CategoriesTravel

My WestJet Flight Review

I flew aboard a WestJet flight to Toronto seated behind a Pomeranian whose balls are different sizes.

westjet flight review
“You brought a Pomeranian on a WestJet flight?” “I didn’t get it a Plus seat. I’m not buying it a fucking beer. It’s not eating your fucking chicken wrap, Dude.”

OK, before we go further – yes, this is an airline review. But it’s not one of those airline reviews were someone tells you the plane’s registration number, lists which taxiways the pilot used and snivels that the canapes served in business class didn’t meet his standards. That’s a smooth jazz airline review. No, this airline review is heavy metal. You won’t get the jargon and the standard avgeek formula. But I will give you a perfect idea of what to expect from flying on WestJet, a Canada-based airline that gets passengers from Hawaii to Glasgow, mainly through hubs in Toronto and Vancouver.

Alright, we have to address the Pomeranian in the cabin. First off, I did not verify the owner’s claims. See, this Pomeranian was a show dog with world-champion parents. But it didn’t reach Ma and Pop’s lofty heights because of the mismatched marbles. So the owner told me. I actually didn’t know the Pomeranian was present until the flight attendants started cooing over the creature. I grew up with a Pomeranian – the same color as this one – so I had to jump into the conversation. As you can tell, the owners were the oversharing sort.

OK, let’s take a step back to before Flight 1187 took off

Plus seats WestJet
Here’s what you’re looking at for legroom in a Plus seat on WestJet.

This was a work trip, so someone at my organization booked the flights. But I decided to create an account with Westjet, and I noticed that an upgrade into the Plus seats would cost only $35. That got me extra legroom, some free food and a few other perks.

I started off at a self check-in kiosk at Phoenix Sky Harbor (Somewhat) International Airport. It wasn’t working, so a friendly nearby WestJet employee directed me to the desk. There, an employee checked me in and said “there won’t be a ‘1’ in front of the temperature.” No doubt, my friend!

I was in the security line with what I assume to be the WestJet crew. The captain and copilot both vaguely resembled Tony Hale (They’re both going to read this and be like “I knew we should’ve kicked that jerk off the plane.” But guys, c’mon – when does Buster Bluth not steal every single scene in Arrested Development?). They were also bantering with nearby passengers and just seemed unusually outgoing.

Westjet
Bearing a resemblance to Tony Hale honestly isn’t a bad thing, am I right?

Onboard the WestJet Flight

I had an entire row to myself. We pushed back 10 minutes ahead of time and I enjoyed a funny safety briefing that included the phrase “if you get bored of me, there are six exits throughout the aircraft.” All the jocularity reminded me of flying Qantas.

OBLIGATORY AVGEEK STUFF: This flight was on a 737-700. For the non-avgeeks, this means it’s on the smallish side, but not quite the Short Bus model. It’s a flying Honda Civic – nothing special. We took off from some runway at Sky Harbor … the one next to the Air National Guard and its fleet of KC-135s. I know perfectly well which runway it is, and how to find it. But honestly, who cares? And I’m definitely not giving you the registration number of the aircraft, because that’s even less interesting than the runway number.

By the time we arrived in New Mexico, I had a cold turkey and provolone sandwich and the flight attendant was trying to talk me into a cookie. The crew passed through regularly and always seemed chipper – far more so than their counterparts on the big US-based airlines, on the average (I’ve had some wonderful crews on every airline, but most of been perfunctory to slightly grumpy and haggard). I remember one of the flight attendants being extra-patient as she grabbed a passenger’s cane from the overhead bin to help her to the lavatory.

What About the Pomeranian

You’ve probably forgotten about the Pomeranian by now. Well, so had I. It was stuffed in its carrier, which was then stuff under a seat – a perfect place for a Pomeranian (Editor’s Note: Kidding! Remember, I had a Pomeranian! And why am I saying “editor’s note”? The writer is the editor is the publisher is the IT guy.). Regardless, nary a yap did it utter. Apparently, the dog likes people, but isn’t keen on being touched by anyone but its owners. It’s a showdog … it’s [expletive delete] hair falls out.

pomeranian
This was my Pomeranian, Cujo. She’d steal the show on a WestJet flight – none of these “I’m a showdog and I don’t like being handled” diva histrionics!

