Not-So-Premium Economy: China Southern Airlines (777-300ER) From New York to Guangzhou, China
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="57" ground-experience="6" cabin-seat="17" amens-ife="9" food-bev="11" service="14" pros="Great price and good legroom" cons="Mediocre, unappetizing food; lackluster service; no Wi-Fi" /]
China Southern Airlines' premium economy seat on the Boeing 777 is, on paper, a pretty good product. With 38 inches of legroom and 18.5 inches of width, it's the same as most domestic first classes in the US and worlds better than regular coach.
But how would it fare on a punishing 15-hour, 8,000-mile trek from New York to China?
China Southern may not be familiar to many US-based flyers, but it's the biggest airline in Asia by fleet size and may soon be the biggest in the world, overtaking American Airlines. In the US, it serves New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco with daily flights to its home base in Guangzhou and, in the case of San Francisco, to Wuhan as well.
The airline offers decent award-seat availability, and it's one of the few international carriers that still has long-haul first class as well as business. It's also been in the news lately for its impending exit from SkyTeam, the airline alliance led by Delta — bad news for Delta flyers. (China Southern's been flirting with American, though, and it may join the Oneworld alliance instead.) But for now, Delta-loyal passengers can still earn and burn their SkyMiles on the carrier, and its flights count toward earning Delta elite status.
So when I needed Medallion Qualifying Dollars to remain a Delta Platinum Medallion elite for 2019, that's where I turned. When I saw a cheap $700 premium economy one-way fare from New York-JFK to Jakarta (CGK) via Guangzhou (CAN) for early December, I jumped. Return from Indonesia was via Manila (MNL) on the new Philippine Airlines ultra-long-haul nonstop to New York in business class — stay tuned for that review, coming soon. I would be on the trusty Boeing 777-300ER workhorse for the long flight to Guangzhou over the Arctic Ocean.
I paid $709.42 for a one-way ticket to Jakarta with a layover of just under two hours in Guangzhou. That's cutting it a bit close in China's delay-prone skies, but things worked out fine. I paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, my go-to card for airfare, since it earns 3x points on travel purchases, and comes with excellent trip protections. The transaction earned 2,128 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $42 at TPG's current valuations.
Just three days after landing in Jakarta, the miles and those all-important Medallion Qualifying Dollars showed up in my Delta account, pushing me to Platinum level for 2019. As of this writing, China Southern was a Group 3 partner for Delta, and as detailed in Delta's earnings tables for partner airlines, flying China Southern premium economy class earns 100% of miles flown in redeemable SkyMiles, plus 100% of those miles as Medallion Qualification Miles. Delta elite qualification is also determined by Medallion Qualification Dollars spent; in all fare classes, flying China Southern earns 20% of the distance flown as MQDs. That was a sweet deal: For $700 in spending, I got $1,808 in MQDs, more than enough to maintain my Platinum status.
Flying partner airlines is a common strategy Delta flyers use to rack up a lot of MQDs to make the next elite tier or maintain their current one, especially at the end of the year — consult our guide to earning MQDs with Delta partners for the lowdown.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="6" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="B-7185" age="2.5" late="11" departure="11" departure-2="18" duration="15" duration-2="22" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I checked in online easily the night before the 10:40am departure of flight CZ300 out of JFK's Terminal 4.
China Southern doesn't yet participate in TSA PreCheck, so I had to take off my shoes and remove laptops and electronics from my carry-ons despite being a PreCheck member through Global Entry. TSA agents at JFK come in widely varying degrees of pleasantness, and that day I did not get those at the more polite end of the spectrum.
Good news, though: As an elite Delta passenger flying an alliance airline, I had access to Delta's SkyClub lounge after security. The only problem was that CZ300 departed from Gate A5 and the SkyClub was halfway down the long Concourse B. With 10,000 miles already scheduled to go that day, I wasn't eager to add another half mile on foot.
