Winston Aldworth experiences life in the First Class suites aboard the longest commercial flight in the world.
The first rule of First Class club is: Try to look like you're meant to be there. You can't help but want to fit in. So, I walk up to Gate 9 at Sydney International Airport with a confident stride, a ready smile and, of course, a couple of glasses of champagne under my belt. It's boarding time for Qantas QF7, flying from Sydney to Dallas - the longest regular commercial route in the world. And I'm boarding in First Class - which doesn't happen often. In fact, I've never landed a longhaul seat in First Class before. ("You're the Travel editor," people say. "You must get to fly in First Class all the time." Sadly, no. Although I do have pretty good form for getting into Business Class.)
I'm cool about this - I'm cool about boarding a plane to fly in First Class, where the one-way tickets are a snip at $10,000 a pop. There are still towns where that kind of money will get you a deposit on a house, so I want to know: is it worth it?
I don't consider myself the desperate-to-fit-in type, but I did want to look like I knew where I was going. At Gate 9, a gorgeous young staff member checks my ticket, gestures over her shoulder and asks: "You know where you're going, don't you, sir?"
"Of course," I tell her, as if I actually do know where I'm going. Inevitably, I wander off towards the Economy Class door, which is deceptively close to the First Class door. A trick for young players.
"It's this way, sir," another gorgeous young Qantas staffer guides me, correcting the first of the gaffes I make that confirm I'm a First Class novice.
As a longhaul First Class first-timer, you're dealing with competing forces: the urge to get a selfie, thumb-raised and ticket in hand at the aircraft door, goes toe-to-toe with the desire to play it cool. Hell, when I'm sitting between Kylie and Russell, I don't want them to think I'm some sort of novice flier.
I had eased myself into the necessary mindset earlier, in the Qantas First Class Lounge. There, in a world of cocktails, a la carte menus and massages, First Class passengers prepare themselves for the rigours of the long flights ahead. I passed on the facial, opting instead for a deep-tissue back rub. Sarah, the masseuse, told me that's a popular choice ahead of a longhaul, but the truth I suspect is that any old rub would do - this kind of treatment, like much of the First Class experience, is simply about feeling special.
Qantas isn't alone in this. Many of the big heritage carriers want their top-end passengers to be pampered before takeoff. In Frankfurt, Lufthansa has a separate First Class terminal, where passengers can take a pre-flight bath. They get to keep the rubber ducky.
The massage - and the champagne - put a little more confidence in my stride on the walk up to Gate 9.
On board the plane, you can easily spot the regular First Class fliers - they slip away and get into the complimentary pyjamas as soon as the plane is at cruising altitude. The jim-jams - black, cotton and comfortable - are delivered to your seat. There's a subtle kangaroo motif on the chest and a comfy pair of slippers on your feet. The pyjamas worn by Business Class passengers are grey. When I encounter Business passengers while padding around the plane, the grey and black PJs mark our status.
There are 14 of us in First Class, each with our own small suite, and two cabin crew serving us. My side of the cabin is served mainly by Marcelo, a handsome Aussie lad with cheekbones borrowed from a boy band and the attentiveness of a butler. He's perfect for this job.
For takeoff, the seats are looking forward, so we're facing the small tray on which the champagne is poured (Veuve Clicquot 2004, since you asked). The seat, a well-padded armchair, is 22 inches wide (that's four and a half inches more than in Economy). Once we're airborne, the seats swing around on to a 45-degree angle facing the windows, and that's when the First Class experience kicks in; the moment you're really enjoying your space. In this position, you cannot see any other passengers. The amount of room in the cubicle is outrageous- even the 17-inch fold-out TV screen can't dent the space.
Fancy company? If you're travelling with a friend, you can have them round for dinner in your suite - the far corner of your little area is a second seat with the meal table folded out between you. And the food? A meal this good has no right to be on a plane. I have a scotch fillet, accompanied by the St Hallett Old Block shiraz 2006. "Excellent choice," Marcelo says. "The 2008 is also very good."
Later, at breakfast, I go for buttermilk pancakes with a fine latte.
