The Travel Adviser: Never look a gift horse in the mouth

Put me on a plane, cut me off from the rest of the world and I feel I’m as close to nirvana as could be.

Air Canada's Boeing 787 Dreamliner taxis toward a hangar after landing at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, May 18 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Air Canada's Boeing 787 Dreamliner taxis toward a hangar after landing at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, May 18
(photo credit: REUTERS)
First and foremost, let it be known that I’m a simple person.
I don’t ask for a lot from people; clients in particular know that simple thanks carries far more weight with me than a nice bottle of wine. Still, being able to work in an industry that still can elicit thrills from me is something I cannot hide.
I love to fly. Sure, like most of you, I don’t enjoy the throngs at the airport, the missed connections, and the lost luggage.
But put me on a plane; cut me off from the rest of the world and I feel I’m as close to nirvana as could be. In fact, like many airplane fanatics, the mere chance to experience a new plane brings a wide grin to my face.
So when the head of Air Canada dropped me an email inviting me to join a small group of people to experience their newest addition, I was giddy with excitement.
The Boeing 787, commonly called the Dreamliner, started flying from Toronto to Tel Aviv recently and the opportunity to fly her and spend three days in Toronto was for me a dream come true.
So as you peruse my observations, keep in mind that I was a guest of Air Canada.
Ever wondered what the expression “never look a gift horse in the mouth” means? When given a horse, it would be bad manners to inspect the horse’s mouth to see if it has bad teeth, which is the way to see how old it is. This can be applied as an analogy to any gift. One might say that one should not inspect it to make sure it matches some standard you have, and to simply be grateful. Or as we’re all taught: Don’t be ungrateful when you receive a gift.
Meeting us at the Dan Lounge in Ben-Gurion Airport after we had finished the tedious check-in procedures, passed through the passport control and dipped our toes in the offerings at the duty free stores, was Ruth Ben-Zur, the diminutive and dynamic director of Air Canada in Israel.
Thanking us for taking time from our busy schedule to join them for a brief respite, she slowly stroked our enthusiasm for what we were to encounter.
Eager to board the plane, we exited the lounge to make our way toward the gate. I was handed what was either a golden ticket, akin to what Charlie received from Willie Wonka, or a boarding pass with the symbols of 5G etched on its perforated paper. Clutching it close to my chest I boarded the plane and my eyes adjusted to an interior on an aircraft like nothing I had ever seen.
First the facts, being a bit shy of 2 meters, at 6’2 1/2 there has yet to be a plane whose ceiling I could not reach. The fact that I had to jump to touch the ceiling amazed me. The fact that the overhead bins were so high up, recessed into the ceilings, with the appearance that a steamer trunk would fit was an engineering feat that Boeing engineers deserve huge kudos for.
Taking my seat in business class, the mere width of the cushion made me wonder how obese North Americans actually were. I’ve been fortunate to fly business class on dozens of airlines and cannot recall a wider seat. Cognizant that the 21-inch-wide seat would slide completely flat I looked forward to being able to sleep soundly. In fact, I felt that I was not in a business seat but in my own personal cabin. Completely isolated from any passenger, I had three walls cocooning me.
Like a kid in a candy store I lapped up all the gadgets. Power ports for my electronic items were de rigueur but finding that the thick armrests could be raised and lowered horizontally to meet the needs of the occupant thrilled me. Too often my elbows hang near my knees when I sit in normal airline seats.
The fact that I had a shelf behind my seat in addition to the cubby holes in my near private business seat was a plus I admired. Now, while Air Canada touts the wide range of their entertainment options, as so many airlines these days do, it was the size of the 18-inch monitor that caught my eyes. First-class screens on El Al or British Airways don’t approach this size. Set so far back in the wall, that the distance from the screen to my chair was near double the distance my computer terminal at work to my desk chair. We are talking about a very large cubby hole.
Recessed lighting in the back of the seats and deep drawers built into the sides made for an incredibly fluid and smooth line throughout. Realizing that the engineers wanted to create such a linear space complete with circular walls on each side and an inverted ceiling running down the center of the plane created an illusion of a completely flat environment. No knobs or seat back compartments. No pull down handles or protruding objects. In fact every possible item was recessed out of sight. The blue tinged windows appeared both transparent and opaque and upon closer inspection I realized that five buttons permitted an entire spectrum from lightness to darkness. It was only later on the flight that I noticed windows in all of the restrooms.
Let’s be honest, when one is spending more than $3,500 for a business class seat between Israel and Canada, the seat and the service one receives are foremost on the consumers mind. Delving into the service side I was offered champagne or orange juice, near identical to what one is given on most airlines. A toiletry bag with blinders and ear plugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste along with socks were passed out quickly.
Then something simple occurred, which has never happened to me. A senior flight attendant made her way throughout the cabin, crouching in front of each passenger.
As she approached me, she knelt down, looked at a piece of paper and said “welcome aboard Mr. Feldman, I’m Karen – please let me know if there’s anything we can do to make your trip more enjoyable.”
Yes, I know that many of you road warriors who fly several times a month are often recognized by the flight attendants but the fact that Air Canada’s policy is to greet every business class by name was a very effective move. All airlines have the ability but unless you have ordered a special meal, your name is never uttered.
The “wow” factor was certainly invading my senses. Unable to stop admiring my personal space, I enjoyed the takeoff and later the hot towel given before food service was initiated. For those readers who salivate at gourmet meals 35,000 feet in the air, I can confirm the food was pleasing and pleasant and plentiful. Personally I was looking forward to its completion and after a glass of wonderful Port and fruit; I put on my sleep mask, extended my seat completely horizontal, covered myself in a down comforter and stretched out for a well-deserved rest.
Waking up from my slumber several hours later I decided to amble down the aisle to see first hand the other two cabins on their plane. Immediately behind the business section was their Premium Economy cabin. Unlike what El Al, United & Delta offer on their North American flights, this was a far upgrade from the plain vanilla economy cabin. They were substantially larger seats then what existed in economy class in this compact 21 seat cabin. Only two on each side with three in the middle, I squatted down to see that they had a respectable 11-inch monitor.
Speaking to a passenger I confirmed they were permitted to check in two bags for free and that their meals “seemed” better than what was offered in Economy class.
What was obvious is that by sitting in a separate cabin of only three rows one felt a certain isolation and quiet that exists on other carriers who promote their Economy Plus flights. However unlike, El Al, United or Delta, in which top tier frequent fliers get those seats for free, or clients can pay a relatively small surcharge, Air Canada offers no such possibility. As it’s a separate cabin with many advantages over economy class, the only way to sit there is to purchase a ticket or perhaps to be upgraded on the day of the flight for $450.
Realizing that the vast majority of flyers fly in economy class, I felt it was my duty to continue deeper into the aircraft. Here among the 210 economy seats in a standard configuration of three seats on each side and three seats in the middle, my initial observation found little difference than Air Canada’s competitors. Yes, their entertainment system offered far more options than many other airlines, and yes their bathrooms too had a window, but watching the flight attendants scurry up and down the aisle my instinct was they were lacking the warmth one can find on some El Al flights.
Further investigation confirmed my viewpoint. The Canadian crew in economy class was staffed by veteran employees, enjoying the longer turnaround time in Israel. That seniority leant itself to a slightly jaded outlook among their economy class passengers. Correct they were, but a bit aloof as well.
Returning to my individual pod in the business cabin, I was met with a steward bringing me a piping cup of coffee. It was if they were saying, when you have it flaunt it. In business class they most definitely have earned the right to flaunt it!
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]