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Using Miles to Fly China Airlines’ New 777-300ER

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Last week I wrote about China Airlines’ new 777-300ERs, which feature all-new service classes, including a beautiful Premium Business class cabin. The planes will be put into service on the airline’s routes from Taipei to Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco in the coming months. Today TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen explains how you can use miles to try them yourself.

China Airlines is getting all-new 777-300ER's.
China Airlines is getting all-new 777-300ERs.

These days award travelers have a lot of airlines to choose from when flying to and around Asia. Oneworld flyers can try out carriers like JAL and Cathay Pacific, while options for Star Alliance flyers include ANA, Air China, Singapore and Thai. SkyTeam also has an ever-growing presence in Asia thanks to members like China Southern and China Eastern.

One airport that’s becoming a major hub (both as a destination and a transit point) is Taipei. Until now, EVA has been the most interesting carrier there, since it updated its fleet with a large order of 777-300ERs and a top-notch business class service called Royal Laurel (Dom Perignon included!). Its main competitor based out of Taiwan is China Airlines, which until now has fielded a comparatively lackluster fleet and route map.

However, China Airlines recently took delivery of the first of ten 777-300ERs from Boeing, with the rest set to roll off the line in the coming months. The airline is currently flying its new birds from Taipei to Hong Kong and Bangkok, but starting in December, US flyers should see them in the skies. That gives SkyTeam flyers a great new option for getting to/from Asia with miles.

The Sky Lounge in Premium Business
The Sky Lounge in Premium Business aboard China Airlines’ new plane

The Planes

What makes these planes so interesting? The short answer is an all-new business class cabin and economy “Family Couches.”

The new planes will have 358 seats: 256 in economy, 62 in premium economy and 40 in business class. The interior was designed by Taiwanese architect Ray Chen, and features elements like persimmon-wood paneling, mood lighting and velvet-upholstered chairs in business class.

You can find all the details in last week’s post, but for the quick version…

China Airlines' Premium Business Class aboard their new 777-300ERs
China Airlines’ Premium Business Class aboard their new 777-300ERs

The new Premium Business class is laid out in a reverse herringbone 1 x 2 x 1 configuration with 78-inch lie-flat seats, 18-inch IFE screens and Bulgari amenity kits. Passengers also have access to the “Sky Lounge” galley bar with a tea-tasting area, a coffee area, and a bar with spirits and tapas.

China Airlines' newly created Premium Economy
China Airlines’ newly created Premium Economy

The 62 premium economy seats are in a 2 x 4 x 2 configuration with fixed-back hard shells and 39 inches of pitch, plus 12-inch IFE screens. The economy cabin seats are laid out in a 3 x 4 x 3 configuration and have 32 inches in pitch, reclining up to 116 degrees. The first 10 rows of economy have “Family Couches” (like Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch) in the 3-seat sections, which convert into lie-flat couches like a mini-bed.

The new three-seat Family Couch reclines to a lie-flat 180 degrees
The new three-seat Family Couch reclines to a lie-flat 180 degrees.

The Routes

According to Airlineroute.net, China Airlines plans to launch 777-300ER service to/from the US on the following routes and schedules:

Taipei-Los Angeles: Service beginning December 1, 2014

  • CI006 depart TPE 17:10 – arrive LAX 12:45 daily
  • CI008 depart TPE 23:50 – arrive LAX 19:25 daily
  • CI005 depart LAX 14:30 – arrive TPE 21:10+1 daily
  • CI007 depart LAX 23:25 – arrive 05:50+2 daily
The new LAX-TPE route is already in the system and ready to go starting in December.
The new LAX-TPE route is already in the system and ready to go starting in December.

Taipei-New York JFK: Service beginning February 2, 2015

  • CI012 depart TPE 17:05 – arrive JFK 19:50 Monday, Thursday, and Saturday
  • CI011 depart JFK 00:55 – arrive TPE 06:00+1 Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday

China Airlines has also said it will begin using 777-300ERs on its route to San Francisco later in 2015, but as of now the plane doesn’t seem to be on the roster through the end of next August.

