THE bloke on the window seat across from me has his shoes off- socks and all.
Is that legal? Or perhaps that's standard.
It is one of the many conundrums that faces me as I sit in a comfortable seat/cubicle aboard Etihad Airways' Boeing 777-300ER en route to Abu Dhabi.
The very fine people at a major company have offered to fly me to a conference in Germany which was enough of a lure, even before they trotted out two extra magical words: business class.
This is a first for me and so I begin to compile this article in my head, keen to relay an insight into what flying business class on an international trip is like.
Simply put; it's great.
The flight time is 14 hours and 40 minutes which is ample to soak up everything this experience has to offer.
Extra bits beforehand
A BUSINESS class ticket comes with several other benefits, one of which is entry into the business lounges, one of which is my first stop while at Sydney Airport.
Somewhat ominously called "The House", the Etihad business lounge has a business-like silence about it, as business folk are going about doing business things.
Then I plop in there, trying to survey the food, beverage and seating options. It's all a bit overwhelming and it shows as a friendly staff member invites me to order something or help myself.
I help myself. I help myself probably a bit too much but we don't take off until 3.15pm and any time of day is a good time for lamb korma, rice, salad, naan and then dessert. Plus an orange juice.
Like the plane, I am adequately fuelled, ready to embark.
EVEN before stepping on board, I am privy to the narrowed glances and quiet judgement sent forth by economy onlookers as I slip into the scarcely populated dedicated boarding lane.
Despite expectations that I would be piggybacked down the transit bridge by a sturdy flight attendant or hoisted on a comfortable chair carried by four of them, I walk on my own two legs, enter the plane and am shown to my throne where I will be residing for more than half a day.
It's roomy, almost like a small apartment, complete with side-desk and more than ample lighting.
There are mood lights, a reading light, a secondary reading light, a wall light and a general "bedside" light, each of which can be controlled for their brightness via a panel that is, of course, lit up.
An orange juice is served to me while we await the rest of the passengers to herd onto the back end of the plane.
Shortly after, a small hot towel on a dimpled silver tray is placed in front of me. I immediately think of the scene in The Wedding Singer where Adam Sandler is aboard a flight, gets offered a hot towel and, looking confused, tucks it into the top of his shirt, like a redneck napkin.
Luckily, my movie knowledge kicks in and I freshen my face and hands with this towel which is the closest thing I'll get to a shower for quite some time.
And we're off
WE'RE all settled in like a posh family on holiday and our attention is brought to the on-screen safety information which is a video animation.
Curiously, for all the elaborateness of the plane, the video does look a bit like PlayStation 2 game from about 2007, complete with poorly rendered human faces.
It gets the job done though and indicates pretty much that, even though I'm sitting in business class, I'll still be largely responsible for saving my own life should things go pear-shaped.
After take-off, a small bowl of nuts arrives along with another orange juice, which I gratefully consume, unaware that this heightened liquid intake will come back to haunt me at sleep time.
A token of welcome
THERE are gifts awaiting me.
Well, they're not really gifts but it feels a bit like Christmas.
In a stylish, imitation leather, button-locked satchel there is a:
- pair of socks
- toothbrush and toothpaste
Both the moisturiser and perfume have a classy scent to them, albeit with a slight undertone of insect repellent but that could just be my nose.
The products are from the Italian brand, Acqua di Parma, which I can only assume stands for "jetlag stench disguise".
While very thoughtful in helping travellers freshen up, I immediately think that this will make the perfect souvenir for Master Six back home.
He'll really appreciate the socks and has always wanted to smell like "lemon, orange and bergamot... (with) a heart of aromatic and harmonious notes such as lavender, rosemary, verbena and damask rose, followed by warm woody vetiver, sandal and patchouli".
With a take-home present secured, it's time to embrace the entertainment options via the E-Box system where hours upon hours of movies, television series, sports, podcasts, music, video games and digital magazines are there to be consumed.
You can even listen to a reading of the Quran if you like. Instead, I opt for the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody.
One thing that does leap out as I stow the mobile phone for a while is the lack of free wifi. You are able to purchase various packages for different download amounts.
In this day and age, it seems like free wifi is a given but not so everywhere.
THERE is an elegantly long menu located at my seat which requires thorough perusal.
Within it is an "all day" section, meaning should you feel like a herb omelette with lamb sausages, potato rosti and grilled tomatoes at 3:23am, you can.
The attendant arrives and my amateur business class flying credentials show through has I haven't looked at the menu.
He kindly offers to come back while I decide between the salmon tartare with thyme crisps, cucumber and chive yoghurt dressing, or the cauliflower soup for starters. (I eventually go the soup.)
