While I have been flying over 100,000 miles a year on United for at least four years, it wasn’t until last year that I had some trips abroad where I could use those systemwide upgrades. I had a trip to India / Thailand, and I went to China once. I was upgraded on three of the four legs, and I became quite fond of United’s International Business Class product, but I had little to compare it to. This year when I found that I had to go to China for a fairly lengthy business trip, I was excited to find that not only were Air Canada’s flights significantly cheaper than United’s, but I also had a good friend with Air Canada Super Elite status who could upgrade me. Woot!
Needless to say, I was quite excited to try out a new premium cabin. Air Canada runs a two-cabin international configuration, as compared with United’s three (or four, if you count Economy Plus as its own cabin). They label the premium cabin as Executive First Suites. After my hiatus in the Maple Leaf Lounge, I was off to board!
I flew to HKG on the Boeing 777-ER, Air Canada’s largest plane in the fleet. The cabin is divided into two sections, with a galley and a "self serve bar" in between. At the suggestion of my friend, I picked seat 11K. It’s in the smaller of the two cabins, and it’s the final row before the curtains to Economy Class. This seat is considered the most private suite of them all, likely because there is a wall to divide it from the cabin behind it, and that gives even extra room when it’s fully reclined.
Of course the first thing I did when I sat down was start to poke and pick at everything in the seat, figuring out what this thing could do. My initial thought was that as a seat, it was not quite as comfortable as United’s International Business Class seat, but there was much more privacy. I had nobody sitting next to me, and in this cabin, even if you’re in the "aisle," there is still a high enough wall between you and the next seat that you can never really have anyone sitting next to you.
The headphones were hanging from the coatrack, and I looked to see how i could pull them out and replace them with my own. Turns out these are hard-wired in there! While this is conceivably to prevent theft, I’m not sure who would steal these headphones. I found the sound quality to be sub-par, and the headphones come without padding for your ears. Flight attendants come by later to drop those off. Furthermore, I’ve got to imagine that servicing headphones is a bit more of a pain in the neck than just replacing any that have gone bad. Anyhow, there’s a place where you can plug your own headphones in. The screen for the IFE swings out of the side, and it’s navigated by either a touchscreen or the detachable control. I used the touchscreen as my control didn’t appear to be functioning properly. The screen is large, but if I compare it to United’s product, I would have to say that it is slightly inferior. United’s screens are larger, and they’re a bit further away, giving an overall better viewing experience. I also find the system to navigate the UI of United’s system to be superior. That being said, this was really nice! I’m just providing comparison for the sake of comparison. They came by to offer pre-departure beverages, and I went with some sparkling wine. I kicked my feet up and prepared to relax for 13ish hours.
When the plane started to accelerate, I realized that I had never sat "slanted" on a plane before. The United seats either face completely forward or completely backward. It’s a funny sensation to be pulled slightly to the side as the airplane takes off. Another thing to note, though, is that because the screens swing out from the side, they must be stowed for takeoff and landing. I like that with United’s IFE, you can start watching the movie before the plane takes off and get a head start on it before the plane ever takes off! Once we took off, I popped on Black Swan, as I had heard so much about how weird / interesting / awesome this movie was.
In general, I found both the service and the food quality to be excellent, definitely a step above United’s. After takeoff, the flight attendants came by to give us menus, and I was impressed with the number of selections for lunch. I decided to go with the cajun style fish. First came the appetizer, a salad with salmon. I liked that there were actual salt and pepper shakers, rather than just salt and pepper packets. The flight attendants then came around with a basket of warm breads for us to choose from.
The salmon appetizer was fantastic. I love the salmon wrapped asparagus appetizer on P.S. flights, and this was even better. When my cajun fish came out, I dug in and found it to be good, but not quite as good as my salmon appetizer!
Once that was finished, they cleared the trays and came around offering fruit, cheese, and port. I passed on the port, choosing instead to just keep the sparkling wine going. I had some cheese and crackers, though, and that definitely hit the spot. At this point, I was starting to get full, and I thought I would probably pass on dessert.
