Aug 212018
 


Following in the trend of airlines giving their business class products fancy names (American kicked it off with “Flagship Business,” then came “Delta One,” followed shortly by United “Polaris Business,” and finally (just like with their five year behind the game WiFi installation) Air Canada got onboard with “Signature Class.”

What was different about “Signature Class?” Well, first, a little review.

American Airlines: When I started flying them 5-6 years ago, I was shocked to find they were still running 777s in a 2-3-2 configuration with seats that didn’t even go flat! Talk about a majorly updated program. Fortunately, they now have 1-2-1 pretty much across the fleet, although from what I can tell there’s been no major upgrade to the soft product.

Delta One: Delta was ahead of the game, already running 1-2-1 configurations on all its aircraft when Delta One was announced, and when they rolled out the A350 the game changer was “suites” with doors that closed – something no other North American airline has tried to emulate yet.

United: while marginally better than American’s non-180 degree flat 2-3-2 config for awhile, United has now fallen way, way behind with it’s atrocious 2-4-2 on some legacy planes, and 2-2-2 or 2-1-2 on the majority of the rest. Polaris soft product was a huge upgrade at first with better food and much better bedding, but the death by 1000 small cuts is already well underway with several of the soft product improvements yanked back. At least they are slowly (and I mean slower than a DC bureaucrat on a hot August day) rolling out a 1-2-1 product across the fleet, expected to be complete in 2089. I kid….maybe 2020. Next blog up will be a review of this hard product, which is actually pretty nice!

That brings us to Air Canada.

Their seats have been 1-1-1, or 1-2-1 for a while, and I found their food pretty good. Even their Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto was significantly nicer than anything their US competitors offered, so perhaps that explained why they were so late to the rebranding game. I was quite curious what the rebranding would mean in practical terms, and the answer turned out to be: practically nothing.

I recently flew Air Canada on two flights: Toronto to Zurich on a 777-300ER and then a couple weeks later Sao Paolo to Toronto on a 787 (Plus connecting flights to/from DCA, but those are hardly worth a mention). Both were really nice flights, but I seriously noticed absolutely nothing different from before. So, lets start with the over to Zurich.

Up first, was the short flight up to Toronto. The flight is about 80 minutes and our flight attendant today was from Newfoundland, and a real character. A bit over the top, but the passengers seemed to love him, and he was very friendly and hard-working. Air Canada even served a small snack on the flight (I can’t decide if I like the single choice pre-plated snacks better than the US’s snack baskets or not) but A for effort. Unfortunately, today’s option was cockroaches of the sea with a tiny dab of hummus, one olive, and one tomato. Strange…

…and there was no question of refills. We were pretty much told we were getting refills, because, well, “you can’t let the rest of the wine stay in the bottle all lonely.” Perfectly good rationale if you ask me.

The transit experience in Toronto is seamless now, and you can head straight from US arrivals to international departures without having to go through an immigration check. Quite slick.

The one thing I was pretty excited to check out was the new Air Canada Signature “Suite”, only open to business class passengers. No Star Gold or Maple Leaf Lounge passes accepted, only passengers flying in business class, and only revenue tickets. Nobody on upgrades or award tickets, or those flying Star Alliance partners – in this way, it’s much more exclusive for access than even United’s Polaris lounges. (We won’t talk about American, because their “Flagship First” lounges let in every Exec Platinum under the sun, and often feel one step removed from a elementary school playground.)

I wasn’t all that hungry, so skipped the seated dining area in favour of the buffet. Quite tasty, some nice local offerings, and the Montreal smoked meat sandwich was a great touch!

Service in the lounge was fantastic and attentive, with the staff doing a great job clearing plates and refilling drinks, even when it got completely packed as the evening departure bank approached. I was quite surprised how crowded the lounge got, and unfortunately it really wasn’t that peaceful. Good for Air Canada selling so much business class, but there was nothing “suite” like about the lounge. Same complaint I have about the Polaris lounges – they get super crowded. It makes me wonder how the previous lounges handled all these people before…or are more people coming early for the “lounge experience” now?

Boarding was a complete and utter mess. With several departures at the same time, all pretty much sold out in business class, the departures area was a nightmare. We were between flights to London and Brussels, all of which were completely sold out, and boarding was a chaotic mess. It wasn’t even clear where the queues were, but that said, once aboard things were much quieter.

