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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen recently flew Hainan Airlines’ new service from Los Angeles to Changsha. Here is his review of the experience.
Back in December, Hainan Airlines announced that it would start service on a new route from Los Angeles (LAX) to Changsha (CSX) with one of its Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners — the carrier also flies its Dreamliners from Beijing to Boston, Chicago and Toronto. Round-trip economy tickets were going for just $558, but even better, business class tickets were on sale for just $1,358. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to fly to Asia in business class for that amount of money, especially since I could hop to various other destinations from Changsha quite easily — both in China and beyond as I found out — so I decided to book it.
The special $1,358 fare was available at the end of December for bookings made through December 31 and travel dates between January 21 and March 24. In reality though, a few are still available both beyond the booking window and the flight window. In fact, though my outbound flight took place on February 8, my return trip is not until June 2 (I am flying back to the US on another carrier and then back to Asia later in the year to use my return ticket on Hainan Airlines in June). So if you were thinking about booking this itinerary, you may still have time. If you don’t get in on a set of dates that pulls up the $1,358 fare (I’d suggest using a flexible date range on the ITA Matrix to search), then fares go up to about $2,400.
Though I could have booked my airfare on Hainan’s own website, instead, I went through Orbitz in order to maximize my rewards. I used my Citi ThankYou Premier Card to earn 3x points per dollar on travel (including airfare), earned Orbitz’s own Orbucks rewards currency on the fare and credited my flight to Alaska Airlines, which is Hainan’s main US partner.
Even better, the ticket booked into the R fare class, which, according to Alaska’s mileage-earning page, theoretically earns 200% award and elite miles, so my one round-trip flight will earn me nearly 28,000 redeemable and elite-qualifying miles, which is well over the threshold for Alaska’s introductory MVP elite status tier.
Airport and Lounge
The airline actually offers complimentary private limousine service to its business-class passengers, though it doesn’t seem to make that overly well known. You have to call the airline directly to book it between 30 days and four hours before your flight. I actually forgot all about it and instead took Uber to the airport, so I was out about $20. At least I’ll know better for my return trip!
For reference, the other routes and cities in which this limo service is available include:
- Beijing to Seattle, Chicago, Boston, San Jose and Toronto, Berlin, Brussels, Prague, St. Petersburg and Moscow
- Shanghai to Seattle and Boston
- Chongqing to Rome
- X’ian to Paris
Hainan Airlines flies out of LAX’s Terminal 2. Note that the check-in desks are at the eastern end of the terminal, not near the Hainan sign curbside — these are the desks Air New Zealand used to use before it moved to the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
There is a separate line for business-class passengers, but no one was in any of the lines so an agent at the economy desk checked me in. I actually had a continuing flight on Hainan Airlines from Changsha to Beijing, but the representative couldn’t check me in or print my boarding pass for that flight at this time, explaining that I would have to do it at the transit desk when I arrived in Changsha.
Check-in took about three minutes since she had to enter my flight and visa information, but she handed me my boarding pass, smiled and said there would be no one seated next to me, then wished me a good flight.
I headed to the security line, which wasn’t long but still took quite a while since there’s no TSA PreCheck here and everyone has to unpack and submit to the body scanner. My bag was also flagged for some reason so that took another 10 minutes of hand searching before the TSA agents would clear me, though everyone was very polite and quick about trying to get me through.
I had read that Hainan business class passengers get access to Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge at LAX, but the check-in agent hadn’t said anything. I headed up to the lounge just to see, and the desk agent there said that, yes, I would have access, but first I needed to get an invitation slip from a Hainan Airlines representative.
I thought about heading down to the gate, but the lounge is also a member of Priority Pass, so instead, I just whipped out my Priority Pass card (which I have thanks to the fact that I’m a Platinum Card from American Express cardholder) and was swiped right through.
