It’s worth your time: A review of Air Canada business class on the Boeing 777-300ER
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You often need to connect when flying on international routes, especially if you leave from a U.S. city without many long-haul connections. The Big Three legacy airlines in the U.S. all compete to route a share of these passengers through their gateway airports, especially in business class. Both American and United have built top-notch lounges for their biz and elite-status flyers, and Delta is joining in.
But it’s not just the U.S. airlines that are vying for your dollars. Air Canada offers a compelling case for connecting in one of its hub airports. It’s rebranding its long-haul biz offering as the Signature Class and has introduced new amenity kits, a chauffeur service for domestic connections and one of the best lounges in North America — the Signature Suite in Toronto.
After flying Air Canada from New York to Frankfurt, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. The airline’s business class scored above average, and would have scored even better but for subpar service from the cabin crew.
I’m working to re-qualify for United Premier 1K, so I’ve been flying preferred partner airlines on long-haul flights to help boost my balance of PQP, United’s Premier Qualifying Points. By issuing the ticket with a MileagePlus partner airline, you earn PQPs based on the distance flown and fare class purchased, which often yields more points than if purchasing the ticket directly through United.
However, in this case, the difference wasn’t much, so I booked directly with United. The fare was $1,358 (about £1,053) — not bad for a biz flight to Europe.
Had there been points availability, I could’ve redeemed with one of the following Star Alliance member partners for the Toronto (YYZ) to Frankfurt (FRA) route:
- Air Canada Aeroplan for 55,000 miles
- Avianca Lifemiles for 63,000 miles
- United MileagePlus for 70,000 miles (or more, since United has introduced dynamic award pricing.)
My time with Air Canada began early on a frigid February morning in New York, where I quickly checked in at LaGuardia for both of my outbound flights at one of the empty Priority counters.
The check-in agents were surprised by my long connection in Toronto. Maybe they hadn’t visited the Signature Suite there. If they had, they might have understood why I wanted to spend so much time in an airline lounge.
After a visit to the Centurion Lounge, it was time for the short hop to Toronto.
My one-hour flight on an Embraer 175 regional jet was uneventful. After landing in Toronto, I followed the purple signs for connections. The transborder-to-international transit process couldn’t have been simpler, and I’d be happy to connect through Canada again.
With my boarding pass marked ITI OSS (International to International One Stop Security), the only formality I needed to complete was a quick document check.
A five-minute walk got me to the automated passport readers, which quickly verified my status as a transfer passenger and printed a receipt which I showed to the agent at the door to the international departure area.
The timestamp on the receipt showed that the transfer process was completed about 10 minutes after my LGA flight had parked at the gate.
My transit was seamless. It only would have been better had I been connecting from a domestic Canadian flight: Biz passengers get a chauffeured BMW ride from their domestic flight to the international concourse.
Once inside the international E gates departure area, I made a beeline for the Signature Suite.
This is Air Canada’s most exclusive lounge, open only to passengers flying on a paid business-class ticket on intercontinental flights operated by the airline. If you booked using miles, no dice. My YYZ-FRA flight qualified, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.
My five hours there were simply amazing. By the time my flight was ready for boarding, this had definitely become my favourite business-class lounge in North America.
The only thing missing in the Signature Suite is showers, so I quickly checked out the regular Maple Leaf Lounge, accessible to all biz passengers. It’s a big step down from the Suite, but it has two showers.
Though decidedly not luxurious, the shower got the job done. After a quick refresh, I headed back to the Signature Suite to relax before boarding.
Even though the inbound aircraft was delayed by 30 minutes, boarding began on time, with wheelchair passengers boarding first. The Boeing 777-300ER is the largest plane in the Air Canada fleet; this particular one still wore the airline’s previous color scheme.
We were departing from Gate E73, which got quite congested as the 4:55 p.m. departure time grew closer.
Before long, Zone 1 passengers were invited to board. As a reviewer, I appreciated that Air Canada boards families and others needing extra time down the jet bridge after the biz cabin (wheelchairs still went first). That way, I didn’t have to worry too much about other passengers getting in my cabin pictures.
Cabin and Seat
Though Air Canada didn’t really customize the standard B/E Aerospace Super Diamond reverse-herringbone seats, I loved the finishes, especially the heather-gray seat covers. Air Canada calls these seats Executive Pods, and that description fits perfectly with the cabin design.
As is typical with reverse-herringbone seats, the cabin is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration with direct aisle access for each seat.
