Uber takes a while to find me a driver. The app eventually finds me Ifshak, who is on the other side of the city. After fifteen minutes - he turns up, and I discover that Ifshak is the incompetent Uber driver that we all have to try out once in a while. I get an impromptu and wholly unnecessary tour of QUT’s Kelvin Grove campus, as Ifshak grumbles about the GPS on the Uber app, which is sorely needed because Ifshak clearly lacks any common sense or directional capabilities whatsoever. Finally heading in the right direction, I gently guide him into the correct lane so we don’t go off on a lengthy detour under the river. He’s been an Uber driver for four months, he proudly tells me, though you’d have assumed he’d been to the airport once already in that time, or at the very least knew where it was.
This is going to be a journey of two parts, and frankly not one I’m looking forward to. The first is a trip via Vancouver to Toronto on Air Canada - the airline for people who like the colour beige. I didn’t book Air Canada - the client did, and I lacked the energy to argue for a much more circuitous, expensive and inconvenient route with OneWorld.
I had a job a while ago which had me commuting to Vancouver every quarter for a board meeting. Then, I was flying in business. Air Canada business is competent and comfortable. But, this time, I’m in economy, and have no status. It’s been more than ten years since I’ve flown economy in Air Canada. I wonder what it’ll be like?
No status? Ah, well, not quite. When the client booked these flights, and after I’d grumbled to myself for accepting them, I looked about to discover that United were running a status match for Qantas frequent flyers. I fill out the form to take the trial and fly at least four/six/eight/somenumber United flights during a 8 week period, during which I’ll be given Star Alliance Gold. It works, and I’m the proud owner of a United Star Alliance Gold card, except they don’t send cards out any more, so it’s just a graphic on a web page. I should now have lounge access, and priority boarding and all that. Hooray me.
Online, I notice I’m given an awful aisle seat, two rows before the loo. For the next week I spend every few hours checking the Air Canada website and seeing whether any new seats have opened up. Plugging in my new gold card seems to have no effect; Star Alliance Gold status with a different airline gives you no special seating treatment at all, but three days before the flight, a miracle happens, and I snag a window seat with two empty seats next to me - which fill up, disappointingly, during the day: but a decent window seat, without “Whiff d’lavatoire”. This is better.
Ifshak drops me at the airport, a little late, after finding it. Air Canada were keen that I got there four hours before the flight, which seemed a little overenthusiastic. I arrive three hours thirty minutes before the flight - with no queue, I’m checked in almost immediately on the machine as someone watches over me - and rather excitingly, takes the bag label and informs me she was going to go and get a priority sticker. This means that my United gold card has correctly been recognised as a Star Alliance Gold, so I breathe a bit of a sigh of relief and go to the Air New Zealand lounge, where it turns out I’m the first guest to arrive. The boarding pass is in Canadian French and English.
I work, and have a coffee, watching the lounge fill up. A kiwi lady sits and has long conversations with the rest of her family over FaceTime, shouting at her phone with her speaker on full blast. She doesn’t appear to give much of a shit about anyone else in the lounge, which is nice. I could have wandered over to the Singapore lounge with my gold card, but didn’t (I’ve been there before and it isn’t very good).
Air Canada, economy, BNE - YVR
And then, on to the full flight. It’s completely full. We’re boarded in zone numbers, and I’m surprised to find an elderly couple already in the seats next to mine (normally I’m first in). They arrived by wheelchair a little earlier, it turns out. I feel bad squeezing myself past them.
The inflight announcements are long and wordy, and when they’ve finished, they do them all again in French. Les annonces en vol sont longues et verbeuses, et quand elles ont fini, elles les refont toutes en français.
The plane has wifi, so I do some work. Lunch is either beef noodles or chicken (I go for the beef); all the cutlery is wood, in a paper bag, though the food comes in plastic trays though. It’s all edible: and unlike Qantas they have bread rolls rather than the moist garlic mysteriously spongy bread thing. The beer choice is Heineken, Coors light, or Molson Canadian. I went for the Molson Canadian, which tastes of not very much.
