Public service announcement

CBC: WestJet charges $25 for checked bags in economy:

WestJet is now charging economy-fare customers $25 for their first checked bags on flights within Canada and to the U.S.

The fee applies to any new bookings starting Monday, for travel as of Oct. 29. The Calgary-based airline says it expects only about 20 per cent of its customers to be affected by the new fee.

This is your periodic reminder that the “low cost” part of “low cost carrier” refers to the carrier’s costs, not yours. Thank you for your attention in this matter.

Notes on 2014’s German adventure

I have apparently hit the point where I am incapable of writing anything longer than about 500 words these days, so herewith is a collection of quick observations about our experiences in Germany and the Netherlands last month, vaguely in chronological order. Pictures are here.

The hegemony of English. As generally happens when I go aboard, I’m amazed at the way in which English speakers are accommodated. You can walk into pretty much any restaurant in Japan, for instance, and ask “英語のメニューがありますか?” and actually get something beyond a blank stare; I am, however, extremely skeptical that a Japanese person could walk into a random restaurant in Canada and be treated in a similar fashion. This may help to explain why the Japanese seem to do all their touring in large groups, but it also underscores that speaking English represents a privilege or an advantage that other linguistic groups don’t have while moving around the planet.

Everywhere we went we managed to get by with English. Because the trip was thrown together in a very short period of time, I had basically no opportunity to learn any German, beyond the usual politenesses and, because of the little guy, “Haben Sie ein Autokindersitz?” I speak even less Dutch, and every single person we met in the Netherlands spoke better English than I do. I can’t say that German- or Dutch-speakers with a poor command of English would do as well in the United Kingdom or North America. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair…

Dachau. We’d debated whether we wanted to go out to Dachau. It’s an easy trip from central Munich on the S-Bahn, but because the little guy was still having timezone problems, he was very fussy (and had a really annoying habit of having crying fits whenever we were in a museum or somewhere else quiet). Still, we went out on our last full day in Munich, which turned out to be Corpus Christi and therefore a holiday in Bavaria (so nothing else was open). I’m glad we did. There are few places I’ve been in the world where I’ve felt the weight of so much history pressing down; though it is a sterile place, and the barracks and “infirmary” have been destroyed (the two that exist are reconstructions), and they’ve put a museum up, it still feels evil. Worse, it feels deliberately evil. Walk around for a while in the museum section and you’ll eventually come across a large desk that kept detailed files on every prisoner in the camp. People did this, and they were very, very systematic about it.

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Success?

After three months of trying to think of interesting things to do with my GoPro (see earlier example; also the part where I’m seriously thinking of re-making Claude LeLouche’s classic C’etait un Rendezvous in Victoria, only the film will be “réalizé avec trucage et acceleré”), I think I finally found something useful. A lot of the waiting hinged on the fact that GoPro, despite advertising the case you get with the camera as being waterproof to 197′, is lying to you. Oh, sure, the case itself is actually waterproof to 197′. What they don’t tell you is that, with the Hero 2 I bought, the lens needs a flat plane to focus off of, and in the water that doesn’t actually work — so every picture you take under water turns out to be blurry as all hell. And here I thought it was just that I needed to drink less…

Anyway, I ordered enough extra housings to hold stuff, including the dive housing that has a flat glass plate on the front, and the camera works pretty damn well underwater, all things considered. (I also got an LCD screen so I could see what I was shooting at, not that it works very well in the sunshine, mind you.) So I set the camera up in burst mode, where it will shoot 10 fps for one second, and went out into the raging surf last week to see what I could find.



Wave photography is really hard. Who knew?

(More, including larger versions of the above, over here. Also, you really should look at the pictures I took of my adorable dogs yesterday. Includes a bonus ad for Tourism Newfoundland & Labrador, and my wife’s idea of what an adorable dog picture is.)

For love of the game

It’s that time of the year again: the time when frequent flyers everywhere start looking at their mileage summaries for the year, checking their numbers against the officially-published lists of requirements for elite status, and everyone wonders what next year’s program is going to be like. It’s also the time of the year where airlines roll out the changes for the next year. Aeroplan recently announced it would be adding fuel surcharges to Star Alliance award flights, where previously it had only done so against Air Canada-operated flights. These surcharges could get ridiculous, to the point where the surcharges made it difficult to justify redeeming miles for the flight: when we went to Japan back in the spring, I was offered connecting flights KSEA-CYVR-CYYJ on Air Canada, and Aeroplan wanted $380 for surcharges and taxes for those flights. Thing is, I could buy the revenue tickets for $365 and take another 1,000 miles for the deal, so yeah, that’s what happened.

