Canada’s largest airline started life as federal government owned Trans-Canada Airlines in 1936 and adopted its current name in 1965. Air Canada and Canadian National Railways were joined in a single administrative structure but in 1978 dissolved their marriage and went their separate ways. In 1988 the airline was privatised following the deregulation of Canada’s aviation sector and the carrier is presently controlled by ACE Aviation Holdings of Montreal. In 2001 they gobbled up their main domestic competitor, the financially stricken Canadian Airlines. The airline was a trend setter by becoming the world’s first no smoking carrier with their last butt stubbed out in 1987. The airline’s balance sheet hit turbulence in the 1990’s and management entered a disastrous confrontation with pilots in 1998 over pay. A bidding war began over Canadian Airlines with American Airlines but Air Canada won, only to encounter integration difficulties compounded by reduced loads following 9/11. The airline entered bankruptcy protection in 2003, re-emerging in 2005.
Like most legacy American carriers Air Canada is typically staffed by experienced mature crews i.e. old and grumpy. Some have been flying a long time; others have been flying a very very long time. However with the length of service comes a rich personality and if you can strike up a conversation you’ll discover their staff are typically fascinating individuals who’ve really been around. Staff can be sloppily dressed and even have dishevelled hair. They work as a team and seem to enjoy each other’s company. Passengers get good service if the crews feel like it too. If crew don’t like a passenger they’ll be ignored. Despite being a bit carefree, these really are the crew you’d want on board if something went wrong. They really have seen it all.
Air Canada serves its home markets comprehensively. Its domestic network is second to none while they also connect Canada to dozens of US and Caribbean destinations. The airline flies to many European cities from Canada’s east and from its west serves Asian cities and Australia. On some routes Air Canada provides the very best connections available and even passengers travelling to some US destinations will find Air Canada provides better links than any US carrier. For example Shanghai to Seattle passengers can fly via Vancouver and clear US customs that have set up a facility in Canada which means landing at the final destination is like arriving on a domestic flight.
Air Canada offer services at average prices compared to competitors. Considering the relative averageness of an Air Canada flight it is unlikely to be much better than any other carrier who might be offering better fares. However it is definitely worth extra to avoid travelling through the US. US Customs will finger print you, photograph you and presumably make up a Security file on you like a suspected terrorist, so to avoid all this unpleasant treatment, if Canada is your destination, it is best to fly directly there with Air Canada than transit through the US on one of their many carriers. When flying from Asia to Canada, Air Canada typically make a poor second choice when compared to China Airlines, Asiana or Korean Air.
On domestic flights of less than five hours Air Canada provide no complimentary catering, so the only way you can ‘enjoy’ a free meal is to literally fly from one side of the country to the other as most domestic flights are shorter than five hours. Hungry passengers will need to pay to enjoy something from the airlines ‘Onboard Cafe’. On international flights Air Canada’s catering is extremely basic and shows signs of economising. As well as cutting down on meal sizes they also seem to have removed all the flavour as well. Air Canada’s catering in all classes of travel stretch from terrible to average. Regular passengers complain that their meal service is a ‘Muffin service’ as breakfast can be a coffee and a single muffin.
Air Canada has a more than adequate video on demand entertainment system on larger aircraft. French speakers will be thrilled to know they are not ignored and indeed given equal treatment on all flights. The airlines enRoute magazine is a fine bi-lingual read and one of aviations better in-flight magazines. On shorter flights on older aircraft there will be a single TV screen at the front with volume through headsets.
Air Canada is a little old fashioned in its ground services which means they actually provide it. The airline promotes on-line check in, is mindful of check-in times and generally has short queues. At some international ports there are practically no queues at all. Ground staff attempt to help passengers rather than brush them off and the airlines baggage policy is generous and vigilantly enforced. Passengers with excess or heavy bags will pay. Canada’s low paid baggage handlers are generally beyond caring so there are regularly issues there, but their performance is far superior to their colleagues across the southern border.
The airline appreciates its premium passengers and provides many nice touches. Air Canada employs Concierges to escort their elite passengers if needed. Airlines that have concierges generally employ them in an attempt to disguise the fact the airline’s standards are generally on the decline, such as Qantas. Typically they will employ empty headed superficial bimbos with stray-on tans, but Air Canada has gone for experienced mature professionals with life experience and personality to retain premium passengers. Elite cabins are comfortable, spacious and calmingly decorated but their Maple Leaf lounges can resemble crowded cafes at peak times with catering to match.
Air Canada’s Economy Class is a very basic product. Seats are generally spacious and comfortable, meals (if any) are ordinary at best, service is mostly indifferent, entertainment is quite good and the ground experience is painless and usually efficient. While an Air Canada Economy flight is usually not a particularly memorable one, it shouldn’t be too bad either.
Air Canada’s Aeroplan frequent flyer scheme is owned by Diners Club and is genuinely one of the best run programmes in aviation today. The scheme is immensely popular with Canadians, however the reality remains that individual miles are essentially worthless and a lot of flights need to be clocked up before members can expect anything in return. Once travellers break through to Elite status the scheme is definitely worth it, with upgrades regularly available and free flights at hand. As part of Star Alliance Aeroplan is of value the world over and a membership card can earn points with a huge number of retail and travel partners in Canada.
US carriers are progressively forcing McDonald’s pay rates and conditions onto their already low paid staff and Air Canada’s management team dream of doing the same, but this has not been quite that easy to achieve with the more socially responsible Canadians. Air Canada’s long serving staff have seen nothing but cuts to their pay and conditions for over a decade and naturally do not feel very thrilled about this or the managers who instigated it. Frankly management is hated by much of the workforce but they have been more skilful than others in managing the airlines financial difficulties. Typically Air Canada’s management would rather spend money on new uniforms and colour schemes than on staff or catering.
Air Canada retired its last 747 in 2004 and has been progressively modernising its fleet based on a mixture of larger Airbus and Boeings. However the airline still operate many old aircraft which are well maintained. The airline’s last fatality was in 1983 but there have been many incidents since then, generally not related to safety. Air Canada’s pilots are extremely experienced and flying in the country’s often appalling weather has trained them well. For example conditions that Sydney regards as extreme are regarded by Air Canada’s pilots without concern and they have been known to continue operating services punctual when other airlines will divert flights.
An average all round airline that provides satisfactory service in almost every way.
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