Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Why Savvy U.S. Fliers Take Air Canada: More international travelers are finding better deals, nicer planes and faster flight times than they get from Delta, United or American by heading north

The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
Updated Aug. 16, 2017 12:23 p.m. ET

One of the best ways to go east to Europe or west to Asia now is to go north.

Air Canada , revived after years of turbulence and bankruptcy, has turned its hubs in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver into easy, fast connecting points for U.S. travelers. You clear U.S. Customs in Canada without even having to retrieve your checked luggage. Waits are minimal. Fares are sometimes cheaper. Planes are new and fitted with premium economy cabins—an option U.S. airlines are just beginning to roll out.

It’s the in-the-know alternative for travelers who want to avoid the slog of connecting in New York or Los Angeles, Paris or London, Chicago or Atlanta.

“People are surprised when I say it’s a much better experience on Air Canada,” says Louise Clements, an advertising executive who splits time between New York and Toronto.

She lived in New York until last year and found it better to fly from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Toronto for overseas trips on Air Canada than U.S. airlines from Kennedy or Newark, N.J. Now living in Toronto, she flies Air Canada often to Minneapolis and sees more passengers connecting to international flights. Air Canada has put larger aircraft on the route.

Air Canada’s international connecting push has been a decade in the making. The airline has invested heavily in new planes, high-speed moving sidewalks, ultrafast baggage belts, bigger security checkpoints and international airport clubs with showers to poach travelers heading into or out of the U.S. Getting all its flights in the same terminal in all three of its hubs has made connections quicker and easier.

The carrier, a Star Alliance partner with United, has long offered connecting service abroad. But now it’s building its schedule, offering cities that U.S. airlines don’t, like Casablanca and Dubai, along with high-demand destinations like Shanghai, London, Seoul and Tel Aviv.

It is trying to capitalize on its own revival while U.S. airlines are mired in customer battles and reputations for lousy service. Air Canada, which flies to about 60 U.S. cities, thinks its strongest U.S. markets will be secondary cities that don’t have many direct overseas flights, itineraries such as Pittsburgh to Beijing or Tampa, Fla., to Copenhagen. Air Canada also provided an alternative when the U.S. ban on laptops in cabins on inbound flights from 10 airports, mostly Middle East, was in effect from March to July.

“They’ve made prices more attractive,” says Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations, a New York-based agency specializing in luxury travel. “When you have to make a connection anyway, it’s a smart way to go.”

Benjamin Smith, president of Air Canada’s passenger airline division, says the U.S. dollar’s strength—$1 is worth about 25% more than a Canadian dollar—has enabled the airline to price aggressively in the U.S. The airline’s focus has been primarily on luring business class and premium economy passengers with good deals.

Geography helps with keeping flight times competitive, since trips between the U.S. and both Europe and Asia pass over Canada. Air Canada can get you from Hartford, Conn., to Paris in nine hours, 25 minutes. That’s 50 minutes faster from Hartford to Paris than United, 65 minutes faster than American and more than 2½ hours faster than Delta.

Years back, Air Canada was torn with labor strife, a pension crisis, bankruptcy reorganization and a reputation for lousy service. Under Chief Executive Calin Rovinescu, who took over in 2009, the carrier has revived with $10 billion capital spending program launched in 2010, 10-year labor contracts and a low-cost unit for leisure destinations. This year, airline rating firm Skytrax gave Air Canada four stars out of five and named it the best in North America. It’s the only large international four-star airline in North America.

Ryan Hoult is chief executive of a Calgary software company and flies over 100,000 miles a year with Air Canada. He says the airline is ahead of the three big U.S. international carriers because it refreshed its fleet faster, largely with new Boeing 787s and 777s. Air Canada was first in North America with lie-flat business-class beds on all its long-haul aircraft, first with aisle access for all business-class seats on all aircraft so you don’t have to climb over a sleeping passenger to get to the bathroom, and first with true premium economy on all long-haul flights.

