AC 103 & AC 8833 Flight Report
(Toronto - Vancouver - Yellowknife)

Free Trip to the Arctic

In the hunt for aurora borealis, I have tried Iceland, which failed, and considered Finland, which was too expensive. Until now, I have overlooked that Canada is a great place to see this natural phenomenon, with Yellowknife boasting they see it 240 days a year.

Yellowknife is almost half way from the east coast to Asia already, so when it costs only 25,000 Aeroplan miles to redeem this domestic flight, I jumped at the opportunity.

Winter is a great time of year to see the aurora thanks to cold temperatures and clear skies. Less than a month before departure, I was still able to find availability on Aeroplan's user-friendly web engine for a long weekend trip. As there are no direct flights from Toronto, I had to either transfer in Calgary or Vancouver. The Vancouver flight was available with several hours layover in the city for a walk around town, so I grabbed that happily.

Unfortunately, despite the cheap redemption mileage, extra charges piled up to the tune of an additional CAD $180. This usually only happens on Air Canada redemptions so it was quite annoying. Nevertheless, paying this charge and using miles would still result in significant savings as a revenue ticket could easily cost over CAD $700. This is one of the few great value for points redemptions within the continent.

The domestic check-in kiosks in Terminal 1 were quite busy so early in the morning. It was just after 6:30am but I managed to get the machine to spit out my boarding pass quickly.

The departures boards worked differently from elsewhere in the airport with flights sorted by time, not by destination. This was where I found out my flight would be delayed by 30 minutes.

Annoyed that my sightseeing time in Vancouver just got shorter, I proceeded to security, which didn't have a very long line. Upon reaching my gate, the previous 7am flight to Vancouver had just closed. My friend who arrived earlier told me they were asking for volunteers from my delayed flight to move to the earlier departure. Had I been a few minutes quicker, I could have gotten on that Dreamliner flight, beat the delay and scored more time on the ground in Vancouver.

When they announce a delay, chances are the actual departure would be later than that. This materialized today. It didn't help that this high-density 777 was also full, so it was a mad scramble to find overhead compartment space for everyone.

It's going to be a tight squeeze for the long journey to the west coast today.

Flight deck explained this morning's delay was due to the late towing of the aircraft to the gate, as the same gate was also used for the 7am Vancouver flight. We eventually settled in and pushed back almost an hour late.

I was a bit surprised we didn't need to de-ice and went straight for the runway.

The skies over Toronto were not too good and I turned my attention to the IFE. As we flew over northern Ontario, the skies started to clear but there wasn't much snow cover on the ground.

I don't envy North American passengers. Even for a flight of almost 5 hours over the breakfast hour, all food is for purchase only. The only freebie would be basic drinks such as water, juice, or Coke. At least they came around later in the flight offering us more.

The scenery looked quite different when I flew the same route last summer. This time, I chose the other side's window for some variety. Luckily the winter sun was much further south and east of us so I wasn't against the light so much.

Snow cover over the Prairies seemed much worse than northern Ontario. This part of the country gets some gruelling winters.

Air Canada's in-flight entertainment system lacks international selections. It is better than nothing but merely a fraction of what Emirates can offer in the sky. On previous flights, I noticed some programming from Fairchild TV, Canada's Chinese channel. This time, I found a travel series with many short episodes to make this uneventful flight pass faster. At least they don't put a lot of ads before the show begins.

However, I liked the flight stats bar that could be easily retrieved by clicking the screen but it does not interrupt the programming.

I noticed a few of these city time displays with a distance indicator. New Delhi's population seemed awfully low. I quite like the system's display of both distance from origin and destination to give a perspective on how much more to go besides just a mere time indicator.

The bathroom was in good condition despite being a full flight. No lotion or moisturizer here though.

I was anticipating a busy time photo-taking over the Rockies, so I took some time before the mountains came to check out the in-seat literature.

