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Following his flight on Hainan Airlines’ new route from Los Angeles to Changsha aboard a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen caught a connecting flight on Hainan’s A330-300 in business class on the short hop from Changsha to Beijing. Here’s his review of the experience. (All photos are by the author.)
A $1,358 round-trip business-class ticket to Asia was too good for me to pass up — the only thing was, I didn’t actually want to spend much time in Changsha if I could avoid it. Instead, I wanted to get to another hub as quickly as possible — like Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong — where I’d have better options for traveling through the rest of the region.
I originally thought I’d spend the first night in Changsha since I would be arriving around 7:00pm, but I figured I would at least have a look around at flights and see what was available.
Orbitz presented some paltry options — just a few nonstop flights from Changsha to Beijing, one to Hong Kong on Dragonair and a few to Shanghai on China Eastern and Hainan Airlines, most of which left before I would be arriving. Whenever I travel to China, I always make sure to check CTrip, too, since the site pulls flights that tend to be more extensive and less expensive.
Sure enough, the search engine found several possible connecting flights leaving around 9:00pm to Beijing and one to Shanghai, though none to Hong Kong that evening (I’d have to wait until the next day to catch the lone Dragonair flight from Changsha to Hong Kong). The options were on Hainan Airlines but also China Eastern, Air China and XiamenAir.
Looking through the choices, I noticed that the best option time-wise was probably Hainan’s own flight at 9:30pm, arriving in Beijing at 11:50pm. It would be a long day, but I figured it would be worth it to get all the way to my final destination without having to overnight in Changsha and get back to the airport for another flight. Plus, if anything went wrong with my first flight from LA to Changsha, I’d probably have some recourse about getting rebooked on another Hainan flight to Beijing.
Even better, though the 787 I would arrive on would turn around and fly straight to Beijing, the later flight I was looking at would be on an A330-300, which Hainan operates within Asia but also on some of its longer routes to Europe. The airline operates the A330 on flights to some US destinations, including Seattle, so it has an internationally configured business-class cabin — naturally that’s a step up from the usual A321.
Economy tickets were going for as little as 609 CNY (~$94), though that was a major discount and would include virtually no protections or refunds for any changes. If I’d booked an economy ticket, I probably would have opted for one of the slightly pricier options around the 700 CNY (~$108) mark for more of a refund possibility and other perks like priority luggage handling and boarding.
Looking at airfares, I found I could get a first-class ticket for as little as 1,650 CNY (~$255), however the fine print said that first-class service would only be while I was aboard the aircraft itself. In other words, I would be treated as an economy passenger with the same luggage and boarding restrictions and if the aircraft were swapped out, I would not necessarily get seated in business class on the new flight.
In the end, I decided to shell out a bit more cash for the CNY 1,790 (~$277) ticket that included first-class treatment on the ground, at least a partial refund if my plans changed and a guaranteed business-class seat if my plane was changed. It was only CNY 140 more, or about $22, so it seemed worth it to me!
Just for kicks, I went to Hainan’s actual website to see how much it was charging for this flight and the airfare came to CNY 5,270 (~$814) — that’s a difference of more than $500!
I reserved my trip through CTrip and a few hours after my reservation-in-progress email, I got confirmation that I was indeed booked. I did have to call CTrip to secure a seat, though. The ticket booked into the Z fare class, which would earn me 150% award and elite miles on Alaska Airlines for a total of 1,265 miles.
Airport and Lounge
As I mentioned, I was arriving on Hainan’s new flight from Los Angeles to Changsha. When we landed in Changsha, there wasn’t really a way to transit directly to the domestic gates, so I had to pass through customs and immigration and then head back upstairs to the departures terminal and check-in desks.
The airport is actually pretty impressive, with a huge, sweeping roof and wide open spaces. There were some automated check-in kiosks but they only accepted Chinese identification cards so I had to use the check-in counters instead.
The agent didn’t speak too much English, but she just took my passport, found my reservation and printed my boarding pass — her colleague at the next desk then told me to go through a specific security line for premium passengers. The security guard there undid the rope for me and I was ushered right through in about a minute flat.
After that, I went looking for the lounge. I had been given a slip indicating I would have access to Hainan Airllines’ VIP Lounge #2, the one closest to my gate, but when I got there, it was closed. Instead, I went to VIP Lounge #3 a bit closer to the main entrance and I have to say, it was the saddest lounge I have ever visited!
Not only was half of the lounge under construction, but it was about 10 degrees warmer than the already-warm terminal (so I was sweating in about a minute flat), and there were just a few forlorn lines of yellow-gold armchairs with about three power ports between them.
The food area was a total joke. There were some chips, cookies and a drinks fridge containing literally two cans of Sprite — and that was it. There wasn’t even bottled water that I could see, though I did spot two hot-water containers for tea in the corner.
Since there was no Wi-Fi available in the lounge — there was supposedly free Wi-Fi in the terminal, but you seemed to need a Chinese mobile number in order to get a code to use it — I decided to duck out after a few minutes and spent the rest of my layover in a nice little café nearby, where I got a drink and a snack and used an electrical outlet to charge my phone.
About a half-hour before my flight was scheduled to depart, a big line of more than 100 other passengers stood up to board by the gate — even before any announcements had been made. Within a few minutes, though, they started boarding the plane and I waited for about 10-15 minutes while everyone else boarded, then made my way onto the plane.
Cabin and Seat
One of the reasons I wanted to fly this particular route was that it was aboard one of the airline’s other long-haul aircraft, the A330-300, and featured one of its latest business-class products.
