AA4330 Flight Report : Toronto - Washington Reagan Roundtrip

Toronto - Washington

Flying out of Toronto for a short trip to the US can get quite expensive thanks to government taxes and lack of competition. This is where mileage redemption can offer good value for points. However, since Air Canada adds on carrier surcharges on top of an Aeroplan redemption, redeeming on them would not be economical even though they offered the most daily flights. American charges far less additional surcharges, but they levy an expensive handling fee for redemptions within 21 days of departure if I redeemed through AAdvantage. There wasn't much choice for the Washington DC area, so I had to fly American metal but using either BA Avios or Asia Miles.

American flies to Reagan twice a day. The early morning 6am departure was out of the question so I opted for the late afternoon flight instead. I ended up paying about USD $50 in additional charges.

Other than the expensive UPX high-speed train downtown, GO Transit offers various buses from outside downtown to the airport. They only stop at Terminal 1, where I changed to a train to reach Terminal 3.

There were lots of empty check-in kiosks this afternoon, and not long after, the boarding pass spat out and I was ready to head inside for pre-clearance. For those with checked bags, they need to stop twice - once to get the boarding pass and luggage tag, affix it, then a second time at the bag drop belt. Yet a decline in the customer experience and no longer a one stop shop at the counter to get it all done.

Many Canadian airports and a sprinkle of others outside North America participate in US preclearance, where passengers go through US entry formalities at departure it becomes a domestic flight on arrival. The preclearance facility at Terminal 3 had many counters, but most were empty. After about 15 minutes of waiting, I was finally processed and emerged airside at a partially-renovated zone.

The new floors looked quite nice but construction continues to radiate out to the further gates. However, the gate lounge areas are still quite small so it was hard to find a seat or a quieter zone to relax.

Improvements I've seen at Terminal 1 have also made it here, namely nicer desks and chairs with tablets.

My flight would be operated by a smaller jet so I wasn't surprised we would board at one of the downstairs tarmac gates. The lounge was slightly bigger but with multiple doors, it could get crowded here as well.

An announcement came that the inbound flight from DC experienced a technical issue so we would be delayed today. They gave an arrival time and reassured us the flight is on the way so I continued to read my guidebook and use the terminal wifi during the longer wait. I had arrived early at 3pm for my 5pm flight so the waiting time would become 3x the flight time.

As the revised departure time drew near, our flight was moved to another downstairs gate further down the pier. After going through a lot of corridors turning here and there, not understanding why the airport designers couldn't design a straight wide corridor to make gates easier to find, I finally found the new departure area, this time much more crowded with no seats left.

The flight's crew was already waiting at this gate to get on the plane.

We ended up boarding at around 6:30pm, over an hour late. Red valet tags were given to our hand carries which would not fit into the overhead compartment. We would roll them out to the boarding area on the tarmac where the workers would then load them into the cargo hold.

I don't believe I have flown this aircraft type before. The plane has a 1-2 seating configuration with very decent legroom. The seats were on a slight platform raised from the aisle. Loading was pitiful - not even 25% full on the already small plane. For 2 friendly countries and between 2 large cities, I was surprised how even such a small plane would not get a more respectful loading. DC is quite a long 8.5 hour drive from Toronto, yet all the airlines use small Embraer jets. Is there so little passenger traffic between the two?

An announcement came that there was a lot of congestion at the airport and the runway we would depart from was also taking in arrivals. Meanwhile, the lone flight attendant did the safety checks and announced a few times to turn off our larger electronic devices for take-off. We ended up lifting off almost 2 hours behind schedule.

Today's flight is coded as American Airlines, although the plane says American Eagle, and operated by Trans States.

The flight attendant came to each row asking us for drinks, returning to the galley, and then back with the drinks. Perhaps it is because of the low loading that she could offer this more personalized service. The big bag of pretzels was quite nice. She would repeat a few times on the PA to stay seated as the captain had not switched off the fasten seatbelt light for most of the journey. We did encounter a few bumps here and there as it was cloudy over Toronto.

Soon, we were descending into Washington DC over clear skies. It would also be much warmer tonight down here.

I had hoped we would land from the north, where I could get a nice view of the city from the left window. Instead, we looped around and landed from the south instead, so no skyline shots tonight.

Upon landing, we taxied to the far end of the tarmac where a bus was waiting for our arrival.

