Air Canada Signature Class launched June 1 on select transcontinental routes. All images: Ari Magnusson

APEX Insight: On May 29, APEX Media was invited to sample the end-to-end experience, both on the ground at Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) and on board a trial flight from Toronto to Vancouver. Here’s how it went.

Air Canada is excited about its Signature Class. Following its launch on international routes in late April, the service was extended to select Air Canada transcontinental routes starting this month.

On the ground

Upon arrival at YYZ for a connecting flight, a member of Air Canada’s concierge team will be there to greet. If the next leg of a journey is to an international destination, customers will be eligible to dine at the airline’s Signature Suite, located in Terminal 1.

The suite opened in December 2017 and is available to Air Canada’s passengers flying on its international Signature Class. It features à la carte dining inspired by Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver, and a cocktail lounge with a full-service bar, including a self-service buffet and bar menu. This may sound like a cross between a lounge or a restaurant, but Air Canada intentionally does not describe it as either.

Air Canada’s Signature Suite at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

“We’re really trying to go for a restaurant-themed experience, it’s not a lounge and it doesn’t have the traditional amenities that you would find in an ultra-premium lounge,” explained Mats Winter, Air Canada’s senior product design manager. “It’s about the food, it’s about the drinks, it’s about the Moët & Chandon champagne, about creating a really memorable food experience.”

“We’re really trying to go for a restaurant-themed experience,” – Matts Winter, Air Canada

The Signature Suite’s Hawksworth menu is updated twice a year and its dishes have a deliberately multicultural theme that are tied in their use of fresh, seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients. So far, according to Andrew McFarlane, Air Canada’s airport product design manager, there has been “an overwhelming amount of positive feedback” from customers.

Some of the meals on the Signature Suite à la carte menu.

He said so far two of the most popular menu items have been soy-marinated sablefish served with bok choy, mushrooms and dashi au bacon, and braised beef shortribs served with cauliflower purée, pickled shallots, cauliflower crumb and grainy mustard. I can attest that both were delicious, and I’m known for my dislike of fishy things.

The Signature Suite also has its own “Signature Cocktail.”  The maple and bourbon-based concoction was developed by the in-house bar team and it’s also served in flight. “It’s perhaps a bit stereotypical having maple syrup in there,” said Winter. “But there’s no denying it is very Canadian.”

“It’s quite easy to get lost in time in this suite.” – Andrew McFarlane, Air Canada

MacFarlane said the Signature Suite’s staff are trained to make recommendations based on the amount of time a customer has before their flight. “They are going to determine that if you have a flight in 20 minutes, you might not have time for the full à la carte menu, so will suggest our Quick Bites menu or suggest that you jump right into a main course. It’s quite easy to get lost in time in this suite,” he said. “We’ve had to notify quite a few customers that their flight is boarding.”

For those who need to switch from one terminal to another, either to board their flight or to dine at the Signature Suite, Air Canada will guarantee a transfer in a BMW 7 Series driven by a member of the concierge team to a subset of its passengers. “We are the first airline in North America to [offer a guaranteed BMW 7 Series transfer] rather than offering a ‘surprise and delight’ element,” said Winter. The airline presently has a fleet of six BMWs but plans to have 20 by the end of this year.

Air Canada Signature Class

Up in the air

The Signature Class launched on Air Canada’s international routes in late April, before expanding on June 1 to select transcontinental flights within North America. The transcontinental service is available on Air Canada’s Boeing 787s, 777s, 767s and Airbus A330s. While it offers passengers a fully lie-flat seat, Air Canada has not made any cosmetic changes to the business-class cabins on board its wide-body aircraft. But it has made improvements elsewhere such as the rollout of Gogo’s 2Ku in-flight connectivity on board its 777-300ERs.

The shrimp, artichoke and fennel appetizer.

The Hawksworth-inspired lunch and dinner menu items on board are similar to those offered in the Signature Suite, but are adapted for in-flight service. Ada Tsang, Air Canada’s director of Catering Product, said each dish went through extensive testing to make sure they could be served at 35,000 feet. “We have to make sure the presentation will stay intact after the aircraft takes off because the angle could tilt by as much as 36 degrees,” she said. “This is why [cherry tomatos] are cut in half, so they will stay on the plate event after the flight takes off. Even with our shrimp appetizer, we tend to put some sauce underneath to make sure it stays intact.”

“We have to make sure the presentation [of a meal] will stay intact after the aircraft takes off,” – Ada Tsang, Air Canada

What’s next?

Air Canada plans to introduce its Signature Suite elsewhere. It has already scoped out space at Vancouver International Airport and has tentative plans to extend the concept to Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, followed by select overseas airports.

Winter also said the airline is looking at how it can personalize its service. “We have the ‘move me’ app which our service directors have on board the aircraft. We have the ‘know me’ app which our concierge team has on the ground, which helps understand our high-value customers and we have a point-of-sale system in the suite,” Winter said. “We are looking at how we can bring these items together so that one day it will be possible for a customer to reserve their meal in advance. They could just walk in and we’d have it ready. We are looking at how we can make that work with technology, but we’re still a little bit away from that point.”

Ari is the news editor at APEX Media.