27 February 2006

Monkeys With Abacuses*

Wednesday morning, Eva and I will fly from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. I’m embarking on a book tour, of sorts, of China. (See the appearances section for the details.) If all goes according to schedule we’ll probably spend 21 or so hours in transit from our house to our hotel.

I bought these tickets about three months ago and got a very good deal - $679 plus tax - on Cathay Pacific. It’s Hong Kong’s flagship airline, and as airline’s go, one of the best.

Before I bought the tickets though, I looked into flying business class. That seemed like a good idea. The cheapest business class tickets I found were about $2,300 each – on Taiwan’s EVA Air – and they came with a layover and change of planes in Taipei. I decided to stick with economy class.

Out of curiosity, when I bought the tickets on Cathay’s website, I looked up the business and first class fares for the same flight. Business class came to $15,703.72 for the two of us. First class was an astounding $27,093.72.

So I did some math. (I was terrible at math, and hated it, when I was a kid in school. Now that I’m not in school I can amuse myself for hours by parsing numbers.)

First I needed to take into account that if you buy “extra seats,” you don’t get charged the tax for them. The tax on Eva and my two economy class seats came to $316.56. So, I had to subtract that from the business and first class fares before dividing by $679 – the untaxed price of our seats.

For the price of two roundtrip business class fares on Cathay Pacific from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, we could have bought 22.66 (call it 23) economy seats. We could have bought 39.9 (call it 40) seats for the first class fare.

On the 747-400 Premium, there’s a small section of 30 economy seats just behind business class. For two first class fares we could have had that entire section to ourselves, with ten more seats elsewhere in the plane in case we got bored and wanted to move around.

Back when I lived in Hong Kong and flew regularly around Asia on business, I did spend some time in Cathay’s business class section. Once, on a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, I was even upgraded to first class. They are excellent ways to fly.

In Cathay’s business class the seats are more comfortable than any chairs Eva and I’ve got in our home. The entertainment is excellent. The food is nearly restaurant – a good restaurant – quality and they pour wines that we might break out on special occasions, but only then. They’ve even got a couple choices of single malt scotch.

First class was splendid. The only other chairs I’ve ever spent any time in that were as comfortable are the La-Z Boys at the home of my pals Bill and Stephanie. And those chairs aren’t as well appointed with beverage holders, work surfaces, lighting and individual entertainment consoles. Plus, if I ever tried to ring a buzzer to summon Bill or Stephanie and ask them to get me another perfectly chilled top-shelf vodka or more Beluga caviar or smoked salmon, they’d probably throw me out on my ass.

Even the bathrooms are nicer, a lot nicer, in business and first class.

But that’s an awful lot of money to simply sit in a stupor in a big metal tube for even the 15 hours and 20 minutes we’re scheduled to be in the air.

I suppose I could have bought us each our own small row of three seats. I can manage to stretch out reasonably well across three seats when the armrests are up. That would have cost us a little more than a third (35.767% to be precise) the price of two business class seats.

Is business class any better than that? Maybe to some people it is. Not to me it isn’t. But if Cathay Pacific wanted to give us an upgrade, well, we wouldn’t turn it down. If there’s a screaming child anywhere within earshot, maybe the extra expense would have been worth it. They don’t let them do that sort of thing in business or first class. Do they?

* The title of this blog isn’t mine. It comes from Janet Reid, my agent. It’s what she emailed me when I emailed to ask who figures out airline price structures. Also, there is, apparently, some controversy about how to spell the plural of abacus. I’ve used the Oxford English Dictionary’s form.