It’s been a while since I’ve done a flight report here, but this week’s trip – a short journey to Johannesburg with Air Canada and South African – presents a nice opportunity for some long-haul business class reviews, so let’s do this!
This evening’s flight is the last flight of the night from Toronto to London, leaving at a little after 11:00 at night, and arriving right around 11:00 in the morning, London time. It’s probably the “best” option for connecting to evening departures to Africa and Asia via Heathrow, as it makes the layover as short as possible, but it’s still quite long – some eight-plus hours in my case. But don’t worry, I have plans to fill that time.
Looking at Air Canada’s timetable, it’s amazing how much metal they send to Heathrow. There are currently four daily flights form Toronto alone – an early-morning departure for the “Daytripper” on a 767-300, followed by three 777-300s (currently, and for the foreseeable future, AC’s biggest planes) at various points in the evening. Those four flights are joined by daily 767s from Ottawa, Halifax, and Edmonton, an A330-300 from Calgary, as well as high-density 777-300s from Montreal and Vancouver. Oh, and an A319 making what must be among the world’s shortest trans-Atlantic routes, form St. John’s, Newfoundland to Heathrow. And AC just announced they’re adding a Rouge flight to Gatwick next year to better compete with WestJet and Air Transat.
Despite the abundance of seats on this route – along with AC’s four-a-day, BA flights two YYZ-LHR flights, including one which is oftentimes a 747 – the flights are often full, although my flight this evening the 11:00-or-later AC858 is often the lowest load. While potentially great for connecting pax, it’s less than ideal for those terminating in London since you get there mid-day and kinda blow your whole first day in the UK.
I arrive at Pearson a little after 9:00 pm on a hot July evening, and I’m already pretty much feeling like I’d like to curl up and go to bed. Unfortunately, the opportunity won’t present itself for a few hours. I get dropped off right in front of AC’s Priority check-in lines for both domestic and international (but not transborder) flights at nearest end of Terminal 1. I’m greeted by this sign of things to come – a large-scale model of the 737 MAX that AC has ordered for their upcoming narrowbody fleet renewal.
I’ve heard talk that AC is working on some sort of a new check-in lounge for premium pax around here, but there’s no hint of it in the wall of glass to the right here. As usual, there’s just the Concierge offices waiting for Super Elites and international Business Class customers who need some over-and-above help.
But there is something a little new here, the lane for Super Elites (AC’s top-tier 100K passengers) now has little half-walls surrounding it.
I pull into that lane, and am standing there about three seconds when an agent comes rushing over and teases the agent working the Super Elite desk, who was taking a minute to justifiably fawn over a very cute baby at the next desk over, for not immediately taking me. “He’s been standing there for so long, just wondering if anyone will ever help him check in!” the agent says, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
The SE lane agent takes her place, and apologizes for the egregious wait, promising that next time she sees me, she’ll start checking me in before I even get in line. Within a couple of minutes, I’m armed with boarding passes through to Johannesburg, and make the short walk over to security.
Most passengers access the International gates from a different entrance to security, and it’s mostly Priority passengers – or those who’ve got lost and stumbled upon this entrance – at this point. There’s almost no lineup, and I’m quickly up to the scanners, laptop out, through the x-ray, and collecting my bags.
To my surprise, the faster-moving moving sidewalk is in the mood to work this evening, so in no time, I’m down the end of the Hammerhead Pier, and off to my first stop. I decide to forego the Maple Leaf Lounge – for now – and give my Priority Pass Card a little bit of exercise first.
Instead of staying upstairs and hitting the MLL, I proceed down the escalators to the gates. My first stop is Gate 77, to see if my ride is on the gate. It is not. A 787 bound for Copenhagen is. Just then, my watch buzzes at me, with a notification that my gate has changed to 78. Due to the way it’s constructed in a complex with Gate 79, it’s nearly impossible to get a good picture of a plane on Gate 78. Nevertheless, there’s no plane there, so I’ll have to try to get a picture of my ride tomorrow morning.
From here’s it’s over to the escalators and upstairs to the Plaza Premium / American Express lounge here. I’ve only ever been in here late at night, as it’s the contract lounge for EVA, which leaves Pearson at 1:30 am or later. As such, I know it as “the lounge you go to when they kick you out of the closing MLL.” On days with an EVA flight, this small lounge can get pretty packed. But this is not one of those nights, and it’s pretty sparsely attended. After a short delay getting in as a couple of PanAm Games officials returning to Argentina try to figure out if they have access or not chat with the agent, I’m into this little lounge.
The lounge consists of two small rooms, with a small buffet at the end of one of the rooms. There are a few computers and workstations, and not a heck of a lot else. Like the MLL, it has a semi-see-through wall facing the overhead walkways through which passengers arriving on international flights start making their way towards customs.
