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Over the summer, TPG Managing Editor Eric winged his way from Beijing to Los Angeles in business class aboard Air China’s 777-300ER. Here’s his review of the experience.
I ended a summer trip to China in Beijing, and courtesy of the folks who brought me over for a consulting job, I was given a ticket on Air China – the only airline to operate non-stop service between the two cities – aboard their flagship 777-300ER with its new classes of service, including lie-flat business class.
Despite reports of Beijing’s horrible traffic, it only took about 45 minutes to get from my hotel in the central city out to PEK at 5:30pm for my 9:00pm flight. There was practically no one at the cavernous international terminal, so customs and security were very quick and I hopped on the little train out to the terminal with the departure gates and the Air China lounge.
I’ll keep this short since there’s not much to report – the lounge was fine. Not great, not bad. It was up an escalator on the terminal’s second floor, but still open to the terminal below, so you could look over the wall and watch what was going on.
Most of it was just a wide open space dotted with little sitting areas of armchairs around coffee tables. In the middle was a small food bar area with fruit, some snacks, Cup o’ Noodle-style soups you could make for yourself, and small refrigerators holding water, soda and beer, though nothing was cold.
Along one side down at the farthest end of the lounge there was a small bar where guests could pour themselves a white or red Chinese wine or help themselves to beer, while on the other side was a small buffet with some hot rice dishes and some hot soups, as well as a few café-style tables. I didn’t have too long to spend there before my flight, so I just hopped on the WiFi, which worked decently, and shot off a few last emails before heading to my gate.
Air China’s 777-300ER has 313 seats total and is split into three cabins. First class, or “Forbidden Pavilion” class, is at the front of the plane and has just eight seats in a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration. The economy cabin is at the back and consists of 263 seats in a 3 x 3 x 3 configuration.
I was in business class, or “Capital Pavilion,” which had 42 seats across 7 rows in a 2 x 2 x 2 configuration. This cabin was different from any other business class cabin I’d been in. The seats looked sort of like Lufthansa’s new business class, though each pair of seats isn’t angled towards each other, but remain parallel and slightly staggered. The rows along the walls were angled outwards, and the center row seats were all angled slightly to the right.
Since everyone boarded from the front of the plane, I got to take a quick look at the first class seats on my way to business class and was in a hurry to put my bags up in the overhead bins before too many other passengers pushed past me.
Though the silver-gray business class seats had a pitch of just 60 inches, they use little foot cubbies, kind of like Singapore Airlines’ seats, to extend to a fully lie-flat bed that I’d estimate at around 6 feet 6 inches long and 22 inches wide. Surprisingly, there are few concrete details about Air China’s new 777-300ER seats, but if you want to take a quick look at a video the airline released with a design conceptualization, have a look here.
I was in the middle row, so my seatmate (a stranger) and I were angled slightly to the right, though I didn’t see much of him thanks to a permanent small divider between our seatbacks and a spacious little armrest table separating us.
The seat adjusted to a variety of upright and relaxed positions, and then reclined all the way back into a flat bed. There were no seat covers or special padding to cover the seat to sleep on. The airline does provide pretty thick duvets and medium-size pillows, though, as well as signature red slippers for padding around the plane.
Seats had individual power ports with built-in adapters, so I charged my laptop during the flight, as well as 15-inch touchscreen entertainment screens with music, games and television shows as well as what I can only describe as an eclectic array of mostly out-of-date American and Asian films.
The little amenity kit provided to business class passengers included a brush-comb, ear plugs, an eye mask, a sanitary hand wipe, a toothbrush and toothpaste, L’Occitaine citrus body lotion and lip balm.
My favorite part, however, was probably the set of navy blue pajamas with a button-up top that had a Mao collar. It felt distinctly Chinese, which I appreciated.
Service and Meals
Like my experience on China Eastern, I found the staff aboard Air China to be efficient but not warm. Pre-flight, they offered passengers a glass of water or juice, but didn’t bother picking up the empties before takeoff for some reason.
Since this was a night flight, meal service was quick and began almost immediately after takeoff, which I appreciated because I wanted to get some sleep. I chose the Chinese rather than the Western menu, and started with a smoked salmon amuse bouche, a canapé of Yuxiang beef tenderloin skewer and a mushroom-vegetable skewer.
Next was a little dish of five-spice beef with steamed eggplant and sesame dressing along with veggies and a clear chicken soup broth with mixed mushrooms. For a main, I chose braised chicken with black mushrooms over rice then had the strawberry mousse for dessert.
Throughout the meal service, flight attendants were rushing back and forth through the cabin and it was difficult to flag them down for a glass of water let alone anything else. Still, I was in a hurry to eat and get to sleep so I didn’t mind, but it would have been nice to see a smile every so often!
During the night, the flight attendants left out snacks and beverages at the small bar area between business and first classes that included soup cups, fresh fruits, yogurt, candy and cookies.
Breakfast took place about 90 minutes before landing and started with pickles with sea kelp and salted duck egg, congee with dumplings and black mushroom-veggie dumplings, and fresh fruit. The Western choice was a plain omelette with Lyonnais potatoes, Canadian bacon and herbed tomatoes, breakfast rolls, cereal and fresh fruit.
The alcohol list was short and to the point with two French reds and white wines each, a semi-sweet French champagne, and red and white Great Wall wine from China. They also served Budweiser and Yanjing beer, plus Glenfiddich 15-year and a few other liqueurs.
Ordinarily, my one-way ticket would have cost about $4,900 (though roundtrips go for about $5,500). The flight took 12 hours going east across the Pacific, and clocked in at 6,251 miles. Air China is a member of Star Alliance, so I banked my miles to my United MileagePlus account.
I was booked in Z class, or discounted business, so based on Air China’s relationship with United, I only got 6,251 Premier-qualifying miles, and a 25% class-of-service bonus on base miles for a total of 7,813 United miles. The flight only counted as a single Premier-qualifying segment – the most you can earn at all on Air China with United.
That’s different than with some of United’s other Star Alliance partners such as Air Canada or ANA where United Mileage Plus members will also earn bonuses of up to 50% on Premier-qualifying miles depending on the fare class. On ANA, those who purchase first class fares earn 250% base miles and 150% Premier-qualifying miles, for example. Flyers in business class on Singapore will earn 125% base miles, but 150% Premier-qualifying miles. As always, if elite-qualifying mileage is an important part of your decision on an itinerary, be sure to check the earning rules with the particular partner airline you’re hoping to fly to make sure you earn the mileage you need.
On the redemption side, my one-way ticket would have cost 60,000 United miles for a one-way Saver Award on this route (first class would be 70,000) – and that would be the same whether I flew to South Asia or Japan as well.
Final Thoughts Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Although the service was spotty and the food wasn’t great, Air China got me back to LA on time, and I did appreciate their fully lie-flat business class seats, which allowed me to get a good 7 hours of sleep in across the Pacific. Given the choice, I might fly a different Star Alliance carrier to Asia, such as ANA or Singapore, whether I was earning or redeeming miles, but given that this was a non-stop service with lie-flat beds in business class, it met my needs.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.