Golden elegance: A review of China Airlines business class on the Airbus A350
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="85" ground-experience="14" cabin-seat="27" amens-ife="13" food-bev="18" service="13" pros="Comfortable and spacious seat, gorgeous cabin design and finishes, delicious food." cons="Annoying booking process, no vegetarian meal, breakfast served too early." /]
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Taiwan’s China Airlines has made a name for itself as a top-notch international airline, and a recent flight I took to Taipei from Vancouver, Canada, reinforced for me that this is a carrier on the upswing.
As one of the largest airlines of Taiwan, China Airlines unsurprisingly has flights to five North American cities including Honolulu (HNL), LAX, New York-JFK, San Francisco (SFO) and Vancouver, Canada (YVR) to its hub in Taipei (TPE).
In my case, I was already in Seattle, so decided to limit my searches to flights from the West Coast. China Airlines is a member of SkyTeam, so you can redeem your Delta SkyMiles or Air France-KLM Flying Blue points for award tickets on China Airlines. You can easily search for award space on Delta's website or ExpertFlyer.
Since there wasn't any availability for the dates I needed to fly, I set some ExpertFlyer alerts, but ultimately no award seats became available. We ended up paying for my ticket directly on the China Airlines website using the Platinum Card® from American Express, which earned 5x Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on airfare purchased directly with the airline or Amex Travel.
Had award seats been available, my flight would've cost 95,000 SkyMiles with Delta and 85,000 with Air France. China Airlines releases a fair number of award seats, so it's definitely something to consider when flying to or from Asia.
The online booking process was simple, but I immediately received a follow-up email saying that I needed to verify my credit card. To combat fraud, tickets purchased with international credit cards on the China Airlines website require additional verification.
I had two options to verify the card: either present the card I used for payment at airport check-in or fill out a form with the credit card information and provide copies of the credit card and the cardholder's passport. I did latter and found the process annoying.
I first needed to locate the form on the website and then call the reservations hotline to ask where to send the completed form. After collecting all the required information, I emailed the form and waited. And waited. Three days later, I received an email saying that one of the scanned pages was illegible so I needed to resubmit the form. After a week of back and forth, I finally received confirmation that the verification was complete.
Lesson learned: Don't book China Airlines flights directly through its website. Use an online travel agency to avoid the manual credit card verification step.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="14" tpg-rating-max="20" tail="B-18902" age="3" departure="02" departure-2="15" duration="12" duration-2="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I tried checking in online but received an error message directing me to proceed to the airport check-in desks. It wasn't related to the whole credit card-verification ordeal. The check-in agent needed to manually verify my passport and visa info for entering China, since I had a connecting flight to Shanghai (PVG).
All the extra verification slowed down the overall check-in time, but my boarding passes were still issued in about 10 minutes. I was lucky I wasn't flying economy, because the regular check-in lines were crowded and barely moving.
After checking in, I headed straight to security. There wasn't a SkyPriority lane in sight, but it didn't matter given the late hour. Five minutes later, at 10:30 p.m., I was airside with tons of time to kill before my 2 a.m. departure.
Business-class passengers were invited to use the open-air SkyTeam lounge in Vancouver, which also welcomed Priority Pass members. The lounge was open 24/7, overlooked the terminal and was empty when I got there.
It was a very different story as it got closer to the 2 a.m. bank of departures to Asia though. The lounge wasn't big, and because hundreds of people had access, it definitely got crowded.
The highlight of the lounge was the self-serve wine bar, like one in the Centurion Lounge San Francisco.
Spirits were also self-serve and featured brands like Jack Daniel's and Ketel One.
The rest of the lounge was disappointing.
The food selection was limited for an international business-class lounge. There was a small noodle bar and hot items like pesto pasta, chicken-breast strips and mixed vegetables.
The relaxation chairs were noticeably worn, even though the lounge opened under two years ago.
Worse than the relaxation chairs were the two shower suites. I asked to shower and was let into a partially cleaned shower room. The biggest offense? There were two(!) bars of soap left by previous guests .... I felt cleaner without showering.
Aside from the wine and liquor, the only other redeeming feature was the beautiful poster collection of all the SkyTeam airlines.
