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    Twenty hours in coach, awake for all of them


    ABOARD UNITED FLIGHT 803 — Plenty has been written about what it’s like to ride up in the first-class cabin, with airlines offering increasingly luxurious accommodations.

    Want to order your snacks and drinks from your seat’s touchscreen? Virgin Airlines can do that. Want 23-inch TVs and beds hand-stitched by the master Italian craftsmen at Poltrona Frau? Singapore Airlines is for you. If you want a whole suite to yourself, a personal minibar, or your own mood lighting, Asiana Airlines can help.

    Me? I was going to spend 20 hours in coach.


    It’s a place where no one comes by with moist towelettes. No one offers to hang your jacket, or helps with your luggage. No one says with a smile, “Welcome, Mr. Viser, to Seat 34A.”

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    The flight attendant walking through the aisles passing out the latest edition of Financial Times? She stopped just short of my section.

    Lie down to sleep? Back in coach, you can barely recline your seat and your knees knock the seat in front.

    Flying internationally can be a joy, with airlines offering some of their premier services. And I’ve been fortunate through a good amount of work travel to accrue enough status for frequent upgrades.

    But not this time. For my flight from Washington to Seoul, with a layover in Tokyo, I was in Economy. Which is behind Global First, behind Business First, and behind something called Economy Plus. (Those seats, with a little more leg room, go for the non-economical $179; I tried to talk my way into one of the many empty seats in the section, but was rebuffed — first by the baggage agent, then by the ticket agent, and, finally, by the flight attendant.)


    So I settled into my window seat near the bathroom.

    There are different strategies for flying long distance. One man passed out Ambien pills so he and his friends could enjoy some drug-induced sleep. The guy sitting next to me took out a bottle of vodka — disguised in a nondescript plastic bottle — and mixed it with his Minute Maid lemonade.

    “I haven’t slept all night,” he said, sunglasses hiding his eyes. “This will help.”

    (In the back, they now charge for alcohol, which some passengers grumbled about.)

    I didn’t have much of a strategy. I just knew I wanted to stay awake for the whole flight. I was trying to trick my body by making myself exhausted on the flight so that I would go straight to sleep when I arrived at the hotel in the evening — even though it would be 7 a.m. back home.


    I started with reading material, and got through three daily newspapers, several back issues of The New Yorker, the New Republic, and Vanity Fair. I alternated with movies, watching “Gravity” and “All Is Lost” (both about adventures gone bad; not the best way to start my own long adventure).

    The hard part came about nine hours in. Other people were sleeping; I was trying to plow through.

    I got out my noise canceling headphones (a must for long flights) and listened to music.

    The hard part came about nine hours in. Other people were sleeping soundly and I was trying to plow through.

    By that point, I had run out of good entertainment. And that $179 I could have paid for a little more legroom started to sound a bit more reasonable.

    My notes say this: “Slowly degenerating. Knees ache. Shoulders hurt. Neck.”

    I took out my contacts and stretched my legs. Every time a flight attendant came by, I ordered a coffee (for the caffeine) and a water (for the hydration).

    The food was nothing spectacular: chicken and rice, salad, roll, brownie. Later, a turkey and cheese sandwich with vanilla gelato. Last, an omelet.

    When you board the plane, you enter in the middle, and those people in first class don’t have to suffer the indignity of seeing the commoners.

    But exiting, everyone goes out the front. You see their used slippers on the floor. That they had full-sized pillows. And much nicer blankets. Up here — where about eight people occupy the same space as 27 in the back of the plane — some could stretch their feet out so far that they wouldn’t hit the seat in front of them.

    And then you start thinking, maybe next time . . .

    Matt Viser can be reached at