Showing posts with label Air Canada. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Air Canada. Show all posts

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Israel-Hamas War - and Hostage Update - 7 weeks of War

I arrived back in Israel earlier this week in time for a temporary cease-fire which went into effect yesterday morning at 7 a.m.  Certainly, from the Israeli side, there are no plans to turn this "pause" into a permanent cease fire unless something changes dramatically.  First of all, Hamas is still holding more  than 165 Israeli hostages, along with approximately 30 foreigners.  There will definitely not be any kind of long lasting cease fire until all of these hostages are returned.

But the much larger issue is the ongoing threat to Israel from Hamas. It has been an Israeli war aim to end Hamas' reign over Gaza (and, specifically, its ability to launch attacks against Israel). In my view, Israel will either need to reach that goal or accept a Hamas surrender of some sort. It seems very unlikely that Israel will agree to a cease fire that would simply allow Hamas to launch the same type of attacks weeks, months or years from now.

The third issue is that steps will need to be taken to ensure that Hezbollah stops attacking Israel from the north. If there is a negotiated agreement that moves Hezbollah back from the border as per the existing U.N. resolution, an all out war with Hezbollah / Lebanon may be averted.  But if Hezbollah remains on the border, that may be the next all-out war that Israel is forced to fight.  

Hostage Deal

Tonight is the second day of  the temporary cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas, negotiated by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt.  According to the deal, Hamas is supposed to provide a list of 10-15 hostages to be released by 10 p.m. each day.  Israel then provides a list of 3 convicted prisoners for each hostage to be released.  In addition, Israel has apparently agreed to allow 200 trucks of aid and fuel into Gaza and  to one full day of a "pause" in fighting.  The hostages are supposed to be released by 4 p.m. each day.  

Yesterday, the first day, Hamas delayed release of the hostages by approximately 2 hours. Today, Hamas announced that the deal would be delayed "indefinitely."  Qatar, Egypt, Israel and Hamas were involved in urgent talks with Israel apparently telling Hamas that if the deal was not honoured by midnight, Israel would end the pause and restart attacks. Eventually, Hamas gave in by about 1030 p.m. As I am writing this, today's hostages have been released, 13 Israelis including 8 children, one of them - a three year old.  Three children from one family were released - but the mother was killed on October 7th and the father is still being held hostage by Hamas.  Apparently, 14 were on the  list to be released but  one was inexplicably not released - the mother of some of the released hostages.

Note that more than 30 of the hostages being held by Hamas are young kids, including babies.   Many of them lost one or both of their parents in the October 7th massacre.  Israel is trading convicted criminals for these hostages.  The Israeli held prisoners are not "political prisoners."  They are convicted terrorists who have carried out attacks or attempted attacks against Israeli civilians, police or army forces and are being held in Israeli jails.  

A clip has been circulating from Sky News where the interviewer suggested that Israel valued Palestinian lives at a "lower value" than Israeli lives - since it was trading one Israeli hostage for 3 terrorists.  The logic is shocking.  Obviously, Israel would be happy to trade one Palestinian criminal for all of the Israeli hostages that Hamas is holding.  Interestingly, Hamas was insisting on 1000 prisoners for each hostage early on - then several hundred as the war went on.  Only because of the ground invasion of Gaza, the number has gone down to 3 criminals for one hostage.  Here is the clip in case you are interested.  

The hostage deal is causing a great deal of debate in Israel.  Many political and  military personnel are concerned that the deal will endanger Israeli soldiers in the long run and will give Hamas time to rearm, restock and regroup for the upcoming  battles in Khan Yunis, Jabaliya and other  areas of Gaza.  There is also concern that these types of deals give Hamas further incentive to try and kidnap other Israelis.  Weighed against that, it is a primary value for the State of Israel to try and return any and all captives, including civilians and soldiers. The Israeli government had a heated debate over this issue. Ultimately, only the "National Zionist Party" - led by Itamar Ben Gvir opposed the deal.  The deal was supported overwhelmingly by the current Israeli government.

Other Items

The war has been going on for more than 50 days since Hamas declared war on Israel on October 7th and massacred more than 1200 Israelis.  Hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists were called up to the army (including several of our family and extended family members).  Israelis of  all ages, men and women, reported to bases across the country, and were stationed in and around Gaza, in the north near Lebanon or Syria,  in the east, in or around the West Bank or near Jordan.  Some  were sent to the south to protect Eilat.  We have one friend who is 51 years old  who insisted on reporting for duty - even after being rejected initially.

I saw a program here discussing the large number of Israelis who made immediate arrangements on October 7, 8 or 9th to fly to Israel from Canada - from Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary - and to report to duty.  These were people who have been living in Canada for anywhere from 1 to 15 years but felt the obligation to report.  When the Israeli  military issued calls for reserve soldiers to report to duty - the response rate was more than 130% - which means that a very large number of reservists reported to duty who had not even  been called up yet.

Israelis who are not in the army have been volunteering in so many different ways.  Many are volunteering for an organization called "Sar-El" which determines where volunteers are needed and sends them to different places.  Some might be helping to pack or sort equipment or pack meals for army bases.  Others have gone to farms to help farmers pick fruit and vegetables.  Others are finding ways to help the displaced families - bringing food, entertaining kids, fundraising or in other ways.

A few women in Ra'anana decided to start baking personal challahs for soldiers to deliver them on Fridays before Shabbat. At first, there were 3 or 4 women - and they made between 150 and 200 challahs.  This week, we helped to collect and deliver some of the challahs to the "central" location in Ra'anana for distribution.  For this week, they had a much larger list of women helping out and distributed more than 1500 challahs to soldiers in the field.  One of our family members was quite happy to receive one  - along with other members of the unit.  They used them in conducting a Kabbalat Shabbat service with  kiddush and challah - in Gaza yesterday.  They hope to be up to  3,000 challahs delivered by next Friday.  

I watched an amazing and incredibly moving clip on the Israeli show "Zehu Zeh" this week.  Singer Idan Raichel appeared on the show.  He brought a guest.  The guest was a teenage survivor of the massacre from Kibbutz Be'eri.  This brave boy had lost several family members.  He is a percussionist.  He wrote to Raichel and asked him if he could accompany him to  visit and sing for soldiers around the country.  Raichel met with him and quickly agreed.  And then brought him to perform on TV.  Raichel could not keep from crying when introducing him.  


As you might know, Air Canada is not currently flying to Israel and El Al stopped flying direct more than a  year ago (or so).  So travelling back and forth has been a bit tricky. 

If you are thinking of going to Israel (or flying from Israel to North America), the easiest thing to do is to take El Al with a transfer (from Canada) on American, Delta or Porter.  These flights can be booked through El Al and baggage can be sent through seamlessly.  They might be a bit  costly - but I guess convenience can be  expensive.

Since I am trying to maximize my Air Canada Aeroplan miles - I decided do something a bit more circuitous.  On the way to Toronto (for an in-person hearing that I had to attend), I flew El Al to Rome and then Air Canada from Rome to Toronto.  This was a bit cumbersome but quite frankly, it wasn't that bad.  I arrived in Rome and went through a reasonably quick and efficient immigration line. They have a fast line for certain passport holders - which includes Canada, Israel and the U.S. After that, I had to go pick up my suitcase and then head over to the Air Canada check-in counter.  Air Canada was efficient and quick - and directed me to a priority security line. I had to go through exit immigration but it was fairly quick and efficient. I finished everything in about an hour and 15 minutes and still had plenty of time to enjoy a great cappuccino and some fresh fruit in the lounge. Overall, I am happy to recommend Rome if you need to change somewhere in Europe and are not on an El Al flight all the way through.

On the way back to Israel, I went through Amsterdam.  That was a disaster. After we landed, it took 40 minutes until we pulled up to a gate. Then I had to go through an insane and inefficient immigration line up.  No special treatment for Canadian/U.S./Israeli passports. The line up said "expect a 45 minute to 1 hour wait." There were only two or three electronic picture taking machines - and two officials.  Some of the machines were out of service.  It was even worse than Newark airport.  Sorry to offend any New Jersey readers.