The funny thing is, this lounge is actually the former Air New Zealand Koru Club and it’s a rather large lounge (for LAX) with lots of little seating areas, a small buffet, a business center area with workstations and dedicated restrooms and about a half-dozen shower suites. So it’s a big step up from Air Canada’s former rinky dink lounge in the terminal.
I didn’t have a huge amount of time before my flight, so I just got a small sandwich, some water, took a look at the wines and then it was time to board my flight.
Cabin and Seat
I must have been the last passenger to board in business class because the door was closed shortly after I arrived. You would never have known it to look at the cabin, though. I’d say about a third of the seats were occupied and only two sections of seats had two people in them.
The business class section is at the front of the plane (there is no first class) and is basically split in half with three rows in the front cabin and three rows in the aft cabin, separated by an area with two lavatories and the galley. I was in the front row of the aft cabin in the middle section of seats but moved to the back row of the cabin so I could talk to Lucky from One Mile at a Time, who was also seated in that row. The layout of the cabin is in a 2-2-2 configuration of six seats across in six rows for a total of 36 business-class seats. Each has 74 inches of pitch and is 22.5 inches wide.
The cabin feels a little outdated since seats are all forward-facing recliner-style chairs that then recline to full-flat beds. It looks sort of like LAN and Aeromexico’s business class Dreamliner cabins in that respect.
However, I think the most interesting thing about the cabin is the bold color scheme. The upholstery is in red with patterned stitching. It’s eye-catching, some might say loud, but sort of fun — certainly an auspicious way to fly during the Chinese New Year! When the seat is fully reclined, the foot stool and cubby at the end become the end of the bed.
The seat controls are in the armrest and you can manipulate the back of the seat, the leg rest and lumbar, as well as an included massage function. There are fully upright and fully reclined preset settings, too. Each seat has a universal adapter power port and a USB power port if you want to charge your smartphone. They also have adjustable reading lights and overhead lights.
The one other big factor I found was that, though not having overhead bins over the middle section of seats opened up the ambiance in the cabin nicely, it does mean that overhead space is at a premium. Even though the cabin was about half empty, I still had to wedge my carry-on and backpack into a bin with two other passengers’ things, so once these flights get fuller, that might become an issue. Lesson learned: Board early!
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Each seat has its own personal monitor set into the preceding seatback, though the first row of seats in each section have monitors stowed in the armrest. The screens are 15 inches, so not industry-leading, but the resolution is decent.
Screens are controlled by handheld remotes stowed in the armrest, though mine wasn’t working and my system had to be rebooted twice before I could even access the movies list.
The list of featured films numbered 32, and there were some new releases like The Intern and The Martian, but also some older entries like The Devil Wears Prada and Her, so you might want to load up your iPad before your flight.
Shortly after takeoff, I was given a few other amenities as well. The flight attendants offered me pajamas, which were a sort of creamy taupe with a Mao collar and gold accents. The flight attendant sized me up and brought me an XL, which is sort of funny because I’m 5’8” and all of 145 pounds, but to be honest, they fit pretty well. If you’re a bigger person than me, you might want to bring your own sleeping gear.
I also got one of the airline’s Bulgari amenity kits. It contained all the usual items including a toothbrush and toothpaste, eye mask, earplugs and socks, but also Bulgari lip balm, hand cream, and a cleansing wipe. A pair of slippers was waiting for me at my seat when I boarded. Another cubby in the armrest held basic headphones.
Interestingly enough, the lavatories (which were pretty small), were also stocked with Bulgari shampoo instead of hand soap, Bulgari lotion and eau de toilette if you wanted to freshen up.
In-Flight Service and Dining
I have to say, the crew on Hainan is the best I’ve had on a Chinese carrier. Though some of the flight attendants didn’t seem to speak English terribly well, the flight attendant who served me, Maria, spoke it perfectly and had a great sense of humor so she made the flight fun.
