So Close, Yet So Far: China Eastern (777-300ER) in Business Class From Shanghai to New York
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It wasn’t that long ago that China Eastern was on the short list of major airlines to avoid at all possible costs. A number of factors combined to create this reputation, including inedible food, apathetic and indifferent service, and the more-than-occasional bout of pilots and crew smoking on board.
Exactly seven months to the day after moving to Shanghai, I got the chance to fly China Eastern’s business class on one of its longest and most prominent routes to New York-JFK. My experience made two things abundantly clear: The airline has made a serious effort to improve its onboard product (and there was no smoking on this flight!), but it has a long way to go if it ever hopes to compete with five-star Asian airlines like EVA Air or ANA.
Business-class award space for China Eastern is generally very easy to come by, and we had no problem booking a one-way award for 85,000 Delta SkyMiles (transferred 1:1 from American Express Membership Rewards) and $289 in taxes, which we paid for with the Platinum Card® from American Express.
With the cash ticket selling for $4,985, we ended up getting a redemption value of 5.5 cents per mile after subtracting the taxes. This was well above TPG’s valuation of Delta SkyMiles at 1.2 cents each. China Eastern operates two daily flights from Shanghai Pudong (PVG) to New York-JFK, but I was happy to get a seat on the evening departure, as it made it easier to sleep.
China Eastern flights depart from Terminal 1 at Shanghai Pudong Airport. First- and business-class passengers on international flights (including to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) could access a dedicated check-in area separate from the rest of the terminal.
One side of the sprawling, carpeted area was reserved for first class, while the other was for business-class passengers. China Eastern didn’t really differentiate between regional business class and long-haul business class, so I could imagine this area getting pretty crowded at certain times of day.
It was nearly empty when I was there, though, so I was helped quickly and invited to sit in a comfy leather chair while the agent issued my boarding pass. There was a bit of confusion after I checked my bag, as the agent made a phone call and refused to hand me back my passport. We struggled through a language barrier before she finally explained that I needed to walk to the end of the check-in area and open my bag for a security check. Turns out I’d left my old iPhone in there, which had triggered an alarm. Once that was sorted out, she returned my passport and released me.
China Eastern business-class passengers could use the No. 36 VIP lounge, not to be confused with the No. 37 lounge, which is one of Priority Pass’s more mediocre offerings. Finding the lounge proved to be an adventure of its own. Immediately after security was a large sign for the No. 37 lounge, but no mention of No. 36. If you walked forward and turned around to face the back of the security checkpoint, though, the other side of the same sign pointed you in the right direction.
Even then, it took me a few minutes to find the entrance, as I got momentarily turned around by a sign that seemed to indicate that the lounge was back on the other side of the security checkpoint. Eventually, I found my bearings and was directed to an elevator by an agent who barely looked up from her phone as I passed.
The lounge is massive, with plenty of seating spread across two floors.
While the lower level was fairly crowded, upstairs had an entire conference-room section with over 60 seats, not one of which was occupied.
Pudong features floor-to-ceiling glass windows with incredible views, so this lounge really missed an opportunity with its claustrophobic and closed-off design instead of utilizing natural light and working in free planespotting entertainment.
There were a number of small meeting rooms upstairs, as well as massage chairs and what appeared to be a service desk just off the escalator, but I didn’t see a single agent there during my two hours in the lounge.
Even though there were easily 100 passengers in the lounge, the options for food and drink were incredibly sparse.
There were a few bottles of wine and an unimpressive liquor selection, but what really shocked me was how little food there was. I counted only five or six hot options, in addition to a small salad bar and uninviting pastries.
Not wanting to tempt fate before a 15-hour flight, I decided to stay away from the “fried fried shedded duck.”
I ended up settling on a bowl of noodle soup, a few steamed veggie buns and sautéed veggies. It hit the spot around dinnertime, but I was definitely still hungry when I boarded, which turned out to be a major problem.
Cabin and Seat
I never thought I’d reach the level of #avgeek-ery where I had specific gates at an airport that I liked or disliked, but my last two flights have both departed from Gate 16 in Pudong’s Terminal 1, and it is my new living hell. For reasons unbeknownst to me, Gate 16 is treated like a revolving door with flights for different airlines boarding every 20 to 30 minutes. When I departed from it in December, within a 20-minute span, China Eastern and Qantas were both boarding flights to Sydney. If that wasn’t confusing enough, both airlines codeshare on this route, so each flight was operating with both a Qantas and China Eastern flight number.
