James Cridland

Trip report: BNE-LAX-YYZ with Qantas and WestJet

After the previous few trip reports, you might be thinking that travel is back to normal. It isn’t, really.

Travelling to Toronto via Los Angeles requires me to cover the hurdles of the Canadian and US requirements. I thought I’d remembered everything. A COVID test (taken in the airport the day before: not a single person queuing) for the US; checking that my ESTA is valid; buying an eTA for Canada; filling in the ArriveCAN app with details of my journey; printing out a fresh copy of my international vaccination certificate and my insurance details, etc. It is a jumble of complicated and confusing requirements and apps, some of which contain superfluous or incorrect information. I’m tech-literate and this is my third international trip in 2022, but I feel for those who are doing this for the first time.

I confidently walk to check-in, knowing that I’ve done everything I needed to, only to discover that I have forgotten to fill out the “attestation form” for the US. It’s only a two-minute job, and at least I’m better prepared than the older couple in front of me who hadn’t brought their international vaccination certificate; a very patient man from Qantas was helping them navigate the various apps to add it.

The Official Who Puts A Sticker In Passports At Check-in puts a sticker in my passport at check-in, and then notices that I have another passport and puts a sticker in that one too for some reason. I rather grumpily say that I’m not travelling on that passport and it doesn’t need a sticker, but I guess he’s got my best interests at heart. Note to self: the double passport holder is nice, but keep it hidden from people who get freaked out at the idea of dual citizenship, like the aforementioned OWPASIPAC.

I then walk through the nearly deserted security check (no queue). They’ve spent the downtime over the last two years by installing a new super-duper scanner that doesn’t need you to take out laptops and liquids. Three cheers for them for doing that. And then out into airside.

This is my first time in Brisbane International since the pandemic hit. There are still precious few flights departing from here: the total day’s flights fit on one screen in the airport. Many stores are still closed, including every single food outlet, a third of the duty free, and the stores that sell clothes to people who suddenly need an overpriced hat. Enterprisingly, there are a few vending machines selling ready meals, with a microwave beside them to heat them up.

You can also buy a sandwich from Hudsons Coffee, a coffee shop brand from, I think, Victoria. Fun fact: in NSW and QLD, the only Hudsons Coffee stores are in airports and in private hospitals. They’re the only place here to buy something fresh-looking, and you also have the knowledge that you’ll be able to get another similar coffee like this one if it gives you acute food poisoning.

I go into the lounge, and do a little work, and let my iPad download videos from YouTube that it thinks I will enjoy watching. I place my faith in the algorithm.

BNE to LAX, QF55, Airbus A330–200

I grab my seat, and Jason comes to give me a Platinum Welcome, suspiciously early. I wonder whether there’s any bad news to be announced in a minute or so, which might explain Jason’s Platinum Welcome while we’re still on the ground.

The 10.00am flight is delayed. We board at ten past, push back at 10.39am, trundle around most of the airport, and eventually take off at 10.58am.

We get an announcement. Bad news: and it concerns the in-flight entertainment: this 13 hour flight won’t have any, we’re told by a terribly apologetic captain. I don’t care, since I never watch it; but I sense great sadness from many of my fellow passengers, including a German-looking lady across the aisle from me who already looks as though she might murder someone on this flight. She waves her arms about expressively to convey the dismay beneath her facemask.

Due to the lack of working IFE, we get a safety talk, rather than the usual safety video. The IFE itself looks fine, but like an old episode of Bullseye, it shows all the videos you could have watched: any attempt to play any video on the seatback system just quietly fails, flashing the screen and bringing you back to the movie you selected. The only working thing is the map. I like the map.

In this game, with the economy seats playing the 2–4–2 formation, I have scored a seat without anyone beside me, which I’m delighted about; though looking around, this flight is 40% full, I estimate.

After takeoff, some people illicitly switch seats, something we’re told isn’t allowed. The German lady across the aisle loses her neighbour and scores a four-seat econobed. She is now doing the crossword in the Qantas in-flight magazine, in a reclined position. If she only fills in one letter every three and a half minutes, she can make that crossword last for the twelve hours and fifty minutes that this flight will take.

I watch Have I Got News For You, an English topical news quiz which appears to always be uploaded onto YouTube and I’m grateful that the producers appear to turn a blind eye: I imagine that the overseas sales are zero, and that the only losses are a slight attrition to their iPlayer views, so really, what harm has been done?

The drinks come round (Little Creatures Pacific Ale! Yes!) and then the food: a menu announced on the tannoy, rather than given as a piece of paper. I listen carefully, learning from my last trip, and choose the chicken salad: four slices of chicken breast laid on top of some sort of assembly of grains in an almost blindingly sweet sauce accompanied by some spinach leaves. It comes, in a box on a tray, complete with a recommendation to “think fresh”, which I follow. There doesn’t appear to be any dessert, though there is a warm savoury cakey/bready thing that is placed on top of the salad on a napkin. Dessert comes later — a chocolate Paddle Pop. And then coffee, accompanies by a chocolate TimTam.

I watch an eager British chap on YouTube discuss the merits of two no-bypass coffee brewers, an Australian trying to fix a run-over MacBook he’d bought for $25 (by buying $300 in parts which I didn’t really think was the point), and then an American trying and mostly failing to hook up a Raspberry Pi to sixty different hard-drives to produce a petabyte of very slow and rather unreliable storage.

The German lady has either completed the crossword or given up on it, and after a while contemplating the Qantas network map in the magazine, has discovered that she owns a book. What a stroke of luck.

A selection of snacks are carried through the cabin. Eschewing the chocolate lamington flavoured cookies, I choose an apple in a bag (cut up by a machine). The German lady stands up, and stretches, and crouches, and stretches, and crouches. She’s one of only a few people with a light on, as she ploughs through her book.

