Something's Missing: Air China (787-9) in Business From Singapore to Beijing
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After my 18-hour adventure on the world's longest flight, it was time to make my way back home from Singapore. I could have simply booked the same flight back to Newark from Singapore, but I wanted to find something interesting to review, eventually landing on Air China with a connection in Beijing.
While award availability is generally quite good on this route, there weren't any seats from Singapore (SIN) available on the date I needed to travel. If you do find open seats, you can book a one-way business-class ticket for 40,000 Aeroplan miles or 45,000 United miles — a bit steep for a six-hour flight.
Instead, I booked the flight with cash, including a connecting leg on Air China's 747-8 from Beijing (PEK) to New York-JFK. With tax, the one-way itinerary came to $1,787, and I was able to add a Beijing stopover for free.
While it's not at all uncommon for airlines to operate wide-body planes on short flights within Asia, Singapore to Beijing is actually one of the longer intra-Asia routes you can fly — nearly 2,800 miles direct. It's out of the range of many smaller planes. It's also quite a long journey — about six hours, or roughly the same amount of time as a transatlantic flight from New York to London (LHR).
I decided to credit the flight to United MileagePlus, my Star Alliance program of choice. Since I was traveling on a discounted business-class fare, booked into the R fare class, I earned 125% redeemable miles on United.
This one leg netted me a total of 3,487 redeemable miles, worth about $49 based on our valuations, plus 2,789 Premier Qualifying Miles and one Premier Qualifying Segment.
Additionally, because we purchased the flight with the Platinum Card® from American Express, TPG earned 5x Membership Rewards points on the $1,787 purchase, for a grand total of 8,935 points — worth another $170. Not a bad haul.
I was a bit jet-lagged from my journey to Singapore, so I made my way to Changi Airport earlier than I would have otherwise, arriving at Terminal 1 a few minutes after 5am — some four hours ahead of my flight. My plan was to just use my printed boarding pass to enter the terminal and find a bite to eat, but apparently my pass had to be "endorsed" in person.
The main check-in counters weren't set to open until 6am, but I was eligible to use the Premier check-in section, staffed 24 hours a day.
Check-in took a few minutes, and the experience was easy-peasy from there — the Premier area had a door that led directly to immigration, and since the airport offered automated gates and security screening was done prior to boarding, I was in the terminal area just a minute or two after getting my boarding pass.
Changi is best known for its free attractions, like a butterfly garden and the water-lily garden seen below. I visited the latter for the first time on this trip, and, boy, was it a letdown — a glorified smoking station, essentially.
I quickly headed back inside, where I knew I'd be safe from secondhand smoke. My first stop: Air China's contracted lounge, the SATS Premier Lounge.
Given that it was still before 6am, I wasn't surprised to find the lounge almost entirely empty.
The SATS lounge was accessible to Priority Pass guests as well, so you didn't need to be flying a partner airline to get in.
There was a large buffet area, with a mix of Asian and Western breakfast foods.
I headed right for the self-service noodle bar.
I also took this opportunity to try local delicacies I hadn't had before, including Singapore carrot cake, which is entirely different than what you'll find in the US. (It's really a radish stir-fry.)
There was free Wi-Fi, but it was quite sluggish by Singaporean standards, so I wouldn't expect to be downloading loads of content before your flight.
Since Air China is a member of the Star Alliance, I had access to other lounges as a business-class passenger.
My first stop was the Thai Royal Orchid Lounge, right next door. It was considerably smaller, and much more crowded. I was informed that it would only be open until 7:20am that morning but would reopen later in the day.
I found the food selection to be lacking — if you have access to SATS, I'd definitely head straight there instead.
With more than two hours left to go until departure, I took the train over to Terminal 3, home to Singapore's huge SilverKris Lounge. It was crowded, but there was still plenty of seating, given how large the space was.
There was a generous food spread there too, including a soup bar, where I helped myself to a wonton soup.
Eventually, I headed back over to Terminal 1. This time I walked (it took 10 minutes to get from one terminal to the next) rather than take a two-minute train.
Security screening was handled directly at the gate, and it was just a short wait until it was time to board at 8:20am — 10 minutes ahead of the time printed on my pass.
I got to experience Air China's Dreamliner within Asia, but the carrier also flies the 787 to Los Angeles (LAX), Montreal (YUL), Newark (EWR) and a handful of destinations in Europe. Our particular flight was operated by a one-year-old 787, with registration B-1466.
Cabin and Seat
Passengers boarded via two jet bridges, one at the front of business class, and the second just behind. The crew seemed friendly right off the bat — I was greeted with a smile, and made my way to my seat (15A) as dramatic music played in the cabin. (I'm pretty sure they were playing the soundtrack to "The Lion King.")
Air China's 787-9s feature 30 lie-flat business-class seats arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration. It's the exact same model you'll find on some of United's planes, including the 787-8 and 787-9 Dreamliners.
Seats in a 2-2-2 configuration are great if you're traveling with a companion, but far less pleasant if you're sitting next to a stranger. Since these seats aren't especially private, I picked a window seat at the far back to minimize my chances of being disturbed.
I had to climb over my neighbor to access the aisle, but 15A did end up being especially quiet — I wouldn't hesitate to sit there again.
If you've flown United over the years, you've probably seen these seats. They're a bit dated, but, like United, Air China's moving to a 1-2-1 configuration soon.
Even though I was flying Air China's Dreamliner for the first time, I knew where to find everything except the USB charging port, next to the IFE display on this plane.
There was not a ton of storage: a small open area to the side of the top of the seat and a literature compartment further down.
There was also a small shelf beneath the 15-inch inflight entertainment system, which is where I stored my phone while it was charging.
Non-bulkhead seats had a narrow footwell, so if that's going to bother you I'd recommend sitting in Row 11 instead. I'm used to the footwell, though, and found it to be more comfortable than the Singapore version I was stuck with on the flight out.
The seat controls were straightforward and offered granular adjustments.
While I didn't sleep much on this daytime flight, the seats did go to the lie-flat position — ideal for the red-eye flight Air China operates on this same route.
The lavatories were your standard Dreamliner variety, and were kept clean throughout the flight.
And, of course, Air China's 787-9 had my favorite Dreamliner feature of all: those giant, dimming windows. The crew locked them in the fully transparent mode until takeoff, but the dimmer switches activated shortly after that.
You really can't beat that view!
There wasn't much to speak of on the goodies front. Air China doesn't seem to offer amenity kits on intra-Asia flights, even a long haul like Singapore to Beijing. Aside from the pillow on my seat and blankets available upon request, the only amenity I received was a pair of disposable slippers. Considering this flight is about the same distance as a flight from New York to London, you wouldn't be off-base to expect a little more in the way of amenities.
And a China Daily newspaper, if you're willing to count that.
There was also perfume, a moisturizing toner and lotion in the lavatory.
While the seats looked the same as United's, the seat-back screens had a far more modern (and responsive) interface, making it easier to select content, and jump to a specific point in a film or TV show.
The selection of Hollywood films wasn't quite as extensive as what you'd find on Western carriers, but there were still 80 movies to choose from, including a handful of new releases. Some of the films were heavily edited, though, sometimes with hilarious substitutions.
I ended up operating the system directly on the main screen — the touchscreen remote looked fancy, but it was a huge pain to use. The only time it actually seemed to do anything was when it paused or fast-forwarded through a movie whenever I accidentally bumped it with my elbow.
On the other hand, the provided headphones sounded better than they looked. They weren't all that comfortable, though, so I switched to my Bose set.
Food and Beverage
There was one meal service offered on this flight. Shortly after boarding, I was offered a choice of juice, water or sparkling wine, along with a hot towel.
The service wasn't quite as prompt after our on-time takeoff, however. The first item, a small package of nuts and dried cranberries, didn't appear until we had been in the air for 40 minutes.
My choice of beverage, a Yanjing beer, arrived five minutes after that.
Then the service picked up a bit: My table was set and an appetizer tray arrived about an hour after takeoff.
There were both Western and Chinese options. The Western meal offered an appetizer of prawns with orange slices, hot smoked salmon with roasted pear and a quenelle of chantilly with horseradish. The Western main was a braised beef tenderloin with mushrooms, mashed potatoes, green beans and diced pumpkin with cherry tomatoes, while dessert was a chocolate brownie and seasonal fresh fruit.
I ordered the Chinese meal, however, which consisted of three appetizers, including a salad (above) and drunken chicken (below).
Another, the marinated teriyaki salmon, had been replaced by a small dish of veggies.
And then the seasonal fresh fruits, listed under the dessert section on the menu, were delivered with the appetizers as well.
For the main course, I had a choice between steamed fish with sauce along with mixed vegetables and stir-fried choy sum with garlic; or chicken with Cantonese soy sauce with stir-fried bean sprouts, Szechuan vegetables, sautéed sugar peas with black beans. I chose the steamed fish, which arrived just 15 minutes after the appetizers. It was bland but filling enough.
For dessert, I had my pick of the Chinese option (blueberry cheesecake), the Western option (chocolate brownie) or a plate of cheese. I went with the brownie — it was a bit drier than I was expecting, so I just picked at the icing a bit and called it a day.
All in all, this was another great Dreamliner flight. Air China's intra-Asia business class was pretty low-frills — it's comparable to a premium domestic flight within the US, perhaps, though with less amenities. That said, the seats were comfortable, and the service was friendly and efficient, though I do wish the airline offered Wi-Fi.
I enjoyed my Changi ground experience as well. It's especially nice that an Air China business-class ticket can get you access to several different lounges, so you can easily pass the time trying them out.