Upper-Deck Delight: Air China (747-8) in Business Class From Beijing to New York
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Following a brief layover visit to Beijing, it was time to continue my trip home to New York from Singapore after my flight to Changi on the world's longest flight. The first leg was onboard Air China's new 787-9 Dreamliner, while my final flight was operated by the airline's Boeing 747-8 — easily one of my favorite wide-body planes.
There wasn't any business-class award availability — saver awards on Air China's 747-8 flight from Beijing (PEK) to New York-JFK were quite hard to come by at the moment, though there were some dates you could book for 75,000 miles via Aeroplan or 80,000 miles via United MileagePlus on flights operated by the 777-300ER.
This time, TPG paid cash for the two-leg trip — with tax, the total came to $1,787 for both business-class flights. We purchased the flight with the Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 5x Membership Rewards points on the $1,787 purchase, for a grand total of 8,935 points — worth $170 in total.
Since I had booked a paid ticket, I was eligible for mileage accrual. I credited the flight to United, earning 6,838 Premier Qualifying Miles plus 8,548 redeemable miles (worth $120) on this one 747-8 leg.
In total, with the 3,487 miles I earned from the Dreamliner flight, I netted $169 worth of United miles, plus the $170 in Membership Rewards points for TPG, bringing the net cost of this flight to $1,448 — not bad for two long-haul flights in business class.
I arrived at PEK about two hours before departure and headed straight for Air China's premium check-in area at Terminal 3. Air China actually offered free transfers to paid business- and first-class travelers, and though I was eligible, I didn't think to look until I was waiting for a taxi — long after the eight-hour cutoff. My ride from the city only cost about $15, though.
The line wasn't long, but it was moving very slowly. In total, I had a 10-minute wait to get my boarding pass, even though I wasn't checking a bag. Be sure to add a bit of a buffer for check-in if you're flying from PEK.
Terminal 3 was built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It's been well-maintained over the past 10 years, so it still felt fresh and clean. Beijing has an enormous new airport on the way, too, which should make flying through PEK an even more pleasant experience in the future.
With only a few minutes to go until boarding, I headed straight for the Air China lounge, accessible to first- and business-class passengers and Star Alliance Gold members. Passengers had to take a train and pass through immigration before reaching the gate area. In total, it took 30 minutes to get from the check-in desk to the lounge.
The lounge wasn't anything special, but though I wouldn't add in extra time for a visit, it was a comfortable place to pass the time before a flight.
I was impressed with the buffet spread, though. It was more expansive than I had expected.
The highlights were the steamed buns. There were several to choose from, including the pork buns pictured here, but they weren't as warm as I would have liked.
There was also a dedicated bar area, but it wasn't staffed during my late-morning visit.
Air China doesn't offer Wi-Fi on board, so I spent a few minutes browsing in the lounge. The connectivity was quite sluggish, and the network was subjected to China's usual internet restrictions — I wasn't able to load Gmail or any of the social-media sites I frequent.
After a few minutes in the lounge, I headed down to the gate area, where I spotted B-2487, our 4-year-old 747-8. Air China also flies 747-8s to San Francisco (SFO), in addition to Frankfurt (FRA) and high-volume flights within China, such as Beijing to Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA) and Guangzhou (CAN).
Boarding began at 12:20pm, some 10 minutes before the time printed on the boarding pass.
Cabin and Seat
Air China's 747-8s have a peculiar layout. Typically, first class is located in the nose, such as on Lufthansa's latest jumbo. On Air China's plane, there were 12 business-class seats there, instead.
Since I entered through the forward door, I had a chance to check out all of the premium sections. Had I not scored a seat on the upper deck, I think I would have been perfectly happy in the nose.
Meanwhile, the two rows of 2-2-2 business seats just behind felt a bit too ordinary. If you're looking for something special, I'd pick the nose or upper deck.
The 12 first-class seats were behind business class, which I'd never seen before. It does make sense, though, considering Air China's first-class seats wouldn't fit in the curved nose section.
The upper-deck stairs were behind first class, just ahead of the first economy section.
Upstairs, 30 seats were arranged in a 2-2 configuration. Air China does have a biz cabin with a 1-2-1 arrangement on the Airbus A350, but the airline offers an older seat on its 747s, 777s and 787s. It's the same seat you'll find on many of United's planes, and while it's fairly comfortable and decent for couples, passengers at the window seats do not have direct aisle access.
As with my other upper-deck 747-8 experience, on Korean Air, the cabin was reminiscent of a spacious narrow-body plane rather than a jumbo jet.
I was in Seat 85L, at the window just three rows from the staircase. It ended up being a great pick — everyone in the rear section lucked out with their own pair of seats.
I was bummed to see that Air China didn't install the upper-deck window bins that you find on other carriers, though. While the overhead bins were full-size, I really love being able to tuck in my bags just to the side of the seat.
Storage was fairly limited in general. The largest compartment was next to the seat.
There was a small compartment to the side of the display as well, intended for a charging cellphone, I imagine.
There was also a small tray underneath the display, and another small compartment under the footrest. At bulkhead seats, this space was wide enough to store a small backpack.
