Alex Praglowski loves everything about aviation.
The Calgary university student’s Instagram page is chock-full of planes he’s photographed at the airport. Over the summer, he took to the skies in a Cessna 172 for his first solo flight. He’s also part of a stable of YouTube content creators who criss-cross the globe on commercial airlines, documenting on video all aspects of their journeys — the comfort of the seats, friendliness of the service, tastiness of the food, quality of the in-flight entertainment and cleanliness of the washrooms.
After travel restrictions basically grounded them during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Praglowski and many fellow aviation vloggers, sometimes dubbed “AvGeeks,” have resumed flying and are posting new trip reports on YouTube.
While the vast majority of their followers seem elated with the fresh content, a few have questioned the wisdom of non-essential travel right now.
“Why would anyone fly in a petry (sic) dish, airlines do nothing to protect their customer,” one viewer wrote under one of Praglowski’s recent videos.
Praglowski, whose YouTube channel has about 40,000 subscribers, says as long as travellers are responsible he doesn’t see anything wrong with it.
“I take all the precautions. I get the COVID test done before and after,” he said. “As long as I’m not stupid about it, it’s all good.”
Some of the higher-profile aviation YouTubers outside Canada, who actually make a living doing these videos, suggested to the Star they’re performing a public service, offering insight into what it’s like to fly during a pandemic and, in some ways, holding airlines accountable.
German-born vlogger Josh Cahill, who boasts more than 320,000 YouTube subscribers and has a reputation for unvarnished critiques, recently sparked what he called a “little revolution” after posting a video in which he showed an unkempt VIP lounge at Tunisia’s airport and gave a scathing review of his Tunisair flight to Paris. He described the plane as “absolutely filthy,” mocked the contents of the meal box (“Who eats muffins with cheese?”) and questioned why in-flight magazines were offered when they could’ve been touched by multiple hands.
“My recent videos have triggered a lot of changes on a few airlines, so I’m glad that airlines finally understand that COVID-19 and air travel can coexist,” he said.
Even though they represent a small corner of the YouTube universe, aviation vloggers and flight reviewers have collectively picked up millions of loyal followers. The ones with the largest followings post videos that are well shot, professionally edited and give viewers an immersive experience — often from business class — from takeoff to landing. Frequent-flying vloggers are able to finance their trips through a mix of YouTube ad revenue, air miles and credit card bonuses.
Business Insider noted in March that the severe reduction in air travel had led to diminished page views for these vloggers and “threatened their livelihoods.”
Many have now resumed flying.
“My take is that the overall majority of them are providing viewers with an in-depth look at the flight experience, and, in times like these, that includes the changes airlines have implemented to deal with COVID,” said Christopher Loh, a writer for aviation news website SimpleFlying.com.
“While some of them may be conducting non-essential flying to make the video, I think their role is to provide insight into the experience for those who actually do need to step on a plane for essential purposes.”
Praglowski, who took about 35 flights last year, started flying domestically again in June. His first review thereafter was titled What’s It Like Flying WestJet during COVID-19. It documents his journey from Montreal to Toronto on a Dash 8-400 and Toronto to Calgary on a 787-9 Dreamliner.
“As Canada reopens, I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to fly with WestJet Encore and with WestJet’s flagship in these different times,” he says in the voice-over. “However, I did take all the appropriate precautions for this trip. I scheduled it so I didn’t stay overnight anywhere, and I wore masks and gloves for the duration.”
He tested negative for COVID-19 upon his return, he noted.
Unlike other YouTubers, Praglowski, who is working on getting a commercial licence, prefers to stay behind the camera. He takes a more straightforward, just-the-facts approach to his narration. (“The cabin crew on this flight were genuinely funny and actually made it a really pleasant experience,” he says in the video).
“Love the trip reports keep it going Man!” one viewer wrote.
“I’m glad I know what it’d be like during the pandemic,” wrote another.
Still, a couple of viewers questioned his decision to fly.
“I recommend to avoid flying unless it’s really essential,” one person commented. “No matter how much the airlines try to promote their COVID-19 measures, you’re still more exposed to the virus on an aircraft.”
Earlier this summer, some airlines, including Air Canada and WestJet, came under fire for their decisions to relax physical-distancing measures inside their cabins.
But some in the industry have pushed back against the notion that safety has been compromised.
Jim Haas, director of product marketing at Boeing, told the Star last month there were “very few things ventilated as well as commercial airplanes.”
The entire volume of cabin air is exchanged every two to three minutes with fresh air — a 50-50 mix of outside air sucked in through the engines and cabin air that has gone through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, he said.
“They’re the same type of stuff used in hospitals, isolation wards, operating rooms,” Haas said. “When the air comes in over your head, it’s clean.”
