My first trip of the pandemic, a cross-country jaunt to Vancouver and Saskatoon on an Aeroplan intra-North America award with a stopover, would begin with a four-hour flight on the Air Canada Airbus A220 from Montreal to Vancouver.
This wouldn’t be my first flight of the pandemic, though, as I had previously travelled on the limited-time Air Canada Jetz service between Toronto and Montreal back in June.
Back then, very few Canadians were travelling at all, so there was definitely an eerie atmosphere to the whole experience from start to finish. These days, however, I know many Canadians have been venturing back into domestic travel, so I was feeling a lot more relaxed as I called an Uber to bring me to the airport.
Indeed, while Montreal Trudeau International Airport could still be described as “empty” compared to normal times, there was noticeably greater foot traffic than the last time I passed through the airport back in June.
The usual health and safety measures were in full force. Entry to the airport terminal was limited to certain doors, where airport staff would direct you to sanitize your hands, undergo a temperature scan, and proceed directly towards your check-in area.
As you can see, the vast majority of check-in kiosks and counters were still not in use, and there was still an element of dystopia about the airport’s massive “Bon Voyage!” signs hanging over such an empty terminal.
I had already checked-in online, so I headed directly to the self-serve kiosk to print my bag tag and drop off my checked bag at the touch-free bag drop station. The machine asked me to take a step back, after which it waved a series of laser scanners at my bag, picked up the barcode, and activated the conveyor belt to send my bag on its way.
On my way to the security checkpoint, I passed by Air Canada’s main check-in counters, which were fully fitted with plexiglass screens and social-distancing markers on the ground.
This little corner of the airport was the starting point of many of my more recent trips before the pandemic struck, so it was definitely bittersweet to see this space so empty and sterile.
Along the security path, I was asked to stand in front of a thermal camera and remove my glasses for a temperature scan. This was in place of the handheld thermal cameras that I had experienced at Toronto Pearson a few months back.
The actual security queue only consisted of one other passenger ahead of myself, so I passed through pretty quickly.
The airside section of the departures hall was definitely a little busier than the landside section, perhaps because there were also some additional passengers who were in transit.
I imagine it could also be the case that most originating passengers simply wanted to get through the entire “airport experience” (check-in, security, etc.) and get to the gate as quickly as possible – although that might not be the best course of action, since the waiting area by the departure gate for my flight to Calgary was getting a little too crowded for my liking.
Anyway, thankfully I didn’t have to deal with the crowds myself, because Air Canada had promised that Montreal’s domestic Maple Leaf Lounge would have reopened “by Labour Day”, right?
Wrong. While Toronto and Vancouver’s domestic lounges have reopened, I was disappointed to see that Montreal’s did not end up respecting the originally promised timeframe, and it’s my understanding that we’d be lucky if it opens by the end of September.
Boarding would be called soon anyway, and just before that, I snuck around to one of the terminal’s floor-to-ceiling windows for a nice view of the Airbus A220 that would be bringing me to Calgary today.
Air Canada | AC325
Aircraft: Airbus A220-300
Cabin: Business class
Route: Montreal (YUL) to Calgary (YYC)
Date: Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Time: Departing 1:45pm and arriving 4:22pm
Duration: 4 hour 37 minutes
Air Canada took delivery of the Airbus A220 in January of this year, representing a major step in the airline’s efforts to modernize their fleet. The intention was to use the Airbus A220 to replace the older Embraer 190s, Airbus A320s, and Airbus A319s, serving key existing domestic and transborder routes while also building out new point-to-point markets that wouldn’t have been efficient to serve in the past.
Of course, the pandemic put a damper on some of those plans, so these days you’ll mainly be able to fly the A220s on some of the secondary trans-continental domestic routes, like Toronto–Calgary, Montreal–Calgary, Toronto–Edmonton, or Montreal–Edmonton (as well as Toronto–Montreal when the aircraft positions itself between the two hubs to serve those aforementioned routes).
Meanwhile, the flagship routes of Toronto–Vancouver and Montreal–Vancouver are more likely to receive the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or Airbus A330 with lie-flat seats instead. Indeed, I myself could’ve chosen to fly the Dreamliner for a more comfortable and convenient journey on my way to Vancouver, but instead went out of my way to try the A220 via Calgary instead purely to review the product, so I certainly had high expectations as I made my way onboard!
Air Canada’s Airbus A220 business class features 12 seats arranged across three rows in a 2-2 configuration.
By the time I had boarded, many of the passengers seated in Rows 2 and 3 had taken their seats already; not wanting to get up in people’s faces nor disrupt the boarding flow too much, I hurriedly snapped whatever photos I could of the A220 business class cabin and sat down in Seat 1A.
