Dipping my head to walk onto an Air France flight at Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport last month, I suddenly found myself sitting next to some familiar faces. To one side of me I found former telecommunications minister Marwan Hamadeh. In the next row, I saw Bank Audi general manager Marc Audi, who was sitting next to Azmi Mikati, nephew to the Prime Minister, and in the last row sat Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt and his wife Noura.
Now, I was not overly surprised to find myself in such an assembly, as Paris, more than any other city, is our Lebanese home away from home. We may do business in the Gulf — and nearly everywhere else on the planet — but for savoir vivre, we return to the Seine. What did surprise me was that I fly business class and when I had stepped on board I had glanced to my left and saw that “La Premiere,” the first class, was empty. Should not all these members of the Lebanese uber-elite be sitting in first class instead of hobnobbing in Affaires?
Curious to find about the first-class Air France service between France and Lebanon, I arranged a press trip with our friends at the airline. Three days later, after I had concluded my business and filled my inner reservoirs with cultural and culinary delights, I stepped out of the front door of my Paris home to find a car from the airline ready to drive me to Charles De Gaulle.
What I arrived to was anything but the clunky Paris hub I was used to. I was recieved in what looks more like a hotel than a terminal. There was no counter to wait at, only a dazzling attendant assinged to you (and only you) wearing the finest bleu, blanc est rouge. The exchange with this lovely French damme is anything but the usual drab airline chitchat, and you barely notice as she takes your documents only to bring them back promptly and whisk you through customs to a dedicated elevator bringing you to the La Premiere Lounge. There, surrounded by a fine art exhibition and served the best French cusine by Alain Ducasse’s own staff I began to understand why, after the fall of the Concord, Le Premiere has become Air France’s alternative offering to the world’s well-heeled. After relaxing in the spa, it was time to board and my personable attendant drove me (in a French car of course) to the plane.
I was the last passenger to board, welcomed and escorted to the vestibule of my seat by a flight attendant who was yet another dazzling lady. But the four hours back to Beirut in La Premiere was enough time for me to return to the question: why on earth were the Lebanese elite I saw three days prior flying business class instead of in noble first?
First I thought it was a matter of image. Bankers, even the top brass at the largest banks, may be sensitive to the public perception that demands austerity in harsh economic times. But nobles and princely ‘zaims’ surely do not have to consider those business image factors, so I thought of other reasons. While sitting lonesome in the first-class cabin, I thought maybe isolation is not a Lebanese thing. Lebanese boys like to show off, but in La Premiere, as you are last-on and first-off, nobody ever sees you, so how can you show off if nobody walks by?
In the end, I think I figured it out. Every crown has its jewel, and for those gems no price is too high for those who want what no one else has. But while no other airline offers such daily first-class service from Beirut to Europe, and clearly there are enough high-net-worth Lebanese to fill eight, or even 16 seats, do they have the will, or find the worth, in spending $1,000 an hour for the privilege?
I may have rubbed shoulders with absolute luxury and the finest culture (albeit in splendid isolation), so if I am invited again, or if high demand for business class in the summer narrows the price gap considerably, I will gladly consider La Premiere. But when, as this spring, the return flight on first will mean shelling out about $5,000 after adding taxes, when a business class seat will set me back $2,000 or less, I think I would rather use Affaires and rub shoulders with neighbors.