Once the lounge got crowded, I made my way to the gate area. There was plenty of seating and expansive windows for some AvGeeking at the 3-year-old Airbus A350.
There weren't any visible power outlets near the gate, so I waited until I was aboard to charge my devices.
Boarding started at the scheduled time of 1:20 a.m., with business-class passengers invited to board first. China Airlines used two jetbridges, which helped minimize foot traffic during the often hectic boarding process.
I also checked out the China Airlines lounge in Taipei. It wasn't that much better than the SkyTeam lounge in Vancouver.
It was definitely more modern and had clean showers, but was otherwise disappointing.
There weren't any windows, and the food selection was about average for an international business-class lounge.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="27" tpg-rating-max="30" configuration="1" configuration-2="2" configuration-3="1" width="19.5" bed="74" tray="17" tray-2="18" lavs="2" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
All of China Airlines' North American routes operate with the same excellent Collins Aerospace Super Diamond business-class seat. Short of a suite, I find this reverse-herringbone configuration comfortable for both sleeping and lounging.
The first thing that caught my eye was the beautiful cabin finishes. I loved everything from the gold and faux wood accents to the gray seats. This was one of most elegant business-class cabins I'd ever seen.
The lamps, especially the decorative bases, added to the cabin's elegance.
I also loved that there weren't overhead bins over the center seats. The added volume made the cabin feel extra spacious, almost like a first-class cabin.
The fully flat, 74-inch-long seats were in a 1-2-1 configuration across eight rows. I was seated in 18K, the window seat in the last row on the starboard side of the plane. While I typically like to sit at the back of the business-class cabins to better observe the service flow, Row 18 was missing a window. Next time, I'd suggest Row 17 or Row 10 for the larger footwell.
The seat itself had ample enclosed storage: two compartments flush with the window and one on the raisable armrest adjacent to the aisle.
I could easily store shoes underneath the footwell. Speaking of footwell, I found the space for my feet plenty big, a feature I like about the Super Diamond reverse-herringbone seats.
The 17-inch-by-18-inch bifold tray table slid out from under the TV screen. The table easily fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro, and I really liked how the tray table design matched the rest of the cabin.
The seats were controlled by the small touchscreen on the window side of the seat. There were preset modes, as well as controls for finer tuning.
There weren't any personal air vents, but for the first time ever on an Asian carrier, I actually found the cabin to be quite cold.
There were two lavatories dedicated to the business-class cabin, yielding a seat to bathroom ratio of 16-to-1. However, there were always lines to use the bathrooms, as premium economy passengers made their way forward to use the business-class bathrooms.
Bathrooms were stocked with Acca Kappa body lotion and eau de toilette, but the coolest feature was the soothing ambient music playing in the background.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="13" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="18" movies="169" tv-shows="36" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="0.46" wifi-2="10.45" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
There were plenty of gifts waiting at my seat upon boarding. The gold-accented pillow wasn't supportive or thick enough to keep me comfortable during the flight, but the flight attendants happily gave me extras when I started tossing and turning. There was also a plush blanket that helped me stay warm throughout the night.
As is customary on Asian airlines, slippers were also waiting at my seat.
Finally, the North Face amenity kit had already been placed in one of the armrest storage compartments. While I liked the unique kit design, I didn't find the contents to be that exciting or particularly useful in flight. The eye mask was of terrible quality, and no socks were provided. I did save the two face masks (by Laneige) and the hair treatment (from Moroccan Oil) for home, though.
There was plenty of entertainment to keep me occupied on the 12-hour, 10-minute flight to Taipei. To start, each seat had an 18-inch high-definition touchscreen. The user experience was sleek and easy to navigate, and I didn't experience any lag throughout the flight.
The screen could also be controlled using the 4.5-inch remote, which doubled as a second screen. In my case, I kept the airshow looping on the remote to keep track of our progress to Taipei.
There wasn't live TV or a tailcam, but there were 169 movies and 36 TV shows, including full seasons of many western TV shows like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," "The Handmaid’s Tale" and "Veep."
The provided unbranded headphones were of poor quality, so I'd definitely recommend bringing your own.
To keep your devices charged, each seat had one well-positioned universal AC adapter and two USB ports.