Air Canada has two versions of the 777-300ER, and mine was the premium-heavy configuration with two biz cabins.
The larger seven-row cabin occupies the space between doors 1 and 2. I was seated in 10K, a window seat in the three-row mini-cabin behind it.
If you fly this bird in biz, I highly recommend selecting a seat in the mini-cabin. It’s significantly more private and quieter than the larger cabin up front.
Each pod has large footwells and a good amount of counter storage space.
The regular footwells are large and even larger in bulkhead seats.
There’s no dedicated place to keep shoes, however.
Air Canada chose to add a small enclosed storage compartment on the counter, which was a great place to put my wallet and phone during the flight.
The literature pocket has an extra divider for keeping an iPad or laptop secure. The aisle armrest can be raised or lowered to add a bit more width to the otherwise tight 21 inches from side to side.
There’s also a small compartment under the armrest which was great for storing a bottle of water and other loose items.
These Executive Pods offer a fair amount of privacy. Between the privacy shield at the aisle and the staggering of each row, I didn’t feel too exposed. However, this is no substitute for a door, like you’d find on ANA‘s new biz class or with Delta One Suites.
If you’re travelling solo and in a middle seat, there’s a large privacy divider that can be raised during flight to separate you from your neighbor.
The 17 x 17-inch bifold tray table slides down from just underneath the IFE monitor and can be moved forward and back. Though it doesn’t swivel, it moves enough to allow for easy egress during a meal.
It was large enough to fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro without an issue.
The seat controls are located on the five-inch monitor on the side of the seat and include some preset options, like bed and takeoff/landing mode.
You can also control the seat’s lighting, mattress firmness, lumbar support and headrest location from it.
When it’s time for some shut-eye, the seat reclines to a fully flat bed almost 6 feet, 2 inches long. I rarely have issues sleeping in reverse-herringbone seats and this flight was no exception.
Air Canada nailed the basics on this 777, with two individual air nozzles for each seat as well as large overhead bins.
There are three standard-size restrooms for a 40-seat cabin and two of them even have windows, something you typically see only on the newest jets.
I had two real issues with the seat. The first is the massive airbag on the seat belt, which is quite uncomfortable when sleeping. Though I’m not sure of the exact safety requirements, I would’ve preferred if Air Canada had used a shoulder harness like United does in Polaris.
And when sleeping sideways, my legs kept banging into the fixed tray table. I wished for more legroom between the footwell and the tray table.
Overall, the seat is definitely above average, though not nearly as revolutionary as some of the other top biz products criss-crossing the globe.
Nonetheless, I’d happily choose to fly in an Executive Pod again.
Amenities and IFE
Air Canada offers a refined assortment of amenities and top-notch IFE.
There were plenty of goodies waiting at my seat, including a mattress pad, light comforter and pillow. The pillow was a bit too thin for my liking and there weren’t any extras available, but all the bedding combined to provide an excellent three-hour rest.
Additionally, there was a Want Les Essentiels amenity kit waiting on the counter. It was well stocked and had all the basics: toothbrush, mouthwash, socks, eye mask, earplugs, screen cloth and Vitruvi lip balm and hand cream. I particularly appreciated that Air Canada added mouthwash and a well-padded eye mask.
Unlike on other leading airlines, there weren’t any pajamas or slippers for biz passengers.
To keep your gadgets powered, there is an AC outlet and USB port in the seat’s enclosed storage compartment.
This is also where you’ll find the 4.7-inch remote control. The remote worked well, but I used the touchscreen to control the 18-inch hi-def monitor. (The display on the remote is also touch-sensitive.)
The IFE was stocked with loads of varied and relevant content. There were 384 movies, including 52 new releases like “Antigone,” “Downton Abbey” and “The Lion King.” There were also a bunch of TV shows, including full seasons of many popular HBO shows like “Big Little Lies,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Succession.”
The IFE software offered refinements like a “Filter by Finish on Flight” button that allowed you to only browse content that you could finish in whatever time was remaining on the flight. Furthermore, instead of turning your screen off, you could display a dimly lit message for flight attendants to see, telling them whether they should wake you up for meals or let you sleep. Finally, the IFE supported night mode to adjust the colors of the display to the warmer end of the spectrum, making it easier on your eyes.
The IFE did have a few shortcomings. There wasn’t any live TV or external camera, and the live map wasn’t customizable.
Worst of all, the unbranded noise-isolating headphones that were provided were of terrible quality. And like on American Airlines, they were collected well before landing — 30 minutes in this case.
Gogo satellite Wi-Fi was available to purchase. You could choose from a slower Browse option or faster Stream one. I selected the latter, which cost 29.75 CAD (£17.35) for the full flight. Speeds were impressive at 15 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
On a short overnight flight, I’m looking to dine and sleep.
What Air Canada provided was not at all what I wanted. The food was very good, but the speed of the service was unacceptable.
After boarding, the purser came through the cabin with menus (pro tip: they’re available online too) and came back shortly thereafter to collect meal orders.
The menu was curated by Canadian celebrity chef David Hawksworth and featured four dinner-entree choices.
The drink selection was extensive as well. Air Canada serves the respectable Laurent Perrier Brut Champagne, as well as a bunch of wines and liquors, including Molson Canadian beer.
There was also a breakfast card tucked into the menu to allow you to pre-order your selection. There was a full continental breakfast served 75 minutes before landing or a to-go breakfast box delivered during the initial descent. Unsurprisingly, most passengers chose a third option — more sleep — and ate breakfast after landing.
For the sake of the review, I chose to have the full dinner and breakfast. If I had not been reviewing, I definitely would have skipped the service and instead eaten a larger meal at the Signature Suite before the flight.
Drink orders were taken a full 50 minutes after departure. I chose the Air Canada Signature Cocktail, which was served alongside a glass of still water and a ramekin of mixed nuts.
It wasn’t until 90 minutes into the flight that the starters were brought out. I don’t eat lobster, so I picked around the appetizer, but I enjoyed the small mixed-green salad. I was also offered a choice of white or brown bread, and selected both.
The entrees were delivered a full two hours into the flight. At this point, I was growing quite frustrated at how long the service was taking, but I briefly forgot about those concerns when I enjoyed the delicious roasted salmon with harissa sauce.
A cheese course was served 30 minutes after the mains, and the dessert cart came rolling down the aisle another 30 minutes later. The vanilla white chocolate cream puff is labeled as a Hawksworth signature dish, and it was one of the better airplane desserts I’ve had in a long time.
At this point, we were halfway to Frankfurt, so I immediately went to bed.
I awoke exactly 75 minutes before landing to the sound of breakfast dishes clattering in the galley. My continental breakfast was served shortly thereafter and consisted of Quaker oatmeal, muesli, yoghurt, fruit and blueberry muffin. Nothing was particularly good, but it hit the spot.
Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the dinner service, if not with the service flow. Had I been flying a true long-haul flight, I definitely would’ve enjoyed the food even more.
This is where Air Canada really faltered. Though the service in the Signature Suite was on par with what I’ve experienced in many first-class lounges, the service onboard was exactly the opposite.
There was no personalized welcome-aboard greeting. Instead, it was a curt and harried question of whether I wanted sparkling wine, water or orange juice as my predeparture beverage. When I asked for water, the flight attendant didn’t have any left on her tray and recommended that I drink from the bottle that was already waiting at my seat.
The only other predeparture interaction I had with the flight attendant was her stern warning to every passenger to be careful with their cellphones: If a phone dropped between or underneath the seat, there would be absolutely no way to retrieve it.
Hot towels were distributed about 20 minutes after takeoff. When it was time for them to get collected, the flight attendant just stood by my seat waiting for me to give her the towel. There was no “excuse me” or “pardon.”
About an hour into the flight, another flight attendant came by to collect my breakfast card. Again there was no “excuse me,” and this time, the flight attendant was downright flustered that I hadn’t yet filled it out. I explained that I didn’t have a pen handy (the seatbelt sign had been on for most of the flight until then). She shrugged her shoulders.
Service throughout the meal felt like an assembly line. Dinner took way too long, everything was served from carts, and drinks were only refilled when new courses were brought.
Air Canada offers a very competitive business-class product. If you’re connecting from a domestic Canadian flight, you start with a BMW ride to the lounge. Even if you’re just connecting from the U.S., you’ll still spend time in what’s arguably the best airline lounge in North America.
Once on board, you’ll enjoy above-average reverse-herringbone seats, which are great for both sleeping and relaxation. There’s plenty of IFE and speedy Wi-Fi to keep you occupied, and a tasty menu to keep you well fed.
The service needs improvement, but I wouldn’t hesitate to fly again with Air Canada.
All photos by the author.
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