I arrived at the gate about 30 to 40 minutes before boarding to make sure I’d be the first one on board. While I was waiting, I watched a China Eastern flight to Manila (MNL) and a China Airlines flight to Taipei (TPE) depart from the same gate. Not long after we finished boarding, the gate turned over again for China Eastern’s flight to LAX. You can imagine the absurd and unnecessary confusion this caused, and I watched no fewer than 20 people on my New York-bound flight try to board a plane to Taipei instead.
After a 15-minute delay, boarding began, and we were welcome on board through the forward door. This meant that I got a peek at the first-class cabin, which TPG reviewed on a flight from JFK to Shanghai a few years ago. I must say, the spacious, six-seat cabin looked mighty sleek.
After that, I passed through a small, two-row business-class cabin before finding myself in the main cabin, consisting of 44 seats across 11 rows.
China Eastern opted for a reverse-herringbone seat in business class, and while the cabin finishes were rather bland, the seat itself was excellent. This was the same seat you’d find on many other carriers, such as EVA Air, and outside of closing-door business-class suites like Qatar’s Qsuites or the new Delta One suites, it was one of the best hard products I could’ve hoped for. Each seat measured 23.6 inches wide with 75 inches of pitch, with an armrest that could be raised for more comfort or privacy.
I was in Seat 10A, a window seat in the third row of the main cabin.
To the left of the seat was a small compartment where I found headphones and a bottle of water. This was also where the reading light, power outlet and USB port were, as well as the touchscreen IFE remote.
The TV swung out from the seat in front of me, though it had to be stored for takeoff and landing.
One reason I’m a big fan of this style of seat is the spacious footwell that makes it easy to stretch out and roll over when I’m sleeping. But though the plane we were flying on was only two years old, it was already starting to show signs of age. I found a number of panels held together with bright red security tape. I’m sure this is both a cost- and time-efficient way to keep a plane in service, but it certainly didn’t feel very business class to me.
There were four lavatories for business-class passengers to use, two larger ones in the galley at the front of the cabin and two smaller ones in the back. I’m not going to exaggerate and say that our plane was being held together by duct tape, but all four toilets sported more of the vibrant tape around the seams.
The seat was plenty private in bed mode, especially with the armrest raised, and I ended up setting a personal record with almost nine hours of sleep! I also appreciated that I could leave my phone charging without knocking out the cord.
For an airline that has some serious problems to fix, I appreciated that China Eastern went with a tried-and-true seat instead of trying to innovate like United or Delta. The seat ended up being the high point of the trip by far, though I wished the cabin had had even a splash of color. Outside of these flowers in the galley and the red maintenance tape, it was a sea of brown for 14 hours.
Amenities and IFE
Business-class seats featured a 16-inch TV screen, though the content selection was mediocre. There were a number of new releases and Hollywood classics but only a small selection of TV shows, most of which were international or for kids.
To make matters worse, both the Wi-Fi and map were inoperable the entire flight. While I know there are often connectivity problems while flying over mainland China, these issues lasted the entire flight.
Waiting at my seat on boarding was a L’Occitane amenity kit, which was stuffed with all the normal goodies including an eye mask, toothbrush and earplugs, as well as L’Occitane moisturizer and lip balm.
There were also slippers waiting at my seat, though unlike some of its competitors, China Eastern didn’t offer pajamas to business-class passengers on this 14-plus-hour flight.
I only had to take one look at the cheap headphones provided to know I’d be better off sticking with my Bose QC35s.
One note: The bedding was stored in the overhead bins during the flight, instead of crowding the seat. When I was ready to go to sleep, someone had already taken the blanket from above my seat, and there weren’t any others nearby. A flight attendant had to go all the way to the back of the cabin to find one that wasn’t being used, and rather than making my bed, he simply dropped the package on my seat and left.
While we’re talking about bedding, the blanket was perfectly fine for sleeping, but a duvet, mattress pad and extra pillow would have been even better.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
I came in with low expectations for the culinary side of this flight, yet China Eastern still somehow found a way to disappoint me. The catering was plagued by two problems: a lack of effort and a lack of execution. During boarding, a flight attendant came by offering predeparture beverages from a tray with a choice of water, orange juice or an apple-juice-and-lemonade drink that came with a cute China Eastern stirrer.
Meal orders were taken as we taxied, though it appeared that there were less than 10 total menus for all 52 business-class passengers to share (every seat in both cabins was taken on this flight). Flight attendants held the menu open to the right page, quickly took orders and carried the menu with them to the next passenger.