I give the buffet a once-over, but nothing really grabs me, and I still have a late-night business class meal awaiting me, so I decide not eat here. Just a glass of water for now. I sit a while and work on the opening of this flight report.
Although it’s nearly empty, this lounge is underwhelming, and I decide to see what’s happening over at the Maple Leaf Lounge in the half-hour or so remaining before my flight boards.
A quick walk, up some stairs, and I’m in the more familiar confines of the International MLL. This is a much larger lounge, and although it’s thinned out somewhat from its peak busy-ness earlier in the evening, it’s still well-occupied. The lounge consists of two main rooms of seating, all of which is comfy enough, as well as a business centre, showers, and a few other nooks and crannies. The MLL relies on natural light for the most part, as the overhead lights in the terminal roof are not on the parts of the roof over the lounge – they’d be far too close if they were. So the lounge gets a little dark in the evening, which isn’t ideal. The air conditioning also doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the heat today, and particular the humidity. I find myself perspiring a bit even sitting here in the lounge.
I give a quick look at the buffet. The lineup here is much more impressive than over at Plaza Premium, and may be the best MLL dinner lineup I’ve seen. I can’t resist having some of the chicken and potatoes. I’ve had them before, and they’re both very delicious. A little Guinness to go with it, and I’m happy – although perhaps a little bit too full with a big meal (which I’m not smart enough to decline) ahead of me.
WiFi here is on the MLL datavalet network, which is doing quite well with the lounge not at peak capacity. Over at Plaza Premium, only the generally available (but free) Toronto Pearson WiFi service was available.
I scarf down my snack, and notice while it’s not terribly hot in his part of the MLL, it is humid as if there isn’t much in the way of air conditioning at the moment.
Soon enough, it’s time to start heading down to the gate. It’s about 20 minutes past 10, and things are starting to get quiet down on the concourse, allowing me to snap some pics – the walk-through artwork that dominates the hallway leading to the international gates, and the iPad-equipped lounges that Pearson has at some gates now.
Boarding is called promptly at 10:25, and the Zone 1 crowd is quickly on its way towards the plane. We settle in for a few minutes, but notice no one else is boarding behind us, which is a little odd. Usually they’re pretty quick about this kind of thing. Soon enough, we have our reason, as the service director comes on the P/A and lets us know that due to a maintenance issue, we have to all get off the plane immediately.
So we gather up our belongings – or at least the ones we don’t want to leave alone on an empty 777 – and make our way back up the ramp and into the gate area. As I pass, the service director is talking to a gate agent, describing a “gong show” of mis-communication between maintenance, ground crew, gate agents and cabin crew that led to this set of circumstances. Eventually, we’re told that we were asked to offload because maintenance was changing a tire, and had the plane (or at least one gear, presumably) up on a jack, so didn’t really want it filling up with people. After about ten minutes, they call Zone 1 again, and we head back down towards the waiting 777-300ER, this time hopeful we’ll get to stay a little longer.
This time, boarding seems to work. And it occurs to me that for the number of AC business class seats I’ve reviewed here, this is not one of them. This is one of the older, non-high-density 777s in the AC fleet, and is equipped with its first-generation herringbone pods. I’m seated in 11A, a window seat in the last row of Business, the fifth row of the aft Business cabin.
To borrow an idea from a FlyerTalker discussing these seats – seats 11A and K on the 777 don’t recline, the IFE doesn’t work, they don’t have access to the lavs, they frequently electrocute their occupants, and are infested with giant tarantulas. Stay away at all costs, and leave them open for me. Thank you.
In reality, despite just a bulkhead wall separating row 11 from economy, they are one of the best, and most sought-after, seats on the plane for AC frequent fliers. They definitely offer the best privacy of any business class seat on the plane, thanks to the small closets built into the hall-facing side of the pod. Sitting up or reclined, the closet blocks most views of your fellow passengers. Fully reclined into a flat bed, you’re in your own little world. And since there’s not another seat behind you, there’s a nice little bit of extra stowage space immediately behind the aforementioned closet. The seat is also fairly well-aligned with a window. It’s still a bit of a neck crane to see out the window, but not nearly as bad as some seats.
When I arrive at the seat, it’s got the usual accessories – a bagged duvet, a non-bagged but nice and big and fluffy pillow, and the standard AC international business class amenity kit. The contents of this kit haven’t really changed much in ages, but here’s the haul – nothing truly remarkable, but not bad. And I quite like the simple cloth magnetic-sealed amenity bag, though I’m not entirely sure why. There’s also a bottle of water awaiting each passenger, although the way it’s tucked in below the drink shelf by the aisle side of the pod makes it easy to miss its presence.
