Air China business class from Singapore to Newark review

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.

Seats

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.

Food

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.

Amenities

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

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.

Other passengers

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.

Transit

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.

Conclusion

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.

Social Mobility

Much has been said about social mobility in Singapore. In my generation and my parents’ generation, social mobility was very real. In any case the average standard of living has been on the rise as the country is developing so everyone feels generally that their lives are improving, save where unforeseen circumstances like illness or accidents occur. However, today, where the country is developed and therefore the average wage, average standard of living has not as much room upwards to grow, it starts becoming more obvious that social mobility is not as strong. I start this post with saying that I still feel that Singapore does it as well as possible but I am just lamenting the reality of a fallen world.

Before I had children, I never thought I would be the kind to even try to send my daughter to popular schools. I would be the first to say I went to a neighbourhood primary school where my classmates smoked and hung out with the boys in gangs in the equally neighbourhood secondary school next door, but I still had “equal” opportunity to get into law school. After all, every school a good school, right? Yet when I am a parent, I cannot help but hope that my children do well, and cannot help but try to give them that little edge. I moved near to Nanyang in order to get in. Slightly ashamed to admit it, but true.

What sparked today’s thoughts was attending my daughter’s prize presentation ceremony at Nanyang Primary School. Among a group of about 290 prize recipients (mostly for academic achievement but a minority for character awards), I met 2 law school classmates, one neighbour cum husband’s ex-colleague, a family friend and my personal trainer. Present at the same event was even a person my husband met just the night before at an industry drinks event. Bumping into one friend or two is “small world”, bumping into 6 people in the same circle just shows there is something statistically significant at play here. One can’t help but think of Lee Kuan Yew’s very famous quote:

“So when the graduate man does not want to marry a graduate woman, I tell him he’s a fool, stupid. You marry a non-graduate, you’re going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright. You’ll be tearing your hair out. you can’t miss. It’s like two dice. One is Jack, Queen, King, Ace, other also Jack, Queen, King, Ace. You throw a Jack, Queen, King, Ace against dice two, three, four, five, six, what do you get? You can’t get high pairs, let alone a full flush.”

It is genetics at play? Or is it that privileged parents are able to afford to send their children for enrichment classes? Or perhaps simply that the peaceful family environment is simply more conducive to child development? I’m not sure, all I know is it does seem like there is some hardening of social stratification going on here. I’m not sure how to fix it. As I admitted myself, I fell prey to the kiasu syndrome. Its human nature to. If we have the ability, we would give our children more. No matter how much the society gives the disadvantaged, it is not the same as what parents can give. I suppose we each do our part to help uplift the disadvantaged, and pray for a better world.

 

Developing children’s potential and giving them an edge

This blog has gone through several changes. When I had my first child, I started the blog as “Sophia Story”. Somehow it never occurred to me that I would have a second child at that time, or indeed that this baby will ever grow up to be a talking, thinking, actual person. But of course both these things happened and when my second child came along the blog became “Mothering the S Sisters”. Quite apt given that I was recently told by a colleague that I am “bossy”. Over time, my posts dwindled not because I have less time. Well, yes, partly because of that but mostly because as the girls grew up, I increasingly felt the obligation to protect their privacy. I dabbled a bit in various topics about children without talking about my children but that felt too much like tiptoeing around the elephant in the room. There are topics I could talk about without bringing them embarrassment as an adult if their friends or colleagues happen to dig out this blog 20 or 30 or 80 years later, like how Sophia just showed me a one handed cartwheel from gym class, but who wants to read a blog that talks only about the children? That’s too much like showing off for my liking. So this blog has fallen into disuse over time. If it were a building, spiderwebs are probably all over.

Fortunately it’s not a building and I can dust it off again. I’m thinking of rebranding it as an education site, where I share my thoughts and experience on educating children. After all, I do have a Masters in Education and in a sense we are all scientists experimenting with education of our young so let’s see how that goes.

