Moving to the fringes

On June 23rd, a small majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union, marking a deflating end to four decades of the UK in the European project.

To me, a student of history, and of European history in particular, and of someone who lived in the United Kingdom for three years as recently as 2015, this represents a triumph of all things that incrementally added up over the years to produce an environment of division and fear, much of it created in people’s heads by opportunists and the media that is incapable of monitoring itself.

I moved to London in 2012, on the eve of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Britain truly felt like it was the center of the world then. It was coming out of the recession quicker and stronger than most predicted. It enjoyed the status of a global financial powerhouse. Its athletes were competing, and winning, at home (Wimbledon, Olympics) and abroad (Tour de France). Its monarchy was rejuvenated by the dynamic princes William and Harry, and the captivating Kate. The sense of British identity was strong, you felt like you were constantly at a tea party hosted by Stephen Fry on the lawn of Buckingham Palace.

How is it, then, that in just four short years, the UK could go from being the center of Europe to voting itself out of the very union that propelled them to the world stage after decades of post-war stagnation? How is it that people who, seemingly, were better off than 99% of the rest of the world, in terms of standards of living, decided that they were better alone? How could a society of children and grand children of Churchill’s generation so soon forget that the very divisions that can be created by unions splintering and countries retreating behind their borders caused history’s deepest crises that tore not only the European continent, but the rest of the world apart?

My mind travels back to December 2010, when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire as a protest to the country’s authoritarian regime. The Jasmine revolution, as it was called at the time, sparked a domino effect that took over the entire region and led to the collapse of Egyptian and Libyan governments, and shaking Syria to its core. The West’s decision to largely stand by and watch events unfold allowed the new forces to take hold and instill the belief among Arabs that changes were afoot. As we know now, these changes were largely negative as these revolutions created a fertile ground for the rise of Isis and gave Bashar al Assad’s government a reason to bomb his own people to protect his rule. Consequently, this weakness on the part of the West led to the refugee epidemic that swept over Southern Europe last year, which was already battered by the recession of 2008 and unable to cope effectively.

Observing from afar, it is easy to latch on to the words of armchair quarterbacks like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who called the EU weak and incompetent, unable to effectively deal with threats at its borders, because it had to answer to governments of 28 member states.

The gut feeling that Europe’s financial woes were also largely self-inflicted through incompetence, and that richer countries (UK, Germany) had to constantly pay to bail out poor countries also felt right.

Open borders between member states and movement of its people, the hallmark of the European project, all of the sudden seemed like a dangerous proposition. Forget the Poles and the Hungarians who, supposedly, flooded the country. Barbarians were at the proverbial gates! Scenes of refugees in Calais, outside the Channel Tunnel, spooked the public. Terrorist attacks in French and Belgian capitals made it even easier to blame the refugees who were piling onto the continent in record numbers (never mind that these attacks were carried out by homegrown terrorists, much like the attacks in London in 2005).

The accelerating pace of news coverage, and the ability to self select who one could listen to, created an ever-sharper divide in a country that was, in effect a federation of quasi-independent nations. The Scottish referendum showed just how much division there already was and how real their departure from the Kingdom could be.

Of course, the real divide was between the haves and the have nots. This divide, just like in America, affected those who relied on Britain’s traditional economic strengths that went out of vogue roughly at the same time as the European Union was spinning up. Auto manufacturing, steel works and other examples of heavy industry were shuttering and shifting overseas.

In business, we often talk about correlation vs. causation and being careful to distinguish between the two. Correlation is an observation of two trends, which sometimes neatly fit into a hypothesis you have (i.e. I started wearing a suit to work and my career took off, therefore I am proof that dressing for the job you want, rather than the job you have is a real thing). It’s often very easy to point to these trends and use them to explain outcomes. And many people will agree, because it fits into the same stereotypes they have.