Finally, there was a nifty shoe area to the side of the footrest.
I was disappointed to see that there weren't any individual air vents. The captain also decided to keep the seat-belt sign on for the entire flight. I'm not sure if this is standard procedure, but after a while, I got up to use the bathroom, and the crew never gave me a hard time for standing up at any other point during the flight.
The bathroom itself was spacious for the upper deck of a 747 and was kept clean throughout the flight. There was another lavatory at the front of the cabin, but passengers were instructed to only use the rear lav, with the forward restroom reserved for the crew.
Air China offered L'Occitane amenities in business class, including a nice soft-cover pouch, hand cream, lip balm, a dental set, eye mask, earplugs, comb and a moist towelette. Passengers also got a pair of disposable slippers, which I used for the entire flight.
There was also a pillow at each seat during boarding, and a warm comforter tucked along the side. I used a second blanket as a mattress pad and managed to sleep about five hours on the flight, even though I wasn't especially tired when I boarded.
There were also noise-canceling headphones. They felt cheap but sounded decent, though I decided to use my own Bose set, instead.
The inflight entertainment system was sharp and responsive, with a 15-inch on-demand screen at each seat.
The selection was identical to my Dreamliner flight from Singapore, with a mix of new releases, older Hollywood flicks and an assortment of international films.
There was also a variety of TV shows, but nothing seemed especially appealing, so I ended up sticking to the movie selection.
There was also a moving map, with several on-demand options, including the total route and a high-resolution position view.
You could select content using the wired touchscreen remote or directly on the screen, which I preferred.
Food and Beverage
Shortly after I took my seat, a flight attendant came by offering newspapers and a pre-departure beverage. I asked for Champagne. Air China served Drappier Carte d'Or, which I enjoyed even though I hadn't heard of it before the flight.
About 40 minutes after takeoff, I upgraded to a decent single-malt whisky, a 15-year-old Glenfiddich Scotch. I asked for one ice cube, but it was served with a bunch. No biggie, though.
A small bowl of nuts arrived 10 minutes after that.
Five minutes later was the amuse bouche, with a choice of scallop or beef. I had the scallop, which was bland.
A few minutes later, a flight attendant dropped by to offer a glass of wine ahead of the main meal. I wasn't quite sure what I was in the mood for, so she offered to do a tasting. I didn't love either of the wines I tried, but stuck with the Château Milon Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, a red, since I figured that'd be a better match for my steak.
Moments after I picked my wine, the appetizer tray arrived — this was some pretty efficient service!
The appetizer, a salmon tartare, tasted fresh, as did the salad that came on the side.
I was very excited to see pretzel rolls, too. Well, at least what I thought were pretzel rolls — unfortunately it tasted nothing like a pretzel, and wasn't even warm.
The entree was delivered about 20 minutes after the appetizer. Chinese options included dory fish or braised pork neck, while the Western entrees were a tenderloin with prawns (my pick) or sautéed mushrooms with rice. I really enjoyed my steak once I added salt and pepper.
After the flight, I actually discovered that you could preorder entrees, though I didn't see that option when I tried to pull up my reservation online. I got my first pick for both meals, though, so it didn't end up being necessary either way.
Dessert was an all-in-one affair of white-chocolate cups filled with green-tea mousse and mango, plus a plate of fresh fruits. Cheese and crackers were also available, but I was too full to even consider it by that point. I also ordered a glass of crème de menthe, just to give that a try. The flight attendant seemed a bit confused when I ordered it — I guess it's meant to be mixed with something else. One sip was plenty.
Later, I ventured into the "movie snack" section, where I landed on a bowl of ice cream. Other midflight options included instant noodles, waffles, a hot pastry and yogurt.
I slept for about five hours, waking up over Alaska. A flight attendant appeared at my seat just moments after I woke up, offering fresh fruit, but I wasn't at all hungry at that point.
The lights came up about two and a half hours before landing, when we were served the second meal. This time, the options included dory in red wine sauce, beef noodles with vegetables or a Western pick of mixed seafood in a saffron cream sauce.
I ordered the fish, which I don't believe was actually served in a red wine sauce. It was also a bit on the bland side, and the rice was way overcooked.
While there were some oddities — the seat-belt sign never turning off, for example — I really enjoyed my flight with Air China. In fact, I was so impressed with the crew that I asked to speak with the chief purser so I could share some feedback.
I asked for a comment card and ended up getting a stationery set instead, which I used to write a letter to the airline expressing my gratitude for a surprisingly fantastic flight. The crew was overjoyed, and a flight attendant brought me this fun Air China fridge magnet as a thank you just before we landed.
This is a perfect example of how a fantastic crew can really define the experience. The food wasn't exceptional, there wasn't any Wi-Fi, and the dated seats could certainly benefit from an overhaul, but I walked away with a very positive impression of Air China and the 747-8.
Of course, I can't discount the fact that I didn't have someone sitting next to me — with limited privacy, having a stranger so close by would have certainly impacted the experience quite a bit. If you do fly Air China's 747-8, I recommend a seat on the upper deck, and perhaps closer to the back. It seems that's your best shot at having a more enjoyable flight.