Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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North to a Better Place in the Skies
Thursday, January 11, 2018 -- I made a New Year's resolution to save time, money, hassles, calories and boredom on the road and be productive doing it. Then I booked a San Francisco-to-Toronto nonstop on Air Canada during the pre-Christmas week crush.

Surprise. The trip checked all my boxes.

I almost didn't want the four-and-a-half hours in the air to end. It was that relaxing, that enjoyable. And I wasn't flying in the front of the plane. The return trip wasn't quite as delightful as the outbound, but it was pleasant.

Delightful? How could business travel in winter over a busy holiday through two major airports be even pleasant--let alone smooth and soothing to the senses? Let me count the ways.

Air Canada is the only airline with nonstop San Francisco-to-Toronto flights. (Star Alliance partner United Airlines code-shares on the route.) An economy class seat was a hefty US$950 roundtrip, but then I booked it just three weeks ahead of the holidays. I could have flown American or Delta and saved a few bucks--if I wanted to change planes at a hub, risk weather delays and double the chance of a mechanical. Or endure U.S legacy carrier steerage class. The money saved isn't worth it.

Plus, Air Canada has a 7 a.m. departure from SFO, which meant I could beat the airport throngs that arrive later for the morning banks of eastbound flights.

Air Canada staffs its check-in counter at SFO liberally, so things moved swiftly. Even better, for just US$50 one-way I upgraded to Preferred Seats, Air Canada's extra-legroom seats in coach. Preferred gave me 35 inches of legroom and an aisle seat. It was a no-brainer, but not everyone opted for the upgrade. I had an open middle seat on the Airbus A321 and lots of room to spread out, open a laptop and work in comfort.

Air Canada has thought things out for passengers. On the A321, both AC and USB power ports are at eye level. There is a 10-inch video monitor with an assortment of television, cable, movies and music. Air Canada's entertainment doesn't rival JetBlue or Virgin America's selections, but it's easy to navigate. (And I mini-binged Showtime's riveting Billions.) In-flight WiFi is also available on most flights.

Air Canada's economy class outclasses the U.S. legacy airlines. Legroom is usually 32 and sometimes 33 inches depending on the aircraft. That's better than U.S. carriers, which are cramming in more seats with depressing speed. But a warning: Avoid Air Canada Rouge flights. Rouge is Air Canada jargon for its knee-crunching, lower-cost operation.

Hardware aside, where Air Canada stands out from the crowd is its in-flight service and friendliness--at least on these two flights. At a time where major U.S. airlines struggle to field cabin crews with happy faces, flight attendants aboard the SFO-YYZ and the YYZ-SFO legs were cheerful, responsive and eager to serve.

Even more impressive were their credentials. On the outbound flight, Deborah said she was an Air Canada flight attendant for 38 years and Kim said she'd logged 32 years. Both were personable, enthusiastic and appeared to genuinely enjoy their job, not counting down to pulling the retirement ripcord. The other cabin crew members on the flights were courteous and engaged. I saw no flashes of attitude or annoyance.

Air Canada's in-flight food offerings are imaginative and fairly priced. Instead of free peanuts or pretzels, the airline passes out mini-bags of granola. Sushi rolls, fresh berries, guacamole and cheeses are offered along with sandwiches and wraps.

Interestingly, there were four empty seats in business class on the SFO-YYZ leg and it's not surprising. Air Canada has a reputation for being pricey, so be careful when you book. I was quoted US$3,478 for what's called "business class low cost." That hefty charge gets you to the front of the plane, but has change-of-flight restrictions. A business class seat with fewer restrictions was quoted at a whopping $9,834. An unrestricted business class fare with admission to the Air Canada Maple Leaf lounge was US$10,541! On the other hand, you can upgrade to business class at the airport for US$1,084 one-way if seats are available.

The return Toronto-to-San Francisco run was a bit less wonderful. After three tries, I couldn't get a boarding pass by E-mail. The aircraft was a well-worn, stuffed-to-the-gills Boeing 767. The Preferred Seats were all spoken for. The 32-inch legroom in coach let me fire up my laptop, but the rube in front of me persisted in leaning back.

Still, Air Canada gets high marks from the business travelers with whom I spoke.

Harvey Roberts, a consultant based in Toronto, says he wishes Air Canada would "create a children's class for traveling toddlers and tots." But he prefers his country's flag carrier over the U.S. legacy airlines that he sometimes must fly to serve his south-of-the-border clients. "United is a horrible cattle car while Air Canada is a reasonable air carrier that is getting better," opines Roberts, who is on the road two or three days a week.

Claude Steinmayer, a senior manager with a Silicon Valley firm, is a 1.3-million miler with United Airlines, his usual carrier of choice. But he booked Air Canada because of its early departure from SFO and the fact that its Star Alliance membership lets him earn United miles for the trip.

"This isn't where I usually sit," says Steinmayer, who had an aisle seat in economy. "But the service is good and the ports let me charge my mobile phone while keeping my laptop plugged in. That's really convenient."

Meanwhile, a helpful tip: Air Canada's hub at Pearson International is about 20 miles from downtown Toronto. Depending on traffic and the weather, a taxi or Uber will require at least 30 minutes and cost US$50 or more. But the light-rail Union Pearson Express operates between Terminal One and Toronto's Union Station. It requires just 25 minutes and costs less than US$10.

This column is Copyright 2018 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.