“I know what I’m getting when I fly them,” Mr. Hoult says of Air Canada. The product and service isn’t as fine as Singapore Airlines , he says. He likens it to Marriott hotels—good quality, but not Ritz Carlton.

Regular fliers can point to one drawback: the kind of winter weather Atlanta or L.A. don’t worry about.

Air Canada’s Mr. Smith contends the airline handles winter storms more expeditiously than congested U.S. airports. Recovery is easier, since Toronto and Montreal are smaller than New York and Boston.

The increased passenger flow into and out of the U.S. has enabled Air Canada to offer more cities. Ben Lipsey, director of Air Canada’s global connection product, points to flights to Hartford that probably wouldn’t exist without the international connections.

Air Canada launched 16 international and U.S. transborder routes in the second quarter and traffic increased 13.6% over the previous year. “If you offer the right price and the shortest elapsed time, you’re higher in the sort order” of online ticket-shopping, Mr. Lipsey says.

Some of the innovations can be confusing to travelers faced with unfamiliar procedures. Travelers entering the U.S. used to have to reclaim luggage before U.S. Customs clearance, and then go on to security screening. But Air Canada reversed the process. Your luggage gets screened while you get screened. That slashed 15 minutes off connecting times in Toronto, says Fady Riad, manager of baggage and hub connection performance.

After a security checkpoint, travelers wait in a holding room for their names to turn green on a display, indicating that their bags have been X-rayed and U.S. Customs is ready to process them. Unless officials order a physical search, the bags go straight to connecting flights.

Michael Foote, an American who lives in Copenhagen, travels back to relatives in Tampa frequently and has recently tried Air Canada twice. He finds the name-on-the-board system strange. “You have to scan your boarding card several times: to get into the room, to get out,” he says. Lettering is small on the boards, which tell you to look for your initials and then the first three letters of a last name are displayed.

“You have to be alert—it’s a little annoying after traveling so long,” says Mr. Foote, a bank executive. Still, after trying London, Frankfurt, Zurich, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Iceland, his family prefers Toronto.

Air Canada’s Mr. Lipsey says the system “needs some fine-tuning.”

Original article can be found here ➤


  1. Flew Business Class from Paris to Miami on Air Canada via a connection in Montreal. The connection and immigration was atrocious and felt like I was in a 3rd world airport. NEVER again will I do a connection in Canada.

  2. Can I get a copy of the Air Canada sales brochure were this article first appeared?

  3. Air Canada has been, is and I'm sure will continue to be, a lousy airline. Rude and unhelpful employees, old planes, cramped seating, terrible frequent flyer plan, etc.

  4. I avoid Air Canada as much as possible... I flew United, American and Air Canada to Europe before, Air Canada by far has the worst food, worst airport experience (come on pre-clearance in Toronto... 4 hours to get through Customs at 6am in the morning, it's a torture) and food is equally horrible. They used to have newer planes than the US ones but now United and American Airlines are also getting some new planes.

  5. Just hope your Air Canada pilot lands the plane on the runway instead of the taxiway...

  6. Air Canada is an airline run by the Post Office ..... if you like the impact on customer service of long term labor contracts and the impact on customer experience you will be in love with Air Canada.

  7. Air Canada = low prices and quality to match.
    One can save some money by investing many, many hours at the Toronto airport, having gate agents communicate either badly or dishonestly, and Air Canada moving luggage at a glacial pace.

  8. Never mind the trolls, I would much rather flight Air Canada overseas than any US based airline and have only positive things to say. Domestically, I may have more issues but the reality is every airline has issues on any given day so you pick the one that is best for you and that is often Air Canada. Flying to England a lot, I may also take British Airways but I would only take a US carrier if there was no other choice. My travel agent has a back line to Air Canada which means I never have a problem getting help.

  9. Caveat emptor: traveling on a family spring break holiday with the children Air Canada canceled our flight and rebooked our departure *5* days later claiming that was the earliest they could get us out. This was from a major airport. This shortened our holiday massively, and completely blew up scheduled events, bookings, etc.