My thinking I would pass on dessert came before I saw just how good that chocolate lava style cake with vanilla ice cream looked! Forget airplanes – even at a restaurant on the ground, a chocolate lava style cake with vanilla ice cream is my favorite dessert! You know what i’m talking about, right? It’s like a light chocolate brownie that’s warm, but not hot, and when your fork cuts into it, it oozes sweet chocolate goodness. I’m happy to report that Air Canada’s rendition of this dessert is just as good as that of most restaurants. Delicious!
After dessert, I popped open the laptop to do a bit of work while finishing up "Black Swan." It can be tough to see the screen and have a laptop screen open at the same time, but I was able do so by sliding my laptop over to the armrest slightly. Okay – time out – can I just say that "Black Swan" is a WEIRD movie?! What the heck did I just watch? I have no idea, but I can say that I throughly enjoyed it. It was awesome! I recommend checking it out ;-). After the movie was done, I stopped in the restroom before taking a nap. Now the only reason that I mention this is that the bathroom surprised me for a few reasons:
- There was tile on the floor! Neat! (was it fake? I have no idea – don’t get the idea that i’m gonna go down there and touch it!)
- The window in the bathroom was quite large. Gave a lot of natural light, and it was appreciated, but if you’re going to the bathroom before takeoff, be sure to close the window or you’ll be giving the ground crew a free show!
- The water was activated with a sensor, and there was a slider you could adjust for hot/cold water
- Oh yeah and later I saw a guy go in there in his socks…. eeeewww gross!
Alright now it was time to nap. I’m always curious how long I’m able to sleep on flights. I slept for 7 hours once on NRT-SFO, and I felt like a million bucks when I landed. This flight’s timing was a bit odd, however. We left at 1:45PM in the afternoon so I wasn’t that tired, and we were to land in Hong Kong just after 6PM. I was having difficulty figuring out how I should try and schedule my sleeps. I figured I would just get some rest. So I turned my suite into a bed to prepare for a nap.
The increased privacy of the suite was greatly appreciated. And unlike on United, there’s no chance that a seatmate can disturb you. On United, if you’re on the window or inner aisle, you have to step over your seatmate if they are in bed-mode. As far as how it actually felt to lay down, I still think United’s seat might offer slightly more comfort. I just felt like on the United seat I could stretch out a bit more, but these are both 180 degrees flat beds. Also, the blanket is decent, but it’s not as nice as the one Air Canada advertises on their website. I turned on my iPhone stopwatch to see how long my nap would last, and when I eventually awoke, 3.5 hours had passed. I didn’t feel sleepy anymore so I watched some podcasts on my laptop, listened to music, and did a bit of offline work.
Air Canada has a nice menu of "order-anytime" items, but after my lunch feast, I wasn’t hungry enough to try any of them. I saw someone else order the croque monsieur, and that looked pretty delicious, probably better than my cajun fish. Another neat feature that Air Canada has on the 777 is a self serve bar (they have other planes with Executive First Suites, but only the 777 gets this).
They basically just take half the galley and put some baskets of snacks, drinks, menus, and other goodies up there. You can take a stroll to the galley and help yourself. While it’s not exactly as swanky as the website makes it out to be, it’s very cool indeed! A neat feature about this is because the galley area is separated with curtains on both sides, you can stand there and have a couple drinks with other passengers and not disturb those in their seats. Eventually I got tired again, and I decided to take another nap before the final meal service. I slept for two hours this time, and I felt pretty good about the overall amount of sleep I got on the flight.
The final meal service was a choice of a few items, and I went with the ravioli. It was pretty good, but I wouldn’t say it was any better than the pasta of United Domestic First, but it hit the spot. Soon after finishing it up, we were about ready to land.
Something that I may not have emphasized enough during this post is how attentive the flight attendants were. They were not only attentive, but friendly! Whodathunkit possible!? They started up conversations, laughed with passengers, and made sure that everyone’s drinks were full. They really helped to make the flight even more enjoyable. I know I was not alone in thinking this; as we were deplaning, I heard two other passengers complement the flight attendants for excellent service.
My experience in the Air Canada Executive First Suite was great. I’m flying home from Beijing to San Francisco (via YVR) in Air Canada, and I hope my upgrade clears. It’s a smaller plane, the 767, so there won’t be a self serve bar, but I hope to get the same great service and food. Of course, if the upgrade doesn’t clear, then I’ll still write a trip report… it will just be all about my trek in Economy on the way home!