Service With a Smile: Air China Economy Between Panama City and Houston
Last week, I reviewed the business-class experience on Air China's new fifth-freedom route between Houston (IAH) and Panama City (PTY). After the inaugural run to Panama City, I turned right around and flew on the same plane right back to Houston — this time in economy. Here's a full review of the experience.
As mentioned in my business-class review of the reciprocal flight, China and Panama will begin negotiations for a free trade deal this upcoming June. In anticipation of this international alliance, Air China's new route officially launched on April 5, departing from Beijing (PEK) and stopping in Houston (IAH) before continuing on to Panama City (PTY). Before this route was established, travelers would have had to make multiple stops and possibly switch carriers in order to travel between China and Panama. Indeed, Air China called its new Panama route “a natural extension of the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,” a reference to a modern-day version of the trade route that once connected China to Europe across Asia.
Because the full routing is Beijing - Houston - Panama, this is also a rare fifth-freedom flight — one that's operated by a foreign carrier between two foreign countries as part of service connecting those points to the airline’s home country. If you fly Emirates from New York to Athens or Milan on a flight that then continues to Dubai, for example, you're on a fifth-freedom flight — something that aviation enthusiasts like to seek out and "collect."
Just like with the business-class leg, there were no options available for booking this exact flight with points and miles. Thus, my $592 flight was booked for me using the American Express Business Centurion Card in order to take advantage of the card's 50% points rebate feature. While this flight couldn't be booked with miles, I did enter my United MileagePlus number so that I could earn miles with United on this Star Alliance partner flight. As of April 13, the mileage still hasn't posted to my MileagePlus account, but my ticket was booked into W class, meaning I'll earn 50% award miles and 50% Premier qualifying miles (PQMs).
I had just flown into Panama a few minutes prior, so my check-in experience wasn't exactly orthodox — I literally passed through customs and immigration in the arrivals terminal, then went up one flight of stairs to the departures terminal. At least I collected a Panamanian passport stamp!
It took me a minute or two to find the right counter — because the Air China check-in counter is so new, there were no signs for it when I was checking in. I flagged down a very nice airport staff member, who also had no idea where the counter could be found. However, she, as with every single other airport employee I met that day, knew about the Air China inaugural flight.
I eventually found the check-in desk (thanks to the assistance of not one, but two airport employees). The gate agents were really nice. I was assisted by both an older gentleman as well as a younger female gate agent. I could tell he was training her, as he directed her through the whole process in whispered Mandarin. I was the only passenger at the counter, so it really didn't matter that the process took a little longer than I would've expected.
The process of getting back through security and customs was very simple and straightforward: An agent took a quick visual scan of my passport and boarding pass, asked me if my luggage was all my own, and waved me through. The screening was relatively rigorous, as I had to take my shoes off and laptop out of my bag, but it was quick regardless.
Airport and Lounge
I didn't really have time to look for a lounge this time around, because the entire Tocumen International Airport was consumed by the frenzy of a party at the gate honoring of the inaugural Air China flight.
Once I finally reached the gate, there was yet another security check where I had to scan my bags again. This seems to be the norm on flights from overseas that are US-bound.
Cabin and Seat
Once we finally made it back through security and onto the jet bridge, I found the Panamanian ground crew still as enthusiastic as they'd been when I got off the same plane just two hours prior. I stopped to snap a few more pictures of this beautiful plane:
Once I boarded, I was startled by a very loud "Welcome back!!" accompanied by giggles. I looked up from my boarding pass into the eyes of all the same flight attendants I'd had on the flight down — they were tickled pink to see me again so soon.
The economy cabin consists of 261 seats arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration, more generous than the 3-4-3 arrangement that the vast majority of airlines are using these days. Plus, each seat featured 32 inches of pitch. Considering that I'm more used to enduring the 30-inch pitch of United's Airbus 319-operated connecting flights between Austin and Houston, this seat felt downright roomy.
The flight was very empty, so I asked the flight attendant if I could switch to a window seat. She enthusiastically asked me to seat myself wherever I wanted, saying in Chinese, "Because you support us [for having been on both of our inaugural flights], we support you!" I found this very endearing.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that each seat included a footrest — a nice touch that help short legs like mine avoid uncomfortable hovering for many hours. Storage space was minimal: It was limited to the standard magazine holder pouch. The seatback trays were wide but very shallow.
I found the provided pillows and blankets to be of surprisingly nice quality. They were soft, comfortable and made of breathable materials that didn't stick to my skin or feel scratchy.
Power outlets were available for every two out of three seats in the economy cabin — it's sort of odd that each seat doesn't have its own outlet, but it's not actually uncommon among airlines to distribute outlets in this way in coach.