I’m quite impressed at the in flight entertainment system, which has had a complete upgrade since I was last on one of these aeroplanes. The mid-flight snack of a chicken wrap is OK. The breakfast is also OK - two choices of hot food.
Air Canada sell duty free. They come round the cabin with a big beige duty free trolley. Hey, Air Canada, 1986 wants its duty free trolley back. How quaint and old-fashioned.
All in all, not such a bad experience. And then we land in Vancouver airport.
People connecting to another flight in Vancouver have a strange rigmarole of having your passport checked on a big white machine, then you have to sit in a holding pen for fifteen minutes while something very important happens, and then your name appears on a television screen and you’re allowed through to be asked questions by a very po-faced immigration official. This was not a very smooth experience. My bags go all the way, but sitting for fifteen minutes for no reason whatsoever isn’t very helpful really. All the connecting passengers have to do it. I don’t really know why.
To the Air Canada domestic lounge, which is busy, hot, and unloved. Signs on all the scruffy furniture say “no we don’t have any power points here now fuck off”, or words to that effect, followed by “thanks for your patience” which I read as “we’ll take our fucking time, stop whining, asshole”. I find one of the only spaces in the lounge with an electric socket. North America’s best airline has one, bad, coffee machine with a long queue, and a selection of bad food. The seat is a window seat; some idiot obligingly opens all the blinds, causing the sun to burn deep into my eyeballs, and everything to heat up further. My next door neighbour goes and asks them to close the blinds again please if they wouldn’t mind. They do.
To the gate. Polite Canadians queue up in their zone lanes, but it’s still a bit of a scrum. The plane, a Boeing 777-200LR, seems massive for a four hour domestic flight. But once again, I managed to find a window seat ahead of time. I look up the menu on the in flight entertainment system to discover that, no, there isn’t one: looks like we get complimentary coffee but that’s it. I regret not eating more bad food in the lounge. (I had a bagel with cream cheese, a bad coffee, and a bad orange juice).
My plan here is to fall asleep. I fall asleep.
Waking up 40 minutes before I land, I find some live TV on the IFE. The picture quality is really good - much better than the feeds on Emirates. I suspect it’s coming via satellite rather than a low bitrate internet stream. They have two news channels (en Français and English), and three sports channels (two English, one French). I land, grab my bag which was one of the first out, and take the UP train (which goes from Union to Pearson, I’ve just realised, which is where the name comes from). It’s smoky and busy in central Toronto.
British Airways, Premium Economy, YYZ - LHR
After an exhausting but good few days in Toronto, I’m on the move again, and this time, flying British Airways - the UK’s economy airline. This direction, I used my stash of Avios to upgrade to Premium Economy. I acquired the Avios when BA bought bmi in 2012, and they’ve been excellent for internal Australian flights and for bags of Percy Pigs on European flights, but I’ve not used them to upgrade before, and I’ve not flown Premium Economy on BA before. It’s all very new and exciting.
The UP train is good. It runs every 15 minutes, but seems to take 18 minutes - which means the train always departs on time since it has up to 12 minutes sitting at the station. They could have run it every 20 minutes and halved the rolling stock used and saved a boatload of cash, but then it would be rubbish and wouldn’t run on time. Good for them.
I arrive at the airport, for the 18:35 plane, at 14:25. This was over optimistic because BA flies one plane a day from here, so the check-in desk isn’t open, and I can’t drop my bag quite yet. This is information not published anywhere. It turns out it’ll open at “about 2.45”, so I have a Starbucks “marshmallow dream bar”, a surprisingly oily Rice Krispy/Rice Bubbles bar, and a chocolate milk, not really wanting more coffee. My drink purchase also comes with a seat, with a view of the BA check-in area. The queue for economy check-in grows substantially. BA could support the self-tagging bag system here in YVR, but they’ve elected not to, because Willy Walshe hates us all. By that I mean Sean Doyle, who is apparently the new CEO of BA. Doyle joined BA in 1998 “as a financial analyst”, which bodes well.
