Air Canada Tries to Win on Density

Air Canada

Air Canada is waking up, and it wants you onboard… if you’re an American. The airline had been making a concerted effort to ramp up traffic flying from the US through Canada to another country before the pandemic, then efforts obviously fell off. Now it’s back in the game, and it thinks it has a real winning strategy thanks to a higher level of density on its airplanes.

Brian Sumers of The Airline Observer (subscription required) spoke with Mark Galardo, EVP of Network and Revenue Planning for Air Canada. Mark noted that premium demand in Canada is lower than in the US. That might sound like a handicap, but it actually creates opportunity. As he explained it to Brian:

Our seat density is pretty dense, and our total reliance on premium sometimes is single digits. We can make money on volume.

In other words, the cost per seat on the airplane is lower for Air Canada when it has a lot more seats to absorb the operating cost of the airplane. That means it can charge lower fares than those airlines with less density, fill its planes, and still win the day. At least, that’s how it should work, if the math is right.

Just how dense is Air Canada? I decided to dig in and do a comparison.

Let’s start by looking at the 777-300ER for Air Canada vs American and United. (Sadly, Delta doesn’t operate the airplane, so it can’t be included in a true apples to apples look here.) Air Canada has two different versions of the 777-300ER, but even the less dense version blows away the others in terms of seating capacity.

That is not a typo on American. The most dense Air Canada 777 has nearly 50 percent more seats than American’s does. It’s insane. But as you can see, those 8 First Class seats take up a lot of real estate on American. And further, it looks like the various galley configurations aren’t doing the airline any favors either.

But we’re talking about Air Canada, not American. Air Canada has nearly perfected the ability to shoehorn seats into this airplane. Of course, it’s a very big airplane, and there aren’t a lot of markets that can support that many seats. But there are markets out there.

In the winter, Air Canada sends these 450-seaters on trunk routes like Montréal to Paris or Vancouver to Hong Kong where the visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic is strong. The best VFR markets rarely lack for volume, but they tend to be pretty price-sensitive. These markets are tailor-made for a big airplane with cheaper fares.

Air Canada also does Montréal and Toronto to Cancún. That may seem like a terrible use of a widebody, but if you can really pack in that many seats and fill them, it starts to actually make some sense as a winter option for aircraft utilization. US carriers have done everything to pull their widebodies off those short leisure routes, but that’s the right move when you have such a premium-heavy configuration. Air Canada does not have that problem.

In the summer, it’s a different story. You can probably guess the big, low-yielding tourist routes that might be able to support these airplanes. Montréal and Toronto to Rome get the big boy in late spring but then later in summer it goes to Athens. Montréal to Paris gets it year-round, unsurprisingly, but Toronto to Paris also sees it in summer. And Montréal to Brussels also has some summer flights.

Compare this to the places where American sends its 777-300ERs. It gets the big, premium-heavy markets like London and LA – Sydney along with Miami – São Paulo. Those may be larger markets, but without that big premium traffic demand, they don’t work on that airplane.

But let’s forget about the big guy and move to the 787-9 which is the perfect airplane for longer, thinner routes in general.

The tables are turned here with American being more dense than United, but both pale in comparison to Air Canada. With 298 seats, Air Canada has 4.5 percent more seats than American and 16 percent more than United.

Some of this advantage comes from not having much of an extra legroom section — Air Canada just sells the exit rows/bulkheads — and really that explains the difference between it and American. But United really packs in the premium cabin and that puts it at a real disadvantage if it’s flying those airplanes in markets with limited premium demand.

This is the kind of airplane that doesn’t require enormous levels of demand to work, unlike the 777-300ER. It’s the airplane that Air Canada uses, for example, on its seasonal, sub-daily Vancouver – Bangkok flight which is definitely not a premium-heavy market.

I know Delta hasn’t been included here, but Air Canada and Delta do both fly the A330-300. Delta has 282 onboard with 34 up front. Air Canada’s three-cabin A330s have 10 to 15 more seats, so the trend holds.

This is Air Canada’s secret weapon. It probably still has more premium cabin seats than it needs, so it can sell those at a discount to Americans. (Its fares aren’t lower since it’s in joint ventures with United — at least across the Atlantic — but it tends to have better availability in cheaper fare classes.) And then in coach, it can fill up on cheaper fares for Americans looking for an easy connection.