Mileage Strategies

China Airlines is a member of SkyTeam, which means there are a lot of options to use your miles for award tickets. There are a few obstacles as well, though.

First, searching for award space can be difficult for folks who don’t have a lot of time to spare. ExpertFlyer displays award space in economy (specifically, in X class), but not in business class. Also, ExpertFlyer isn’t always reliable. For instance, here are flights departing LAX-TPE on December 1 and returning December 8.

ExpertFlyer's award space might be off.
ExpertFlyer’s award space might be off.

According to ExpertFlyer, there’s just one outbound economy seat available, and 7 on each of the return flights, but that differs from what I was told by the individual airline agents I spoke to. So even if you see award space on ExpertFlyer, know that availability may not be what you expect when you call your airline.

Delta.com does not display any China Airlines award space, and Flying Blue is reputed to do so only sporadically, though I searched for months at a time and couldn’t pull up a single flight for CI (China Airlines’ abbreviation). Your best bet will be to call the frequent flyer desk of the airline whose miles you want to use, and hope that they’re somewhat competent at pulling up award space through their systems.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, like its SkyTeam partner Korean Air, China Airlines has blackout dates for awards. You can find the full list here. However, the reps I spoke with at both Delta and Flying Blue were able to find award availability even within several of these blackout periods (notably December and June), so I’m not sure how stringently those dates are enforced.

China Airlines also imposes blackout dates.
China Airlines also imposes blackout dates.

Delta SkyMiles

Though Delta devalued the SkyMiles program back in 2013, the miles required to get to/from North Asia, which includes Taiwan, are as follows:

Delta Air Lines SkyMiles North Asia Redemption Chart Economy

Delta Air Lines SkyMiles North Asia Redemption Chart Business

So redemptions start at 70,000 miles round-trip in Economy, and 140,000 miles round-trip in Business Class (there’s no First Class cabin on these flights).

You cannot search Delta.com to pull up award space online, so you’re stuck calling the award desk. However, I was able to get through quickly, and the agents were efficient at finding award space on sample dates in December and January. In fact, they said that there was at least 1 award seat in each class on many dates in each month, including both Los Angeles flights on the December 1 launch date.

I asked them to price out sample awards for me departing Los Angeles on December 1 and returning December 8. Economy priced out at 70,000 miles and $52 in taxes and fees. The agent told me that award space opened up a lot more in January and was more sporadic in December, though I had lucked out.

When I called back to price out a business class ticket, the agent was able to find seats on both flights in each direction on those dates, and priced out the itinerary at 140,000 miles and $355 in carrier-imposed surcharges and fees.

The Delta agents I spoke to were courteous and competent, and familiar with searching for China Airlines space, so the calls were quick. One agent even commented that she had seen pictures of the airline’s new 777-300s and wouldn’t mind flying them herself!

If you do want to use your Delta miles, you might have some trial-and-error work on your hands, and you’ll have to spend some time on the phone with their agents, but at least they seem to know what they’re doing in this instance.

Delta is a 1:1 instant transfer partner of American Express, so if you have a card like the Platinum, Premier Rewards Gold or EveryDay Preferred, that might be a good option for you. However, keep in mind that starting in 2015, Delta will limit partner transfers into the SkyMiles program to 250,000 miles per calendar year. So if you’re planning to book two business class tickets, for example, you may want to transfer before that new rule goes into effect.

Flying Blue

Flying Blue is the mileage program of Air France and KLM (and Air Europa). Their award search engine is typically good at pulling partner award availability, but when it comes to Taiwan and China Airlines, Flying Blue’s website seems to route flyers through Europe on AF or KLM instead, tacking on huge surcharges in the process.

All that award space - and none of it is on China Airlines.
All that award space – and none of it is on China Airlines.

However, I was able to call Flying Blue’s New York City office and get an agent to help me search for award space. I initially asked about the same dates I had been able to nail down with Delta, but the Flying Blue agent was only able to find economy seats for me. He said he wasn’t seeing any of the business class dates that I had found with the Delta agents.

I asked him to price it out anyway, and he said that a round-trip economy award from LAX-TPE on December 1-8 would be 80,000 miles and $334 in taxes and fees on the same flights Delta had displayed.

