Jaci Stephen: 'My friends are mystified as to why I'd give up my airline seat to a celebrity'

Way Out West

For ten minutes this week, I had more in common with La Toya Jackson than any other human being on the planet.

Waiting to board an Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles, I was sitting in the Star Alliance lounge (more of that horror later), when an announcement came over the speaker: "Would passenger Stephen please come to the reception desk."

Given the dreadful year I have had so far in every respect, I was expecting another bereavement, or a doctor standing by, advising me not to travel, as I had less time to live than the flight took.

I was therefore shaking when I went up to the desk, where I was greeted by a lady speaking in hushed tones. "Miss Stephen?"


"We wondered whether you would be willing to change your seat on the airline."

Now, whenever I travel, I am extremely particular about my seating arrangements. Eurostar: have to be travelling backwards, odd number, in the aisle and near a toilet (73, 77, 11, 13), but not right next to the staff kitchen where they uproariously get the meals together (usually carriage 8).

Flying: next to the window, provided there is no one seated next to me, near an emergency exit, no upper levels, near a toilet (I have a very small bladder and drink at least three litres of water a day, hence the toilet obsession).

On Virgin Atlantic, I am less fussy, as I love their Upper Class lounge so much, I am so relaxed by boarding time, they could strap me to a wing and I wouldn't care.

I have no idea about BA because I refuse to fly with them at the moment. I am still chasing a claim from 16 months ago, when they lost my luggage on a flight to Toulouse, and I had to reschedule meetings, cancel the flight back, and take the Eurostar to Paris.

This week, they wrote to say they had credited me with £3.60 and thanked me profusely for choosing my "preferred airline". I will strap myself to a pigeon before I fly with them again.

But on Air New Zealand, I am quite particular about my seat. Their LA service (where they break before travelling on to Australia and New Zealand) is second to none. Terrific food, wonderful staff on board, and although they don't have a great lounge, they know how to look after people.

At the LA end, I have the amazing Lounge Concierge, Thierry. He sees me on and off the aircraft, gets me through Customs, and looks after me so well I think he now even beats the Virgin lounge in terms of my priorities.

The problem for ANZ is the Star Alliance lounge in the UK, which they share with what feels like 100 other airlines. Awful food, screaming kids, bad lighting and, this week, no internet.

And then the request: would you give up your seat, because. . . even more hushed tones: "We have a celebrity on board who would like it." Oh, for God's sake. Who is it? La Toya Jackson.

United, at last: she wants 7K; I have it. But I melted. I have a soft spot for her, after her appearance on I'm A Celebrity last year, and it is clear what terrible pain she has been going through since her brother's death.

So I said OK; suddenly, 7K was gone. My seat. My special, special seat, quiet, away from the throng. I had surrendered it in a rare act of martyrdom, not to someone who I thought deserved it more than I did, but who I thought really needed the privacy more.

"OK," I said, "as it's her."

"If it was a Royal, I'd have told you to," I was informed.

Then I saw red. Quite frankly, if it had been a Royal, I would have told them where to go – somewhere a darn sight further down under than even New Zealand is.

My friends are mystified as to why I did it, but I was quick to point out that I expect an upgrade next time I travel, as reward for my sacrifice. I had also requested that La Toya thank me in person – which she did. I suspect that if the poor lamb had realised she was going to have to show grateful thanks for the entire 11-hour journey, she would have stayed in 5K.

Anyway, at least it got me talking to her wonderful business manager Jeffre (lost the card, J – please get in touch!), and in La Toya I found a person of such extraordinary gentleness, sweetness and charm, I was even more won over by her than ever.

If I'd had the chance to spend 11 hours in 7K, I'd have been Miss Sweetness and Light when I landed, too. Thierry, poor man, ended up seeing what 5K can do to a girl.