If you think being packed on an airplane with strangers sucks, then you're probably a pleb like us who flies economy. But first class? It's an entirely different alcohol-lubricated world up there—a world where a single seating unit can cost half a million dollars.

How does something to park your ass in even get so expensive? In the latest issue of The New Yorker, David Owen profiles the premiere designer of airplane seats, James Park Associates (J.P.A.) in London. Designing for space-constrained airplane cabins presents a unique 3D puzzle where half an inch of space can be the difference between profit and loss, life and death. Plus, you have to impress some deep-pocketed customers.

The whole piece is well worth reading in full, but here are some of the most bizarre details.

The chair is deliberately designed to be dumb, so your flight attendant can serve you:

J.P.A. designed the seat so that its transformation into a bed is mainly a manual operation, rather than, as it common, something a passenger can do by pushing buttons. "Usually, a flight attendant will make your bed up for you, maybe while you're getting ready to go to sleep." [Park] said.

The colors trick your eye into thinking the first-class cabin is smaller and thus more exclusive:

To keep the larger section from seeming enormous (and therefore less exclusive), J.P.A. had used different upholstery tones in alternate seats, checkerboard style—a pattern that causes the brain to register less than the entire expanse.

The roominess of first-class travel has its hazards:

Delethalizing some premium-class seats—in which a passenger's head and torso have a lot of room to accelerate before being stopped by something solid—requires the addition of a feature many passengers don't even realize is there: an air bag concealed in the seat belt.

Plenty of effort goes into designing economy seats, of course, but to save space, weight, and money for airlines. Reading about how first-class seats are specifically designed not only to be comfortable but also to engender a certain exclusive social experience is a stark reminder of what money can buy. Airplanes are one of the few places in modern society now where we might breath the same recirculated air as the filthy rich. For a few hours, we're all stuck together in this flying aluminum tube, but they're getting waited upon by strangers and I'm just getting breathed on.

The full piece is online for New Yorker subscribers—or you can pick one up at newstands for your next torturous plane ride.

Top: Video tour of J.P.A.-designed first-class seats on Singapore Airlines