Amenity kit was waiting for us…filled with everything you’d expect, but didn’t rise to the level of one I’d want to keep to reuse the bag for toiletries, electrical cords, etc:

Tonight’s menu:

…and drink list:

Pre-departure bubbly was offered – I often wonder why airlines pour the pre-departure glasses like 1/3 full. What is this, maybe 1/2 glass of champagne? It can’t be cost saving, because they’re much more generous after takeoff.

The usual wine for me, and typical mixed nuts from Air Canada. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing original here.

Unfortunately at this point the crew was seated for just under two hours, because we ended up fighting some pretty terrible turbulence until we were off the Newfoundland coast. It was still not even 9pm for me by body clock, so I opted to continue the meal, as did most of the passengers since the turbulence was so bad there was no way anyone was sleeping.

The salad was boring but fine, and definite points for the duck and edamame starter. Nice and unique, while being relatively light. Plus, I’ll never complain about garlic bread!

I went with the chicken biryani as a main, probably because I remember the amazing biryani that Etihad served me a couple years ago. This was pretty good, and a nice unique option in flight. Any time I can get something that sounds and is better than the “steak” I’m happy, so this one was a winner with me.

Unfortunately, any positive thoughts I had died here. One of the saddest cheese plates I’ve seen in a long time, on par with some of the bland and boring kraft stuff that United serves. Very, very disappointing…and the cheddar was rubbery, obviously having been portioned long ago. Extremely disappointing.

The lemon cheesecake, however, was pretty tasty and a nice way to finish things off.

I had indicated not to wake me for breakfast, but I woke about 40 minutes before landing, so the flight attendant brought me the breakfast I’d indicated on the card “in case I wake up.” I wasn’t really hungry, but wanted to post this pic for one reason:

Look at that fruit bowl! Probably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen on a plane…nice fresh blueberries, pineapple, fresh strawberries, watermelon, kiwifruit…well done Air Canada!

So, let’s fast forward a couple weeks. We’re in Sao Paolo now, headed up to Toronto on a 10+ hour flight on a 787. The only times I’ve managed to sleep 7+ hours were on a 787, and this was a nice long flight at the perfect time to sleep, so I was looking forward to seeing how that played out. I forgot to mention above, but both the 777 and 787 on Air Canada had individual air vents, which I think are crucial to keeping me a nice cool sleeping temperature.

Let’s start with the meal. Look, more mixed nuts and wine. Boring, but acceptable.

The starter tonight was smoked trout with cucumber, tomato, and onions. I really wanted to like it, but it was pretty bland and boring. Could have used something to add a bit more flavour, but points to Air Canada for a reasonable sized portion which is still not heavy. Remember when United tried to pass two prawns off as an appetizer?

For the main I requested the “Spinach and Minas cheese filled chicken breast, herb sauce, vegetable risotto” but they brought me the beef. “Oh, sorry, I got them mixed up and don’t have any more chicken. Is this ok?” Ugh, not cool. On the upside, the beef was actually cooked close to medium which shocked me, but overall an unmemorable dish.

Oh Air Canada, we really need to talk cheese. This was just about as bad as the previous flight: “Emmental, Camembert, Reino” – so the Reino was interesting, but again it looked very plastic and uninspired. Is it really too hard to make the cheese course better? I suppose that would require cutting it on the plane, but…

Ok, never mind, I can go to sleep happy now with a wonderful Neapolitan ice cream bowl! It’s amazing how such simple things can make you happy even when people think airplane food is supposed to be “fancy” – but give me comfort food any day!

After passing out for a great seven hours of sleep, I was still up in time for breakfast. Another great 787 sleep, except I slept so balled up I’m still dealing with a pinched nerve in my back a few weeks later. Can’t blame Air Canada for that, but it was a good night’s sleep!

After the fruit in the breakfast to Switzerland I had high expectations, but unfortunately it was a swing and a miss this time. The kiwifruit was rock hard, the melon had zero flavour, and the grapes were mushy. Bland omelette, and a even blander muffin. I guess Air Canada breakfast catering must be highly station-specific.

Two flights is a small sample size, but overall my thoughts on Air Canada were positive. Nice seats, air vents to keep things cool, and overall “good” food. I don’t think it’s gotten worst, but the US airlines have definitely stepped their game up a little in this department so Air Canada no longer stands above them. Overall, a solid experience, except for one thing: the 787 had no WiFi, which is still the case with the majority of Air Canada’s fleet. The 777 to Zurich did have it (as do all their 777s now) but the 787 and almost none of their other planes do – to me making it a deal-breaker for most work trips. The only reason it was ok on this route is I was headed home from back to back trips, and just wanted to sleep and not work – which in this case worked out well.

