What To Expect, How To Prepare
Earlier this month, I flew Ottawa-Vancouver and back. In this post, I'll give you a first-hand look at the experience, and a nerd's-eye-view of what to expect when travelling domestically with Air Canada during the COVID pandemic.
Long story short, despite a few wrinkles left to iron out, their airport & in-flight teams are doing about as good a job as you can reasonably expect. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for their customer service before you get to the airport.
Please note that I'm not a medical professional, and I'm not giving advice here for or against flying right now. I'm sharing a first-hand account of my recent experience for anyone who finds it useful, that's all.
Let's get started!
BOOKING (AND REBOOKING, AND REBOOKING)
I took advantage of Aeroplan's "50% off" award promo back in June, and booked a round-trip Economy ticket from Ottawa to Vancouver for 12,500 Aeroplan miles instead of the usual 25,000. Aside from being a great deal, frequent-flyer rewards are one of the only ways to buy an Air Canada flight that's refundable during COVID cancellations, rebookings and delays. Here's why that's important:
When I booked, Air Canada was offering four daily directs from Ottawa to Vancouver, especially surprising as they didn't fly that much before COVID. Sadly, this turned out to be a straight-up bait-and-switch, as two weeks after I booked, Air Canada published a "schedule change" cancelling three out of the four direct flights and putting everyone into a single packed aircraft. On a cash ticket, I'd have had no choice but to take that packed flight or take a "future flight credit" voucher, but Aeroplan award tickets remain refundable.
That said, during COVID Air Canada has a very sensible policy that if your aircraft is 70% full or more, shortly before departure they'll let you change to another flight free of charge. This would be terrific, but they don't permit this change until less than 24 hours prior to departure, even if the flight filled up weeks ago.
This is especially frustrating since, as a 75K status holder, I was keen to use eUpgrade points to move to Business Class, and the extra days of delay meant nearly all the upgrade space was gone by the time an Air Canada agent was permitted to touch my booking.
CHECK-IN + SECURITY - OTTAWA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Air Canada have clearly put a lot of thought into the COVID airport experience from start to finish, and that's commendable. Agents were encouraging departing passengers to print their own baggage tags from touchscreen kiosks, rather than see an agent at the counter.
...but after the kiosk showed me a "please see an agent at the counter" message, I watched the next four passengers in line struggle with the kiosks, and a helpful Air Canada agent help them by touching their phones, their boarding passes and their luggage.
Air Canada have long been known for IT breakdowns, and in this case it does lead directly to a break in their otherwise-well-considered COVID protocols. I definitely recommend carrying a small packet of disinfectant wipes in your carry-on.
Bag checked, I headed to security. For comparison, at 8 AM on a weekday, this line is usually completely full:
...and this hallway is usually packed.
Before clearing security, an airport agent gave us a quick forehead-scan temperature check. It looks like the policy here is to scan each passenger as they clear security, rather than before each individual flight.
After clearing security, I wandered a truly empty terminal while waiting to board. Virtually everything is closed, aside from one coffee shop and convenience store, and Ottawa Airport have wisely taken the opportunity to forge ahead with major renovations to the terminal.
Ottawa-Toronto is normally one of the busiest routes in Canada, with over 40 daily direct flights each way, but during COVID this is down to 8, almost all of which have been moved to smaller aircraft like our Embraer 175. That said, my flight to Toronto was packed, and I was definitely glad of the upgrade for a little extra breathing room.
ON BOARD - AIR CANADA REGIONAL BUSINESS CLASS
Air Canada have made much of their "CleanCare+" program of additional aircraft cleaning during COVID, and it shows; even a year ago, I would wipe down armrests and high-touch areas before taking my seat, and in past this has shown up a pretty gross amount of dirt on Air Canada aircraft. They've made a real improvement in this area, hopefully for good.
Face coverings are required at all times on board Air Canada flights, except while eating or drinking. I haven't seen staff enforce this, but ironically on the whole trip, the only passengers I encountered who weren't wearing a mask, were two uniformed Air Canada pilots seemingly commuting to work.
Every passenger is issued a COVID "amenity kit" with a mask, gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, as well as headphones for the in-flight entertainment.
Also included is a bottle of water and a small bag of pretzels, currently replacing the in-flight service on most short Air Canada flights. More on that below.
