Upping the Ante: Air Canada's 787 in Business Class From Shanghai to Montreal
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="81" ground-experience="5" cabin-seat="21" amens-ife="12" food-bev="21" service="22" pros="Comfortable reverse herringbone seats, friendly service and very solid food." cons="Missing window in Row 5, lackluster ground experience at Pudong." /]
Air Canada holds a special place in my heart, and even if I'm not flying with them, I always get a little excited when I see the carrier's 787s taxing around Shanghai Pudong Airport. You see, my entire points-and-miles hobby began by reading just about every flight review I could get my hands on, especially the ostentatious first-class ones, from bloggers who built their followings around the flight-review process. I started writing for The Points Guy as a college junior, but I didn't really feel like I'd made it to the big leagues until I got the chance to write my first flight review, which just happened to be of Air Canada's 787 business class.
My first time flying with Air Canada was a solid experience overall, but there were a few key areas where the carrier fell flat. Needless to say I was excited to give them another chance and see how their business-class product had evolved over the years.
I've resigned myself to the fact that award tickets from Shanghai to the East Coast often require two stops, especially if I'm flying to an airport like Miami (MIA) that doesn't have any nonstop service to Asia. Somehow, I was able to find a unicorn of an award ticket: A one-stop routing from Shanghai Pudong (PVG) to Miami via Montreal (YUL) on Air Canada business class at the peak of summer travel season.
We booked this ticket for 75,000 Aeroplan miles (transferred 1:1 from American Express) and $312 in taxes. For a ticket that normally retails for just over $4,000, we got a respectable redemption value of 4.9 cents per point after subtracting the taxes. Aeroplan does pass on fuel surcharges on many partners awards, and these taxes for flights on Air Canada metal are about as high as I'm comfortable with before I start complaining.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="5" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="C-FRTU" age="2.2" departure="16" departure-2="50" duration="13" duration-2="50" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I arrived at Pudong International Airport about two hours before my flight, and the Air Canada check-in area was a complete zoo. With three flights departing in the span of two hours to Montreal, Toronto (YYZ) and Vancouver (YVR), there were hundreds of passengers queued up in the economy line.
Thankfully, I was able to use the priority check-in lane, although it didn't actually say "business class" anywhere on the signage. I was checked in very quickly and handed an invitation to the No. 71 Air China lounge.
The lounge was up an escalator on the second level, which initially had me excited about the prospect of good runway views.
However, once on the second level, I turned to the left and walked back toward the entrance of the terminal to find the marble entrance to the lounge.
Nearly every Star Alliance carrier partners with Air China to offer their premium passengers access to this lounge.
The lounge was spread over two levels, but, save for a small bar at the back of the first floor, everything else seemed to be upstairs.
There was plenty of seating spread throughout the lounge, and while it didn't feel overly crowded, there were easily 100 or so people in the lounge at any given time.
There were a few self-serve bar areas with a rather uninspiring wine selection.
In order to connect to the internet, you needed to bring your passport up to one of the Wi-Fi kiosks that were hidden in various corners of the lounge.
I took a quick look at the buffet but ultimately passed on the purple potato mud.
Instead, I snacked on a few of the "fried chicken fillets" (chicken nuggets) and noodles. There were also veggies, cold cuts and fruit.
This lounge was adequate to kill an hour or two, but there was really nothing special about it. I've said this before but I don't think I'll ever be impressed with the ground experience at Pudong, which is why I try and get to the airport as late as humanly possible without missing my flight.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="21" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="1" configuration-2="2" configuration-3="1" width="21" bed="80" tray="18" tray-2="18" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Though I don't love Pudong as an airport, you always get interesting planespotting here. Our 787 was painted in Air Canada's new livery, with a sleek bandit mask around the cockpit that made it resemble an Airbus A350. On the apron around us was a United 777-200, an Air Mauritius A340, a Lufthansa 747-400 and even a Mahan Air A340, a pretty rare spot for an AvGeek.
Boarding started on time at 4:05pm, but they held us on the jetway in the sweltering heat for another 20 minutes or so as the crew made their final preparations.
All passengers boarded through Door L2, so I turned left into the business-class cabin. The cabin consisted of 30 seats, with eight along each window and seven pairs in the middle.
I loved the signature maple leaf on the bulkhead. The cabin used neutral colors that felt professional, almost like a corporate boardroom, but that splash of red went a long way toward brightening things up.
There are generally two styles of reverse herringbone seats out there, and Air Canada opted for the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seats, which I prefer slightly. The main difference between these seats and the Cirrus seats on airlines like Cathay Pacific is the storage compartment along the side of the seat, and the fact that the TV is fixed in front of you instead of popping out of the side of the seat.
Although I'd selected Seat 1A before departure, when I checked in, my boarding pass said 5K. I didn't mind all that much, as long as I was in a window seat, but it turned out that the seats in Row 5 only had one window instead of two. This was a minor detail, but as someone who loves staring out the windows on a long flight, I was bummed out.
The window seats were ideal for solo travelers, and the middle pairs would be better for couples traveling together. There was a privacy partition that separated you from the person next to you, too.
In addition, the window seats were slightly staggered from the center seats, creating even more privacy.
The armrest was adjustable and could be raised or lowered, with an open storage compartment below it. This was the perfect place to keep a water bottle, but given how exposed it was, I wouldn't leave any valuables here while sleeping.
(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)
Everything else I stuck in the main storage compartment to the right of the seat, which is also where the inflight-entertainment remote and outlets were.
On the right side of the seat was a small monitor that could be used to adjust the individual components of the seat, including lumbar support. There were also preset buttons for takeoff and sleeping.
Reverse herringbone seats are popular partly because of the size of the footwells, giving you plenty of space to spread out when it's time to sleep.
The bed was incredibly comfortable and private with the armrest raised, and I ended up getting a solid six hours of sleep.
The only drawback to this configuration was that I hit my knees on the tray table a few times while I was trying to get comfortable.
These seats weren't revolutionary in any way. In fact, they were about as standard as it gets in business class. While we've seen many airlines create custom products such as Qatar's Qsuite or United Polaris, there's nothing wrong with picking seats off a preset menu, and I've been incredibly comfortable on both my flights with Air Canada.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="18" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="1.01" wifi-2="35.6" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Upon boarding, my seat was piled high with bedding (which I stowed in the overhead bin until I was ready to sleep) and a pair of slippers.
The slippers were sturdy and featured the maple leaf logo.
In addition, there was a pair of noise-canceling headphones, though I used my Bose instead.
Also waiting at each seat was a bottle of water and an amenity kit by WANT Les Essentiels.
The kit itself was a huge upgrade over the scratchy one Air Canada used to offer, and featured all the usual goodies including socks, a dental kit, an eye mask, earplugs and lotion and lip balm by Vitruvi. All in all, a solid business-class kit.
Each seat also featured a crisp, 18-inch touchscreen TV. This seat design made it easy to reach out and actually touch the screen, instead of using the (often buggy) handheld remotes.
The content selection was average, with a number of classic TV shows and recently released movies to choose from. After a couple of flights on China Eastern, my standard for inflight entertainment has dropped so much that I had no trouble entertaining myself, especially watching the map as we crossed the Pacific Ocean.
This aircraft had three business-class bathrooms, one in front of the cabin and two in the galley separating business class from premium economy. Unfortunately, within an hour after takeoff, both of the right-side bathrooms were inoperable, leaving us with one bathroom for 28 passengers on a 14-hour flight. I commend the crew for how they handled the situation, putting a sign on the one working bathroom indicating it was for business-class passengers only and working hard to keep it clean during the flight.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="21" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Laurent Perrier brut" dine-on-demand="yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Boarding began a little hectically as the crew worked to finish setting up the cabin, including placing a menu at every seat. It looked like normally the menus would be waiting for passengers as they boarded, but there was clearly a timing error between the crew and the gate agents on this flight.
Once things calmed down, flight attendants came by with a tray of predeparture beverages, including prosecco, water and orange juice. Air Canada serves Laurent Perrier brut in business class, a huge improvement over its previous selection.
Probably my biggest gripe on my first Air Canada flight was the way they ran out of half of the meal choices even though the cabin was only a third full. This time, I watched carefully as meal orders were taken, starting with the entire left aisle before they made their way over to my seat on the right side. This meant that despite being seated in the middle of the cabin, I was one of the last passengers to have his order taken. I was a little nervous with all but two seats taken in the cabin, but all four meal options were still available by the time they got to me. It seems that Air Canada listened to customer feedback and overhauled its catering process.
Once the seatbelt sign was turned off, flight attendants came through the cabin distributing hot towels. About 35 minutes after takeoff, they began serving drinks and mixed nuts. I tried the Air Canada signature cocktail, a mix of Crown Royal Canadian whiskey, gin and cranberry juice. Note that the bar selection was buried at the back of the menu, meaning you had to flip through the English, French and Chinese translations to see what drinks were available.
The appetizer was served about an hour into the flight, consisting of seared prawns with passion-fruit mustard and zucchini. This was accompanied by a small Greek salad, and I was also offered a few pieces of garlic bread from the breadbasket. The prawns were delicious and not too heavy, though the zucchini was bland.
(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)
From there, it was another half hour or so until the main course was served. I went with the chicken breast in lemon black-pepper sauce, parsley couscous, carrot and sugar snap peas. I appreciated the accuracy of the menu description, as there truly was only one carrot served with this dish.
The chicken was good and fairly well-cooked, and the sauce and couscous helped make up for that unavoidable airplane-induced dryness.
Next, I was offered a small fruit and cheese plate. While I normally get a dessert instead of cheese, Air Canada serves them as separate courses, so I ended up nibbling while I waited for dessert.
I finished off the meal with a slice of apple cake and lemon ginger tea. The cake was moist and fluffy and not too heavy.
The meal service was finished two hours into the flight, which is a good pace on a long flight with a full cabin. Drink refills were proactive throughout, and I was addressed by name at almost every interaction.
If you're looking to get more rest on the flight, Air Canada offers two flexible dining options. The first is express dining, where you can enjoy a salad, appetizer, cheese and fruit all on a single tray. The second and more recent addition is a true dine-on-demand concept. On this flight, it made sense to eat at the scheduled times, but on certain routes (like Air Canada's 15-hour daytime flight from Melbourne to Vancouver) that extra flexibility would be greatly appreciated.
There was a small snack menu, including noodle soup, a ham sandwich and a salad, but I waited until closer to landing to have breakfast. The three choices were an omelet, congee and fried noodles, and Air Canada displayed all three on a cart so you could pick the one that looked appetizing instead of guessing based on the menu.
I got the omelet, which had been simply inedible on my previous Air Canada flight. I was proactively offered both ketchup and hot sauce, and even without them these eggs were much better than last time. This was accompanied by yogurt, fruit, a muffin, orange juice and another tea.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="No" /]
I was impressed with the way the crew on this flight was able to switch so effortlessly from English to French to Mandarin as they made their way down the aisle serving different passengers. The flip side to that was that all the announcements were repeated in triplicate, often with a few minutes' gap between, making it harder to watch a movie without interruption.
Every flight attendant I interacted with was incredibly friendly, an important reminder that, though I was ultimately heading back to the US, I was not flying with an American airline. I was always greeted with a smile, addressed by name more often than not, but the crew also nailed all the little touches like remembering what type of tea I'd been drinking 10 hours earlier instead of having to ask me again. Another small detail that I thoroughly enjoyed was the way the flight attendant carefully turned each cup so that I was always served with the maple leaf logo facing me. I'd expect that kind of laser focus in ANA first class, but when you're treated that way in business class, it's a clear indicator that the crew wants to be there and wants to serve you.
I'm not sure if Air Canada management consists of avid TPG readers, but in the two years since I'd last flown with them, they fixed every minor complaint I had about the business-class experience. Air Canada business class isn't going to change your life the way Qsuite might, but when you add a one-stop routing to the East Coast with a reasonable award cost, this is a product I'll happily fly time and time again.