Will I fly Air Canada again? Yes, definitely, especially if the other options are 2-4-2 or 2-2-2 seating on United…and especially if the planes have WiFi. The food and service are pretty much a wash these days, but it was also nice to try Air Canada again after so much Lufthansa and United lately! Next up, let’s look at United Polaris…

Feb 082016
 

When I found out I was headed to Bangkok for work, I had a bit of a dilemma. Ever since United stopped serving Bangkok, there are very few good options to get there with a United ticket. You can fly to Hong Kong and connect to from there, but that means the 747s or 777s, with their awful seating. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t have all-aisle access seating. Plus, this option was significantly more expensive than fares we were getting on Korean and Air China…which were non-starters since I still had lots of elite qualifying dollars to earn with just a month left in 2015.

Eventually, I remembered there were super cheap business fares to India, and found an Air Canada option via Toronto with United flight numbers, meaning United would ticket it. Combine this with a cheapish Delhi to Bangkok ticket, and I was in business. On the way back, the flights that worked best timewise out of India ended up being on Austrian to Vienna and on to Zurich, with a connection to United there. Tickets sorted, premier qualifying dollars in the bag, it was time for a few new experiences – Air Canada longhaul, on a 787 nonetheless, and Austrian longhaul.

Slept in a bit the day of the flight, then headed to DCA. The Air Canada agents at DCA are pretty terrible. I think they might be outsourced, but they really have no clue about Star Alliance benefits, there’s no lounge at all – nor is there a restaurant voucher/credit – and it’s overall a pretty miserable operation. Since I was on two separate tickets, she didn’t want to check me in without a visa for India. I showed her one on an expired passport, and she refused to accept that as valid, even though it’s just fine with India. Then, I showed her an expired visa in a current passport, and not seeing the date she was good with that. Seriously WTF.

Fortunately, the A Gates at DCA have a couple new restaurant options with iPad ordering, which is pretty slick. Had a small lunch, and soon it was time for the short flight up to Toronto.

Air Canada flight 7615, Operated by Sky Regional
Washington, National (DCA) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 1:25
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FEJL, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1A

I had been incredibly busy leading up to this trip, and hadn’t had any time to give thoughts to seats. By the time I did, the only seat left in business was 1A. Decent because you don’t have anyone reclining into you, but pretty poor from a legroom perspective. Whatever, it’s a short flight, so wasn’t a big deal. No pre-departure beverages offered, but a great view of the Pentagon on a clear day right after takeoff:

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Small cheese plate and nuts were offered as a snack with wine…and refills. Not bad service for a flight that was just over an hour!

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Toronto is a bit strange when making a US to International connection. In order to get to international departures, you still need to visit an immigration agent, but a different agent than if you were intending to enter Canada. Not sure what the point of this check is, since you’re merely in transit, but they do it. Satisfied I wasn’t up to no good, they let me into the international area, and the Salon Feuille d’érable – or Maple Leaf Lounge. Quite a good spread of food was out, so I had some tasty ravioli and the obligatory ceasar. I love the little maple leaf swizzle sticks:

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A few weeks after I had booked, my friend John in Ottawa (who has guest blogged here before) found out he had to go to Tokyo for work. Being a complete dork and majorly short on miles to requalify with Air Canada, he opted to join me all the way to Bangkok, continuing on from there to Tokyo the long way. Talk about a super out of the way routing! While I enjoyed my ceasar, he indulged his obsession with the Maple Leaf Lounge cookies, and we got a bit of work done. There were several other options on the buffet, and I was pretty impressed with the amount of food that was set out. You’d never see hot options like this in a United or American club, not to mention all the fresh side dishes. You’re lucky to get hummus and some cheese cubes.

What a great coincidence, however, that we even had to leave on the same days and could end up on the same flights. Fortunately, his upgrade even cleared at the gate and on top of that, the last open seat was the one across the aisle from us. The travel gods were definitely smiling on us!

