Air China First Class Introduction
Not too many people in the frequent flyer community intentionally look for Air China first class space when planning award travel, yet that’s exactly what I set out to do when planning my trip to Beijing. Air China is kind of the black sheep of the Star Alliance family, but award availability is generally good and there are no fuel surcharges when redeeming Aeroplan miles, so I thought I would give it a try to see if it was a product worth recommending. I mean, first class is first class, how bad could it be??
I checked out of the JW Marriott Beijing at around 11am and got a taxi to the airport, which took about 45 minutes. I had heard stories of immigration and security taking a long time, with no fast track lanes for premium cabin passengers. Check-in was quick, and I was through passport control and security in about an hour. From there I headed to the Air China first class lounge, which was even more pathetic than what I was expecting.
Air China First Class Lounge
Generally speaking, airlines have their best lounges in their home airports, such as the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, or the ANA First Class Lounge in Tokyo, but apparently Air China doesn’t put much stock in ground experiences. To say this lounge was bad would be an understatement. First of all, it was absolutely freezing. The lounge is open-air with the rest of the terminal, and while it provides nice views of the stunning architecture, apparently they don’t heat the terminal well in the winter.
At least there was some decent plane spotting!
Secondly, this is also a Priority Pass lounge, which I found quite strange for a flagship first class lounge. As far as I know, this is the only first class airline lounge that offers access through Priority Pass, and needless to say, it took away from the ‘exclusivity’ a bit.
Seating was plentiful, though not especially private. There was a group of private rooms at the far end of the lounge, though all were in use while I was there.
I’ve been to some fairly mediocre lounges, and am not always impressed by the food and beverage selection. However, this lounge absolutely takes the prize for worst food/beverage selection I’ve ever seen. There was a small buffet of warm items, though everything looked disgusting, and I was almost sure the ‘eggs’ had been sitting out for days. The beverage options were almost as bad, with two varieties of Chinese beer, a few types of soft drinks, and the fan favourite ‘Great Wall’ wine (hint: don’t drink it). There was also a small choice of spirits, though I didn’t notice any ice, so unless you like warm drinks….
The Wifi required a passport scan, which spat out an access code to connect. Unfortunately the Wifi simply didn’t work, which was the biggest disappointment since I have a couple hours to waste and wasn’t able to get much work done.
I decided to head to the gate about 30 minutes prior to scheduled boarding, and it’s a good thing I did. There were no announcements in the lounge, so prior to leaving I checked with the front desk agent that nothing had changed, to which she smiled, which I took as a yes. I made my way to gate E50 or so only to find a deserted gate area. Great. Beijing Airport doesn’t have the best signage and there were no information desks to be found, so I made my way back to the lounge only to find out we were now departing from gate E10. Cool! By the time I ran to the gate boarding was almost complete! I still managed to get a shot of the beautiful Boeing 777 taking me to LAX.
Air China First Class – The Flight
Air China 987
Beijing (PEK) – Los Angeles (LAX)
Saturday, December 16, 2017
Arrive: 11:11am (same day)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300
Seat: 2A (First Class)
I was greeted at the door by the friendly first class flight attendant who walked me to my seat. She gestured in a way that made me think she wanted to hang my jacket, and offered a choice of pre-departure beverages. While well-intentioned, she basically had no English, which I kind of expected based on other reviews. My first impression of the cabin was that it was spacious and fairly private, and very similar to the seats offered on Thai Airways first class, though there were only 8 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration over two rows compared to the 12 offered on the Thai Airways Airbus A380.
As far as seats go, I actually really like this design. While not fully-enclosed, I found them to be fairly private without feeling claustrophobic, and the seat was plenty comfortable at 23 inches wide with 80 inches of pitch.
Couples travelling together will probably prefer the middle seats, though there is a privacy partition should you be seated beside a stranger.
Seat storage is plentiful, with under ottoman space for small hand luggage, and plenty of storage compartments on each side of the seat for small items, in addition to a personal closet for coats.
Just as I was taking pictures of the seat, the flight attendant came back with my pre-departure champagne, and seemed genuinely curious by me taking pictures. I attempted to explain myself, but she didn’t understand, and just let out a small chuckle and walked away.
Amenities upon boarding included some noise-cancelling headphones, slippers, a pillow, newspaper (English) and bedding tucked away under the in-flight entertainment screen. There was also a small L’Occitane amenity kit with standard contents.
I thought the noise-cancelling headphones were actually quite good, despite being ‘no-name’, and used them instead of my own.
The amenity kit was a bit disappointing for international first class, and featured some L’Occitane products (I really dislike most of their stuff), and other standard amenities.
During boarding, the cabin crew came around and took meal orders for the flight, including drinks, which I thought was a bit odd given the length of the flight (how I’m I supposed to know what I want to eat/drink 8 hours from now). Not only that, they actually took the menu away once meal orders were taken, which was a first for me (thankfully I took pictures of the menu during boarding, which I don’t normally do).
We pushed back from the gate a few minutes late, just after 3pm (with the first class cabin half empty), and made a 20 minute taxi to the runway behind another Air China plane.
