Air Canada vs Westjet: How Canada’s airlines are handling pandemic travel from Toronto to Vancouver

In Toronto, after enduring the world’s longest continuous COVID-19 lockdown – accumulating almost 400 days by the time indoor dining restrictions came to an end earlier this month – we’re finally coming out of what we hope are the darkest days of the pandemic. Vaccination rates are approaching 80% – placing us amongst the most vaccinated places on the planet – while a slow, but ongoing re-opening strategy is ensuring that life is starting to return to some sort of normal.

For those of us who are fully vaccinated, this has also allowed for a relaxing in broader pandemic restrictions (self imposed or otherwise), and for yours truly that meant getting on a plane again a couple of weeks ago for the first time in 16 months, for a trip out west to Vancouver, British Columbia. And I must admit – I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience.

The service of Canada’s two premier airlines Air Canada and Westjet – and the airports they operate from – has evolved throughout the pandemic, responding to ever changing government and aviation guidelines, to provide the safest possible flight amidst both the real and perceived threats that airline travel poses to our risks of contracting the virus that has kept so much of the world locked up for the 16+ months.

So what exactly is the experience they currently offer? Is there any food? Any alcoholic beverages? What sanitizing products do they distribute? This article will outline the economy experience for both airlines – with Air Canada flying me from Toronto to Vancouver, and Westjet flying me back again.

Before The Flight

Air Canada

I was able to get an incredible deal on my Air Canada flight, in a brief window where flights were a fraction of their usual price. Sadly most flights are now back to their norm, as demand returns, but the odd great deal is still out there. They also have made all flights refundable – at least as flight credit – so there’s a great peace of mind when booking with Air Canada at the moment. Here’s hoping that’s something that hangs around (though we all know it won’t!).

After booking, the airline provide a number of new pre-travel e-mails. For one, 48 hours out, they ask me to confirm that I was still flying, and reminded me that if I needed to make a change, they were free and easy to make. I received one more e-mail about 24 hours out, just before online check in opened, where they advised me it was a very full flight and if I wanted to change the flight they’d make that easy. A reminder about Covid-19 rules and restrictions was also included. Did I say I hope this sort of thing continues long term?

While checking in, I was able to pick any available seat on the flight for no extra cost, in spite of purchasing the cheapest economy fare. I was able to get an aisle seat in the middle (my preferred) – the last one available (a busy flight it was indeed).

Westjet

The experience with Westjet was quite different. Honestly through the whole pandemic they’ve been lagging behind Air Canada in terms of their customer service – at least in my experience. I was promised a cash refund (twice!) and then denied a cash refund (also twice!), while Air Canada denied refunds at first – only providing flight credit as an option – but then were able to change their tune thanks to government support and then offer cash refunds much later down the line.

This trend seemed to continue for my first trip in 16 months, as Westjet cancelled and then rebooked my flight a couple of days after I got the ticket – a bit more than a month out from the flight. It was leaving only an hour later, so it wasn’t too big a deal – and thankfully it was the only change to be made. And though I didn’t get quite as good a deal with Westjet as I did with Air Canada, it was still a great deal.

Westjet sent out a reminder of their services 48 hours or so before the flight – though they provided no indication of how busy it was, like Air Canada did. Maybe that’s because there were some empty seats on the plane? Check in was 24 hours before the flight, like Air Canada, though on their standard economy fare, they didn’t let you change your seat without a fee. So you had to take whatever you were given – thankfully I got an aisle off the bat.

Overall, there’s no question that Air Canada reigned supreme in the pre-flight experience.

At The Airport

Toronto Airport (YYZ) – Air Canada

If you’re planning to get the UP Express to the airport – Toronto’s excellent train service – it’s first important to note that it’s now only running every 30-60 minutes, depending on the time of day. So plan your trip accordingly!

Just to be safe, I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight, which was more than enough time. While the security line didn’t enforce social distancing, which was frustrating, it was very quick and organised and I was through a temperature check (a handheld machine at the forehead), and the usual security x-rays in about 15 minutes. As I was only flying domestically, were no ID checks for the flight until the gate – though they do scan your ticket as you go through security.

After security, if you were expecting to use the Air Canada Lounge, you wouldn’t have been in luck – it wasn’t yet open at YYZ (Pearson). However, there is an AMEX Plaza Premium Lounge open after security with access for $20 for the hour (unless you have membership).

Like the airlines themselves, airports are in a constant state of flux as they repsond to provincial and federal guidelines, so I was relieved to see a lot of food options on the terminal too – from a Mill St Brewery to multiple Starbucks, an A&W, Thai Express and a couple more bars and multiple options for takeaway meals to enjoy on board a flight (which we were originally told wouldn’t be serving a meal unless you preordered it, but in the end that wasn’t the case). The newer “Kensington Market” stands were not open but the majority were open (though many only operating to partial capacity).

There were no obvious changes to the boarding procedure – you just have to take your mask off briefly when they do the ID check at the gate.

Vancouver Airport (VYR) – Westjet

Meanwhile, for the flight back, I travelled to the airport for $4.25 on their very regular train service. You can tap your credit card, buy a one off ticket from a machine or use your “Compass” card – Vancouver’s travel card system.

