Air Canada today announced what can reasonably be called a revolutionary lounge product for paid business class passengers: the Air Canada Signature Suite in Toronto. Last night I had the opportunity to tour the suite.
We went through Air Canada’s Super Elite ‘Concierge’ check-in, cleared security, and took BMWs across the tarmac to the international departures pier of Toronto Pearson’s Terminal 1. Air Canada offers their tarmac transfers more extensively than United, Delta, and American offers theirs, I believe primarily for passengers connecting domestic to long haul international. It’s not check-in to plane, you do walk through the terminal on each end, but it’s still a fantastic service.
There’s no signage yet for the Signature Suite. It won’t open until December 1. But it’s directly next to the Plaza Premium Lounge.
We were welcomed into what’s a remarkably beautiful space.
There’s are three separate dining areas. First is the main dining room.
The main dining room has a bar and a buffet in addition to sit down dining tables with menu and waiter service.
This was the menu from the buffet:
One of the more impressive features of self service (though someone could make it for you) is the tablet-based cappuccino machine.
Behind the main dining room is an additional dining room and a private dining room.
To the right of the main dining room is more of a lounge space.
There are individual cabin bathrooms, though notably there are no showers in this lounge, if you want to shower you’ll need to visit the existing lounge.
There’s also no nap rooms, no spas, or other amenities. They have lounges already, and they’re going for a real restaurant concept here. I get the idea that a restaurant wouldn’t have these other things, but there’s plenty of space beside the back of the lounge which isn’t built out it seems like they could have accomplished what they wanted while still offering more amenities in the space (albeit for more rent).
Here’s the cocktail menu:
Here’s the sit down dining menu:
And the menu of bar snacks (which you can order anywhere):
While there is power there is not enough power.
Putting Dining to the Test
I ordered the foie gras to start largely because I wanted to see how the kitchen would perform searing foie gras and they did it masterfully. The dish was delicious.
Then I visited the buffet and decided to try the sardine, the kale salad, and the burrata along with some charcuterie. All excellent.
I wasn’t going to eat all of everything to be sure, but just a taste, and I had to see how their burger compared to the American Airlines Flagship Burger. All things equal I’ll have to give this one to Flagship, if only because I wasn’t especially a fan of the bun.
For my main I ordered the beef cheek, which while good came out way too hot, as though the plate had been siting under a salamander for some time.
Dessert was a sampler, the caramel was good though I felt this was their weakest effort overall.
Access and Crowding Issues
There are about 160 seats here and Air Canada says that under current rules at the most peak of times there will be about 100 people eligible to use the space. They’re confident that it won’t be too crowded. On the other hand I don’t know any airline that has put forward a quality lounge product that hasn’t been surprised how much their customers like it, and found that it gets more crowded than they expected.
That’s why they’re initially limiting access to paid business class passengers only although unofficially (and potentially officially) there may be additional passengers invited into the lounge. There’s still some discussion whether broader criteria will be published or not.
And they’ll be evaluating usage to determine whether to extend access to upgrades and award tickets.
I think it’s crucial. Denying access to a top tier elite who flies paid business class for work and redeems miles for their to fly business on holiday is a problem.
I suspect that once Air Canada develops its own loyalty program for launch in 2020, severing its relationship with Aeroplan, they’ll value those award passengers more as well.
Singapore Airlines, in opening ‘The Private Room’ first class lounge, initially limited access to paid first class only (no awards) and eventually broadened that out. There’s a logic to it though I hope that the broadening happens and happens quickly.
How Dining Will Perform in Practice
The food was outstanding, the presentation was fantastic. But I have to offer two caveats. First, we were a limited group that they were serving rather than putting out service for 100 passengers. Second, the celebrity chef was in the kitchen.
David Hawksworth, the Vancouver chef Air Canada brands with onboard, was in the lounge for our visit. He made the point that he wasn’t doing any of the cooking, but I don’t think that matters. When the chef is there the kitchen is working to perfection.
We’ll have to see just what quality level and consistency the Air Canada Signature Suite can provide on an ongoing basis and at capacity. However the servers in the lounge were well trained, personable, and on their game. I’m optimistic.
The Best Business Class Lounge Dining in the World
Even accounting for a limited test with their best food forward there’s clearly no better sit down dining concept for business class anywhere in the world. This beats United Polaris dining in Chicago, and I’d rate it above American’s First Class Dining as well for variety, presentation, and quality though I’m very much a fan of their efforts.
In order to come up with comparisons I have to talk about Qantas first class lounge, Etihad and Emirates first class sit down dining in their hubs. Those are first class experiences, and this is business class, and they’re not obviously better (though I’d take the Qantas pavlova for dessert over offerings here, as well as the wine selection since I wasn’t super impressed with that aspect).
How This Gives Air Canada an Edge
Canada is a competitive long haul market, and while Air Canada is the country’s largest airline their President points out they do not have a majority of long haul business traffic — just a plurality — so they have to fight for it.
Moreover they have a company goal of going from well under 1% getting up to 2% of the US transatlantic market. Serving about 60 US destinations, most don’t have significant long haul service. So they see themselves as offering one-stop connectivity that should be good for many Americans to connect through one of their hubs. If they can offer a compelling product they can win this modest market share.
Towards that end they’ve made significant investments in product, both on the ground and in the air with excellent seats and the introduction of dine on demand inflight.