While the impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry as a whole remains profound, ground and on-board service offerings that had been axed during the height of the pandemic are returning in a new form.
With buzzwords such as biosafety protocols and prepackaged everything, airlines have redesigned their service offerings to provide travellers with a sense of security when travelling during a pandemic. With fare sales and promotions aplenty, airlines are doing their darnedest to get people travelling again.
Ricky outlined eerily desolate airports and flying in a near-empty plane when he flew from Toronto to Montreal at the beginning of June. At that time, lounges remained shut and onboard services were restricted to a bottle of water and a plastic baggy of sanitation supplies.
In mid-July, Air Canada announced that they would begin slowly reopening lounges with a number of new measures in place in light of COVID-19. The domestic lounge at Toronto Pearson was the first to open, with the domestic lounges in Vancouver and Montreal to follow.
(At the time of writing, the lounge in Vancouver has reopened, while the lounge in Montreal is set to open by Labour Day.)
I recently visited the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto (when I moved to Vancouver Island at the end of July) and in Vancouver (during a layover en route to Edmonton). This post outlines my experiences in both lounges, along with a series of pictures from the Vancouver lounge, so that you’ll have an idea of what to expect during your next visit.
Upon entry, the lounge staff, who are behind a large plexiglass barrier, will direct you to scan your boarding pass and, if needed, swipe your lounge membership card, to verify your entitlement to enter.
If you need any assistance with your lounge access (e.g., from a TD Aeroplan Visa on an Aeroplan redemption or a one-time pass from Air Canada Altitude Select Privileges) or with your flights, they would be happy to assist.
As soon as you enter the lounge, there are floor markers that both direct the flow of traffic and encourage passengers to stand at least 6 feet apart at all times. The stickers are found throughout the lounge, including at the entrance to the bathrooms.
There are also stanchions or physical barriers set up that discourage you from going against the recommended flow of traffic. Stanchions are also used to block off sections of the lounge that are closed off for cleaning throughout the day or for areas that only staff members may access.
The seats have been rearranged to allow for physical distancing between passengers. While some areas featured staggered seats, others feature seats that near each other (from a distance), which would be good for people travelling as a couple or a family.
Close to the food area, there are a number of tables set up for solo travellers or couples to dine at.
At each seat in the lounge is a table with a QR code and NFC code for the Air Canada @ la table service (see below). Each code pulls up the hot food menu for the day. When you order hot food, it is delivered right to your seat by a staff member. Note that you can order as many items as you wish.
There is also a reduced capacity limit, although I don’t imagine high volumes of people will be an issue for the foreseeable future. In both my experiences, the lounges were largely empty, with a passenger to staff ratio of around 2:1.
There are numerous hand sanitizer dispensers and Lysol wipes stationed throughout the lounges. In the washrooms and on stickers throughout the lounge, you are reminded how to effectively clean your hands and prevent the spread of COVID-19 (and other communicable diseases, for that matter).
Seats and side tables are to be wiped down by staff before they can be used again. Cleaning staff use electrostatic sprayers several times throughout the day. Dedicated washroom attendants clean the areas frequently.
As onboard and in the airport, you are required to wear a mask at all times when in the lounge. There is an exception when you are eating or drinking. All staff wear masks and other personal protective equipment.
Magazines and newspapers are no longer available as hard copies. Rather, passengers must download PressReader and then gain free access from Air Canada to over 7,000 publications.
To get access, you need to download the PressReader app (for free) and create an account. As long as you are connected to the lounge’s WiFi, you will have access to all publications, which can be downloaded and used for at least a few days after your lounge visit is complete.
For the business travellers out there, current services are limited to complimentary WiFi and remote printing. There was ample space for both of my visits, though, so you shouldn’t have any issues finding an appropriate space to work if that is your thing.
As exciting as biosafety measures are, if you’re like me, lounges are all about food, drink, and getting your lounge on. Indeed, one of the things that drew me into the Miles & Points world was the allure of lounges in the first place.
For food, you have two options. The first is to order a “grab and go” bag of food from the main food area (where the buffets used to be). The daily offerings are listed at the entrance to the main food and drink area.
