Chinese Hospitality to Central America: Houston to Panama on Air China's Biz Class
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This past week, I had the opportunity to review Air China's inaugural fifth-freedom flight between Houston, Texas and Panama City, Panama. It turned out to be an unexpectedly cultural experience that made me feel like I'd stepped foot in China en route to Central America. The crew, the aircraft itself, and the brand itself are all very distinctly Chinese, as one would expect from the flagship carrier of the People's Republic of China.
If I were to sum up the flight experience in a single sentence, I would say that the Air China crew were excellent from beginning to end — but the product itself had some hiccups that need ironing out.
China and Panama established a diplomatic relationship after the Central American country formally terminated ties with Taiwan in 2017. Among other expansions, China has dedicated $1.1 billion toward building a container port at the Atlantic mouth of the Panama Canal, the first joint endeavor between the nations since the partnership was established.
Air China's new route takes the next step in making China and Panama "Facebook official," as the kids would say: The full route departs from Beijing (PEK), stops in Houston (IAH), and continues on to Panama City (PTY). Before this, travelers seeking to get to Panama from Beijing or vice versa would have had to make multiple stops and possibly switch airlines in order to reach their final destination; this new route drops the number of transfers to just one.
In a press release announcing the new route, Air China called its link to Panama “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. With this context in mind, flight CA885 between Houston and Panama City becomes far less random than it might otherwise seem.
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."
From a personal perspective, there were a number of reasons that, in addition to the excitement of conducting my very first flight review, this Houston-Panama route was really special for me: I'm fluent in Mandarin, and I was excited for the opportunity to ask the Chinese flight crew more in-depth questions than their English might otherwise have allowed. Also, I live in Austin, Texas, so positioning myself to reach Houston was very straightforward. Finally, I've been working hard on earning elite status with Star Alliance this year. I mostly fly United, so I jumped at the chance to explore the world of earning via partner airlines.
All told, I got really lucky — my first flight review for TPG just so happened to be one operated by a Star Alliance partner hailing from a country whose language I speak.
The actual process of booking this flight was something of a bear. Because the flight is so new, there weren't any points options for booking. Thus, we used the American Express Business Centurion Card in order to take advantage of the card's 50% points rebate feature.
However, I was able to earn miles for this flight — I submitted my United MileagePlus customer number at the time of booking so I would be able to earn points on this flight. I flew CA885 from Houston (IAH) to Panama (PTY) in Z-class (discount business) on my outbound route, which means I earned 125% the award mile earnings for that leg of the trip. My W-class discount economy seat on CA886 back earned me 50% award miles earnings for the return.
The business-class fare ended up costing $1509.65 one-way, and $592.46 for economy class on the return route.
Like the booking process, checking in was also a pain in the economy-seat tush.
No doubt because this was such a new flight, with relatively little time for the airline to prepare beforehand, I couldn't select my seats ahead of time through United, even though I flew into IAH on United from Austin. So I tried to do so through Air China, only to find that the online system was glitchy; it took me four tries and multiple error messages the night before to even get the check-in page to load properly.
I eventually gave up, and decided to let the gate agent fairies determine my seating fate.
Checking in for my initial flight out of Austin also proved tricky. Even though the tickets were purchased separately, United Airlines was aware that my final destination was outside the country. I'm not sure if it's because I've never been to Panama before, but my stored passport information somehow got deleted from my account, and no amount of updating online or via the mobile app managed to make it stick. So up to the gate kiosks I went, so the gate agents could visually verify my passport. To add insult to injury, the kiosk didn't remember my known traveler number; I had to ask the agent to make sure my TSA Pre-Check designation made it onto my boarding passes.
Ultimately, I ended up with a seat that was just fine, especially since business class was so empty on the inaugural flight, but the overall experience wasn't smooth in the least.
