Why Savvy U.S. Fliers Take Air Canada

One of the best ways to go east to Europe or west to Asia now is to go north.

Air Canada, revived after years of turbulence and bankruptcy, has turned its hubs in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver into easy, fast connecting points for U.S. travelers. You clear U.S. Customs in Canada without even having to retrieve your checked luggage. Waits are minimal. Fares are sometimes cheaper. Planes are new and fitted with premium economy cabins—an option U.S. airlines are just beginning to roll out.

It’s the in-the-know alternative for travelers who want to avoid the slog of connecting in New York or Los Angeles, Paris or London, Chicago or Atlanta.

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“People are surprised when I say it’s a much better experience on Air Canada,” says Louise Clements, an advertising executive who splits time between New York and Toronto.

She lived in New York until last year and found it better to fly from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Toronto for overseas trips on Air Canada than U.S. airlines from Kennedy or Newark, N.J. Now living in Toronto, she flies Air Canada often to Minneapolis and sees more passengers connecting to international flights. Air Canada has put larger aircraft on the route.

Air Canada’s international connecting push has been a decade in the making. The airline has invested heavily in new planes, high-speed moving sidewalks, ultrafast baggage belts, bigger security checkpoints and international airport clubs with showers to poach travelers heading into or out of the U.S. Getting all its flights in the same terminal in all three of its hubs has made connections quicker and easier.

The carrier, a Star Alliance partner with United, has long offered connecting service abroad. But now it’s building its schedule, offering cities that U.S. airlines don’t, like Casablanca and Dubai, along with high-demand destinations like Shanghai, London, Seoul and Tel Aviv.

It is trying to capitalize on its own revival while U.S. airlines are mired in customer battles and reputations for lousy service. Air Canada, which flies to about 60 U.S. cities, thinks its strongest U.S. markets will be secondary cities that don’t have many direct overseas flights, itineraries such as Pittsburgh to Beijing or Tampa, Fla., to Copenhagen. Air Canada also provided an alternative when the U.S. ban on laptops in cabins on inbound flights from 10 airports, mostly Middle East, was in effect from March to July.

“They’ve made prices more attractive,” says Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations, a New York-based agency specializing in luxury travel. “When you have to make a connection anyway, it’s a smart way to go.”

Benjamin Smith, president of Air Canada’s passenger airline division, says the U.S. dollar’s strength—$1 is worth about 25% more than a Canadian dollar—has enabled the airline to price aggressively in the U.S. The airline’s focus has been primarily on luring business class and premium economy passengers with good deals.

Geography helps with keeping flight times competitive, since trips between the U.S. and both Europe and Asia pass over Canada. Air Canada can get you from Hartford, Conn., to Paris in nine hours, 25 minutes. That’s 50 minutes faster from Hartford to Paris than United, 65 minutes faster than American and more than 2½ hours faster than Delta.

Years back, Air Canada was torn with labor strife, a pension crisis, bankruptcy reorganization and a reputation for lousy service. Under Chief Executive Calin Rovinescu, who took over in 2009, the carrier has revived with $10 billion capital spending program launched in 2010, 10-year labor contracts and a low-cost unit for leisure destinations. This year, airline rating firm Skytrax gave Air Canada four stars out of five and named it the best in North America. It’s the only large international four-star airline in North America.

Ryan Hoult is chief executive of a Calgary software company and flies over 100,000 miles a year with Air Canada. He says the airline is ahead of the three big U.S. international carriers because it refreshed its fleet faster, largely with new Boeing 787s and 777s. Air Canada was first in North America with lie-flat business-class beds on all its long-haul aircraft, first with aisle access for all business-class seats on all aircraft so you don’t have to climb over a sleeping passenger to get to the bathroom, and first with true premium economy on all long-haul flights.

“I know what I’m getting when I fly them,” Mr. Hoult says of Air Canada. The product and service isn’t as fine as Singapore Airlines, he says. He likens it to Marriott hotels—good quality, but not Ritz Carlton.

Regular fliers can point to one drawback: the kind of winter weather Atlanta or L.A. don’t worry about.

Air Canada’s Mr. Smith contends the airline handles winter storms more expeditiously than congested U.S. airports. Recovery is easier, since Toronto and Montreal are smaller than New York and Boston.

The increased passenger flow into and out of the U.S. has enabled Air Canada to offer more cities. Ben Lipsey, director of Air Canada’s global connection product, points to flights to Hartford that probably wouldn’t exist without the international connections.

Air Canada launched 16 international and U.S. transborder routes in the second quarter and traffic increased 13.6% over the previous year. “If you offer the right price and the shortest elapsed time, you’re higher in the sort order” of online ticket-shopping, Mr. Lipsey says.

Some of the innovations can be confusing to travelers faced with unfamiliar procedures. Travelers entering the U.S. used to have to reclaim luggage before U.S. Customs clearance, and then go on to security screening. But Air Canada reversed the process. Your luggage gets screened while you get screened. That slashed 15 minutes off connecting times in Toronto, says Fady Riad, manager of baggage and hub connection performance.

After a security checkpoint, travelers wait in a holding room for their names to turn green on a display, indicating that their bags have been X-rayed and U.S. Customs is ready to process them. Unless officials order a physical search, the bags go straight to connecting flights.

Michael Foote, an American who lives in Copenhagen, travels back to relatives in Tampa frequently and has recently tried Air Canada twice. He finds the name-on-the-board system strange. “You have to scan your boarding card several times: to get into the room, to get out,” he says. Lettering is small on the boards, which tell you to look for your initials and then the first three letters of a last name are displayed.

“You have to be alert—it’s a little annoying after traveling so long,” says Mr. Foote, a bank executive. Still, after trying London, Frankfurt, Zurich, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Iceland, his family prefers Toronto.

Air Canada’s Mr. Lipsey says the system “needs some fine-tuning.”