The kit is a thoughtful touch that really suggests a lot of thought has been put into each part of a passenger's in-flight experience. This program has to be costing Air Canada quite a bit, especially as each passenger is given a new kit on each connecting flight, although that last bit also means that after a day's travel, you do end up with a pretty remarkable - if understandable - amount of garbage:
With no other aircraft departing within half an hour, we departed right on time, and shortly after began the truly bizarre experience of a nearly-empty Toronto International Airport.
AT THE AIRPORT - TORONTO PEARSON INTERNATIONAL
Normally one of the top 10 busiest airports in North America (equal to Las Vegas or Seattle), Toronto Pearson saw nearly 1,200 passenger flights every day in the summer of 2019. Now, even months into the post-lockdown recovery, that's down to less than 100 a day, so the terminal is pretty much deserted.
I had time to stop through Air Canada's recently-reopened Maple Leaf Lounge, which has also been carefully rearranged. The agent told me they've had complaints from a lot of frequent flyers, but personally I think the new catering setup is a huge improvement over the old setup, combining necessary COVID safety measures with considerably better food.
The old self-serve bar and buffet setup was obviously going to be tough to continue in these low-touch times, so they've simply blocked both off, and added service staff who'll build you a plate to order and pour drinks on request.
The self-service buffet had been dominated by things like "pasta with tomato sauce" and "miscellaneous salad". It's now been replaced by Air Canada Café items like chick-pea salad and turkey-Provolone sandwiches, along with personal-sized bags of chips and full-sized chocolate bars. I always found the buffet food pretty rough, and I consider these changes an absolute win.
There's also an a-la-carte menu available for longer lounge visits; guests scan a QR code with their smartphones, and order made-to-order hot items like mac and cheese off a digital menu, to be delivered directly to their seat by a server.
It'll come as no surprise that the lounge showers are blocked off, along with the open office cubicles and boardroom. It was interesting to peek into a side room and get an idea of how much has changed, from the stacks of tables and chairs that have been pulled out of the main seating area to maintain physical distancing!
Heading off to my flight, it really was hard to comprehend how empty the terminal was compared to my last visit, rushing home from Europe on March 13th. As with Ottawa-Toronto, the Toronto-Vancouver route is normally among Air Canada's busiest, with the previous 17 daily direct flights cut down to just 6.
Toronto normally sees hundreds of passenger flights a day; here, a full day at Terminal One is less than eighty.
This flight was a fully-packed Dreamliner, and loading 298 people through a single door while maintaining physical distance is a challenge no matter how you do it, but Air Canada's gate staff did a careful job of calling zone numbers one at a time, and making an effort to keep the usual mosh-pit of a gate lineup in reasonable shape for an on-time departure.
...everybody takes a different approach to COVID protection. Having had it myself back in March, I completely understand anyone wanting to take a little extra care to avoid it.
ON BOARD - AIR CANADA SIGNATURE (BUSINESS) CLASS
Air Canada's Dreamliners (and now all of its widebody aircraft save for a few of its oldest Airbus 330-300s) are equipped with the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seat in business class. Not the most comfortable lie-flat seat for a tall side-sleeper like me, but does offer wide spacing and high surrounding walls, which are both private and very much welcome when flying on a packed aircraft during a pandemic.
In addition to another of the "COVID cleaning kit" described above, each seat comes with a sealed, freshly-washed set of bedding, though as this was an afternon flight I didn't get into it. Sadly, the usual noise-cancelling headphones are removed, but then again I don't know what you'd have to do to clean those things between each passenger's use.
UPDATE: Air Canada's clearly worked hard on its CleanCare program, but there's a LOT of room for improvement: when I arrived for my next Air Canada flight six weeks later, I found that under the carefully-cleaned-and-wrapped bedding was a pair of old, dirty socks, presumably from a previous passenger. No two ways about it, this is an absolutely massive failure on Air Canada's part, I cannot see how anyone doing even the most basic level of cleaning would have missed this, let alone the deep, careful sanitization Air Canada touts.
Anyway, back to the original report:
Five months since my last flight is the longest gap I've had since high school, so I may have gotten a little too excited as the engines spooled up.
