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Flight Review: Air Canada 787 Economy — Zurich to Toronto

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In the third and final long-haul segment in his recent round-the-world itinerary, TPG Contributor JT Genter flew the Air Canada 787 Dreamliner from Zurich (ZRH) to Toronto (YYZ). Here’s his take on the experience.

Booking the Flight with Miles

As discussed in my Lufthansa A380 flight review, I booked my return flights from Beijing (PEK) to Austin (AUS) the “long way home” through Europe for just 35,000 United miles, transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards (earned with my Chase Ink Plus card) to MileagePlus at a ratio of 1:1.

Zurich main train station
Zurich’s grand main train station is the largest in Switzerland.

The evening before the flight, I took Swiss carrier Helvetic Airways the short hop from Frankfurt (FRA) to Zurich (ZRH) and enjoyed a brief but wonderful stay in Zurich; Katie Hammel’s Layover Guide to Zurich helped me maximize my 15-hour layover in the beautiful (but quite expensive) city. I arrived back at Zurich’s main train station in time for the 7:07am InterCity train (CHF 6.6 or about $7, one way), which whisked me to the airport in less than 10 minutes.

Minimal signage at the Air Canada check-in counter
At present, you’ll find temporary, minimal signage at the Air Canada check-in counter.

From the airport train station, I navigated through the Airport Center (the location of many other airlines’ check-in desks) and across to the main terminal, and finally found Air Canada’s check-in desk. This part of the airport was under renovation while I was there, so the signage was temporary and minimal. When I arrived two hours before departure, there were only a few people in line and check-in went smoothly.

Cafe and view from the main terminal
Cafe and view from the main terminal.

After clearing security, I followed the arrows for E gates (international flights) and into immigration. Although other travelers ahead of me were asked questions about their travels, the agent just gave me a smile and stamped my American passport. From there, it was a three-minute underground train ride out to the far-away international terminal E.

Once at the gate, I headed over to the nearby kiosk (beyond gate 34 and the nearby shops) to scan my boarding pass and get my free log-in code for the airport’s Wi-Fi network. The code grants you an hour of decent Wi-Fi.

Lining up for passport checks
Though it was past our boarding time, here we were just lining up for passport checks.

Shortly before the stated boarding time of 8:55am, an announcement was made for all passengers to line-up for passport checks. Passengers split into two seemingly identical lines, but the one I chose (the grey-signed one on the right) ended up only being for premium passengers. Those of us who made this mistake had to transfer to the end of the other line.

While we waited in line, it was displayed that our flight would be delayed 10 minutes to 9:45am due to “late arrival of incoming aircraft.” Our plane had arrived 75 minutes before our scheduled departure.

Baggage checking bin. They made her check this reasonably sized bag.
This reasonably sized roller bag was not allowed on board.

Next to the passport check lines was a carry-on bag size-testing bin, with Air Canada employees tagging any bags that fit with red “Approved Carry-On Baggage” tags and requiring people to check any bags that didn’t fit. My small roller board barely passed muster, and many of my fellow travelers’ bags were considered too large to be carry-ons.

At boarding, the gate agents strictly enforced a no-tag, no-board policy. This process was quite puzzling, as no passengers seemed to be charged extra for having to check their bag and there was plenty of room in the overhead bins once we were on board!

After clearing passport and baggage checks, everyone lined up yet again to wait to board. As we waited, the 9:45am revised departure time became more unrealistic. Pre-boarding began at 9:30am with general boarding starting shortly afterward.

On Board the 787

Front part of the 3-3-3 Economy section
Front part of the 3-3-3 economy section.

On the 787, Air Canada’s economy class is arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration. Boeing recommends eight-abreast seating in the Dreamliner, but most airlines arrange their economy sections in this same 3-3-3 arrangement. This tighter layout necessitates small seats; they’re just 17.3 inches wide.

My row and the huge Dreamliner windows
Sure, these seats look nice — but for three adults, they’re rather cramped.

The 31 inches of pitch made the ride comfortable for my 5-foot, 11-inch frame, but my seatmates had to get up and go into the aisle to let me pass. The combination of the 3-3-3 layout, narrow seats and moderate legroom combined to make the “completely full” flight feel rather cramped.

At each seat, there was a pillow and a plastic-wrapped blanket. Each row had two power sockets that accepted standard US-style plugs. Although each seat also offered a USB plug, these power sockets enabled much-faster charging — a welcome relief for my laptop and phone batteries.

This undimmed window contrasts with the dimmed windows in the rest of the plane
This undimmed window contrasts with the dimmed windows in the rest of the plane.

Despite the three-seat row layout, I was happy to have secured a seat at one of the unique Dreamliner windows. The composite materials used to build the Dreamliner allow for the windows to be about 40% larger than traditional aircraft windows. Also, instead of traditional window shades, passengers — and crew — can dim the windows electronically.

During the boarding process, a family that was split across multiple rows tried to consolidate into one row. Passengers were kind enough to trade their seats for the family to sit together. However, a flight attendant became quite agitated with the process, barking at the switching passengers, “I don’t care where you sit, just sit down!” Although we were running late, this still seemed to me to be an unnecessary overreaction.