My neighbour was eating this for breakfast. I suspected it wasn't made fresh on the day given our early departure. But since there is no raw fish in there, food poisoning risk can be reduced.

Connecting flights in Canada can be a confusing affair, especially for international-domestic and international-US flights. This chart in the magazine shows the various steps and bottlenecks involved.

With our late departure, the crew announced alternate connecting flights on the intercom, noting the rebooked flight numbers and departure times. Then there was a disclaimer that if there was no announcement for their connecting flight, either they can make it or talk to the ground crew on arrival.

Air Canada's 777s are industry-leading by being able to sardine cram some 400 passengers. Hence, I have been avoiding this aircraft in cattle class for any long-haul flights unless I could book one of the back seats where the row of 3 becomes a row of 2. For a cross-continent flight like today, it is somewhat survivable, but the narrow seat feels quite evident.

With Calgary past, I saw the mountains in the horizon.

This last hour of the flight was the most scenic and spectacular. The weather co-operated and the snow-capped mountains were stunning.

Clouds rolled in west of the Rockies. I guess Vancouver would have a typical grey winter day.

I wasn't able to spot the city at all and by the time the clouds got out of the way, we were over the ocean and turning to final approach.

Vancouver Afternoon

With a few hours to go before my next flight to Yellowknife, I headed to Granville Island for some water views and market browsing. There was no snow around here. They are having a typical balmy winter day.

All the cooked foods looked so appetizing. Since the Canadian north is remote and it is not easy to haul goods up there, I expected to eat simple meals at inflated prices in Yellowknife. In the end I packed something here for the next flight up and breakfast the next morning.

I had already received my second flight's boarding pass in Toronto earlier in the day. I returned to the airport shortly after 3pm to leave ample time for security check. The next sector would depart at 4pm.

Similar to Toronto, arrivals and departures share the same concourse here, so there was a steady stream of passengers in the building. I took the time to spot some more Air Canada planes during the long walk to the end of the concourse for my gate.

The boarding gate was already quite busy with lots of Japanese tourists. The agents announced the flight was likely oversold and requested volunteers to come forward for the next flight. This was out of the question for me as that would mean a day late in arriving, messing up my 3 nights of tours that have already been booked. There was also no mention of how much compensation would be offered.

As boarding for zones 1 and 2 was called, I noticed the stream of passengers going in got longer and longer. Many could not speak English and all the passports I spotted were foreign. Worried I would be denied boarding at the end since I was zone 3, I decided to turn into a gate lice and go for it. The agent didn't stop me and I ended up safely in my seat. Unfortunately, the row did not have a window, dashing my hopes for some sunset aerials over the mountains.

I was surprised the cabin looked new with even a few rows of Business Class in a 1-2 configuration up front. Economy was in a 2-2 configuration with TVs at every seat.

Despite being a full flight, the overhead compartments did not run out of space and I was surprised my standard hand-carry could fit, unlike the Embraer regional jets I took to the US. We settled quickly and pushed back slightly earlier than schedule.

The one bathroom at the back was spacious.

Complimentary drinks were served, typical of other domestic flights. Despite flying over the dinner hour, meals are not free in this part of the world.

Unfortunately, a spectacular red and purple sunset raged outside the plane but I could not capture it thanks to the windowless row.

Over 2 hours later, we landed on-time into a snowy Yellowknife. Before disembarking onto the tarmac, I scanned the cabin one last time, noting the decent legroom, comfortable seat, and IFE. It was only 7:30pm so I would have ample time to make the aurora tour that evening.

Then we came down the ramp into the cold Canadian north! But it was not cold tonight; -12C only!

It is only a short walk across the exposed tarmac into the terminal. Here, a huge group converged with passengers awaiting luggage and tour guides trying to gather up their troops. This was where I found my tour company's guide to start the aurora hunting!

Yellowknife is quite far from the populated southern half of the country. Due to lack of direct flights, using 25,000 Aeroplan miles to fly over 7 hours from Toronto was not a bad deal at all!

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