Pleasant surprise: A review of Air China's 747-8 in first class from Beijing to New York
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[tpg_rating ticket-class="first" tpg-rating-score="78" ground-experience="13" cabin-seat="16" amens-ife="10" food-bev="22" service="17" pros="Wide-open first-class award space and an unexpectedly delicious meal." cons="Limited Western-food options and a forgettable ground experience" /]
There's no way around the fact that mainland Chinese airlines have an abysmal reputation, especially compared to nearaby competitors like Cathay Pacific and EVA Air, who are among the world's best. But since moving to Shanghai about a year and a half ago, I've been curious about testing this widely held assumption myself.
My first two attempts -- flying business class with China Eastern on both a 777-300ER and brand-new 787 -- left me sorely disappointed. But there was one product I was still dying to try before I threw in the towel: Air China's 747-8 first class. Air China is one of just three carriers (along with Korean Air and Lufthansa) to order the next-generation 747. With airlines around the globe retiring their older 747-400s in favor of more fuel-efficient planes, these three airlines will be the last ones to operate the beloved Queen of the Skies into the next decade and hopefully beyond. When a trip home to the U.S. happened to coincide with a award sale from Avianca LifeMiles, I knew it was my chance to finally sample Air China's first class.
I'll admit I went in with low expectations, but that made the ensuing flight a much more pleasant surprise. With just a few tweaks here and there, Air China is not that far off from offering a highly competitive first-class experience.
One thing Air China undeniably has in its favor is how generous it is with premium cabin award space, especially on flights to the U.S. Even better, we were able to take advantage of a 10% off sale that Avianca LifeMiles was running on select routes to bring the cost down even further. We ended up paying 81,000 LifeMiles and $54 for the 13-hour flight, a price that's much closer to the 75,000 miles you'd normally pay in business class.
Since Air China is a member of Star Alliance, you can also book this award through Aeroplan (105,000 miles), United MileagePlus (140,000 miles), and Singapore KrisFlyer (140,000 miles). Cash prices on this route tend to sit just above $10,000, giving us a phenomenal redemption value of 12.6 cents per mile.
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Air China has a dedicated first- and business-class check-in area at the far end of Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport (PEK), not to be confused with the new airport, Beijing Daxing (PKX). Normally, I would've made a beeline here as soon as arriving at the airport, but I was traveling with a special guest who needed extra help checking in.
Further Reading: Inside Beijing’s new Daxing Airport, the world’s largest single terminal
China doesn't have much in the way of animal shelters even in the major cities, so a number of organizations have popped up across the country to help fly dogs rescued off the street or from the meat trade to rescue organizations in the west that can help them find a good home.
In this case I had the honor of transporting Leo, a drop-dead gorgeous, 2-year-old lab who was being rescued by the Forever In My Heart Foundation in New York to train as a service dog for a disabled veteran.
The rescue organization handled all of the logistics for Leo and covered the cost of checking him in the cargo hold with Air China. Two people met me at the airport to assist with the check-in process, which took no more than five minutes. We had to go to a special check-in counter, but there was no line, and since the people from the rescue organization were Chinese, they were able to answer any questions from the check-in agent with no issues.
After that, they took Leo to the oversized baggage area while I made my way through security.
When I landed at New York-JFK, Leo's new family was waiting for me as soon as I exited customs. He was home and asleep on the couch well before I made it to my airport hotel for the night. So for zero dollars and maybe 30 minutes of my time, I was able to help save a life and give Leo a bright future and a veteran in need a trusty companion.
If you're traveling from China to the U.S. and want to volunteer your time to rescue a dog in need, you can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and mention The Points Guy in your email.
After dropping Leo off, I took the train to the international concourse and cleared customs. Lines were mercifully short, but I didn't see any expedited security line for premium-cabin passengers like they have at Shanghai Pudong (PVG).
Once I cleared security, there were plenty of signs to the Air China first-class lounge, though the construction on the ground level partially obscured some of them.
Both the business- and first-class lounges were accessible to Priority Pass members and Star Alliance Gold passengers, which made for a decent-sized crowd. I can't remember ever having to wait before to check in to a first-class lounge, and it appeared that some people were even being turned away (though as a ticketed first-class passenger I had no problem getting in).
I understand why Air China would want to drive incremental revenue from its lounges by opening them up to Priority Pass members, but this makes the experience feel much less exclusive. In fact, from the time I checked in to the moment I boarded the plane, my experience as a first-class passenger was absolutely identical to that of an economy passenger with a Chase Sapphire Reserve® or The Platinum Card® from American Express.
The lounge had sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows and plenty of natural light, though not much in the way of good planespotting.
There was plenty of different kinds of seating along the windows and in the interior of the lounge. There were about 100 to 150 passengers in the lounge when I was there, so it was hard to find a seat near an outlet.
