Flight Review: China Airlines (777-300ER) Business Class, San Francisco to Taipei
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Premium-cabin redemptions to Australia are always difficult, but I was intent upon getting to Australia in the comfy seats. And with a little flexibility and luck, I was able to use 80,000 Delta miles and only $47 in taxes to visit three cities en route to Sydney. (Delta miles also transfer from Amex Membership rewards, so it is easy to top off your account if needed.)
For one of those mini-trips on the way to Australia, I managed to work in a flight from San Francisco to Taipei. Here's what I thought of that leg of my journey.
While Delta almost never releases saver availability in premium cabins headed Down Under, I explored the possibility of flying Delta’s partner Virgin Australia, which has snazzy new business-class seats in a reverse-herringbone configuration on its 777-300ER from LAX to Sydney and Brisbane. Unfortunately, the airline only releases partner award space about a week ahead of time if not sold out.
I couldn't wait that long to book flights, so I explored other options. Two that stood out were China Eastern’s new 777 and China Airlines' 777, which have good award space and excellent hard products. I was leaning toward China Airlines, since they have much better catering and service and the new business-class seats on flights to JFK, LAX and SFO look beautiful.
China Eastern and Southern also impose fuel surcharges of about $200 on award tickets. China Airlines released two seats in business from San Francisco International (SFO) to Taipei Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) right when I was checking, so I immediately booked the flights and then called Delta to add on my extra flights. (Delta allows you to have up to four segments with 24-hour connections internationally.)
I saw Garuda had award space in business from Tokyo to Bali, so I connected the dots with a Taipei-to-Tokyo flight. After Tokyo to Bali, Bali to Sydney is a quick five-hour flight and easily available for less than $200 or with points. This itinerary allowed me to see three different cities on the way to Australia, and try two of the nicest business-class products bookable with Delta SkyMiles (TPG editor-in-chief Zach Honig reviewed the very same Garuda flight, and I have to agree that Garuda might have the best soft product of any airline in the world). So after a quick call, I added a day in Tokyo and Taipei, some 25-plus hours of business-class flying!
Airport and Lounge
China Airlines operates from International Terminal A at SFO. Even though I was not checking bags, China Airlines’ site did not allow me to print a boarding pass ahead of time. I was, however, able to select seats. Immediately, a representative whisked me to the front of the Sky Priority lane, and began finding my boarding pass.
Shockingly, the agent asked me to put my carry-on into the bag sizer. I have never had this happen on a business-class flight before, especially considering my bag was relatively small compared with what economy passengers at nearby lanes had. Even after I fit my bag into the sizer, the agent said to her colleague in Chinese, "The bag is too big." I interjected in Mandarin, saying that it fit easily, and suddenly there no longer seemed to be a problem.
The security line was somewhat long, but the Sky Priority lane only had about a five-minute wait.
Since we still had an hour before boarding, we decided to check out the China Airlines lounge, which the airline operates directly, at SFO. The lounge was crowded, which was understandable considering it was the one daily flight to Taipei.
China Airlines did maintain a special room for its elite members, which also was quite small.
What's more, the lack of food choices was disappointing. There was a bar with some drinks and even sushi on display, but knowing that the Air France lounge was right next door, I decided to check that out and compare.
You can access the Air France lounge with a Priority Pass membership, which you get with the American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Prestige card.
The Air France lounge was practically empty and had an open bar with nice food available as well. I would definitely recommend the Air France lounge over the China Airlines lounge if you're flying out late at night, because of thecrowding issues at the China Airlines lounge and Air France’s superior selection of food and drink.
Five minutes before boarding, I walked to the gate, at the end of Terminal A. The boarding process had begun early, so a representative brought us right to the front of the line once he saw we were business-class customers.
We boarded quickly through a dedicated jetway for business-class customers. Overall, the SFO airport experience left something to be desired, but the phenomenal onboard product made up for that.
Cabin and Seat
From the moment I stepped aboard, I was impressed by China Airlines’ service and style. The cabin itself was beautiful, with wood finishings and a beautiful onboard bar and bookshelves.
Business class is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, premium economy in a 2-4-2 configuration, and economy in a 3-4-3 arrangement — the latter a tight fit on the 777, but unfortunately becoming widespread.
The economy section seemed pretty standard, but premium economy was spacious (although not quite as spacious as what Lufthansa or Air New Zealand offer).
In business class, the seat itself was reverse-herringbone style, with every seat having direct aisle access.
I chose seat 10K, which was the first row of business class on the right window side and is ideal for someone traveling alone.
