Trying Two Canadian Leisure Airlines
Throughout 2022, I tried two Canadian leisure airlines for the first time: Air Canada Rouge and Air Transat. I have flown on the two major Canadian carriers, Air Canada and Westjet, countless times but I have never tried either Air Canada Rouge or Air Transat until last year. While there is a market for business travel in the Canadian air travel market, there is also a significant amount of demand for vacation and leisure travel. Both of these airlines target this market and I was keen to try them out.
Air Canada Rouge: Air Canada Slightly Rebranded
Air Canada Rouge is a leisure airline that started flying in the summer of 2013. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Air Canada and is fully integrated into the Air Canada network. Their flights carry Air Canada flight numbers (but are listed as “Operated by Air Canada Rouge”) and you book them through Air Canada. Rouge operates a fleet of narrowbody Airbus A320 family aircraft mostly to leisure destinations throughout North America, the Caribbean, and Central America. They previously also operated long-haul flights to Europe and South America with Boeing 767-300ERs but these planes were retired during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I flew Rouge from Montreal–Trudeau International Airport to Orlando International Airport in the spring. I sat in their business class which is called Premium Rouge. Our aircraft, an Airbus A321-200 registered as C-GJTH, was delivered to Rouge in 2019 after flying for defunct Icelandic carrier WOW Air since 2016. The cabin felt quite new, especially as the Premium Rouge seats had been installed in October 2021.
Flying in Premium Rouge is the equivalent of flying in Air Canada’s domestic business class in many ways: passengers get lounge access and meals on flights longer than two hours. Similarly, Economy class passengers get a snack/beverage on shorter flights and can order from the same Air Canada Bistro buy-on-board menu as mainline Air Canada flights.
As Premium Rouge passengers, we had access to the Maple Leaf Lounge in Montreal. There are three of these lounges in Montreal: one each for domestic, international, and transborder passengers. At Canadian airports with preclearance, there is a secure area just for US-bound or “transborder” passengers. The Maple Leaf Lounge in Montreal’s transborder area is the one we had access to. It’s a relatively small lounge with a singular long rectangular seating area. On one end there are some dining-style seats but most of the lounge is more casual seating. One the opposite end, there are some televisions and some recliner-style seats as well. There were some computer terminals for passengers to use as well as a small food area. There were still many COVID-19 protocols in place at the time, so the food was mostly pre-packaged snacks, whole pieces of fruit, as well as individually packaged fruit cups and sandwiches. Hot drinks and alcohol were served by staff.
Transborder Maple Leaf Lounge at Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (Slideshow)
The seat itself was a fairly standard North American business class recliner seat. Unlike mainline Air Canada planes, the Rouge fleet does not have personal entertainment screens at each seat but instead offers personal device wireless streaming entertainment. Premium Rouge passengers can also borrow an iPad during the flight that is loaded with entertainment options. The iPad I was given was in a sealed bag but looked well-used. I also found that there were more options on the streaming entertainment system than on the iPad. Rouge’s aircraft also are also equipped with inflight Wi-Fi and as of November 1, 2022 (which was after my flight), Premium Rouge passengers get free Wi-Fi access.
Since our flight was over two hours, we got a full meal service served on a single tray while inflight. There was a salad described as a “heritage mix” with kale, radicchio frisée, and quinoa; a chicken thigh main dish with korma-style sauce, basmati rice, and spinach curry; and a brownie for dessert. The alternate main dish option was a cheese and spinach ravioli. Air Canada is one of the best airlines in North America when it comes to catering, and I found the meal to be quite good.
Because of labor and staffing changes during the pandemic, our flight was crewed by mainline Air Canada flight attendants. The service friendly and attentive – pretty typical of what I have come to expect from Air Canada.
Flying with Air Canada Rouge is in many ways quite similar to flying with Air Canada mainline. In many ways, it felt like Air Canada just with slightly modified branding. Booking and pricing is fully integrated with Air Canada. Everything on the ground was the same as flying Air Canada, from the check-in options, to lounge access, to boarding procedures. The catering in Premium Rouge is very similar to what you get in business class on mainline and economy class passengers are offered the same Air Canada Bistro buy-on-board menu. On top of all this, our flight was operated by mainline Air Canada flight attendants. The only real differences were some variations in the hard product. For example, economy class seats on Rouge have less pitch/legroom and there are no seatback entertainment screens. Overall though, except for the lack of a seatback screen in front of me, it felt like any regular mainline Air Canada flight.
