Saturday,  October 16, 2021  5:49 am

We flew with Air Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what we saw.

We flew with Air Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what we saw.
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

“We at Air Canada can confidently say that we are ready for take off, safely,” said Lucie Guillemette, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer at Air Canada.

Guillemette’s words came as media, suppliers, travel agents and tourism partners had an opportunity on Thursday (July 16th) to experience Air Canada’s end-to-end travel experience amid the COVID-19 pandemic and to get a first-hand look at the airline’s new health and safety protocols.

Joining executives on board a brand new, two-week-old Airbus A220 aircraft (a model that Air Canada first introduced in January), participants flew from Toronto's Pearson International to Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Montreal, and witnessed everything that is making air travel safe again.

“We’ve been very, very focused, right from the onset of the pandemic, making sure that our company emerges from this very, very challenging situation on solid footing,” Guillemette told guests at a presentation at the Montreal Airport Marriott In-Terminal Hotel, where everyone's chairs were placed two metres apart.

It was, like many others in the room, Guillemette’s first time flying in a while – since April, she said.

The Air Canada team and partners gather at the Montreal Airport Marriott In-Terminal Hotel on Thursday.

Airlines have suffered eye-popping financial losses amid the pandemic as customer demand has plummeted over fears of flying.

Last March, Air Canada posted a $1.05 billion-dollar loss in its first quarter and was forced to cut more than half of its workforce.

Thursday’s flight, in many regards, represented a first step in turning a new leaf.  

“I cannot be happier than to be able to experience this with the travel industry,” said Guillemette, calling the trip a “very special" day. “These are truly difficult times for our industry, but we are resilient…I strongly believe this industry is worth fighting for.”

Flying in a new world

Air Canada has led the charge, in many respects, in navigating air travel’s new normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The carrier was, notably, the first to introduce the mandatory wearing of masks on flights and pre-flight temperature checks (orders that Canada, eventually, legislated).

The advanced health and safety protocols that Air Canada has introduced – part of multi-layered program called CleanCare+ - are not only designed to keep customers safe, but to also rebuild the public’s trust in flying.

As Guillemette put it, Air Canada is restarting in a “thoughtful, measurable way.”

What to expect at the airport

Air Canada’s new protocols work hand-in-hand with measures already introduced at airports.

At Toronto Pearson International, for example, the safety measures start the moment you arrive at the terminal, where only passengers flying that same day, and airport staff, are allowed inside.

Family, friends, and loved ones must stay outside (even guards are placed at the front doors and will ask each person that enters if they are, indeed, flying that day).

Floor markers on the ground at YYZ, reminding passengers to keep their distance.

That being said, passengers will – at least for now – notice a visibly-quieter airport. 

“We’d normally be welcoming 150,000 passengers to our airport today. We’re likely going to welcome 15,000 today,” as Glen Henderson, director of terminal operations and passenger experience at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), pointed out.

To help reduce the spread of COVID-19, all passengers and airport employees must wear masks and/or face covering at all times. This includes during pre and post-screening, parking lots, on trains and on sidewalks and curbs outside.

(There are exceptions, however, such as for young children, if one is eating or drinking, or if one cannot wear a mask if they have a medical condition).

Announcements, in both French and English, are constantly playing over the terminal’s intercom, reminding everyone of this advisory.

Social distancing markers are placed on the floors so passengers know where to stand at a safe distance. Signs, too, are visible on seats at the gates, advising travellers to keep spots open for extra space.

In addition to widespread hand sanitizing stations, high-tech fogging and cleaning devices are utilized throughout the entire airport, including autonomous floor cleaners that resemble something out of Star Wars or The Jetsons.

High-tech fogging and cleaning devices are utilized throughout Toronto Pearson airport.

High-touch areas, such as escalators, handrails, stairways, and luggage carts, are cleaned every two hours, at minimum, at YYZ.

A passenger disinfection coordinator is also being trialed, which mists passengers with a non-toxic salt water solution (sodium chloride) that disinfects clothing and luggage.

“Health and hygiene have been paramount in terms of what we’re doing to ensure both passenger and employee safety at Pearson,” Henderson told PAX.

All passengers undergo a touchless temperature check (which literally takes two seconds) before advancing forward to the CATSA security screening area.

Social distancing signs places on seats at the airport gates.

Air Canada goes touchless 

“We’ve really changed our business strategy since the start of COVID-19, investing in a lot of new technology to really help the flow throughout the airport as well as for in-flight,” said Mats Winter, senior director, product design at Air Canada. 

