Good Memories in Hard Times: A Conversation with Noel Phillips

LONDON – Continuing with our pattern of interviewing prominent figures in the industry, our attention now turns to YouTube product reviewer, Noel Phillips.

At the time of writing, Noel has over 170,000 subscribers and people have viewed his videos over 35 million times. AviationSource had the opportunity to speak with him about his experiences during the pandemic as well as similarly to Josh Cahill, how he has managed to succeed during the pandemic.

JF: Noel, thanks for speaking to AviationSource. What has it been like traveling around the globe during the pandemic? And will such changes you have noticed be permanent?

NP: So in terms of traveling during the pandemic, it’s changed a lot since the early days. Obviously, as things have come to light and everything, the biggest thing that’s changed for me personally is the fact that there is no planning ahead anymore. Before, I was planning trips up to a year in advance. Now I am sort of in the headspace of, “I need to be away next week filming.” At the minute I haven’t even figured out where I’m going yet. So that gives you an idea of how much things have changed. It’s literally a case of you just end up going wherever it’s possible to travel.

As a travel creator, that has been the hardest thing to have to deal with reality. In terms of the actual experience and things as well, every time you are flying out, there are loads of COVID tests constantly. The industry is terribly slow to want to be able to make changes such as travel corridors and more. So, I don’t really see the vaccine necessarily making things easier here in terms of the testing anytime soon but hopefully, it will mean that countries will be more willing to want to open their borders. At least when the numbers start to drop sort of around the world as well.

JF: It has been a rough 2020. What have been your highlights of that year and what are you most looking forward to going into this year?

NP: Well, in terms of 2020, my highlight, I guess, was before COVID happened and before anybody knew what was going on with COVID sort of January last year was sort of the best trip I did last year. I went over to Nepal and while I was there, things were starting to sort of happening to do with this new virus in China. I remember specifically sitting in Kathmandu Airport about to go to Mount Everest base camp and looking at my phone and thinking, wow, this new virus in China, is that scary or not? I remember specifically that moment sitting in the airport, not knowing what’s going to happen with it and thinking it was something else, you know? That was definitely my sort of the main highlight of 2020 was doing that trip up Mount Everest as well as to Lukla and flying all around there.

JF: I can imagine that you may get this question quite a lot, either from your subscribers or from people that have interviewed you. I asked Josh Cahill this as well, and out of your whole experience, traveling with different airlines, different products, etc., who would you say is your favorite and why?

NP: It’s Qatar Airways because I fly on them so many times. It’s just the best that I’ve experienced, whether you’re in economy, whether you’re in business class, whether you fly in First Class, you’ve got such a fantastic sort of experience ahead of you. The connection experience in Doha is just fantastic. There are so many things to do there during COVID and the onboard service as well throughout everything have not really put anything back. They haven’t really changed anything apart from the fact that the crew now wears protective equipment and the meals come into separate containers. We couldn’t really tell that they’ve changed anything.

JF: So, a couple of months ago (At the time of the interview), you spent 48 hours flying with Wizz Air. What was the thought process behind it? How did it feel flying with the carrier for so long? Would you do it again?

NP: So the thought process behind it was that Wizz Air is widely known as being probably the cheapest, low frills airline that there are in Europe. To be completely honest, the last time I flew on them, they were pretty dreadful and it was mainly to do with the extra charges and the way that they try to catch you out, which even Ryanair tends to do. The original plan was to fly from Reykjavik in Iceland all the way down to Abu Dhabi, which if it happened, would have only cost me £15 in return legs which would have made for a very interesting video.

To be honest, flying with Wizz Air wasn’t terrible. Based on my one experience with my one flight with them before they were pretty bad, but actually I haven’t seen them over a couple of days. They were always on time, the aircraft room was quite clean, quite new, and even their older aircraft are still pretty modern, so it that’s positively effective.

JF: So are challenges like that exciting for you? And what was your favorite challenge to do?

NP: So the reason why I like doing these sorts of challenges is that fundamentally, regardless of whether we’re in the sort of COVID restricting world or not, aviation is just incredible. And the fact that it will allow you to go from London to Australia in less than a day, is just incredible for me. The fact that you can get so far away from home, and then back in such a short period of time by means of the plane, it’s just absolutely phenomenal. So that’s the reason why I enjoy doing challenges like this. When I was doing a full-time IT job, I could leave work on Friday night and people would say “what are you doing over the weekend”, I would say “Oh skipping to New Zealand and back”. And then Monday morning, you’re back in the office.

In terms of my favorite challenge, I think it was the 71 hours in economy that I did, where I flew to New Zealand and back. The around the world in 80 hours was another one. I really enjoyed doing that because when I actually got out at the airport and saw some of the places I was visiting as well, it was mindblowing.

JF: Touching upon your time in Africa, some of your videos looked at flying more of the rare aircraft, such as the Flightlink Embraer E120 and the Xian MA-60. How does it feel to be flying such an aircraft, especially with some being quite old and quite vintage like that?

NP: Part of the reason that I do these videos is not only for my fascination and wanting to fly on rare planes, but it’s also to share the fact that despite how dodgy the aircraft may look, they are remarkably safe. For example, flying the aircraft in Tanzania, where there were bits missing and stuff didn’t really phase me that much and I didn’t feel unsafe despite the fact that the aircraft was tatty and fall into place. The things wrong with it was all cosmetic, you know, the aircraft itself was solid.

