The Daily Flyer
Happy February, and welcome to “The Daily Flyer,” The Higher Flyer‘s newsletter that gathers up and summarizes some of the most important happenings in the world of airlines, hotels, award points, and other travel-related subjects. Today’s feature discusses travel plans in a pandemic, as well as a new mask mandate, airplane seat preferences, cheap fares in Europe, and a behind-the-scenes look in to a 787’s pipework.
Header image courtesy of Pierre Marshall; accessed on Wikipedia.
The Headline Feature
The fluidity inherent to the pandemic — the state of affairs changes on a day-to-day basis — has resulted in a strange dichotomy in the world of higher flying. Since COVID-19 shut the world down last winter, everyone has been anxiously awaiting a return to normalcy while growing increasingly optimistic with each drop of good news. With more and more vaccines administered by the day, there’s reason to be hopeful as we move in to February, but it’s imperative that people continue to exercise caution and stay home for the time being. There’s still lots that needs to be done before responsible, safe travel is feasible, and the promise of a better tomorrow is juxtaposed with today’s grim reality. Until we’re past widespread virus mitigation efforts, it’s best to keep limiting yourself to essential movements and, if possible, not leaving the country. With all that could go wrong, it’s near impossible to justify taking a trip right now.
For higher flyers eager to get back on the road, exercising discipline right now is particularly challenging. As airlines and hotels continue to struggle financially, they’re rolling out increasingly tempting incentives to attract customers to fill their seats/beds. Status is easier than ever to earn in 2021, special promotions abound, and there are remarkably cheap fares in every region of the world. Delta made headlines when it sold sub-$700 business class tickets from North America to Chile earlier in January, but that’s hardly the limit of what’s possible; you can go directly to Colombia for even less!
Opportunities like these are enticing and they could very well be the bargains of the decade, but because COVID complicates matters, taking advantage of them is a risky proposition. Things could already be back on the right track for good, and depending on its effectiveness, the shot might make traveling safe again sooner than we expect. The problem is that no one has any way of knowing what’s next for sure, and the vaccines haven’t yet proven themselves to be a catalyst to recovery. For all we know, they could be unreliable and ineffective against the emerging coronavirus strains from South Africa and the United Kingdom.
If we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that there’s a persistent threat of an unforeseen development that will derail any semblance of progress. One of the earliest editions of “The Daily Flyer” (from February 12, 2020) predicted huge losses in the Southeast Asian tourism market; it briefly explored whether long term damage could be done to the industry. Suffice to say things have gone much, much worse than originally anticipated. A post published that May claimed that “the recovery has begun,” but there hasn’t been any meaningful improvement to speak of eight-plus months later. You can read The Higher Flyer’s predictions for 2021, but like all others, none of them — not even the safest ones — are guaranteed. There’s been a lot unjustified happy-thought for months now, but we still tell ourselves: “It’s bad now, but it’ll be better tomorrow!” Will it?
It’s good to be hopeful nevertheless, but it’s imperative that we’re equally realistic. Consider the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which should have been going on six months ago today. When it became clear last spring that staging an international gathering in very close quarters could spell doom during a global pandemic, the games were postponed till Summer 2021. Now we’re just about six months away from the start of those festivities, and Japanese organizers are saying that the rescheduled event will be held as planned. “Things should be better by then” has been a common refrain, but observers are skeptical. Rodger Sherman notes in his piece at The Ringer that most everyone who’s anyone knows it’s going to be untenable to host the Olympics, but no one wants to be the first to definitively say “no.”
Sports and higher flying don’t usually have a lot of topical overlap, but they do for something like the Olympics (or the Super Bowl or any other major sporting event that requires travel and advance planning). If you want to attend you’ll need to purchase an airfare and reserve a hotel room well beforehand, and in doing so during a pandemic, you take on lots of risk. Regardless of whether or not the games go on, you could hypothetically find yourself…
- On the hook for an expensive, non-refundable plane ticket and/or a pre-paid hotel reservation that — should you not be able to use for whatever reason — offer no financial recourse.
- Unable to get in to Japan because of entrance restrictions for non-Japanese nationals.
- Under a mandatory quarantine that prevents you from leaving your hotel room in any circumstances.
- Disappointed because spectators aren’t allowed to enter the stadiums (a la the NBA bubble last summer).
- Bored because other tourist sites and restaurants are closed and there’s nothing meaningful to do.
- Worst of all, testing positive for COVID-19 and unable to get out of quarantine/seek medical attention/go home.
So much is left to chance in this situation — and there’s little that you can do right now to ensure favorable results in the future — that it would be irresponsible to plan a trip like this right now. Admittedly the outcomes proposed above are overwhelmingly negative (and skip over the positive aspects, such as the opportunity to experience a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event), but there’s reason to believe that any one and all of them could come to fruition. Given how volatile the past year has been, it’s unreasonable to expect things to go according to the best case scenario.