Air Canada's Mats Winter, who removed his mask to speak, addresses guests on Thursday.

Everything about Air Canada’s flight experience is about going touchless now, wherever possible.

There’s touchless bag check – you simply show up, go to a self-service kiosk, scan your mobile boarding pass, and your bag tags automatically get checked.

“You don’t need to touch anything in the environment,” Winter said. 

There’s also a touchless self-service bag check machine: “You put your bag onto the machine and it automatically checks your bag without the need to touch anything else,” Winter added.

Every passenger receives a complimentary CleanCare+ kit when they board their flight. This includes a mask, gloves, hand sanitizing wipes, a bottle of water and liquid hand sanitizer.

Every passenger receives a CleanCare+ kit when they board an Air Canada flight.

Menus on board Air Canada’s flights are also “a thing of the past,” Winter said, noting how food options can be viewed via Air Canada’s app.

Air Canada’s traditional menu has been temporarily reduced, notably, and all meals are now packaged in cold boxes, served together in single-use products.

Canadian chef partnerships

But the carrier has enhanced its food offerings with new items thanks to new and existing partnerships with Canadian chefs.

Thursday’s experience showcased exactly what that looks and tastes like.

On the flight from YYZ to YUL, guests were served a smoked salmon, Asian pear, apple, shiso, fresh herbs and wasabi vinaigrette appetizer with a grilled chicken, flour tortilla with iceberg lettuce, celery, and spicy mayo main course. (#Yum).

This was created by Montreal chef and restaurateur Chef Antonio Park, whose culinary stylings reflect a blend of South American and Asian roots with locally-sourced sustainable ingredients.

Chef Antonio Park's dishes reflect a blend of South American and Asian roots.

It’s offered on flights that are more than two hours long in Air Canada’s Business Class cabin. 

Then, on the return flight from YUL to YYZ, a kale and mango salad and eggplant parmesan meal was served (#Divine) – a new offering by famed Montreal Chef Jérôme Ferrer.

This meal will be featured on all international flights departing from Canada in both economy and premium economy class.

Cabin crew, who are all wearing masks, served these dishes in chic black boxes, which were handed to passengers on a tray – guests, in turn, were asked to pick up their own box themselves.

Passengers, of course, must wear a mask throughout the entire journey, but are allowed to remove it for when it’s time to chow down.

It should be noted that Air Canada’s cabin crew, despite everything that has happened, delivered impeccable service that was personable, professional, patient and conducive to a pleasant (and educational) flight experience. Seriously. 

The new Maple Leaf Lounge

Thursday marked the first time that people were allowed into Air Canada’s domestic Maple Leaf Lounge at Pearson since the pandemic hit. It will be fully open to passengers by the end of the July.

There are some changes: for starters, the layout of the furniture has been rearranged to facilitate physical distancing.

Floor markers, too, have been placed throughout the space so guests know where to stand at a safe distance.

Food is pre-packaged.  “It’s a very different offering compared to what you’ve known before,” Winter said.

However, thanks to a new service called the Maple Leaf Lounge “@ la table service,” travellers can now order food from their seat, and have it delivered there.

Seating areas are now equipped with unique QR codes and NFC tags, which travellers can scan using their phone. A menu pops up and the order is sent to the kitchen, where it is prepared and then delivered back to the guest wherever they are seated.

Seating areas in the Maple Leaf Lounge are now equipped with unique QR codes and NFC tags, which travellers can scan using their phone.

The lounge also has digitalized all newspapers and magazines by PressReader, which represents 6,000 publications.

Maple Leaf lounges will “progressively” reopen in Vancouver and Montreal over time, Winter said.

Understanding HEPA filters

HEPA is an acronym for "high-efficiency particulate air," also known as high-efficiency particulate absorbing and high-efficiency particulate arrestance, and it’s one process that Air Canada uses to keep its air clean on board. 

Research has proven that HEPA purifiers will capture the coronavirus if it is, by chance, airborne.

Educating the public about these filters and deepening their understanding in how they work will be key to the airline industry’s recovery.

Brian Krist, an aircraft maintenance engineer with Air Canada, with a HEPA filter.

HEPA filters are capable of filtering out 99.97 per cent of all particles that are .03 three of a micron or larger, said Brian Krist, an aircraft maintenance engineer with Air Canada. 

To put that into perspective, a human hair is between 20 to 60 microns in size, so “it’s very fine particles,” said Krist.