This change has meant that a lot of people are modifying their travel plans a bit — I’m certainly looking a lot harder at our travel plans for next year in an attempt to beat the surcharges on Thai, ANA, Asiana, and a few other carriers not called Lufthansa (where it is too late). Even among those who aren’t planning to travel, though, there’s a lot of anger. And there usually is a lot of anger around this time of year: status benefits change, upgrades are reduced, and it seems like everyone else has it just a bit better in a different airline’s program than you do in yours.

Over on FlyerTalk, a member posted a manifesto for those angry at this kind of stuff:

Every year, or several times per year, people seem to worry about switching programs, or where to go, or if to stay, and it all gets very intense.

This is an alternative set of ideas for those who get very anxious about airlines and the programs they offer.

  1. Most important of all: marketing is a powerful tool that airlines have used very effectively over many decades. While it is impossible to completely escape its effects, the most relaxing thing you can do is to realize that your airline-related hysteria is primarily caused by the aura that the airlines still manage to have – notwithstanding the fact there is nothing at all special about them.
  2. Never depend on an airline to do anything properly, such as get you anywhere when you need to be there, or get any of your stuff anywhere at all.
  3. Do you get so anxious about every industry you deal with? Grocery stores? Banks? If you did, I’m surprised you aren’t in the hospital. See #1.
  4. Airlines offer programs involving points, upgrades, and the like, entirely for their own benefit, without regard to what you might get out of it. They are not rewards for your loyalty in any way, shape, or form.
  5. It is the ultimate goal of all airlines to make you think you are receiving benefits when in fact you are not.
  6. The superiority of one airline’s program over another is always temporary.
  7. You are not important to the airline, no matter how much you think you might be.
  8. The following cannot all exist simultaneously, even for any subset of customers:
    • A generous upgrade scheme
    • A generous award flight availability scheme
    • A generous points earning structure
    • A quality product
  9. The best you can hope for with airline programs is a sort of arbitrage situation, in which your above average knowledge allows you to get an above average amount of benefits. The airline will always attempt to reduce your ability to benefit in this manner.
  10. The airline sets the rules. The airline can change the rules whenever it wants, without notice, and should always expect it to do so to its own benefit. Always consider your “assets” (points, upgrade credits) to be worthless, so that when they become worthless you will have lost nothing.
  11. Have no expectations and you will never be disappointed.

I find this surprisingly refreshing. I loves me my status as much as the next person with “AC*E” printed on their boarding pass, and I’m tickled pink I requalified much earlier this year than in the past (no 40-minute trip to Los Angeles or one-way home from Vancouver for me!), but I think zorn makes a lot of sense with zir list, and I’ll endeavor to keep it in the back of my mind when I inevitably start screaming once the Air Canada program for 2012 is announced.

zorn’s point 9, however, has a shocking amount of truth to it, and gets to the heart of what I think drives a lot of FFs: We love the game. We love the system. It reminds me of nothing so much as being a phone phreak — it’s not exactly the places the system takes us, though that matters a great deal, but rather the idea of possessing a body of knowledge about a fairly opaque world that most people don’t care about, and where the details of that world are derived through experimentation and community knowledge sharing. It isn’t about trying to defraud the airlines (or the phone company, for that matter) — it’s about trying to understand something, and I occasionally think my ultimate dream job would be in network or operations management for a major international airline.

I can’t think of any reason why otherwise sane people would spend hours combing through the fare databases looking for mistakes, why our idea of a good time is reading the entire contract of carriage, or why we can describe, in some detail, the route structure of an entire airline alliance. It’s the only way I can explain having an entire list of upgrade and mileage-earning fare buckets at the tip of my tongue, or why I know what the spot price of a ticket to Toronto is on any given day. Much in the same way that a phreak could talk your ear off about MF signalling or the differences between N2 and T-carrier, I can spend hours about the intricacies of clearing a waitlist or how to work the system to your benefit during IRROPs (and why you should always, but always, take a bump if one is offered). This is interesting stuff, but it’s the sort of thing no normal human really needs to know. I know it’s trite to say there are two kinds of people in the world — there always are, but this time it’s true: you either care about this kind of stuff, or you’re not. Chances are if you’re fascinated with the minutia of running an airline you’ve been similarly obsessed about other opaque systems in your life. If not, well, too bad.