The thought of the day is interest being the best teacher. Obvious, of course, but worthy of repeated reminder. Often us parents from lower / middle class families are tempted to satisfy our regrets through our children. Or we may force our children down a certain path because we feel it gives them an edge. For example, we may feel that a certain sport is less popular and hence easier for the child to be comparative better than other children if they start young. At the end of the day, though, it will be a painful struggle if the child has no interest. The better option is to provide the child with a broad based exposure, and as and when the child expresses interest/talent in something then allow him/her to continue. But of course it is hard and there is some element of risk involved. For example, Sophia tried ballet when she was 3 and did not like it because her gross motor skills developed later than other kids. Good thing when she went to primary school, the school conducted a dance session during curriculum time and selected her to join the dance CCA.

The other thing I do is to send her for holiday camps in different areas. I have done multi-sports, chess, art, coding, theatre etc. The thing is during each holiday there is only time to try at best a couple of activities, cramming in too much is also counterproductive. So the trial and error process has a huge luck element and you may not strike gold until many holidays and many years later. And one can is simply not enough to really understand the activity so there are activities Sophia initially liked but then decided is not for her (like Weiqi) and there are other activities that she continued liking (like gym). What I found is if the child likes something, even if he/she starts a bit later, he/she will be able to catch up. But if he/she doesn’t like it, if you adopt a tiger mum attitude, sure, he/she may still get to a certain standard but is very unlikely to really excel.

Ok, I am being as preachy as my daughter’s school Teachers here when telling us to relax and trust in the school’s broad based education but there is some wisdom in that approach and really, a lifetime is long enough for specialisation. Your child will thank you for a happy childhood.

Stress relieve

See, this is why someone like me will never be laugh out loud happy. I’m always running around doing things. In Singlish that’s called “cannot sit still”. So I finally finished my essay for a course. It’s been stressful because I’ve forgotten how different academics was from actual practice of the law. And to celebrate finishing the essay what do I do? I made a dress for Little S, in an evening after a full day of work. What was I thinking?

Haven’t felt this cool in a while

One day before my birthday I heard about this amazing event being held at the Nee Majestic Hotel, which is quite an oxymoron for a hotel that no longer is in operation. The hotel was ceasing operations to be converted into a private club and between ceasing operations and commencing renovations there was a 2 days window to make use of the space and 30 of the rooms were converted into playgrounds for local designers of anything from jewellery to clothes, scarfs, shoes to food to furniture. 

So on my birthday, that was where we went. It was a wonderfully amazing experience especially now that Sophia is on the cusp of being able to appreciate more grown up art and Sandra is cute and friendly enough to attract everyone’s affection. We played chapteh and ogled at a scarf featuring chapteh, ate delicious sea salt caramel ice cream, watched coutour bring hand made, and generally enjoyed ourselves before adjourning to Sophia’s all time favourite fish and chips place – Jerry’s. Ok, not technically a chip shop but a BBQ place, but their fish and chips is delicious.

Subtle publicity for breastfeeding?

I had something on at the People’s Association headquarters today and was surprised at the number of people who remembered me from “the learning journey”.

Now I must explain that learning journeys were things that PA conducted quite regularly so the fact that I shared at one two years ago really shouldn’t be all that memorable. The project that I shared on was one I am extremely proud of for sure – Ageing Gracefully at Home, a program that provided holistic care for the elderly staying alone in the one room rental flats in Chin Swee. I was glad that so many people remembered the sharing about how we assigned neighbours to the weaker elderly as befrienders who would remind the elderly to take their medicine and generally watch out for the elderly, and eventually expanded the program to even providing nursing care in the elderly’s homes. The elderly were also engaged socially and encouraged to come out for exercise if they could. Nutrition down to the point of arranging for dentures so that the elderly can eat well, and mincing their food in the interim was also cared for by a dedicated community nurse and her team of healthcare aides.

In fact, apparently the sharing about the program made so much impact that it appeared on a feature wall with, shock horrors, my face on it! And what was draped over my shoulders but a nursing cover! 


That was when I realised that what people remembered was probably not the program I shared, but the baby I brought along and was breastfeeding at various points. Advocating for breastfreeding while advocating for elder care – killing two birds with one stone! I wonder how many would notice the nursing cover……

Homemade iced gem biscuits

A child at church brought iced gem cookies to crèche and the kids started asking for them so we made some.


We used this recipe save that I replaced a third of the plain flour with finely ground wholemeal flour.

Sophia’s verdict was the cookie is yummy but not the gem part. Sandra spat it out once it touched her tongue. I Guess they are both Nor fans of super sweet things like meringue, which is fine since neither am I.