Last night, approximately 75 members of the Canadian and U.S. travel trade media arrived via chauffeured BMW service at the Toronto Pearson International Airport for a sneak peek at the brand new Air Canada Signature Suite. The upscale lounge doesn’t officially open to the public until Dec. 1st, 2017.
In contrast to the existing Maple Leaf Lounge, which is located in Terminal 1 and resembles a modern business centre, the Air Canada Signature Suite is an open concept that features high ceilings, modern art, and mood lighting to provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday airport operations. This intimate setting pays homage to Canada, and the entire design, from the wood panelling, to the paintings and decor, to the menus represent 96 per cent of locally-sourced Canadian products.
As of Dec. 1, 2017, any international flights that are Trans-Atlantic, Trans-Pacific, or fly into to South America where the Business Class product is offered will provide instant, complimentary access to the new upscale lounge. “The Air Canada Signature Suite provides premium Air Canada customers with a luxury experience unrivalled in North America that elevates Air Canada into the ranks of leading global carriers for discerning international travellers,” said Benjamin Smith, president, passenger airlines at Air Canada. “Our premium customers, particularly those who are connecting, highly value comfort and convenience when they travel. The way we position this lounge is clearly to be best in business class across all of North America, and I believe we will be able to make that statement globally.”
Benjamin Smith, president, passenger airlines at Air Canada
Business is booming
Air Canada has recently undergone a series of upgrades and investments, prior to opening the Air Canada Signature Suite. The company now has 25 of the latest model 777 aircraft in its fleet, which include the 300 LR and the 200 LR. There are also 30 787’s in the fleet, with seven coming in the next 16 months, which will represent 62 of the latest generation long-haul airplanes, and all of them have the best-in-class Business Class product which is direct aisle access, steam ovens, full espresso machines, in-flight entertainment systems via panasonic, and a very new feature that Smith predicts will make all the difference in flying.
Air Canada Signature Suite
“We just got certification for what’s called 2KU WiFi, which is the fastest WiFi available in the sky, it’s satellite based, and all of our 777’s and 787’s will have that feature installed by the end of 2018. The 777’s will be finished in the next three months, followed by the 787’s," Smith said.
With new investments in technology and new routes, complemented by the new Air Canada Signature Suite, Air Canada has positioned itself to attract a growing market of international travellers.
“In Canada, we’re finding that we’re gaining market share and we’re looking to attract a larger share of the United States,” Smith said. “The geographical advantage of where Toronto or where Canada sits on top of the United States puts us at a real advantageous position if you want to fly from one of the many U.S. cities that do not have international non-stop service. A city like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh has no long-haul destinations, so you have to connect from New York, Chicago, or California, and if you look at the geography of Canada, on a lapsed-time basis, we are just as competitive or more than competitive in terms of total elapsed time. When you connect here in Toronto, all of our four flights are in one building, and we have pre-clearance, so if you are flying internationally and connecting in Toronto and going to the United States, you have the ability to pre-clear here in Toronto, and there’s no picking up your bag, or going through security to meet entry requirements.”
The mural which hangs in the Air Canada Signature Suite, by Gavin Lynch
Feel at home
Attention to detail was a key element in the design process of the new lounge as Andrew MacFarlane, airport product design manager, Air Canada, points out. “We’re trying to capture the international business market, and our goal at Air Canada is to become a Top 10 global airline,” MacFarlane said. “Currently, we’re number 29 on Skytrax, and so with that, we benchmark ourselves against those global carriers, and try to understand what we need to do to get to that point and attract those kinds of customers.”
Air Canada Signature Suite dining area
Air Canada Signature Suite dining area
Air Canda Signature Suite dining area
The attention to detail was on full display last night with the staff at Air Canada’s Signature Suite Lounge, as bartenders and servers kept a fine watch over the crowd, refilling glasses immediately, and providing quick and friendly recommendations on both the cocktail and appetizer menus.
“We want to create an experience where we focus on the smaller details, so we are able to determine what our passengers want, sometimes prior to them even knowing what they want,” MacFarlane said. “Let’s say you’ve ordered a cocktail, and you’re wearing lipstick. Our servers will already know to offer a straw. They recognize the small things, like which part of your meal you’re at, or what kind of coffee you’re drinking to make a dessert recommendation, so again, it’s about being extremely knowledgeable with the product offerings, to know what you might like.”
Bartenders at the Air Canada Signature Suite
The atmosphere features four separate dining areas, which include the bar and open-concept dining room, as well as a private dining lounge reserved upon request. In the main area, a large mural takes up an entire wall. Titled, “The Place to which we always return” by Ottawa artist Gavin Lynch, the mural depicts a beautiful Canadian forest, with brush strokes of colour across five hand-painted panels detailing the trees, moss, and rocks found so frequently in the Canadian wilderness. The lounge itself was designed by Montreal architect Heekyung Duquette.