After that, I had to go find my luggage.  Then it was off to a frighteningly long line up at the El Al check-in counter, where my bag was deemed to be overweight...No excuses accepted - I would have to pay.  Of course the security was thorough, which was fine.  But now it was back to personal security and then, an equally brutal immigration line up (for exiting the country). By the time I finished everything - I was able to get to the El Al gate about 10 minutes before boarding. No time for a lounge in Amsterdam - or a visit to the famed whisky shop.  I had left a four-hour window in between flights and it was still a close call. So unless you are flying KLM or something else that is seamless through Amsterdam, I would definitely not recommend blending Air Canada and El Al - under any circumstances through Amsterdam.  Unless you don't mind wasting four  or five hours at the airport in line-ups.

Final Comments

Israeli news is reporting on all kinds of anti-Semitic incidents from all around the world since the October 7th massacres.  As you know, some of these have been in Toronto and  Montreal - and others from cities across Europe. Israelis are starting to think that despite the war, they are safer than Jews in many other places.

There has been some very lopsided press coverage - which is probably very different from what the coverage would have looked like if it had been Canada, the U.S., Great Britain etc., that was attacked.  One of the big issues is civilian casualties.  Although Hamas has reported numbers in the 15,000-20,000 range, there is no way to verify those numbers.  But more importantly, by Israeli accounts, a very large percentage of the Palestinian casualties are Hamas fighters.  Civilians have also been killed, mainly those who have been used as  human shields.  Yet the press simply throws out whatever number Hamas gives them - leading to crazy outbursts, like the one by Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau who declared that Israel "had to stop killing Palestinian children."  He must have known better but was probably trying to score some political points with some of his voters. Unfortunately, this type of disinformation by a western leader foments attacks on the Canadian Jewish community.  The same can be said about French President Macron.

I note, for example, that there was a great deal of concern about the Shifa hospital.  One BBC report stated that Israel was arresting doctors and killing patients.  BBC later corrected the report and indicated that Israel had brought doctors with their units to help the patients. BBC apologized for "falling short of our standards."  But ultimately, Israel found, as expected, large supplies of weapons at the hospital, and tunnels under the hospital - with rooms, washrooms, weapons storage facilities, electricity, water and gas hookups. Israel also found video footage at the hospital showing Israeli hostages being brought into the hospital - through the main doors.  There was more than ample evidence showing that the hospital was  being used a Hamas centre during the war.   

Israel is facing a difficult situation - trying to fight Hamas while minimizing civilian casualties.  But Hamas is fighting from residential areas, hospitals, mosques and schools.  In several cases, Israeli forces found arms caches in school classrooms - or through doors adjoining the classrooms.  One Israeli unit uncovered a large underground tunnel in a mosque with a huge room full of all kinds of weapons.

It is unclear how things will develop but as of now, it certainly looks like this war will continue for some time, likely at least several months.

Continuing to hope and pray for the safe return of all of our kidnapped hostages, the safety of our soldiers and - yes - a minimum number of civilian casualties in Gaza - but the destruction  of the Hamas forces and the replacement of Hamas with some type of stable governing body that will prefer to rebuild Gaza and focus on health care, education, employment, and infrastructure rather than military conflict.

I am not sure that this is likely or possible at this time but the status quo from pre-Oct 7  simply cannot and will not be allowed to continue.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

In Quarantine - and a Political Comment or Two

As you  might recall from my last blog (if you read it), I arrived on an Air Canada flight early Thursday a.m. and headed off to the Marriott Airport Hotel in Toronto for my "up to three day quarantine."  I took my Covid test on Thursay morning at about 6:00 a.m. or so.  After that, I headed off to the hotel on the Hotel Shuttle Bus - which was about a half hour wait.  I was put on a  "Covid floor" at the Marriott - where you are not supposed to leave your room - and meals are delivered three times a day.  Thankfully the internet service was decent.

Urban Kosher Lunch

I had ordered Kosher food and the meals were supplied by Urban Kosher, which is part of L'Chaim Catering.  The food was fine.  Breakfast both days was an omelet, grilled tomatoes, hashbrowns, a fruit cup and a muffin (one day blueberry, one day cranberry, in case you are wondering...).  The fruit cup was quite good with fresh berries, pineapple, dragonfruit, and some other fresh fruit.  Lunch on thursday was two sandwiches - one of cold grilled chicken, the other of cold roast beef.  It also came with a big chocolate cup cake, some celery and some carrots.  The lunch was, perhaps, the "weak link."  Dinner on Thursday was a grilled chicken breast in a terryaki sauce with mashed potatoes and a giant piece of chocolate cake along with a Caesar salad (pareve of course).  I appreciate that the Marriott arranged these  meals without any additional cost (unlike some of the other hotels that I called) and the food quality was fine, better than an airplane meal for sure.  My only criticism is that the caterer is apparently a meat and pareve caterer - so there are no dairy meals.  I would have prefered them to use a dairy caterer for the breakfast so that they could provide yogurt, cheese etc.,  But for a relatively short stay,  that is not a huge complaint.  Breakfast and dinner were served warm and the food was tasty.  Kol  Hakavod to Urban Kosher.
Lunch  Sandwiches

The Marriott provides some coupons for some cappucinos.  So I was able to call room service and order cappucinos.  I asked them to use the coupons to cover the cost of the coffees and they were happy to do so.  The coffee was pretty good - Illy coffee - so I had  two nice cappucinos with breakfast each day.

By 10:30 a.m. on Friday, I received my results, negative of course (since I have been vaccinated twice), and I was free to leave.  I still had a work meeting so I couldn't leave until about 1 p.m.  But at the time  I received the test results, I also received a message from the ArriveCan app asking me to confirm that I was "leaving the Hotel" and to confirm "where I would be spending the rest of my quarantine." 

Chocolate Layer Cake

In other words - these three are working together - ArriveCan,  and the hotels.  They want to get you the results within one  day - and then ensure that you leave the hotel asap.   They know, in advance, that is how things will work but still insist that you buy a three day, pre-paid, non refundable hotel stay.  I tried asking at the hotel desk if there was anything they could do - but they were resolute and hid behind the Canadian government ("the Canadian government insists that it be a  three day non-refundable rate - we can't do anything about it.").  I have heard that some of the hotels are offering some refund if you leave early - but I'm not sure which.  I wanted to ensure that I had the Kosher  food - so I didn't find any of these hotels that were offering a partial refund.  Perhaps I will write to the Marriott as well but I doubt I will get anywhere.

It seems to me that a class action lawsuit against the  government of Canada would probably succeed. Under the Canadian Constitution - the Charter - the government could probably show that there was a "pressing and substanial need" due to the pandamic - to override the rights of Canadians.  That is  fine.  But under section 1 of the Charter, the government is also required to show that it infringed on people's rights to the minimum extent possible.  Here, I think they would have a big problem.  Given that people could drive across the border and not go to these hotels - it makes no sense to insist that only air travellers have to pay $1,200 extra or so to buy a "three day prepaid non-refundable" stay whereas those who fly to the U.S.  and take a cab back to Canada can circumvent the  process.  Especially since the government knows and expects that in 95% of the cases, travellers will test negative and will be able to leave within 24 hours.  They could have made it a 24 hour stay - and pushed to get the results within that time frame.  Or they could have insisted that everyone - land travellers and air travellers - stay the full three days.  This would have been drastic - but it would have been equal and fair to everyone.  There are probably many other possible solutions as well.  The point here is that a three day mandatory, non-refundable, stay is a significant overreach and  is not likely to meet a proportionality test, in my view.  Then again, I'm only an employment lawyer, so what do I know?

I expect that in the coming weeks, this policy will be abandoned and the government will start recognizing vaccination certificates.  I don't plan on bringing the class action lawsuit myself - but  I'm quite sure that a properly framed suit would have a very good chance of success.  Maybe someone else will decide to take this on.  