The seats on the aircraft are arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration, much like the business-class cabins found on Emirates, Etihad and Thai Airways. Along the sides of the cabin, the seats alternate with big armrests either close to the wall or on the aisle (they provide the foot cubby for the seat behind). The A and K seats along the wall are the ones with the big armrests on the aisle and I snagged one of these to have a bit more privacy.
In the middle section, the rows alternate with seats either separated by two thick armrests, or right next to each other with narrow armrests between them and larger ones on the aisle. It’s not a bad configuration for couples, but if you’re traveling solo, it’s better to book one of the seats on the sides — preferably A or K, which have that wide armrest shielding them from the aisle.
There’s just one single business-class cabin with eight rows, for a total of 32 flat-bed seats. Each is slightly narrower than the 787 seats with just 21 inches of width and 64 inches of pitch, though they recline to about 75 inches. Just for comparison sake, the seats in economy are arranged in a 2-4-2 pattern and are just 19 inches wide with 31-32 inches of pitch, so not too spacious.
I found the seat to be quite comfortable and when reclined, I could stretch all the way out, though it did feel a little narrow at times. I also found it a little strange that the in-flight entertainment screen doesn’t stow, so you sort of have to slip your legs under it to sleep. I’m not that tall, but if my legs had been longer and I’d wanted to put my feet on the footrest with bent knees, I might have been blocking the screen with my legs. All in all, though, I thought it was quite comfy.
In-Flight Entertainment and Amenities
According to Seatguru, the business-class seats on this plane have 10.6-inch personal monitors that are mounted in the preceding seat-back, but in reality, they looked a bit larger. They definitely feel small at this point though, since other carriers are standardizing monitors at 15-17 inches in business class, with some like JAL actually fitting in 23-inch screens.
The entertainment selections were the same as on my international segment, so there were 32 movies — a mix of current releases like The Intern and films that are a few years old like Her, as well as about a dozen Chinese films and a couple European ones. The IFE system was controlled by a handheld remote mounted in the armrest.
Whereas economy has no power ports, the business-class seats have universal adapters and USB ports for charging small electronics, so that’s a nice touch and a good way to keep up with work or recharge during your flight if you need to.
There were slippers waiting for me in the foot cubby of the seat but no amenity kit, though for a two-hour domestic flight, I wasn’t expecting anything more. There were also some very basic headphones wrapped in plastic in one of the little stowage pockets in the armrest.
Food and Beverage
Sometimes when I’m traveling outside the first-level major cities in China, I feel like a minor celebrity. For instance, in Changsha at the check-in counters, several people asked if they could take pictures with me. When I boarded my flight, one of the flight attendants practically screamed with joy to see me and squeezed my arm in excitement when she found out that I was “Mr. Eric Rosen!” The trio of attendants in the front galley seemed so excited to have me aboard and said that I was the first American they’d had on this particular route (which was not entirely surprising).
They certainly treated me like a VIP, helping me with my bags and bringing me water, two bags of nuts and a warm towel. They were not serving alcoholic beverages during the flight, but had plenty of juices and soft drinks.
They were also very excited that I wanted to have a snack on the flight. I didn’t really want to eat much since I’d had a lot on my first flight, but figured I should eat something so that I could just go to bed when I got to the hotel in Beijing. About 20 minutes into the flight, they set up my table, spread out a white tablecloth with utensils and came back with a tray of food.
There was no menu to speak of, but here’s what I got:
- A bowl of fresh melon and oranges
- Some bao buns and an eggroll-like savory pastry
- Cold, sliced duck with pickles and these sort of sliced fish balls stuffed with imitation crabmeat
- A tiramisu-like cream cake with cocoa powder
The eggroll was pretty good and the duck wasn’t bad. The flight attendants were being so nice and attentive that I wanted to be polite and show them I enjoyed it but at the same time, I didn’t want to eat too much. They seemed thrilled that I liked it, though.
I ate quickly because I wanted to take a little nap and as soon as I was finished, they removed my tray and I reclined my bed, received a bright-yellow duvet and stretched out. I only got about 30 minutes of sleep, though — 40 minutes outside Beijing, the captain came on and asked everyone to prepare to land.
At this point, everyone sat upright, strapped in and we flew for another 40 minutes – that was nearly half the flight time! I’m not sure what the regulations in China are for landing prep, but it seemed quite early to get everyone into position. I did manage to doze off again before landing, though.
When we arrived, it took about 15 minutes for them to get the door open. Business-class passengers were out first and shepherded to a VIP shuttle (basically a minibus), then taken to the terminal. From there, I walked through the airport to the taxi line in about two minutes and made my way to the hotel.
For a domestic flight within China, this was a pretty good experience. The aircraft was internationally configured with a nice business-class cabin, the crew members were so friendly and warm and everything ran like clockwork.
It was definitely worth it to have a nice lie-flat business-class seat for getting in a quick nap after a long flight from LA, especially since I was continuing to Beijing the same evening. I also thought the connection time and transfer experience in Changsha was relatively painless and I’m happy I decided to continue to Beijing rather than spend a night there. Instead of spending $120 or so on a hotel in Changsha — the city itself is a good 30-45 minutes from the airport by car — I put that money toward my continuing ticket and stayed in the capital that night, where there were plenty of hotel options.
All in all, this was a great option to have as a connection from Hainan’s new LA-Changsha service and it was a good opportunity to check out the carrier’s other international business-class seats for a relatively modest price.
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