I definitely accepted a drink, when it was offered, especially since Air Canada has moved to single-serving containers on all items, and ridiculous mini-champagne is hard to pass up.
Here's to the idea that things might get back to normal some day.
Air Canada have put a lot of effort into their menus over the years, partnering with celebrity chefs like David Hawksworth and Vikram Vij to create route-specific menus. Their usual multi-course offering is suspended indefinitely; in the last few weeks they've launched an interim "bento box" service for the business and premium-economy cabins, which was honestly every bit as good as could reasonably be asked of a pre-packaged wrap and a bun in a bag.
Meal service was definitely different than usual, with all staff wearing head-to-toe pandemic PPE, politely dropping off the meal boxes and a round of drinks, then disappearing for the rest of the flight. Pretty understandable, and when I asked for a second drink a few hours into the flight, they were happy to bring one over.
Meal service is similar in Premium Economy - more on that below - while in Economy, all food service remains suspended, though service of soft drinks, juice and coffee has now resumed on longer domestic flights. Definitely worth bringing a water bottle aboard, especially on long flights, to stay hydrated.
About halfway through the flight, the usual basket of snack selections was replaced by a single-option offering of a can of Pringles and a small dark-chocolate bar, which is certainly more than I'd have taken if offered a choice, but a simple way to maintain this part of the service without having each passenger pawing through a basket of treats.
AT THE AIRPORT - VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL
Five uneventful hours and an on-time arrival later, we deplaned at Vancouver.
After seeing Ottawa and Toronto airports carefully blocking banks of seats to ensure physical distancing, it was a bit of a surprise to walk past gates of waiting patrons packed shoulder-to-shoulder at Vancouver!
On our return trip through Montreal, I had a similar experience, with much of the terminal nearly as busy as it had been pre-COVID. If you're on a longer layover, walking five minutes down the terminal at either Vancouver or Montreal should let you find an empty gate to sit at with a little more breathing room.
Departing Vancouver on the return trip, we stopped in at the newly-reopened Maple Leaf Lounge which, like its eastern sibling, was wholly rearranged to focus on low-touch service and social spacing.
One element I didn't have the chance to try on my Toronto lounge visit was the opportunity to scan a QR-code menu, and order hot menu items delivered directly to your table. This is a huge improvement that, prior to COVID, would be expected only in an exclusive first-class lounge, and it's a great way to replace a high-touch buffet service.
I ordered the David Hawksworth-designed Cod Cakes, and while it was a great offering by lounge standards, it had obviously come straight out of a microwave.
The rest of the lounge service was similar to what's offered in Toronto, cold sandwiches and salads brought over from the Air Canada Cafe menu. A pretty reasonable offering, as airport lounge food goes.
ON BOARD - AIR CANADA PREMIUM ECONOMY
For the trip back home to Ottawa, I chose Premium Economy so I could review and report back, but honestly there's not much to tell. As always, the main attraction with Premium Economy is a slightly larger armchair than you'd get in Economy, with similar food and drink to what you'd get in Business, for a price somewhere between the two and as always, that's what Air Canada delivers.
The seat is a huge improvement over Economy, 2" wider and with up to 8" more legroom, making it slightly smaller than the business-class seat you'd get one one of Air Canada's smaller aircraft. Definitely a big bonus for any flight more than a few hours.
One word of warning - the bulkhead seats in Premium Economy have considerably reduced legroom, which would be really uncomfortable for a taller person on a long flight.
Inflight service on this flight was a smaller "box-lunch" concept than what was provided in business class on the outbound flight, and features the same fruit-and-cheese plate normally offered in the Economy class buy-on-board service.
Regardless of the customer-service fiasco Air Canada has undergone during the COVID pandemic, with thousands and thousands of - rightly - angry customers denied refunds for cancelled flights, they have clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making the airport and on-board experiences as normal as possible during a thoroughly abnormal time.
They've worked hard to come up with procedures to reduce the risk of COVID transmission between passengers, and while it's not hard to imagine that the last six months have been especially rough on anyone who works for an airline, between the constant threat of layoffs and planes full of agitated passengers, every Air Canada staffer I encountered on this trip was clearly working hard to provide the same service level as always.
Now, if they could come up with a refund and rebooking policy that made sense, they'd really have something here!