Aug 212018
 


Following in the trend of airlines giving their business class products fancy names (American kicked it off with “Flagship Business,” then came “Delta One,” followed shortly by United “Polaris Business,” and finally (just like with their five year behind the game WiFi installation) Air Canada got onboard with “Signature Class.”

What was different about “Signature Class?” Well, first, a little review.

American Airlines: When I started flying them 5-6 years ago, I was shocked to find they were still running 777s in a 2-3-2 configuration with seats that didn’t even go flat! Talk about a majorly updated program. Fortunately, they now have 1-2-1 pretty much across the fleet, although from what I can tell there’s been no major upgrade to the soft product.

Delta One: Delta was ahead of the game, already running 1-2-1 configurations on all its aircraft when Delta One was announced, and when they rolled out the A350 the game changer was “suites” with doors that closed – something no other North American airline has tried to emulate yet.

United: while marginally better than American’s non-180 degree flat 2-3-2 config for awhile, United has now fallen way, way behind with it’s atrocious 2-4-2 on some legacy planes, and 2-2-2 or 2-1-2 on the majority of the rest. Polaris soft product was a huge upgrade at first with better food and much better bedding, but the death by 1000 small cuts is already well underway with several of the soft product improvements yanked back. At least they are slowly (and I mean slower than a DC bureaucrat on a hot August day) rolling out a 1-2-1 product across the fleet, expected to be complete in 2089. I kid….maybe 2020. Next blog up will be a review of this hard product, which is actually pretty nice!

That brings us to Air Canada.

Their seats have been 1-1-1, or 1-2-1 for a while, and I found their food pretty good. Even their Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto was significantly nicer than anything their US competitors offered, so perhaps that explained why they were so late to the rebranding game. I was quite curious what the rebranding would mean in practical terms, and the answer turned out to be: practically nothing.

I recently flew Air Canada on two flights: Toronto to Zurich on a 777-300ER and then a couple weeks later Sao Paolo to Toronto on a 787 (Plus connecting flights to/from DCA, but those are hardly worth a mention). Both were really nice flights, but I seriously noticed absolutely nothing different from before. So, lets start with the over to Zurich.

Up first, was the short flight up to Toronto. The flight is about 80 minutes and our flight attendant today was from Newfoundland, and a real character. A bit over the top, but the passengers seemed to love him, and he was very friendly and hard-working. Air Canada even served a small snack on the flight (I can’t decide if I like the single choice pre-plated snacks better than the US’s snack baskets or not) but A for effort. Unfortunately, today’s option was cockroaches of the sea with a tiny dab of hummus, one olive, and one tomato. Strange…

…and there was no question of refills. We were pretty much told we were getting refills, because, well, “you can’t let the rest of the wine stay in the bottle all lonely.” Perfectly good rationale if you ask me.

The transit experience in Toronto is seamless now, and you can head straight from US arrivals to international departures without having to go through an immigration check. Quite slick.

The one thing I was pretty excited to check out was the new Air Canada Signature “Suite”, only open to business class passengers. No Star Gold or Maple Leaf Lounge passes accepted, only passengers flying in business class, and only revenue tickets. Nobody on upgrades or award tickets, or those flying Star Alliance partners – in this way, it’s much more exclusive for access than even United’s Polaris lounges. (We won’t talk about American, because their “Flagship First” lounges let in every Exec Platinum under the sun, and often feel one step removed from a elementary school playground.)

I wasn’t all that hungry, so skipped the seated dining area in favour of the buffet. Quite tasty, some nice local offerings, and the Montreal smoked meat sandwich was a great touch!

Service in the lounge was fantastic and attentive, with the staff doing a great job clearing plates and refilling drinks, even when it got completely packed as the evening departure bank approached. I was quite surprised how crowded the lounge got, and unfortunately it really wasn’t that peaceful. Good for Air Canada selling so much business class, but there was nothing “suite” like about the lounge. Same complaint I have about the Polaris lounges – they get super crowded. It makes me wonder how the previous lounges handled all these people before…or are more people coming early for the “lounge experience” now?

Boarding was a complete and utter mess. With several departures at the same time, all pretty much sold out in business class, the departures area was a nightmare. We were between flights to London and Brussels, all of which were completely sold out, and boarding was a chaotic mess. It wasn’t even clear where the queues were, but that said, once aboard things were much quieter.