Mains consists of braised beef with sweetpotato mash, broccolini, cherry tomatoes and jus.
The chocolate macadamia pudding served warm with vanilla slice is the dessert of choice.
I swap out my orange juice for a Sprite, just to keep things interesting.
As a non-drinking teetotaller, part of the decadence is lost on me. Like any restaurant worth its weight, there is a separate wine and spirits menu.
It all looks Greek to me which actually turns out to be Arabic and I realise I'm looking at the alternative language version.
The English translation is about as useful to me but there are wines there from France, Italy, Austria, Portugal and, pleasingly, a Geoff Merrill "Jacko's" shiraz from McLaren Vale, Australia.
Upon hearing I was travelling business class, a friend's insightful comment was that I'd be able to use "real steel cutlery", something which she assumed was not handed out on flights these days.
The cutlery is indeed real and, in a bit of engineering cleverness, I notice the tray table is magnetic so it catches my knife from falling off and flicking jus onto a neighbouring traveller.
I'm tempted to re-visit the all-day menu but I can't help feel like I am simply bugging the flight attendants.
That is obviously something that frequent business class customers don't think twice about, as the shoe-less gentleman orders a chicken schnitzel sandwich with pickled onions at about midnight, and the woman behind him chalks up a lamb pie with crushed peas and jus not long after the official main course has been cleared.
THE chair has a massage function within it with various settings to choose from. Some feel like a gentle caressing up and down the spine; others are more akin to leaning back on an orbital sander.
At some point I order a latte, which arrives extremely hot in a tall glass. While not a regular coffee drinker, I have come to appreciate well made coffee and I suspect this could be a machine job. The sugar comes in cube form, along with two small pastries and a square of chocolate.
About three movies later, it is time to bed down for the evening, courtesy of the adjustable seat.
It stretches entirely flat with your feet fitting in a neatly designed cavity so you can lay down in full.
A provided blanket and pillow give a bit more comfort. The airline asks you put your seatbelt over the top of your blanket while you're sleeping which is a bit of hassle but it's all with safety in mind.
As the chair transforms into a bed, I go for a slow ride on it. Perhaps I should have hopped off before doing this.
It is incredible to think that I'm tucked up and cosy, 35,000 feet in the air.
It is only now, while looking at the aisle ceiling that I notice the small embedded lights, as if it's a starry sky.
It's a nice touch but I can't help thinking it could get awkward if you wake up in a hurry, as the last thing you'd probably want to see while on a plane is the actual night sky outside, indicating you no longer have a roof.
Sleep doesn't come easily, largely due to the four litres of liquid I've consumed in the past five hours which is coming back to haunt me.
I generally avoid going to a plane toilet at all costs but this has gone beyond that point. It's worth noting that within the toilet cubicle, which would be much the same as an economy cubicle I'd imagine, there is also moisturiser available to freshen up.
Thoughts of family
PRIOR to the flight, my wife figured out that the entire family (two children and said wife) could all fly for the cost of my one ticket.
I agree but hastily point out that the conference would take up a fair amount of my time.
That's not to say children don't fly business class. One family enters with three pieces of walking hand-luggage, each of which is old enough to get his or her own seat, and each of which is old enough to climb out of that seat and wonder up the ample corridors.
Breakfast isn't really part of the flight but a cup of tea with some more pastries is very welcome as we prepare to land.
It is with some sadness I sense the flight is coming to an end. It has been a remarkable experience and, even though I haven't spoken a word to any of them, I feel my fellow passengers and I have bonded over this experience like an elite family on vacation.
I doubt they are thinking the same way as most of them are making moves (Ie. Old mate putting his shoes back on) to exit.
For many, it will have just been another trip.
WANTING to soak up as much of this experience as possible (despite the fact there would be another four flights of comfort before my return journey is through) I ignore the invitation for business class customers to disembark first.
While my learned and experienced colleagues have departed, I remain seated as the flow of passengers from the back begins to swarm past.
Again, I feel many of those narrowed glances as they inspect "how the other half live".
I have a desire to declare: "Don't be fooled friends - this isn't really me. I'm an imposter. I'm one of your kindred economy brethren that has had this opulence thrust upon me for work purposes. Don't judge me. Here, take a complimentary set of noise-cancelling earphones."
But the opportunity is missed.
I wonder what they think my occupation is? A business high-flyer? Lyricist for Taylor Swift? Cat Smile Maker App developer?
I will never know.
I will, however, take away a new appreciation of those who travel business class for their various reasons.
Perhaps one day, we shall be re-united.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have some cologne to give to a six-year-old.
- Etihad Airways regularly flies from Sydney to Abu Dhabi.