Israeli Political Update

Naftali Bennett
Sitting here in Toronto - I flipped on Israeli news channel 12 to watch two back-to-back press conferences - one by Naftali Bennett and  one by Benjamin Netanyahu.  It was fascinating to watch.  The Israeli public is really divided and there are protesters outside everywhere across the country - rallying either in favour of this new potential "change government" that Bennett is trying to form with Lapid or in support  of  Netanyahu and against the Bennett-Lapid plans.

Bennett spoke first. I actually thought it was quite a good speech.  He appealed to Israelis from across the political spectrum to make some compromises, form a stable government and avoid a 5th election.  He noted that he  had made extensive efforts to form a purely right wing government with Netanyahu but they were short of the votes - and it wasn't going to happen.  He stated that his government would not be a "left"  government - but one made up of left and right wing politicians and that it would involve compromises.  He said that some of its members would be "more right wing" than those in the current Netanyahu government.  He prommised that  he was going to make every effort over the coming 48 hours to form such a government - even though his second in command - Ayelet Shaked was not beside him and has not yet fully committed to this plan.  Bennett did not take any  questions.  He will spend the next 48 hours - until Lapid's mandate ends - trying everything he can to finalize arrangements and  take over the government from Netanyahu.

After a short TV break, Netanyahu spoke from a different location.  He was disturbed and unhinged.  He levelled every kind of personal insult at Bennett and repeatedly called Bennett a liar, a flip-flopper and someone who was  forming a left wing government despite the overwhelming support that he enjoyed from the country as the preferred choice for Prime Minister.  He attacked, in personal terms, the leaders and members of the left and centre parties that would make up the potential government - including Lapid, Michaeli, Horowitz and Zandberg.  He warned that this "change" government would be a danger to national security, to the army, to Israel's interests worldwide.  He compared Bennett's plan to take over - to the way governments are run in Syria, Iran and Turkey - governments that are formed, in his view, against the overwhelming national will and electoral preferences.  He said  Bennett was putting himself above the national  interest - and endangering everyone so that he could become the Prime Minister.  Isn't all this quite rich for someone who has dragged the country into four consecutive elections becauses of his personal legal troubles?  The language was Trump-esque - "only I can be the Prime Minister and ensure national security."  This despite the fact that if  Bennett succeeds in forming a government, it will be one that is made up of more than 50% support of the Israeli voting public.

Netanyahu's speech was aimed at members of the Yamina party, especially Shaked, who may not be happy about joining a compromise government.   It was also aimed at Gideon Saar's "New Hope" party - in an effort to try to get some of that party's members to cross the aisle.  As well, it was aimed at Netanyahu's base - and was a call to action for protests, name calling, threats and whatever else over the coming 48 hours.  

It is unclear what will  happen.  I don't think we can rule out the possibility that Netanyahu will somehow suceed in blocking this change government by doing something drastic over the next 48 hours.  He is pulling out  all the stops and exerting the maximum pressure that he can on as many people as possible.  Some of his supporters are calling Bennett and Saar "traitors" and using very extreme language and rhetoric to attack their opponents.  For Netanyahu, if he cannot  block the transfer of power, it will a devastating loss with significant personal ramifactions since he will now have no effective way of slowing, stopping or manipulating his ongoing corruption trial.  

It will be really interesting to see if Bennett and Shaked can withstand all of this pressure and form a change government.  The next 48 hours may  be one  of the most fascinating time periods in Israeli political history.  Hopefully, however things work out, it will all be done peacefully.  

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Trip To Toronto from Tel-Aviv, Israel

Hi.  Well this will be a bit of a different blog.  After about 14 months - I decided to try coming back to Toronto for a short trip.  I thought I would cover off all the things you need to do these days to travel from Israel to Toronto.  This will all probably change over the next few months - though hard to say exactly when.  Much of this will apply if you are coming from some other  country and arriving in Canada.

So here goes....

First of all - Air Canada is currently flying direct between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  When I moved my reservation, they told me it was  once a week - but now it looks like twice a week.  The good news (from my point of view) is that they have changed the flight times.  They are now leaving Israel at 12:10 a.m. at night and arriving at 5:10 a.m.  I much prefer this over the 11:20 a.m. departure from Israel that they had been using for the past few years.  Travelling from Toronto to Israel, Air Canada is now leaving at about 9:30 p.m. and arriving in Israel 3:30 p.m. or so the next day.  This also preferable - though I didn't mind the  5:30 p.m. departure times.  I'd rather fly overnight  in general, especially if I am able to get an upgrade - which happens occasionally.

For people making new bookings and travelling from Canada to Israel - Air Canada is apparently offering insurance (including Covid coverage) with all reservations - and is allowing for flexible changes.  The tickets still seem to be moderately priced - and have not yet gone up to the traditional summer rates of $2,000+ per ticket - as far as I can see.  You should still be able to get a round trip ticket for between $850 and $1,200 Cdn. (As of the time I'm writing this - May 25-27, 2021).

As the travel date approaches, you must take a Covid-19 test at an acceptable provider within 72 hours of your flight departure time - which specifies your passport and flight information on the test in English.  So  I went last night (May 24, 2021) to the "Check2Fly" airport location, located at Terminal 3 of Ben Gurion Airport (in the  arrivals area, near Gate 2).  It costs 44 Shekels (about $18 CDN) for the "slow" test which is supposed to take up to 17 hours.  If you are in more of a rush, you can buy the 4 hour test, which has a higher fee.  You can either use the drive-through location at the airport (which we couldn't find due to lack of signage, despite circling the airport  twice) or the terminal location.  It took about 15 minutes to go through the line, get tested etc.,  My appointment was for 1:45 a.m. last night -  but we showed up at about 10 p.m.  (As typical Israelis, we didn't pay any attention to the actual appointment time).  No questions asked.  Just had to show proof of advance purchase and the other required documentation.  By 9 a.m. this morning, I had the results back - negative, thankfully.  (Not that I was expecting anything else, having received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, like most Israelis).  Incidentally, the "drive-through" is apparently located in the  "cargo exit area" as you are coming up to Terminal 3.  But it is very poorly marked and hard to find.

Next I had to download the Canadian government cellphone application called ArriveCan and fill it out with all of my information, my "quarantine plan" for the next two weeks, height, weight, vital signs, sexual orientation, etc., Okay some of this was not required but it was pretty comprehensive.  There is a website option as well - that you can find here.  Once that was completed, I received a confirmation email from the Canadian Government with a bar code  that I will have to show on entry into Canada.

The most painful part of all of this - I had to book a "GAA" ("Government Approved Accomodation") hotel.  This can only be booked using the Canadian government site link (or calling the particular hotel directly) and it is really quite a scam.  At a minimum, you have to book and pre-pay for 3 days - even though you are allowed to leave the hotel as soon as you receive a negative result from your Covid test on arrival in Canada.  No refund of any kind if you leave early - even though everyone knows that 90% of the people or more will test negative and be able to leave - especially those coming from Israel who have been vaccinated.  Moreover, some of the eligible hotels  have normal rates as low as $65 per night - but you must use the "GAA" rate and pay $350 a night.  I guess at least $100 to $150 of that per night is a direct political contribution from the Liberal Party of Canada to the Hotel Industry but I digress.  Okay, the rate includes 3 meals a day - but I am quite sure they are not serving $200-$250 worth of food - even at hotel rates.  And since such a high percentage of people will leave after only a day or two - it is like those coupon sellers that rely on people to buy the coupons and never actually use them.  

I should note that you can't use third party websites - such as expedia, travelocity etc., - so I was not able to use American Express Travel - which would have given me a $200 credit against the outrageous hotel fee.  I tried - but the Amex representative looked into it and told me there was no way to do it.

I phoned a bunch of these hotels and asked about Kosher food.  Even though the Government site says that they are required to provide it - most said that they couldn't.  Some said you could order it at your own expense and pay for it.  Others said they just couldn't accommodate it.   The Sheraton said that they would include the Kosher food - but I would have to pay an additional charge of $45 per day for "delivery."  The Marriott Hotel on Dixon Road said that you could arrange Kosher food at no extra cost- if you request it with 24 hours advance notice.  So I did.  We will see what happens.