Whenever I fly on standard-recliner business class products like this one, my preference is typically to sit in the bulkhead row (usually Row 1) for that extra little bit of legroom. The downside of the bulkhead row is that I can’t store my backpack under the seat in front of me, and instead need to stow it in the overhead bins for takeoff and landing, but I do find the extra legroom to be a worthy trade-off.
I loved the monochrome seat finishes, which are a huge improvement upon the aged blue moquettes you’ll find on Air Canada’s older regional aircraft.
Here in the bulkhead, the entertainment screen is mounted on the wall directly ahead, requiring you to lean a fair bit forward to reach the screen. Beneath that is a simple storage rack, with the literature pocket mounted further below by your feet (although the reading material was limited to the aircraft safety card in times of a pandemic).
The remaining seat features were very simple. One of the armrests played host to two switches, which controlled the legrest and the seat recline.
In my view, however, both modes of relaxation offered an acceptably, but not overly, generous degree of rotation, as you can see from this picture of the legrest when it’s raised…
…as well as this picture of the seat recline, which I snapped when my seatmate headed to the restroom during the flight.
There was also a small storage nook tucked away on the inside of the armrest.
The opposite armrest can be lifted to reveal the tray table, which pops upwards by lifting up the control tab with your finger. I’ve yet to see this design for tray tables on any other airline, and I thought it was a fairly intuitive and ergonomic way to operate it.
Prior to takeoff, every passenger received an Air Canada CleanCare+ kit, which consisted of a water bottle, face mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, and a couple of sanitizing wipes. Compared to the kit I had received back in June, this one also contained an information card informing passengers of the voluntary COVID-19 testing program offered at Toronto Pearson as a joint initiative between Air Canada and McMaster University.
I withdrew the water bottle so I could drink it throughout the flight, saved the little bottle of hand sanitizer for future use, and didn’t make use of the rest of the CleanCare+ kit. The face mask is mostly moot, since all passengers are of course required to wear a mask to board in the first place, and I never saw anyone making use of the gloves throughout all five flights on this trip either.
After a long stream of passengers finished boarding (I was very surprised at just how full the flight was, with the entire business class cabin and most of economy class occupied!), we began our pushback from the gate. This would only be my second flight in almost six months’ time, so my eyes were naturally glued to the windows as we taxied to the runway and completed our takeoff.
The Air Canada Airbus A220 comes with a refreshed entertainment system loaded with 15 languages and over 1,000 hours of movies and TV. Even though I’m not much of an in-flight entertainment guy myself, I couldn’t resist having a scroll through the selection and playing around with the highly responsive new user interface.
I also connected to the Gogo in-flight wifi, a key feature of these new Airbus A220s, and spent some time on Instagram sharing with folks the joys of travelling again.
Soon after takeoff, the lunch service began. Since July, Air Canada has been offering a “premium pre-packaged cold meal box” to North American business class travellers on flights over two hours, in partnership with Montreal-based Chef Antonio Park.
While this isn’t quite as good as some of its peers around the world (which have continued to offer their full premium meal services with only small modifications), it’s still much better than the near-zero service that was offered in the early months of the pandemic, so I was looking forward to trying it out for myself.
(In addition, I had enjoyed a fantastic meal at Chef Park’s eponymous restaurant in Montreal just prior to the pandemic, so I was even more curious to give his onboard curations a try.)
The meal was presented in an elegant black lunch box, and consisted of three courses: a smoked salmon salad entrée, a chicken and lettuce wrap as the main course, a caramel cream dessert, and a bread roll on the side.
Truthfully, I wasn’t a big fan of the chicken and lettuce wrap at all. I found the wrap a little too dry and somewhat lacking in flavour, and the spicy mayonnaise wasn’t very spicy at all. Having sampled Chef Park’s excellent tasting menu on the ground, I certainly had very high expectations for his signature creation for Air Canada’s premium passengers during these challenging times, and this one didn’t quite reach those heights.
Having said that, the flavours came through much better in the smoked salmon salad with apple and pear slices and wasabi vinaigrette, and I finished off the entire dish quite enthusiastically.
If you’re travelling around Canada in business class anytime soon, you’ll likely end up trying out these same cold meal items by Chef Park as well. It was certainly better than the drastically reduced service that Air Canada offered prior to July, but I think the cold boxed offering could certainly benefit from a few extra meal options once domestic travel picks up a little more.
The other major resumption in onboard service that began in July is the bar offerings: as a business class passenger, I was able to choose from a limited range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to go along with my meal.
I started with a can of sparkling water, and after I had finished my food, I decided it was time for a few slammers of Bottega Gold prosecco – served in its own bottle, allowing you to pour yourself your very own cup.