The solution appeared in the form of an electric cart stationed at the foot of the escalator after the TSA checkpoint. I always wondered at what point in my life I would become that person who rides the cart in the terminal — well, how about right now? And in less than two minutes, instead of the usual schlep, I was at the door of the lounge.
The SkyClub at T4 has never disappointed me. Its strong suit is the views onto the apron and runways, with ample space to sit and OK, if not outstanding, food. It's always done the job of a lounge well for me — providing a respite from the bustle. And those views of the planes — from a terrace too, in the warmer months — are a beauty.
A quick bite of eggs and ham with sriracha and scallions was the best meal I would have until hitting the China Southern lounge in Guangzhou, 18 hours later.
Without a ride on a cart, it took me a bit to walk to the gate from the lounge. Knowing the distance, I set out in time to make it for the 9:40am start of boarding.
When I got there at 9:35am, boarding had already begun, and many other elite or premium economy passengers were already on the plane. I also had to get new boarding passes; the ones I had printed at home weren't good for actually getting onboard.
The sight of my 777-300ER at the gate lifted my AvGeek spirits up, though. Even in China Southern's utterly bland colors, a big Triple Seven in the sun is a thing of beauty.
This one, with the Chinese registration B-7185, had left the Everett, Washington, factory just two and a half years earlier. Still a fledgling for a bird that can fly decades.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="17" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="4" configuration-3="2" width="18.5" pitch="38" lavs="4" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Inside, after going through business class, I found a familiar sight: a premium economy with shell seats exactly like Air France's, which associate editor Brendan Dorsey reviewed earlier this year — and did not like. I was in 32A, by the engine. (China Southern skips a lot of row numbers; my row wasn't actually the 32nd from the nose, but the 12th.) Just like Air France's, China Southern's premium economy was arranged 2-4-2.
Seats against the bulkhead in Row 31 appeared to actually offer less legroom than the rows behind, since you could not slide your legs under the seat in front.
The advantage of a shell seat is that the back doesn't move, so no one can recline into your space. That's also the disadvantage: You can recline, yes, but only inside the shell, by sliding down. I found that to be an acceptable compromise. Legroom was far better than it looked.
When reclined — China Southern says the angle goes to 123 degrees — I could extend my legs under the seat shell in front. Not quite a lie-flat biz class, but hey, I'd paid $700. An extendable legrest, retractable footrest under the seat in front and a lot more storage space than in economy made this seat a vast improvement over coach.
The seat padding that Brendan had found lacking on Air France was indeed thin on China Southern too, but somewhat miraculously I did not end up sore after 15 hours in the seat. Your results may vary.
Open-storage cubbies were available between the seats. They didn't really work for anything other than bottles, cups or eyeglass cases.
A convenient nook for phones and wallets was just below the removable, wired remote in the armrest.
Between the seats were reading lights on flexible arms, turned on and off by rotating the front element, and headphones.
Two power outlets for each pair of seats meant no awkward moments over who got to charge their device. You could also charge from a USB outlet below the monitor in front.
The airbag-style seat belt was unpleasantly heavy and bulky. A small problem, compared to what my fellow passengers in coach were faced with: 32 inches of average legroom throughout the cabin. Kudos to China Southern, however, for resisting the terrible trend among 777 operators to pack economy seats 10 abreast in a 3-4-3 layout, and keeping the 3-3-3 arrangement that the airplane was originally designed for. The result was a coach cabin that did not provoke despair on sight.
Premium economy was also distinguished by a bag with slippers and a shoehorn, as well as a miniature amenity kit with the bare essentials: toothbrush and toothpaste, eye mask, comb, earplugs.
Four bathrooms, between the premium economy and economy cabins, were available. They were standard-issue 777 lavs. I found them clean throughout the flight.
At 10:27am, I heard the cargo door close, and at 10:30am, the first welcome announcement had me thinking we were about to leave, on time. The purser then introduced the captain by name over the PA, and the safety video played — a rather calming affair featuring snowy mountains and serene views.
We did not push back from the gate until 11am, waiting, as the captain said in fluent English, for some passengers who had not boarded yet. Meanwhile, a flight attendant had come to greet me personally at my seat.
