Just watched the movie Up in the Air (where else but up in the air, with a bag of popcorn thanks to Jet Airways) and it got me thinking that many of us lead lives that are not so different from George Clooney’s character. We might not have his lofty looks but we are doing a fine job staying aloft, happily accumulating frequent flyer miles, not to mention loyalty points from hotels and credit cards, and dreaming of getting promoted from silver to gold to platinum (I hear that’s the only sort of promotion many people get these days). And some of us—a chosen few born with cleft chins—may be pushing back the seat into a full-length bed, turning on the side to look out of the window at passing clouds, and dreaming of upping Clooney’s 10-million mile mark.
Comfort zone: In the George Clooney-starrer, characters lead parallel lives at airport lounges and airplanes.
Stealthily—without even registering on our emotional radar screens—these airplanes and airport lounges have become our homes. It is no longer a journey to some place; it is where you live. You know exactly where your laptop cable plugs into your seat, which buttons to push to slide the seat upright for landing, and where to touch the screen to pause the movie. As if on autopilot you fall into check-in queues, you pull out your laptop at security checks, you fill out landing cards, and if you are Indian you smile sweetly at immigration officers and ask them to squeeze in one more stamp into an overcrowded page.
Things have gotten pretty luxurious up-in-the-air, and everything you need to live comfortably is at hand. Flat beds in business are now par for the course, whether stacked herringbone-style like on Jet Airways or Cathay Pacific (I love the feeling of being ensconced in your own “alone space”) or laid out side by side like on Kingfisher or British Airways (if you are travelling with your love, consider BA’s centre two seats, they are perfect for holding hands tightly should there be any mid-air turbulence). Michelin star chefs are being roped in to jazz up in-flight dining—Jet Airways has 2-Michelin star chef Yves Mattagne from Brussels, Singapore Airlines has a panel of eight chefs, including Gordon Ramsay (who has five Michelin stars) and Georges Blanc (three Michelin stars). On-board wine choices are pretty heady too—I had my first sip of Château Lynch-Bages on Cathay, and now I can’t think of one without the other (I suspect that wine’s success in Asia has something to do with the liberal free sampling it got at 30,000ft).
Also Read Radha’s previous Lounge columns
If up-in-the-air is sumptuous, the in-betweens don’t disappoint either. I am talking of airports and airline lounges. I love transiting through Terminal 5 at Heathrow and the British Airways lounge there is one of my favourites. Book yourself in for a massage at the Elemis Spa—there’s usually a wait, giving you enough time to shower, change, get some breakfast, download emails—and come back for one of the pampering massages. Just 15 minutes, but heavenly. And then a leisurely wander through the airport (which is essentially a luxury shopping mall with departure gates attached), taking in the artworks (I adore the huge kidney-bean-shaped techno-sculpture Cloud with flipping dots—look up when you take the escalators to the British Airways lounge), reading the HSBC posters at the jet bridge (“accomplishment”: winning a beauty contest, landing on the moon, or a child tying shoelaces) before you board the plane.
I have been wondering, how does a life lived in these transitory spaces still feel like home? Does familiarity breed a sense of home? When you cover the same spots over and over again, do they become your home ground? I think so. I have been to the bookstores in Hong Kong airport more often than I have to any in Gurgaon, where my home on the ground is. I have eaten more Indian desserts on Jet Airways than I have at my neighbourhood Bikanerwala. I yearn for the noodles in The Wing (Cathay’s Lounge at HK airport, go to the Noodle Bar) the same way I do for dal chawal. I also yearn for the garlic bread and apple chips on Cathay flights, hot scones with jam and oatcakes (that crumble in your mouth) with cheese on BA, the masala chai and saunf mixture on Jet Airways. I watch more movies in the air than at my nearby PVR. If I run out of lipstick, I know where to find my brand at an airport. I also know where to find my mascara in the in-flight shopping catalogue. I sleep in Jet Airways pyjamas even at home.
And you know what, beyond this sense of home there is something else that can be found, perhaps more easily, only at 30,000ft: a sense of self. Cut loose from the earth, BlackBerry dead, comfortably nested in the hi-tech, pod-like seat-bed, fed and pampered by professionals, the hum of the aircraft like an ever-present “Om”, and you are finally free from all worries, free to be with yourself.
Call it fleeting, call it make-believe, call it what you will…but that’s a piece of luxury that’s hard to beat.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.