Air Transat: A Solid Leisure Airline Experience
In the summer, I flew with Air Transat, Canada’s third largest airline. Air Transat started flying around 35 years ago and is based in the French-speaking province of Quebec. It operates a fleet of narrowbody Airbus A321 and widebody Airbus A330 aircraft. Air Transat focuses on leisure travel and its route network is very seasonal: in the summer months, it flies mostly between Canada and Europe and in the winter months, it focuses on “sun” destinations in the United States, Caribbean, and Central America. Current operations are mostly based in the eastern part of Canada but it had more flights from western Canadian cities like Vancouver and Calgary before the pandemic.
We flew round-trip from Montreal–Trudeau International Airport to London Gatwick Airport. Not only was Air Transat a new airline for me, but the Airbus A321LR was also a new aircraft type for me. The A321LR is part of Airbus’ A320neo family, with “neo” meaning new engine option and “LR” meaning long-range. The extra fuel tanks on the A321LR allow it to fly transatlantic flights and Airbus is currently working on the A321XLR, or extra long range, which will have even more range.
Air Transat offers two classes of service: Economy Class and Club Class. Club Class is their business product and consists of recliner-style seats. We flew in Economy class on both flights. Their A321LRs were all delivered within the past few years and the cabin and seats seemed quite new. It was comfortable enough for the seven and a half hour flights. Air Transat has seatback entertainment on their A330s and A321LRs and has personal device streaming entertainment on their older A321s. There is no Wi-Fi offered on any Air Transat planes.
Our flight was scheduled to leave Montreal on a beautiful summer evening. Like many eastbound transatlantic flights, it departed in the evening and arrived in the morning. Give the number of Europe-bound passengers in the evening, the terminal was very packed. Not only was it peak travel season, but this was right in the middle of the stressful summer of air travel that we saw in 2022. A majority of flights appeared to be delayed and I had seen that our flight was delayed every single day for the past week, including one day where it was delayed by four hours. In the end, our flight left around 45 minutes late but I considered us fortunate as other passengers weren’t so lucky.
Air Transat serves a hot meal and a snack on their transatlantic routes. The hot meals were different on the two flights but the options were described as “chicken or pasta” in both directions. The snacks were served before landing: on the way to London we had a pre-packaged piece of cake and on the way back to Montreal it was a calzone. The food was nothing spectacular – I quite enjoyed the bean salad on the Montreal to London flight but aside from that, the food tasted about as mediocre as it looked.
Two of the Meals on our Air Transat Flights
After arriving back in Montreal on the way back, something very interesting happened. We parked at a domestic gate with a jetway. However, we were an international arrival and therefore couldn’t use the jetway. So the airport brought passenger transfer vehicles (also known as mobile lounges) and we got off the plane from the back before being driven to the international arrivals area. Learn more about this unique experience here.
My experience with Air Transat was pretty much exactly as expected. They are a well-established leisure airline in Canada (and particularly in Montreal) with a decent reputation. They are not a traditional mainline carrier that caters to both business and personal/leisure travelers but don’t call themselves a low-cost carrier either. Instead, they position themselves as an inexpensive and friendly leisure brand (and they were indeed the most inexpensive option for our trip). We were flown to our destination in relative comfort, fed palatable warm meals, and served by friendly flight attendants. I am glad I got to try them out and would definitely consider flying with them again.
Air Canada Rouge is Air Canada’s leisure subsidiary. Its booking process is fully integrated into Air Canada. Much of the experience with Rouge is very similar to what you get on Air Canada mainline, with a few notable hard product differences such as a lack of seatback entertainment screens. My flight with them in Premium Rouge felt very much like any other Air Canada flight.
Air Transat is a Montreal-based Canadian leisure airline, offering flights from Canada to sun and European destinations. My experience with them was pretty much what I expected: nothing spectacular but good value and good service.