That’s another key point of this strategy. Air Canada’s penetration into the US is unrivaled by a foreign carrier. In 2023, Air Canada has service to 51 different US airports. It just filed service to a 52nd this past weekend with Toronto – Charleston (SC) coming online. These aren’t all served year-round, but when they are operating, they can provide connections just as good or better than anything US carriers can offer. And with US customs and immigration pre-clearance, that makes a connection in Canada about the same experience as connecting through a US airport.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

37 comments on “Air Canada Tries to Win on Density

  1. Don’t forget that Mexico is popular for Canadian snowbirds. Not dissimilar for Americans to Florida or Arizona.

  2. Then maybe they should consider syncing their policies to those of UA. Arrived at the YYZ lounge this summer after returning from FCO to be informed that their guest policies weren’t the same as those for United, and was told I couldn’t enter the lounge until three hours before my connecting U.S. leg. So I got to hang out in the terminal and listen to their gate agents announce repeated delays with “Sorry – you’re flying Toronto Pearson during the summer – which doesn’t work.”

    The whole experience left me believing that if anyone wants to invade Canada, their guard is definitely down.

  3. A word of caution to our American friends from a frequent Air Canada customer—DON’T DO IT! AC is beyond unbelievably bad. Stick with a US airline, or better still, fly with one of the extremely well run foreign Carriers.

    1. Nonsense. No matter your opinion of Air Canada, it rightly measures as a superior airline to its US competitors, though somewhat on-par with Delta.

      1. Hardly superior…I’m from the US and I had bad experiences with Air Canada. I agree with Joel that AC is a terrible carrier. I took a flight from Toronto to Paris and the flight attendants had a crappy attitude. AC Jazz on the other hand I had good experiences. But mainline AC is horrible.

      2. I had an experience with AC this summer that made me want to leave the airline industry altogether for what I realized I was doing to others without knowing. Like when you open the wrong door at work and discover you’re poisoning puppies in the name of research. Like that.

    2. Agreed. Compare their awful rebooking and refund policies during covid to any US-based and most other foreign airlines.

      1. I got screwed over by AC during the pandemic, when they turned a convenient one-stop itinerary into a three-stop itinerary, with leg 3 leaving before leg 2 arrived. AC refused multiple times to refund me until I filed a formal complaint with USDOT. It left a really bad taste in my mouth, and I wouldn’t book AC again unless they were the only affordable option.

      2. My parents flew AC years ago & it was a total S**** show over a refund & it took a call to the second in command at CO who my father met twice to get it resolved.

    3. I’m really torn. It took me *3 days* to get to Whitehorse once (even made the CBC article!) – AC with me is a love/hate relationship. The fact even the CRJs have seatback TVs blows my mind, and getting a plated SNACK, with pre departure beverage in GLASS on a super duper short YVR-SEA flight… getting an upgrade to J on YVR -> Hawai’i when they were flying 788s and 789s there versus 737s on everyone else…

      ErrorPlan is still a crappy frequent flyer program. The moves to automate everything in YVR means less human interaction/touch annoys me.

      And, back to the plus side for AC: Tampa reservations center. They still employ 100+ US/Canadians in the states, where a few airlines (cough) force us to foreign call centers.

  4. FWIW, Taylor Rains of Business Insider rated Air Canada’s long haul economy towards the bottom of nine airlines flown in recent months.

    Those airlines were foreign and domestic and included: ANA, Korean, Singapore, Level, Norse, Aerolineas Argentinas, American, Delta and United.

    Ms. Rains (who’s 5’ 3”) said while the economy cabin on Air Canada’s Boeing 787-9 was “perfectly comfortable”, “the food was basically inedible” and she prefers “United, Delta and even Norse over it [Air Canada].”

    Needless to say, ANA, Singapore and Korean (in that order) topped Rains’s list overall for comfort, food, service and other amenities in economy class ahead of the other six, while Level and Aerolineas Argentinas lagged behind the US Big 3 and Norse.

    Rains’s report was published Oct 1st in Business Insider.

  5. While I Iove the A220 SFO-YUL, long haul AC is not great. Minimal food options, buy on board only, and it seems like they nickel and dime every single thing. There is also no food on this route, IIRC, not even buy on board. (Or maybe I just didn’t want it).

    We flew PE from FCO-YUL, and while the seats were fine, there was only 1 meal and a super simple snack before landing. There was NOTHING during the flight, not even to purchase. When I was hungry 7 hours in, no options.

    While I am price sensitive and SFO-Europe can make sense laying over in Canada, it’s going to be on the bottom of my list. Its not always about what’s cheapest.

    AirFrance/KLM are good options, as are United/Lufthansa

  6. I will not fly Air Canada as a result of their unethical and illegal conduct during COVID-19 when they sold tickets on flights from the U.S. that they were not actually flying and then refused to issue refunds in violation of DOT requirements. They held over $2k of my money hostage and had a law firm write a ridiculous response to my DOT complaint, before ultimately paying a $4.5M fine and issuing refunds. They knew what they were doing and knew it was wrong. Shameful.

    1. Agree on the concerns about AC’s anti-consumer behavior. I don’t know that I’ve ever flown AC, but the way it treated consumers during COVID was simply the icing on the cake for me.