In a move that I find cheap and annoying, China Eastern only prints one menu for the entire year. The red tab you see above indicates the menu for the first three months of the year, while later seasons are marked with different colors. These were fairly basic menus printed on ordinary paper, so I can’t imagine it would’ve cost them that much more money to print one menu for each passenger, and to only print the relevant pages.
I tried to order the pumpkin soup to start, but was told that because we were on an evening flight, there was no soup or dessert, which you would never know by simply reading the menu.
Drinks were served about 30 minutes after takeoff, along with a package of mixed nuts. I ordered a glass of the Roosevelt Reserve sparkling wine, which was drinkable. About 50 minutes after takeoff, appetizers were served along with the bread basket. I choose two pieces of garlic bread, which ended up sustaining me for most of the flight.
The spicy tuna appetizer wasn’t bad, but the fish was rubbery. I’m happy I took pictures of the menu to remind myself that that actually was octopus on my plate and I wasn’t seeing things. While I don’t mind being served off a tray in business class if it expedites the meal service, I’ve flown China Eastern economy class a number of times before, and this tray looked awfully familiar.
For the main course, I made a mistake that I’ll never make again as long as I live. After months of often comical mistranslations in China, I made the naive assumption that the “braised beef tendon in turkey sauce” was actually tenderloin. Compared to the steamed fish or sea cucumber, it felt like the most Western-friendly option. I could not have been more wrong, as I was served actual beef tendon.
The business-class passengers on this flight were almost evenly split between Western and Chinese, and I can’t imagine many of the Western passengers were happy with the food they received, especially if they made this same mistake.
Ingredient choices aside, the catering here simply felt lazy. All three dishes were some variation of meat or protein with vegetables and steamed rice. The same was true of the prearrival meal, and while this simplicity and repetition must make catering cheaper, the overcooked rice and bland veggies weren’t worth repeating. Adding even one decent Western option to the menu, like a pasta, would go a very long way. If I ever fly long-haul in China Eastern again, I’ll preorder a vegetarian meal and bring my own snacks on board.
After the plates were cleared, the FAs rolled a cart down the aisle with fruit and cheese.
There wasn’t much there, but I happily gobbled it up, as I was still starving.
About two and a half hours before landing, much too early in my opinion, the cabin lights were raised and the prearrival meal was served. I’m not sure what they did to this salad, but the greens had an oddly slimy texture to them, so I picked at the cheese, tomatoes and fruit instead.
For my main, I selected the braised pork ball in brown sauce along with, you guessed it, steamed rice and veggies. Once again the rice was overcooked and the veggies were flavorless, but I was just happy to have anything in my stomach at this point.
After dinner, the flight attendants set up a tiny snack basket in the galley, but with the crew socializing there after meal service, I had to elbow my way through to snag a bag of chips.
I don’t hold China Eastern responsible for my unintentionally bad order, but I expect more from a $5,000 business-class ticket. The addition of one or two Western options to the menu, as well as more substantial midflight snacks, would go a long way toward improving the experience. I was happy when my food was taken away from me and I was able to start forgetting that disgusting bite of tendon.
The service on this flight was far from perfect, but also much better than I was expecting. My drink was refilled proactively (several times) during dinner, and on the few occasions I used the call button, a flight attendant responded quickly.
There were, however, a few areas that could be improved. While 44 passengers (52 if you count the smaller cabin) can be a lot to juggle, the flight attendants seemed to rely too heavily on their written notes for drink and meal orders. At one point, a flight attendant was standing next to my seat holding a glass of sparkling wine that I had ordered, but when I reached out to take it, she was too busy checking her crib sheet to notice. Yet even the cheat sheets weren’t enough to get things right. As we were descending into New York, an FA came by to hand me someone else’s coat, insistent that it was mine and she had the right seat number.
When the flight attendant cleared my (untouched) plate of beef tendon, she asked, “You don’t like eating tendon?” I said no, not really, and she simply said, “Oh” and kept moving down the aisle. That would have been a perfect opportunity to offer me something else to eat, even a little snack.
Taken together these incidents made the service feel like it emphasized form over function, a robotic process and not a personable one.
There’s something to be said for flying from Asia to New York without a stop along the way and arriving well-rested. China Eastern’s long-haul fleet of 777 aircraft has all the foundations to offer a top-notch flight experience, but the airline dropped the ball on many of the soft elements, including food, service and entertainment. A complete overhaul of the catering could make this a really attractive flight option, but until that happens, I’ll be looking for airlines that feed me better on flights this long.
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