Next is the Israeli Exit application....This must be filled in within 24 hours of the departure.  I guess I can't fill this one out until late tonight - so we will see what's on it.  

I'm back.  I completed this form.  I tried to complete it 24 hours before the flight, as requested.  The flight is scheduled for 12:20 a.m.  But the website is apparently not set up with a live time function - so it would not allow me to complete the form on the 26th (early a.m.) for a flight leaving on the 27th early a.m.  In any case, this form asks for ID, contact information and declearations relating to your health - specifically that you are not currently diagnosed as a covid-19 patient, have not been in isolation over the past 2 weeks and have do not have symptoms.  It also asks you to agree that you understand that it is a criminal offence to make misrepresentations on the form.  Once you have completed it - you submit it online and  it sends you  back an authorization form and number that can be presented at the Israeli airport.  The form is available in English, Hebrew and several other languages.

Flight Day:

Checked  to see that the flight was in time - it is.  Current recommendation is to arrive at the airport four hours (*gasp*) ahead of the flight time.  Judging from the line-ups we saw on Monday night - when I came for the Covid test - this sounded like it might be needed.  So I showed up at 8:30 p.m. for a 12:30 a.m. flight.  Not a soul around.   Okay there were a handful of people but not many.

First stop was an outside checkpoint - before you can be let into the terminal.  This was a stop to check passports, covid tests and tickets.  It was quick - and they are giving passengers a  green bracelet to show that you can now wander around in the terminal.  Like entering an amusement park - including the three hour waits for some of the rides.

Becauase there were so few people, I zipped through the Israeli security line up, the baggage check line-up and passport control (which is now all automated).  By 9:00 p.m., I was through everything and ready to visit the deserted duty free shops.  Many of them were closed but of course the main duty free with alcohol  and perfume etc., was open.  Not many shoppers.  I guess since it has been a slow year, they decided to increase the prices.  There were very few decent sales, very high prices and a limited selection.  I still picked up a  gift for someone - since I found something that you can't find at the LCBO in Toronto but the price wasn't earth shattering.

I wandered through the terminal a bit but I would say that quite a high percentage of stores were closed.  The clothing stores, gift boutiques and a range of other shops were all closed.  The book store was open -  Steimatzky's - so I browsed a bit there.  Of course the Chabad Lubavitch stand was set up and active - trying to encourage Jewish men to come and  put on tefillin - in exchange, perhaps, for a small donation and maybe a reserved spot in the heavenly afterlife.  I didn't stop to chat with these folks so I guess I will have to continue to worry about the current trajectory of my soul.  Hopefully there is still time.

The Flight

My flight was on time as scheduled.  I arrived at the gate.  There were quite a small number of people waiting to board compared to the usual crowd.  Air Canada decided to do away with priority boarding and opted for the Israel "free for all" style boarding  process.  It wasn't so bad since there were only a small number of people.  I  overheard one crew member saying that there were 100 passgengers.

I managed to get an upgrade so I was sitting in business class, which is always nice.  The seats fold back completely into beds.  Unlike  the usual business class trip - there was no offer of fresh orange juice or champagne.  In fact, the alcohol for the entire trip was limited to only wine and beer.  They didn't even have  milk for  coffee if you wanted it.  I usually earn at least half of the cost of the fare by sampling the various wines, having a whisky and perhaps a cognac or two.  But no such luck this flight. I had a bit of wine with dinner but it was nothing memorable.

Everything was double wrapped in plastic with a certified clean stamp on it - including the blankets, the pillows, the travel kit, etc.,  So I unpacked everything and set up my "bed" to prepare for a  nice snooze.

The flight was uneventful,  smooth and only 11 hours long (in the air).  I remember the older planes taking closer to 13 hours to fly from Tel-Aviv to Toronto so this was quite nice.  

I had to deal with a crying, shrieking baby - who interrupted  everyone's  sleep.  I  guess their parents were  opting for the "let her cry herself  out" approach -  even if that meant disrupting the  sleep of the rest of the plane.   Once she finally calmed  down, an alarm  clock went off from someone's  phone a few seats over.  He couldn't be bothered to wake up and shut  it  off.   Seems like it buzzed forever. Finally he decided to  attend to it.  Most of the time, business class  is  fairly serene but today's  flight was certainly an exception.

I ordered the Kosher meal service.  About an hour or so into the flight, I was presented with a big box, hermetically sealed with the culinary offerings.  It was a chicken dish with some vegetables.  Not bad actually.  There was a fruit plate on the side with pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe and apple.   A small piece of chocolate cake, a salad and a dinner roll (which I stayed away from) were all on the plate as well.   Nothing  like the fancy meals that  are usually served in business class but it was fine.  If you are thinking of travelling business class primarily to experience the food - maybe wait until things are back to normal.

Arrival In Canada

We arrived early at about 5:10 a.m.  It seems like they landed the plane at the furthest possible gate from civilization - I guess to give everyone a bit of exercise after the 12  1/2  hours on the plane (including boarding, taxiing etc.,).  

After the marathon hike to the customs area, I headed over to the Nexus lineup to check  in.  Normally, when you arrive with Nexus - you simply hand over the completed form and away you go.   This  time - I had to face the extensive questioning from the customs agent.  I had to show my proof of test taken in Israel, my hotel reservation and my confirmation that I had filled out all of the information using the ArriveCan app.  Since I had all of my ducks in order, I really wasn't hassled that  much.  The usual questions about  how long I had been out of the country, purpose of travel, how many bags I was bringing etc.,  But I was released reasonably quickly.

I should note that as I was  standing in line - I could overhear a few people who were exercising their right to "civil disobedience."  One person insisted  he was not going to stay in the mandatory quarantine hotel or even agree to be checked for Covid.  After a short shouting match, the officer called over a supervisor - who told him that he would be fined.  He said fine - or "fine away," I suppose.  There are a number of Facebook postings where people are claiming that  Canadian judges  will throw out  these fines if you challenge them as violations of Charter rights.  I have no idea whether that is correct (especially since the Charter includes section 1 which allows the government to prove that the steps are necessary - and the government may get some slack when there is a global pandamic.)  In any case, I am not about to find out.  I think they have upped the fines to $5,000 and I am simply not interested in paying that.  Frankly, I don't see why the government even offers that as an option.  In my view, if someone doesn't want to be tested - they should be sent to the government's two week mandatory quarantine hotel if they are a Canadian citizen and fined - an amount high enough to cover the  two week cost.   If they are not a citizen - and refuse to take a test, they should be put on a plane and sent back to wherever they came from.

Another person stated that they had not downloaded the "ArriveCan" app and were not going to use  it.  Another shouting  match with an officer - who asked "why did you decide you just don't have to comply with the rules?"  No intelligible answer that  I could  discern.

Just after customs, there was a big slow moving line-up.  It looked like everyone was stopping there but it turns out this was only for people who did  not have a proper Covid test to show the authorities.  Not sure how they left the country without one - but fortunately, I did not have to wait in this line.  A  bunch of people mistakenly started waiting there - until they were told they did not have to unless they had been sent there.

Off to pick up the luggage -  which was just the usual process, as was leaving the arrivals hall.

But as soon  as you leave the arrivals hall, you are directed to another area for your Covid  testing, run by ""  I had pre-loaded the Switch app (as suggested on Canadian government sites) so I did not have to wait long here.  Had to go to one desk to check my passport.  They handed me a sealed kit and asked me to make sure that the sticker matched the kit and my ID.   Then it was down another hall to actually have the test done - a nasal swab only (unlike the Israeli tests which include nasal and throat swabs).  After that, I was given a kit with instructions for the  second test on Day 8.

Free to go?  Not yet.   Now I was directed to the various  hotel shuttle lineups.   I should note that  Toronto International  Airport does feel like a bit of a prison.   The various exit doors are closed and there are guards everywhere.  I went to wait for the Marriott shuttle - and hung around there for about half hour until it  came at 6:30 a.m.

