Stowaway

by Eli Hodapp

IMG_1934

I often joke about how I plan my life about 18 hours at a time, and after this week, that really couldn’t be more true. Last Friday, I got a random email from a iOS developer that came to my talk in Sweden about how the Dutch airline KLM was on the verge of launching a mobile game and how it’d be really cool if I came to check it out. This was followed by the traditional line of questioning to find out more about the game, when the event was, and things like that. It turned out that everything was exponentially more urgent than it initially appeared, as the event was scheduled to go down in less than a week.

I said the only logical thing you can say when someone basically asks, “Hey, want to come to Amsterdam?”

I was then quickly looped in with various levels of KLM, including someone who was setting up all my travel details without me having to do anything other than send them a photo of my passport. Somewhere along the way I mentioned it’d be cool if I could sit somewhere that had a power outlet I could take advantage of, which through some strange stroke of luck resulted in me being seated in first class. I guess if it’s KLM themselves actually flying me KLM, it’s probably no big deal, but this whole experience ended up elevating me to a level of opulence that would’ve been hard to imagine even a week ago.

The airport experience at O’Hare was pretty typical. There’s heavy construction as soon as you get off the highway, which, oddly enough, continues into the international terminal. In the past, I’ve always joked that O’Hare’s terminal 5 is very prison-like… Because, err, it was. Previously, if you wanted something to eat, you needed to get it before security and your options ranged from McDonalds to McDonalds to, well, McDonalds. This can be a painful mistake to make, especially if you’re hungry at the airport as getting anything to eat that isn’t an overpriced processed packaged corn product involves an entire trip through security again.

Things are substantially different now, as there’s now more than a single Hudson News stand inside of the actual terminal- Quite a bit more, actually. There’s even a Frontera, which is some incredibly overpriced Mexican restaurant with local “celebrity chef” Rick Bayless’s name plastered all over it. I momentarily debated getting a $14 torta, but eventually decided against it figuring I’d be getting food out the whoa via the dinner service on the flight.

The “first class experience” at O’Hare is pretty lackluster. It essentially gets you into a “faster” security line and that’s about it. However, once you get to the gate, you get to board first. This is super nice, as international flights board almost an hour before takeoff, and typically that just involves standing in some gargantuan line as you wait for hundreds of people to file on to the aircraft. Not the case with first class, you’re shuffled on first and as soon as you’re in your seat there’s a flight attendant offering you champagne for that hour you would’ve spent in line. Fancy.

It might sound silly, but if I had to choose one word to describe how this whole thing made me felt it’d be “inspirational.” Looking back to my childhood, it’s not like I ever found myself necessarily wanting or needing anything, but my family definitely lived a very meager existence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as the side effect of not having much was that both of my parents were around 24/7 which ended up having a much more lasting impact on my life than any physical or otherwise material product that coming from a family of means would’ve given me.

Regardless, I distinctly remember when I started to see what people who had great jobs were able to provide themselves when I was a teenager thinking, “Yeah, I need to figure out a way to get here,” and if there’s anything my parents instilled in me it’s a ridiculous sense of ambition and a sense that no matter what you can always just “figure it out.” It almost seems stupid now, but seeing people not that much older than me with extravagant sport bikes, cars, apartments with Dance Dance Revolution machines in them, and more was eye opening. It wasn’t even the material things that I found myself wanting, as much as the means to buy and do stupid things and never need to worry about money in a very general sense.

That’s a big reason why I so aggressively pursued getting involved in startups instead of going to college or following any kind of traditional path. Although, admittedly, in recent years I’ve gotten super complacent as I’ve wound up in a career I really like that has grown organically without needing to fall asleep crossing my fingers that some massive business deal comes to fruition. Experiencing what it’s like flying international first class has given me an even stronger kick to achieve more, as while I thought I had made it based on my original goals, it (somewhat obviously) turns out that there’s another distinct step up the ladder of our socioeconomic caste system that I now have a totally renewed drive to figure out how to get to.

Flying international first class is basically on par with whatever your most idealized notion of what flying would be like from movies. You’re seated in a private cabin, with well dressed professionals with spectacularly shined shoes, cufflinks, with impeccable dining etiquette and a total sense that they’ve got their lives together. Everyone is super friendly, and the pilots even alternate coming out and chat with everyone. Flight attendants call you by name, you can chill in the galley in the back and drink, the restrooms are actually clean, and your seat lays flat. Overall, the experience basically couldn’t be better and as I sat there drinking my flight of exotic wines I couldn’t help but think, “How can I make this my life?” which, again, isn’t something that has crossed my mind in quite some time due to overall contentment and complacency.

I was actually able to sleep on the flight, which was really awesome, although it didn’t seem to have much impact on my overall jet lag. We arrived in Amsterdam almost a full hour early, and as instructed, I made my way to the KLM offices to get a ride to the hotel. It turned out that I was so early that the folks I was supposed to talk to weren’t even there yet, and instead I was met with people who had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. A few quick phone calls later and I had car service to come haul me to the hotel.