It was about this time that the cabin crew came rushing to my seat and asked me to turn my phone off. I forgot that unlike most carriers, Chinese airlines require the phone be completely turned off, which I eventually did, but not before getting this shot of a United 777 landing in windy conditions.
The climb out of Beijing was a bit bumpy, though cabin crew were walking around after about 10 minutes. Interestingly enough, the seatbelt sign remained on for the entire flight, though never seemed to be enforced. While I generally wear my seatbelt during the flight in the event of unexpected turbulence, I found this strategy unique as it was tough to know it was actually important to remain seated (there were some incredibly bumpy spots on this flight).
Once the cabin crew were up and about I decided to get changed into something more comfortable. Pyjamas were offered, though I had kept the pair from my ANA first class flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo and thought they felt nicer. The lavatory on this plane was small but clean (was kept clean the entire flight) and featured a few amenities by a brand I’ve never heard of, and some gross looking dried flowers. There was also a small bench for getting changed, which was nice.
When I returned from the lavatory I was surprised to find all of the window shades had been closed and the cabin lights dimmed. While I’m used to this on transpacific flights, it usually doesn’t happen until after the meal service…
I had read varying reports of Air China first class catering, from edible to disgusting, with some reviewers reporting that menu items weren’t always available. Based on the menu alone, the options seemed decent enough (I was starving since I didn’t eat in the lounge), though the drink options were somewhat limited, especially considering the beverage menu ANA offers in first class.
While I normally choose the western option, I thought the safest bet would be to pick an Asian option on a Chinese carrier departing China. I selected the sautéed beef with oyster sauce served with vegetables and rice. Dinner service started with an amuse bouche of tuna, prawn and smoked chicken, which was actually quite good.
Up next was supposed to be a couple of appetizers of lobster and mozzarella with tomato, though that never appeared. Instead came a starter salad, which was decent enough, though the plastic cup of dressing felt a bit cheap for first class.
Following the salad was some chicken soup with ginseng, which had nice flavour but was only lukewarm. There was also a bread basket offered, though most of it was stale and tasteless, including the bagel (interesting choice for dinner service).
After the soup came the main course of beef with rice and vegetables. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it, though it felt more like a mediocre business class meal than international first class. Come to think of it though, I’m almost sure the meat was chicken, despite what the menu said… I actually asked the flight attendant what I was eating, to which she responded something I couldn’t understand. After a few more attempts at clarifying, she responded ‘it’s ok’, and walked away!
Dessert was a choice between some sweet sounding cakes or cheese and crackers, though I declined and instead decided to check the in-flight entertainment. Options were limited, with a few international selections and a lot of Chinese content. I eventually settled on the 90’s favourite ‘Groundhog Day’, which should indicate the quality of content available… At least the screen was sharp…
Once everyone finished their meal the cabin lights were dimmed, and I decided to recline the seat. Controls are simple and easy to use, and finding a comfortable position wasn’t too tough. There were also some quick command buttons that were really starting to show some wear.
When my movie was over, the flight attendant offered to turn my bed down, and offered another warm towel, which was nice. Overall the service was actually quite decent on this flight, though the language barrier was obvious. The bed was extremely comfortable, and I was able to sleep for most of the flight, only waking up a couple of times due to the warm cabin temperature.
I skipped the arrival meal service based on the dinner experience, and instead got dressed just as we began our initial approach to LAX. When the cabin crew noticed I was getting up, they brought another warm towel and offered to take my bedding away.
The approach to Los Angeles was smooth, with clear blue skies (appreciated after the pollution in Beijing).
We landed at LAX a few minutes late, and made a short taxi to our gate, where the plane spotting was great!
Air China First Class Bottom Line
Well, what can I say? Air China first class was exactly what I expected it to be. The ground service at Beijing was horrible, with my worst lounge experience to date, by far, though the on-board product was slightly better than I expected (the bar was set really low). While there was definitely a language barrier, I found the service to be well-intentioned and friendly. The catering, however, was below standard for an international first class flight, and more what you might expect on an average business class flight.
Using Aeroplan points for a flight will cost between 105,000 and 107,500 miles per direction in first class from North America (though keep in mind you can add stopovers on roundtrip tickets), and Air China doesn’t impose fuel surcharges on redemptions, which is great. I wouldn’t necessarily consider booking Air China as a standalone flight redemption, but would book a segment as part of a larger trip featuring other Star Alliance airlines, such as ANA first class or Lufthansa first class.
Whether or not I would recommend Air China would come down to what you really value in a product. For me, I value privacy and space more than anything, and this product delivers on all accounts. The seat is comfortable, reasonably private, and I suspect the cabins are rarely full. Furthermore, availability is good, so if you want to plan in advance or book multiple tickets, Air China first class could be a good option. If, however, you value great service from start to finish and want the best dining experience, you’re going to want to avoid Air China at all costs.
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Have you flown Air China first class before? How did your experience compare with mine? Tell us about it in the comment section below!