All are exceptional: the food, the wine, the dessert wine - seriously good dessert wine, Lillypilly Noble Blend 2008.
When it's time to sleep, my seat, 5K, becomes a 212cm lie-flat bed. Marcelo fits it with a soft mattress top, making a ridiculously comfortable - and private - nest. The irony of this bed, the most comfortable I've experienced on a plane, is that I really don't want to sleep. Sleep would mean missing out.
All the First Class suites are fabulously private. And it's that privacy that you're really buying when you stump up the difference for a First Class ticket.
It's not the crappiness of the seats in Economy that makes most longhaul journeys an ordeal. It's not the food, either - truth is most airline food is fine. The thing that leaves us ruined when we tumble off the plane 12 hours later is the weird amalgamation between personal space and private experience. Sitting for more than 10 hours, shoulder-to-shoulder with a complete stranger, all the while trying to relax, enjoy a movie, read your book, ignore his elbow wedged against your forearm, have a meal, have a drink or two, shuffle your feet aside awkwardly when your leg brushes his - that's what really leaves us dishevelled and discombobulated, unsettled and grumpy with the rest of the world. Even if that Economy Class seat would allow you to relax, the weird social strictures mean you can't. Who could sleep comfortably alongside a complete stranger while you're both fully clothed?
"You define a good flight by negatives," said Paul Theroux, who must have been flying in Economy Class a fair bit at the time. "You didn't get hijacked, you didn't crash, you didn't throw up, you weren't late, you weren't nauseated by the food. So you are grateful."
I'd suggest a different algorithm for the three broad classes of longhaul flight. Economy Class should leave you in a far worse state than when you got on the plane; Business should leave you in almost the same state as when you boarded (though unwashed). And First Class ... ah, First Class ... after flying First Class, you should feel and look better than when you boarded the plane.
And the thing that really delivers that is space, service and a killer menu.
For First Class passengers on heritage airlines, the suite is a sanctuary from the ravages of longhaul. We breathed the same air as everyone else, but I'm pretty sure we got first use of it.
We took off from Sydney on the shortest day of the year - a grey, drizzly affair. We landed, after crossing the dateline on the longest flight in the world, on the longest day of the year, in Dallas, where it's 37C in the shade of a Stetson.
This 13,804km journey became the longest regular return commercial airline route in the world when the Airbus A380s replaced the older Boeing 747s in September last year. Flying up to Dallas (flight QF7) with the jetstream at our back, the journey took a sprightly 15 hours and 35 minutes. Winging it back down (on QF8), we heaved through in 16 hours and 55 minutes. That's 80 minutes lost to the jetstream. How humbling: The finest minds of our species create this amazing plane that carries up to 500 people halfway around the globe, but the power of nature can still throw up a good old westerly wind to rob us of an hour and remind us who's boss.
There have been longer regular flights. From 2004 to 2013, Singapore Airlines operated the longest ever: the wildly sleep-depriving flight SQ21, from Newark to Singapore. That went 15,345km and spent 18 hours and 50 minutes in the air. I salute all who travelled upon her.
The second rule of First Class club is: don't miss out on that thumbs-up selfie. This is a grand experience, one to savour and revel in, and - yes - one to make a bit of a dick of yourself about.
Of course, I didn't really fit in - but Marcelo was great about it. Like that waiter at the too-fancy restaurant who makes everything easy for you, who navigates the fiddly bits of the menu and understands what you mean when you mispronounce the wine, without making you aware of it.
The others? I suspect most of my 13 fellow passengers in First Class were on upgrades from Business. They looked like the kind of travellers you meet in Business Class. Economy even. Some stayed awake late reading and working. Movies were watched. Regular folk. No sign of Russell or Kylie.
If you're asking if it's worth it, you're actually asking the wrong question. What you should be asking - if you love travel and once-in-a-lifetime experiences - is: how can I get myself to the front of the plane?
Getting there: Qantas flies six times weekly to Dallas/Fort Worth via their hub in Sydney.
The writer travelled courtesy of Qantas.