    Air Canada disingenuously offered compensation consisting of a coupon for discounted future travel - which, when the time came to use, they completely refused to honor. Throughout the entire ordeal, they could not have cared less.

  10. Obviously the journalist has never flown with Air Canada. I have been trying since January to claim "compensation" for a flight that was delayed a day. Due to the number of claims, it has taken eight months and counting to receive the compensation. Plus they will not compensate for all costs, just a hotel and food. They refused to have us accommodated on another airline. Air Canada did, however, vastly over-serve booze to a group on the long flight from Toronto to Shanghai so we were all kept awake with the group congregating and sitting on the arms of the seats carrying on for hours. So much for staying in your seats and not congregating at the front of the plane. Savvy US fliers don't take Air Canada, only people who don't mind arriving or leaving their destination on time with any shred of sanity should consider this airline.

  11. Sad, yet glad, to say that I learned more about Air Canada and its competitors by reading the comments than I did by reading the article. That's not a good thing.

  12. As long as they land on the runway at your destination, not the taxiway, all is good. But that recent incident in which Air Canada missed another aircraft by a few feet, combining lining up with the taxiway on approach with slow recognition of the error, was not comforting. That's not that easy a mistake to make.

  13. For what it's worth, my experience with Air Canada has been that it is usually much more expensive than any of the major US airlines. Its change/cancellation policies have always struck me as worse too.

  14. The article gives no warning that the "Air Canada" flight you think you have booked may actually be operated by "Air Canada Rouge", which is on par with Frontier or Spirit. Air Canada really only operates between major business cities. So, if you're headed to, say, Barcelona, Athens or the Caribbean, you won't be on Air Canada. Instead, you will be on Air Canada Rouge -- with its 30 year-old planes, no seatback entertainment, lousy leg room, and substandard service. It's nicknamed Air Canada Rogue -- and it is dreadful. If you're "savvy", you will avoid it like the plague.

  15. This is a joke, right? Air Canada is at the bottom of the barrel for service. Why is there no 'sponsored content' label on this? Nobody in their right mind would commend such an awful airline.

  16. Anyone who is kamikaze enough of a flier to board Err Canada, I wish the best of luck.

    (1) Err Canada bookings often include undisclosed segments on its "Rouge" discount flanker airline brand, featuring 29" seat pitch, grouchy flight attendants, and no in-screen TV.

    (2) Toronto's Pearson Airport is a nightmare for clearing customs, with frequent employee job strikes and unpredictable lines (that can be either 10 people or 1000 people long) that can make a 2.5 hour layover a hair-raising, right-down-to-the-wire connecting experience.

    (3) Avoid Canada connections in the winter (November - March). Adverse weather and flying do not mix well. Err Canada's customer service representatives have a reputation for going home when their shift is over, leaving a line of unserved customers with no assistance.

    (4) Finally, look at AC's history in spinning off its Aeroplan miles program in 2007, then ending it in 2018. So much for customer loyalty or usable mile accumulation.

  17. Why do I suspect any advantage to Air Canada might disappear with publication of this article?

  18. Great service?? Really? My niece's flight on Air Canada from LaGuardia Airport to Montreal was canceled on August 3rd (no reason given) and she was told she would be booked on the next available flight from Newark. Imagine traveling with 3 children under the age of 5 from Queens, New York to Newark, New Jersey during the morning rush hour. She did, and when she arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport with plenty of time to spare she was informed by the Air Canada ticket agent that no reservation existed in her name and that the flight was booked full. As it turned out, the customer service agent at LaGuardia Airport rebooked my niece, her husband and all three children under the name of her 23 month old daughter, who by the way, didn't need a ticket! No wonder the Air Canada staff in Newark couldn't find the reservation. My niece and her family spent the night in a hotel at Newark Liberty International Airport at her expense. Air Canada's service is God awful and a refresher course in customer relations is warranted.