Toronto Pearson International Airport is a real-deal international airport. You’ll see Cathay Pacific, China Southern Airlines, Lufthansa, Air Transat, Icelandair and many other airlines headed to places all around the globe.

Soon, I was on my way to downtown Toronto to find the Holiday Inn Toronto Downtown Center. From there, I set off on-foot to get some first impressions of Toronto.

The Return Trip: WestJet Flight 1186

westjet
Headed to Toronto on WestJet.

I was at the airport waaaaaaaaay early for this flight. I made the mistake of going through security way too soon and being cooped up behind the “Going to America” section. So I didn’t get to roam the airport the way I like to do. This whole thing of pre-checking American travelers through US Customs before the flight is kind of nice – but the unwary can get stuck in a small slice of airport. So keep that in mind. The immigration, customs, WestJet and security officials were all exceptionally articulate and friendly. Smiles and some humor were not in short supply.

Anyway, I wound up hungry and penned into the Going to the US Only section. I had a decent burger at some place whose names I forgot (it was overcooked a tiny bit for my taste) and a decent-but-forgettable IPA to go along with it.

Flight 1186 was about 10 minutes late to show up, and it took the crew a bit longer to turn the plane around. Still, we arrive only about 20 minutes late.

Another WestJet Upgrade

I ponied up 50 extra bones or clams or whatever you call them for Plus seating again; I didn’t get a whole row to myself, but we had a wonderfully empty middle seat. The flight crew was again friendly, with the two flight attendants both named Ashley making jokes about their shared name.

OBLIGATORY AVGEEK SECTION: Once again, don’t even think for a second that you’re getting a tail number or runway info. We’re keeping it top level – once again, a 737-700.

This time around, I got a chicken wrap (watch out for pieces of chicken slipping from the bottom of the wrap, those wily buggers) that was also decent. I really liked the cheese platter of brie, sliced salami and some sort of whole-wheat crackers. I had filled my infamous 32-ounce Nalgene bottle before boarding, so I was set for drinks. I noticed this place had the fuselage blister that usually means “Internet.” But I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere in the seat pocket information – so maybe it was just for the in-seat entertainment. I watched a few movies and an episode of The Simpsons during the four-hour flight.

We landed. I got off the plane as quickly as people do in the third row. I thanked the crew for another nice flight.

So will I fly WestJet again?

Oh, you betcha. I’m going somewhere served by WestJet, I’m picking them. They’re pretty punctual, the crews are friendly, the entertainment is decent, the food is slightly very good for a glorified domestic flight.

kc-135
Alright, I’ve made fun of you avgeek characters a lot in this post. Let me make it up to you with a cool shot of a KC-135 at Sky Harbor.

Here’s the thing: It seems like there’s some sort of partnership with American Airlines. I have to figure out the details of that to see if I can make future WestJet flights work well for me from an air miles standpoint. I horde miles like Smaug hordes gold. I never miss a chance to collect more.

From a pure customer experience standpoint, WestJet is a winner across the board – an easy-to-use website, great employees on the ground and in the air, shiny-clean aircraft and competitive prices.

Disclaimer: IHG provided my accommodations in Toronto.

CategoriesTravel

Chasing the Dreamliner – A Lesson in Aviation Photography

aviation photography
Nearly everyone in aviation photography is trying to get nice shots of a Dreamliner in the air.

This is reason # 6,579 why my wife thinks I’m weird, I thought as I headed out the door, camera and monopod in-hand.

I had just explained to her that, on this sunny Sunday, I was off to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to take a photo of an airplane. Well, not just any airplane – I’d heard that American Airlines was testing two of its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft out with practice runs. And that Sky Harbor was one of the spots.

aviation photography
Here I am trying to get artsy with a Dreamliner photo. This is the most-distant shot I got; but even from so far away, the huge upswing of the wings screams “Dreamliner.” The wings droop down considerably on the ground.

I consider the Dreamliner one of the prettiest commercial aircraft to ever fly. And Sky Harbor is unlikely to see many of them since it’s essentially an overgrown regional airport -- and the Dreamliner is made to fly far – I’ve flown San Jose-Tokyo, Shanghai-Los Angeles and Houston-Chicago on one (OK, that last one isn’t very far). This was a rare chance to see a Dreamliner in my home city.