      A few years before COVID, I was eating in a restaurant when I overheard two AC managers in the booth behind me. The Air Canada managers were loudly discussing their plans for very, VERY unethical (possibly illegal; I forget the exact details and am not a lawyer) ways to get around their unions and to directly violate the terms of union contracts.

      I’m not at all pro-union (I often lean towards management), but… When a company’s managers are that brazen (or that STUPID) about having discussions like that in public, there’s no telling what else the company is cutting corners on, and there’s a good chance that the company will treat its customers and other stakeholders the same way. Not a company I trust or want to do business with unless I have no other choice.

  7. Besides the Covid issue, I didn’t realize Air Canada had this many issues. Good to know for future travel !

    1. CTA, the Canadian version of DOT, did not have the same consumer protection guidelines when it comes to a cancelled flight. It was only optional for the airline to issue refunds to form of payment upon request. DOT mandates it.

      While many folks had issues with Air Canada, a lot of us travel agents “forced” refunds for our travelers and at least got our travelers the money. AC did chase us with debit memos, but it was followed with DOT regs and never heard back.

  8. TIL you can cram 450 seats onto a 777 even with business and premium economy classes.

    Pitch wasn’t mentioned, is that another way they are getting more seats on the plane or is seat pitch consistent with the US carriers?

    1. They’re 10-across in E, so 17″ seat width. Standard 31″ pitch so that’s…okay, at least. Galley placement seems to be one advantage, having very few premium seats is the other. We’re not quite talking ZIPAIR levels of not having premium seats (ZIPAIR has 18 lie-flat seats on a 787-8 and 3-3-3 in the back) but having nearly ten E seats for every seat of any other type, combined, on the -300ER makes a difference.

  9. Waiting here for a certain someone to come in and say why Delta’s Long Haul strategy is far superior…

    1. So true, even though the article barely, tangentially, mentions Delta. And the word count will be epic, as usual.

  10. Given that I am an American, who will not likely be able to fly overseas in business or first class anytime soon, why on earth would I want to fly on AC and be packed in like more of a sardine?!?! They may see this as a winning strategy for their bottom line, but for me as a traveler, it is an absolute losing strategy for a very long flight!

    1. There are more economy seats because there are fewer premium seats, but I don’t think AC’s economy seats are any more or less comfortable than regular economy seats on the US carriers.

      There are other reasons to be nervous about AC, especially their refusal to issue refunds even when they cancel a flight, as others have mentioned above. But I don’t think the number of economy seats is one of them.

      1. Ian L. mentions that their economy seats are 17″ wide. I would be curious to know the width of the widebody economy seats (particularly on the 777s & 787s Cranky diagrams) for American, United, and Delta.

        My personal comfort is a combination of things, including seat pitch and width. While I am not an overly tall human, at 6′-0″, my shoulders are wide. I had the very uncomfortable experience several years back of being stuck in the very back row of a WN 737-700 from MDW-PDX, and the extra large person in the seat next to me, who took up both of our shoulder areas, made it an awful flying experience. Seat pitch wasn’t, and never has been on WN, an issue on this particular flight.

        So, I would be looking at both of these factors when booking a long-haul, international flight. Unfortunately, there are no real ratings on the seats and/or comfort factor that airlines put into planes, particularly in economy, as that would be useful in my assessment. While I agree that the number of seats may not be a determining factor for most, it will come into play for me. I will also assess schedule, particularly departure times, number of layovers, and layover time.

        If someone wants to book (on Kayak or any other site) strictly based on price, good on them. I am not that traveler. I would not likely book on AC based on Cranky’s assessment, and also based on a lot of the other issues that other writers have brought up. They also don’t offer enough connecting options out of PDX…. perhaps they do out of other US airports

        1. 10-abreast 777s have 17″ wide seats, and unfortunately UA and AA have retrofitted their 777s to 10-abreast at this point. Same seat width as non-MAX 737s.

          Generally speaking, A320/330/350/380s have 18″ wide seats, though some airlines (looking at you, LH) run 17″ instead? 767s are 17.7-18.1″ depending on airline/config (I’ve flown both the low and high end of that on DL, as the post-retrofit seats are wider). I can absolutely feel the extra inch (5′ 11″ and change, kinda broad shoulders). IIRC 737 MAXes have 17.7″ seat width, at least on some configs (e.g. Southwest IIRC).

          SeatGuru is pretty good for these stats.

          I want to say the 787 isn’t horrible at 17.3″, but lower cabin altitude probably helps, and I don’t think I’ve been on a full 787 yet, out of the 3x I’ve flown on one (AUS-LHR, on both BA and VS).

    2. > why on earth would I want to fly on AC

      Price? How many economy flyers do you think are going to search Kayak’s search results by number of seats on the plane?

