Minding the gap: A review of premium economy on China Airlines’ A350-900 from Taipei to Sydney
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Earlier this year, Australia’s Qantas briefly offered a number of award seats in its first-class cabin on the Airbus A380 between Melbourne and Los Angeles. Taking to heart the unofficial TPG motto — book now, plan later — I jumped on the opportunity and booked the one-way ticket home from Australia without a way of getting there. I sat on that ticket for a few months, and finally as the early-fall trip grew closer, I decided it was time to figure out how I’d get myself Down Under to catch this flight back to the U.S.
I know, the things we do.
With the second TPG Awards approaching rapidly, I figured this trip to Australia would be a good chance to review a number of products that would be competing for this year’s Awards. So I decided to get creative with my routing. In the end, I ended up getting between my home in New York (LGA) to Melbourne (MEL) where I boarded the Qantas flight to Los Angeles (LAX) via Toronto (YYZ), Atlanta (ATL), Seoul (ICN), Shanghai (PVG), Taipei (TPE) and Sydney (SYD).
The ticket that began my journey was from Toronto Pearson to Atlanta to Seoul and then to Shanghai. I flew on board Korean Air’s 747-8 in business class for the long-haul leg between Atlanta and Seoul, and then spent a night in Shanghai. The next day I began another ticket that would finally put me in Sydney, Australia.
For this leg between China and Australia, I set my sights on China Airlines, a Taiwan-based SkyTeam carrier well-regarded for its solid onboard offering. I’d somewhat recently flown with EVA Airways in its premium economy cabin, so I figured it’d be a good idea to check out its crosstown rival’s offering in the same class of service on its newest jet, the Airbus A350.
Across the board, it’s not easy to book premium economy tickets with miles, and China Airlines is no exception here. Typically, I’d look for SkyTeam awards either through Air France-KLM’s Flying Blue Delta’s SkyMiles programs, but since we had to use cash for this ticket, I took to Google Flights and found an itinerary that worked with my crazy travel schedule.
We paid $1,350 for the one-way ticket between Shanghai and Sydney via Taipei with the Platinum Card® from American Express, thanks to that card’s 5x bonus category on flights booked directly through the airline or through Amex Travel.
Interestingly, the premium economy ticket that we booked came with the first segment from Shanghai to Taipei booked into business class, which was a nice treat for the quick flight.
I didn’t have enough time during my connection in Taipei to exit the secure area and check-in again, but I did have a bit of time to get a feel for the terminal. It felt fairly compact, but there were plenty of high-end shops and places to grab a bite to eat. Both times I’ve been to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, it’s been dark out, so I haven’t gotten a feel for the amount of light the terminal gets. At night, though, it does feel quite dark.
Premium economy tickets don’t come with lounge access, so I headed straight for my gate after wandering around for a few minutes.
The gates at TPE are unique in the sense that the actual gates are a floor below the main terminal, and above each gate is a sort of holding area that has a variety of furniture to sit on, as well as things to read and explore. Each one seems almost like it’s its own little museum — a great idea that more airports should adopt.
Before passengers were allowed downstairs to the true gate area, agents were there to check passports and boarding passes. I made my way down to the gate at 10:30 p.m, about 15 minutes before we were scheduled to board, but an announcement was made shortly after I arrived that we’d board late, at 11:05 p.m.
The gate area seemed to have plenty of seats available for passengers, though there weren’t enough power outlets. There were several banks of USB and AC power outlets spread throughout the area. Just before 11 p.m., a gate agent made an announcement that boarding would begin soon, so I sprang up and made my way to the boarding line, where I boarded just after the business-class passengers.
Cabin and Seat
The premium economy cabin on China Airlines’ A350s lies right behind the business-class cabin. The 31 seats are arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration, which is more generous than many competitors who have a 2-4-2 configuration in the same class on their A350s.
Each seat is a little over 20 inches wide and offers 39 inches of pitch. These seats are of the shell variety, where the setback reclines back into the structure of the actual seat, which itself does not recline into the seat behind you. Many people find this type of seat to be much less comfortable than a more traditional one, but I actually found it quite comfortable for my eightish-hour flight.
The seats are covered in an attractive and modern-looking gray, almost tweedy fabric that reminded me of the couch in my apartment. I was really impressed with China Airlines’ design choices overall, both in the business and premium economy cabins. The muted color schemes and tasteful faux wood trimmings made this feel like a higher-end product than you’d typically find.
Next to each seat at about shoulder height was a personal reading light as well as a small storage pocket, though I only used the seatback pocket.
China Airlines had something I hadn’t before seen in premium economy: a secondary, smaller folding tray that came out of the main large tray. It was perfect for storing beverages and snacks without having to use the entire huge tray table.
