As the concert-touring industry finally gets back to its feet after two ugly years of pandemic shutdown, I'm absolutely thrilled to head back overseas for work again.
My routing to Lollapalooza South America included Air Canada's "fifth freedom" flights between Brazil and Argentina, in which they send direct flights from Toronto and Montreal to São Paulo, then consolidate the onward Argentina passengers onto a single aircraft.
On this trip, I used Aeroplan eUpgrade credits to move up to Signature Class the whole way.
This trip actually begins at my home base of Ottawa International Airport, with a short hop on an Air Canada Q400; while there's not much interesting to report about "boarded a small, all-economy regional turboprop for 20 minutes", YOW often hosts a variety of interesting visitors, like this Airbus CC-150 Polaris bringing home Canada's Prime Minister and his team from NATO meetings:
...but let's not get sidetracked. After a short and uneventful hop over to Montreal, I passed through the one-way digital gates into YUL's International wing, through the duty-free shop and onward to the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge just past Gate 52. I had access to the MLL in this case as a business-class passenger, though if I'd misssed the upgrade I'd still have been eligible with any form of Star Alliance Gold status, in my case Air Canada Super Elite.
This is by far my favourite Maple Leaf Lounge, newer and better-appointed than most of the network, and includes both low-key relaxing side areas and a brighter, airier main hall with full-service bar.
The International Lounge has always had some of the better food in the network, including freshly-prepared items from a chef's station. While Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounges are gradually resuming their pre-pandemic food-service offerings, the hot food service is still done using Air Canada's innovative "@ La Table" system; each seat in the lounge has a QR code and an NFC token embedded, which allows guests to custom-order items from the hot-food menu for delivery direct to their seats.
From what I've heard from Air Canada's leadership team, the response to this program has been overwhelmingly positive both during and post-pandemic, and it sounds like this one might be here to stay, which is terrific news as far as I'm concerned.
Air Canada have obviously put some thought into providing an interesting and changing menu of regionally-targeted dishes that are a huge improvement over the old vats of soup and buffet trays of wilted salad. Here's a look at the menu from my visit, including the 'signature dishes' from guest chefs Park, Ferrer & Hawksworth:
I've had several of these items before and they're almost all quite good, but with a substantial in-flight meal service only a few hours away, I didn't want to overdo things. At the very least, I felt like I should try Montreal's signature dish, the smoked-meat sandwich, pictured here in its most famous incarnation in a photo from legendary Montreal kosher deli Schwartz's:
...and here's the Air Canada version.
The best I can say is that they did fairly well on flavour, but absolutely failed on presentation. OK, fine, COVID isn't quite over and it's not easy to plate food attractively in a disposable box, and I appreciate the use of recyclable or low-waste containers, but this just felt... sad. Worse still, when you look inside, they've done that old convenience-store trick where they pile up a whole bunch of filling in the first inch of the sandwich to make it look full.
I'm not trying to whine about a free sandwich here; my thing is that Air Canada's trying to build a whole, cohesive "gourmet chef" brand around their lounge and in-flight service, and this kind of fast-food service undercuts that pretty hard.
I also ordered the vegetable spring roll, and it was terrific. Crisp, flavourful, and well-presented. The only thing missing from this meal was the brilliant salted-caramel ice cream offered in AC's Calgary lounge!
Okay, we're well into this review and I haven't set foot on an airplane yet, so let's make the short walk from the lounge down to Gate 52, for a slightly-chaotic boarding process: after calling dozens of passengers for passport checks, they called boarding for Zone 1 about forty minutes behind schedule.
On this flight, we're aboard one of Air Canada's Boeing 787-800 Dreamliners, but as AC has standardized the same "Signature Class" pod across its whole long-haul fleet, you'll find essentially the same seat on every long-haul Air Canada route, with a few slight differences on the Airbus 330s.
There's ample storage around the seat, including a small sleeve at knee level on the window side that fit my Macbook perfectly. A universal power socket is located inside the tray behind the elbow-mounted touchscreen, and was just enough to charge my small Macbook Pro.
In-flight entertainment is presented on a nice, high-definition touchscreen, with a fairly deep and varied selection of movies, TV shows, music and podcasts. Long Air Canada flights have become my go-to venue to watch whatever Marvel blockbuster came out a few months ago, but I may have been the only person on the plane who didn't watch House Of Gucci at some point in the flight.
Over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones are provided, though Air Canada has a strange habit of collecting these up to an hour before landing, so you may end up watching that last episode of whatever you're binging on the small in-ear buds they provide as replacement.
In-flight wifi was offered at a reasonable price, though I ended up using a gifted code from Aeroplan and I confess I forgot to write down the prices for paid wifi passes. The service was steady throughout the flight, and let me get a few hours of work done throughout the flight.
The amenity kit contains everything you'd expect for a long-haul business-class flight; eyeshade, socks, dental kit, earplugs, high-end hand lotion, and a microfiber cleaning cloth I assume is meant for eyeglasses. It's all contained in a designer pouch I've since found to be perfect for packing my various plugs and cables aboard a flight.
While I'm looking forward to a new pair of Qantas pajamas on my Los Angeles-Sydney flight next week, sadly sleepwear is not something Air Canada offers on flights of any length.