2.45 comes and goes. Check-in haltingly starts at 2.56; I’m through at 3.05, and told that I can use “our lounge” at gate 32. Security done by 3.10.
Gate 32 is a ten minute walk away, and when I arrive, there’s a sign for the Air France lounge and the Premium Plaza lounge. BA has a two lounges at Vancouver airport (business and first), but it seems they’re both closed. Cathay Pacific has a lounge too, but it is also closed. “Our lounge” is the Premium Plaza lounge - and on checking in at the front desk, I’m told “you cannot come in yet - our lounge only opens at 3.30. Come back here at 3.30. But until then, you can use our lounge.” With this brain-twisting message, I’m ushered through, er, to the lounge. It seems that BA and Cathay Pacific are using a bit of the Premium Plaza lounge as their own lounge, and it’s this bit that is closed until 3.30. The Premium Plaza lounge is busy, but not Air Canada busy - there is a paid bar here but apparently a flash of the BA boarding pass will work as payment. I grab a Pepsi and wait ten minutes; shuffle into the identical bit of the lounge for BA customers, and treat myself to a Heineken Zero. Oh, I know how to live.
The BA flight boards really very early. In premium economy, you get an amenities pack which is very similar to the Qantas one for PE - “made from recycled drinks bottles to help protect the environment”, which would be less greenwashing if it didn’t come wrapped in a big single-user plastic bag with the headphones.
A Canadian woman in the row me is very excited by everything, and is loudly describing the contents of the amenities pack. “Oh, gee, you get a little cute face mask! And some lip balm! That’s cute! And a toothbrush, wow!”
“‘Av yer adda drink?” says the flight attendant. She has a broad Essex accent. Were offered orange juice or water. No bubbles. Business, this isn’t. Then, Essex girl performs a game of Jenga with suitcases in the overhead lockers, fits them in, and finishes with “there ya go, look-a-that, that’s brilliant ain’t it, I fink I deserve a raand-applause”, and we dutifully give her a small ripple of applause. We never see Essex girl again. Perhaps she was executed for having a horrible accent. I’m not generally in favour of capital punishment, but I’ll gladly make an exception in this case.
The Canadian woman in the row behind is sitting next to a gorilla who thumps the back of my seat trying to get the in flight entertainment to do something. It isn’t turned on quite yet, but bursts into action after we are told to watch the safety video.
This is a six hour 41 minute flight. We take off, and then we’re given hot towels (nice), and then a surprisingly premium quality menu - a small folding thing, printed on card. It might be only one-colour printed, but it’s a good quality experience, rather than a shiny thin piece of paper.
And, that experience continues. We’re given a rather pushy alcohol service - encouraged to get a stash of alcohol in, because (I think) they don’t want to push this trolley round again. I have a gin and tonic, and also a beer for the food - which, when it comes, is relatively decent. They do actual bread rolls, Qantas, not those weird sponges.
We sleep, we wake up, we’re given an almost edible chicken panini, we land, we’re off, and it’s very quick to get through security and into the UK. Ahead of me, I’ve four trains, two trams, one train, an underground train, another train, a bus, another bus, and a train, before I’m back at the airport. Everything works fine.
Arriving at LHR by bus for the first time, I have to catch a train to reach terminal 5. There’s someone manfully occupying the microphone at terminal 3’s train station telling us where the next train is going, but she could do with a script - she gets tongue-tied quite often. We get there though. Right at the right hand side of BA’s T5 is a separate entrance for WP fliers, which is queue-free, private, and rather lovely, with a personal welcome and a glass of water if you want one, and its own security where they don’t yell at you. I feel a bit of a fraud, given I’m flying economy.