Now, I’m an opportunist of a photographer. I’m the sort of guy who will hear about something, do a little bit of web browsing in sites like FlightAware.com, grab his camera and go. I imagine better-prepared people who truly think of themselves as aviation photography experts will dive into tail numbers and flight plans – maybe even tune into a scanner.

aviation photography
The flag makes in interesting foreground object in this Dreamliner shot.

Me? I stepped outside my door, looked south to the Sky Harbor flight path a few miles away. Oh, and I grabbed my Pentax K50 and an old 70-200mm autofocus lens. This thing is old, cheap but very good – one of the reasons I started Pentax was because its cameras are backward-compatible with old lenses – and they have the image stabilizer in the body. One more thing before I pipe down about Pentax – the K50 is also weather sealed.

Anyway, I noticed that planes were landing from the west -- and muttered dark curses. That means I had to drive a bit further, and navigate one of the most unpleasant parts of Phoenix to get a shot.

aviation photography
The light poles, powerlines and billboards were making me crazy.

The area west of Phoenix is a study in blight. That, and it’s criss-crossed with tangles of powerlines, dotted with ugly building just tall enough to be in the way and infested with billboards. On the other hand, it traffic was landing from the east, I could: plunk myself on a bridge over Tempe Town Lake; sit atop a nice sandstone butte; maybe even scale A Mountain. The options are numerous, and far more scenic.

As it was, I found a decent place to park -- a fenced-but-unlocked mass of crumbled asphalt smack between the two southern runways, and the northern runway. This presented a bit of a problem – I wasn’t sure where the Dreamliner would land.

aviation photography
My favorite one since it was so up-close and personal.

My gut feeling: It would come into Runway 8 since it’s the longest. But I wasn’t sure – I kept sprinting into good positions between the flight paths, trying to ID each aircraft as it came in to see if I could get in decent position for a photo. FlightAware gave me a good idea of the arrival time, but you know how that can go.

After a long parade of 737s, small Airbuses and CRJs, I finally saw something coming in with the distinctive upswept wing I associated with the Dreamliner. It was lined up for Runway 8 as I guessed -- and damn, was that thing graceful in the air – and noticeably bigger even from distance. I had the powerlines and billboards to content with, but that’s life. Maybe I’ll be able to catch a future Dreamliner landing from the east side.

Overall, I’m happy I caught a few shots of the American Airlines Dreamliner. I did some minor contrast correction, and got a bit artsy-fartsy with one of the shots. I don’t feel like any were spectacular, but aviation photography isn’t easy. I need to spend more time getting the shutter speed just right so all the details come in nice and sharp, but without being too underexposed. I’ll have to try another time for that perfect shot.

There are probably locals who know better places to catch some good photos. I hope they’ll read this and share a few tips with me.

CategoriesTravel

How I Make My Airline Choices

airline choices
The 787 Dreamliner makes United a serious choice for flights to Asia – now it needs to keep up to South America.

I’m not one to tell an airline "I’ll never fly you again." But I definitely have a pecking order for my airline choices. And I will absolutely pay more for an airline I prefer. I wonder how many other people are in the same – ahem – plane of existence (I thought "same boat" would be mixing my metaphors). So tell me about your airline packing order, and I’ll share mine with you -- I’m going to break my list our by domestic and international, base on those I’ve flown before. Airline alliance membership continues to be a huge factor for me, and I’m often willing to shell out more to stick with my preferred Star Alliance. And I’d also like to here what makes you make your airline choices – what’s beyond the ticket price for you?

For Those Little Domestic Trips

airline choices
Delta could become a bigger option in my future.

United Airlines
I have the overwhelming majority of my frequent flier miles through the United Airlines OnePass, so it’s one of my top airline choices. I started flying Continental about 15 years ago, and stayed on-board during the United merger. I’ve never had a bad experience -- and I’ve even had a few great flights. Booking is always easy, though I’ve sometimes had to chase down my mileage credits. Plus, United Airlines is based at my favorite terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Extra bonus!

Delta Air Lines
I don’t fly Delta very often. Sky Harbor isn’t a hub, and I haven’t collected a fistful of miles or anything. Most of them have been somewhat accidental. But I also haven’t had any truly bad experiences (I was even able to endure a poopy-diaper sort of stink on a flight to Minneapolis). Since I don’t fly Delta very often, I don’t hoard SKyMiles like Smaug guarding his gold – and it’s easy to donate SkyMiles to my preferred charity -- you won’t believe how important air miles are to nonprofit organizations.

airline choices
Southwest is a nonfactor because of its loyalty program.