Check in  at the Marriott was reasonably easy, though I wouldn't say that anyone was particularly friendly.  I had the feeling that they know they are scamming everyone by taking more than $1,000 for a three day say (probably almost three times their normal rate) and I suspect many of them even feel guilty about it.  They can hide  behind the government  and claim that it is a "government approved rate."  Doesn't make anyone feel any better but  I guess the Hotel employees can claim that they are not responsible.

They had a room ready for me and by 7 a.m. I was in my designated cell - sorry room - until I receive my negative test results, inshallah.  Apparently there are designated times when you can leave the room for exercise.  If you are a smoker, you can call down to pre-arrange a security-accompanied smoke break.  Not an issue for me - but in case you were  wondering.

I had pre-ordered Kosher food.  This was one of the few hotels which offered it - at no extra cost - even though the government of Canada web site stated that it would be available at all of the hotels.  Halal and vegetarian  - yes - at most hotels -  but Kosher - no.  Here is the first Kosher breakfast - it actually arrived hot... from Urban Kosher (under COR in case you are concerned about the hashgacha level).

That's about it.  I included lots of detail for those people who are thinking of doing this.  I suppose the main government purpose is to discourage travel as much as possible to limit the possible spread.  I don't really have a problem  with that purpose given the situation that  Canada has been in.  But this whole hotel program seems like a political boondoggle.   Especially the fact that  all of the hotels are charging a fully prepaid, non-refundable, exorbitant fee, even while knowing that most people  will leave after a day or two.

In any case, once I am cleared with a negative test - I will be  able  to go on to the second part of my isolation for the remaining time.   I will have to do a second test on Day 8 - which will be Thursday June 3, 2021.  Should be released on June 9th, assuming all goes well.  So hopefully I can see some friends and family members, whether  outside or at a nearby supermarket - after June 9th.

On the way back to Israel, all Israelis and Foreign Nationals must complete an "Inbound Passenger Clearance Form" which can  be found here.  But I guess I won't need that one or write about it until my trip back, whenever that will be.

Best of health and best regards to everyone.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Toronto to Tel-Aviv: Air Canada - Business Class Dreamliner

Business Class Seat View 1
I have previously written about the various changes that Air Canada has made to its "Altitude" program - which have made it harder and harder to earn a high level status.  Up until two years ago, I was earning one mile for each flight, regardless of the cost of the air fare.  This also applied for flights on United Airlines and a number of other Star Alliance partners.  Now, Air Canada is only providing half the air miles for most of the lower end fares.  Some fares don't earn any points.  As a result, to qualify for "altitude 100k" (formerly "super-elite") status, you would need to fly 8 1/2 times between Israel and Toronto, at the much higher priced "flex" fares.  These fares can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 more on a round trip flight than a discounted "Tango" fare.  Same seats, same food, same plane.  Just a lower air miles reward (only about 2,850 each way instead of 5700).  So it is probably quite unlikely that I will qualify for "Super 100k" status again.  But I still have the status until February 28, 2015. So I decided to try and use it before it expires.

I booked a flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv on an Air Canada flex fare.  This meant that I would be eligible for a free upgrade to business class, if the space was available.  If not, I could be upgraded to premium economy.  Since I had the upgrade points and I still had the status, I decided that it would be worthwhile (especially during low season) to take my chances.

I arrived at the airport and inquired about the likelihood of an upgrade.  I was told that there were three other people ahead of me and only two spots.  Oh well, I figured, at least I can probably fly "premium economy" which would get me a bit more leg room.

About an hour before the flight, I checked with very helpful lounge staff.  They told me that I had been upgraded and was seated in I was all set.

Air Canada is now using 787 "Dreamliners" on its flights between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  These are very new planes.  Apparently, they fly at a cruising speed of about 60 km/h faster, so the flight time is reduced by about half hour to forty-five minutes.  I have to say that the planes are also quite smooth and much less noisy than many other planes.  Beyond that, the seats in the economy class seem to be as crowded, if not more so, than other planes.

But for this flight, I was quite fortunate.

Business Class Seat View 2
I was seated in an aisle seat in business class.  Unlike the previous planes that Air Canada used for flights to Israel, this plane has a separate entrance into the business class section.  Economy class passengers cannot pass through and gawk at the personal cabin-type seats.

Business class seats include a fully reclining, extra-wide seat and a large sized personal screen.  They also include a side table, a storage compartment and a handy electronic remote control that controls the seat, the TV, the entertainment and can even call for flight attendants.  The seat was very comfortable though I did  not use the down comforter that was also provided.

At the start of the flight, the attendants come around and offered a choice of orange juice (freshly squeezed) or sparkling wine.  Since I had already been in the lounge for a couple of hours, I declined these drinks.

Air Canada Vegetable Platter
I found it interesting that in such a fancy new plane, there were no overhead compartments for the aisle seats in the middle in rows 4, 5 and 6.  There was plenty of overhead storage room elsewhere, but it seems bizarre that they built the plane without overhead compartments for some of the business class rows.

Our flight left on time and the attendants came around with the menu.  I had pre-ordered an Asian vegetarian meal but was still given the choice of one of the business class options.  I went with a cod dish, which was served with wild rice and vegetables.

Fruit Platter
The appetizer was a plate of grilled vegetables, including asparagus, zucchini, artichoke and red pepper.  It was quite tasty and the plate was quite attractive.  Shortly afterwards, the attendants delivered a fresh fruit plate including pineapple, watermelon, kiwi, strawberries and grapes.  Sublime.

The main course was reasonably tasty - cod served with wild rice, fennel and carrots.  Not particularly memorable but edible and served with a reasonably artistic flair.

Main Course

Meanwhile, I managed to sample some of the different wines that were being offered.  A California Meritage, a Spanish wine and a French wine.  None of the wines were particularly enticing but I preferred the California selection.  The flight attendants were quite eager to help me find a wine that was most suitable to my palate.  They insisted that I try each of the wines until I find one that I really liked....

Cheese Platter

After the meal, a cheese platter was delivered.  I was getting a bit worried about the caloric size of this meal, so I passed on the chocolate mousse which was also offered.  Instead I opted for some Courvoisier VSOP Cognac to accompany the cheese platter.

During the meal, I watched the movie Transcendence, which started off as an interesting concept but fizzled.  I also watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

By the time the movie ended and the dishes were cleared, I enjoyed one last drink - a decaf coffee.  I then reclined the seat-bed fully - and tried to go to sleep.  Next thing I knew, I was hearing an announcement that we were less than two hours away from Tel-Aviv and that a hot breakfast would soon be served.  I really wasn't that hungry at this point.  The flight attendants came around with a choice of pancakes or quiche, both served with chicken sausages.  I would not have eaten either dish and would have had my Asian vegetarian breakfast.  But instead, I had a yogurt and a coffee and I was fine.

Overall, this was certainly one of the more enjoyable flights that I have had between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  I really don't think I would spend the $5,000 to buy a regular priced business class ticket - and I am not even sure I would pay the $500 cost to upgrade from "flex" class to business class that Air Canada is now charging its passengers (other than Altitude 100K passengers).  But I took advantage of this rare opportunity and enjoyed the free upgrade knowing that it is probably unlikely that I will have too many similar chances in the near future.

On hearing about my flight, a number of people, here in Israel, told me that I probably didn't want to get off the plane...

Well, as nice as the flight was, I can't really go that far.  After all, I arrived to a sunny 22C day, having left the -3C temperature of Toronto.  Winter? In Israel?  Maybe for a few days - but even the roughest winter days here would be like early fall in Canada, unless you happen to live in Jerusalem or way up north, in which case you might get a few odd days of snow.  Of course, it might feel like winter inside the homes since most homes are built without insulation.  But you can always step outside and enjoy the sun.