Like in Toronto, it was quick through security, even with the random security check I enjoyed – though here they used a camera to check your temperature, asking you to stand at a distance.

After security, everything was open in the “AB” domestic terminal – though there’s a lot less options than in the Air Canada C terminal. But everything is open. There’s a Starbucks, a Carl’s jr, a green bean cafe, a wine & pizza bar, a Stanley park brewery. Took all of 5 minutes to get through customs even with a random security check. You can also get an hour in the plaza lounge for $20 which includes 20 minute shower access, food and drinks.

Like Air Canada, there were no notable changes to the boarding procedure.

In Flight Experience

Air Canada – Boeing 787-9 – AC119
4 Hours 15 Minute Flight Time – Toronto to Vancouver

It’s often a joy to fly domestically on a long haul jet, like the 787. And this trip was no exception. The seats were comfortable, and though it was a full flight, being able to sit in the aisle, in the middle of a 3-3-3 layout, always seems to make it all feel a little less cramped.

Of course with that many people in close proximity (and for the first time in 16 months), any anxieties for the experience were alleviated as staff did a great job at ensuring everyone kept their masks on. They make multiple announcements that they require face masks to be worn at the whole time, only to be removed when eating food or drinking. They also tell you to use an air sickness bag if disposing of a soiled mask.

Newly part of their in flight experience, the crew provide a 240mL Water bottle to each guest shortly after take off, and a “clean care package” with a small 20mL container of sanitizer, two wet wipes and an extra disposable mask.

I received a lot of mixed messages about the in flight dining options before taking off, and even after I boarded. When you look at the menu for your flight online it indicates there’s food, but a notice elsewhere says otherwise – that essentially if you haven’t preordered a meal, you won’t get one, though they are serving water, juice, coffee, tea and select soft drinks. But on board the menu proved to be accurate – and there were indeed limited hot & cold food options for purchase – though no alcohol service, at least in economy. They do one main service shortly after take off, and another drink service an hour before landing.

The flight time barely cracked four hours, as we arrived 15 minutes early. And the in flight entertainment, which is available on the back of every seat, made those hours fly by. And just as an added note, there are now “skip ad “buttons before watching your movie or TV show too! This seemed to be a new feature. You can also use the USB plug to charge your phone while you’re in transit.

Westjet – 737-800 – WS714
4 hour 5 minute flight time, Vancouver to Toronto. 

After boarding, the crew made announcements about facemasks – with the same rules as Air Canada. Similarly they did a great job at making sure everyone was wearing masks through the flight. Which I appreciated as the 3-3 layout makes everything feel a bit more cramped – something we’re no longer used to!

They didn’t provide clean care kits like AC – rather, they hand out a wet wipe when you get on board so you can wipe down your own seat and area. One would assume this is in addition to their own cleaning procedures.

There’s an AC & USB Plug at your seat but no entertainment (you need their app for that, which is great). It was a busy flight, but quite a few empty seats especially in the front half of the aircraft (sadly none next to me).

They offered a lot less options than their competitor, but I feel they always have. Still, there were limited paid options available, and complimentary soft drinks, juice, coffee or tea with pretzels served shortly after take off, and again an hour before landing. It’s also worth mentioning that the McCafé partnership continues.

Final Verdict

While Air Canada have the superior Covid-19 offering with their COVID-19 packs and updated pre-flight rituals, ultimately both airlines feel relatively unchanged in the face of the new rules. Air Canada’s in-flight entertainment on the seats, and a wider food selection, still makes them the better choice of the two airlines, as it did before the pandemic started. And the easier flight & seat change system is a bonus.

Both airlines were good at ensuring people kept their masks on – which, ultimately is the main way to prevent transmission, and the most important way to keep us all safe. And a bonus? With quieter airports (for now), there’s usually less taxi time on either end of your flight – so the overall flight time is down to a neat four hours both ways, which from past experiences is a decent time save.

All in all, this is a great time to fly – there is of course added risk when you’re spending so long in the vicinity of others, but if you’re fully vaccinated and happy to wear a mask during a flight, that risk is limited. In the end, it’s not going to feel all that different from the travel you used to take. Here’s hoping the mask mandates are here to stay for some time, however, as no matter how much sanitizer and HEPA filters you use, nothing is going to protect you more than that. But it will be nice when we can all enjoy alcoholic beverages in a lounge or on a flight again. Baby steps! And I’m sure even since I flied a couple of weeks ago, there are already changes to those offerings.

Here’s to travel!

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COVID-19 Notice: This article has been written as advice for domestic Canadian travellers – At this time of printing, Australian travellers cannot currently leave the country for non-essential purposes – nor is Canada welcoming non-essential travellers from Australia (though this is expected to change in September). Please refer to local and international COVID-19 rules and restrictions as you look ahead to future travel.

Header Photo: Air Canada’s 787 Dreamliner docked at Vancouver’s VYR International Airport. Photo by Larry Heath.

The author travelled at his own expense on both airlines, from within Canada.

The flight to Vancouver with Air Canada was taken on 10th July 2021, and the return flight to Toronto with Westjet was taken on 19th July 2021. Both airlines are making regular changes to their services to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions and you should refer to each of the airline’s websites at the time of travel for the most up-to-date information. 

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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