Oh my, how I’ve missed the feeling of sipping on bubbly while losing myself in these beautiful window views!
With about two hours of the flight left to go, I spent some time working on my laptop while enjoying a few more helpings of Bottega Gold. Connecting to the wifi on my laptop was a bit difficult; I had to manually enter the wifi service’s URL of “wifi.gogoinflight.com”, but after the connection was established, it worked smoothly.
At this point, the crew came through to hand out some more bottled water and a few snack packages, which included a can of Pringles, a dark chocolate bar, and some extra sanitizing wipes. Since I was pretty full from the meal earlier, I put the snacks away for now, knowing that they’d be useful to have later on during the trip.
After finishing up some work, it was time to stow my laptop bag away in the overhead bins as a bulkhead seat occupant, and I also took this time to visit the restroom – all those bottles of Bottega Gold had added up!
The Airbus A220 has clearly put some more thought into its restroom design compared to its predecessors. The business class restroom is spacious and intuitively laid out, offering a fold-down changing table and mostly flat surfaces on the countertop instead of the previously curved ones.
These days, a well-stocked bottle of Vitruvi hand soap is available for your 20-second hand-washing routine, as is an entire boxful of sanitizing wipes, should you prefer to sanitize the space before using it.
Returning to my seat, I caught some beautiful window views of the Canadian prairies…
…followed by even more striking views of Downtown Calgary, as we made our descent into Calgary International Airport.
I’ll finish off this installment with some quick words on the onward journey in Air Canada economy class to Vancouver.
Just like back in Montreal, the airport in Calgary was also a little busier than I expected at first, but that was probably due to one of the imminently departing flights. Once those passengers boarded their plane, the terminal remained relatively quiet for the remainder of my stay.
I took a little walk down the airport’s long corridors, which link the various concourses used by different airlines. Like my previous visits to Toronto and Montreal’s airports, it was pretty jarring to see this space so empty, and especially to see Calgary’s distinctive YYC Link buggy service being out of operation until further notice.
Of course, the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge Calgary was also closed for the time being, with no reopening date currently scheduled.
Eventually, it came time to board my Airbus A320 on the one-hour hop down to Vancouver. For this flight, I was only able to find award space in economy class, so I had booked myself a preferred seat in the first row of economy.
At the time, the two seats adjacent to me had remained empty, so I was a bit surprised to see two other passengers joining me in the same row as well, especially when the rest of the economy class cabin didn’t seem to be full.
As we know, Air Canada has stopped blocking middle seats on flights for social-distancing purposes, and I must admit that it did feel a little strange, perhaps verging on the uncomfortable, to have a stranger seated so close to me – if only because we’ve all become so used to social distancing over the past six months.
But with our masks on at all times (besides when we take a sip of water) and no exchanging of small talk, that initial feeling subsided quickly, and I didn’t really have too much to worry about as the flight went on. Instead, it was the incredible mountain views on this route that captivated my attention for most of the journey.
After landing in Vancouver, I picked up my bag from the socially-distanced baggage carousel and headed upstairs through an equally barren departures hall for my airport shuttle pickup, bound for the first of three stops on my Stay Richmond hotel-hopping tour: the Sheraton Vancouver Airport.
I was pleased to finally get a chance to try out Air Canada’s new Airbus A220 business class, which offers a much-improved premium product compared to its aging predecessors, and will play a key role in serving key and emerging regional markets within North America once post-pandemic travel begins to pick up in the future.
While the comfort level doesn’t match the lie-flat seats on Air Canada’s flagship domestic routes, it’s everything you can hope for from a standard recliner product: simple, modern, and stylish seats equipped with the latest in-flight entertainment technology.
I look forward to flying in this cabin many more times in the future on convenient new coast-to-coast routes, such as the A220’s originally intended launch routes of Toronto–San Jose and Montreal–Seattle.
In terms of Air Canada’s onboard service these days, I thought the premium cold boxed meals were decent, but with ample room for improvement.
Given my glowing memories of Chef Park’s creations on the ground, my impressions of his dishes in the air were decidedly mixed; moreover, from a broader perspective, many airlines around the world have either resumed full onboard service (with hot food) or never stopped offering it in the first place, and I’d love to see Air Canada move in that direction sooner rather than later.
Finally, in terms of the overall travel experience these days, I found this trip to be a lot less eerie than my first post-pandemic flight back in June. Everyone seemed sufficiently at ease with the health and safety protocols, keeping their masks on at all times, sanitizing frequently, and leaving some distance between each other whenever possible.
Compared to last time, the “new normal” now felt… well, normal. Stay tuned for the next installment for how the new normal played out on the hotel side at a trio of Vancouver airport hotels.