Air Canada flight 70
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:35, Arrive 20:55 next day, Flight Time: 13:50
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FNOH, Manufactured 2015, Seat 4A

Brand spanking new 787-9, delivered barely a month prior, which still had that new plane smell. Welcome aboard screen:

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Water AND sparkling water, along with a basic but nice amenity kit:

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The crew was super friendly, while at the same time being very professional and addressing people by name. What’s for dinner tonight? Sorry for the slightly blurry pics…must have been one too many ceasars:

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Goofy “we’re finally flying together” selfie:

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Air Canada’s super-progressive safety video. I think the translation is: “Hey honey, let’s see if that guy in Row 8 is on Grindr!” It looks like their only préoccupation is with each other… 😉

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Some horrible movie I watched. Looks like Air Canada has joined United and American in the cut-price split cashew camp:

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Mixed greens, bread on a plate, and super tasty tuna starter. Quite possibly the best starter I’ve ever had from a North American airline.

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I generally avoid fish on planes, but John had the sablefish. Based on the presentation, I’m pretty glad I skipped it:

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My chicken murgh was even less appetizing looking, but fortunately tasted much better than it looked. Note the sad, empty wine glass:

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Mini cheese and fruit plate…needed more cheese:

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Pre-packaged ice cream for dessert? Sad panda…definitely a let-down from the United sundae.

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John went with the chocolate fondant, which was definitely the better option:

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At this point, I passed out for nearly nine glorious hours. With all the work leading up to this trip I was running super short on sleep, so was great to just be able to pass out. This also marked my third 787 redeye, and third one where I slept more than nine hours. There must be something to the lower cabin altitude and higher humidity on the 787, because I sleep as well on them as I do at home, and better than on any other plane. Plus, Air Canada did a great job keeping the cabin temperature reasonable, which made sleeping much easier.

Normally transatlantics aren’t long enough that I’m hungry for breakfast, but in this case decided to give it a  go. The muffin was dry and I skipped it after one bite, as was the fruit unfortunately. However, the cottage cheese with the omelette was super tasty, especially with the red pepper relish. Not normally a big fan of eggs on planes, but it was a tasty combo!

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Landed in Delhi late evening, and transit was pretty simple. We had to wait maybe 30 minutes for the Air Canada representative to come to the transit counter, and they were confused and not expecting us because we were on different tickets into and out of Delhi. Eventually, they figured it out, and transfer security was a breeze. This was like the fifth time I had done it this year, so I’m sure knowing what to expect made the whole process a bit easier as well.

Off to the ITC Green lounge, with some tasty Indian nibbles, Diet Pepsi, and WiFi to catch up on email. A couple hours later, we headed down to the boarding gate. I had forgotten there was a Starbucks there, or I would have gone much earlier. Normally I’m the one whose name gets messed up, but when John said his name the very eager barrista said “OH! Like John Cena!” I guess he’s a wrestling fan…

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Our flight was about 30 minutes late for the ever dubious “operational reasons” but soon it was time to board. Bid John Cena a temporary farewell, as he was off to fend for himself amidst the cattle in back. Fortunately, I expected to be a bit more comfortable…

Thai Airways flight 316
Delhi, India (DEL) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 00:15, Arrive 5:40, Flight Time: 3:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 12E

Nice welcome-aboard glass of tea:

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Unfortunately, it was not to be as comfortable as planned, since I was stuck in a middle seat. Thai 777s not only do not go flat in the seats, but they have middle seats as well. Gross. I was seated next to a guy with a Chinese passport who kept hacking up phlegm the entire flight, and didn’t speak enough English to understand when I asked him to cover his mouth. Even acting it out didn’t seem to help. Fortunately, he knew the expression JOHNNY WALKER DOUBLE and after 5 or 6 of those he passed out. Doesn’t change the fact that about 36 hours after landing in Bangkok I came down with a cold. Want to guess who’s responsible?

At least there was Veuve to make things a bit better:

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Menu was simple, but looked tasty:

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The salad and shrimp were pretty meh, but hey, can’t complain when you’re flying India to Thailand and get multiple servings of garlic bread, and Veuve refills!

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The chicken red curry was ok, but nothing special:

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The raspberry marscapone cake was also pretty underwhelming, but again, the Veuve helped:

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Landed in Bangkok about 30 minutes behind schedule. I wished John good luck with his connecting flight to Tokyo. I couldn’t imagine having another flight after this as it had already been nearly 24 hours in transit and I was absolutely wiped out. Not in the mood to deal with taxis or the Skytrain today, I opted for an AOT car to take me to my hotel. Up next was a super busy week of work events before heading home. I’ll do another review of the flights back home in another post, as well as one on the hotels I stayed at.