The one strange thing was that several flight attendants came over to say that I could not have my iPhone on during the flight. Not even in non-transmitting airplane mode. They said if I wanted to take pictures I could use a camera or an iPad, but phones were verboten on Chinese planes. I’ve never come across that rule before (and I had no problems taking photos with my iPhone on my subsequent Changsha–Beijing flight on Hainan Airlines), but since I had an iPad with me, I figured there was no harm in complying.
Almost as soon as I took my seat, I was offered a warm towel, a plate of nuts and a choice of orange juice, apple juice or water. The menu also said there was a signature “Hainan Passion” drink, which some of my neighbors got — it looked like a mix of tropical juices. I opted for the water and it was removed right before takeoff.
Just after we hit cruising altitude, I was asked what I would like to eat from the menu I had been given. As usual with Chinese carriers, there were both Chinese and Western menu options available.
My flight departed at 12:35pm, so the first meal service would be served shortly after takeoff — snacks would be available during the flight as well as another pre-landing meal.
Meal service started with a little sampler plate including a savory meatball, a fried chicken wing on a skewer and a sort of kreplach-style pastry dumpling filled with spiced beef.
From there, the menu options were as follows:
- Braised beef, scallop and chicken with jelly fish salad
- Seared shrimp with couscous and mango salsa
I opted for the shrimp, which were served cold, but were decent.
- Pork bouillon with watercress and red dates
- Creamy soup of asparagus
I got the soup for this course, and it wasn’t that great, so I just had a few spoonfuls. The meat was kind of tough and the watercress was totally soggy while the red dates were particularly mealy.
- Garden mesclun with a choice of Thousand Island, balsamic or creamy Caesar
Just a simple salad with a teaspoon of Caesar dressing, nothing too interesting.
- Roasted spare rib in soy sauce, steamed bean curd with ham and mushroom, stir-fried broccoli with mushrooms and pepper with a side of steamed rice.
- Braised duck with taro in dark soy sauce with steamed minced pork ball with pumpkin cup and sautéed kalian with carrot flower and black mushroom and a side of steamed rice.
- Seared beef tenderloin with garlic in port wine glaze and creamy mustard sauce and sides of Yukon roasted potatoes with herbs, grilled zucchini, spinach and peppers with mozzarella balls.
- Seared Alaskan salmon in creamy herb sauce with potato gnocchi stuffed with red pepper, broccolini and baby turnip.
- Assorted bread with butter including ciabatta roll, garlic bread and bread sticks.
- Desserts: Cheese selection of Monterey Jack, cheddar and Chaume, fresh seasonal fruit, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and passion berry cake with strawberry coulis.
I decided to go Chinese with my meal choice — the options just sounded more interesting — so I asked for the spare rib. The presentation was actually quite pretty, with curved plates that sort of slotted together like a fan.
The spare rib itself was delicious and tender, while the steamed bean curd with ham and mushroom was savory and a bit chewy. The broccoli with mushroom and pepper was nice as a veggie side, and there seemed to be scallops as well, which I hadn’t seen mentioned on the menu.
For dessert, I skipped the ice cream and instead opted for the cheese selection and fresh fruit, both of which were good.
Immediately after meal service, the crew came through and offered to make up everyone’s beds. I wasn’t ready to sleep yet, preferring instead to work, so I asked them to make up the empty seat next to my own as the bed. The flight attendant reclined the seat to a lie-flat position, put on a seat cover and then made up the duvet and two pillows. She was very careful and it took her about three minutes in total to get it done — the bed looked pretty inviting when she had finished.
That said, the bed was a bit hard, and I think they could improve the seat covers to add a little extra cushioning. As I mentioned, I’m 5’8” so there should have been miles of room for me to stretch out, but when I was lying in the bed reclined to full-flat, I could pretty much touch the head and foot of the bed with my head and feet at the same time, so if you’re taller, you might not be so comfortable.
During this portion of the meal, there were little snacks and goodies available in the galley.
Available on the flight during non-mealtimes were:
- Fruit, cheese, nuts, crackers and chocolate.