All China Airlines A350s and Boeing 777-300s feature Panasonic satellite Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi worked well on both flights, allowing me to stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues back home. Business-class passengers were entitled to three hours of free Wi-Fi, but you needed to sign up for a voucher code before you boarded your flight.
I had no trouble redeeming my voucher, and once it elapsed, I purchased a 24-hour uncapped session for $21.95. The Wi-Fi pass even worked on my connecting flight. Speeds were good at around 10 Mbps download, and reliability wasn't an issue on either flight.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Champagne Victoire Brut" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Perhaps the greatest amenity of all was the abundant and tasty food and beverages. While we were on the ground, the purser presented me with the menu, which was beautifully designed and printed on extremely thick card stock.
A flight attendant came around offering predeparture beverages. Champagne wasn't served on the ground, so I had water and orange juice, which was presented along with a rice-cracker snack mix.
Once we were airborne, flight attendants came through collecting meal orders and offering another round of drinks. This time, I chose a glass of the good stuff, Champagne Victoire Brut, which was again served with rice crackers.
About 10 minutes later, another flight attendant came through with the appetizer of prawn and smoked salmon, marinated vegetable salad and bread (baguette, multigrain roll or onion ciabatta). The salmon was delicious, and the salad was refreshing. The bread was stale, but you can't win them all.
I really appreciated that China Airlines served a soup course. I find that soup often tastes great on planes, and the ginseng chicken soup didn't disappoint.
The entree was served 70 minutes after takeoff. There were three choices for the main dish, and none were vegetarian. I've got quite a few dietary restrictions, and none of the three meat- and seafood-heavy choices worked perfectly for me. I had to make do with the ginger prawns with steamed rice, bok choy and carrots.
I found the dish to be excellent, or at least what I picked out of it. Even though I didn't eat the whole serving, my seatmate confirmed that the food was well above average for business class.
I tend to eat quite healthy when back home but never skip dessert on planes (even when I'm not reviewing the flight). After the main meal was cleared, I had a brie and Swiss cheese plate with grapes and apple slices.
After the cheese, it was time for the highlight of the show, the succulent cheesecake with chocolate drizzle and a Haagen Dazs ice cream bar.
By the time the meal was finished, it was about two hours into the flight. Given the 12-hour flight time, I didn't mind the relaxed pace.
There was an extensive menu for tea and coffee (by Nespresso), and the alcohol selection was commendable. I stuck to Champagne, but there was a good assortment of beers, spirits and wines. China Airlines even had sake, reminding me of the great culinary adventure I had a few months prior in Japan Airlines business class.
There was a limited, on-demand snack menu between meal services. I slept through the night, so didn't have the opportunity to try anything. I did, however, spend a few minutes perusing the bar set up in the galley by Door 2L. There were a few snacks, some drinks and a bunch of reading material.
Breakfast was served a full two hours prior to landing. I was already awake at this point, but had I been sleeping, I would've been annoyed to be woken up so early for just one tray of food.
The classic Chinese breakfast plate was tasty. The congee was good, and I particularly liked the five small bites that accompanied it. The braised eggplant and dry radish omelet were spiced perfectly, and the tossed spinach and salty egg had great flavor.
Overall, the food and beverages were comparable to what's found on some of the world's top business-class products.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="13" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="No" /]
The service in business class was amazing. Each of the three dedicated business-class flight attendants addressed me by last name throughout the flight and seemingly genuinely cared about my well-being.
The flight attendants hustled to provide efficient service, which is a challenge with a single cabin of eight rows. They didn't appear stressed and did their job with a grace that's typically found on the world's best airlines. The flight attendants tried their hardest, but some struggled with English, making it hard to explain my dietary restrictions.
Flight attendants were responsive throughout the red-eye flight, answering the call button within 90 seconds. They went up and down the aisles every 15 minutes checking on passengers, as well.
Color me surprised, but I was thoroughly impressed with China Airlines' business-class. After an annoying booking process, I wasn't so hopeful for the flight itself, but the carrier impressed in almost all categories.
The cabin was gorgeous, and the seat was comfortable. There was plenty of entertainment, including functional high speed Wi-Fi and a large HD entertainment screen. The food and beverages were delectable, and the service was polished and refined.
I had a terrific trip overall, and I wouldn't hesitate to fly with China Airlines again.
All photos by the author.