American Airlines/US Air
The merger between these two airlines has really made them fall in my rankings. Over the past few months, I’ve tried a few times to merge my accounts. Every single time, I got "Our system is down" or "Your records do not match" messages. Blah.

American is also eager to talk about its fleet renewal, but I still see a lot of silver MD80s flying over Phoenix -- though I don’t mind the US Air domestic fleet. I know this is the domestic portion of this post, but I have avoided flying these airlines on international routes: American’s fleet is still pretty old, and I really dislike the US Airways choice of the Airbus A330 (my least-favorite airliner). The combined mega-airline isn’t doing itself any favors with its continuing difficulties in merging my AAdvantage and Dividend Miles accounts.

airline choices
Asiana flights are always amazing … now, if only it went to more destinations!

Southwest Airlines
Some people love Southwest Airlines. I get it. The employees are genuinely nice and the fleet is pretty modern. But when I fly, I want air miles that I can apply to my big trips -- my international, intercontinental adventures. Southwest Airlines makes itself a nonfactor as one of my airline choices with a loyalty program that does nothing to help me reach exotic destinations.

For My International Adventures Abroad
This is a tough category. My airline choices for international flights are closely linked to my destination. If I had my way, Air New Zealand and Asiana Airlines would be able to take me anywhere I want to go. But nope, that’s not the reality. So let me break it out by region.

airline choices
Norwegian Air Shuttle could also benefit from an airline alliance.

Asia
Asiana Airlines stand out among my other airline choices anywhere in Asia, even if flying through the Incheon hub costs me a bit of time. I flew All Nippon Airways on my last trip to Asia – and while its service absolutely schools US-based airlines, it still takes a backseat to Asiana.

Now, Hawaiian Airlines remains an intriguing option I haven’t yet tried. It flies directly from Phoenix to Honolulu, and then from many points to Asia and Oceania. The only not-so-great factor is the potentially awful choice of the Airbus A330; if Hawaiian Airlines was wise enough to equip them with air conditioning nozzles at every seat (which SAS and Vietnam Airlines do not do), I’d be OK with the A330.

United Airlines is a factor as one of my airline choices – the crew of its 787 flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles International Airport does credit to the airline. But it still falls short of Asiana or All Nippon Airways if all things are equal.

airline choices
I’d like to give one of the Virgin airlines a shot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Europe
I have a dilemma here: I want to pick Norwegian Air Shuttle – yep, a low-cost carrier. Its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet puts it above SAS and its Airbuses. And even though there’s a British Airways flight to London directly from Phoenix, I’m more likely to start my trip in Scandinavia -- and I haven’t heard many frequent travelers sing the praises of British Airways. On the other hand, I’ve experienced great service on every single Norwegian Air Shuttle flight. Granted, those were short-haul flights. But still, I think that will translate well to intercontinental flights. But a flight on Norwegian Air Shuttle would net me zero airline miles. That doesn’t sit well for one of my airline choices. If it’s part of an airline alliance, I don’t know about it. I’d be thrilled to be wrong about this.

So where does this leave me? With Air New Zealand. I can take a short flight to Los Angeles International Airport and grab an Air New Zealand flight to London. The quick stopover nets me an excellent airline, a shiny new Boeing 777 and a fistful of air miles on a Star Alliance member airline.

South America
It’s hard to get to South America from Phoenix on anything but American Airlines or United Airlines. I’ll give the nod to United Airlines – as I have twice – since it’s a Star Alliance member and is generally decent.

But I haven’t been able to try a South American carrier like TAM or LAN. That’s pretty disappointing.

One Airline I’d Love to Try

I already mentioned the Norwegian Air Shuttle intercontinental flights. But I’d also be eager to try any Virgin airline – America, Atlantic or Australia. I’m trying to parse its codeshare agreements, which seem all over the board.

There are no Virgin America flights from Sky Harbor, though. If that ever changes, I’d be up for some Virgin America flights. The praise-complaint ratio for Virgin airlines remains far into the positive, so I’d consider this great news.