Air Canada back on top: named best North American airline by Skytrax

Air Canada is back on top of the podium.

The Montreal-based airline today was named best in North America by Skytrax, a prestigious British-based group that surveys airline passengers and says its reviews are entirely independent. The results were announced at the Paris Air Show.

It’s a great feather in the cap for Air Canada, which was named the best North American airline from 2010 to 2014, then watched Virgin America capture the crown the past two years. That means they’ve copped the award six times in the past eight years.

“We’re super happy, obviously, and very proud to represent Canada,” Ben Smith, president, passenger airlines, told me in an interview. “We’re very proud of our employees and very thankful to our customers.”

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Air Canada said nearly 20 million airline passengers from 105 countries were surveyed from August of 2016 to May of this year as part of Skytrax’s ratings, which look at 325 airlines around the world.

Asked what an award like this means to customers, Smith said he thinks frequent fliers, especially, understand what it says about Air Canada. “It may also bring awareness of our airline to other parts of the world and in the U.S. It validates the decision of a lot of top fliers and shows we have good value. Maybe it keeps them from looking at other options.”

The best North American carrier award “is a significant milestone in the transformation of Air Canada into one of the world’s leading carriers, and is all the more meaningful given the increased competition in our industry” Air Canada president and chief executive Calin Rovinescu said in a statement released by the airline.

“To receive this accolade six times, in the last eight years is a remarkable achievement and we congratulate the airline on this outstanding, consistent performance,” said Edward Plaisted, Chief Executive of Skytrax.

In case you were wondering, Skytrax named Qatar Airways as the world’s number one airline, followed by Singapore Airlines and ANA All Nippon Airways. Alas, I’ve never had the pleasure of flying any of those.

As for North America as a whole, here’s the top 10:

1. Air Canada
2. Delta
3. Alaska
4. JetBlue
5. Virgin America
6. Southwest
7. Porter
8. WestJet
9. Transat
10. American

For the world, Air Canada finished 29th, while WestJet was in the 58th spot and Air Transat in the 70th position.

For low-cost North American airlines, WestJet was fourth and Air Canada rouge fifth. For long-haul, low-cost airlines, Air Canada rouge was fifth in the world.

For regional world airlines, Porter was seventh. For regional North American airlines, Porter came second.

Finally, for leisure airlines Air Transat came in second in the world, behind only Thomson Airways. That makes Transat the top North American leisure flier for the sixth year in a row, officials said.

Sunwing came 7th in the world rankings for leisure airlines.

Air Canada has come a long way in a fairly short period of time, Smith said.

“Our roots were as a crown corporation, but then the market was deregulated. We’d been operating in a regulated era for decades and the bulk of our labour representation and work rules matched that era. Upstart carriers were able to take advantage. It was very tough for older carriers to adapt, and we saw great names such as Pan Am and Swiss Air disappear.”

The attacks on 9-11 were a huge blow to airlines around the world, of course. They also had to deal with the SARS issue in Toronto, the tech bubble burst and other economic woes.

“WestJet started with a clean sheet of paper 20 years ago,” he said, a strong contrast to what Air Canada was dealing with.

At the start of this decade, the Air Canada board said the now 80-year-old airline needed a new business model. That’s when Air Canada dedicated itself to attracting fliers from the U.S. who were headed to Europe or Asia and began a strong expansion campaign that has seen them add tons of flights to China, India and other destinations. They also brought in Air Canada rouge as a leisure carrier to help fight off West Jet, Transat, Sunwing and other competitors.

Air Canada will begin flying between Toronto and Mumbai on July 1, part of the airline’s major expansion program.

“Now we’re growing the airline by north of 10 per cent a year,” he said. “Our passenger levels are up 41% since 2009.”

Smith said labour peace – they have long-term contracts with pilots, flight attendants and mechanics – has helped a great deal. They also have boosted their business class and premium economy sections, added spiffy new Boeing 787 Dreamliners and, according to Smith, improved their food.

(I can’t say I’ve seen a big improvement in the food offerings, but I’m almost always in coach gulping down a chicken wrap and not up in business eating lamb with fresh vegetables.)

“This validates what we’re doing,” Smith said. “We’re not finished. There’s a lot more to do. But it’s very gratifying to see the initiatives of the last seven or eight years being recognized.”

While the Skytrax award is a great thing for Air Canada, an Angus Reid survey last week (which I wrote about) found that only 50% of Canadians feel Air Canada does a “good” or “excellent” job, while 17% of us gave AC a rating of “poor” or “terrible.” On the other hand, 77% of Canadians said WestJet does a good or excellent job, while only 4% gave them a poor or terrible rating.

“We take all surveys seriously,” Smith said. “It’s a great challenge for us.”

Smith said it could be that Air Canada is judged differently than other airlines.

“We’re a company that lived through the golden age of travel. Some people might look at us and say they flew Air Canada when everything was free, including alcohol. Others didn’t operate in that era” so could be judged differently.

“But it’s a good challenge for us. We have to stay on our toes and keep trying to meet and exceed customer expectations.”

“We’re always striving to do better, but you can see the growth we’ve had the past few years. People are choosing to fly with Air Canada.”

Air Canada has grown its capacity outside of Canada by 74% since 2009. A full 90% of their growth last year was in international markets as they added 28 new routes, including Delhi, Brisbane, Glasgow and Casablanca, their first African destination.

Already this year AC has begun new serves from Vancouver to Frankfurt, Nagoya Japan and London-Gatwick, as well as between Toronto and Berlin and Montreal and Marseille. Other new routes starting soon include Montreal-Tel Aviv (beginning Thursday of this week, June 22), Toronto-Mumbai (July 1) and Montreal-Algiers (July 1).

Smith said Asia remains a growth area for the airline and that he’d like to have Air Canada fly between Montreal and Beirut.

Air Canada hired 1,500 people last year and expects to add another 800 this year.

WestJet is making noises about expanding to Asia. They’re also launching a new, “ultra low-cost” carrier in Canada, perhaps later this year. That’s a lot of change for an airline that has traditionally relied on using the same planes to keep things simple and control costs.

“I guess imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” Smith said with a laugh. “But it’s complicating their model. They’ve had great profits but I’m not sure they can continue that.”

Air Canada a few weeks ago announced they were ending their relationship with Aeroplan and would start their own frequent flyer/rewards program in 2020. Smith said that work is already well under way.

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