And now that January has almost come to an end, there are likely to be very few "wintry"days left in Israel - and even fewer when measured by Canadian standards.  Of course, that all makes sense, since the holiday of Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year of the Trees" is quickly approaching and the weather should be nice enough to allow us to plant some new trees.

Hopefully, on my return to Toronto I will hear that the groundhog has delivered some good news about the Toronto forecast.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

KLM: Toronto to Tel-Aviv. Stopover in Amsterdam

KLM wing view
With all of the changes to Air Canada's Aeroplan program (the "altitude program" for frequent flyers), it has become much less attractive for many people to fly Air Canada regularly.  For starters, Air Canada now awards Aeroplan points at a greatly reduced rate for most flights.  With some partners, no Aeroplan miles are earned at all.  And the price for an Air Canada flight is often several hundred dollars more than a flight on one of the other airlines.

So I decided to take a cheaper flight on a different system.  I flew KLM this time from Toronto to Tel-Aviv with a lengthy stopover in Amsterdam.  The price was significantly lower than any available Star Alliance flight.  Only flights with Turkish Air or Alitalia were close in price.  Since I was traveling with someone this time - and he was changing through Amsterdam, I decided to join him.  I should note that he purchased a KLM flight, round trip, Toronto to Tel-Aviv, for just over $700 Cdn including all taxes.  That was at least $500 less than the lowest priced Air Canada or El Al flight.  These are my notes about the flight and about the stopover in Amsterdam.

Overall, I would say that it was quite fun to stop and spend the day in Amsterdam.  But to do so, you have to get through the KLM flight, which was brutal, compared to just about any other airline that I have used in the past 5 years (and reviewed on this site).

The main advantage of KLM was the price.  It was quite a bit cheaper than just about any other carriers - other than Turkish or Alitalia.  I was considering trying one of those but opted for a day in Amsterdam.

KLM leaves Toronto from Pearson International's Terminal 3, which is the older terminal.  There was little difficulty in the boarding process.  We were offered lounge access for about $30 Cdn (I had no special status on KLM so I would not have been able to get into the lounge otherwise).  My flying companion decided that this was a good idea so we spent a couple of hours in the lounge.  It was not nearly as nice as the Air Canada lounge in Terminal 1.  The food and drink selections were more limited.  Even the seats were less comfortable.  But even with the additional cost of paying for the lounge, flying KLM was still far less expensive than Air Canada.

Boarding was quite a jungle.  It was fairly disorganized, although the ground staff did their best to board passengers by row number.  They tried to stick to that but it was all taking place in such a crowded space that it seemed like a far lengthier and more disorganized process than many other airlines.

The biggest problem with KLM was the seats.  While I may have gained a couple of pounds since my last flight, this clearly felt like the narrowest seat I have sat in over the course of my five years traveling back and forth between Toronto and Israel.  I could barely get into the seat, let alone move in any direction once I was in it.  I was sitting at window seat and there were two people in the other seats next to me (the plane configuration was 3-4-3).  I was so uncomfortable, I just didn't know what to do.  I couldn't concentrate on the book I had, so I wound up watching a really dumb movie.

The plane did have personal entertainment systems, though they were the old-style systems, like those used on many Austrian Air planes.  The screen was low resolution and was not a touch-screen.  The selection was quite limited.  The sound was terrible.  While this was still a step up over El-Al (the planes between Toronto and Israel have no personal screens), it was nowhere close to the systems used by other airlines like Air Canada, United, US Air, Lufthansa, etc.,.

I had ordered an Asian vegetarian meal.  It was one of the smallest meals I have seen on a transatlantic flight.  It was served more than 2 hours into the flight (which was only 6 1/2 hours in total to begin with).  The meal included lentils, white rice, tofu and salad but I was still quite hungry.  The "house" wine was a South African Cabernet-Shiraz.  It was tasty.  The flight attendants also offered a variety of after dinner drinks including cognac.  So the drink service was comparable to most of the other European airlines or Air Canada.  (The American airlines all charge $7 for a bottle of lousy wine).  The flight attendants were cheerful and friendly and came around often.  I have no complaints about the beverage service or the flight attendants themselves.  But it is difficult to get past the tremendous discomfort of sitting in such a tiny, cramped seat on an overnight flight.

For all of my complaints about flying on KLM from Toronto to Amsterdam, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed being in Amsterdam.  It was my first time.  We had approximately 13 hours from the time our flight arrived in Amsterdam until the next flight to Tel-Aviv.  We decided to try and make the most of it.

Getting to the centre of Amsterdam is quite easy and convenient.  I should note that we first found a locker in the Amsterdam airport to store our carry on bags.  This was a great idea and made our trip that much easier.  Locker locations are clearly marked, easy to find and reasonably priced.  We then took the "inter-city" train from Schipol Airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station.  The cost was about 18 Euros for two of us, round-trip.  The train ride itself was about 15 minutes.  It was smooth and comfortable.

Anne Frank House Line-Up
Our first stop was the Anne Frank House.  I had read that it would have been better to buy tickets in advance to avoid the long line-ups.  But when I had visited the on-line site, about a week before the trip, the advance tickets were already sold out.  Since the attraction is so highly rated, we decided to wait to see it despite the line up.  But I have to say, it was a 2 1/2 hour wait to get into the museum.  It was cold and windy outside, perhaps 10 or 12C.  Not pleasant at all. 

The Museum itself was definitely worth visiting, though ideally without the lengthy wait.  Centred around the life story of Anne Frank and her famous diary, the museum is, essentially, a Holocaust museum, using the story of Anne Frank as the vehicle.  The museum is housed in a reconstructed version of the Frank house and involves climbing up some very steep and narrow staircases and traveling from room to room in the house in which Anne Frank hid from the Nazis for more than two years.  There were some very moving exhibits including the actual Anne Frank diary, the exhibit with information about Auschwitz-Birkenau and a video montage at the end with comments from a range of personalities about the story of Anne Frank.  The museum is apparently one of Amsterdam's most visited tourist sites.  It is a fascinating place and it is heartening to see so many people, from so many different countries, visiting the site.

After our museum visit, we took a short walk over to the Pancake Bakery, a well known and highly recommended pancake house.  Since we had planned this in advance, we had a Google map route.  It was a short walk and very convenient.  I had a veggie pancake - a giant pancake with a melange of stir fried veggies including broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, onions and some feta cheese.  It was quite
Cinnamon Ice Cream Dessert - Pancake Bakery
good.  My dining companion had a salmon cream cheese pancake which was somewhat less tasty.  We both had coffee which was okay but nothing more.  Overall, it was a neat place, moderately priced and reasonably filling.  We shared a dessert - cinnamon flavoured ice cream with fruit compote, Belgian chocolate shavings and whipped cream.  Neither of us ate the whipped cream and we couldn't finish the whole dessert.  But it was quite tasty.

From there, we headed off the old Jewish Quarter.  We had a Google map for this route as well.  We took a short walk, got on a tram car and we were dropped off right next to our destination in less than 10 minutes.  We had purchased an all day pass for the Amsterdam transportation system so, again, this was quite easy and convenient.  Once you buy these passes, you simply swipe the pass as you get on the tram car and then again once you get off.  No cash is used anywhere on this system.

Portuguese Synagogue Amsterdam - Entrance
Our main destination was the Portuguese Synagogue.  This is a wonderful place, originally completed in 1675.  It is a beautiful synagogue with ornate detailing.  When used, it is lit up entirely by candle light with no electricity or heating.  It is currently used on Yom Kippur and on selected special Shabbat services during the year.  It is also used for concerts and some holidays.  Visitors can pay an admission fee and take a tour of the entire synagogue complex with an audio device that provides pre-recorded information about various spots in the complex.  The cavernous synagogue includes rows of original wooden benches, and huge candelabras.

Portuguese Synagogue - "Esnoga" - Amsterdam
Esnoga Respository - Judaica
Esnoga Library
The synagogue complex also includes a basement repository of religious articles - Torah breastplates, crowns, pointers, Etrog boxes and many other items, hand crafted in silver and gold and often studded with ornamental precious or semi-precious stones.  The repository also includes a massive library, that is still in use.