  11. Is it difference between Canadian carriers and US carriers is that leisure travel is a matchmaker percentage of Canadians travel just by the nature of the country.

    The population of the country is less than that of California. But they have tons of demand to get them out of the cold and somewhere warm. For those flights, the more seats you can cram in at a cheap price, the better.

    Basically just take of a giant Spirit airplane.

    But do you really want to travel somewhere where the airline sells 450 seats? It would take forever to get checked in… Forever to get your bag… And imagine one of these international destinations with customs being overwhelmed by 450 people at once.


  12. Cranky nailed it.
    Air Canada is a high volume airline that uses its great access to the US domestic market to pump tons of US traffic to Europe and Asia via AC’s gateways.

    Not mentioned is that their on-time is well below the worst US airlines which makes connecting their risky. Their flagrant disregard for consumer protection should be concerning but budget conscience travelers don’t know that kind of information.

    And Air Canada’s role changes with Air France/KLM’s win in pulling SAS away from Star and into Skyteam. As I noted in the comments yesterday, smart companies adapt to the circumstances and AF/KL is moving quickly to provide a backup plan in case the Netherlands continues its plans to reduce AMS capacity.
    CPH would welcome more longhaul international traffic.

    1. Investing in bankrupt airlines doesn’t seem like it has a great track record. Etihad has a trail of carnage behind it with all its failed investments in small and middling European airlines: Air Berlin, Alitalia, Air Serbia (plus a bunch of failed investments in non-European airlines). And Delta had to take huge write downs on its investments in Aeromexico, LATAM, and Virgin Atlantic.

    2. SAS would not be a star in Skyteam’s cap. Their onboard service more resembles a ULCC than a legacy airline. Their value proposition is their monopoly on many Scandinavian routes and destinations.

  13. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t connecting through Canada between the US and a third country involve having to clear Canadian customs because they don’t do sterile transit? US citizens wouldn’t need a visa, but there’s still the risk of missing the flight due to a long customs line, right?

    I do know that some airports, like YYZ, let you bypass Canadian customs and go straight to US Preclearance if you’re connecting third county-Canada-USA.

    1. Canada can do sterile transit, though it’s somewhat limited and they’re not well set up for it. I transited from a USA flight to a Europe flight once in Calgary. I still had to talk to an immigration officer, but I technically didn’t enter Canada. Hey eventually put me on a random elevator, and then I was in international departures. Definitely not at all like Germany or Singapore.

    2. AC connections in YYZ at Terminal 1 are sterile and pretty easy-peasy. Many other (non-Star) airlines use Terminal 3 at YYZ which does not have sterile connections. YUL also offer sterile airside connections, and I believe YVR also although I haven’t connected internationally there.

  14. So is a lot of the difference that Canada has two bottomless-pit tourist demand seasons (summer to Europe and winter to warm places), whereas the US winter tourist demand is much less (as a fraction of population and overall travel demand) so there’s really only one season in which US airlines could fill widebodies with economy passengers? Also Canada’s population is much more concentrated in fewer cities (really only four hubs in the country, with a clear largest [YYZ], two second-tier [YUL, YVR], and a third-tier [YYC, which AC has largely ceded to WS]), which probably makes it easier to consolidate lots of traffic onto widebodies, compared to the dozen-plus large hubs in the US?

    As you say, US Customs pre-clearance meaning Europe/Asia – Canada – US traffic doesn’t have to clear Canadian customs helps, although at least in YYC connecting US – Canada – Europe/Asia traffic now must clear Canadian customs since YYC started using the former sterile international departures area for both domestic and international departures, so there’s no sterile international-to-international transit.

  15. Transiting Canada on travel between USA and other international destinations sounds good on paper but it’s not nearly as seamless as it sounds. Sterile transit isn’t always present and apparently isn’t offered at YVR unless your airline pays extra for it. And if there is ever any IRROPs, you really want to make sure that you have the necessary visa or rights to enter Canada when needed. I have ended up needing to enter Canada on what was supposed to be sterile connections. And Canadian entry policies can differ from U.S. ones, and there were many such instances during Covid, and there are still various Canadian policies that may exclude people who have ever been arrested (not convicted). And Canada now has their own electronic travel authorization process, so you may have to clear the policies of both countries. This may not be as much of a factor for U.S. citizens, but definitely is for non-permanent residents, and until recently was an issue for permanent residents – and you are still at the mercy of how the staff at a foreign airport, who may be contract staff or a connecting partner, interpret the rules.
    Also, AC has unfriendly seating policies for *A elites. Even if you are a top tier *A elite, unless you pay extra you cannot get advance seat assignments or extra legroom seats, and you have no upgrade eligibility.
    It’s probably OK if everything goes smoothly. But when anything goes wrong, AC doesn’t have great customer service and the extra border may bite you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier