In flight: Across the pond in coach that doesn’t suck


Yeah, I wish that all my flights were in the pointy end of the plane, but that just isn’t feasible on my budget. And so, once again, I headed off across the Atlantic Ocean in coach, hoping that I wouldn’t be too annoyed. This time it was Air Canada, from Brussels to Montreal. I’ve flown Air Canada a few times long-haul recently and been rather pleased with the experience so this was mostly a case of hoping they lived up to their previous performances. They did.

The Seat

I never did manage to request a seat in advance for this flight thanks to it being ticketed as a code-share and the phone agents not feeling particularly creative. Still, when I went to check in I found myself assigned seat 18H, a non-reclining exit row aisle seat. Yeah, I prefer the window, but I’ll take the exit row without any complaints. The pitch is tremendous and the center seat area there is actually the galley so fewer people (though the galley part can be disruptive on a night flight).

Upon boarding I started chatting with a few other folks who were also on the same mileage run I was on and one was actually assigned the exit window that did recline and he was looking to swap to my side of the plane to be near his family. No problem at all. Without too much fuss I was in one of the best coach seats available.

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One interesting thing about the over-wing exit seats for Air Canada’s 767-300s is that they don’t have an armrest on the exit side. That was definitely a bit strange, though it ends up making the seat feel wider than it actually is, which is mostly a good thing.

The seat cushion didn’t feel quite as soft as I remember of those from the non-exit seats, but it wasn’t particularly bad. I did find that the exit row was VERY cold, even with my thick travel socks on. I actually ended up wedging a blanket between my shoulder and the wall to insulate myself from the chill.

Food & Beverage

The flight, scheduled for 7:30 in the air, included three distinct meal/beverage services. The first was a lunch, served hot, where I chose the chicken over the pasta option. The ginger chicken was pretty good, most notably for actually having the taste and texture of chicken, more than I can say for the last time I ordered chicken in coach (Thanks, United Airlines!). It wasn’t anything special, but it was actually what I was expecting, so that was nice.

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As an added bonus, drinks are free, even in coach. That’s not to say the wine I had with lunch was any good, just that it was free. My seatmate and I shared a laugh over that fact (he agreed that free was the only redeeming quality of the wine). Also, the flight attendants were offering up the whole can of soda when ordered; I generally have no trouble requesting such if I want it but it was nice to see them being proactive on that front. Also, the meal tray comes with a small bottle of water, in addition to the drink cart, so hydration is not a problem at all.

The second service was beverages plus a snack which was actually just a bag of pretzels. Not particularly filling, but they are pretty good pretzels, with a buttery flavor to them that I quite enjoy.

The third service was a hot snack, presented as the option between a beef or tomato wrap. I went with beef and was presented a box that mostly elicited memories of McDonald’s Apple Pies from many years ago.

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It was most certainly hot, and it seemed to have flavors of all the things on the ingredients list at one point or another – mostly beef and veggies – but it was also somewhat difficult to eat without making a complete mess. The filling of the wrap was incredibly hot and reasonably gooey (the corn flour, I’m betting), and biting in on one side meant it would ooze from the other. Not the worst thing I’ve ever had on a plane, but a bit of a let down after the first meal. Then again, I’m not Canadian so maybe I’m missing something there.

In-flight Entertainment

When it comes to IFE systems, the options for coach customers are getting better and better. And Air Canada has one of the better products I’ve seen in that regard. It offers large screens, a good selection of movie, TV and audio titles and one of my favorite moving map interfaces. If none of that suits your fancy there is also USB power at every seat and 110V power in every row, one outlet per 2 seat group and 2 outlets per 3 seat group. The touch-screen interface can be a bit pokey at times in terms of performance and the commercials before the shows are annoying, but both of those are outweighed but the quality of the rest of the product.