I wasn't the only person confused by the new flight. I made it to IAH in plenty of time, making a pit stop at the United Club in Terminal C to see if they could help me figure out which gate my Air China flight would depart from. Despite the helpful concierges doing their best, they weren't able to pull up the flight on their system, ultimately suggesting that I just make my way to Terminal D and see if the overhead monitors would set me straight. So off I went, leaving United World behind (IAH is one of the carrier's largest hubs in the US).
But once I made my way to Terminal D, all was smooth sailing: The Powers That Be had allocated the front-and-center gate to this special flight, located right in the middle of the “T” where the terminal and gate hallways intersect. The problem was, this prime location meant that a Pandora boutique and a Tumi store flanked each side of the gate, so I couldn’t actually get a good view of the plane itself; an underwhelming plane-spotting attempt for this #AvGeek in training. I did the best I could, winding up at a window a couple gates away to get an angled shot of the tail of the Boeing 777-300ER, where I discovered that we would be flying on the aircraft registered B-2086.
Might I just take a moment here to say how freaking cool it is that we have tools like FlightAware these days, that offer so much insight into the aircraft we fly, as well as where they've been? I’m not an #AvGeek, to my brother's lifelong dismay, but this job is fast teaching me to respect the love and knowledge that goes into the passion.
On my way back to Gate D7, I noted to myself that Terminal D was singularly empty, even for a Thursday late-morning.
Airport and Lounge
As far as lounges goes, I had free access to exactly zero of the lounges in Terminal D. I am a MileagePlus Club cardholder and hold Premier Gold status on United Airlines, but I don’t have a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that would have given me Priority Pass access, nor do I hold the American Express Platinum Card , which would have given me access to the Centurion Lounge — conveniently located in Terminal D.
The United Club lounges are nothing swanky, but the employees who work in there are unfailingly amazing, even if their harried and harassed colleagues outside aren’t always as gracious. However, the nearest United Club lounge was at least one terminal away, so I decided that staying at the gate for the next 90 minutes wouldn't be the worst use of my time.
My decision to stick it out at the gate instead of in a lounge turned out to be a good one. Not five minutes after I walked back from Gate D9, the Air China flight crew arrived: women in smart burgundy skirtsuits, men in navy suits.
Once they arrived, airport staff quickly began setting up a series of folding tables, draped with bland navy tablecloths. Soon, cake and other buffet-style food items appeared, much like a Southern Baptist church kitchen late on a Sunday morning: This was a celebration flight, and by golly, the airline was going to make it one.
Passengers and crew members alike reveled in coconut shrimp, tres leches cake, and empanadas, as well as coffee and free bottled water — no doubt selected for cross-cultural appeal.
I was amused by the ~45 minutes of photos that ensued: Air China had hired a professional photographer to document the occasion, it seemed, and props included multiple bouquets of flowers, a large paper bag full of Air China mascot stuffed pandas, and a very long banner stating "To Celebrate Air China Inaugural Service Beijing-Houston-Panama City".
Cabin and Seat
All of our celebratory activities took far longer than the actual check-in process did, since there were only a handful of passengers. The inaugural flight only carried two passengers in first class and three in business, myself included. All announcements were made in Mandarin first, English second – just one of the many moments that made me feel like I was abroad again even before we left American soil.
I snuck a peek into first-class, although the flight attendant clucked at me; there were VIPs in the cabin, and I could tell she was torn between letting me explore and worrying about my disturbing them. I quickly ducked out, not wanting to get her in trouble. (I later found out that one of the VIPs was the Panamanian ambassador to Beijing.)
(The flight attendants ever-so-politely demurred when I requested to take a peek in economy, so I left my explorations of that cabin for my return flight. Review to come, early next week.)
First class features eight seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, and business-class features 42 seats, offset at a slight angle in seven rows of a 2-2-2 configuration. The aforementioned "dynamic LED mood lighting" was indeed present, and my mood accordingly shifted to purple.
