Earlier this summer, we had the opportunity to try out Air Canada’s new Signature Class cabin and lounge experiences.
Launched in June, the service is aimed squarely at the business/first class traveler, and competes quite readily with existing offerings by its North American mainline-carrier rivals.
Domestic Signature service is offered on flights between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver to Toronto; daily flights between Montreal and New York-Newark to Vancouver; between Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto; and between Toronto and Honolulu. Internationally, it’s offered on all Air Canada flights serviced using Boeing 767, 777, and 787, as well as Airbus A330 aircraft.
The routing for my flights were SEA-YVR-YYZ-SEA. The hop from Seattle to Vancouver was in standard coach class on a venerable Bombardier Q400.
Upon arriving at the airline’s check-in counter, I discovered quite a long line to drop off bags. As a relatively small player at Sea-Tac, Air Canada’s counter has only three general lanes and one priority line, which I couldn’t use for this leg because I was seated in economy. It took more than 30 minutes to complete that portion of the check-in, even though there were only a half-dozen or so people in front of me.
The delay didn’t really matter in the long run, as I had woken to find a notification from Air Canada’s smartphone app that the departure would be delayed by an hour. This not being my first rodeo, as they say, I still went to the airport per the original schedule to be sure there was plenty of time to deal with any snags.
At the departure gate, I was delighted to find that our Q400 was decked out in the airline’s new livery, which, in my humble opinion, looks really good on the turboprop.
The roughly 30-minute flight went without a hitch, and my window seat provided a lovely view of the Pacific Northwest coastline and the beautiful approach into Vancouver International Airport.
The main event: Signature Class, AC118, YVR-YYZ
After a comfortable wait in the domestic terminal at YVR (my layover was brief, but Signature Class does provide lounge access), it was soon time to board our 777-300ER for the flight to Toronto. It was my first widebody transcontinental flight in at least a decade, and I was seated in Signature Class for the five-hour flight.
Boarding was quick and super easy. I was assigned seat 9D. The section was otherwise full, so it wasn’t possible to switch seats. My usual preference is for a window, but never has a middle seat felt so nice.
The cabin was very quiet. Even still, I love the sound of the huge GE90 engines at takeoff, even when muted.
I will also confess to liking the trend of including a window in the lavatory. It not only offers folks seated in the aisle or middle seats a chance to have a couple minutes to look out the window when they get up to take care of business, but it also has the beneficial effect of providing a perceptually larger space. Just do the rampers a favor and don’t forget to close the shade if you’re allowed to go in there when the plane is on the ground.
The seat and lighting controls are very well placed, and there is a lid over the TV remote and charging station – very handy, and protects against accidental activation of the remotes when trying to rest or sleep. There was also a nifty arm rest on the aisle side of the seat.
Frustratingly, the USB charging outlet didn’t produce enough amperage to charge my iPad, which is my barometer for defining a good in-seat charging system. It’s always surprising to discover this issue on a newer aircraft, as the 5-watt charging requirement for larger electronics is hardly new – the iPad and similar tablets have been around for eight years. While our particular aircraft (C-FITL) was 11 years old, it was quite obvious that it had been recently refurbished with the new premium cabin and exterior paint.
With that in mind, I’ve taken to carrying a 120v wall charger in my laptop bag, which did power the iPad when plugged in to the A/C outlet. It also meant the only other way to use/charge a laptop and simultaneously charge the iPad was to first plug in the laptop to the seat’s single 110v outlet, then plug the iPad into the laptop’s USB port, which results in lots of cables in your lap and makes getting up that much more of a hassle. Overall it’s perhaps a small thing, but keep in mind that industry competition is fierce for premium fares, and most mainline products have gotten so good that details are nearly all that’s left to differentiate between competing products.
While we’re on the topic of nit-picks, I paid for the “fast” GoGo internet ($21 all day or $13 for the flight), but it was so slow that I couldn’t even load plain text emails, and basically gave up on the idea of getting any sort of value for of the price paid. I need to start training myself to look for the new-style antennas on top of the aircraft when boarding as part of my in-flight Wi-Fi purchase decision. This is a frustration that transcends individual carriers — the terrestrial in-flight Wi-Fi systems are consistently unreliable, especially when compared with the newer satellite-based systems.
So, as promised in the headline (don’t you hate it when publications tease you with a headline and then don’t deliver?), here’s where I finally start writing about the food.
The in-flight meal was glorious. Meals are designed by chef David Hawksworth, accompanied by wines chosen by sommelier Véronique Rivest. The seared ahi tuna appetizer was divine, and I selected the beef tenderloin for my entree – it was phenomenal.
The cheese course was totally delish, as you’d expect. To wrap up the meal, I opted for the seasonal fruit — I was delighted to find that there were non-dairy dessert options. There is an extensive wine and cocktail list as well.
Our cabin crew was wonderfully attentive but not over the top. Although every airline’s stated purpose for flight attendants is to provide a safe and orderly flight, and flight attendants therefore often justifiably bristle when comparisons to restaurant waitstaff are raised, definitions get a bit fuzzy in premium cabins. Suffice it to say the service levels were such that I felt appropriately cared for.