A drinks service was offered shortly after takeoff; I give Air Canada extra credit for including both Canadian and Argentinian wines on this route, though I started with a glass of the perfectly-reasonable (obviously French) Laurent-Perrier champagne before moving into the Argentinian reds.
Dinner service was prompt, with the appetizer arriving about 30 minutes after takeoff.
The smoked-salmon appetizer was flavourful and not too heavy, though as a light sleeper even in a lie-flat pod, I confess "food coma" is pretty much what I'm going for on an overnight long-haul like this.
For the main course on this flight I went with the chicken stew, which was fine but nothing to write home about. The chocolate brownie offered for dessert honestly tasted like it had just come out of a wrapper.
After dinner it was straight to bed; the Signature pod is a decent setup for lounging and working, but larger passengers may find it a bit of a tight fit to sleep. As a tall guy who sleeps on his side, I'm pretty much limited to one sleeping position where my knees don't hit the wall, and I've got about an inch above my head and one below my feet, but once I got settled in it was fairly comfortable. The bedding kit includes a mattress pad, a proper duvet, and a pillow that if anything is a bit TOO large and fluffy, and the mattress itself can be inflated or deflated to your desired level of firmness.
I managed four or five hours of fitful sleep, but that's not Air Canada's fault, I've slept well on exactly one flight out of hundreds in my life, and that only after I'd been awake for two days straight working on a rain-soaked rock concert in Australia.
Breakfast was offered about ninety minutes before arrival in Sao Paolo, and in this area of catering Air Canada is notoriously inconsistent. They served a bircher muesli so perfectly textured and flavourful that I've since changed my home routine to include that dish more often, as well as a selection of fresh fruit that held up very well considering it had to have been prepared before we left Montreal.
This was followed by a plastic-wrapped croissant that may as well have come out of a vending machine. I'd love to offer the excuse that French pastry is just difficult to execute well at 35,000 feet, but the fresh, flaky croissant I was served on Turkish Airlines a few weeks later tells me that's not true. In this case, Air Canada would have been better off skipping the pre-wrapped stuff and simply serving more of the rolls from last night's dinner.
I'd love to tell you the entree was better, but... yeah. For years, Air Canada's breakfast service has revolved around its parsley omelette, accompanied by chicken sausages dipped in cottage cheese, so I generally opt for the pancakes. These often end up soggy and overdone on short domestic flights, and after a long overnight flight things were no better.
Why am I ripping on Air Canada's catering so hard? Because I've seen them do much better over the years - before AND after the pandemic - and because other airlines manage to deliver very similar meals to a much higher standard. For example, even in Premium Economy, Qantas did a fantastic job of a full-English-style breakfast at the end of a 12-hour flight from Johannesburg, with light, fluffy scrambled eggs and nicely roasted potatoes:
Anyway, enough grumbling about breakfast.
We descended into São Paulo right on time, to begin our connection onward to Buenos Aires. This is a bit of an odd process, particularly considering I'd shortly be returning to the exact same seat on the exact same plane; we deplaned, walked a few hundred meters and went through another airport security checkpoint that appeared to be set up solely for passengers returning to the same Air Canada flight. No big deal, I'm sure it's simply a Brazilian regulation, and it was nice enough to stretch my legs a bit.
Note that transit passengers who are only connecting through Brazil do not have any interaction with Brazilian customs, only airport security, and we were not subject to Brazil's pandemic-travel protocols.
Also, be aware that there's a 1-hour time change between Montreal/Toronto and São Paulo, and failing to account for this will put you back at the gate in time to watch the flight to Buenos Aires leave without you.
...but meanwhile, let's head to the lounge! Air Canada doesn't have its own lounge at São Paulo, instead contracting with the private Sala Banco Safra. The entrance isn't immediately obvious, but if you leave the main hall containing the international gates, and take the moving sidewalk past all the high-end fashion shops and the main Duty Free store, you'll find it up an escalator on the right-hand side, as shown below. Once you go up the escalator, if you see the American Express lounge, keep walking as you're nearly there:
The Banco Safra lounge is quite nice, certainly as good as anything you'll find in most large international airports. It's an open terrace setup with plenty of seating and a decent selection of international foods and Brazilian favourites, as well as an open bar with the usual selection of soft drinks, beer, wine, and spirits. I didn't take advantage of the shower rooms, but a colleague travelling with me spoke well of his.
We returned to the gate after a little over an hour, for a fairly straightforward boarding process, and I returned to my seat for the two-hour hop to Buenos Aires. As it's the same seat on the same plane, there's not a lot that we haven't already covered in this review, except to say that the in-flight service was a light lunch of grilled chicken, pasta, and fresh fruit and vegetables, that I really enjoyed.
If you fly this route, upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I'll encourage you to disembark and head for Customs as quickly as possible; on the dates I flew, ours was the only flight arriving at that time, but the two-hundred-plus people on board made for a long line at passport control. One of the rarely-mentioned perks of flying any airline's premium cabins is that you're generally the first ones off the plane, and in this case this saved what looked like about thirty minutes standing in line.
In conclusion - altogether a pretty solid flight, with one or two areas that could use some improvement. I actually ended up booking this same routing again for a month later, based on ridiculously attractive fares from Air Canada coupled with a double-elite-earning mileage promotion, and really enjoyed that trip as well.