The Steigenberger Airport Hotel was stupid nice, and they even let me check in at 7:00 AM, allowing me to retreat to my hotel room and sleep until the afternoon. I woke up around 1:00, took a shower, changed my clothes, and headed down to the hotel bar to get a sandwich for lunch. 3:00 rolled around, and I met up with the rest of the people for this press event. We were shuffled into a room filled with various refreshments, then similarly shuffled on to a bus where we were taken on a very quick ride to KLM’s hangar 14.

IMG_1962

Inside was a full double decker Boeing 747 with exploded engines, and one of the most elaborate stage setups I’ve ever seen, using this gigantic plane as a backdrop for the presentation KLM was about to give to reveal their new mobile game. The presentation was just as elaborate as its setting, with multiple speakers belting out highly rehearsed monologues about the KLM brand and the direction they’re heading in the future. The game itself is really neat, as it’s clever how they mixed the brand history of KLM with a free to play game where you’re building up the KLM airline.

IMG_1975

Following the presentation, I hit up the hotel bar with Rob and Peter, two writers from “competing” sites. Competing in quotes, because, well, everyone is so super friendly that it hardly even seems to matter. After three pints of Heineken (Which is unequivocally better in Amsterdam.) Rob headed off to visit the downtown area, Peter hopped on the shuttle to the airport, and I went up to my hotel room to work. However, despite my best intentions, “working” turned in to “falling asleep with my shoes on.” Fighting jet lag this trip has been rough, and time warping across time zones has invoked some serious confusion.

I woke up from my weird nap at about 10:30, with every light in the room on, and immediately found myself in a massive panic as my flight was at 12:40. So, I hopped in the shower, threw my junk in my bag, and made my way for the elevator. …Except, I slowly started to realize as I went downstairs that my room wasn’t bright because of the sun, and it was 10:30 PM, not 10:30 AM. I just considered this a drill for the real thing, and figured that in twelve hours when I actually need to leave that I could confidently say I could go from bed to elevator in ten minutes.

I tried to go back to sleep, but mostly failed at that. I thought about taking some Ambien, but figured since I’m going home right away there’s not much sense in trying to fight against my sleep patterns. Instead, I found some video on YouTube where someone put together every Halo cut scene from ever Halo game in chronological order based on the Halo timeline and watched that. I now know way more than one person should ever know about Master Chief.

Twelve hours passed, and just as I was once again getting out of the shower the hotel room phone rang to say that “my driver” was here. I was totally expecting to just take the hotel shuttle to the airport, but, hey, I’m not going to say no to some random dude driving me there in his Mercedes. Now, while I wasn’t that impressed with the whole Sky Priority thing at O’Hare, at Schiphol it’s a whole different animal.

I’m not sure why, but it seems like checking in at Schiphol when you’re flying economy is sheer madness. Tons of people all mobbing kiosks, huge lines to check baggage, and the whole thing feels like an airport running at 101% capacity. With a Sky Priority first class ticket, someone literally uses the kiosk for you. Oh, and there’s no lines. And once your kiosk servant hands you your boarding pass, there’s an entirely private set of customs agents, with no line to speak of.

I was now inside the airport with a little over two hours to burn, having spent less than ten minutes going through the whole check in and customs process. This was the perfect time to check out “Club 52,” which, I guess, is KLM’s premiere first class airport lounge worldwide. I felt totally out of place on my flight out, but getting the nod to enter Club 52 after a quick glance at my boarding pass felt like Leonardo DiCaprio being invited to a first class dinner aboard the Titanic. I seriously just felt like a stowaway. I was underdressed, outclassed, and just largely didn’t belong.

IMG_1987

Club 52 is massive, so much so that it’s hard to even describe. Inside is all the same type of people from my initial flight to Amsterdam, and limitless… Everything. Want a gin and tonic? Sure thing, make it yourself, there’s just bottles of Bombay Sapphire chilling there for your taking. Want some wine? Go nuts, there’s more bottles than you’d need in a lifetime. Hungry? Oh, well, that’s convenient as there’s a whole breakfast buffet.

IMG_1989

While I thought the “I need to figure out how to make this my life” urge was strong onboard the previous plane, it was nothing like the surreal sense of motivation sitting there watching people enjoy these facilities like they’re totally normal. Hell, even my best airport experiences are typically highlighted by getting particularly fresh McNuggets, or not needing to wait too long to buy a $6 bottle of water. At about ten minutes to boarding I hustled down to the gate, where I was immediately allowed on the plane, and once again sat down to a cool glass of champagne.

I guess if nothing else I’m just dumbfounded by how far I’ve managed to get myself, especially looking back to life on the ol’ Hodapp farm as a kid. If you would’ve told me, on the way back from a livestock auction in my Dad’s truck which had rust holes in the floor that in around 20 years someone would be offering to fly me out first class to spend an hour looking at their video game… I don’t even know what I’d say.

I owe my parents so much it’s stupid.