It has been many years since I last took a flight on a Chinese airlines and it was always within the region on economy class. When I was searching for flights to New York recently, Air China had an irresistible business class offer, almost half the price of the next cheapest flight. A quick Google search revealed rather consistent feedback that Air China has really upped their game on business class and the only issue is a language barrier. Since I spoke fluent Mandarin, not an issue for me. So here we go on Air China business class.
The first leg of my flight was on an A350. The seats were in individual cabin seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, which of course is the gold standard in business class seat configuration. I didn’t feel the seats were any broader than the later flights with 2-2-2 configuration and these were definitely not Singapore Airlines flatbeds which really felt like beds. These are still broad canvas seats that lie flat. They also feel rather short compared even to the subsequent legs on this trip so it must be that in the 1-2-1 configuration Air China compensated the extra breadth with reduced length. I felt rather claustrophobic on this flight and definitely keenly felt the need to stretch at the end of the 6 hour flight in a way I did not even after the subsequent 13 hour flight. The seats also felt slightly dusty and the armrest has a generous sprinkling of what looked like dandruff. For the first time in my life I used the hot towel that the airline gave to wipe the armrest. I’m not proud of it, but in the moment of grossness I didn’t think. I have definitely seen other passengers use these towels in ways they were not intended without qualms so my general advice to everyone is not to let these towels touch your face anyway.
The one part that was oddest about this flight is the seatbelt. This is the first time I have encountered a car seatbelt-like seatbelt on a plane, with a strap that goes across one shoulder. This made sleeping on the flight rather uncomfortable and I prefer to keep my seatbelt on when sleeping. For the usual seatbelt around the waist, they never bothered me, but these really were uncomfortable. So I’m not sure what was the rationale for making the seatbelt this way but if it is for added safety, ironically it may make passengers less inclined to keep it on and therefore reduces safety.
My subsequent legs on the departure as well as on return were on Boeing 747-300. The seats themselves were similar but with slightly more leg room and in a 2-2-2 configuration. I would mention that when reserving seats on the airline website, the configuration shows up as 2-4, which I thought was extremely improbably but i didn’t want to take the risk of booking a seat that could be an aisle seat in the middle block (hence no need to worry about the neighbour going in and out) that may turn out to be the aisle seat with 3 persons constantly waking me up to go to the toilet. It turned out to be a 2-2-2 configuration of course, but I only managed to change my seat for the final leg of my flight.
The pillow you see on the side of the above picture is the pillow provided on flight. It’s not particularly large or fluffy but actually I don’t really need a pillow so I am perfectly fine with one that doesn’t get in the way. However, one of the leather headrest (on the Newark to PEK leg)really stinks and I had to spray it with my sanitizer spray and put the pillow on top to negate the smell.
The quilt provided is extremely thick and soft. It is really a quilt not just a blanket. I think many will enjoy this but I don’t, it’s too heavy for me and I kept struggling between being too cold if I didn’t use the quilt (not to mention it taking too much space on the side) and being too warm to the point of waking in perspiration.
The food was ok but nothing to write home about. I read that the Asian options are usually better than western options so I picked only Asian options. The main meals start with a salad and an appetiser, which tends to contain some raw / exotic-ish food (such as raw tuna, smoked salmon and foie gras) that as a rule I do not eat on flights in case they were not fresh. I figured this is an attempt to appeal to international passengers and maybe even Chinese passengers by serving these “high end” food but frankly I think they will impress more if they served local cuisine like dumplings the same way Singapore airlines serve satay. Some bread is also served with the appetiser but these are cold and the options are limited and uninteresting, mostly comprising the usual butter rolls in whole meal and plain option and a garlic bread that is cold and dry.
The main course is of a similar standard to Singapore airlines / Cathay’s economy class food but presented in slightly nicer bowls and plates. It definitely does not have the finesse of the food served on Singapore airlines. For example, a chicken stir fry dish I ordered was chunks of chicken in an extremely starchy sauce that has coagulated. The taste was decent with rice, but certainly not something you would describe as refined. You are pre-order your food on the website but there is only the option to cater to special dietary needs e.g. diabetic, halal etc, and not to order the specific dish like Singapore Airlines allows.
After the main course, some fruit will be served along with a choice of dessert which is ice cream or “cake”. My “cake” was a mango cream filled mini eclair that was too sweet for me but most desserts are, not the airline’s fault.
Meals are also served with your choice of drinks which include the usual alcohol, juice and soft drinks options and also some teas and coconut water (the last of which was my choice on most meals).
On the longer flight, a light meal is also served. I was looking forward to a chicken soup noodle with anticipation but was not impressed with the way it was served with cheap preserved vegetables.
I was not impressed with the meals but they serve their purpose.
