Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: May 2017

WestJet charts new international course with order of new Boeing Dreamliner jets

It’s been a tumultuous time at WestJet in recent weeks as press releases came in flurries over major expansion plans and in-house matters that will reshape the Calgary-based airline for many years to come.

WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky first unveiled ambitious plans to launch a discount or low cost airline subsidiary which wasn’t well received by the financial markets while days later released changes to its fare structure including a revamp of its upgraded Plus seat fares which were split into Plus Lowest and Plus Flexible with slightly different perks and price pointsThen WestJet’s 1,400 pilots voted 97 per cent in favor of unionization by joining the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), a move that was narrowly avoided in 2016 and which Saretsky said disappointed the airline but vowed to “moving forward as a team.”

All of these momentous moves however were overshadowed by the news that WestJet signed an agreement with Seattle-based Boeing to purchase 10 of the fuel efficient 787 “Dreamliner” aircraft for delivery between the first quarter of 2019 and December 2021 with an option for 10 more aircraft to be delivered between 2020 and 2024. The value of the orders wasn’t disclosed, but part of the cost is being offset by converting orders of Boeing 737s that were to be delivered to WestJet starting in 2019. The arrival of the new Boeing 787 aircraft will replace the existing fleet of older and less fuel efficient Boeing 767’s WestJet introduced into its fleet in late 2015.

With a range of more than 14,000 kilometres and both lower cabin pressure and higher cabin humidity which ease the effects of jetlag, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner opens up a whole new world of WestJet destinations including South America, Asia and Europe. and will take the airline into head-on competition with not only Air Canada with it’s current fleet of 25 Dreamliner’s but other major international airlines so it remains to be seen how well WestJet manages the transition.

The introduction of the 767 aircraft didn’t go well but those planes were well used by QANTAS before being sold back to Boeing and eventually WestJet and had numerous equipment issues that seriously delayed flights to & from London Gatwick in 2016. As the Dreamliner’s will be brand new aircraft right from the factory however a repeat of that debacle is unlikely but there will be a period of adjustment for WestJet that is likely to involve at least a little turbulence as it moves up to the big leagues of international airlines.

Hotel review: Hotel Blackfoot, Calgary

An all-day conference called me to Calgary recently and as the event was being held at the Hotel Blackfoot it made sense to stay at the hotel but what seemed at the outset as a one-night stay for based on convenience wound up being a comfortable stay and pleasant surprise in the end.

I reserved at a special conference rate of $99 for what sounded like an upgraded room category but in reality the Signature 2 Queen Room is the  least expensive room category but suited me and a co-worker sharing the room.  After confirming my reservation but before arriving at the hotel, I’d asked about a complimentary airport shuttle but was advised there isn’t one and that the best transportation options are taxi or for roughly the same price a sedan service transfer that may be arranged in advance for $40 with tax & tip and billed to my room. As the value proposition of a private car sedan ride for the price of a random taxi is too good to pass up I quickly confirmed the arrival transfer service but it’s important if using this service to provide a cell phone number as the driver will text you with his location once your flight has landed. As the amount billed to your room account includes a gratuity for the driver it’s not necessary to tip them when dropping you off at the hotel although I’m sure most polite Canadians still do much to the driver’s delight. The ride is about 20 minutes as most of the drive is on the Deerfoot Trail freeway.

The hotel is undergoing extensive exterior renovations so finding the main entrance wasn’t easy as it’s not well marked but fortunately this is a temporary  inconvenience as once the work is done the main lobby will look as in the 360-degree view below.

The small lobby snack shop shown in the 360-degree view was closed during my stay which sent me searching for a soda machine that I found down the hallway from the main lobby.

I’ll confess to being a little disappointed learning upon check-in that the only choices for the location of the Signature 2 Queen Room reserved well in advance were either ground floor or second floor next to the elevators but opted for the latter as I hoped the lift’s noise wouldn’t intrude upon what was in the end a short night as welcome cocktails turned into midnight mojitos. As it was the short night passed quite quickly however the elevator noise is quite noticeable and would be more of a concern over a longer stay for a guest who’s a light sleeper.

Room 202 is different from the typical hotel room in that it features a sliding door into the bathroom and a very well appointed shower stall with high-end rainfall showerhead able to wash away any late night adventure. Click on the photo below to open a 360-degree view of this uber user-friendly space.

Photo by author

Somewhat surprisingly the bathroom lacked a fan and could’ve scored bonus points with a hook somewhere handy to hang a toiletries bag but overall is more well appointed than expected so scores highly on the creature comfort criteria.

The room also features a mini-fridge and coffee-maker just inside the hallway door as well as a large wardrobe for clothes next to a nice bench with cushions good for sitting to tie up shoes or to house luggage. The 42-inch flat screen TV, safe big enough for laptops and IPod/IPad docking station are other amenities that I know I would find useful over a longer stay.

Photo by author

Click the photo below to open a 360-degree view of the Signature 2 Queen Room.

The view from the room was overlooking the main entrance which was still under construction and so a little unsightly.

Photo by author

The conference welcome cocktails were served in the Lobby Lounge which is an intimate space screened off from the lobby area by the faux birch trees.

Photo by author

The Lobby Lounge is open 11:30 AM – 11PM weekdays.

After conference welcome cocktails in the lobby a few of us watched the NHL playoffs on the big screen in The Other Side Sports Bar which is a fairly average sports bar but did have fresh popcorn from a movie theatre popper to go along with some beer.

Just past the lobby is a business center which is locked but access gained using your room card. It came in handy to check-in for my return flight and print off a boarding pass savings a few minutes later at the airport.

