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Trip Report: Flying on Air Canada’s Newly Retrofitted A321
Air Canada's new Airbus A320 family cabin offers a sleek design and modern inflight entertainment and connectivity offerings.
During my recent trip to Houston to cover United Airlines’ new Airbus A321neo, I ended up on Air Canada’s newly retrofitted Airbus A321. With free WiFi, large overhead bins and exterior cameras that are sure to mesmerize aviation enthusiasts and non-AvGeeks alike, Air Canada’s latest onboard product has much to offer.
Background: Air Canada’s A320 Family Retrofit Project
For many years, the Airbus A320 family was the backbone of Air Canada’s mainline narrowbody fleet. Although these aircraft have taken a backseat role in the fleet to the airline’s newer Boeing 737 MAX 8 and Airbus A220 aircraft, they remain an integral part of the carrier’s operations. Air Canada currently has approximately 30 mainline Airbus A320 family jets and is expected to take delivery of an additional used A320 and three used A321s in 2024.
Back in October, Air Canada revealed that it was retrofitting its A320 and A321 fleet. The existing cabins were cutting-edge when they were introduced in the late 2000s, with personal touch screens, on-demand entertainment and in-seat power. However, more than a decade later, the aircraft are plagued with dated interiors, slow touch screens and unreliable charging ports.
Only one aircraft has been retrofitted so far: an Airbus A321-200 registered as C-GITU and wearing the airline’s Star Alliance livery. After passing through security on my recent trip, I looked out the window at the aircraft parked at my gate and saw an A321 in the distinctive Star Alliance livery.
With the knowledge that there was only one Air Canada A321 in that livery, I knew that I had beaten the odds – currently one in fifteen – and would be flying on the newly retrofitted aircraft.
A Quick and Simple Airport Experience
The first flight of my journey took me on the short hop from Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport to Toronto Pearson International Airport on board the newly retrofitted A321. Having checked in online, I briefly stopped at a check-in kiosk to print paper boarding passes as a backup to the mobile version on the Air Canada app.
I then breezed through security and proceeded down the wide walkway that brought travelers to the escalators that lead down to the main gate area. It was during this time that I looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows and saw C-GITU.
The airport has been revamping its concessions as part of its multi-year YOW+ airport improvement project. While many of the stores were closed at 4:30 a.m., a number of food outlets were open.
My flight was leaving from Gate 17, a gate that is regularly used for Toronto flights. It is conveniently located right beside the escalators from security as well as the Air Canada customer service desk.
Onboard: A Beautiful New Cabin
I stepped on board to find a beautifully lit cabin. Air Canada’s retrofit will bring the interiors of its A320s and A321s in line with those found on its newer Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A220 aircraft.
The Business Class cabin has 16 seats, which is consistent with the old cabins. The new seats allow Air Canada to offer a consistent seating product across its narrowbody fleet.
All Business Class seats have a high-definition seatback entertainment touch screen, a foldable footrest and three charging options: power outlets, USB-A and USB-C.
Further back in the aircraft, the Economy Class cabin has brand-new seats with dark grey upholstery and red accents. Air Canada added an additional row in the Economy Class cabin during the retrofit, bringing the seat count from 174 to 180.
In Economy Class, all seats have USB-A and USB-C charging. There are also two power outlets for each set of three seats.
Although the new cabin is a massive upgrade overall, I found that the seats had less padding and the tray tables seemed smaller than the ones in the older cabins.
To add the extra row of Economy Class seats, the airline moved the location of the two rear lavatories. In the old configuration, the lavatories were located between the last row and the rear galley area. On the newly retrofitted aircraft, the two rear lavatories are located inside the rear galley area. There is also a lavatory at the front of the aircraft as well as a mid-cabin Economy Class lavatory at Row 28.
Large overhead cabins are installed throughout the cabin, which allow bags to be stowed vertically on their sides.
The new Airbus cabins are fitted with beautiful full-color LED mood lighting. The crew was kind enough to demonstrate some of the lighting options.
Departure from Ottawa: Discovering My Favorite Feature On Board
As I settled into my Economy Class window seat, I noted that the overhead panels had individual reading lights and air nozzles.