Since starting his channel in early 2018, Cahill, who speaks fondly of his first airplane ride as a youngster in 1991 aboard an L-1011 TriStar belonging to the former German carrier LTU, has developed a bit of a reputation as a rabble-rouser. His no-holds-barred reviews have gotten underneath the skin of more than one airline and even generated international headlines.
“German vlogger gets death threat over critical review of Singapore Airlines,” says one from early this year.
“Travel blogger ‘bullied’ by airline after posting midflight bad review,” says another from 2018.
After spending the first months of the pandemic in Bali, Cahill, who says he took 105 flights in 2019, resumed flying in July.
“By the end of June, things started to get better again and travel warnings were removed within the European Union, so I decided to return and cover some flights in Europe and North Africa,” he said.
“For me, it was important to show that flying can be safe in times of corona, which I did, but also that airlines are be reminded that they shouldn’t sacrifice on service too much in the name of COVID-19.”
A few commenters took Cahill to task for taking off his mask when speaking to the camera and for flying at all.
“Sir the best thing is stay safe at a place instead of travelling during this pandemic,” one viewer wrote underneath a video of his flight from Amsterdam to London.
But Cahill, who does not presently have a permanent home base, told the Star he’s taken more than 20 flights since July and has “never tested positive.”
“That’s already a great indicator that airports and airplanes are very safe, probably even safer than any supermarket, which we visit daily. Second of all, we have learned how to protect ourselves. Wearing a mask and keeping a bit of distance makes a world of a difference,” he wrote in an email from Tblisi, Georgia.
“My job is to make sure that airlines stick to their promises during these times and don’t turn flying into something nobody enjoys anymore. I do that by following the rules, protecting myself, others and the crew.”
His friend and avid YouTuber, Tiezheng Bu (a.k.a. the “Vicarious Voyager”), of Toronto, compares the work Cahill does to that of a journalist.
“He’s out there to inform the public about what’s going on and he does a lot of that. He’s very raw with his videos and he’s someone who has a reputation of not sugar-coating anything. And I feel that in his videos he presents his trips as very well researched and justifies the risk he’s taking.”
Bu, whose work as a health-care researcher requires him to fly regularly, has posted a handful of his own flight reviews during the pandemic.
“There is not a general consensus right now with what is considered to be acceptable conditions to travel. Some people still today think travel is prohibitively risky. Other people are more open to it. But generally, I think most people understand.”
Some vloggers have, however, taken subtle jabs at those choosing to fly during the pandemic.
YouTuber Daniel Goz (a.k.a. “Nonstop Dan”), a self-described “plane nerd” who says he used to look up at the sky when he was as a kid and think of all the planes cruising through it, has 385,000 subscribers on his channel. At the end of May, he posted a video from his home in Sweden saying he wasn’t ready to fly yet.
“Some aviation YouTubers and travel vloggers have already started flying a bit already, but personally I don’t feel it’s responsible to do that, especially when you have a big audience,” he said, sitting in front of a wall plastered with old boarding passes.
Goz didn’t mention anyone by name. But just a couple weeks earlier, aviation vlogger Sam Chui, whose videos about all aspects of the industry have attracted more than two million subscribers, posted a video from Anchorage where he boarded a government-chartered cargo plane bound for Chicago with a load of medical masks that had been picked up in China.
While many commenters heaped praise on Chui for getting access to such a unique flight, a few remarked he “should of (sic) stayed at home” and that he had taken part in “unnecessary travel.”
Chui, who routinely visited three or four continents a week pre-pandemic, told the Star his video helped to highlight the role of aviation in fighting the pandemic. He noted that he spent five months in the U.S. with his parents before taking his first international flight back to his home base in Dubai.
“I haven’t been travel extensively for fun,” he said by email. “I haven’t been promoting travel at all. All my commercial flying are essential or as media invite/reporting purposes.”
At the time of his email, Chui was in Amsterdam, promoting his new book on the history of the Boeing 747.
Goz, whose social media accounts often picture him sitting in spacious first-class or business-class cabins, hasn’t escaped criticism. He resumed flying in July and has taken trips to Croatia and Italy.
“So your (sic) travelling around Europe during a global pandemic to show people what it’s like to travel in a pandemic,” one viewer commented on his trip report to Pisa.
Goz told the Star travel across Europe has opened up this summer.
“If my government says it’s OK, I think it’s OK,” he said.
“Ultimately hundreds of millions of people around the world rely entirely on tourism revenue for their jobs and livelihoods and completely not travelling just to slightly reduce the spread of the virus is also irresponsible,” he said. “There has to be a way to balance the risks with the benefits of travel.”
Praglowski, meanwhile, doesn’t have any immediate trips planned but is eyeing a possible visit to Europe in the coming months.
“I do feel safe on the aircraft. There’s no doubt in my mind they’re better cleaned than they’ve ever been,” he said.
“We’re all just aviation enthusiasts. We all love to travel. We all love to share the experience. I think the biggest takeaway right now is it is safe to fly, as long as you’re careful.”
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