The seats didn't really recline much, but the reasonably generous pitch made the experience comfortable enough that I was able to fall asleep mid-flight in my bulkhead seat.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
While my blankets were really nice, the same could not be said about the double-prong economy-class headphones. In my business-class review, I reported that the noise-canceling headphones offered in that cabin were top notch; the same unfortunately was not at all true of the cheapies available in economy. These featured the ubiquitous, poor-quality foam-covered earpieces and were quite scratchy with a lot of static.
Just like in business class, the entertainment options skewed heavy on the Chinese side. I found the music offerings particularly intriguing, as my options were folk songs, Chinese pop, folk music and classical. The descriptions were flowery, directly translated from the original Mandarin and not at all edited for the prosaic English language.
Wi-Fi wasn't available on this leg either. Again, it was unclear if that's due to this having been a special flight, or if that'll continue to be the case, considering that Air China advertises that these aircraft do indeed have Wi-Fi onboard. For any travelers planning to knock out some work onboard, it would be a good idea to plan ahead for offline projects.
Food and Beverage
Soon after takeoff, a flight attendant stopped by to ask me what I would like to drink. To my surprise, she didn't bring the drink cart, instead choosing to take my order as if I were in a restaurant. I asked for a menu, but she told me she didn't have one. I asked for sparkling water, which threw the flight attendant for a bit of a loop. She quickly offered to "walk up to business class to get me a can of soda water," which was when I realized that the coach cabin did not, in fact, include the carbonated drink staple I've come to take for granted on US carriers.
I quickly retracted my order, not wanting to utilize my status as "the repeat customer from the first flight" to acquire special privileges that would not be afforded to other economy passengers. The flight attendant and I got into a quiet "politeness war" where I didn't want her to break the rules for me, and she didn't want to disappoint me by not bringing me sparkling water.
We compromised by having her bring out the drink cart for me, so I could snap a photo of what was available. The options included Coca-Cola, Sprite, several juices, beer and red or white wine. Apparently ginger ale and sparkling water are premium-cabin items on Air China, while beer and wine are free to the masses? Interesting...
She also took a moment to demonstrate to me the difference between the two types of plastic cups offered onboard Air China CA 886. The white plastic cup is for the elderly and for children, because it's more flexible and heat-resistant; the clear cup is more elegant for that higher-class experience. I found this to be a very heartwarming explanation.
Dinner was served almost immediately after drink service. I was served bento box appetizer featuring blueberry cake, quinoa, and a roll. I was told it was a specialty for the inaugural flight, so I'm not sure what will be served in its place on future flights. I would give the quinoa a 6/10 rating, and the blueberry cake a 4/10 rating. The roll was an 8/10 when adjusted for airplane quality — a 4/10 without the curve.
Moving on to the main entree, I was offered a choice between chicken and beef. These were of standard economy-class quality — a solid 5/10 and nothing to write home about. The herbs in the chicken seasoning were a surprisingly nice touch, and the powdered mashed potatoes tasted vaguely buttery. Both proteins were on the dry side, and the formerly frozen veggies were lackluster.
About 30 minutes after dinner service concluded, an unexpected surprise appeared. Two flight attendants trundled a large cart through the curtain partition from the premium cabins, upon which rested a full-size sheet cake. Intrigued, I sat up a little taller to watch as the crew proceeded to serve up a generous chunk of cake to every single passenger on board. They even brought real china plates and silverware from the business-class section, since economy doesn't have extra flatware to use.
The official photographer proceeded to document the entire process, offering guidance on how to best present my cake for plating attractiveness. "A strawberry for you," the purser said with the gravity of a king, bowing a little bit as he formally presented me my dessert with both hands as a show of courtesy. This was all very enchanting.
Then I was urged by all three men to stand up for a photo with the flight attendants "to help commemorate this auspicious occasion." Yes, the seat-belt sign was off.
The cake was a coconut tres leches cake frosted with a very airy whipped cream frosting, and was the best thing I ate on board.
As with the inbound flight from Houston to Panama, the airline's quality of customer service is definitely one of the highlights of Air China's economy class. Another memorable detail was the above-average bedding offered, while the quality of the headphones was poor enough to mention again.
Overall, I would say that this route is a solid option for any travelers looking to reach Panama directly from Houston. From a value perspective, I think the flight prices will have to drop a little bit in order for the product to be competitive, as the overall experience is on-par with what you'd encounter on US airlines. But the quality of service was first-class across all cabins, and Air China employees clearly are willing to go the extra mile to make the experience as positive as they can. I would happily take this flight again... with a two-prong adapter for my own headphones.
May 30 update: After multiple phone calls to the United Airlines Premier Priority desk, I was able to request credit for the IAH-PTY flights by manually submitting photos of my ticket stubs, ticket confirmation receipts, and full flight details.
All images shot on an iPhone X by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy.