Passing grade: A review of Air Canada in economy on the 787-9 from Toronto to Dubai
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A well-stocked in-flight entertainment system, nice selection of free alcoholic drinks, fast Wi-Fi and a crew that seemed to do their best.
Tight seat width and legroom, uninspired food and a departure meal service that dragged on past 1 a.m.
Landing in Toronto after my review of Swoop and needing a positioning flight to Dubai for an Emirates review, I returned to one of the first products that I reviewed for TPG: economy on Air Canada’s 787 Dreamliner. That was way back in 2015, when our reviews looked very different from today. Since then, I’ve chalked up more than a million miles in flight, and I was curious to circle back to Air Canada economy to see how it’s changed.
We paid for this flight in cash instead of points, using The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x points on airfare booked directly with airlines or Amex Travel. The $787.88 one-way fare from Toronto to Dubai yielded 3,939 points, worth $79 at our current valuations, since we peg an Amex point at 2 cents.
I logged into my reservation three days before departure to check seat selection and make sure my Star Alliance Gold elite number — a status I have through Asiana Airlines — was listed. The cabin was starting to fill up, but there were several seats still available that I could select for a fee of $37 for window and aisle, or $32 for middle seats. (That’s right, paying for a middle seat.)
I checked in online on my phone on the shuttle to the airport. The check-in process was a gauntlet of entering information, reviewing my assigned seat, declining upgrades and other upsells. An upgrade to premium economy was being sold for C$642 ($488) and an upgrade to business class was a whopping C$5,799 ($4,408).
As I hadn’t purchased a seat ahead of time, I was allocated seat 30A. The front cabin was completely full and there were only middle seats left in the back cabin, so I was happy to end up in what I thought was a window seat. More about that later.
Upon arrival at the airport, I followed the signage to Air Canada’s international check-in aisles. Although I have Star Alliance Gold status, I passed on using the priority check-in area so I could review the true economy experience.
The international economy check-in area consisted of 45 check-in kiosks, a self-serve bag drop area and a line for passengers needing assistance from an agent.
I didn’t need to wait for an available check-in kiosk. Since I’d checked in online, I was given the option to print a boarding pass, print bag tags, change my seat, upgrade my flight or make changes to my frequent-flyer number or contact information.
The price of upgrades hadn’t dropped since I had checked in.
After printing my boarding pass and baggage tag, the kiosk prompted me to proceed to bag drop.
Although the bag drop system was self-service, multiple agents were available to assist passengers with attaching their baggage tags and using the system.
Despite not needing to, I stood in this line for review purposes. In about nine minutes, it was my time to speak with an agent. Since I couldn’t come up with a better excuse for being in the line, I simply asked for a printout of my boarding pass. The agent was understandably annoyed but printed a boarding pass for me. From entering the line to leaving with a printed boarding pass, 11 minutes had elapsed.
Going through security was quick. However, the international terminal is a long distance away from the check-in desks. Toronto airport has installed unique high-speed moving walkways to zip you along toward terminal E.
The terminal is chock-full of duty-free shops, restaurants and coffee shops. Around each gate, every seat has a tablet with a nearby credit card reader for people who want to make a restaurant or duty-free purchase while seated. Signage is clear that passengers are “invited to enjoy our enhanced seating and iPads” and that “restaurant purchases are not required.”
Wi-Fi is free in the terminal. While spotty in parts, it was pretty fast when it worked. I clocked it at 22 Mbps download and 34.5 Mbps upload.
At the gate, the Air Canada agents kept the entrances to the three boarding lanes (Zone 1, Zone 2 and Zone 3-6) roped off beyond the stated boarding time of 8:55 p.m. Unfazed passengers lined up behind the ropes causing lines to stretch into the terminal pathway, blocking passengers on other flights from getting to their gate.
Pre-boarding began at 8:57 p.m. with numerous wheelchair passengers and a Team USA Paralympic team. Zone 1 (business class passengers, but excluding Star Alliance Gold) was invited to board at 9:05 p.m. I took advantage of my Star Alliance Gold elite status so I could get clean cabin shots, boarding with Zone 2 a few minutes later.
After boarding completed, we sat at the gate for more than an hour. A pilot kept us informed that a family had missed the flight and the airline needed to find and remove their bags. While that was being completed, a maintenance issue popped up. We finally pushed back a little before 11 p.m. — more than an hour late — and took off at 11:12 p.m.
We made up a little of the delay in the air, arriving at the gate in Dubai around 40 minutes late.
Cabin and Seat
Air Canada arranges economy on its Boeing 787s with the 3-3-3 seating layout typical of coach on Dreamliners.
That leads to a tight 17-inch seat width.
According to Seat Guru and other sources, the pitch on Air Canada’s 787s is supposed to be 30 inches. However, I measured legroom at 31.
The seats didn’t feel very padded. The reduced padding meant more of the pitch was available for legroom, but it wasn’t great for comfort. After sitting in this seat for 13 hours, I was feeling a bit sore.
One of the consequences of the slim seat design is that you can feel when the passenger behind you is putting something in, or retrieving something from, the seatback pocket.
Speaking of which, there’s a single large pocket in the seatback. In it, Air Canada stocked a few magazines and the safety card inside a plastic sleeve.
Seats recline a generous five inches. That’s good news if you want to sleep, but bad news if you want to work on a laptop and the passenger in front of you reclines.
The headrest has folding wings to cradle your head while you sleep. I found the wings to be firm enough to stay in place while I slept.
The seat doesn’t have a leg- or footrest. However, I appreciated that the seat supports divide the under-seat storage areas into three equal parts in the middle section of seats.
The tray tables fold down from the seatback in front and measure 15.5 inches wide by 8.5 inches deep. The tray table can be extended a few inches toward you if needed.
Overhead bins are spacious and numerous. However, they filled up on this flight.
At the back of the rear economy cabin, the cabin width narrows just enough for Air Canada to install a two-seat row on each side of the cabin, making these seats a great choice for couples traveling together on a full flight.
Exit seat rows are always popular for passengers looking for extra legroom. These seats are marked as “preferred,” meaning they were even more costly to select. If you’re willing to pay the price, you’ll probably want to avoid the window seat as it doesn’t have an actual window and the curvature of the exit cramps the space. Also, these seats have immovable armrests, which reduce the already-tight seat width.
The bulkhead seats in the front of the forward economy cabin are also marked as “preferred.” The window seats have two windows to enjoy and even more legroom thanks to a curved bulkhead wall. Again, beware of the reduced seat width due to the tray tables being stored in the armrests.
There are three lavatories located in the middle of the two economy cabins and two more in the rear of the aircraft, a total of five for 247 economy passengers. That ratio of 49 people per bathroom combined with a nearly-full flight meant there were lines during some periods.
The vacuum flush isn’t quiet, so you may want to avoid seats at the rear of each economy cabin if you’re a light sleeper.
Economy lavatories feature the standard Dreamliner touchless design and are otherwise unremarkable.
I asked flight attendants if the forward lavatory, located between premium economy and business class, was available for economy passengers. I was surprised to be told yes. In addition to having lotions and sprays clearly meant for a premium cabin, this bathroom has a unique feature: a window.
Amenities and IFE
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a pillow and a plastic-wrapped blanket.
Each group of three seats contains just two universal power outlets, located between the seats in front. Unfortunately, this means that you may need to bargain for access to power with your row-mates on a full flight. Also, I found that my chargers would easily fall out of the outlet.
My recommendation: bring a UK power adapter, plug your charger into this adapter and the UK adapter into the universal power outlet. I’ve found that the UK power plugs don’t fall out of these loose power outlets as easily.
Every seatback contains a crisp 8.5-inch in-flight entertainment touchscreen.
The IFE system was packed with 370 movies and 252 TV shows, but it was organized in a way that you could easily browse the options. Even as a very frequent traveler who watches lots of movies on planes, I easily found options to keep me entertained.
However, one downside to the IFE screen is that it doesn’t tilt. So, when the passenger in front of you reclines, you may struggle to see the screen clearly.
The IFE includes no tail camera, live TV, remote or streaming entertainment option. Also, no amenity kit was provided.
Bathrooms were kept stocked with towels, tissues and soap but didn’t contain any amenities and none were available upon request.
