OMG! I was on OWG’s inaugural flight – here’s how it went

It’s not often you get to fly on the inaugural flight of a brand new airline. So you can imagine my excitement when I got to do just that on Dec. 18. Not only would I be flying on OWG’s (Off We Go) first flight ever, but I would also be on the very first flight back to Santa Clara from Canada since Cuba closed its borders in March.

The new Montreal-based airline, a division of Nolinor Aviation, has partnered with tour operator Hola Sun (Caribe Sol in Quebec) to exclusively operate flights to Cuba. The inaugural flew from YUL to YYZ, and on to SNU. Hugo Rocha, Sales Director at Hola Sun, tells me the tour operator plans to expand the destinations offered in Cuba throughout the season.

The aircraft (a Boeing 737-400 with 158 seats) is sleek, colourful and stunning. The livery is navy blue and red with “Caribe Sol – Le Specialiste de Cuba” and “OWG” emblazoned on the side in white. I also love OWG’s logo.

Here are some additional features I noticed:

Free bag: Passengers get one free checked bag – a huge plus in my books!

Entertainment system: For $10, passengers can purchase access to the in-flight wi-fi entertainment system, where a selection of movies and TV shows can be watched from a mobile device. Unfortunately, seats don’t have a USB port or AC outlet, so if you plan on hitting play, make sure you’re equipped to deal with a potentially dead battery!

Food: The on-board menu is pretty standard, but crowd-pleasing. Options include a turkey sandwich, a four cheese pizza, a cheese tray, mac and cheese, as well as two Cuba-inspired items, a Croque Hola and a Cubano Sandwich.

Cabin interior: The interior of the cabin has been completely gutted and updated: cabin sidewalls were refurbished, the galley re-laminated and new carpeting installed. The cabin lighting has been enhanced with “LED MoodLites” that glow a faint blue throughout the flight. Altogether, it makes for a crisp cabin with a pleasant ambiance.

There are 18 “extra legroom” seats onboard the aircraft, which offer a seat pitch of 96 cm, as opposed to 73 cm to 76 cm for the standard seats.

Here’s another first: I was the very first tourist to cross the threshold of the Playa Cayo Santa Maria resort since it closed nine months ago!

True to Cuba’s warm and inviting character, we were greeted with much fanfare including dancing, music and mojitos to set up the sublime week ahead.

COVID Testing Trial At YYC Is Slow But Promising Step Forward

Photo credit: Daniel from Glasgow, United Kingdom – Calgary Airport, CC BY 2.0.

When the COVID-19 testing trial at Calgary International Airport (YYC) was announced last month, there was a sense of relief and excitement that finally, there might be an imminent nation-wide alternative to the mandatory two-week quarantine for international travellers. But with the project expected to last 26 weeks, it may be a while before we see similar initiatives implemented in other parts of Canada.

The pilot program, a partnership between the Governments of Alberta and the federal government, can reduce a quarantine period from 14 to two days. Eligible international travellers get a PCR throat swab at one of two border crossings in the province — YYC or the Coutts land border crossing — then quarantine until they receive their test results, which the Government of Alberta says takes about 48 hours.

If the test comes back negative, the traveller can leave quarantine, but they’ll need to undergo a second COVID-19 test on the sixth or seventh day after their arrival. If, at any point, the test comes back positive, they will have to quarantine for the full 14 days.

Nearly 2,000 travellers entering Canada by land or air through Alberta have participated in the COVID-19 testing pilot since it launched on 02NOV, and Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan told CBC it’s off to “a successful start.”

But don’t get your hopes up the test will change the travel landscape anytime soon.

McMillan says the project is expected to run for 26 weeks – six and a half months — or until 52,000 participants are enrolled, whichever comes first.

For the trial to end sooner than 26 weeks, there would need to be more than 8,500 participating passengers per month which, given the decimated passenger traffic volumes, likely won’t be attained. McMillan noted the project will be expanded to Edmonton International Airport (YEG) in early 2021, but even with the addition, reaching 8,500 a month is a stretch.

Whether the pilot needs to come to a complete close before the federal government starts rolling out a similar program in other jurisdictions remains to be seen.

When it was first announced last month, major players in the aviation industry came out in full support of the pilot program.

“This announcement is a good step forward in saving our aviation industry while protecting Canadians amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jerry Dias, National President of Unifor, which represents more than 12,900 members in the air transportation sector, including airline customer service agents and pilots, airport operations and maintenance workers, baggage handlers and airline catering employees. 

“International aviation bodies are urging countries to follow universal standards for passengers. With current trials showing that 14-day quarantines are longer than necessary, it made no sense whatsoever for Canada to have different requirements than many other countries.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called on the federal government to implement a similar initiative in Ontario, and said the province move forward with its own plans to implement a program if the federal government chooses not to.

Ed Sims, WestJet President and CEO, said, “This announcement is welcomed by WestJet and I applaud and thank Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Jason Kenney for taking this important step in providing peace of mind to anxious travellers.”

I see this pilot project as a huge step forward for Canada, whose travel restrictions have remained virtually unchanged since they were implemented in March. But it seems it’ll take longer than I’d hoped to catch on.