I had been unable to select my seat beforehand on the Air China website, and did not check in with an Air China gate agent due to my boarding pass having been assigned by the United gate agent in Austin where I boarded my connecting flight.
Thus, I found myself arbitrarily assigned seat 14D, an unassuming middle-section seat in the center of the cabin. Right before takeoff, I asked a flight attendant if I could move to 14A instead for the window view, and she happily acquiesced.
The true lie-flat seats featured a durable material in purple-blue paisley, and felt more than adequate for a 3+ hour flight. I'm clearly no TPG at 6'7" or even managing editor Alberto at 6'2", so I don't exactly feel qualified to comment on the amount of legroom available for someone taller since there was, clearly, more than enough for my 5'2" self.
Unfortunately, SeatGuru doesn't offer specific dimensions but in my highly scientific guesstimation, I'd say that anyone 6'0" and under would be plenty comfortable.
The in-flight entertainment remote and my seat controls were discreetly tucked away near my hip, along the side of the central bar area of the armrest, with very touch-responsive buttons in an intuitive remote control layout. You had the option of making individual adjustments to the headrest, back incline, and footrest sections – or you could just push the "seat" or "lie-flat" buttons to let the system make all requisite adjustments for you.
I was offered a drink as soon as I sat down. It's worth noting that, in a lot of Asian cultures, no-ice is the default service; if you want a cold drink, you'll have to ask for it. I forgot to ask, and ended up with a room-temperature glass of sparkling water from an unknown brand.
Unfortunately, 14A and its corresponding seat partner 14C both happened to have completely useless USB charging ports; I had to return to my original seat, 14D, in order to find a functioning USB plug. In fact, I think the problem was a hardware issue rather than an electrical one; the sockets at 14A and 14C both seemed to be missing the little center "tongue" that fits inside the USB plug.
I did not prowl through the entire business-class cabin to see if the broken ports were an anomaly or not, but the snafu definitely brought to my attention that, while the Houston-Panama route is new, aircraft B-2086 definitely is not.
Storage space was on the sparser side, with a small compartment available next to the in-flight entertainment system, but just barely large enough to hold a cell phone and/or a small camera: Probably not even large enough for a paperback novel. I was able to fold my backpack under the footrest.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment; [no] WiFi
My 15.4" in-flight entertainment screen proved to be more than adequate for my viewing needs. The content, however, was distinctly Chinese-influenced. Out of more than 100 movie options, less than 50% seemed to be Western blockbusters, although most seemed to offer multiple language options, including English.
The TV shows seemed to skew even more China-friendly, and once I reached the music section, I decided to just give "The Love Song of Eagles (鷹之戀)" a whirl because at this point, why not? (It turned out to not really be my jam... not really to my surprise.) The games seemed straightforward enough, with "Onboard Pacman" being one of my options.
Since the flight did not offer WiFi, I was unable to utilize the Inflighto app I had excitedly downloaded before the trip in anticipation of seeing all the Central America territory I was about to fly over. Womp womp. I was unable to ascertain from the flight attendant if the lack of WiFi was an inaugural flight thing; a route thing; or an individual aircraft problem, since according to SeatGuru, Air China's 777-300 ERs should be equipped with WiFi for all cabin classes.
I did like the 3D Map simulation offered on-board, although I found the system rather hard to navigate; either I did not find the right controls despite much searching, or else a lot of standard information, like total miles traveled, simply was not available. The little ticker at the bottom of the screen did show me cool facts like altitude and ground speed, so not everything was lacking.
I forgot to snap a photo of the headphones, which I didn't end up using until right before the flight landed. I wasn't sure where to find them in my seat setup, and ultimately had to flag down a flight attendant to request a set. The noise-canceling, double-prong headphones offered in business class were great quality, and I looked them over to see if I could find the brand for future consideration. Unfortunately, I didn't find very much information available.