Air Canada has installed Gogo’s speedy 2Ku Wi-Fi system on its 787s. Passengers hoping to stay connected during the flight had the option of purchasing a fast (Stream Pass) or a slow (Browse Pass) connection for either one hour or the entire flight. Prices for the four packages were:
- 1-hour slow pass: C$9.25 ($7.03)
- 1-hour fast pass: C$11.50 ($8.74)
- Full-flight slow pass: C$20.75 ($15.77)
- Full-flight fast pass: C$29.75 ($22.61)
Thankfully I was able to redeem one of the free Gogo internet passes that I received as a benefit of being a cardmember of The Business Platinum Card® from American Express to save $23. Unfortunately, that valuable benefit was cut as of January 1, 2020.
Through the 12-hour flight, I didn’t notice any dead spots on the Wi-Fi. I ran a total of seven Wi-Fi speed tests with the average result being 36.3 Mbps download speed, 2.5 Mbps upload speed and 820ms ping. The download speed ranged between 21.1 and 50.3 Mbps with the upload speed ranging between 1.77 and 3.06 Mbps.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
The in-flight entertainment system included a menu for the flight, beginning with dinner.
Flight attendants offered passengers a simpler choice of “chicken or vegetarian.” I chose the chicken and received a meal of white chicken chunks in a simple mild tomato sauce served with unseasoned couscous. The dish seemed to be designed with the focus on being inoffensive rather than going for flavor. A plastic-wrapped cold bread roll, potato salad and a brownie were served on the same tray.
Flight attendants served drinks along with dinner and then followed up after dinner to offer another round of drinks. In addition to standard soda, juice and hot drink options, economy passengers could order complimentary wine, beer or spirits.
However, the biggest downside of the dinner service was the timing. After taking off late at 11:12 p.m., I’m sure many passengers were looking forward to a quick meal service before catching some rest. Unfortunately, it would take more than 50 minutes after takeoff before special meals were served to passengers in my section of economy. My dinner wasn’t served until 12:26 a.m. and empty trays weren’t collected until after 1 a.m.
A simple snack basket of Biscoff cookies or pretzels was available in the rear galley mid-flight.
Breakfast choices were an omelet or pancake. I opted for the omelet and found it to be more of an egg slab with salsa and home potatoes. The fruit salad served with the meal mostly contained cantaloupe, but it was fresh.
Flight attendants on this flight were generally friendly, despite being clearly overworked.
Flight attendants scrambled for much of the flight. They appeared to be harried from boarding to disembarking, probably because of what seemed like an inordinate amount of special meals and sticking to what seemed to be a stringent service plan. Despite that, flight attendants were generally friendly, if a little short in their interactions with passengers.
During the extended ground delay, flight attendants passed through the cabin offering cups of water. And, at least once per hour mid-flight, they walked up and down the two aisles offering glasses of water to passengers who were awake.
When I visited the back galley before sleeping, the crew was busy again working to organize a seeming sea of special meals. This wasn’t bad, they explained, as there have been flights with over 130 special meals.
As much as I hate pressing the call button, I did so to test response time, and it took about 90 seconds for a flight attendant to respond. Despite being annoyed by the call, the flight attendant agreed to retrieve a coffee with milk. In just three minutes from my call, she delivered my drink.
However, the most noteworthy aspect of the service is what happened during boarding. I noticed that the supposed window seat that had been assigned at check-in was without a window, so I asked flight attendants in the back galley if there were any aisle or actual window seats open. One flight attendant empathized, apologized and explained that the flight was completely full (that wasn’t quite right, the airline was still selling at least nine economy seats at the time.)
As boarding was nearing completion, I was still hanging out in the emergency exit row, not quite ready to squeeze myself into the windowless seat, when the same flight attendant stopped by to say that I might get lucky. Sure enough, once boarding was complete, she came over and waved to me to follow her.
Visions of a premium-economy upgrade danced in my head as I followed her up the aisle. She pointed out an empty window seat (in regular economy) with such authority that the passengers in my new row didn’t even think to question losing the empty seat.
This little bit of extra effort definitely helped the service score.
From the tight seating arrangement to lack of amenities, Air Canada’s economy product isn’t winning any awards. However, I found this flight to be perfectly fine. An extensive in-flight entertainment system and free alcohol in economy certainly made the long 13-hour flight — when adding in the extended ground delay — more pleasant than it could have been.
I would certainly consider flying Air Canada economy in the future, particularly as the airline often offers very affordable fares to Europe, Asia and beyond.
All photos by the author.
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