The new Air Canada Signature Suite was designed with the customer in mind, and the overriding goal was to create a warm and inviting space that almost makes visitors forget they are even in an airport, and makes them rethink the somewhat stereotypical nature of airports, which usually includes long waiting times, crowded spaces, sparse dining options, and no space to unwind and relax. “Our customer base out of Toronto is largely represents overnight flights to Europe, which represents a duration of five to six hours of flying time, said Andrew Yiu, vice president, product design, Air Canada. “A lot of customers were telling us, ‘if only there was a way to have a proper meal before boarding the aircraft before I go straight to sleep, that would be great!’ Many of our customers who arrive in Europe go straight to work when they land, so they want to maximize their time.”
Andrew Yiu, vice president, product design, Air Canada
As Yiu points out, there were several options available, which included upgrading the exisiting food offerings at the Maple Leaf Lounge, or setting up a brand new lounge concept, creating a more relaxing environment. “We chose to go with the second option, and it’s a truly premium experience for our customers, which allows them to come in and enjoy food or a drink before they fly out. I think we’ve succeeded in our approach, because tonight, many people have come to me and said ‘I don’t actually feel like I’m in the airport anymore’, because you cannot see any aircraft from the lounge, and that was a big part of the design process.”
Airport food re-imagined
One move towards aligning itself to a new business clientele was the Signature Suite’s partnership with Hawksworth restaurants. Managed by Chef David Hawksworth, the Hawksworth restaurants are upscale fine-dining establishments that serve up local eats using fresh ingredients and skilled techniques. Exemplary gastronomy was on full display last night, as servers repeatedly replenished colourful enjoy hors d'oeuvres like black bean and avocado salad, a charcuterie platter with prosciutto di parma and aged cheddars, and tasty offerings like slow-cooked lamb, sliders, and even sardines on toast.
“David Hawksworth is the number one chef in Vancouver right now, but he’s also been recognized as the number one chef in Canada for two years in a row,” MacFarlane said. “He’s really supported the development of not only the menu, but also the cocktail program.” In true Canadian fashion, the signature drink on the menu at the Air Canada Signature Suite is called the Muskoka Maple, and it’s a warm blend of real Canadian maple syrup, Canadian ginger ale, bourbon, savoury thyme, and lemon. Another popular choice is the Scarlet Juniper, which is a candy-apple red cocktail featuring Tanqueray No. 10, elderflower liqueur, and pomegranate grenadine, topped with an olive. Moët & Chandon Brut Rosé champagne and Moët & Chandon Imperial champagne, and a selection of fine wines, alongside gin, tequila, vodka, and rum drinks are always available.
Andrew MacFarlane, airport product design manager, Air Canada
Chef David Hawksworth was working alongside his staff at the Air Canada Signature Suite last night, and spoke exclusively with PAX regarding the overall concept of the menu, and the concept of defining a distinguished, Canadian dish, which, as it turns out, is still a tough thing to pin down. “This is a combination of everything I’ve been working on, and towards, for the last few years I’ve been cooking, so this is contemporary Canadian cuisine, which is a melting pot of ideas and techniques,” Hawksworth said. “Canada in general is working to find contemporary cuisine, and we’re trying to use Canadian products to the highest standard possible. We’re moving away from cream and butter towards a lighter and healthier approach, and we’ve made a massive difference in the way people look at airport food. It’s been amazing to make such a great impact, and feedback has been very positive. I’ve had some of the harshest criticism imaginable, and even Chef David McMillan of Joe Beef, who would happily tell me otherwise, said it [the menu] was good.”
Chef David Hawksworth at the Air Canada Signature Suite
A sample selection from the Bites on the Go and à la carte menu offerings, created by Chef David Hawksworth and staff.
In total, the Air Canada Signature Suite will feature three different menu options within the space. The buffet, which is common in Air Canada’s Maple Leaf lounges, will be a staple, and provide different options for morning flights and evening flights. “In the morning, only the buffet is open, and made to order omelettes are available, because in the morning only two flights are eligible, which are the London and Hong Kong flights,” MacFarlane said. “In total, we’ll average about 40 passengers between 6:30 a.m. which is when we open, until 11:00 a.m., which is where we open up our a-la-carte and on-the-go menu offerings, and we expect to see our peak times between then and 7:00 p.m.” The lounge itself remains open from 6:00 a.m. until last departures, at 11:00 p.m.
The capacity within the lounge is 160, including the private dining area, which can be opened up to accommodate travellers. The private dining area is intended for those who request it, or larger groups who may be travelling together.
An on-the-go menu is also available for the travellers who might not have that 45 minutes to an hour that it might take to enjoy a three-course a-la-carte menu, but are still looking for savoury, healthy dining options. Deep-fried Korean cauliflower and the signature Hawksworth burger are among items he predicts will be a hit with travellers. “Everything is the same quality and the only thing that changes are the prep times, so you’ll find more comfort foods on the Bites on the Go menu, compared to what’s on the a-la-carte,” MacFarlane said. “I’m very excited to launch this project and I think this will really propel us into the next league within the aviation market. We are exploring additional lounges like this to open up in Vancouver and Montreal, as well as in international destinations, and we have extensive renovations planned for our current lounges next year. This will really elevate the lounge experience within Air Canada, and Air Canada overall.”