We spent more time than we had planned in this complex and wound up skipping the nearby Amsterdam Jewish museum and the old Ashkenazi synagogue.  But this synagogue (known as the "Esnoga") alone easily justified the lengthy stopover in Amsterdam.

Traveling through Amsterdam, I couldn't help but feel that I was in a special place.  The architectural style of the buildings is attractive, the canals running through the city are enticing and there are so many cafes, museums, interesting stores and other places that I felt that I would need at least another week in Amsterdam - or perhaps several more lengthy stopovers.  We wound up missing the Van Gogh museum, the Rembrandt museum and the other great museums that Amsterdam is known for housing.  We didn't even make it to Amsterdam's unique Sex Museum, though we passed by the entrance.  We also ran out of time to hit the red light district, the famous coffee houses (and hash bars) and the Heineken beer factory.  From what I could see, I think it would be quite a bit of fun to just wander around or bike through the city without any set list of places to visit.

Overall, even though the KLM flight from Toronto to Amsterdam was cramped and uncomfortable, the stopover made it all worthwhile.

We took a train back from Amsterdam to the airport and even had time to wander around the duty free shops for a bit.  Our flight was uneventful.  The plane was very modest with no entertainment screens or other amenities.  Fortunately, it is only a 4 1/2 hour flight to Tel-Aviv, though it arrives at 2:20 a.m., which is also brutal.

Would I do it again?  Well, despite the discomfort of KLM, the price was right and Amsterdam was great.  There is lots more to see there.  So if I have another opportunity to save lots of money on an airline ticket and spend the day in Amsterdam, I will probably do it again, despite the various drawbacks, which, in particular, include the awful flight times and the super-cramped seating. But as you probably know from reading previous blogs, I tend to choose experience over luxury...

Monday, January 27, 2014

More Downgrades at Aeroplan: Mileage Accumulation is Tougher and Tougher

I saw another one of those dreaded "announcements" from Aeroplan announcing mileage accumulation changes, this time for flights on United Airlines.  Aeroplan card holders will now find it even more difficult to achieve the various "Altitude" status levels when collecting Aeroplan miles from some key partners. 

I suppose it was only a matter of time.  Last year, Aeroplan introduced "Tango" flights for the Israel route and other international destinations.  With these tickets, passengers only accumulate 50% of the Aeroplan miles.  Plus, these fares are not eligible for free upgrades to first class.  It would take 20 round trip flights in a year between Toronto and Tel-Aviv on these fares to be eligible for "super elite" status (now called s100k).

Until now, there was at least one way around this problem.  Passengers could fly United from Toronto to Tel-Aviv (through Newark Airport) and still collect 100% of the air miles, even at the cheapest air fares.  Now this latest announcement from Aeroplan indicates that most of the cheapest air fares on United will only provide accumulation of 50% mileage, effective March 31, 2014.  This was already the case with Swiss, Lufthansa, Austrian, Turkish and other partner airlines.  The long and the short of it is that if you are flying with the least expensive air fares, it is getting harder and harder to accumulate Aeroplan points.  It is also worth pointing out that US Air is leaving the Star Alliance effective March 31, 2014 - so perhaps it is no coincidence that United made the change once it realized it had no Star Alliance competition between the U.S. and Israel.

This is not the only negative change that Aeroplan has introduced.  Over the past few years, the "tax and fuel surcharge" has skyrocketed on Aeroplan tickets.  So, let's say you want to use 80,000 points to get a "free" ticket on Air Canada.  It will cost you $680-$800 in "fuel surcharges."  Aeroplan calls these charges "tax and fuel surcharges."  But they aren't really fooling consumers.  These "fuel surcharges" allow for significant profit for Aeroplan on "free" tickets.  They aren't really "fuel surcharges."  They are simply ticket charges.  Paying $800 in surcharges to go to Israel in the winter, for example, is absurd.  You could probably find a ticket on another airline, taxes in, for close to $900, without wasting 80,000 points.

In fact, I looked into taking a trip to Montreal two weeks ago from Toronto.  The "surcharge" was $170.  A ticket with Porter would only cost $199, taxes in, if you could find a deal.  So what kind of "free" ticket is that.when you have to pay $170 AND 15,000 points?

This year, Aeroplan introduced "e-upgrade charges."  If  you are not Super Elite and you want to upgrade your seat on a transatlantic flight into the first class cabin, it will now cost $500, if there happens to be room.  Up until this year, there was no charge. That was one of the incredible benefits of flying Air Canada regularly - the ability to upgrade for free when there was space available.  I guess these changers are all intended to ensure that only the customers paying the much higher fares, on a regular basis, will get the benefits (that they probably won't need as much anyways).

Overall, it seems unlikely that I will come close to making Superelite status this year and it sounds like it will be less and less worthwhile to even try.  Mileage accumulation has become harder and harder, benefits have been reduced significantly and some of the better benefits have been eliminated.

To really try to fool everyone, Aeroplan rolled out its "Distinction" program to run parallel to its Aeroplan program.  Nobody that I have spoken to has been able to determine that there any benefits whatsoever of this program.  At first, the program made it sound like customers could, by achieving "Distinction" status, get discounted rates on Aeroplan tickets.  The advertised discount was as high as 35%.  But, on close reflection, people realized that Aeroplan is only offering the discount on "market rate" fares.  So in other words, let's say that an Aeroplan ticket to Israel would go for 80,000 points.  Aeroplan might say they are "sold out" and the market rate is now 130,000 or even 200,000.  (Or some other ridiculous, inflated, arbitrary number).  "Distinction" status holders will get their percentage discount on that number.  So instead of being able to pay $750 for a "free" ticket along with 80,000 points, you can now pay about 84,500 and $750, when the "market rate" is 130,000 points.  If the "market rate" is 200,000....well, you follow?

For someone flying back and forth on a long haul flight - like the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, seven or eight times a year, this was enough, up until last year, to earn Super-Elite status and get some great benefits like free upgrades, double Aeroplan miles, wider available for "free" tickets and other perqs.  You could do this, even while buying the cheapest fares.  But now, it looks like you would have to pay an average of at least $300 to $500 more per ticket, which adds up considerably.

The difficulty is that there are very few options for Canada-Israel "commuters."  El Al still lacks the same in-flight amenities and has a horrible mileage accumulation program.  If an El Al ticket would get passengers full mileage accumulation on another system's program, that might start to make the decision a bit more complicated.

Ultimately, for a direct flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, Air Canada still offers the most convenient flight from Toronto and significantly better service.  The flight leaves at 5:30 p.m. and flies overnight, arriving in Israel at about 11:00 a.m. This is a great schedule, although it would probably be better if it were to leave around 8:00  or even 9:00 p.m.

The flight back on Air Canada, which is a 13 hour day time flight, is atrocious.  It leaves at 12:30 p.m. Israel time and arrives at 6:30 p.m. in Toronto.  The flight goes on forever.  For flights from Israel to Toronto, in my view, it is better to fly El Al or take United through New Jersey on its overnight flight.  At least that way, you can get some sleep.

Overall, the cumulative effect of all of these changes at Aeroplan is that the program seems to become worse and worse each year, while the benefits seem to be fewer and fewer.  Its quite unfortunate.  Maybe one day, some other airline, like Westjet, will start offering flights back and forth to Israel at a reasonable price with decent amenities.  For now, there are even fewer good choices.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Air Canada "E-Upgrades"...More Costs For Non-Super Elite Travellers

Well the "free ride" is just about over...or at least the free upgrade ride.  In a warm and fuzzy email earlier this week - Air Canada announced that starting on March 1, 2014, it will charge "e-upgrade add-ons" for passengers looking to upgrade into the executive cabin from economy class on all flights other than those within North America.  For this year, at least, Super Elite members (now called "Altitude 100k") will be exempt from these charges.  But for all other travellers, it will cost $500 plus a pile of e-upgrade points to move up into the executive cabin.