The overall experience was so comfortable, though, that I was a bit saddened by the announcement that we’d started our initial descent into Toronto. I wished the flight had been a bit farther so I could enjoy that lie-flat seat a little longer.
Did I mention that it was my first flight in ages without a window seat? But the seat was so comfortable that I didn’t really mind. And there was always that bathroom view.
The return flight: Signature Suite & Lounge, Premium Economy, AC541, YYZ-SEA
After a couple of fun days exploring Toronto (it’s a delightful city which definitely warrants a visit if you’ve not been), it was time to head back to Seattle.
Although I was to fly home in premium economy, the airline’s marketing folks offered me a tour of their flagship Business/ Altitude class check-in area and lounges. The premium-class check-in area is separated from the main ticketing area and guarded by a very polite uniformed Air Canada attendant. The area is reminiscent of a high-end corporate lobby – quiet, with a very comfortable seating area, complete with a huge Dreamliner model on display.
I was also given the experience of the premium-class check-in process, which includes a ride to one’s plane in a new BMW sedan.
Unlike many other airline lounges, access to the Air Canada Signature Suite isn’t accessible based solely on mileage; customers must meet the following criteria:
· Customers booked in J, C, D, Z, P classes only
· Departing on a non-stop flight from YYZ to Asia, Europe, or South America in Air Canada Signature Class (lie-flat seat on mainline)
· No upgrades and no mileage redemptions are allowed
The restaurant/lounge was, predictably, modern, elegant, and very exclusive feeling. It was hard to believe that you were still in an airport once you settled in to the restaurant, which is accessible only by people who have purchased a full-fare premium flight, regardless of their mileage status. High-mileage flyers have access to a more traditional, yet still quite nice, lounge elsewhere in the airport.
Considerable attention went into the design and materials that were used to create Air Canada’s Signature Suite. Designed by the Montréal-based Heekyung Duquette Design Office and Eric Majer Architecte Inc, the space is very contemporary in vibe.
Materials were sourced from across Canada, and as much of the food as possible is locally sourced.
According to Andrew McFarlane, Air Canada’s airport product design manager, “when reviewing the menus we want to ensure we cater to as many dietary preferences as possible. As you can see we generally cover the main proteins, red meats; poultry and fish; and ensure we have a vegan option as well. We have a team of some of Canada’s most highly skilled culinary chefs and cooks design our menus and this is all overseen by award-winning Vancouver, B.C., Chef David Hawksworth.”
Six different menus are available at the Air Canada Signature Suite (aka the ACSS): a-la-carte; on-the-go; buffet; a Cantonese inspired noodle bar menu; kosher; and dessert. “This is not only to cater to our customers preferences but to ensure we have a preferred offering based off the amount of time our guest can stay with us before having to catch a flight,” McFarlane said.
McFarlane treated me to a sample meal – it was on par with anything I’ve had at an upscale restaurant, regardless of location.
Management has trained the staff to discretely determine the amount of time a guest has to spend in the ACSS before they have to board their flight. If you have 50 minutes or more, they will be able to offer a passenger the full a-la-carte dining option; otherwise there is an “on-the-go” menu which can be prepared in 15 minutes, or an “elevated” buffet; the traveler will be presented with the appropriate menus based on their flight schedule.
During my visit, we didn’t have time to tour the kitchen, but I was still curious as to the logistics involved with having a high-functioning, high-quality restaurant within the confines of a secure airport facility.
“Anyone can tell you how hard it is to get 100ml of water into an airport, let alone bring high volumes of fine foods and top-shelf cocktails. All our deliveries are delivered to an offsite facility where they are scanned and secured before being brought through a number of security check points in the tunnels of the terminals before arriving at the Air Canada Signature Suite — our kitchen team does a fantastic job at making our customer experience similar to what you would find at a top-end restaurant downtown Toronto all while managing a complex and secure logistics network,” McFarlane explained.
Back to that BMW service – a concierge meets eligible Signature Class customers at their connecting flight, and escorts them down a private stairwell to a BMW that will be waiting on the ramp. From there, customers are driven to a central bus bay located two levels below the Air Canada Signature Suite. It allows those customers to connect to their international flight in minutes.
Back at the Signature Suite, the staff are trained to have an elevated attention to detail. Some of these details included recognizing a guest’s dominant hand so their cutlery can be positioned accordingly, or noticing that someone’s napkin has fallen on the ground and quickly provide them a new one, all before they notice, or, if someone has been to the ACSS before, the staff will try to remember their preferences.
Air Canada plans to expand the ACSS concept to Vancouver and Montreal, but no dates have yet been announced.
Bottom line: it is all worth it? A resounding yes. If you can swing the fare, the entire experience is very much worthy of the hype.
While Air Canada provided my flights for the purpose of reviewing their new premium product, all opinions expressed are my own.