These travel risks aren’t unique to Japan/the Olympics either, and they can happen anywhere else in the world. For example, when the aforementioned Delta One New York-Bogota $460 fare special became available, U.S. citizens could freely move between the United States and Colombia. Both countries though implemented entrance restrictions in recent weeks as means to contain the spread of COVID.
If you had taken advantage of the deal, it’s possible that you could have successfully navigated the tighter borders, although your adventure would have been hindered by shelter-in-place mandates and limited tourist opportunities. It’s probably not worth it to spend the money here or elsewhere — even if the fares are so steeply discounted — if you can’t do much more than quarantine in your hotel room… but that’s your prerogative. After all, everyone has different levels of risk tolerance AND, like the Olympics, things could change sooner than we expect (or not). We just don’t know, so better play it safe.
Lastly, your calculus when deciding whether or not to travel shouldn’t be any different if you’re vaccinated and/or immune from the virus. Even if you’re certain to be perfectly healthy during an international trip, you’re still vulnerable to the variables far beyond your control; the reasonable and more responsible thing to do is to wait until conditions improve definitively. Staying put is as tough as it’s ever been, especially with the plethora of good deals, but the more disciplined we are now, the sooner this nightmare will pass and we’ll be back to booking adventures in due time. Hang in there until then, and if you hit the road for whatever reason in the meantime, please be considerate of others and wear a mask.
Other developments, discussions, and articles in higher flying
Three intriguing things worth reading from around the web. An interesting aside: it’s easy to tell how crippling the effects of the pandemic are at any given moment. When people are staying at home, there’s less news to cover and fewer opinions to dis.
1. Masks now mandatory at U.S. airport and on airplanes
This won’t fundamentally change the current COVID-influenced passenger experience, but do be aware that face coverings are now required at airports and on airplanes in the United States. There are few (fair) exceptions — like when you eat or drink, for example — but everyone will soon be obligated to mask up when they travel by air. Every U.S. carrier already has similar policies in place, but now that the federal government has issued a mandate, it should ensure greater compliance (and in theory reduce virus transmission). It’s one thing if Delta and others ban disobedient customers, it’s another if there are potential legal consequences. So, wear a mask!!
Sourced directly from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, although there’s plenty of commentary from around the web. Here’s a sample: Live and Let’s Fly, One Mile At A Time, Washington Post, Fox News, and a generic Google search.
2. What your preferred airplane seat says about you
Gary Leff, author of View From The Wing, leads off a recent post with a scalding hot take: “aisle seats are better than window seats.” That claim alone is sure to invite lively discussion — Ben from One Mile At A Time would wholeheartedly disagree — but the article is worth reading beyond that. Leff goes on to reference an interview given by the CEO of AsiaMiles (i.e. Cathay Pacific’s loyalty program) Paul Smitton, who says that it’s easy to tell customers’ value to the airline based on their seat preferences. In short, those who opt for aisles are likely to be business travelers (and will spend a lot of money), and those in the windows are vacationers (who are typically more thrifty). There are exceptions to this of course, but the data is both telling and interesting.
As for what seat preferences say about the people who choose them, psychologists offered a few hypotheses a few years ago. You may not be surprised by their findings…
3. “Lufthansa prepared to sell ‘economically, ecologically, and politically irresponsible’ low fares”
In order to best position themselves to survive the pandemic, airlines are implementing new measures to stay afloat right now and accelerate a return to normalcy. Among them, Lufthansa intends to sell €9 fares in order to fill what’s known as “ghost flights,” which are operated without regard for profit and are a means to prevent a carrier from ceding valuable takeoff/landing slots. This isn’t newsworthy because of the higher flyer opportunities, but rather in 2019, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr shamelessly attacked RyanAir, EasyJet, and other LCCs for offering such low fares. Among other things, he said that “flights for less than 10EUR shouldn’t exist.” How times have changed, and shout out to Matthew Klint at Live and Let’s Fly for calling out the blatant hypocrisy. He condemns the behavior while convincingly and scathingly argues that Lufty’s slogan should be “rules for thee, not for me.”
4. A closer look at how airplane lavatories work
While this article isn’t exactly “higher flyer” in nature, it’s an interesting read for avgeeks, aeronautical engineering aficionados, and those curious about how commercial aircraft cater to their passengers’ most basic needs. Despite covering a technical subject matter — you might be surprised how complicated a 787’s sewage system is — the piece is easy-to-read but well-researched. If you get anything out of it, you’ll at least learn why there are so many warning signs about what can and cannot go down an airplane toilet… and you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the mechanics who have to unclog jammed pipes.
Seriously though: don’t flush anything other than toilet paper when you’re on a plane!
… And that’s it for today. Got any tips? Questions? Comments? Email anything and everything to Paul@TheHigherFlyer.org, or comment below! In the meantime, thanks for reading, fly higher, and see you soon. Despite what the feature’s title implies, this will no longer be published daily (at least for the time being); as the world shelters-in-place to mitigate the effects of the various COVID strains, there just isn’t enough fresh content to justify fresh essays each weekday.
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