We pushed back about 10 minutes later — and 35 minutes late — around 10:10am. After holding at the runway waiting for air traffic control to clear us, we took off at 10:28am. It was amazing to watch the Dreamliner’s wings flex bird-like under the weight of the plane as we lifted off the ground.

A nice IFE welcome screen... once I finally got it.
A nice IFE welcome screen… once I finally got it.

During boarding, the in-flight entertainment system gave a pleasing welcome at each seat, noting the seat number and route. That is … at every seat but mine! Upon reaching cruising altitude, I pressed the flight attendant button to summon a FA about the situation. The call button remained unanswered for about 20 minutes before I inquired of the FA who was coming through the cabin with customs forms. She said that she would reset my device. Six minutes later, my device showed signs of resetting, and the welcome screen came up shortly after.

In-flight entertainment options.
In-flight entertainment options.

No Wi-Fi service was offered on this flight, but the IFE system had a wide variety of options. “Watch & Listen” entertainment options include a wide selection of movies and TV shows in various languages, a wide variety of music genres, 10 podcasts, five audiobooks and Dreamliner promotional videos. Under the “Travel” section, there were city guides and top hotel and restaurant recommendations. If you are interesting in doing some shopping during your flight, you can also buy duty-free and other items right at your seat. Also, there are plenty of games available for seemingly all ages.

To listen, you can use your own standard-plug headphones or use the earbuds that Air Canada provides for free on this route [$3.50 CAD (roughly $3) on other routes]. The Air Canada headphones were of decent quality, but I still preferred to use my cheap store-bought earbuds.

The lunch presentation about matched its taste.
The lunch presentation about matched its taste.

Lunch was started about an hour after takeoff. The “Air Canada Cafe” menus in the seat back listed a variety of packaged foods and beverages for sale. Seeing these had me concerned, but thankfully we didn’t have to rely on these options; lunch was indeed complimentary and the menu was available on the IFE system.

The entree choice was “Chicken breast served with ginger-poultry jus, mashed potatoes, vegetable brunoise and green beans” or “Orecchiette pasta with basil cream sauce and eggplant.” Both options were served with a packaged “Cafe Bronte cookie.” I chose the chicken option, and while it was a welcome return to Western food after a couple of weeks in China, it was certainly nothing special. Seeing the “Best before: 13.09.2016” (13+ months after my flight) stamp on the main course cover added to the feeling that this was nothing more than a microwave dinner.

Drink service occurred with food service, and options included soda, juices, beer, wine and liquor. I chose red wine and received a personal-size, six-ounce bottle of Les Tannes “Rouge” wine.

The cabin with lights — and windows — dimmed.
The cabin with lights — and windows — dimmed.

With lunch served and collected, the FAs passed through to offer coffee, tea or water before dimming the cabin lights and auto-dimming the windows. Halfway through the artificial night, the FAs passed through the cabin with bags of pretzels and drinks to tide over those of us who were awake.

The FAs — while fun to chat with in the back galley — were certainly not the most service-oriented. While stretching my legs in the back galley, I noticed that there were eight call buttons lit up … in just the rear economy section. When I mentioned it to the FAs who were sitting around and chatting, they explained that many people just accidentally hit the button with their elbows. It seems that this was their assumption for all FA call requests!

"Pre-arrival snack" size compared to drink napkins
“Pre-arrival snack” size compared to drink napkins.

Served about an hour before arrival, a “pre-arrival snack” was a choice of two flavors of Monty’s Bakehouse “hot wraps” — either Sweet Chili Chicken or Spinach & Feta Cheese. I went with the former, and while it was nice to have some sort of food, it was neither filling nor particularly tasty.

Likely due to the Dreamliner’s better pressurization, I didn’t notice my ears pop on either the ascent or descent. So, unless people were looking out the window, they may not have realized that we were below 10,000 feet when the captain first announced our descent into Toronto. Most of the cabin seemed to shrug off the announcement and return to their still-active IFE systems.

We seemed to have made up much of our delay and it looked like we would arrive nearly on time. But, while on final approach, we were put into a late holding pattern due to an incident on another runway (thankfully, there was apparently no damage or injuries). We landed about 10 minutes after scheduled arrival, and — perhaps thanks to the strict carry-on bag regulations — the plane was fully unloaded just 15 minutes later.

Will I fly you again, Air Canada Dreamliner?
Will I fly you again, Air Canada Dreamliner?

Overall Experience

I found the Air Canada soft product a bit lacking and the hard product mixed. The FA mentality of assuming all call buttons were mistakes and losing patience with passengers before departure didn’t create a pleasant atmosphere. Food was provided, but it was nothing special.

While the unique windows and the cabin atmosphere on the Dreamliner are certainly superior, the small seats and cramped seating arrangement certainly detracted from the experience. I wouldn’t mind taking an Air Canada 787 again, if the schedule and routes worked for a future itinerary, but I certainly wouldn’t seek it out.

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