"Mr. Riva?" she asked, reading from what I imagined was a printout of the list of elite passengers on board. "For anything you need, just ask me."
I could only imagine that she was reading from a list of elite passengers, however, because she did not specify exactly why I was being singled out. A simple "Thank you for your loyalty" to preface the whole spiel would have explained it.
We lined up on the runway at 11:18am for a smooth, quiet takeoff roll. Even sitting next to one of the two immensely powerful General Electric engines, the noise was never disturbing — but I definitely felt the push of their 230,000 pounds of combined thrust.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="9" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="10.6" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
By China Airlines' own count, the IFE system provided 600 hours' worth of audio and video content. The music selection and, to a lesser extent, the TV shows were definitely geared toward Chinese viewers, but I had better luck with the film selection.
The sharp, responsive 10.6-inch screen didn't tilt, but that wasn't a huge problem, since the seat back in front could not recline. The sharpness and responsiveness were a big plus when looking at the inflight map, which could be manipulated intuitively by pinching and zooming. The IFE could be controlled by touchscreen or wired remote.
Wi-Fi wasn't available. Our 777 lacked the telltale hump of a satellite antenna on top of the fuselage. Another China Southern 777 photographed at JFK shows what a Triple Seven without Wi-Fi looks like: clean on top.
For comparison, here's what a 777 with a Wi-Fi antenna looks like.
Movies were not organized in alphabetical order within categories but by what appeared to be some sort of cataloging by subject matter. That did not help. Film content was pretty unexciting, but I managed to find three movies I wanted to watch: "Apollo 13," "Crazy Rich Asians" and the hilariously awful "The Meg" — each one preceded by no fewer than four commercials, all for cars.
That was nowhere near as fun as exploring the more bizarre English translations of Chinese music titles. My favorites were "I Psychologically Want to Kiss" and the unspeakably sad "Snow Night Drinking Alone."
To listen to all this, CZ provided low-quality headphones.
You are advised to bring your own closed-ear, noise-canceling set, and a two-prong adapter if you have a standard stereo jack. Incidentally, the loudest, most inconsolable shrieking baby I'd ever encountered in flight was seated in the very next row. Nothing the grownups tried to calm him worked, and even my Bose headphones were just as powerless in the face of his decibel onslaught. But I couldn't honestly blame him. By the time we hit Inner Mongolia, with 12 hours behind us and three more to go, I was ready to scream too.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="11" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="3" meals-purchase="No" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Half an hour after takeoff, peanuts were distributed, followed by the drinks cart. A flight attendant announced that lunch would be served soon, and just past noon New York time, the lunch cart appeared. A tattered sticker on it commemorated the 2012 entry into service of the Airbus A380 with the airline.
Without menus — which not all airlines distribute in premium economy — I was verbally presented with three possible choices: "beef with potato, fish rice and rice with [unintelligible thing]." I couldn't quite understand what the third choice was even after asking to hear it again. Probably chicken.
I went with what turned out to be a very subpar beef, with a school-cafeteria side of diced carrots and peas and mashed potatoes. My lunch tray also featured smoked salmon (great, but just one bite) and a portion of fresh, good kiwi and cantaloupe. I ignored the artificial-looking dessert, the oatmeal raisin/cinnamon cookie and the Kit Kat bar.
The best thing about lunch was the big tray table I ate it on. Extending from the seat shell in front, it was large enough to comfortably use a laptop.
After another pass of the drinks cart, it was time for a long afternoon nap as we made our way north past the Arctic Circle and darkness fell quickly. With the seat reclined, I managed to get some sleep, but don't expect a satisfyingly deep rest in these seats if you're of even average height.
Seven and a half hours after takeoff, we were still at the relatively low altitude of 29,000 feet — possibly because we were loaded with a near-full complement of passengers and heavy with fuel for the long journey. Our 8,370-mile flight was at the very limit of the 777's range. As we burned more fuel and got lighter, we climbed higher — a procedure known as step climb — until we hit 36,000 feet for the last couple of hours.