For storage, there were two compartments on the right-hand side, as well as a compartment in the aisle-side armrest, where the amenity kit was hidden.
There was also a convenient space below the console that was perfect for holding a tablet.
China Airlines offered plenty of pillows and blankets to go with the flat-bed seat in addition to the pillow and blanket that was on the seat when I boarded.
There was a 23-inch display at the front of the seat, which I could control with a remote control that was hidden in one of the side compartments.
There was a AC power outlet and two USB ports for charging. The business-class cabin had two bathrooms, both with windows, which is rare. But the most unique aspect of the aircraft was the onboard bar.
The bar consisted of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet that during mid-flight was stocked with snacks and drinks, both alcoholic and soft. On either side of the bar were bookshelves with travel guides about Taiwan, short stories and novels, in both Chinese and English.
A mini library onboard, wow! And above the bookshelves were full coffee and tea selections. There was also an assortment of cookies and other traditional Taiwanese treats.
China Airlines gave passengers a headphone set in the inner compartment, where you could also find USB ports for charging.
The amenity kit hidden inside the aisle-side armrest included moisturizer, an eye mask, socks, comb and toothbrush.
While it was not the most comprehensive amenity kit in the industry, it was compact and had nice products.
China Airlines did not offer passengers pajamas, unfortunately. Inside the same compartment as the amenity kit was a water bottle. Apparently they stock business-class with Evian for the Los Angeles flights, but San Francisco just got Poland Spring!
One thing China Airlines one-ups competitors on is its pillows and blankets, as I previously mentioned. There was a small pillow and blanket on each seat when boarding, but when we were ready for turndown, flight attendants brought a full-sized pillow and duvet.
Despite not having a mattress or pajamas, the large seat and comfy bedding allowed me to sleep for over eight hours on the flight.
Each seat's 23-inch flatscreen was linked to a remote control, but also worked as a touchscreen.
There was a good selection of international as well as American movies and TV shows. An interesting feature of the entertainment system was the USB connection that enabled me to stream movies directly from my phone onto the screen.
China Airlines offered Wi-Fi available for the duration of the flight. I bought a full-flight pass for $22, and it worked well for most of the flight, although there were a couple brief dead zones.
Food and Beverage
Flight attendants brought around pre-departure drinks to the business-class cabin shortly after boarding. I could choose between champagne as well as soft drinks. In addition to the drink selections, I received a hot towel. China Airlines has the meal and drink menus stored inside a compartment.
Make sure to look at the menu right after boarding, because the cabin crew comes through to take orders right away, before takeoff. The silver lining is that that means quick delivery: In less than 30 minutes after takeoff, I was served my meal. This is especially great because many of the airline's US departures are around midnight (SFO 's was 12:05am).
For dinner, I could choose between Chinese and Western-style meals. I opted for the Western. In addition, there was a fairly extensive drink selection, including cocktails, mixed drinks, three red wines and three white wines, as well as great champagne.
For my first course, I had a shrimp and corn dish. It was very good but on the small side.
Next I had a consommé, which had great flavor for being served at 30,000 feet. During each course, I was asked if I wanted bread. The garlic bread was particularly tasty.
For my main course, I had a great chicken with potatoes on the side.
And for dessert, while they did have pretty decadent cakes, I opted for a classic Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and a fruit plate.
During the flight, there were snacks stocked at the bar.
For breakfast, I had an omelet and croissant. Overall, the food was on par with other business-class offerings to Asia.
Cathay and ANA are a touch better, but China Airlines left nothing to complain about.
China Airlines’ new 777-300ER might just have the best hard product of any SkyTeam business-class flight to Asia, save Korean’s new 747-8. The new cabin is beautiful, service is attentive and fast, and the seats and bedding make it easy to sleep. The hard product is one of the best reverse herringbone configurations I have experienced. While the paltry amenity kit and mediocre ground service was disappointing, the great onboard experience easily made up for it.
For people looking to redeem SkyMiles for maximum value, look no further. China Airlines releases four or more seats in business class for almost every flight it operates to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, in addition to its other routes. At 80,000 each way, the rate is steep, but SkyMiles are easy to accumulate and transferable from Amex Membership Rewards.
For even more value, consider adding business-class flights from China Airlines’ hub at Taipei to elsewhere in Asia or even Australia. The Taiwanese airline operates internationally configured 777s and A350s on many short-haul Asia routes, and other SkyTeam partners like Garuda to Indonesia make for terrific value.