Causation, however, is a much trickier animal and requires proof that an action produced a reaction. While correlation is the occupation of the chattering classes and opportunist politicians, causation is the domain of scientists, statisticians and economists who bristle at the idea of oversimplified solutions. The problem is that in the first group, you have the poisonous mix of those who benefit from shouting and those who are ready and willing to accept the shouting. The causation group ends up arguing with itself and its voices are rarely heard. Compare this interview with Leave’s leader Boris Johnson to this nuanced argument by an EU scholar. One is laden with repetitive hyperbole, the other is rich in facts and logic. And yet…

And yet, nearly 52% of the UK voting public decided that immigration, economy and security were issues that were, somehow, made worse by the country’s participation in the European Union. That leaving the world’s biggest single market was going to make the UK a stronger economy. That regaining control of its borders (which were already protected more than others’, due to geography) was going to protect it from terrorism that, as we know, has been largely a domestic issue. That European immigration into the UK was, somehow, the root of why the jobs that used to exist in Britain of the 1970s were no longer available to them. Nevermind that almost the same number of Brits worked elsewhere in the EU, the perception was that Britain was being robbed of its economic opportunity by Europeans arriving from the fringes of the ever-expanding union, taking jobs that were previously reserved for the English and the Welsh, and changing the make up of society and culture.

Nevermind that after World War 2, thousands of people from the further reaches of the Empire were invited to a war-torn Britain to help rebuild. Nevermind that these people settled in English, Welsh and Scottish towns and never moved back. Nevermind that people continued to arrive from Pakistan, India, Russia, the Arab countries – places that have nothing to do with the EU. They created communities that have contributed to the evolution of what it means to be British. Just a few months ago, Londoners elected the son of a Pakistani immigrant as their mayor. That, after having the Etonian Boris Johnson as a two-term leader of the world’s most global city. The same Boris Johnson who, for most of his political life, advocated staying in the EU, now became the mouthpiece for the Leave campaign.

I see the result of this referendum as the perfect storm of soundbite-driven media, opportunistic politicians, an electorate that is poorly informed (or informed by means of media they self select), and the overall air of fear that permeates our relatively mundane lives. During the cold war, we feared a nuclear war. But people didn’t fear it every day, in the same way people fear terrorism in music halls, movie theaters or shopping centers. This fear is much more personal and much scarier. It’s a one-on-one fear that has no name or face, but has a stereotype attached to it. And, unfortunately, when people turn on the TV and see who was responsible for the most recent attack, and then they look at those who are arriving into their country, they correlate and stoke even more fear in their own minds.

I think the British public fell victim to overstated fears that were enhanced by the likes of Johnson, Nigel Farage and others who sensed a once in a lifetime opportunity to accomplish their individual objectives. I am sure that BoJo’s objectives were very different from Farages and this alliance smells of a devil’s pact. Either way, they were effective in delivering a message that was helped by circumstances of the preceding months.

We don’t have to look far to see parallels of this. Trump’s rhetoric in the US tugs on the same strings of fear, just in a cruder, more open way. The same is happening across the Western world.

My final thought goes back to the beginning of this essay – seemingly unrelated events, through time, become interconnected. Not through consequences of actions, but through laziness of the human psyche. Correlation is a strong force and must be considered. It is no longer wise to assume that people will take the time to understand the truth when it is so much more convenient to hear things that fit into their pre-existing narrative.

And so, with a bit of a whimper, Britain is moving to the fringes of Western Europe and into an era of uncertainty. I am sure it will do OK in the long term, but looking back at history, many countries who are now OK, took quite an unpleasant route that could have been avoided. I fear that for Britain, and for the rest of Europe, the following years will be a scenic route they wished they never took.

Aerfolot’s Comfort Class: LAX to SVO

This is a quick and dirty trip report, which specifically aims to address the lack of reviews for Aeroflot’s Comfort cabin class.

When my wife and I were deciding on the best airline option from LA to Moscow, we settled on Aeroflot’s non-stop service which, after Transaero’s bankruptcy, remains the sole non-stop to Russia from the US West Coast. The price point for Economy was around $650 and Comfort Class was only about $150 more expensive. Note that these were one way tickets, as our return flight would be on BA/AA via London and Boston (we intended to spend a few days in each).

