What Was I Thinking? A Review of China Eastern's New 787 Dreamliner in Business Class
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="66" ground-experience="6" cabin-seat="21" amens-ife="5" food-bev="13" service="21" pros="Very private quasi-suite and friendly crew" cons="Bland and lazy catering, comically bad IFE selections, crew was not allowed to close suite doors" /]
After an amazing 23 hours exploring the Jewel at Singapore Changi airport, it was time to make my way back to my home in Shanghai. In addition to a number of low-cost carriers, I could choose from two full-service airlines flying this route: Singapore Airlines and China Eastern. Singapore is one of the world's best airlines and even operates its new A380 suites class on the short hop, but I chose my hometown airline, China Eastern, instead.
My first long haul-flight with China Eastern, from Shanghai (PVG) to New York-JFK, made it perfectly clear why mainland Chinese airlines have such awful reputations. The reverse herringbone seat was great, but every other element of the experience from food and drink to service fell short.
So what caused this sudden burst of masochism for this trip from Singapore? China Eastern operates one of its daily frequencies between SIN and Shanghai with a brand-new 787-9, featuring closing-door suites that bear a striking resemblance to Delta One Suites. I figured a five-and-a-half-hour flight could only be so bad, and while China Eastern mostly sunk to my low expectations, it was still worth checking out the brand-new seats.
We booked this flight only about a month before the trip, but there was still wide-open award space on the specific flight I needed. The timing worked out as well, so I had enough time in Singapore and still could make the one flight operated by the new 787. We paid 40,000 Delta SkyMiles for this ticket (transferred from American Express Membership Rewards) and about $100 in taxes. Business-class seats on this route usually sell for about $1,600, giving us a respectable redemption value of just over 4 cents per point.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="6" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="B-1111" age="0.5" departure="16" departure-2="35" duration="5" duration-2="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I made my way over from the Jewel to Terminal 3 about four hours before departure. The formal check-in area wasn't open yet, but China Eastern was operating an early-check-in desk. There wasn't a separate line for business-class passengers or elite members, so I had to wait about 15 minutes to be helped.
There was a sign prominently displayed reminding passengers that it was illegal to enter the secure area if you didn't intend to actually fly, probably in response to the man who was arrested after lounge hopping around Singapore for over two weeks.
The departures hall was a beautiful place to wait, and pretty soon I had my boarding pass and was on my way.
Singapore uses automated immigration gates, so the entire process took no more than a minute. As a business-class passenger, I was invited to use the SATS lounge, also available to Priority Pass members.
The lounge is on the second level of the terminal, but the window shades obscured what otherwise would have been great tarmac views.
The lounge has plenty of seating and many outlets conveniently placed by every chair, but the Wi-Fi was painfully slow, and I had serious trouble staying connected during my stay.
The food and drink options were pretty sparse, including a self-serve bar and a salad bar.
Though I had low hopes for my onboard meal, the hot options in the lounge didn't inspire much confidence, so I decided to roll the dice and wait for the plane.
For an airport as well regarded as Singapore Changi, I was definitely disappointed by the quality of the lounge. Security in Singapore is conducted at each individual gate, so about an hour before boarding was scheduled to begin, I left the lounge to head to the gate.
There are certainly pros and cons to this setup. On the one hand, you'll never get stuck in an endless security line and won't miss your flight if the line is long (since you're already at the gate). But on the flip side, you can't bring a bottle of water onto the plane and have to leave the lounge early if you want to be the first on board.
The gate area filled up slowly, and I was able to get a great view of our bird taxiing in. While this is marketed as a China Eastern flight, the plane was in a Shanghai Airlines livery, a wholly owned subsidiary of China Eastern. This was the first 787 to join the China Eastern group and the 100th plane in the Shanghai Airlines fleet, hence the special logo. The tail number, B-1111, was also chosen for its lucky properties — four ones in a row for a milestone aircraft.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="21" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="1" configuration-2="2" configuration-3="1" width="19" tray="18" tray-2="11" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I boarded through the forward door and turned right into the business-class cabin. There were 30 seats total, eight on each side and seven pairs of two in the middle.
The seats were staggered and alternated between being closer to the aisle or the window.
Here's another angle of my seat.
I was in Seat 10L, snug up against the window.