The lounge had a few small drink and snack stations spread around, as well as one main dining area. As I was attempting to snap some photos of the food, an agent came up and told me that photography was forbidden. I didn't want to get flagged as a troublemaker or blow my cover, so I put my phone away. Suffice it to say there were a number of different hot foods, including rice, noodle and meat dishes.
At the end of the day, some of the same factors that make Asia the best continent for short-haul flying work against it for long-haul passengers. In my experience, Asian airlines don't differentiate between their short-haul international premium-cabin passengers (like those flying two hours from Beijing to Seoul) and long-haul passengers, like our flight going to New York. This leads to crowded lounges (before you add in all the Priority Pass members) and a ground experience that's simultaneously excessive for those short hops and not quite enough for long-haul passengers.
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Our flight was delayed by an hour and a half, so at 1:30 p.m., our original scheduled departure time, I made my way to the gate just in time to see our beautiful 747-8 taxiing in.
Our five year old 747-8 is the second youngest of the six in Air China's fleet. You'll catch it flying domestic routes to Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA) and Guangzhou (CAN) as well as long haul routes like New York, Frankfurt (FRA) and San Francisco (SFO).
While most 747 fans look forward to grabbing a seat on the upper deck or in the nose of the plane, this is the only aircraft I know of where the first-class cabin isn't actually the first one on the plane. Instead, the nose and upper deck are home to business class. I'll begrudgingly admit that I understand this decision, as Air China's first-class seats wouldn't fit well in the curved space of the nose.
Even after turning right from the forward boarding door, there's another two-row business class minicabin to pass through before finally reaching first class. There are three rows of first class, each laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration, for a total of 12 seats.
My first impression of Air China's first-class product was that the cabin itself felt nice and spacious. The orange pillows and headrests on each seat added a nice pop of color, as well.
I was in seat 2L, the right-side window seat in the middle row of the cabin.
All six passengers in first class on this flight appeared to be traveling solo, but the middle seats featured a retractable divider, making it easy to talk to a companion during the flight.
To the left of the seat was a small storage compartment, big enough for your wallet and phone but not much else.
On the other side was a pop-open compartment that housed the IFE remote, the outlet and USB ports, and another small storage area.
There was a gap of about 6 inches between the seats and the window.
Speaking of windows, I ended up with between four and a half and five windows, depending on where you decided to draw the lines between rows. The most I've ever had before was four, and as someone who places a lot of value on the free entertainment that a window provides, this made me very happy.
While I wasn't initially sure how I felt about first class not being in the nose of the plane, the upside was that I got to watch the beautiful 747 wing flex as we took off.
While the seat was a bit short on storage for small items, I liked being able to store my backpack under the ottoman during takeoff and landing instead of having to put it in an overhead bin.
I was honestly surprised that Air China didn't install closing doors on these seats. The bones of these seats were similar to other fully enclosed first-class products (like the seats Asiana has on its A380s)...
But instead of a closing door, all you got was a small closet, big enough to hang a jacket and not much else.
After lunch, I had the flight attendant make my bed up. Both the bed itself and the bedding were comfortable, but I wished the mattress pad had been wider. Every time I rolled over it kept getting tangled up, to the point that I mostly used it as a blanket and slept directly on the seat.
I of course made sure to check out the beautiful staircase to the upper deck (right behind the first-class cabin), but unlike on the monstrous A380s, there weren't any special amenities like a bar or lounge on this plane.
There were two bathrooms in the galley area behind first class. Both were a decent size. The flight attendants did a good job keeping them clean and shooing away all the premium economy passengers who kept trying to use them.
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Waiting at my seat upon boarding was a pair of headphones set up on a little stand made out of the case. Normally I'd use my own Bose QC35s during a long flight like this, but the headphone jack was in such a small crevice in the pocket next to the seat that I couldn't get my cord+3 prong adapter in without ripping it. These headphones were fine from a sound-quality perspective, though the ear pieces were too small to fit over my ears completely, and I'm pretty small to begin with.
Shortly after I settled in, a flight attendant came by and insisted on unwrapping my slippers for me and then actually placing them on my feet. Talk about top-notch service!
I also found a L'Occitane amenity kit waiting at my seat. The kit itself was a pretty cheap and lightweight material, though it certainly included all the basics: hand cream, lip balm, toothbrush, eye mask, etc.
In terms of both design and contents, this kit was nearly identical to the one I'd received in China Eastern business class a year earlier (shown below), and I've heard that Air China also gives out a similar kits to its own business-class passengers. I have no complaint here, but I will say that Air China missed an easy opportunity to differentiate its first-class product.
Before we pushed back, a flight attendant came by to offer me pajamas. They only loaded one size for men, large, and these just barely fit me.
I liked the design, including the red piping and patterned buttons.