Since our valet bags would be unloaded from the cargo hold to be brought out to the tarmac, I rested comfortably in my seat instead of standing outside.

With no checked bags, immigration, or customs processing, I leisurely walked out to the street where my hotel shuttle was only a few minutes away.

DC Highlights (click here for the full gallery)

Washington - Toronto

Reagan airport is just a short 15-minute subway ride from the heart of DC. I like it being a small facility with hopes that the security process would be seemless. American uses Terminal C, which is at the end of a long building. First impressions were good. Inside was airy and bright.

The automated kiosks were pretty much all filled up but there were a couple that went out of service after running out of paper. It didn't take long for me to print out the boarding pass and head downstairs to the security check.

Downstairs and before security, I noticed a long set of windows with great views for plane spotting. Most of the planes parked here were American although there was 1 specially painted that caught my attention.

With about 15 minutes left before boarding, I noticed a crowd snaking around the security check, so I rushed over to get in line. This was odd because the rest of the terminal was not busy at all, but I soon found out why. There were only 2 security check lines for regular folks, and the slow processing meant people were backed up. After about 15-20 minutes, I successfully reached the crowded airside part of the terminal. So even for this small airport, arrive 90 minutes before your flight to avoid unexpected surprises. By the time it was my turn to take off my belt and shoes, the line had extended beyond the queueing area.

This pier for American wasn't too big but there were people everywhere. They did a good job putting up a few nicer restaurants at the end of the pier and not just crap fast food, but there was barely any place to sit and rest.

On such a nice day, the Washington Monument is easily visible from the terminal.

My gate would be 35X today, which seemed odd because there was also a gate 35. The difference was mine was downstairs. I wished they could give proper numbers to different gates to reduce confusion. The downstairs area was also very crowded with 4 doors that could load passengers onto buses. Gate agents were assertive to control the lines and send other passengers back upstairs or onto the carpeted seating area as multiple flights were boarding one after another at this bus gate.

The lounge is shared with arrivals so an incoming arrival bus would unload passengers into this area. The arrivals walkway was roped off and they would then head up the escalator to baggage claim.

Boarding was called for my flight at door 1 slightly late and a steady stream of passengers snaked from the gate, with an agent asserting announcements so we would not bunch up around the escalator or the next door. After scanning my boarding pass, another agent handed me a red valet check ticket for my hand carry, which I was expecting as it would not fit into the small regional jet's overhead storage. We then crammed onto a bus and slowly made our way to the remote stand, where it took a long time to open the doors to let us out. Seems today's flight would be quite full, unlike the inbound.

After getting off the bus, we lined up the valet bags on the tarmac and made our way up the ramp that snaked around a few times before reaching the plane's door. No stairs today. Some passengers were oblivious to the reality that their luggage could not fit overhead so had to turn around and bring the bags back down, delaying our boarding.

We settled into our seats before departure time and sat, and sat, and sat. The announcement came that we had a mechanical issue that the technician needs to come take a look. Apparently, they need to duct tape something before we could depart, and that this fix would take 10-15 minutes. Well, it took longer than that for the mechanic to arrive. The lone flight attendant kept us in the loop during the wait and even came around for a water run. He was enthusiastic and a bit jolly, and repeated various safety announcements to make sure our larger electronic devices have been turned off. However, there was an automated announcement that celebrated smaller devices could be used throughout the flight.

The flight next door boarded, closed the doors, and pushed back before us. It was interesting to watch how the whole process unfolded on the tarmac, which I expected would be identical for our flight.

Our boarding area was at the northern area of the airport, which is closest to the National Mall. From this vantage point, I watched planes land, with the left window enjoying lovely views of the city on approach.

Apparently a sensor wasn't working so they had to duct tape it and go through a checklist after. We eventually closed the door and departed about half an hour late. The flight attendant made light of the situation with our "partially on-time departure" and that we would make up some of it en-route. He also came to explain the back part of the plane would be hot because of the engines so the aircon wouldn't help us too much. It didn't get too stuffy as I opened the ventilation valve above me. The warmer temperature didn't bother me at all. He even joked we should enjoy the warmth as it is always cold in Canada. He was quite good at making us smile when there was bad news.

There were a lot of planes waiting to take off and we patiently waited a few landing before we took off into the south.

