Genuine hospitality and a cutting-edge new business class product have helped Air Canada spearhead premium travel in North America and across to Asia, discovers Nick Walton on a recent flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver.
I checked in for my flight online, dropping my bags off at Hong Kong International Airport’s Terminal 1 and making my way to the signature Royal Orchid lounge of Thai Airways, Air Canada’s Star Alliance partner, located above gate 40. An expansive and well-appointed space, the lounge was very busy when I arrived, with very few seats available due to imminent departures by Thai Airways, Air New Zealand, and Air Canada flights. Eventually, I found a seat and browsed the hot and cold buffet, which boasts Thai and Western salads and hot dishes, as well as a selection of savory pastries. There was a fully stocked bar and helpful crew were always on hand. Upon the boarding announcement, I made my way down to gate 49 to board the Air Canada 777-300ER.
After an efficient boarding process, I found my seat, 3A, on the port side of the 1-2-1 configured Signature Class business cabin. The two-class 777-300ER operated by Air Canada features two business class cabins with a total of 42 seats. Although the cabin initially looks a little cramped, you quickly realize there is real ergonomics at play here, both at a cabin and seat level. This groundbreaking product is the newest generation of the airline’s Signature Class and will become the carrier’s international standard as it is rolled out across the fleet.
At 80-inches long and 21-inches wide, these great business class seats are worthy of their name – Executive Pods. Available on the airline’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner and on selected 777-300ERs, these innovative Executive Pods are a dream for long-haul travel – there’s plenty of storage; adjustable pneumatic cushions and a massage function for lumbar support and comfort; a large tray that slides directly from beneath a large 18-inch touch-screen monitor (the largest for any North American carrier), and easily-accessible USB and AC ports, both of which are secreted, along with a remote control for the entertainment system, in a flush, deep-set draw at the center of a large armrest, which proved ideal for storing tablets and documents while you’re sleeping.
With the addition of single-pin audio jacks (for those who like to bring their own headphones), a touch-screen for seat position, supplied noise-reduction headphones, personal airflow, and access to an extensive range of movies, television programs, and music channels, this is one of our favorite business class setups to date.
We were welcomed into the spotlessly clean cabin by cheerful Air Canada crew who directed us to our seats. Water bottles and amenity kits had already been delivered to each seat, which is a great time saver for cabin attendants. Crew delivered menus, served glasses of champagne, and took post-take-off drink orders as the cabin filled up. We pulled back from the gate on time and departed soon after with an estimated 11 hour 35 minute flight time.
I did think it was a little odd that Air Canada is the first airline I’ve encountered to only allow bud earphones (supplied) to be used until after take-off, but I am sure they have their reasons (the noise reduction headsets are distributed to business class passengers after takeoff).
Air Canada’s service levels immediately shone through, perhaps because like many travelers living in Asia I understood North American carriers as a whole to be famous for their surly staff, ancient planes, and constant excuses. Air Canada quickly showed it was an exception to the rule; charming, mature cabin crew introduced themselves and quickly began a seamless service of dinner, with hot towels, warm nuts, and a well-measured gin and tonic.
In fact, throughout the flight crew patrolled the cabin and were always happy to help – no hiding in the galley through 90 percent of the flight for this lot. Legacy carriers in Asia could take a few notes from Air Canada’s service manual.
Dining – Dinner
Dinner started approximately 40 minutes after takeoff with an appetizer of smoked duck breast with microgreens, fresh orange, diced green apple, red chard, and zesty prune chutney. This was followed by the choice of pan-seared beef tenderloin with port wine sauce, mashed potatoes and ratatouille; pan-fried chicken breast with café de Paris butter, herb barley and peppers, green zucchini and baby carrots; halibut with tomato salsa, brown rice, and pumpkin; and stewed diced pork with celery, carrots, corn, fried brassica rice, and baked eggplant.
Meals were accompanied by a selection of warm bread and a side salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, artichoke, and balsamic, and matched with a wine selection by world-renowned oenologist Ken Chase that included Champagne Drappier Cart d’Or Brut, as well as white wines from Italy and France, red wines from Argentina, Australia and South Africa, and a Dow’s port from Portugal.
The chicken was perfectly cooked and proportioned and was followed by the option of cherry-oat crumble, fresh seasonal fruit, and a selection of cheese – Red Cheddar, Gouda, and Brie – with fruit and crackers. I matched the cheese with the Dow’s after one of the best meals I’ve had at 39,000ft.
On its long-haul flights, the airline offers an Express Light Meal Option, which is served first after takeoff and simply skips the main, allowing for more sleep. There’s also a Flexible All-Inclusive Option, which means you can order your main, salad, and cheese whenever you feel like it.
In addition to a self-service snack basket kept in the galley (a great excuse to move around the cabin a little), Air Canada also offers At Your Leisure snacks, which include hot noodle soup with pork and prawn wontons and gai-lan; a Gammon ham and Gruyere toasted rye bread sandwich; and a salad of fennel, orange, cherry tomato, and green zucchini.
Dining – Brunch
Brunch, which was served 75 minutes before landing, included fresh orange juice, seasonal fruit, croissants, apple, and cinnamon danishes. There was also a choice of a chive omelet with herb-roasted new potatoes, chicken chipolata sausage, and roasted tomato; Chinese congee with chicken, mushroom, and spring onion; and assorted steamed dumplings with XO sauce. The dumplings were light but delicious, the XO sauce and a Lavazza double espresso both offering a little pick me up as we arrived in Vancouver in the late afternoon.
Rest & Relaxation
During my meal I made the most of the airline’s entertainment system, catching up on one classic movie and one new release before beginning to doze off. The system boasts over 600 hours of programming, with gate-to-gate access, which is always appreciated. The screen’s positioning and size makes for a near-cinematic experience that really helps the hours fly by.
When in bed mode, the seat’s cushion is very comfortable, especially when matched with a warm duvet and an oversized pillow, and I managed to fall asleep easily. The airline’s amenity kit is also well thought out and consists of a toothbrush, socks, an eye mask, and earplugs, and moisturizer and lip balm by Canadian brand Escents Aromatherapy, all packed into a chic little grey case.
What We Loved
What I was most impressed by was the quality of the service, on this, and my three subsequent flights with Air Canada. In Asia, we are used to rather robotic but polite service that lacks a sense of authenticity and experience. The Air Canada crew made every request seem a breeze and that alone made me feel very comfortable and welcomed.
What We Didn’t
Although the Executive Pod is a great piece of engineering I did find it a little cramped around knee level, below the screen, when in bed mode, which made “rolling over” a little tricky. I found slipping further down the seat eased this quickly.
Well-priced, with great service, market-leading hardware, and a truly elegant dining proposition, Air Canada’s Signature Class on its 777-300ER impressed the pants off us on our journey from Hong Kong to Vancouver.
Note: The author traveled on a full-fare business class ticket and reviewed their experience without the airline’s knowledge.
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