- Cantonese wonton noodle soup with shrimp dumplings.
- Instant noodle soup.
- Pastrami and cheese sandwiches.
- Vegetarian sandwiches.
I relaxed and took a nap for about four hours at this point in the flight.
About two hours before we landed, the second meal service began with the following options:
- Selection of juices, milk and coffee or tea.
- Stir-fried noodles with beef slices in satay sauce along with a clear soup.
- Steamed rice with braised tofu in oyster sauce with minced pork, choy poh frittata and sauteed king oyster mushroom with soy beans.
- Dill potato salad.
- Seared lamb chops with rosemary lamb jus and roasted potatoes, broccoli, carrots and caramelized onions.
- Cheese ravioli with seared chicken in creamy mushroom sauce with grilled asparagus, baby carrots and cherry tomatoes.
- Fresh seasonal fruits and assorted bread.
I again decided to go Chinese with my choice and got the stir-fried noodles with beef and satay sauce, which was tasty but not that substantial. I also got a cappuccino to help wake me up a bit since we’d be landing at about 7:00pm and I had another flight to catch to Beijing at 9:30pm and I had a long evening ahead of me.
Throughout the whole flight, the beverage options were pretty extensive.
- Cocktails including a screwdriver and a Black Russian.
- Spirits including Johnnie Walker Black, Chivas Regal, Hennessy VSOP and Baileys, plus a “Chinese Alcohol,” yellow rice wine Hua Diao.
- Beers: Heineken, Yanjing and Kaiserdom Dark
- H. Mumm Cordon Rouge Champagne
- White wines: Chateau D’Esclans La Poule Blanche, Lumiere de France White Burgundy, San Medin Sauvignon Blanc.
- Red wines: Chateau Gandoy Perrinat, Lumere de France Costieres de Nimes and Capa Tempranillo.
- A selection of Chinese teas like Dragon Well, Biluochun, Osmanthus and Yunnan Black.
- Selection of Western teas including Earl Grey and selected black teas.
- Various coffee drinks including espresso, cappuccino and Americano.
- Evian water.
- Fruit juices: Orange, apple, grapefruit, tomato, coconut.
- Various sodas and milk.
I tried a few of the wines including the White Burgundy, which was fairly tasteless to be honest, and the Tempranillo, which was fruity and medium-bodied and pretty pleasant overall, though nothing to go searching for back home.
I’d only flown Hainan Airlines within China before and was curious as to what the international experience would be like. I have to say that the flight met and even exceeded my expectations. While the hard product — meaning the seats, entertainment system and aircraft itself — were all satisfactory, they weren’t impressive and I’d go for reverse-herringbone business class seats like Cathay Pacific and American Airlines have over these anytime.
However, I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the soft product including the amenity kits, pajamas and meal service. I’ve flown China Eastern and Air China before and while their cabins are nice, the meal service has been … less than impressive.
The food on my Hainan flight, though, was delicious and satisfying overall, and the wine and spirits selection was decent, so I didn’t delve into any of the snacks I’d brought with me as a back-up. The service is also the friendliest and most efficient I’ve ever had on a Chinese carrier and all the crew I interacted with were diligent and nice.
This route is an interesting one since I, like most US flyers I’d bet, had never heard of Changsha before it was announced. And while it’s probably still much more convenient to hop one of Hainan’s flights from other US cities to Beijing, or opt for another carrier like China Eastern or China Southern, the fact that Hainan and other airlines have connections from Changsha to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong means that it’s worth considering … especially at this price!
Speaking of which, racking up nearly 28,000 Alaska Award and elite-qualifying miles for $1,358 is also well worth it in my book, as it guarantees at least low-tier MVP elite status for another year, and I can later put those Alaska miles to use on other partners like Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Fiji Airways or even American or Delta if I want to.
Have you, or do you plan to, fly Hainan’s new route from Los Angeles to Changsha? Share your experiences in the comments below!
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