This is by far the best type of seat for solo travelers, as it affords privacy and the best views out the window (especially when the Dreamliner wing started to flex during takeoff).
To the left of the seat is a small, open storage compartment. This is also where the reading light, outlet and USB port are.
An additional storage compartment pops open from the large table space right next to the seat.
This is also where the seat controls are, as well as the release for the tray table.
Even though it was a short afternoon flight and I had no intention of sleeping, I reclined the seat into bed mode after lunch.
The bed itself was plenty comfortable, but the shoulder-harness seatbelt was difficult to lie down with. The footwell was also incredibly tiny, and I could see this being uncomfortable to sleep in on a longer flight.
The biggest selling point of this style of suite is the closing door that offers added privacy. After lunch, I asked the flight attendant if he could close the door, and he promptly returned to my seat with a landing card for Chinese immigration. It took a few rounds of back and forth and me pointing at the door to get the message across, and he disappeared into the galley to call the purser. She spoke better English and was able to tell me that China Eastern didn't yet have permission from the proper authorities to close the doors on these suites midflight. Even though there was a door, it was purely decorative, at least for the time being. Hopefully, China Eastern will get the necessary permits before it begins using these planes on long-haul flights.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="5" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="18" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I didn't expect much in the way of amenities for such a short flight but was pleasantly surprised to find a pair of slippers waiting at my seat in a shoe bag. I hadn't received slippers on my last two long-haul flights of 10 or more hours, so this was an easy thing for them to get right.
That's about the only thing China Eastern got right. Every time I fly with China Eastern (now on five different types of aircraft in both economy and business class), I can't get my Bose headphones to work with the IFE system. I've tried using the two-prong adapter and just plugging them directly in, but I either get static or no volume. This means I have to use the headphones they provide, which are mediocre at best.
What annoyed me the most was the IFE selection, which somehow got worse since the last time I flew with China Eastern. Comedy shows, for example fell into categories like "Interesting Animals," "Animal Baby" and "Coquetry Animals." Someone obviously mislabeled this category, but the only Western TV show loaded into the entire system was a single season of "This Is Us."
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="13" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="1" champagne="Roosevelt Reserve Brut" dine-on-demand="no" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Shortly before takeoff, I was offered a package of nuts and a choice of water or orange juice.
One of the most frustrating elements of my last flight with China Eastern was the way meal orders were taken. Instead of distributing menus to all the passengers, the flight attendant walked over with a menu, held it open, gave you about five seconds to make a decision, and then took the menu to the next passenger. I didn't get a chance to see everything that was going to be served, but when he asked, "Chicken or duck?" I played it safe and ordered the chicken.
The entire meal was served on a tray about an hour and a half into the flight. There was a small side of fruit and an appetizer that tasted like grilled salmon, but I wasn't 100% sure. I was also offered a selection from the breadbasket, and picked two pieces of garlic bread, which ended up being the highlight of the meal.
The dish followed China Eastern's lazy catering recipe: overcooked rice, bland veggies and disappointing meat. While this chicken dish was much more approachable for a Western passenger than what I'd been served on my last China Eastern flight, the quality was equally low and the lack of effort was perhaps the worst. While it certainly streamlines the catering process when every dish is a variation of the same three building blocks, I've never seen another airline this lazy and subpar when it came to food.
For dessert, the flight attendant came through the aisle with a tray of Haagen-Dazs. As usual, the ice cream was frozen solid, and I had to wait a good 15 minutes before I could dig in.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="21" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="No" /]
Despite a mild language barrier, I give this flight crew high marks for their service. Drink refills were offered proactively during the meal, and throughout the rest of the flight, they made their way through the cabin several times to see if anyone needed anything. I like to stay hydrated when I'm flying, and they had no problem frequently topping up my water. The cabin was about 80% full, but I still felt like I was getting personalized attention.
While our flight was blocked at a little over five hours, we ended up only spending four and a half hours in the air. There's not that much that can go wrong in that time, so this flight basically met my expectations for better or (mostly) for worse. I didn't expect much from the meal service, and was happy to at least be served something that could pass as dinner. The biggest disappointment was the inoperable suite door, though that's obviously bound to change as time goes on. I walked away from this flight with the same opinion of China Eastern I had when I landed in JFK: I'll fly them again if the price is right, but I'm bringing my own food next time.
All photos by the author.