Before takeoff, I took the opportunity to peek inside the bathrooms. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they smell better than most, thanks to a little lemon air freshener thoughtfully attached to the coat hook on the bathroom door. One premium-cabin bathroom also featured a pink rose tucked into a little holder high up on the wall, although the other one did not. I will spare you the photo, but I also noticed the toilet seat had been disinfected before the flight, with a little paper liner over the top for sanitation: a nice touch in this day and age of sloppy air travel.
Hand lotion, facial toner and moisturizer, and hand soap were tucked into holders along the side of the sink next to the mirror, although it took me until my second bathroom visit to discover the hand soap bottle.
The soap pump built into the sink alongside of the faucet did not actually contain any soap in either of the bathroom stalls I visited – a fact that baffled me on my first visit.
I also noticed that the facial tissue holder looked like it had been yanked upon, and then wadded back into the holder. This might have been the fault of a passenger ahead of me, but most likely not, since I had boarded the plane fairly quickly. So in the event that the bathroom had been left in this condition, it suggested a hasty clean-up between the Beijing-Houston route and this Houston-Panama route. (In other words, exactly what I'm used to seeing in United's economy class... ziiiing. Although, in all fairness, I would expect more attention to detail out of any business class, anywhere.)
I didn't receive an amenity kit, although I was thoughtfully gifted a panda luggage tag and a refrigerator magnet.
6. Food and Beverage
I accidentally fell asleep soon after takeoff, and awoke to a thoughtful flight attendant tucking me in with a very clean, plushy comforter that was generous in size as well as comfort.
She asked me if I was ready for lunch service, and promptly returned with a tiny tablecloth she draped over the [flimsy] table she unfolded for me from my armrest.
My first course was a tray with two types of bread; a main appetizer of seared tuna that looked pretty gray; and a fruit medley. Despite appearances, the tuna was pretty tasty, with a peppery bite to it. The bread was, well, bread, and the kiwi and raspberries were fresh and flavorful.
I asked for a menu several times, which the very nice flight attendant had to have me clarify the first few times, finally saying that a printed menu was unavailable. At this point, I realized the language barrier was a bit of an issue, at least in business-class where food was a little more complicated than simply choosing between chicken or beef. I was unable to ascertain if the no-menu situation was just for the inaugural flight, or if it was consistent for the route in general. So I switched to asking questions in Mandarin, and got a much more in-depth response.
For the main course, I had a choice between shredded chicken with noodles in a consommé broth, or braised beef with fried rice and Chinese broccoli. Partially because of the language fiasco and possibly also because there were no other passengers to speak of, the flight attendant insisted on bringing both entrees for me to sample, so I did. The chicken was on the dry side, but no more than one would expect from pre-shredded chicken breast – and the noodles were perfectly cooked, with good flavor to the broth.
The beef was also well-seasoned, although it had an interesting, slightly chewy texture I couldn't quite place. I decided not to think too much about it and carried on, making a very good meal out of both entrees. The fried rice was fluffy and not at all greasy, and I used it to sop up the sauce from the beef.
No dessert was offered, likely in keeping with the culture of Chinese cuisine, which often offers fruit in lieu of sweets. I guess my appetizer fruit plate was my dessert, since I wasn't offered anything else other than a choice of drinks.
Once again, drinks were offered from a verbal list, and I had to ask again for a drink menu which this time, thankfully I was able to acquire after some more requests.
As best as I could tell from the flight attendant's explanation, the full wine list is never available at the same time, with only two reds and two whites available at a time on a rotating, seasonal basis. I wouldn't be surprised if this was just the case for the inaugural flight, however, and the flight attendant was simply misinformed — another conversation somewhat lost in translation and training.
As one would imagine from a Chinese airline, the tea selection was extensive, with over a dozen total offerings complete with flowery descriptions literally translated from the original Chinese.
In contrast, the wine, beer and spirits list was a little less expansive than I would have expected.
