron and then twist your neck to take a look around the darkened cabin.

She looks nice.

Why did Frank suggest that Acapulco Bay was “perfect for a flying honeymoon, they say?” Because flying is inherently romantic. Trapped together in an aluminum tube, hurtling through the clouds to mysterious, far-flung lands. It’s a damn shame to have to experience it alone, and it’s amazing how frequently cupid will find you a companion for your jaunt right there on the plane.

And what a coincidence…she, just the best-looking girl on the whole flight. And you, the sharpest dressed. It’s a match made in heaven and only seven seats and three rows between the two of you.

“Hello!” you roar across the plane. But she’s being coy.

It’s time to turn on the animal magnetism that you’re famous for, and there’s a seat free over there on the starboard side nearer your future wife.

But it’s difficult to get past the dork in the seat next to you because his seatbelt is caught in your tie—the tie that turns heads wherever it goes. What might be best for now is to take a drink and relax back into your seat. There’s plenty of time for affaires du coeur later as you float over to Liverpool. In 24 hours you’ll be dancing La Marinera together, so why not take a moment before takeoff to shut those eyes and dream about the exciting times that lie ahead in Peru?

Passing out on a plane and waking up at your destination is something no fully refreshed traveler should be ashamed about. On the contrary, you’re a time traveler, a spaceman, a chap for whom hours and distance have no hold. You can circumnavigate the globe in the blink of an eye. They’re only escorting you from the plane first because they’re in awe of this, and the applause from your fellow passengers only acknowledges that what you have is a superpower that the whole world can marvel at.

Remember to nod a thanks to the cabin crew as you exit the aircraft, despite your having been asleep for 12 hours and therefore having halved their workload, and then take a moment on the airbridge to breathe in the musky air of foreign climes.

Customs is always a pest, and wherever you arrive in the world it doesn’t get any easier. The interviews, the cell, the meal on a tin tray, so why not pass the time with a song?

“In Llama-Land there’s a one-man band

And he’ll toot his flute for you!”

Your fellow passengers will either sing along or bang on the walls but what’s important is that you can begin to enjoy your holiday.

Coming to the following morning can be a disorienting experience for even the most seasoned traveler. The time zone recalculations, the recalibration of body clock, and stationing of self.

With customs behind you and only some paperwork to sign, you can venture out from the airport and begin to habituate. The stroll from the airport down the freeway can allow the globetrotting drinker to consider many things, and isn’t expansion of the mind the objective and impetus for setting out in the first place? And after a few hours of walking—a grind with only one shoe—you’ll find the surroundings becoming more familiar. More like your own town.

And there’s your tavern, the place that’s more like home than home itself. What hour is it? You’ve lost your watch. That sonofabitch back at the lounge must have taken it. But the sun’s sinking low now and surely that means happy hour. You’ll head on in and see the guys. Everyone enjoys seeing an old pal back from operations, and what’s more, you’re armed with tales from places that these poor saps have only seen in their dreams.

Maybe it’s best then, you consider, that your adventures around the planet remain concealed and covert. Nobody likes a blowhard, not in a bar. The champagne and the frolics will always be there, down the freeway where the jet planes wait. For now, what’s best for you is a beer.

—Stanley McHale

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