The staff will fill the bag with your selections, which differ between breakfast and lunch/dinner. Cold options are kept cold until they are removed from a refrigerator. No worries about adding a few extra chocolate bars or bags of chips 😉
The second option is to order hot food from your table. I am, admittedly, a bit of a Luddite, so it took me a while to figure out what QR codes are and how NFC codes work. On my phone, the regular camera scans the QR code and a link appears at the bottom of the screen. You may need to download a QR scanner app to pull up the menu.
For the NFC option, you’ll first need to enable NFC on your phone. Once it is enabled, you have to physically tap your phone to the NFC button and the menu will be automatically pulled up.
After scrolling through the selections for your desired meal, select your desired option, confirm your choice, and it will be delivered to your table shortly thereafter. It was nice to see the kids’ options too – if I hadn’t made a dope mac and cheese the day before, I may have been tempted to order the kids’ option myself.
I wound up ordering both hot options during my visit, as my marathon training has my metabolism working at a very healthy pace. As for the cold options, I am terrified of tuna salad in general and the turkey and provolone sandwich didn’t sound particularly appetizing to me.
In my experience, it took around 10 minutes for the hot items to be delivered.
I was neither impressed nor disappointed by the hot food options. They were pretty much on par with most of my previous experiences in Maple Leaf Lounges. Having hot options is certainly better than “Grab ‘n Go” bags, but I would love to see some more variety in the hot food offerings in the near future.
If possible, may I also suggest packing a toothbrush, as you’ll be breathing in whatever food you have consumed for as long as your mask is on your face.
Notably missing were the ubiquitous tortilla chips and lukewarm salsa that Ricky has opined about on several occasions. Along with the parsley omelette, I’m wondering if Air Canada is reconsidering some of the staples that have been around for ages.
For the beverage service, as there were hardly any people in the lounge, I didn’t have to wait for a beverage refill at any point of my stay. The offerings were all the same, with the only difference being that someone else was doing the hard work for you.
There were a few things that struck me about the current state of affairs for lounges.
The first was how quiet it was in the lounge. It was awkwardly quiet. I could hear every word the gentleman close to me said to his significant other over video chat (as well as her responses). I could hear the kitchen staff speaking to each other from behind a closed door. One passenger was very specific in how he wanted his beverages poured and delivered, and I got to know those details over the course of my stay.
The second was how different it felt to ask staff for everything.
In times past, interactions with lounge staff were largely limited to pleasantries during check-in and awkward smiles if you bumped into them during your stay. It was a huge change to hear staff asking passengers: “May I clear your table?” and “What can I get for you today?”
The third was how few people were in the lounges. In Toronto, I was at the lounge on a Monday morning, which usually meant that the lounge was packed with passengers on a host of domestic departures. There were 10 or fewer passengers in the lounge on both of my visits, and this made me feel the harsh reality of travel right now during the pandemic. As someone who loves to travel in any way, the emptiness of the lounges was a reminder of how much things have changed, and how long it will be before the old normal will come back, if ever.
Overall, given that I was in an indoor space frequented by many others during a global pandemic, I felt relatively safe during my lounge experience. While I wasn’t sure of the exact reason, I even saw cleaning staff scrubbing the bottoms of stanchions and the stickers on the floor during my stay.
There were ample reminders and opportunities about measures to take to ensure your safety and the safety of your fellow passengers. The small number of passengers certainly aided this observation, as I’m sure the buzzwords promised in online advertising would be much more difficult to adhere to if the lounges were packed.
I don’t anticipate spending a lot of time in lounges in the near future, but it is nice to know that airlines are slowly starting to reopen with a number of preventative measures in place. Given the current border restrictions and the risks associated with becoming ill during international travel, domestic flights (and good old-fashioned road trips) may be on your radar for the time being.
If you availed yourself of the many recent promotions offered by Air Canada, you may be able to enjoy an even quieter space than the rest of the airport and some complimentary, albeit mediocre, food and drink during your travels. And if you were used to packed lounges and vying for good seating pre-COVID, you’ll be treated to ample spaces and plenty of room to yourself likely for the foreseeable future.
Until travel picks up to anywhere near pre-pandemic levels, Air Canada’s lounge experience is likely to be as described above.
Feel free to leave a comment below if you have been to a lounge recently or if you would like to see anything changed.