Air China apparently used to give out pyjamas on their business class flights which they discontinued. We now receive a very basic Loccitane amenities kit containing a small bottle of hand cream and a lip balm (being the only Loccitane products), a toothbrush and mini tube of Colgate toothpaste, a blindfold, a wet tissue, ear plugs and some Loccitane product info. The Lufthansa flight I took recently also contained Loccitane products but there it was the previous cream which I value more than hand cream (which I have an abundance of from Christmas gift exchanges). Most airlines also provide socks which Air China does not. But all in all it is a decent kit and they also provide a decent pair of slippers that one of the Stewardess opened for me on one leg of the flight (which was not something done by the flight crew on the other legs). PJs would be nice and some other airlines like Lufthansa continue to give it out, but the gold standard Singapore airlines does not provide it so I really can’t hold it against Air China.
Service is generally good on the flights, especially if you speak Mandarin. The crew is still extremely nice and tries really hard if you don’t, it just takes longer to understand each other.
One thing unique about a Chinese airlines flight is the enormous amount of announcements around takeoff and landing. The safety announcement was particularly hilarious with a man claiming to be the safety officer onboard warning passengers that causing disturbance could be an arrestable offence (me paraphrasing here) in perfect Mandarin Chinese, and the same message repeated in perfect English at which point I involuntarily snorted and mumbled “yar right, this guy is on this flight”. True enough, I heard the exact same voices on the 3 subsequent flights on this trip.
Another “unique” thing is there are male crew members but they are mostly just walking around with the stewardesses doing most of the service. The only thing the male crew on my row did for me was to throw a bit of wrapper.
I like that they check with passengers beforehand whether we wanted to be woken up for meals and really do follow instructions. I didn’t need to be woken in the end so I cannot say how gently they do the waking.
Maybe because the promotional rates on business class made it affordable to more people, I do feel that the passengers on Air China business class are mostly not business travellers and are, in fact, not very familiar with business class travel. The lady I sat next to on the Newark to PEK leg, for example, didn’t know how to pick her meal, where to plug the headphones or even that she could ask for a blanket. None were particularly uncivilised or anything, just slightly awkward in business class. This doesn’t bother me until it does. The lady next to me knocks over the small tray holding her towel then wakes me up to ask whether I dropped my phone because the towel tray is black and looked a bit like a phone case facing downwards.
However, because they were not business travellers, you also get crying babies. On my PEK to Newark leh there were 2 babies taking turns to cry every hour so I had real trouble sleeping. I contemplated asking the parents whether they needed help with their children but there were 2 adults taking care of each baby so it’s not like they were outnumbered, plus Chinese are paranoid of kidnaping (the risk is real or at least was real until not very long ago) and there are stories of people kidnaping by offering to help with babies on trains so I didn’t want to take the risk of being suspected.
While the business class passengers were very courteous, one cannot say the same of economy class passengers on Air China. At the check in counter, many got rejected for oversized or overweight carry-ons and they clogged up the passageway with their repacking. When boarding, a significant number tried to join the business class queue. The airlines is also probably not great at managing the situation. On a Singapore Airlines flight, the curtain between business class and economy class would be closed until the business class passengers have disembarked, then the curtains are opened for economy passengers to disembark. On Air China, they didn’t close the curtain in time so once the plane stopped, all the economy class passengers rushed upfront and the Stewardesses had to cut off the queue with the curtain leading to unhappy economy class passengers behind the curtain and als unhappy business class passengers who cannot reach their overhead luggage because the passageway is clogged up.
Finally, if you are not heading for Beijing, then transit in Beijing Capital Airport is probably necessary. Upon arrival at the airport, it can be a bit confusing. Signage is bilingual but you may not always be able to make sense of it even if you read Chinese. When I reached Beijing from New York, they completely closed off the area leading to immigration queues for “crowd control” purposes. The ladies standing at what is usually the entrance to the queue spoke little English and pointed to a sign that doesn’t make sense. They let the Chinese nationals in but the moment they see a foreign passport they clamp up and pointed to the fingerprint collecting machines (which one of them pronounced as “mash”) which was something required for entering China but not for transit and also not required if you have previously registered your fingerprints (which I have) only after long back and forth did they let passengers with international transfers in.
The international transfer queue is in an obscure corner but once you figured it out it’s easy from there. The Chinese security check is strict but I don’t mind. They are efficient but generally not rude (unlike the New York security check who are the opposite), and I would like to be safe on the flight. As a rule, bags will go through the scan 2-3 times with requirements to remove random items the checker decides he wants to take a closer look at – cables and umbrella being a couple of examples I have encountered. The metal detector will also inevitably beep even when I am not wearing any metallic item, just par for the course.
The airport itself is decent. There are a few shops – the standard alcohol, cigarettes, cosmetics duty free plus a few luxury Brand’s. The Air China lounge (shared with star alliance members) is large and has a couple of massage chairs – no guarantee they work at any point in time. The toilets are cleaner than the Newark airport lounge toilets and food is heavily tilted to Chinese options with some buns, salads and a soup.
All in all, considering it’s less than half the price of the airlines I am unfairly comparing it to (Singapore, Cathay, Lufthansa etc), I would say an Air China business class flight is value for money.