For Premium Business award space, I asked him to search for the whole month, and he was able to pull an award itinerary from December 23-28 (right in the middle of those blackout dates, mind you). The total came to 200,000 miles and a whopping $1,052 in taxes and fees. Even the agent seemed surprised at how high they were!

Flying Blue will try to route you through Europe instead.
Flying Blue will try to route you through Europe instead.

In both instances, you’re better off using your Delta miles, especially if you were considering transferring Amex points to one program or the other (Flying Blue is a Membership Rewards transfer partner as well). Flying Blue is also one of Citi ThankYou Rewards’ new transfer partners, so that’s another option.

Korean Air lets you use miles for SkyTeam awards.
Korean Air lets you use miles for SkyTeam awards.

Korean Air SKYPASS

Korean Air has a separate award chart for SkyTeam awards. Taiwan counts as Asia 2, so flights should price out at 90,000 miles for Economy, or 155,000 for Business round-trip.

Korean's SkyTeam award levels from North America.
Korean’s SkyTeam award levels from North America.

That economy award level is pretty high, so I would recommend against it. However, the business class redemption level is 15,000 higher than Delta and 45,000 miles lower than Flying Blue, so if you happen to have some SkyPass miles sitting around from past Ultimate Rewards transfers, this is a viable option.

As with simply booking Korean Air awards, trying to book a SkyTeam partner award with Korean miles is a rigamarole. I recommend calling their customer service office in your specific city, which you can find here. They will take down your flight information including preferred carrier, flexibility of dates, and frequent flyer number, and have someone on their SkyTeam desk call you back within 24 hours, though usually much sooner (in my case it was about 2.5 hours).

The person who called was very professional and polite, and had pulled up a few flight options for me on the January dates I had suggested. However, he said that dates before January 4 were blackout dates (apparently China Airlines enforces them with Korean!). After that, though, there was plenty of economy availability in January and February.

The award for a roundtrip economy ticket from January 4-12 priced out at 90,000 miles and $329 in taxes and fees.

The agent then checked business class award availability and found absolutely nothing from December-August for LAX-TPE, and the same starting in February for JFK-TPE. No seats. Zip. I’m not sure why there’s such discrepancy in award inventory between Korean, Delta, and Flying Blue, but I wouldn’t bet on this program if you want this particular award. According to the agent, taxes and fees should be within $100-$200 of an economy award ticket on this route and with this partner.

The funny thing is, if you search for flights between New York or Los Angeles and Taipei, the Korean Air website will pull up Korean’s own flights, but also connections on China Airlines from Incheon to Taipei. However, it won’t pull up China Airlines flights directly to/from the US, so you’re stuck waiting for that call.

Korean prices out roughly the same charges on its own awards.
Korean prices out roughly the same charges on its own awards.

I also noticed that the mileage amounts and taxes/fees were roughly the same on the Korean/China awards as they were on the China Airlines awards that I got from the Korean Air Skyteam award rep. So if you want to find out what you’ll likely be paying, you can always do a quick search on Korean’s site.

Korean Air is a 1:1 instant transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus. But frankly the byzantine booking process, higher redemption levels, and availability discrepancies make it a wild card.

Aeromexico

You can find Aeromexico’s SkyTeam award chart here. According to the chart, you would need the following number of miles (though they’re called kilometros with this program) to get from the US to Taiwan on an award ticket:

  • Economy: 96,000 km
  • Business: 144,000 km
Aeromexico's business class awards from North America to Asia.
Aeromexico’s business class awards from North America to Asia.

Economy redemptions are the worst of the bunch, and I would definitely avoid them. However, business class redemptions could be worthwhile if you stocked up on Aeromexico miles for some reason in the past and only need to top up your account with a transfer from Amex Membership Rewards.

That said, for ease of redemption and pricing value, I think Delta is the top choice. If you can tolerate the archaic Korean Air back-and-forth phone booking process for SkyTeam partner awards, saving 15,000 miles on a business class redemption might be worth the extra time and effort to you.

If you get a chance to fly China Airlines’ new 777-300ER in the coming months, please report back on your experience in the comments below!

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