After doing a bit of work, I try to enter the Concorde Room. I thought it was open to OneWorld Emeralds, but it most certainly is not. You get in there only if you are flying First Class. I am not. They look at me in a disgusted way, and I slink away in disgrace back to the main lounges.
In this direction to Toronto I will be going standard economy. I’m not convinced it’ll be quite as lovely as Premium Economy is.
Boarding time is a whole hour before the flight, because it’s quite a distance to get to the gate. Upon arrival to the gate, it appears it’s everyone’s first time flying, including the gate staff. They don’t seem to know how boarding works, and randomly hold us in various parts of the airport and shout at us until they’re ready for boarding, in a stop/start experience like I last had when I owned a Mini.
But - I’m given a window seat and no neighbours. The chicken curry for dinner is, and I’m not making this up, the very best chicken curry I’ve had for some time. No, really - it was delicious, with fluffy rice, a good dry tikka sauce, proper chicken breast. The Brewdog IPA beer is tasty. The seats are comfortable. It’s all good. The snack before we land looks like an apple strudel but us actually a chicken and leek pastry thing. It’s good too. British Airways: actually good, shock.
We land, and I catch a tiddly bus to the airport hotel I’m staying in.
The next morning, I complete my work at 9.30am, and wonder what to do. My flight is at 6pm, so I’ve got to be at the airport at 3pm, but I’m not allowed to check in the bag more than four hours early. I don’t want to traipse around with a big bag, but if I leave it in the hotel then I’ll have to get back to the hotel somehow.
I discover there’s a big and decent shopping mall that’s a 15 minute Uber away, and do that. In the end, it’s a nice walk about, a look at weird things Canadians buy (a camping shop? In an upscale shopping mall?), a decent meal (from Tim Hortons, no less), a nice coffee (well, a Starbucks coffee), and then back to the hotel to catch the shuttle bus.
Oddly, when I get to the airport, I get given a boarding pass for a flight at 7pm, rather than 6pm. It turns out that my flight had been cancelled, and I was shoved onto the next flight instead. They’d not told me about this, but then, the travel agent had deliberately added a fake email address to my booking because they didn’t have my correct one, so how could Air Canada have told me anyway? Oh well. I pass this on to the company who booked me in Canada, in case it’s a useful negotiation tool.
Air Canada’s domestic lounge in Toronto is everything the one in Vancouver wasn’t: it’s the right temperature, it’s light and airy, the tables all have power points on them, and the food isn’t too bad. It’s one of two “Air Canada café” branded lounges - the idea is that you can take food out of the lounge and into the aircraft if you like - they even give you bags - because they don’t give you a meal on the plane. It has a staffed bar, and a variety of seats. It’s quite delightful.
I sit and work, opposite a well-spoken Canadian who, it turns out, is the honorary Canadian consul for a European country. Her flight, like many others, is delayed, so she’s working from the lounge, and makes a number of calls to people, as well as a few calls to someone she works with, going through a tedious long questionnaire together.
Air Canada, economy, YYZ-YVR
The flight from YYZ to YVR is chock full, because of the cancellations earlier in the day. Polite Canadian flight attendants play Jenga with the bags in the overhead lockers, but do not ask for (or get) a “raand-applause”.
The best airline in North America gives us nothing to eat on our 4h 55m flight, only two soft drinks.
We land, and a complex set of negotiating the connections begins. There are signs with a Canadian flag, signs with a US flag, and signs with a world flag. Sometimes the signs aren’t there but you have to know your gate number instead. At one point, you go past a sign saying “Abandon All Hope Who Enter Here”, at least, I think it said that, or perhaps it said “No Return After This Point” but it has the same vibe.