I ended up opting for one glass each of the red and the white wines, leaving the decision up to the flight attendant. In keeping with Chinese palates, perhaps, both tasted a little on the sweeter, fruity end of the vino spectrum. Perfectly drinkable, but nothing particularly incredible to write home about. It's worth noting that the white wine was served nearly at room temperature; I assume this must have been a preference designed to cater to Chinese taste buds, since I ordered the drink several hours into the flight.
Of course, I opted for some tea as well, because when in Rome...
No snacks were offered outside of the meal, which makes sense for a ~3-hour flight. Flight attendants were just on the border of being too attentive, at least being very discreet in how they passed through the cabin to check on me and the other two passengers.
Arrival in Panama
I met the Panamanian ambassador to Beijing mid-flight. He had made a diplomatic stroll through the plane to greet each passenger, and he passed by me on his way back to first-class from economy. Incredibly friendly and cheery, he spoke about how revolutionary the flight will be, not just for his own flights home to Panama but for the country in general. "This is a big deal for us," he exclaimed after shaking my hand, and invited me to participate in the ceremonies that would take place at the gate upon arrival.
One of the flight attendants also stopped by to let me know to expect a water cannon salute for the plane upon arrival at the Tocumen Airport (PTY) gate. He stayed to chit-chat for a little while, telling me a little bit about his six-year tenure with the airline, as well as some of the historical significance of the new route. He seemed very proud and happy to have been selected to work the inaugural route, as did all the rest of the crew.
I spent the final 30 minutes of the flight gazing out the window, admiring the beautiful landscape as we began our descent. Childhood geography lessons about the significance of the Panama Canal flitted through my mind as gazed down over lush greenery peppered with red-roofed developments. I couldn't help getting a little bit excited about witnessing a similar moment of economically significant history more than a century after the canal's construction.
After a very smooth landing, we arrived at Tocumen International Airport at 2:31 pm ET – 23 minutes behind schedule, according to FlightAware. As promised, we were duly greeted with a water cannon salute.
The festivities did not end there; The crew enthusiastically sent us off with smiles, waves, cheers, and China or Panama flags — our choice.
I noticed the passengers ahead of me stopping on the jet bridge, so I looked down: The entire ground crew were waving and cheering at us on both sides.
Since I hadn't been able to get a good photo of the aircraft at departure, I took a few moments to snap this picture from the clear jet bridge, which is when I noticed the captain had opened the cockpit window to hang up a little Chinese flag.
As I approached the end of the jet bridge, loud drumming sounds wafted from the terminal down the hallway, explaining why every passenger ahead of me had come to a standstill. I peeked over shoulders to see hundreds of people gathered by the gates: red carpet everywhere underfoot, dozens of little red lanterns hung overhead. Everyone was taking pictures as Chinese lion dancers performed a dance to the beat of traditional drums. Waiters indiscriminately distributed Champagne, and people lined up by the buffet tables to get their share of an incredible spread of food.
The celebrations at each respective airport gate represented a little microcosm of what this route means to each country: While for us Americans, the new Houston-Panama route was just "cool," "This is huge!!" was definitely the reaction on the Panamanian side.
While everyone lingered and celebrated, I slipped off into the crowd to make my way through customs. I wanted to collect my passport stamp, but I had exactly 90 minutes to do so before B-2086 took off again for the inaugural Panama-Houston flight — and I needed to be on that plane.
Overall, my enjoyment of Flight CA885 to Panama was 100% due to the cabin crew's amazing attitude. With true cultural hospitality, every single flight attendant went out of his or her way to assess and meet my needs, even if their solutions weren't necessarily what I would have chosen.
Shout-outs to TPG Reviews Editor, Nick, for giving me this amazing opportunity and helping me find the right flights; our Chief of Staff Adam for putting in the effort required in booking the flight; and to my colleague JT for always answering my million and one #AvGeek questions. I also really appreciate our social media director Lindsey, and our art director, Isabelle, for the guidance on how to do my first flight review justice in photographs!
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.