While I would normally take photos out the window, I quickly located what I knew would be my favorite feature on board: the exterior cameras. Exterior cameras are rare on narrowbody aircraft, and Air Canada describes its feature as “first-in-class.”
Our flight boarded and pushed back on time, and the crew began playing the safety video. I am a big fan of Air Canada’s safety video, which showcases different parts of the beautiful country.
I continued to watch the tail camera as we taxied towards the runway. Typically, I would look out the window during takeoff, but I instead watched the unique view from the tail camera. The camera was a bit grainy – likely in part because it was dark outside – and would occasionally lag/pause for about a second, but the new feature still kept my eyes glued to the screen as we took off from Runway 25. After we were in the air, I switched the view to the belly camera and could see the lights of the Ottawa suburbs below.
Modern Entertainment and Connectivity Offerings
Air Canada’s newest entertainment system is a major improvement from what is found on the older cabins. While the 2000s-era system often lags, offers limited options and requires passengers to press down on the screens to activate the touch, the new system has large responsive touch screens and offers a wide range of entertainment options. In addition to movies and television shows, there were also music and podcast options as well as some games. A nice touch was a nifty feature that allowed passengers to have the moving map or exterior camera view as a picture-in-picture while they used the rest of the entertainment system.
The system also has an interactive moving map and information on connecting flights. I also enjoyed exploring the interactive Air Canada route map, which would even show the flight schedule for select routes.
The carrier has also introduced live television and Bluetooth connectivity, which allows passengers to connect their own headphones to the seatback entertainment system. There was also an AFP news app and a weather app which had five-day forecasts for various Air Canada destinations.
Air Canada’s standard WiFi offering consists of free messaging for members of its loyalty program, Aeroplan, and paid WiFi packages for general internet use. However, the newly retrofitted Airbus narrowbodies will have free WiFi for all passengers, and this was the case on my flight.
While I had no issues using the WiFi, I was unable to get the Speedtest app to work. It kept providing an error message right as the test was ending. However, I was able to test the download speed using the browser version, as shown below. When the app was running its tests, I saw upload speeds of up to 19 Mbps.
Air Canada’s Impressive Onboard Service
The flight between Ottawa and Toronto typically has less than an hour of flying time in the air. Despite the short timeframe, Air Canada does a modified beverage and snack service. The crew quickly came through the Economy Class cabin to offer passengers their choice of water, tea, coffee or orange juice.
To expedite the service, Air Canada uses bottled water and juice boxes on these short hops. A snack is also offered – in today’s case, the snack was a pack of two Lotus Biscoff cookies.
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that a full hot meal tray is served in Business Class on this route. I have flown up front on this route before and can confirm that passengers have to eat quickly due to the short flight time.
Early Morning Arrival at Toronto Pearson
We soon began our descent. Toronto Pearson International Airport has a curfew between 12:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. and the flight deck made an announcement saying that we would have to enter a holding pattern for ten minutes because our flight was early.
As we approached the airport, I once again watched the tail and belly camera views on my seatback screen. Our flight touched down at 6:33 a.m. on Runway 24L.
As we were taxiing towards the gate, I switched on my phone’s mobile network connectivity and received a text message from Air Canada welcoming me to Toronto. The message gave me the gate number for my next flight and reminded me that I would have to clear security and customs with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pre-clearance. Our aircraft pulled into at Gate D34 for an on-time arrival around seven minutes after landing.
I would like to commend the crew for this flight, both on the ground and on board. They were very friendly and accommodating as I took photos and they seemed to share my excitement about the new cabin. I had a brief chat with some of the flight attendants and learned that it was also their first time operating the newly retrofitted aircraft.
Having flown on Air Canada’s Airbus narrowbodies for years, I have seen the interiors age over the last decade. I was therefore very pleased to see that Air Canada invested in retrofitting these aging aircraft.
The new cabins are sleek and contemporary, with large overhead bins and modern inflight entertainment offerings. It is also great to see that Air Canada is introducing new features such as Bluetooth connectivity and free WiFi.
A consistent onboard offering improves the passenger experience across different flights, and I am glad to see that Air Canada is bringing their A320 and A321 onboard product in line with what is offered on the airline’s newer narrowbodies.
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