Because of things like pilot error or weather conditions and things, it is not anything necessarily to do with the makeup of the plane itself. and The perspective to me of whether an airline is safe or not is whether you get on it, they don’t do simple things like the safety demo for example. Even on the most random remote airlines, anywhere in the world, the safety demo has always been done, which at least gives you some sort of indication that they’re trying to do things right.

JF: On the opposite side then of the age, so obviously, you flew on Africa’s first Airbus A220 via, Air Tanzania. What’s your assessment of Africa’s approach to fleet renewal? And can you see the speeding up of such renewal, or could you imagine airlines in Africa keeping hold of the older vintage aircraft, like the Embraer 120s going into the future?

NP: I think things definitely move a lot slower in Africa than they do in the rest of the world. That’s evident when you go to the likes of Dar es Salaam where you see Embraer E120s sitting around on the ramp. Things do move a lot slower there in terms of modernization, but in a way, they’re almost at the point where they’re starting to renew their fleets and getting brand new aircraft a lot more. And it’s starting in Africa as it started everywhere else in the world. It starts with a national carrier and the direction typically heads in the direction of such renewal. They’ve got Dreamliners, A220s, A350s, and more.

And that will trickle down eventually into airlines such as FlightLink and other carriers operating older aircraft. So I think it’s a really exciting time for them. They’re all starting to get these brand new planes. I think in general that could almost be said as sort of a positive metaphor for Africa, especially with the huge economic development taking place there over the last few years and even heading into the future too.

JF:I asked Josh Cahill this question also and want to hear your thoughts. Amongst enthusiasts, there is a big debate over whether Boeing or Airbus is the better manufacturer. Where do you stand on that?

NP: This is a really tough question. As far as passenger experience goes, this depends on what I’m looking at as a passenger. When riding as a passenger, I prefer to ride on Airbus aircraft like the A350, simply because they’re quiet, they’re smooth, they’re comfortable and they’re spacious on board. Whereas the alternatives such as the Boeing 777 or 787 are quite nice and modern and they can still be quite noisy and I’m not necessarily as comfortable on board. So as a passenger, I prefer Airbus but as an aviation geek and somebody who enjoys looking at planes, I much prefer Boeing aircraft because I just think they look amazing. Like the Dreamliner is an incredible aircraft. There’s the 737 MAX 8 too. I know it’s a very controversial aircraft and there’s been a lot of issues with it, but it looks amazing.

JF: Do you think that Brexit will affect the way you fly around the world? And if so, will it be a positive change or do you think it’s going to be more of a negative change going forward?

NP: A lot of people have been saying that Brexit is going to cause such huge issues in terms of getting around Europe and traveling and things like that. I can see from the freight perspective that it is potentially going to cause a lot of issues because there’s more paperwork required. We’ll get over it, however. Initially, there’s going to be that issue, especially because BREXIT hasn’t been done before. I don’t really see it making much of an impact. We’ve always had our own sort of separate entry procedures to get into Europe and stuff, but everywhere else we always go, we still have to go through passport control when we enter those places.

So from that perspective, I don’t really see it changing a massive amount. We are obviously going to see issues with airlines and how they operate sort of internally. I mean, that’s on an industry sort of level, and from a passenger’s point of view, I don’t see they’re going to see much difference from that side of things. As things have moved forward, I’m actually looking at the bigger issues at the minute and Brexit isn’t one of them in terms of getting around the world.

JF: On your videos, you typically mention how much you acquired the flights for. What is your go-to method for finding cheap flights like what you have experienced on your travels?

NP: It’s all based on the one-way aspect of it. So a lot of the time you can get a really cheap return flight if you research quite a lot. In some cases, you can get a flight in Business Class for £1100-1200 return if you really do your homework, which makes it out to around £600 each way, which is insane when you think about it. Just research constantly. This is something I’ve spoken to a lot of people about, especially those in the same boat as me and they’ve agreed with me that, the biggest part of being an aviation content creator is trying to find flights and with this being my full-time job, I’ve got time to scan websites, like Google Flights to get a good chance at getting the best fare.

And every time there’s a cheap offer coming in, I’ve got the ability to say “you know what, that’s a good deal. Let’s book that while it’s going ahead.” Just to be able to constantly watch it. That’s the only way really, I think that it’s possible to constantly get flights like that. It’s just to keep searching out the very cheapest flights that you can acquire through a number of websites. It’s not an easy task. It’s a full-time job effectively and monitoring emails that are coming in and scouring websites and probably spend at least one day a week just going through flights, trying to find cheap deals, and trying to figure out the best options to get around places.

JF: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

NP: I just want to say thank you for listening to me ramble about airplanes and stuff. I honestly feel over the moon and so lucky that I’m able to do what I do as a full-time job. The fact that I can do this and bring entertainment to people, you know, I never wanted to be a content creator. It was never in my blood to be somebody like a public influencer or anything like that. And the fact that just me making a few videos about planes has got so many people engaging and watching the content. I have to pinch myself sort of every day. It really does feel incredible. So, thank you.

JF: Noel, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.

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