At 6:40pm New York time, over the Arctic Ocean and still in pitch darkness, the crew switched the cabin lights back on and distributed hot towels. The meal service that followed was a dinner with some breakfast aspects, in the form of strawberry yogurt and jam. Once again we were presented with three choices from a cart: "fish rice" and two others that a flight attendant showed passengers to help them choose. One was beef, and the other I didn't recognize.
"I don't know," she replied when I asked what it was.
Not what you want to hear.
The beef I chose was, again, the sort of thing one expects to get in coach from a nondescript airline. Premium economy meals on a major international player should be a bit better — and the crew should be able to describe what they contain.
The tray came with a dedicated cup for coffee or tea. When I asked for tea, I expected a flight attendant would extend a little tray toward me, on which I would then place said cup for them to fill from a thermos — common practice in long-haul coach everywhere. But not here: I was just handed a clear plastic glass with barely hot, unsweetened liquid. Again, I wasn't too upset, considering I was not seated up front, but I did wonder what was going on with the food and service in business class, just 10 feet in front of me past the divider curtain.
When they removed the trays, we were approaching the Siberian city of Norilsk, known as "Russia's coldest and most polluted," but we didn't get to see it in the pitch dark. We had flown so far mostly over uninhabited parts of the planet, and a lot of the almost seven hours of flight remaining would unfold over a vast emptiness as well. Cabin lights were dimmed again for the next four hours, as we crossed Siberia southbound and the sun rose to our left. Flight attendants came through a few times with plastic cups of water and juice, supplementing the small water bottle premium economy passengers had found at their seats upon boarding.
I lifted my window shade over Mongolia for a glimpse of the Mars-like landscape.
Half past midnight New York time, two hours from Guangzhou — where it was about 2pm on the day after our departure — out came the carts again for the third and final meal service. The choice was fried rice or a turkey sandwich. Neither seemed very appetizing, but I was hungry. The turkey was cold and came in a plastic wrap, period. No tray, no napkin and no way around the absolute fail of this flight's food offerings.
Before landing, the flight attendant who had welcomed me aboard came to inform me, and me alone, that we'd be landing in Guangzhou at 3:40pm and the temperature was 10 degrees. (Celsius, of course.)
"Do you have a connection?" she asked, in order to assist me with any onward flights.
As predicted, we touched down in CAN at 40 minutes on the dot, and I smoothly made my way onward to Indonesia through China Southern's huge, spotless home airport and beautiful lounge.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="14" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="By-the-script, run-of-the-mill, mechanical. You get the idea. " /]
The elite-recognition treatment, with a personalized greeting at my seat and announcement of arrival time and ground temperature, would be repeated on my connecting flight to Jakarta. Kudos to China Southern — and to Korean Air, the only other SkyTeam airline I've flown where my loyalty to the alliance has received a consistent shoutout no matter the class I happened to be in. KLM has done it too, but sporadically. It's a pleasant little touch, and everybody should do it. (I'm looking at you, Aeromexico, Air France and Alitalia.)
But the general attitude of the cabin crew appeared a bit mechanical and robotic, as if they were following a script rather than genuinely interacting. Aside from those personalized greetings, which were also delivered without a lot of feeling, I did not sense any warmth. And I would have expected flight attendants to know what the food they were serving was — or to look up its name in a couple languages besides Chinese.
All things considered, I was not unhappy with what I got from China Southern in exchange for that $700. The food and service shortcomings that would have killed a business-class experience were slightly more acceptable considering this flight had cost us less than 9 cents a mile. That is about six times cheaper, in dollars-per-mile terms, than my commute on the New York subway to the TPG office. Even the bizarre translations served as a good reminder that you may fly nonstop for dirt cheap over enormous distances, but the world remains, fortunately, a place of many diverse cultures.
So, would I do this 15-hour ordeal again on China Southern? At the same price, I might — if they fixed the catering. But I would not be looking forward to an especially pleasant flight.
All photos by the author.