Back to the seat – the screen is large, but is pull-out, and must be stowed on the ground and below 10,000 feet, so the gate-to-gate movie-watching experience possible in economy (and in J on every other AC configuration) is not possible here. There’s a small remote control with some basic functionality, but for the most part, you’re best off using the touch screen, although that requires you to lean a little farther forward than is truly comfortable.
There are headsets “built in” to the pod – for a long time, these were truly horrible, uncomfortable and bad-sounding Sennheisers. But AC is slowly replacing them with much better and more comfortable headsets. Still, those with their own – or with any concerns about their ears touching earpads that have been touched by other ears in the recent past – would be wise to bring their own headsets, which can be plugged into a port near the AC and USB charging outlets in the pod panel.
The seat is reasonably comfortable in the fully upright position, but really shines in the lounge and bed configurations. Although there’s no pre-determined “lounge” position, it can easily be manipulated into anything from slightly-reclined to almost-flat for your relaxing pleasure. There’s no “foot well” here, and your feet are out in the open, although the curvature of the foot-end of the pod can restrict the position of taller passengers.
The table slides up and out of a little door on the pod wall, but it’s a very poorly designed contraption. It often seems the table is willfully attempting to take off passengers’ fingers. Once it’s out, though, the table is large and usable, and can be pivoted far enough away from the seat’s occupant for the passenger to get out of and back into the seat even when the table is extended, although it’s a bit of a balancing act.
These pods are showing their wear, although the kit on this plane isn’t too bad and looks fairly clean, this rogue ear plug from an earlier flight notwithstanding.
Moving back from the seat to the flight, I select a movie – Get Hard – and start its roll. There are a bunch of commercials that AC forces you to watch, and you’re going to get interrupted by the pre-flight safety video, and then the screen must be stowed until 10,000 feet anyway. So I let the commercials run through, and then pause it – although the system appears to reset after the safety video, once in the air, if the same movie is selected, it asks if one wants to resume viewing, thus cutting off the roughly five minutes of commercials and previews one would otherwise be forced to sit through.
The menus for dinner and breakfast are the first thing to be brought around, and the flight attendants explain to each passenger that they’ll be back shortly to pick up the breakfast order. Introduced about a year ago, AC now gives J passengers a laundry list of what’s available for breakfast, and passengers can pick as much or as a little as they’d like, or if, in fact, they’d prefer to just be left sleeping altogether. It’s a significant improvement over the old breakfast service, and includes everything from fruit and yogurt to a hot dish (usually a quiche) for those who are somehow hungry less than five hours after a large post-takeoff meal.
Menus are quickly followed by a choice of sparkling wine (my flight attendant actually referred to it as prosecco, which is about as specific as AC seems to want to get with the on-the-ground bubbles offering) or orange juice. I grab a sparkling wine. Breakfast cards are then collected, and meal orders taken by status. I never have the fish, so in this case, I decide to give it a try.
Boarding is pretty quickly done, and although there’s only two empty seats in this 20-seat rear business cabin, the load in the back seems pretty light – a suspicion supported by a quick gander down the aisle towards a sparsely-populated first economy class cabin.
The captain comes on makes his introductions and apologies for the boarding SNAFU, but says we should be only about 10 minutes late into Heathrow. We’ll be going a little further south than usual, he says, which will get us some nice tailwind action. Of course, all this is supposition, and doesn’t take into account the nearly inevitable holding patterns over Heathrow, which is quite busy at this flight’s late-morning arrival time. We push back, and with few flights at this time of night, we quickly taxi over to our runway, and without delay, we’re off and into the night sky, on our way towards the UK. With the cabin lights dimmed for takeoff, the business class cabin is awash in a funky mix of mood lighting and glowing blue strips at each seat, giving it a very odd lighting effect. When the seatbelt signs come off, the cabin lights come back up as a service starts. I pull out my screen and start my movie, which turns out to be… ehhhh… yet another passable but entirely forgettable film… the quintessential airplane movie.
Service begins with a (very!) hot towel service, and those are quickly collected.
After a few minutes, the drink cart, manned by the service director, makes its way back to me, and I ask for a Caesar to go with the warmed nuts offered. The service director is very efficient, but isn’t the most friendly flight attendant I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t seem angry or displeased, just very quick and short on formalities. The only time in the flight her refers to me (and other passengers) by name is when he makes his introductory pass through the cabin, which also serves as an opportunity to ask if we’ll be shopping for duty free this evening. In short order, the trolley comes around again with the appetizer and salad. The salad is every Air Canada salad ever, with the omni-present olive oil and balsamic dressing. I quite like this appetizer, although it’s really common on international flights out of Toronto. The scallop on the olive tapenade, in particular, is quite a treat.