As for why the airlines inspire this level of devotion, it’s not complicated. zorn talked about that too. It’s marketing. This is from Delta, about a half-dozen years back:

I loved this ad when it came out, because it captured something fundamental about the experience of travel that’s difficult to put into words, and it manages to illustrate the passion that good travel can inspire. My new hands-down favorite, though, and the one that made me cry like a small child when I saw it for the first time earlier today, is the contemporary British Airways advert:

I know zorn is right: the airlines are no different from any other business I deal with on a daily basis. But they are the vehicle through which many of our dreams about travel, adventure, change, and possibility (and here you’ll have to excuse the expression) find flight. Airline marketing works because they are selling a product that most of us would buy anyway, simply because of what the product represents. Beer advertising makes it look as though you’ll meet lots of attractive women if you drink their product; that doesn’t actually happen. But get on an airplane and you really do end up somewhere else, even if “somewhere else” happens to be Pittsburgh. That’s awfully powerful.

Patrick Smith says that he became a pilot because, as a child, what fascinated him were the route maps in the back of the in-flight magazines, and the possibilities they represented. I was like that, too. Heck, I still am. It is just marketing, a bit of captive advertising, to let you know what the airline could do, if you gave it enough of your time and money, and with that potential comes a thousands dreams of far-away cities, strange lands, and new experiences. You either get this or you don’t, and you can be rational about your engagement with an airline or you can’t.

I’m trying to be rational about my relationship with Air Canada and the Star Alliance. But I’m not sure that it’s possible. Like I said, there are two kinds of people.

New York

When I first got off the train in Paris at Gare de Lyon five years ago, I felt like I was home. It was the sort of place that was immediately familiar, even though I’d never been there before. I’m firmly convinced this was the product of a childhood steeped in French culture. It was like that in London, too, and for the same reasons: when you have these great cities as the touchstones of your literature and your movies, the sheer volume of media makes the geography real. New York was exactly the same way, except that it might have been even more real, in the sense that for my entire life I’ve been watching TV shows and movies set in New York City, and so much of what happens in those shows somehow seeps out into the wider culture — I think I knew, on an academic level, how much this was true, but I didn’t really understand it until I was riding up the approach to the Queens Midtown tunnel on a Friday night, looking out over the East River, and I realized that I wasn’t really going to encounter anything that was truly strange or dislocating.

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And thus my fall is much like my spring

This is what 11,921 miles and six weeks looks like:

Once again, I have a staggering number of PNRs floating around in my iPhone and one hell of a lot of ground to cover over the next month and a half. And yet, I find this deeply soothing.

Sked changes

United Airlines has killed my favorite flight. This was the flight formerly known as UAL055, the afternoon flight from San Francisco to Kailua-Kona. It worked on so many different levels: it allowed for connections from their afternoon departure from Victoria, and it meant there was a one-stop option to the Big Island that got me to Hawaii in less than 8 hours. It was great — it was ridiculously convenient and on-network, always a bonus when you’re thinking hard about mileage accumulation for your favorite frequent-flyer program.

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Utilization update

I somehow missed this when it got posted last month, but for future reference, on the subject of Air Canada’s aircraft utilization for the W11 schedule:

AC is leasing two ex-HA 763s, one enters service on YYZ-DUB next week, the other does not arrive till the fall. These are fin 691/692. Fin 691 will fly YYZ-DUB with a slightly modified HA interior this summer.

The current plan is for these aircraft to replace two of the non-XM 763s (fins 689/690). Also in the plan for these aircraft is an interior upgrade in the Fall – which should include seatback TV and a North America Executive Class seat – no lie-flat suites. Note that I say “should” for the seatback TV – this is not yet 100% confirmed due to time constraints.

For the winter, fins 691/692 are presently scheduled to operate: YYC-OGG, YYC-HNL, YVR-OGG. Fin 687 will operate the Air Canada Vacations flying from the west (MBJ, CUN, VRA etc).

YVR-HNL is schedule to operate with the XM lie-flat product, though, this could change on certain days of week.

This is some of the best news I’ve heard about those airplanes in eons. Yes! Move off of routes I don’t actually fly! (Shame they’re getting rid of 689, though, and holding on to 687 — 689 is/was HPF, and as nice a non-upgraded airplane as you could want. 687 is HPD, which has stupid 1.5″ protrusions into an already narrow seat for the IFE controls, and is damned uncomfortable.)

Picture time

I am, as the Twitter feed has suggested for a couple of days, back from Japan. (Some of you had no idea I was even over there! Which lead to one of the funniest Foursquare checkins I’ve ever had!) A fuller, more detailed trip report will follow soon — I promise — but I have put some photo galleries up for your perusal and enjoyment:

Please enjoy!