I make it to the Air Canada international lounge. I remember, when doing this journey often, the day this first opened. I flew about a week afterwards, and the lounge felt very excellently new and lovely. It still feels relatively new and lovely, five years on, though it’s very beige and very Air Canada. The magazine racks have been replaced with a single laminated piece of paper telling you how to use PressReader, but it’s all fine. I have a chicken curry which promised well but was in the end a bit cold.
Air Canada, economy, YVR-BNE
I was allocated an aisle seat in the middle of the plane, which wasn’t great, so I had religiously been checking the Air Canada app in case they opened up any additional seats. They did, and I snaffled myself my usual 28A or similar, close to the front of economy, in a row of three that hadn’t been taken. I wasn’t naïve enough to think they would stay that way, but on boarding it did seem that it might stay that way, and on takeoff it appeared that yes, I had organised myself an econobed. Excellent skill - only slightly tempered by the fact that the two toddlers behind me are past-masters at kicking the shit out of the seat back.
The great fear, when you’ve got yourself a row of three, is that some ignorant arse ends up plonking themselves down in the aisle seat. You can’t really say “I’m terribly sorry old chap, you really ought to be sitting in your allocated seat”, because who the hell do you think you are - but bloody hell, they should be sitting in their allocated seat. Accordingly, as we take off, I try to make every effort to expand myself physically to occupy all three seats. This mental state of being works, and after a meal (in the middle seat of my econobed), I stretch out and have a good five hour sleep. By “stretch out” I really mean “lie slightly uncomfortably in a foetus position while avoiding my feet going into the aisle, and my kidneys being pummelled by the toddlers behind me in that soft bit of seat”.
I wake up with what I think is a backache from lying on the seats. In front of me is a sandwich and a small cookie, left there by an excellent FA, and they’re doing mid-flight drinks. The backache reveals itself to be not related to the seats but rather more related to the pint of Granville Island IPA and lots of water I consumed in the lounge. I go and fix that.
This was my fatal mistake - for, on returning to my seat, one of the FAs comes and tells me I have a new neighbour. She comes and sits in the aisle seat. She has a constant cough. She fidgets constantly. Thankfully, there is a seat between cough lady and me, and even when she goes to the loo for the sixth time (yes, I counted), it’s not too irritating. But I’m sorry to have lost my econobed for half the flight.
Breakfast comes as the sun comes up. The omlette is quite decent, and unusually does not come with a mystery sausage. The real bread roll is fine, with that whisked aerated butter that North America likes for some reason. It comes with a bottle of water, which is a good thing.
Air Canada doesn’t show us the Australian Government customs declaration video, but reads it to us instead. We’re told to not be sorry and to just declare it. I look forward to hearing this all over again in French, but that doesn’t seem to be something they’re over-eager to translate. Oh, and then they show us the old video after all. “Sorry! It’s a rare pygmy kumquat!” That is stopped half way through. And then we get to watch it again in full. “Sorry! A Fish?” And then we get to watch it again in French, fucksake. “Désolés!” The government hasn’t bothered dubbing the bloke with the fish into French, but has got a French officious announcer. It’s only after these videos that we get given the incoming passenger card, which I guess is how it should be really.
I’m not flying again for two months - my next trip will be a circuitous and expensive flight to Denver in August.
I’ve really had enough of flying for now. Australia is lovely, but it’s a long, long way away from anywhere. Seeing the world is lovely too, but it’s also a bit lonely. The excitement of seeing a Pret a Manger again quickly turns to being a bit dull. Airport hotels, especially, are cold, inhuman places. I miss the family, miss the dog, miss the quiet walks to the coffee shop at the other side of the park, miss my clothes not being wrinkled in a big suitcase, miss cooking my food, miss decent wifi, miss having a good night’s sleep, miss ignoring the TV at home instead of ignoring the TV in a hotel room. I miss my own shower, which has controls I can actually understand, and where the shampoo isn’t fixed to the wall. I miss a warm body next to me in bed, two if you include the dog.
I’m looking forward to getting home.