Inflight entertainment has been a pain point for my previous travel with Chinese airlines, so I was delighted to see that Air China had a crisp, 26-inch touchscreen TV at every seat. Though there were basically no Western shows, the IFE selection included a decent number of Hollywood movies.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Bollinger La Grande Annee Brut 2007" dine-on-demand="yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Food and beverage was where I had the lowest expectations for this flight and (I still can't believe I'm writing this), also one of the areas where Air China excelled.
Shortly after settling in, I was offered a glass of Champagne and a hot towel. Air China serves Bollinger La Grande Annee Brut 2007, which retails for about $130 a bottle. I was even offered a refill before we pushed back, which I find to be a rare occurrence even on five-star airlines like Emirates or Singapore.
Menus and wine lists were already waiting at each seat, and the flight attendants came around to take orders while we were on the ground. She initially said that the first meal would be served at 5:30 p.m. (nearly two hours after takeoff), but I asked if it would be possible to eat right away, and she happily obliged.
About 45 minutes after takeoff, the first round of drinks was served, along with a bowl of warm nuts and another hot towel.
Immediately after that, my table was set and I was offered a trio of canapés: beef pastrami, marinated scallop with salmon roe and lobster with cranberry. The meats were fresh and delicious, but the bread they were served on had a grainy taste that competed with, rather than complemented, the flavor.
Next I was served an appetizer of prawns with orange slices and a small side salad. This was a simple dish, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The flight attendant also placed a flower on my table.
Next came a small salad with a choice between balsamic or Thousand Island dressing. Again, a simple dish, but fresh and flavorful.
At this point, I was also offered a personal breadbasket including a sesame roll, a pretzel roll, two pieces of garlic bread and a bagel (an odd choice to accompany my Chinese lunch).
Next was an asparagus cream soup, a perfect pairing with the garlic bread and not nearly as heavy as it sounds.
My flight featured a choice of three Chinese main courses or two Western ones (cod with pesto cream sauce or stir-fried vegetables). I was the only non-Chinese passengers in the cabin, but I think Air China could offer one more Western dish like a pasta on this route to New York.
Before my flight, I was able to preorder my meal online. This process wasn't easy, and it took a few back-and-forth emails for Air China to access my Avianca-issued ticket. I ended up ordering the Sichuan Kung Pao shrimp, which the flight attendant confirmed when she was taking my order.
I can't say enough good things about this dish: The shrimp was spicy without being overpowering, and I loved the green peas and lotus root (my favorite vegetable). While China Eastern seems determined to overcook veggies and rice in every cabin, Air China executed this dish to perfection.
Throughout the meal, the flight attendants were proactive about refilling my Champagne, though rather than bring the bottle to my seat, they just disappeared into the galley and returned with a new glass.
I was completely stuffed at this point, so I passed on the cheese plate and went right to fruit and dessert. My menu showed a few different choices for dessert, but the flight attendant simply asked me, "Do you want some cake?"
(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.)
About two hours before landing, the lights were turned on for the prearrival meal. To start, there was a salad with foie gras (which I picked off), and what the menu described as vinaigrette dressing (though the small plastic container I was given tasted more like Thousand Island). The presentation had been nearly perfect up until this point, but there's no reason to serve dressing in a plastic container like that in first class.
For my main, I had the beef noodle soup with vegetables. The broth was hearty and flavorful, and the meat was much leaner and better cooked than I was expecting. I would've liked fruit and yogurt for what felt like a breakfast meal according to my body clock, but I couldn't complain about this.
(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.)
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="17" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="Yes" /]
This is where I'm a little conflicted about Air China. On the one hand, service was great. My dishes were cleared promptly, my glass was never empty, and when I rang the call button to ask for extra water during the flight, it was answered with a smile and my request was promptly fulfilled. I also have to applaud the crew on this flight for hustling to truly execute a dine-on-demand experience, as it seemed like all six passengers in the cabin were on different eating and sleeping schedules.
That being said, there were a few times were the service felt robotic and not especially personal, though I'm not sure how much of that to chalk up to the language barrier. I've flown with crews who spoke worse English and still made a better attempt to get to know me and personalize the service, but I can also respect a more reserved approach.
With business class separated from us by just a thin curtain, the flight attendants frequently darted between the galley and the business-class cabin, which got disruptive at night. I was also surprised that at the end of the flight, the crew didn't come around and thank me for flying with Air China or offer any takeaway goodies like a box of chocolates. This certainly doesn't affect how much I enjoyed the flight, but it's a ubiquitous element of the first- and, in some cases, business-class experience, and it's a small detail Air China could tweak to better match their competition.
I went into this flight expecting, for the third time this year, to be wowed by the hard product and sorely disappointed by the soft product. Instead, Air China's 747-8 first class was an incredibly enjoyable experience from the minute I boarded the plane. The seats were spacious and private enough (though a closing door would have been nice), and both meals really blew me out of the water. When you combine wide-open award space to the U.S. with the amazing LifeMiles sale we were able to take advantage of, this is a product I really wouldn't hesitate to fly again.