Photo by author

The reality check about the Hotel Blackfoot is its location south of the downtown core and a drive from the airport as while it proved a very contemporary and comfortable accommodation for a short one-night stay with an on-site conference I’m unsure as to whether I’d return unless I needed to be in the area. Given the notoriously high price of Calgary city centre hotels however it may prove less expensive to stay at the Hotel Blackfoot and taxi it back and forth so the location may not be as much of a challenge as it seems.

I’ve paid more for less of a quality hotel so from a value perspective the Hotel Blackfoot proved a pleasant surprise which in these days of being underwhelmed by customer service experiences is never a bad thing.

What the L? Lessons on less desirable WestJet seats

Having flown WestJet on a number of occasions and almost always avoided advance seat selection fees by checking in online within 24 hours of departure and choosing my seat for free at that time it was a case of a little too much haste and not enough attention when checking in for a recent WestJet flight Winnipeg to Edmonton that came back to haunt me when I boarded the flight and occupied my seat.

WestJet marks an “L” on the seats that are less desirable as they have a tighter seat pitch, which is the distance between rows than other rows, as well as no seat recline but in my hurry I ignored the icon legend selecting a window seat in row 9 as it was as far forward as possible with the thought being that it may allow for faster embarkation and disembarkation than seats toward the rear of the aircraft.

Pilling into my window seat it was impossible not to notice the missing inches in seat pitch which went from mildly uncomfortable before take-off to mildly torturous when we reached cruising altitude and the passengers in row 8 reclined their seats into my lap.

After sharing a nervous smile with the fellow passengers beside me who were in the same predicament and glancing at my watch trying to work out the flight length a temporary reprieve arrived as the flight crew came around with in-flight snacks and drinks and as a courtesy to others kindly asked the travellers in row 8 to put their seat backs be in the upright position.

The flight seemed even longer than scheduled because of both the tight confines and the flaky and quite inebriated lady one row ahead who barely stopped talking to seat mates and crew long enough to order another drink which didn’t come as much of a surprise despite the early morning departure time.

Some lessons are learned painfully and chalk this up as one of those as it was easily the worst WestJet flight I’ve experienced but mercifully also one of the shortest.

Airline ancillary fees; please be seated (for a fee)

While a recent Air Canada announcement about a change to its international economy advance seat assignment policy didn’t make the news it’s worth reviewing and including in the larger picture of airline ancillary fees as it could cost you the next time you fly.

For a decade Air Canada and its airline competitors have charged for both checked baggage and advance seat assignment at the lowest economy fare levels for flights within Canada and to the United States but the 28th March 2017 announcement euphemistically headlined “Chose your seat among the clouds” has extended these seat assignment fees to Air Canada economy fares for flights to certain international destinations.

The change in the advance seat assignment policy won’t affect all Air Canada international routes but only to select destinations, most of which are flown by Air Canada rouge, the basic economy leisure airline subsidiary founded in 2012 to compete head-on with discount and charter airlines:

As is noted in the fine print the quoted seat assignment fees are one-way so could be as high as $60 per person roundtrip which may represent as much as 8 percent of the ticket base fare. As airfares haven’t dropped by a corresponding amount this new seat fee is a cost that wasn’t there months ago making travel on Air Canada a little bit more expensive than it was.

Passengers may of course select a seat without charge at time of online check-in 24-hours prior to flight time or while checking in at the airport on the day of departure but must take the leftover seats that haven’t been assigned in advance and may see them stuck in a back row middle seat outside the lavatory on a 8 – 9 hour long-haul flight which speaking from personal experience isn’t a pleasant place to be for an extended period of time. Not having an advance seat assignment also makes a passenger more likely to be bumped in cases when the aircraft is overbooked especially if they don’t check-in online and arrive at the airport close to departure time.

While Air Canada has only imposed the economy advance seat assignment fee for “select international destinations” for now it won’t come as much of a surprise when the airline extends the policy to all international routes in a year or two.

The revenue generated from these airline ancillary fees has become a big chunk of airline revenue in recent years in large part because unlike airfares which are still subject to regulations ancillary fees are not regulated and so can be adjusted or increased at will. According to this article while Air Canada doesn’t specify a dollar figure it has disclosed its ancillary revenue jumped 16% from 2014 – 2015 alone. In the U.S. airlines squeezed out $26 billion in ancillary fees in 2015, more than triple the amount recorded in 2008. The U.S. Congress has held hearings in recent weeks on an proposed bill that would crack down on airline fees by established limits to their levels which can be wildly disproportionate to both the amount of the base airfare and the actual cost of providing the services.

Clearly these fees are here to stay and many, including the author of this Globe & Mail article, argue that having low fares and allowing individuals to choose from an à la carte menu of paid services is a better option that having high fares but many included benefits and services some passengers may not want or need. While I see the advantage of having personal choice it only works well for consumers who understand all the options available to them and appreciate the added costs and how their decisions could impact their travel. There is much less transparency under the present pick-a-perk arrangement than in bygone days when an airfare included everything from seat assignment to in-flight meals and travellers knew what to expect as increasingly in recent days news stories have gone viral about outraged passengers bumped from their dream flight or who resent hundred of dollars of fees to assign seats and/or check bags so it seems some flyers aren’t well informed about what fees exist and when they should be paid.

To be fair, airlines do make the information regarding additional seat assignment or checked bag fees readily available in the online booking process but inevitably these details are hidden behind hyperlinks few consumers ever open.

While I have a built-in bias working in the travel industry, the do-it-yourself approach to booking travel can have it’s pitfalls if the myriad of options are unexplored so having a travel consultant explain the costs in context can make for smoother travel. We all value our holidays so investing a little time and sometimes a small booking fee to ensure things go as planned can pay big dividends while travelling.

 

 

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