I watch a video about a planned new subway line in New York, which seems quite a good id ea.

“Frogs legs,” says the FA, walking through the darkened cabin as we near Hawaii. “Frogs legs”. He was accompanied by the unmistakable aroma of hot snacks — wait, he’s saying “hot snacks”, not “frogs legs”, but it’s hard to hear over the aircraft noise. He reaches my seat. “Frogs L-”, I mean, “Hot Snacks, Mr Cridland?” He doesn’t have a glowing iPad in front of him, and if he has just consulted a printed list of the Platinum fliers he has been quite successful in hiding it. And why would he have wasted space on that small tray by carrying a list? To hear your name is a little thing, but personalises the process. Impressive. The frogs legs turned out to be a “country chicken pie with parmesan mash, a mushroom and lentil pie, and a beef sausage roll, made with our signature pastry”. In the dark, only the shape of these items gave me a clue which was which — they all tasted rather suspiciously similar.

I didn’t sleep, rather irritatingly. Not sure why. Instead, I watch a video of two men thumbing through a 1980s edition of LookIn magazine. Nino Firetto was on the back cover, proudly saying that his favourite TV show was The Cosby Show, and his childhood hero was Gary Glitter. Inside: Bobby Davro doing an impersonation of Jonathan King.

Breakfast came 90 minutes before landing, with the usual scrambled eggs that taste as if they’re made of wallpaper paste. I get a Platinum Happy Ending from the customer service manager, keen to hear whether everything apart from the IFE had been good, and I told him it was, and gave him a thumbs-up.

We arrive late, at 7.17am.

Even though I managed to be one of the first off the plane, it was still some time to get through immigration, thanks to a plane from Mexico arriving just before ours. Then grabbing my case, giving my case back to someone else, and walking to terminal 2, and going through security, all of which I completed for 8.25am.

Terminal two at LAX calls itself “transformed”, though I’m confused why they would deliberately transform it into this: horribly badly designed and over-crowded. All the gates are on top of one another at the end of the short terminal, with a Starbucks, one of those random stores named after a cable news channel, a few more eating places and a bar which, impressively, had some people nursing a beer at 9.10am.

No lounge for me — WestJet doesn’t have a lounge anyway, and this is the Delta terminal, who does, but I’m not flying with Delta.

I sit and do some work, intermittently watching the ad for something to get the free wifi that works for ten minutes and then stops working, requiring you to watch another ad. Then I get a personal call to go to the service desk. Disappointingly, it wasn’t an upgrade; instead, they wanted to check that I’d filled out the ArriveCAN form, and that I was vaccinated. I guess most other passengers would have done this document check at check-in.

I sit and listen to the plaintive calls from airline companies that they’re overbooked and they’re looking for two people to volunteer to take the flight to Seattle in two hours instead of the one in half an hour, and for that they’ll get $700 in compensation. Sounds like a deal. Another: a flight to Las Vegas, and a $600 bribe to take the next flight instead of this one. I’d absolutely do that if were on a lazy travel day, and if the $600 is actual cash, rather than flight credits.

LAX to YYZ, WS1101, Boeing 737–800

The flight is full. We’re told we have to wear facemasks because of Canadian federal law. That doesn’t stop someone trying to get on without one. They’re reduced to begging other passengers for a spare mask.

The boarding process isn’t helped by LAX terminal 2 being “transformed” by someone who has no idea of crowd flow, has never flown in an aeroplane before, and hates all of humanity. I dutifully queue when we’re told that Zone 2 is boarding, and one person checks I look like my picture in the passport, while another person checks that my passport has the same name as my boarding pass, an exercise that you’d have thought would have been a little smoother with half the staff.

I don’t think I’ve flown WestJet before. They have a paid onboard menu, which sells noodles for $4.79 (I assume Canadian dollars) if I wanted to pretend I was flying business in Virgin Australia.

There is a drinks service. I get a coffee with milk — WestJet apparently proudly serves McDonald’s coffee, if that’s possible to do. They serve it complete with those cardboard cups that have a sticker on the side and a collection card to punch out, ideally after you’ve drunk your hot beverage and not before. Caution. The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot.

There is no seatback entertainment. The flight has some form of wifi, but I can’t understand how it works on my phone, and only get it working on the iPad with 1'30" to go. It’s $21.99 Canadian for the full flight. That seems expensive. The wifi service has a news feed from AFP, but the top story for Canada is more than two days old. The wifi service also has movies and TV shows on it, all of which take me to an expired certificate page. But at least it has a flight map, and that works.

My neighbour is carrying a large pink cushion which looks like a Pokémon, which she keeps on her knee at all time. She’s clearly aware that this plane gets cold. Which it does.

We land. And again, I’m reminded that this is not normal travel time. The only people they are letting off is people with connections: because there is a backlog of people being checked in the terminal. They have to check our ArriveCAN apps (which you’d have thought, being apps, they could check what was submitted but no), and some of us get a random COVID check.

We will be let off “in groups of 50”, says the FA, and then tells row 13 and forward that they should get ready to deplane. I’m in row 17. We shuffle forward, and go through a maze of machines, hastily erected signs, opaque paper forms, and surprise passport inspections. I’m not chosen for a COVID test, though the family of three in front (with a toddler) is. Nobody checks my ArriveCAN app after all, or my vaccination documents, so presumably the ArriveCAN app did its job. I am given a green sticker on my passport.

An anxious wait later for my bag, another surprise passport inspection checking whether I have a green sticker, and I’m in Canada in just over forty minutes — and onto the UP train to go, er, downtown, which has Perspex screens between each passenger seat. Once I get into central Toronto, there are plenty of stores that lie empty, waiting.
Things most certainly are not back to normal.