From the threadbare carpets and tins of Nescafe at Hamilton City Council chambers to caviar and champagne at the pointy end of the plane – Ewan Wilson’s side gig is about as far from his day job as you can get.
Almost invariably, the first thing Ewan Wilson does when he boards a plane is turn left.
Rather than a beeline for packed overhead bins and the limited recline of cattle class, Wilson, camera in hand and a microphone pinned on his lapel, enters the soft lap of business class.
The senior Hamilton City Councillor has developed for himself a side gig as an airline reviewer. Wilson, often using frequent flyer points or tricks of airlines’ complex booking schemes, gets cheap premium flights and films the experience of sitting at the pointy end of a plane.
It’s surprisingly popular too.
His channel, @ewanwilson2315, has garnered nearly 10,000 (more than the number of votes he won in the last election) subscribers and close to 420,000 views in only several months. The former airline entrepreneur, infamous for his laudable but ultimately ill-fated attempt to take it to Air New Zealand across the Tasman, says a background in aviation sets him apart from the small coterie of other reviewers on YouTube.
“About a year and a half ago I thought, we have travelled the world, why aren’t we producing videos that can help people experience what we experience and give them some insights into some things we know having been in the industry and that can lead to some really inexpensive, for us, flights?”
Those insights, Wilson describes, are essentially ways in which the subtleties of international air travel’s bureaucracy can yield inexpensive luxury fares at economy prices.
Wilson’s most popular hack, although he says the term irks him, is to travel with carriers who offer so-called “fifth freedom” flights.
Well versed in the statutes of international aviation law, Wilson, a qualified commercial pilot and CEO of Kiwi Regional Airlines, explains that the fifth freedom of the air essentially permits an airline to sell tickets for routes that travel from a carrier’s home country via a second to a third and final destination. The portion between the second and third cities being granted by the fifth freedom.
Emirates’ Christchurch to Dubai service is an example, the leg from Sydney to the Garden City being granted by the fifth freedom.
“A lot of these long-haul carriers [think Emirates or Qatar Airways] find themselves debating whether they add a frequency. They often decide to go half way and they make one long-haul flight go on to a secondary port for a three- or four-hour flight.
“These are economic designations under a bilateral agreement [between countries]. Then a carrier applies for a right to be designated. Having launched an airline in New Zealand, I lived and breathed bilaterals for a while.”
Bangkok, he says, is a city that hosts many airlines that have fifth freedom flights between it and other Asian destinations and a good spot to look for cheap premium fares. Wilson recently gave his viewers the rundown – Moet in hand and beluga caviar on the tray table – while he jetted from the Thai capital to Hong Kong on Emirates first class.
So, how much does it really save?
“Well, you can fly the route I did for $US360. The reason it is so inexpensive” – these things are relative, he admits – “is because there are probably 10 carriers that fly that route and most of them will have high-frequency service – a flight departing every hour. So if you’re a corporate you’ll fly early in the morning or late in the afternoon. These fifth freedom flights are usually not at peak times so they have to be discounted.”
To fly Emirates’ vaunted first class Wilson got a cheap business class ticket with “the old trick that everybody knows”, which is to take one of the airline’s upgrade offers 24 or 48 hours before departure.
Total cost for the two-hour first-class indulgence? About $NZ800.
Although niche, airline reviews garner significant attention on YouTube. Australian aviation vlogger turned commentator Sam Chui has 3.4 million subscribers on his channel, with the most popular titles including reviews of a private Boeing 787 or the notoriously difficult approach into Bhutan’s Paro airport.
On his phone he shows me the schedule of videos to be released in the coming week. There’s a review of a flight he took last year on an Austrian Airlines 777-200 in business class and another with the same carrier, renowned for its Viennese catering, on a smaller Airbus A320. The editing, he says, can take several hours, but as he uploads more videos (he now has about a dozen up), the craft is improving.
“We now have proper lapel mics, we try to build the storyboard before we fly… It’s been a real learning curve – at the beginning I didn’t really know the portrait/landscape stuff.”
Wilson admits the likes of Chui and British aviation vlogger Noel Philips provide him inspiration. The format of the videos is always fairly typical across the platform; vloggers catalogue the check-in experience, whatever lounge is on offer, the boarding procedure, welcome drink, seat, meal, in-flight entertainment options, then offer some perfunctory judgment as to how the experience was.
Wilson says that isn’t exactly his style.
“I don’t see too many going into detail about the aircraft. I like to add the aircraft type, registration, and a bit about the engines. I also throw in a bathroom review. Emirates’ bathroom is beyond… It’s hard to describe.”
Sat in a towel at 35,000ft, he recently offered viewers a topless tour of Emirates’ on-board shower suite, all that before slipping into a pair of pyjamas interwoven with moisturising olive oil.
Who’s watching this stuff, one might fairly ask? Well, according to the councillor he has developed quite a following in Bangladesh (he’s unsure why) and in Vietnam – that, he says, is as a result of a review of Vietnamese carrier Bamboo Airways (a rarity in the airline reviewing world). There’s also former councillor and Hamilton West MP Martin Gallagher – “He’s my biggest fan.”
The best premium cabins can all be experienced on flights out of Auckland, he says. For premium economy, Air New Zealand’s gets his pick, Qatar’s business class Qsuite is best in that segment and Emirates’ first class takes the cake.
While the champagne and lie-flat seats are many echelons removed from the rather staid decor of the HCC chambers, Wilson is at home in both settings, he says.
“My passion has always been aviation. I certainly love reviewing and I love my role in local government. If we’re being really candid, it’s not unusual for a councillor to have a second job.”
But for the time being, it seems a council byelection won’t be necessary.
“I’m really comfortable with my current balance. Whether I feel the same way in October next year [when local elections are held], I don’t know.”