I had read various reviews that the right window would be great on departure. This would have been spectacular if we took off towards the north as it would offer close-up aerial views of the National Mall. What actually happened today due to a different departure route was still scenic.

After the first 90-degree turn, I was looking north and could see Reagan airport and the DC skyline in the background.

After the second 90-degree turn, I was looking east and DC was still visible in the distance.

Today's flight would take about 1h15 at an altitude of 27000 feet.

The flight attendant had mentioned he flew through smooth skies earlier today, and for the most part, the weather was great and it was steady flying. The skies were clear for the entire trip and I got to spot rolling mountains followed by slightly snow-covered fields.

A second drinks run was made but there weren't bags of pretzels. Too bad. American's pretzel bags are quite big and delicious.

There were no entertainment options or skyshow on board this plane, so I kept looking out the window to enjoy the scenery. The camera got a good workout as we flew over Niagara Falls and I could see Lake Ontario's bend as we started descending towards Toronto.

After passing the Welland Canal, we turned east and headed out into Lake Ontario.

Then we turned north and entered the city's west end. The right window came in handy as we turned once again heading east across the city. The views over downtown were spectacular as the sun was beginning to set for our late arrival.

Now that's an incredible skyline view!

At the city's east end, we made a 180-degree turn for final approach and my view changed to suburban sprawl full of lowrise homes.

Buttonville Airport is used for leisure aviation purposes and you can even get flying lessons at a reasonable price.

I was worried the delay would impact photo-taking on arrival but we managed to come in just before sunset.

We landed half an hour behind schedule and the pilot really slammed on the brakes hard. We had a fast taxi to Terminal 3, where we actually parked at a gate this time. The flight attendant initially noted our valet bags would come out and asked us to wait in our seats to let the other passengers pass first, but he soon realized we had a gate and was quite surprised, remarking it had been years, or months, since he came to Toronto and he never had a gate here before.

I was surprised as well since these small jets would typically park on the tarmac and we would make a brief walk to the terminal. An announcement soon came that our valet bags would not be brought onto the bridge but sent out onto the carousel.

Before leaving, I snapped one last photo of the safety card for this small plane.

The worst part of the trip awaited me at Pearson. The long walk to immigration wasn't too problematic, as was the short wait for an automated immigration kiosk.

Confusion arose after, as we were sent into the international arrivals area, where it was packed with people using the same kiosks once again. Not sure why we would end up in the kiosk area again, we eventually fought our way through the crowd to line A, which is for those with arrival receipts from the kiosks already. Why the corridors led us to this big pit is a bad design issue.

Line A actually had a queue for manual immigration processing with immigration officers at counters. An agent was standing before these counters to check our receipts before waving us through. There was no communication with the counters and it seemed the counter staff were uninterested in us passing. I wonder if some manual processing folks could make a run for it at this point? We then moved through a sign-less corridor to reach the baggage area. This is confusing to read already, right? Imagine walking through it.

Terminal 3 is connected to Terminal 1 by train, which was tough to find since signage did not always highlight Terminal 1, but pier sections which tourists would have no idea what they mean anyway. After going up a few escalators, I finally found the train and was on my way for the short ride.

The arrival area at Terminal 1 wasn't too user-friendly either. From the train, head down the escalator to exit into the arrivals area. However, buses to the city leave 1 floor further down from arrivals. Strangely, the signs point to the buses as being on the "Ground Floor" even though the arrivals section was already on "street" level. There were no indications what level I was on at all. To visualize this, in the below photo, the level where the cars are parked is apparently not the "Ground Floor".

Go one more level down and you will see this :

Ease of movement and finding places is a basic necessity in airport design. Pearson failed it spectacularly. It might have been less painful had I been in Terminal 1 all the way through, but the movement from Terminal 3 over for my bus was simply disastrous. Terminal 3 is used by many foreign airlines, such as those outside the Star Alliance, so would be the entry point for many overseas visitors who would probably get lost more than once along the way.

On the bright side, I made my GO bus back to the city within about 35 minutes from stepping onto the terminal, even after all this hassle.

Service Summary

American surprised me with very pleasant flight attendants who took good care of us in light of the delays and did a lot verbally and visually for our safety. Sadly, the good flight experience was not repeated on the ground thanks to mismanagement and design issues at Pearson airport. While Washington DC figured out they needed an affordable metro connection into the city, Toronto tried to go high-end and average travelers still need to hop on a bus to finish their journey.