Because of the late hour, and because many passengers have opted for the express meal service or to skip dinner altogether because of the late hour, dinner proceeds very quickly, and my salad and appetizer dishes are cleared and my main brought around. This was a disappointment. The fish was well-cooked, not dried out… but the whole dish lacked much flavor. I really don’t think there was anything resembling tomato or caper here at all. The grain medley is similarly lacking in flavor. I guess, as a plus, I can’t say it’s overly salty. I try a little bit of everything, but don’t feel any need to try to finish it.
The rapid-fire meal continues with the cheese plate, which is a typical AC cheese plate. But that’s good, because I quite like it. And then dessert comes around. I opt for the cake, and it’s quite a delicious little treat.
Dinner dishes are quickly cleared, and I recline to almost flat to finish my movie – it’s unusual to not be done your first movie on an AC international flight before lunch/dinner service is completed, unless you’re watching some epic three-hour film. As the movie wraps, a quick trip to the washroom to brush my teeth and get ready for bed, and I return to my seat, and call it a day – it is, after all, about 2 am Toronto time.
This seat is always quite comfy for sleeping, although I usually find myself waking up because it’s a bit hard, and my arm, typically tucked under my pillow, will inevitably fall asleep at some point. But a quick repositioning and I’m out again. When I wake up more fully, the cabin lights are up, so it must be getting close to breakfast time. Sure enough, the service director makes a quick announcement that if you want breakfast, it’s time to get up. A bit of a terse wakeup call.
Breakfast, as I had selected, consists of a warm blueberry muffin, fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal, along with orange juice and coffee. I opted not for a heavier dish like the quiche in favor of having better options at the arrivals lounge in a little while.
After breakfast, immigration forms and a Fast Track invitation are handed out. The captain comes on the PA and says that though we’ve made good time across the Atlantic – surprise!, we’re going to have to hold for about ten minutes before making our final approach to Heathrow. I use the time to finish up a pretty good documentary about the 1971 break-in to an FBI office in Pennsylvania that exposed for the first time just what illegal tactics the FBI was using against political opponents.
Soon enough, we start to break through the clouds, the seatbelt signs come on, and we’re on our way down into the busy late morning at Heathrow. We settle down onto the runway, the big engines spool up with reversers deployed, and we’re on our way on the long taxi over to Terminal 2B.
We arrive at our gate just a few minutes behind schedule, and although it’s a dual-door jetway, just the front door is in use this morning. Nevertheless, we’re quickly on our way into the Heathrow zoo. Even with the Fast Track, it takes a good fifteen minutes to get through passport control, but with just carry-on bags, I’m through the baggage hall quickly. I turn left, and make my way to my first stop for those (now very late) morning necessities: a shower, and a hearty breakfast.
First stop is the United-operated Star Alliance Arrivals Lounge, just outside the arrivals hall doors, and open to Air Canada business class passengers, as well as Super Elites. Although it’s closing in on noon at this point, the place is still quite busy. There’s not a lot of sitting here – the intent is clear: have a shower, have a bit of breakfast, and get on your way.
I start with a shower. The room is nice and clean, the water is hot, the towel is neither dirty nor useless. So basically, it does its job nicely. Pressing is available for those who are concerned about such things.
Aside from a large bank of showers, the rest of this lounge is a small seating area with a buffet, containing various breakfast pastries and the like. There’s also an a la carte menu. I track down a very friendly woman working here, and ask for the eggs benedict. Meanwhile, I grab an orange juice and a really nice strawberry and yogurt smoothie. The Benny shows up in short order, and it’s delicious. A real treat. I made the right call in holding off on the heavier breakfast items on the plane.
In the interest of completeness, I then head next door to the Plaza Premium Arrival Lounge. This is a pay-in lounge that operates on a per-hour basis – starting at 10 pounds for an hour… not a bad deal for a shower, access to food and drink. I show my Priority Pass, and I’m invited in.
If the Star Alliance Arrival Lounge is small, this one is tiny. What you see in the picture is pretty much it. On the plus side, though, it gives the feel of sitting in a little hole in the wall bar, which is pretty much what it is. It has a look and feel quite unlike any lounge I’ve been in before, and I kind of like it. There are some treats on the bar counter, and a list of food options, including hot and cold entree dishes. But I’m pretty full, so I don’t eat here. Instead I just request a cappuccino, which is quickly made, and it delicious.
With a bit of caffeine in my system, I decide it’s time to start the next phase of this adventure. This report featured four lounges. The next one will feature four lounges… before the flight even happens. Time to head upstairs, get back airside, and start the lounge-hopping in earnest.
Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge International
Toronto - YYZ
London - LHR
A solid little trans-Atlantic flight with AC, and some fun checking out lounges as well. Not nearly enough sleep, but then again, one never gets enough sleep on East Coast - England flights. Although these J seats will soon be torn out in favour of the new seats founds on the 787, they're still a decent hard product, and a pretty good way to cross the pond.
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