Sep 132015
 

Ok, so this is a pretty anti-climactic start to this trip, but I finally have reasonable internet and am able to get this thing rolling. Hopefully many more parts to follow now that I’ve cleared Africa and am in the Middle East. Headed into work for a few hours in the morning to tie up a few loose ends, and then caught the silver line metro out to Dulles. No problems at all for once, TSA PreCheck worked wonders, and soon I was at the Red Carpet Club in the D Gates. This was my first time experiencing Jeff’s new catering, and…

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Hommous and cheese. The hommous is a definite upgrade, but the cheese is a definite downgrade. I seriously miss my pepperjack Tillamook cheese. Boo! Only had about 15 minutes to grab a quick lunch, because it was time to board! I still hadn’t cleared the waitlist with two seats left (I same day changed about 20 hours before the flight) so I asked the agent when she cleared if she could put me in the second row…and she did it right there. Not sure what she was waiting for, but…

United Express operated by Mesa Airlines flight 5095
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:30, Arrive 13:58, Flight Time: 1:28
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N504MJ, Manufactured 2002, Seat 2C

Perhaps the most underwhelming flight in the history of aviation. First/business went out full, I had a glass of wine with my biscotti, watched a little tv on my iPad, and then it was time to land. The overhead bins on the CRJ-700 were just large enough for my rolling bag, so life was good and I was off to immigration. NEXUS lines were no problem at all, through very quickly, got a new boarding pass from the Air Canada agent in the checkin area, and was off to security and the lounge.

No line at all in security for the NEXUS lane, was through very quickly, and up to the lounge. The lounge agent said the agent in customs was wrong, and yes, it’s possible to stand by now on ALL fares in the “triangle” of Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto. She kindly put me on the waitlist for an hour earlier, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much of a wait. But, while I did, it was time for a make-your-own ceasar…extra spicy!

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Yes, that’s right, more hommous. Clearly Star Alliance has stocked up on it in bulk, and every single airline is feeding it in the lounge. Still hadn’t cleared the waitlist, so 40 minutes before my new flight headed down to the gate where I saw this beauty in the old Trans-Canada Airlines colours:

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Asked the agent if I’d cleared, and he was rude and said “I’ll call you when I call you” so I waited…then everyone was boarded. So I asked again: “well, you’re not on my list!” Ugh. Few seats left, however, and he managed to clear me to an economy plus middle, so life was good enough. I was an hour earlier than planned, and sandwiched in between two pilots, so can’t complain overly much…let’s see, however, if my miles ever post!

Air Canada flight 458
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Ottawa, Ontario (YOW)
Depart 16:10, Arrive 17:12, Flight Time: 1:02
Airbus A319-100, Registration C-FZUH, Manufactured 1997, Seat 14B

Again, totally uneventful flight. Glass (not can) of Diet Coke and some pretzels, and before I knew it we were landing in Ottawa. Was nice to spend the evening with a group of old friends catching up, starting with beer flights at Jack Astors:

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Moved on to a group dinner at Mill Street Brewpub and more flights, followed by the Northern Lights show at Parliament. Managed to get a couple of great shots near the end of the Northern Lights show:

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By this point I was absolutely exhausted from a half day of work, travel and a long evening of catching up with old friends. Managed to crash on a friend’s couch absolutely passed out for nearly eight hours, ready to face the big day ahead! (Yes, you read that right, instead of a nice hotel I slept on a couch! That should tell you just how good of friends these are…and just how comfy the couch was!)

Sep 162013
 

I know, I know…I’ve gotten way behind.  A few weeks ago I was in Nigeria (country #137 visited) for a few days with a friend and I owe a trip report for that one which I promise to get done soon.  All in all, it was a great trip!

Next trip is coming in just a couple of weeks.  It started as a trip to see the same friend while he does work in two more countries (Benin and Ghana) and I figured, while in the neighbourhood, I’d see a few more places.  Now, it’s turned into a six country trip adding Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Niger to the list.  The rough plan is:

west africa map

One major challenge will be that a couple of the tickets can only be bought locally, so we will see if I manage to sort out all the plane tickets.  Of course, there’s also the issue that flights in this part of the world don’t always run so on time, so there will be that too.  Also, this assumes I manage to get all six visas on time.  It’s also the most number of airlines I’ve ever taken on one trip I think:

  1. Air Canada
  2. Lufthansa
  3. Brussels Airlines
  4. Air Cote d’Ivoire
  5. ASKY
  6. Air Burkina
  7. SWISS
  8. United

Of course, assuming everything works out….that will bring the total country count up to 143 visited…only 53 to go!