Each seat had a USB port in the seatback and an AC outlet in the middle divider between seats. There was also a wired remote to control the IFE system.
Even though the seats didn’t recline all the way flat, I found them to be comfortable, and I was able to sleep. There was a footrest that I used when my seat was upright. And there was a legrest that came out from the bottom of each seat. Though it could have extended more, it was still a lot better than nothing.
I had no trouble accessing the two lavatories that were supposedly reserved for business-class passengers, and there was never any line. Plus, they were very clean both times I visited.
Amenities and IFE
When I boarded, a blanket and pillow were waiting for me on my chair. They were both more substantial than you’d find in economy, but not business-class level. There was also a pair of headphones at the seat, but I chose to use my own headphones to watch a movie.
Right after takeoff, flight attendants came around with a pair of paper-thin slippers and a small amenity kit from The North Face. I really liked the bag itself, and actually still use it on my travels for various things. Inside the small North Face pouch were a dental kit, a hydrating facial mask, earplugs and a high-quality eye mask.
The 12.1-inch setback inflight-entertainment screen had touchscreen capability but could also be controlled by the wired remote, which is what I used most of the time.
The IFE system itself felt fresh, modern and intuitive. I had no trouble navigating through the interface to find something to keep me entertained. There were plenty of movies to choose from, as well as select episodes from various TV shows.
I only watched one movie, as it was a late departure and I wanted to sleep for as much as I could, but had I been on a longer flight, I would have been plenty entertained. After several hours of sleep, I explored the airshow for a bit while we began our descent into Sydney, and there were plenty of views to keep things interesting for the remainder of my flight.
Before I slept, I logged into the aircraft’s Wi-Fi system to keep in touch with work and friends and to finish up a couple of tasks. China Airlines offered four Wi-Fi options for this flight: 15 MB for light messaging for $3.25, one hour of unlimited data for $11.95, three hours of unlimited data for $16.95 and a 24-hour plan with no data cap for $21.95. I only purchased the one-hour plan because I didn’t have all that much to do, but the 24-hour pass seemed like a good deal. The Wi-Fi worked great, too. I was able to do things on board the plane just like I would on the ground.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
As I boarded, I was given a menu and was offered a choice of apple juice or water. I declined both since I already had a large bottle of water with me that I had purchased in the terminal.
Since it was such a late departure, cabin service started as soon as possible after takeoff. Just 15 minutes went by after taking off before food and beverage service began in the cabin. First, another round of drinks was served, but I declined again, as I was still trying to finish my large water bottle.
Flight attendants appeared shortly after this round of drinks to offer the main course. Each main was served with a starter of smoked salmon and barbecue chicken with bean curd and mushroom salad and sesame dressing. For the main, there was a choice between braised pork meatballs with rice and chicken bolognese with wide noodles. Each was served with bread and butter, fresh fruit and cheese and crackers.
I had the chicken bolognese, which was just OK. The noodles were pretty tasteless, but the chicken itself and sauce were pretty good. The appetizer wasn’t my favorite dish, but wasn’t bad.
For dessert, I was handed a cup of strawberry gelato, which was tasty, but I didn’t finish it all.
About two hours and 15 minutes before we were scheduled to land in Sydney, it was time to eat again. This time, I had a choice between minced pork and sausage with noodles and a tomato mushroom frittata with noodles. Each was served with bread and butter, fruit and yogurt.
I went for the frittata, since it felt more like a breakfast item to me, and it was actually pretty tasty, though the noodles were bland.
China Airlines’ food and beverages felt more economy than premium. Nothing was served on real glass or ceramic dishes, which, though not the end of the world in the slightest, is not in line with the top carriers in this class. Plus, the dishes themselves didn’t really seem all that different from the ones I’d receive on an economy flight.
I appreciated the efficiency with which this crew performed their duties.
I was impressed by the crew on this flight, mostly because they were so great at making their services so efficient. It was such a late flight, and with “only” eight or so hours to Sydney meant that there wasn’t a lot of time to sleep between meal services.
But this crew worked incredibly quickly without making it feel too fast. Plus, they all had a great command of English and were polite in our admittedly limited interactions.
I walked away impressed with my first flight with China Airlines, Though the food didn’t feel particularly premium, it tasted pretty good overall. The crew was solid and, most importantly, I found the seat to be comfortable.
I think that China Airlines did a solid job of bridging the gap between economy and business with its premium economy product, despite the food being on the economy side of the spectrum. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to fly this product again — and with Delta Diamond Medallion status to requalify for next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up on a China Airlines aircraft again soon.
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