Amenity kit was waiting for us…filled with everything you’d expect, but didn’t rise to the level of one I’d want to keep to reuse the bag for toiletries, electrical cords, etc:

Tonight’s menu:

…and drink list:

Pre-departure bubbly was offered – I often wonder why airlines pour the pre-departure glasses like 1/3 full. What is this, maybe 1/2 glass of champagne? It can’t be cost saving, because they’re much more generous after takeoff.

The usual wine for me, and typical mixed nuts from Air Canada. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing original here.

Unfortunately at this point the crew was seated for just under two hours, because we ended up fighting some pretty terrible turbulence until we were off the Newfoundland coast. It was still not even 9pm for me by body clock, so I opted to continue the meal, as did most of the passengers since the turbulence was so bad there was no way anyone was sleeping.

The salad was boring but fine, and definite points for the duck and edamame starter. Nice and unique, while being relatively light. Plus, I’ll never complain about garlic bread!

I went with the chicken biryani as a main, probably because I remember the amazing biryani that Etihad served me a couple years ago. This was pretty good, and a nice unique option in flight. Any time I can get something that sounds and is better than the “steak” I’m happy, so this one was a winner with me.

Unfortunately, any positive thoughts I had died here. One of the saddest cheese plates I’ve seen in a long time, on par with some of the bland and boring kraft stuff that United serves. Very, very disappointing…and the cheddar was rubbery, obviously having been portioned long ago. Extremely disappointing.

The lemon cheesecake, however, was pretty tasty and a nice way to finish things off.

I had indicated not to wake me for breakfast, but I woke about 40 minutes before landing, so the flight attendant brought me the breakfast I’d indicated on the card “in case I wake up.” I wasn’t really hungry, but wanted to post this pic for one reason:

Look at that fruit bowl! Probably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen on a plane…nice fresh blueberries, pineapple, fresh strawberries, watermelon, kiwifruit…well done Air Canada!

So, let’s fast forward a couple weeks. We’re in Sao Paolo now, headed up to Toronto on a 10+ hour flight on a 787. The only times I’ve managed to sleep 7+ hours were on a 787, and this was a nice long flight at the perfect time to sleep, so I was looking forward to seeing how that played out. I forgot to mention above, but both the 777 and 787 on Air Canada had individual air vents, which I think are crucial to keeping me a nice cool sleeping temperature.

Let’s start with the meal. Look, more mixed nuts and wine. Boring, but acceptable.

The starter tonight was smoked trout with cucumber, tomato, and onions. I really wanted to like it, but it was pretty bland and boring. Could have used something to add a bit more flavour, but points to Air Canada for a reasonable sized portion which is still not heavy. Remember when United tried to pass two prawns off as an appetizer?

For the main I requested the “Spinach and Minas cheese filled chicken breast, herb sauce, vegetable risotto” but they brought me the beef. “Oh, sorry, I got them mixed up and don’t have any more chicken. Is this ok?” Ugh, not cool. On the upside, the beef was actually cooked close to medium which shocked me, but overall an unmemorable dish.

Oh Air Canada, we really need to talk cheese. This was just about as bad as the previous flight: “Emmental, Camembert, Reino” – so the Reino was interesting, but again it looked very plastic and uninspired. Is it really too hard to make the cheese course better? I suppose that would require cutting it on the plane, but…

Ok, never mind, I can go to sleep happy now with a wonderful Neapolitan ice cream bowl! It’s amazing how such simple things can make you happy even when people think airplane food is supposed to be “fancy” – but give me comfort food any day!

After passing out for a great seven hours of sleep, I was still up in time for breakfast. Another great 787 sleep, except I slept so balled up I’m still dealing with a pinched nerve in my back a few weeks later. Can’t blame Air Canada for that, but it was a good night’s sleep!

After the fruit in the breakfast to Switzerland I had high expectations, but unfortunately it was a swing and a miss this time. The kiwifruit was rock hard, the melon had zero flavour, and the grapes were mushy. Bland omelette, and a even blander muffin. I guess Air Canada breakfast catering must be highly station-specific.

Two flights is a small sample size, but overall my thoughts on Air Canada were positive. Nice seats, air vents to keep things cool, and overall “good” food. I don’t think it’s gotten worst, but the US airlines have definitely stepped their game up a little in this department so Air Canada no longer stands above them. Overall, a solid experience, except for one thing: the 787 had no WiFi, which is still the case with the majority of Air Canada’s fleet. The 777 to Zurich did have it (as do all their 777s now) but the 787 and almost none of their other planes do – to me making it a deal-breaker for most work trips. The only reason it was ok on this route is I was headed home from back to back trips, and just wanted to sleep and not work – which in this case worked out well.

Will I fly Air Canada again? Yes, definitely, especially if the other options are 2-4-2 or 2-2-2 seating on United…and especially if the planes have WiFi. The food and service are pretty much a wash these days, but it was also nice to try Air Canada again after so much Lufthansa and United lately! Next up, let’s look at United Polaris…

Sep 132017
 



No wait to check in with South African, although I was mildly surprised that the check-in agent spoke extremely limited English. Not that I expect Brazilians to speak English, but I was definitely surprised that doing check-in for a country where the lingua franca is English you wouldn’t have English-speaking agents – especially in the business class check-in line!

No worry though…and maybe it was good practice because while security was super easy, passport control decided she wanted to ask about the extra pages in my passport. Except, her English didn’t go beyond “how many days” and “where you work” – so my terrible Portuguese and passible Spanish got the point across, but it was definitely a trying interaction.

The last time I was in Sao Paulo it was on a long transit with United, and I remember a smallish United club that was definitely not the most pleasant place to pass the time. This has since been replaced by a rather nice Star Alliance lounge which is not only spacious, but also rather bright and airy. The only downside was that it was slightly warm since it was “terminal temperature” but overall it was quite nice.

I didn’t check out the showers, but there were plentiful places to charge your devices, and even with the lounge rather full of evening departures to Johannsburg, Frankfurt, Zurich, Houston, etc, there was plenty of seating. For some reason, I was feeling some protein was in order, so a hamburger pattie, meat pie, and some more pão de queijo it was!  …with a glass of reasonable Argentine malbec to wash it down, of course. For anyone taking notes, the entire bar was also self-service.

After about an hour in the lounge I headed towards the gate, and was glad I got their slightly early to (a) catch a short of my plane before the sun set, and (b) because it was at the very last gate in the terminal. I joked about the long walk to the gate agent as we were queueing to board, and she said “it costs more to park closer.” I don’t know if she was kidding, but….

Boarding started 30 minutes before departure, and I was excited to see just how much of an improvement South African’s A330-300s were over their tired old business class.

South African Airways flight 223
São Paulo, Brazil (GRU) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 07:25 next day, Flight Time: 8:25
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 6K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 80,325
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,457,302

I opted for seat in the sixth row, towards the back, since the flight looked completely empty and it looked like I would have the entire empty fifth row between me and any other passengers. I ended up being right. They actually blocked off the mini cabin behind the galley and kept it empty. In total, there were only nine passengers for the 28 seats in the front business class cabin.

First impressions: loved the colour scheme, and loved how spacious it felt. Very similar to the Delta seat I had come down to Santiago on.

View across the cabin, in 1-2-1 configuration.

The red accents were a nice touch. Headphones hanging at the ready:

Middle pair of seats – even here plenty of room between you and your seatmate.

Happy…and very tired to be on-board and settled in.

Pre-departure champagne was served…in a real flute. There were some delays in boarding, so when she came to collect the glass I asked if I might have another. “No. One per passenger.” was the reply. Ugh.

Event the seatback video was advertising…the seat we were already in. Maybe this was meant for economy?

Nice-looking amenity kit, but just the basics inside.

The menu looked a bit better than I remember from recent South African long-haul flights:

Service began about 30 minutes after takeoff with drinks and canapés. The canapés reminded me of something I would see on a US airline – just uninspired and kinda cheap looking.

The roasted filet starter. It tasted better than it looked, but was definitely a little too roasted for my taste. That said, it was reasonably tasty. But what’s with the unnecessary random lettuce garnish. The 90s called…they want their plating back.

I don’t remember why, but I went with the chicken main. It was perfectly cooked, and the vegetables were a bit better than the usual super-uninspired fare. Given my usual low expectations for catering on South African, I’d say this meal overall did pretty well. Plus, there was garlic bread…

The milk pudding with caramel sauce, however, was amazing.

Ok…the cheese plate was pretty bad. I would almost venture to say worse than Untied with the cheap packaged biscuits and rubbery cheddar…but there was fig spread. So tough call…

The novelty of the trans-South Atlantic route hadn’t worn off on me yet, but I was a little concerned about our apparent flight path. Upside…maybe a quick stop in Ascension or St. Helena?

I managed nearly five hours of sleep, and wasn’t really hungry when I woke up, but the crew insisted I “at least have a little.” Ok, so I went with the deli plate. It was reasonable, except that damn lettuce garnish made another appearance…

Upon landing, some rather official looking people boarded, and the flight attendants announced over the PA that everyone must remain seated while customs officials boarded the plane. A woman’s scream could be heard from deep in the economy section, and a few minutes later two women with Louis Vuitton handbags were escorted off the plane. No clue what it was all about, but added a bit of excitement.

Rather long walk to immigration, and the usual early morning long lines in Johannesburg. Fortunately things moved relatively quickly compared to normal, and I was through in about 30 minutes. No questions, quick stamp into the country, and on my way.

On previous trips I had opted to skip the arrivals lounge, but out of curiosity I decided to check it out this time. It’s a short elevator ride up just beyond the baggage area, and while small has everything you need upon arrival. There was an extremely friendly agent working the desk who was not only welcoming but also offered a shower (with escort to the shower) and offered if there was anything else I needed be sure to ask her. A nice touch after a redeye when you’re tired and jetlagged.

After a shower and a couple bottles of water it was through the arrivals area, to the domestic wing, through security (which moved pretty quickly) and into the domestic South African Airways lounge to wait for my connecting flight. Was nice to see the large model plane in the lounge still:

Boarding was via a bus gate (as widebody domestic flights usually are at Johannsburg) because the plane had arrived internationally and was still parked at the international pier. Bus to the jetway, walk up a long flight of stairs into the jetway, and time to board.

South African Airways flight 323
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Cape Town, South Africa (CPT)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:15, Flight Time: 2:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXC, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 81,114
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,458,091

I had originally chosen a seat in the middle section since I hate people climbing over me and I hate climbing over people. I wasn’t looking forward to these seats in a couple of days to Australia after the great experience I’d just had:

There was even a small snack served on this flight which could have been much better, but given that I wasn’t hungry it was adequate for pecking at the fruit at least:

Overall, South African actually managed to exceed my expectations on this flight. I had great hopes for the new A330-300 seat, and it met all of them with flying colours – although I’m sure the light load on the flight also helped to colour my perspective a little bit. South African can also be extremely hit and miss with service, but it was definitely a home run this time due to a great new hard product and well above average crews. Now, time to enjoy Cape Town a bit!

Sep 082017
 


After a good night’s sleep thanks to great wine and a beef coma, got up early to do a bit of walking around the city before my evening flight to Sao Paulo. I wanted to get to the airport early and explore the newish AmEx Lounge there for a couple of hours before my flight. The Sheraton had no problem giving me a 4pm checkout, so I had most of the morning and afternoon to walk around.

Rather than get breakfast in the lounge I opted to get an early start and get breakfast on the way. Nice try on the name Argentina, but the Dulce de Leche muffin was absolutely delicious.

Continued walking, and came to the Avenida 9 de Julio, one of the widest avenues in Buenos Aires with nearly six lanes in each direction.

As I was crossing the street (legally according to having the “walk” sign) a driver made a left turn right into the crosswalk, striking me and launching me onto the hood of her car. I won’t write this up again as I already did a post on this with all the details, but fortunately her car ended up worse off than I did:

I was completely in shock after being hit, despite being upright, and all I remember was yelling and gesturing at the driver to pull over and shouting at some pedestrians to call the police. One or more drivers must have seen the accident and called it in, because the police appeared in less than a minute after I was hit.

After shaking it off, and determining I was more or less ok, for some reason I decided to continue on my walk. Perhaps the ultimate irony about the accident is that I was struck by a car…walking to a cemetery. My destination had been the Recoleta Cemetery to a bit of touristing around. Main entrance to the cemetery:

The main attraction of the cemetery, Evita’s family crypt:

Tons of huge elaborate tombs sitting in rows:

As I left the cemetery, I got to thinking that if I was going to continue on with the trip, I would be doing a lot of flying over the coming weeks, and the last thing I needed was the possibility of a rogue blood clot from possible internal bleeding. Problem solved when I stopped in a pharmacy to buy some aspirin…it was amusing the look on the pharmacist’s face when he queried why I needed it. Positive from this whole experience: my Spanish vocabulary has expanded to being able to talk about being hit by a car. Hah!

Small, but empty park, on the walk back to the hotel:

As I went to check out, I encountered a phenomenon I’ve never had anywhere in the world. Normally, when leaving a country, I pay the bill with any cash that I might have left over in order to not lose it before my next trip and then pay the rest with a credit card. I’ve started doing this since Uber became common, knowing I wouldn’t need any cash after leaving the hotel.

However, upon checking out at the Sheraton, the guy at the front desk told me that if I paid the room in cash, then he would need to charge me tax on it. If I paid with credit card, no tax. Made no sense at all. Thinking back on it, I might have had about $50 in cash, and the tax was going to be something like $40, so I decided even if I had to exchange it at the airport at a bad rate I would come out ahead. It was just strange.

Then I called an Uber…and it turned out that in Buenos Aires Uber doesn’t accept American Express. However, you CAN pay the driver in cash. That went a long way to taking care of my leftover cash.

Quickish trip to the airport, and on the way we drove down Avenida 9 de Julio. Stopping at a red light, a mime came out into the middle of an intersection and did a little performance for tips. I get it: wear a bright red shirt and be 6’4 and you get hit by cars, but if you’re a mime you’re safe. Odd.

Check-in, immigration, and security were nice and easy at the Aerolineas Terminal at the airport, and soon I had found the American Express Lounge. This lounge was recently built when the new terminal opened, and had been moved from the old terminal. In the old terminal, there was also a lounge within a lounge only available to Centurion Card holders, so I was curious to see if it existed in the new lounge as well.

Entered, showed my card, and was pointed to a door on the side and told someone will be right here to escort you in. Nice! I was the only one in the lounge when I arrived, and had the whole place to myself. While it was self-serve if you wanted, there was also one lounge attendant who kept insisting on bringing me drinks. Half of the bar…great liquor selection (especially the Johnny Walker Blue) and a pretty respectable Veuve for champagne:

Other half of the bar, including wine selections:

The main seating area of the lounge:

I decided to start with a glass of champagne, to celebrate my near miss with the car. Note the Veuve Cliquot stemware:

Buffet area:

Tasty selection of cheeses. These weren’t out when I arrived, but when I got there (I think I was the first guest of the day) they quickly rushed to set up the entire buffet just for me.

…that included mini sandwiches and a selection of cheeses and cold cuts:

After a bit, I decided to be extra-classy and enjoyed some sour cream and onion Pringles with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue…neat. This was followed by a couple more glasses…which weren’t measured…but the bottle was roughly 1/3 full when I arrived…and empty by the time I left…

Fortunately, the boarding gate was just two down from the lounge, and the lounge attendants insisted I enjoy the lounge until the last possible moment so I could be the last to board. At this point, there were two other very loud Americans in the lounge, waiting for their Delta flight to Atlanta. Strange characters, dressed in jeans and hunting jackets with baseball caps, and complaining that there was no Budweiser in the lounge. Not who I would imagine to be Centurion Card holders, but you never know!

Aerolineas Argentinas (Operated by Austral) flight 2242
Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE) to São Paulo, Brazil (GRU)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 2:45
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration LV-CET, Manufactured 2010, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,694
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,452,671

All aboard, I was the only one in business class on the ERJ tonight. Only one of nine seats taken, but coach looked to be pretty much completely full except a seat or two.

Oh look, there’s even a mini amenity kit. Despite the J code on the ticket, I guess technically the call it “ClubEconomy.” Probably a better description, since when most people think of business class they think of seats that convert into flat beds and not domestic/regional seats.

Welcome to Seat 3A

I’m going to rant a little now. About 15 minutes into the flight, the flight attendants came on the PA system and announced there would be no service on this nearly three hour flight, due to the fact they were expecting turbulence. Now, I get this for short periods, or if there was an area with known weather, but this was one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever been on. Maybe two or three little bumps the whole way.

As if to make their point, they also blocked off the flight deck and galley by placing a service cart in the aisle. Want to use the washroom? Head all the way to the back of the plane…because that’s safer when there’s suppose to be turbulence? The turbulence was also sooooooo bad (sarcasm) that the crew spent around 90% of the flight standing around in the galley eating and drinking and chatting with each other…including at least one of the pilots.

No question this was just a lazy crew looking for an excuse to provide no service at all. I even tried to ring the call button at one point to ask for a glass of water…multiple times…and was completely ignored. This must have been the laziest crew in the history of aviation.

Thus, I can’t comment on food and beverage available….because we were never offered anything. Water included. Awful.

Great view of Sao Paulo on descent, however…the city just goes on and on!

After deplaning, quick shot of our ERJ:

Managed to change the rest of my pesos at the airport at a pretty bad rate, but losing 20% on $20 or so isn’t really the end of the world as far as things go. Decided to take an official taxi which accepted pre-payment by credit card, and I was off to my hotel to enjoy two nights in Sao Paulo before continuing on to Africa!