Air Canada is advertising quite widely in the UK at the moment at the ease of travelling to the USA via Canada and given that I wanted to combine a trip to Chicago with a visit to Montreal, this was a perfect way to see how easy this process in fact is. Over the last few years Air Canada has made a number of changes that, while having a positive effect on their balance sheet, have isolated many of its most frequent customers. These include constantly changing the rules and benefits of its frequent flyer program as well as reducing the personal space in the aircraft. Indeed, Air Canada now flies the most crowded Boeing 777 in the skies. While this makes business sense in the short term, in the long term it may well backfire, especially since the more crowded aircraft don’t appear to be matched by a corresponding reduction in fares.
If choosing to fly Air Canada, I would strongly recommend checking the aircraft scheduled and making a decision based on this information. The 767 and Airbus 333 as well as the non-refurbished 777 offer decent legroom and seat width. The newer 777 and 787 offer very narrow seats and limited legroom although they do offer an upgraded entertainment system. You may well be squashed and uncomfortable but at least being able to watch a movie will be distracting. Fortunately, I was scheduled to fly one of the older, non-refurbished 777s today.
The new Terminal 2 at Heathrow airport is a game changer for this much maligned institution. Light and airy, there is a considerable amount of seating as well as plentiful shopping opportunities. The terminal isn’t yet running at full capacity and as a result felt slightly deserted. With my Star Alliance Gold status I was able to go straight to the bag drop where there was no wait. Other passengers would normally need to use the kiosks to print boarding passes and baggage tags before taking them to the bag drop. I imagine that this may occasionally be challenging. Security was quick – so quick in fact that I didn’t need to wait.
After a quick look around the terminal, I headed for the new Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge. It was excellent. While small, I imagine it won’t get that busy. At 7:00AM, the food servery offered a choice of breads, baked goods, cheeses, turkey, ham, scrambled eggs, yoghurt and a member of the lounge staff making waffles. There was an attended bar serving Molson Canadian as well as a self-service coffee machine and juices. The whole place was spotless and very new. Only a couple of things grated – the staff were not quite fluent in English (I didn’t even try speaking French) and there were no French-language newspapers or magazines. Otherwise it’s an excellent facility. Free wifi access worked well.
The gate was directly at the foot of the stairs leading to the lounge. Boarding was done by status then by seat row number. I was seated towards the front of the economy section next to an extremely tall gentleman who kept penetrating my personal space. Leg room was fine and seat width was excellent. Sadly the crew, with a couple of exceptions, seemed to be in very bad humour, smiles were absent and patience seemed to be wearing thin. Up until a few years ago Air Canada used to call their main cabin ‘Hospitality Service’. Clearly those days are gone. The entertainment system was non-functional for the first hour of the trip. Air Canada asks passengers to use their personal headphones but I have found on several occasions that iPhone earphones do not work with the jack on the planes. The Flight Attendant distributing the earphones did not want to give me one of their sets and didn’t seem to want to believe me that my iPhone earphones didn’t work. The mature couple behind me also pressed their Flight Attendant call bell but this was not answered. I’m glad that they did not require urgent assistance. The first meal service consisted of a choice of chicken sausage with scrambled eggs or apple crepes. I took the chicken and while not the most beautiful-looking plate was actually quite tasty. It was served with a bar service or tea/coffee. Half-way through the flight we were served a bag of pretzels and a beverage and towards the end a choice of a beef meatball wrap or a vegetarian wrap. The wraps were tasteless and unmemorable. I wish I’d ordered the kosher meal instead which usually comes with some delicious bagels.
The entertainment system, once working, had a decent choice of movies and TV shows and certainly passed the hours agreeably enough.
On arrival into Toronto, I made my way to the US Connections Centre. Sadly there are very few washrooms on the way. Connections to the US were quick and easy but I can see the process confusing some. Following signs to the F gates, one is led into a large room. The first step is to scan one’s boarding pass into a computer terminal and one answers a few questions confirming name and number of bags checked in. At the end of the process one is told to check a board for the first three letters of one’s family name, initial and destination. There are US declaration cards available to fill out but the pens were not working and it wasn’t clear where the forms were kept. I sat in the waiting area for a few moments until my name came up and I proceeded to be interviewed by a US customs agent. There was no waiting for the agent, the whole process was over in minutes and I headed to the security control. Again, no waiting and it was over quickly. I headed to the Maple Leaf Lounge where the lounge agent informed me that the flight was delayed.
The flight to Chicago left an hour and twenty minutes late due to the well-publicized air traffic control restrictions. Service consisted of a beverage service only. Announcements, as always with Air Canada, were made in English and French but the French was unintelligible. The entertainment system offered a fine choice of movies and TV shows. Upon arrival as soon as I got to the baggage claim, my bag was waiting for me.
Now I don’t know whether this was just the time of day that I chose or whether this is the way it always is but connecting to the US through Toronto was an easy and hassle-free experience. I can see some people being confused by the process – there was a gentleman in front of me who was. The only issue is Air Canada’s hard product. If you are lucky to have the right aircraft and crew it can be a pleasure to fly with them but with the latest aircraft, unless you are lucky enough to fly in their Executive Class, then I would consider carefully whether this is an option that works.