The deterioration of benefits for non-super elite passengers over the past couple of years has been significant.  Last year, Air Canada introduced its "Altitude" program and effectively reduced the status of benefits for most Aeroplan members, other than previously named "Super Elite."  These changes made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for non-super elite passengers to be upgraded into executive first.

Now with the latest change, passengers hoping to upgrade from a cheap fare into executive first will have to pay $500 unless they are Superelite 100K.  That's $500 in addition to the exorbitant number of e-upgrade points that they will need- which have become harder and harder to collect.

There is now a greater and greater discrepancy between the value of Air Canada's highest level status, Altitude 100K and all other levels.

For those travelling back and forth between Israel and Canada, this will reduce the benefit of flying Air Canada for anyone travelling less than 8 1/2 times a year. Air Canada still offers a direct flight, with AC power outlets, personal entertainment screens and complementary alcohol (to name a few of the benefits).  But the loss of the ability to get a free upgrade, even once in a while, is a major change and it is certainly not a positive one.

The flip side is that anyone who is close to Altitude 100K status by the end of December will need to consider the value of taking an extra flight just to meet the required threshold.  The value of having 100K status will now include free upgrades (with e-upgrade points), double Aeroplan miles on Air Canada and United flights, and the ability to use Aeroplan points for priority bookings, even when most reward seats are no longer available.

For passengers on the Tel-Aviv-Toronto route, this will affect, most significantly, those passengers who might be flying 4 to 7 times a year.  Only two or three years ago, passengers in that category would have enjoyed regular upgrades to executive first at no additional charge.  Now they will be lucky to be eligible and when they are, it may cost more than half of the price of the ticket (during low season).

So if you are an Altitude member, but not 100K, the time to enjoy the free upgrades is now - or between now and March 1, 2014.  After that, well, luxury will have its price...

Here is the link to the Air Canada announcement:  Air Canada Add Ons

Monday, December 3, 2012

Superelite - Toronto-Tel-Aviv Route: Review and Comments

Leaving Israel Nov 2012
This past year, I have taken advantage of Air Canada "Superelite" status, which I managed to acquire by travelling back and forth between Toronto, Canada and Tel-Aviv, Israel.  This status is achieved by flying back and forth on this route 8.5 times (17 one way trips).  An advantage of Air Canada is that it is part of the "Star Alliance," so you can also accumulate points, for this route, on United, U.S Air, Lufthansa, Austrian Air and Swiss as well as some other airlines.  (Though I have to say, I am simply not interested in flying to Israel on Turkish Airlines...).  It is worth mentioning that Lufthansa and Austrian do not always provide full Aeroplan points accumulation.  For some fares, Austrian does not provide any points.  So if you are close to the borderline of making a status goal - it can be quite costly to take a trip with the wrong airline or ar the wrong airfare...

One of the big advantages of being Superelite is that you can collect Air Canada upgrade points and then use the points to try to upgrade into an Executive First Class seat.  Although you can also do this with Elite status, it is harder to get the upgrades.   Air Canada gives out 15 upgrade points for each 20,000 miles flown but then charges 17 points for upgrades on this route.  You also get an initial alotment at the beginning of the year.  If you have the upgrade points, you can phone Air Canada or log on to the website one week before the flight (to the minute) and request an upgrade.  Superelite flyers will often be upgraded during the week.  Most others trying to get an upgrade will have to show up at the airport and hope for the best.

The biggest advantage of flying in the Executive First Cabin is that the seats recline completely flat into beds.  For the flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv, this is terrific.  Since the flight leaves Toronto at abou 5:30 p.m., the timing is perfect.  You can have a meal and then go to sleep and wake up about 7 or 8 hours later just in time to arrive.  The flight back is a different story.  Air Canada only flies from Tel-Aviv to Toronto during the day - leaving at about 12:45 p.m. and arriving in Toronto at 6:20.  This is the most significant drawback of flying Air Canada.  The flight is almost 13 hours long, all during the day.  Even with a reclining seat, this is still a dreadfully long flight.

Air Canada offers some very nice menu options on its Executive First Service.  I would describe my eating habits as "liberal kosher," which means that I will eat dairy and fish out of the house, though our house is strictly kosher.  I have tried ordering kosher meals (for much of the time that I have been commuting) but they are simply horrible.  Mainly carbohydrates and beef.  Nothing is fresh.  And due to the various banned ingredients by different rabbis, including many vegetables, the meals seem to be less and less healthy.  So I have also tried vegetarian, asian vegetarian, Indian vegetarian...and other vegetarian meals.  But when flying on Air Canada Executive First, they offer a fish option and that is suitable for me.

Main Course - Salmon on wild rice with asparagus
This is a bit of a risky strategy since the fish can run out.  If that happens - and you can't eat the chicken or beef - you can go hungry.  But the helpful Air Canada staff are then usually able to find an extra Kosher meal on this route from the economy class cabin so there is something to eat.  Of course, superelite flyers get their choice of meals first (supposedly), so when I have been upgraded, I have almost always been able to get a fish dinner.  Here is the salmon dish, served on  wild rice with asparagus.  Quite a good meal for airplane food - in my experience.
Cheese Platter

After the main course, there are usually some different dessert options.  While this may not be a great choice for watching calories, every now and then I can't resist a cheese platter...I might try to eat the cheese without the crackers to save a handful of calories...and the grapes are pretty healthy..Since I am not doing this that often, might as well enjoy the offering along with a glass (or two) of a big oaky California Cabernet...

Fruit Platter
The cheese platter is not the only dessert.  There is usually a subsequent choice of either a three-scoop ice cream platter...or a fruit platter.  (If you are really trying to take advantage of the occasion, you can request both and sometimes get it...not that I would ever know about this kind of gluttonic request).  So, as you have probably guessed, of course, I went with the fruit platter to wash away all of those cheese calories.  I'm not sure that it really works that way...  I am refusing to answer any questions about whether or not I also had the ice cream platter and I certainly do not have any pictures of chocolate, mocha and vanilla ice cream to post on this blog.  Nor do I have any photos of the Remy Martin VSOP Cognac, which is a great finish for this type of meal.

As I mentioned earlier, this would have all been great as a dinner.  However, this was the meal served at abou 2 p.m., near the beginning of a 13 hour flight.  Hard to sleep after that, even after all of these calories.

I try to read, get some work done or watch a few movies.  As it gets later, the sun starts to set and there are some great views from the window.  The Air Canada movies selection is not as varied as the selection offered by United Airlines.  But there were some interesting movies.  I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors.  I hadn't seen either of these movies in years, so it was quite fun to go back to these two bizarre flics.

Finally, as the flight approached Toronto, about two hours out, there was a second meal service.  For the second meal, the choices are only meat choices.  But I had requested, early on, that the crew save me a vegetarian meal and they agreed to do so.  So I had this vegetarian pasta dish, which was quite light in comparison to everything that I had eaten earlier in the day... I believe that it was made with eggplant and zucchini, though I could be wrong.

If you are thinking of trying something like my completely insane commuting schedule, you should have a careful look at Air Canada's 2013 Aeroplan changes.  Essentially, Air Canada has scaled the benefits back dramatically for most categories of frequent flyers.  It will be much harder to achieve Superelite status on this type of route and the benefits will be reduced.  A few examples:

1.  The cheapest fares - "Tango" will now be treated as a lower class between Toronto and Tel-Aviv and will only allow for 50% mileage accumulation.  If you fly
Tango fares, you would need 17 round-trip flights in a year to get Superelite designation.

2.  Less upgrade points will be awarded for every 20,000 miles flown.

3.  Other categories of Air Canada frequent flyers will lose many different benefits.  The most significant impact will be on the "Elite" members who, up until 2012, enjoyed most of the benefits of the Superelite flyers, with some minor distinctions.  That will change dramatically. 

For me, it looks like I will barely make it to Superelite for 2013 but it is now much less likely that I will be upgraded as often as I was in 2012.  Even so, for this route between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, Star Alliance still seems to offer a much better package of services than the alternative of flying El-Al.