In the spring and summer months, SU operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on the LAX-Moscow route, while in the winter they switch to a two-class A330.

We arrived at LAX a few hours ahead of departure. There is no information on SU’s website about a dedicated check in lane for Comfort Class passengers, but there actually is one. We skipped a pretty big line of Y pax and checked in swiftly. SU allows two bags of 23kg each per Comfort passenger. We also inquired about upgrades to Business and were told that those are available for a mere 17k Aeroflot Bonus points. While we had enough for one upgrade, we didn’t have enough for both of us, so we passed on the offer. Note that cash upgrades are only available on A Comfort fares, and I do not know how much they cost.

SU boarding is generally a mess, and when we approached the gate, we saw a long line snaking around and to the back. Assuming that Comfort pax get priority boarding, we approached the front of the line and were allowed to board with J passengers. Once again, not sure if this was our bravado coupled with SU’s lack of care or an official boarding procedure.

Comfort Class is its own separate cabin that has a 2-4-2 setup. Each seat is in an individual cradle, with adjustable reading lights, big tables and nicer screens. The seats do not recline but instead slide down. Each seat is equipped with an adjustable leg rest while the seat in front also has a flip-down foot rest.

Aeroflot Comfort Class seats

There are several slots both in the arm of the seat (or rather the wall) and near the TVs to store additional items. Some of these slots are more useful than others. What SU/Boeing intend to be a water bottle holder does not hold the bigger bottles that people tend to bring on board a 12 hour flight, rendering this use of space useless.

SU also provides its Comfort passengers with a pseudo amenity kit with slippers and eye mask. A warm blanket and relatively big pillows are also presented.

SU Comfort Class amenity kit

Aeroflot Comfort Class Seat in full recline

Aeroflot Comfort Class Seat in full recline

Departure was delayed by about 45 minutes as LAX police investigated something on board. Eventually, they escorted a gentleman in a suit with a roll-aboard suitcase off the flight and we were allowed to push off.

After takeoff, dinner service was fairly swift and the menu items featured entrees from Business class. I had steak, which was great. Salads and other food items were less inspiring. Wine was mediocre (served from a carton) and hard booze was not on offer.

Comfort Class dinner

One thing that everyone knocks Aeroflot for is the service, which comes from an outdated Soviet-era stereotype. The airline clearly puts a lot of stock in this criticism and has been doing a lot of work to make its soft product world class. The flight attendants on the flight were nothing short of phenomenal, in terms of the quality of service provided and friendliness. I was fighting a bout of flu right before our departure, and one thing that helps me is to drink a lot of herbal tea. Flight attendants were super attentive and made me tea about 15 times on this flight. They also took the time to chat with me and checked in constantly on other passengers.

From a hard product standpoint, I would say that the seat is not very comfortable. The sliding approach is inferior to a reclining seat, as it takes away from leg room. The leg rest does not go up sufficiently enough for a tall person to full make use of and the foot rest only helps for so long. I think for an 8-9 hour flight, Comfort is a good product (JFK-SVO, for example), but on ultra long flights, like the one we took, it is actually less than comfortable.

AVOD on SU, while good from a technology standpoint, is lacking in content. If you are a Russian speaker, you will have more to entertain yourself with, but for non Russian speakers, you will find a fairly limited selection of movies and shows.

Overall, I was impressed with Aeroflot’s improvements in the on-board service department. I was also fairly happy with their premium economy offering, but it’s not adequate for flights over 10 hours, at least for tall people. In fact, I would say that on a low yield flight, it’s better to fly in regular Y, so that you can flip up the arm rests and stretch out across several seats. Of course, this is a gamble and not worth it if you really want a bit more guaranteed space. The opportunity to upgrade for only 17,000 miles to J is a huge bonus, but I doubt many pax who originate from LA have an account with Aeroflot Bonus, so it may be a moot point.