In a nutshell: the cabin air flows through these filters and is then expelled overboard through outflow valves – 50 per cent of the air on board comes from outside and then is expelled back outside. Fifty per cent is passed through the recirculation system, which goes through the filters.

Air flows through the filtration system, comes into the cabin ceiling, and out through the floor level and through valves at the rear of aircraft, Krist told PAX.

“It’s taking very fine particles out of the air,” Krist said, noting how cabin air is pressurized. “The air within the cabin itself is cleaner than in a hospital."

Electrostatic spraying 

Electrostatic spraying is a high-tech procedure that Air Canada is using to clean surfaces in the lounge and on board it’s aircraft.

In the Maple Leaf Lounge, areas will be closed down for spraying every 30 to 40 minutes.

The handheld device looks like something a Ghostbuster might use for catching ghosts, but it’s indeed a tool that kills potentially harmful particles.

Electrostatic spraying in Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounge will take place every 30 to 40 minutes.

The spray is lauded for its reach: the machine blasts a charged-up mist that sticks to surfaces, covering a wide range of area, eliminating all possible containments.

Aircrafts are cleaned and sanitized after every flight, and electrostatic spray plays a role in this process.

“Passengers can expect a very clean aircraft,” Capucine Michaud, director of cabin standards and services at Air Canada, told PAX.  

We can attest to that – the cabin feels clean. Long gone are the days of greasy armrests and tray tables.

In truth, I felt like a cleaner human when I disembarked the aircraft compared to when I got on.

Dispelling myths

“It is safe to get out and move about again,” Ferio Pugliese, senior vice-president at Air Canada Express and government relations, told PAX. “We hope this builds a level of confidence and comfort the next time someone chooses to fly.”

The challenge, right now, is dispelling myths about what it is like to travel, said Pugliese.

Ferio Pugliese, senior vice-president at Air Canada Express and government relations.

Despite media reports of COVID-19 being present on Canadian airplanes, Air Canada, for one, cannot report any cases whereby COVID-19 was widely spread on its aircrafts.

The use of HEPA filters is the “key reason [why] there’s been no reports of sustained disease or clusters on board our flights,” Michaud told guests. 

What people said

Spotted on the flight was Stephanie Bishop, Globus Family of Brands' managing director.

“I’m very impressed. Everything went very smoothly,” Bishop told PAX after the return flight home. “I would get on a flight to Europe tomorrow.”

“I would get on a flight to Europe tomorrow," said Stephanie Bishop of Globus Family of Brands (Bishop briefly removed her mask for a video interview).

Carol Engel, a senior account executive at Peerless Travel in Thornhill, ON, said: "I was a little nervous about coming to the airport, as everyone is about travel, but it was important for me to have this experience so I can tell my clients not to be afraid."

Engel also had a positive experience.

“Now that I’ve gone through this, I want to travel more,” she said. “They make it very easy to know where to walk, they take your temperature. Everyone was very friendly.”

MPP Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries,  said she was about to take her third round-trip with Air Canada.

“I’m looking forward to, once again, getting on a plane and demonstrating how safe it is," she told everyone. 

Travellers need to be mindful of protecting themselves, and protecting others, said MacLeod. “We can take part in things we used to do, it’s just going to look different,” she said.

The skies ahead

As far as reinventing the travel experience in the face of a global pandemic, Air Canada has checked all the boxes.

Beyond passengers having to wear masks, learn touchless technology and follow some crowd-control procedures, the customer-facing experience of flying hasn’t changed all that much.

However: “Everything has changed behind-the-scenes,” as one Air Canada high up told us, casually. 

The road ahead is still a long one, however.

Passenger demand is down substantially. “We’ve lost 95 per cent of our business,” Pugliese said.  

And while demand is “coming back slowly and incrementally,” it won’t fully return until Canada’s travel measures and restrictions are lifted, he said.

“There’s measures being taken around the world with testing and safe zones where they’ve crushed or flattened the curve,” Pugliese said, calling Canada’s mandatory 14-day isolation order the “one piece” of legislation that needs to be eased.

Canadians should be able to travel to places where COVID-19 is under control and not have to self-isolate when they return home, said Pugliese.

“That is having a profound impact on passenger demand,” he said.

Until then, the plan is to convince the public that air travel is, indeed, safe. 

Kathy Treppo of Carlson Wagonlit Travel/Clarke-Way Travel in Toronto, said it best: 

“Going through the whole process, it felt right,” Treppo told PAX. “It’s not too early to travel. It’s being timed properly with phase three just around the corner. It's time." 

Watch our video from the flight!

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