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Review: Air Canada, Toronto to Mexico City in Business Class

My first trip out of Canada in several years coincided with a new wave of COVID in North America. A week before leaving, United Airlines cancelled my departure flight. They didn’t even let me know. I found out when I went to select my seat that I no longer had a plane to sit on. So I quickly booked Toronto to Mexico City on Air Canada, in business class, using Aeroplan points. 

Here's what we'll explore:

Take the UP Express to Pearson Airport!

This was my first flight in two years. I hadn’t even been on Toronto’s UP train from downtown to the airport in that long. I love when Toronto improves its public transit so on my way to the check-in I want to emphasize how great it was to take the UP to Pearson. It’s $12.35, one-way, from Union Station to Pearson Airport.

An UP Express train ticket held up in front of the train doors and a digital sign saying the train will depart in 20 minutes.

There was hardly anybody else on it. That was unfortunate for the state of public transit but probably not a bad thing in the middle of peak pandemic.

Air Canada Business Class Check-In at Pearson Airport

During the pandemic, Air Canada did something at Pearson that I expect we’ll see many other airlines and airports do in the future: they made a separate check-in area for all Business Class, regardless of where you’re going. So it’s no longer a fast-lane beside Economy Check-in. But I’m bringing this up because, if you don’t know this (like I didn’t) you’ll look at the board to see which aisle you need to go to for baggage drop off, go there, and then get sent all the way back to Aisle 1. If you’re flying Business Class on Air Canada now, pull-up to the first door on the departure level, go straight through to check-in and then security with the least number of steps you’ve ever taken in an airport, except…

That Aisle 1 check-in is perfect if you’re flying to the US or around Canada. The security gate directly  on the other side takes you right to the entrance of the Domestic / Transborder Business Class lounge. However, it’s as far as you could possibly be from the international Maple Leaf Lounge. If you’re flying internationally, you’ve got an epic hike ahead of you. I actually got a little lost trying to figure out where to go, so hopefully this next section will help you not.

Looking ahead, transportation hub design will need a more modular, quickly adaptable approach. On the pillar in the photo above, the sign for US check-in is wrong if you’re flying Business Class. The sign would take you away from check-in. There were many examples like this throughout Pearson Airport, where the signage hadn’t kept pace with the speed of change.

The Maple Leaf Lounge at Pearson, Pandemic Edition

Because Pearson has reorganized how people flow for COVID protocols , the signage doesn’t always align with what you need to know. As the pandemic becomes less temporary, we might see signs changing, but don’t count on it. In the past, as an international passenger, you wouldn’t come out of a domestic security gate. So when looking at signs, you’ve got to think like somebody that’s doing a domestic to international connection.  Look for signs that say “CONNECTIONS” and mention E and F. 

In the past, I was captain of Team No Checked Bags. However, since I reduced everything in my life down to three bags, not only do I check a bag, but my carry-ons are heavy (although totally within the required weight limits and sizes I SWEAR). This was my first flight after getting kicked off Team No Checked Bags. I enjoyed a mindful, heavy walk across Pearson. I paused to admire the winter sunset, rays of pale sunshine streaming through clouds as planes taxied around the snow-plowed tarmac.

It’s a kilometer-long Crossfit Farmer’s Carry from Aisle 1 to the international Maple Leaf Lounge. But like any good workout, afterwards, there is Smithwick’s in a Guinness glass.

With a dark airport lounge behind it, on a table there is a Guinness glass full of beer and a ham and cheese wrap in a paper bag.
Beer and Santa Fe Chicken Wrap in Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounge. Get the beer, skip the wrap.

It’s so important, as travelers, that we consider what we give to the communities that host us. Because I was traveling at the height of the Omicron wave, I really didn’t want to take any extra COVID carry-on to Mexico. So I stayed as far away from people as possible when I was in the Maple Leaf Lounge. I sat in a section that seemed to have been essentially shut down. But that meant I missed an important detail: the food has actually improved in the Maple Leaf Lounge, and you order it from an online menu through your phone. I just happened to sit a table that didn’t have the menu QR code on it. Hopefully this is something they’ll keep, because that “Santa Fe Chicken” Wrap I grabbed from the old food buffet area… I hope Santa Fe isn’t actually like that.

In the area where there was previously the buffet, there’s a selection of packaged wraps and small salads, along with chips and cookies, and there are attendants who can serve you the beer, wine, coffee, and other drinks.

For Air Canada’s “@la table” menu, you can get things like buffalo chicken tacos, butter chicken, parmesan spinach gnocchi, pizza for “kids”, saffron cauliflower soup, and a Chef Park special of the day. I didn’t have time to order them, but grabbed screenshots of the lunch and dinner (11:00 am to 10:30 pm) menu for the week of January 10th, 2022.

Flight Review: Toronto to Mexico City in Air Canada Business Class

This was a nighttime flight on Air Canada’s Boeing 777-300ER. It’s a 3 class layout with 44 lay-flat Business Class pods in the reverse herringbone formation up front, spread across two sections (rows 1 through 7 to the left of the entrance, 8 through 11 to the right), then three rows of Premium Economy, and around 20 rows of Economy. I opted for seat 4K. The center seats (Ds and Gs) are in pairs with adjustable dividers if you’re traveling with somebody you want to see.

It’s a comfortable seat with all of the adjustability you could want. I’m 6’2″ and it’s plenty of leg room. There were packaged headphones, plastic wrapped blankets that are more clinical-looking than the old cozy blankets. No doubt this is purposefully to make things feel more antiseptic. The care kits are Air Canada’s CleanCare+ kit: a facemask in case yours gets dirty, along with antibacterial gel and wipes.

Air Canada Business Class seat 4K, with a screen displaying an image of the airplane, a compartment with headphones in plastic, a white pillow, Mark's rain coat on his seat, and a white blanket visible under that. The CleanCare+ sanitary kit is resting on a ledge in front of the entertainment system screen.
I was so maxed out on downsizing my life that my raincoat on the seat there had its pockets stuffed. It was not raining.

The staff were friendly and efficient. You’re not getting the same amount of interaction as in the past, but that’s fine. I was too busy smearing antibacterial gel on my face to chat.

Otherwise, the service itself is not that different now from what it was before the pandemic. The dinner service has been streamlined a bit so it can all arrive with just three interactions: your appetizer, salad, and bread (in plastic) arrive, then your entrée, followed by dessert and coffee. 

In terms of deliciousness, the Chef Park signature smoked salmon salad was excellent. Restaurant quality. I would’ve eaten just that and a bucket of the guacamole cream it came with. Everything else was your usual microwave dinner served on porcelain. The Nanaimo bar had separated into its layers and the cream was pretty stiff, so it might’ve been a tad old. But given all of the pandemic protocols around meal service on flights, everything was decent. Drinks were flowing throughout.

You won’t see any open trays of orange juice or champagne, but the drink service and selection was standard for Air Canada and more substantial than many airlines are serving at the moment.

Why Booking with Aeroplan Points was the Better Option

My United airlines flight, connecting via Houston to Oaxaca, got cancelled. United had a spate of flight cancellations as Omicron sidelined so many of its staff from service. Air Canada didn’t have a direct flight to Oaxaca so the best option I found at the time was to take the night flight to Mexico City, stay in a hotel at the airport overnight, and then fly on to Oaxaca the next morning on Aeromexico, which has multiple daily flights to Oaxaca. In the future, I wouldn’t do that, just because the Hilton at Mexico City’s airport is not a pleasant stay. But let’s get into why booking with points into Business Class was economical.

For starters, buying a ticket a week out from a flight date, when flights are being cancelled left and right, can get expensive in dollars. But flights from Canada to Mexico and further south, often get into a sweet-spot for using reward points. Depending on availability, using points for a Business Class ticket could be 9 times the points price for an economy ticket, or it might only be double or less, as it was in this case. The lowest Economy Class ticket was only 10.3k points + $100. But I would’ve had to pay for luggage and seat selection. To get one checked bag and select a standard seat, that was 16.8k points + $100. But for around 5000 more points, I could get the lounge, priority check-in, food and drinks, and a ton of leg room.

The Economy ticket looks cheap, but the lowest Business rewards points fare might be the better deal.

This Business Class ticket was 21,900 Aeroplan points + $100. I collect Aeroplan points on my credit card, and with bonuses, the card generates more than 10k points a month.  A good deal for a 5 hour flight and needing to be at the airport earlier than usual. But how was this deal for the environment?

How Much Pollution did this Flight Create?

Flying is not ideal. I would love it if there was a high-speed rail line from Toronto to Mexico City. That just seems like it would make so much sense for North America. It’s sad how we haven’t done a better job of connecting north and south in the Americas.

As far as greenhouse gas generation goes, according to the calculator Google Flights is using, given the plane, one passenger in Business Class on this Air Canada route generates 431 kg of CO2.

A mature tree can remove around 22 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere in a year. So it would take around 19 trees working just for me to remove the CO2 I generated on that flight. And that might not sound as bad because it’s cute to think of trees cleaning sky and turning it into maple syrup. But look at it a different way:  431 kg of CO2 is equivalent to burning 48 gallons of gasoline (8.8kg per gallon). If somebody offered you a stale Nanaimo bar and a glass of cheap wine in exchange for you lighting 48 gallons of gasoline on fire, would you take the deal?

A Toronto to Mexico City Shinkansen would be a way better deal.

A plane on the tarmac facing the camera directly, on the tarmac at Pearson airport, the sun behind winter clouds, with rays of light shining down.

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