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Lounge/Ground Services

I had done online check-in the night before but didn’t have a printer so no boarding pass. I decided to get one from an agent rather than the kiosk so I could take care of the passport check formalities as well. Plus I figured with the elite line it should move pretty quickly. I should never underestimate the ability of the more frequent travelers to make for a slow experience. It didn’t help that the agents working that line were also handling calls from the transfers desk and a myriad of other tasks while also trying to check customers in, but it did seem that they were somewhat understaffed.

Air Canada makes use of the Brussels Airlines lounge in the Brussels airport. This makes sense as they are a Star Alliance partner so I cannot really hold that against the carrier. But the lounge is not particularly impressive. It is small for the number of flights and passengers heading to the USA every morning, meaning finding a seat can be a challenge. We managed to find a few in the business center which was empty thanks to the computers being out of service. The snack options in the lounge were OK, with pastries and cereals available, though the pastries weren’t particularly tasty. The croissants I had from the grocery store out in the terminal were much better, even if I did actually pay for them. On the plus side, there is self-serve booze, including Leffe beers. A Leffe Brune and pain au chocolate make for a pretty decent breakfast.

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Much like my last experience in Air Canada’s long-haul coach cabin, this one was quite pleasant overall. I managed to sneak in a nap after the first meal and generally was ready to hit the ground running upon arrival in Montreal. At this point I’d say that the Air Canada option is the best coach cabin across between North America and Europe, certainly in Star Alliance and arguably against the others, too. I’m not as huge a fan of the AC business class service as some others are, but if you’re slumming it in coach, the connections via Canada are looking pretty nice these days.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

9 Comments

  1. I agree, AC has pretty good coach service, but the extra legroom you get from E+ keeps bringing me back to UA. I’m not sure your experience with the great seat could be easily replicated.

    1. I like E+ as much as the next guy, Scottrick, but the front section of the AC 763s is 34″ pitch and that’s generally enough for me even if I don’t get the exit row. On top of that, power and AVOD are solid and available on all the planes. With the new transit facilities in YUL and YYZ making that aspect easier, too, it really is a decent way to fly. If it weren’t for lifetime miles I’m not so sure there would be anything making UA a better option than AC.

  2. I’m flying YYZ to LHR on Air Canada this Friday. On the flights I’m never bothered if I can’t get an upgrade, since it is fairly comfortable in economy.

  3. I occasionally do AC rather than UA across the Atlantic. For those of us who always book cheap fares they are really the only sensible options. UA wins on E+ (and their food ex-LHR is pretty good, but ex-SFO/IAD/LAX is truly horrible). But AC’s seat pitch is somewhere between that of E- and E+, the IFE is much better, the planes are in better condition and the service is superior – so, all in all, it’s a good choice.

  4. Really appreciate this post. I’ve been seeing so many good fares on AC, but have always avoided them since we always choose UA for our frequent TATL flights due to the Econ+. But your post encourages me to give AC a try… thanks!

  5. I agree that Air Canada has a pretty decent coach product (and as a Canadian, I’m quite familiar with it), but BA is definitely the best transatlantic coach experience that I’ve had (food, comfort, IFE, serives).

    Plus, on my most recent BA flight, having the other two economy seats next to me empty made for a great ghetto business class experience!

  6. As I recall, drinks are free on international UA flights, so that’s not an added plus, is it? And also, on UA they always give out the full can without request on international flights (and 90% of the time on domestic flights).

  7. @Kris – free booze only over the Pacific on UA, I believe. Certainly it wasn’t free on ORD-AMS a few days ago (but they did take my expired old PMUA drink chits).

    @Seth – do they have big video equipment boxes under the seats? I don’t really care much about the IFE and would hate to have a significant chunk of my leg room taken up by equipment that just provides me with a map (video comes courtesy of my iPad).

    1. I don’t remember my foot space being unduly impeded by an AV box.

      Definitely only free drinks on UA TPAC.

      And I’ll have to give BA coach a try one of these days, I suppose. I wasn’t particularly impressed by their F product but maybe Y is better relative to the others than the F option is.

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