Cathay vs. Air Canada, three years on.

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The news this week that CIBC is losing Aeroplan to TD got me thinking about Air Canada again.

Up until late 2010 I flew exclusively with Air Canada and its Star Alliance partners. I wouldn’t say I travel often but when I do I like to travel a ways — and Air Canada took me pretty much everywhere, from as close as Ottawa to as far away as Hong Kong.

But in November of that year I took a chance and booked passage to Malaysia on Cathay Pacific, and I’ve never looked back. Here are a few reasons why…

Service

As a traveller “of status” on Air Canada, the only time I was ever greeted by name was in Auckland aboard an Air New Zealand flight. My interactions with Air Canada employees in general have ranged from slightly above average to pretty bad.

On my first Cathay flight as a Marco Polo Club member my experience couldn’t have been more different. Even though my girlfriend and I were flying Economy the flight crew manager came by to check up on us several times during the flight, and other members of the staff made sure we were pampered with toiletries and our choice of breakfast when supplies were running low.

Seats

On my first-ever Cathay flight I experienced their infamous shell seats, which I actually found quite comfortable. Those seats are long gone, but the next time I fly Cathay I’ll be sitting in their new Premium Economy section.

Air Canada now also has Premium Economy service to Hong Kong, but only from Vancouver. Cathay’s First Class service is likewise only available from YVR but let’s face it, it’s not like I’m not going to be riding up at the very front anytime soon…

Lounges

I’ve never been a huge fan of Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounges. It beats sitting in the terminal, sure, but it’s hardly a refuge — I’ll always remember it being full of bratty kids and entitled business-types who all think they’re Donald Trump. I almost got into fisticuffs with someone in the Toronto lounge simply because I objected to him spitting apple into my face while he very loudly checked in with home office on his BlackBerry.

If you’re flying on Cathay during the day from YYZ you can now use the much quieter Plaza Premium Lounge, and enjoy hot food instead of bitter greens and tepid soup. If you’re flying out after midnight you’re stuck with the rather unremarkable KLM Krown Lounge.

But man, do things ever improve once you’re in Hong Kong… I’ve not been able to sample Cathay’s The Arrival as I can only get a single entry pass to it, but Plaza Premium has an arrivals lounge of their own that’s bigger and directly across the hall.

And for departure lounges the girlfriend and I could not believe our eyes when we entered Cathay’s flagship The Wing — spanning two floors it’s literally four lounges in one. With made-to-order noodles and coffee on the second level we could have happily stayed there all day.

Stopovers

There’s no denying the convenience of flying from an airline’s hub. Now that we’ve pledged my allegiance to Cathay and its oneworld partners we’ve had to connect to overseas flights in Chicago more than once.

Hi, TSA!

As airports go Chicago O’Hare  is undeniably my least favourite in the Americas — but hey, at least it’s not Frankfurt. If ORD is ghetto then FRA is a gulag, and unfortunately it’s also Air Canada’s European hub.

Partners

In my Aeroplan years I got to fly on a lot of Air Canada’s Star Alliance partners. Of the lot I think I liked Air New Zealand the best. I’d put Lufthansa around the middle of the pack and Air Canada somewhere below that, on par with United.

Among Cathay’s oneworld alliance I’d rank Japan Airlines near the very top, British Airways above average and American Airlines at the bottom, just above the even-worse American Eagle.

It has to be said, though, that I’ve so far logged many more miles on Star Alliance airlines than oneworld ones. Plans are afoot to sample Qantas some time in 2014…

Points

I’ll admit that it took me a while to wrap my head around Asia Miles versus the Marco Polo Club; it eventually sunk in that Asia Miles is for points accumulation and Marco Polo is for status.

Since I stopped flying Air Canada they’ve introduced their status program, called Altitude. And now Aeroplan seems to be introducing a separate status program called Distinction. It’s all very confusing.

There is, however, one clear “distinction” between the two programs: Asia Miles is owned and operated by Cathay, whereas Aeroplan has been outsourced to a global loyalty management and marketing company called Aimia. If I was beholden to Aeroplan I’d be a bit uneasy about that.

Once the dust settles in 2014 I might revisit Aeroplan and Air Canada but honestly, with the service and perks I’ve received from Cathay it’s unlikely that I’ll be going back.

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