(China) Southern Hospitality: Flying China Southern's New 787-9 in Business From Vancouver to Guangzhou
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="80" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="22" amens-ife="10" food-bev="18" service="23" pros="Exceptional service and hospitality, brand-new aircraft, competitive hard product." cons="Severely limited Wi-Fi, food could be improved." /]
Mainland Chinese airlines don't have the best reputations among frequent flyers. Sure, there are some exceptions, but for the most part when you are faced with the prospect of flying long-haul on a Chinese carrier, you're probably expecting an airline that overpromises and then underdelivers. The hard product is there, but just about everything else is sorely lacking.
China Southern is a Guangzhou-based behemoth that has a lot of ambition. So much ambition, in fact, that it wants to become the world's largest airline within three to five years. And if it wants to dominate the global commercial aviation market, it's got to have the product to back it up. In the past, TPG reviews of China Southern in both first class and premium economy have been a mixed bag -- in both reviews it was noted that while the hard product was solid, the experience was lacking in other ways.
I immediately identified this carrier as a way to get from the West Coast of North America to China after the end of a bunch of domestic flying. And, with the carrier taking delivery of new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners with a new business-class product on board, it made a lot of sense. I was eager to see whether the airline had stepped up its game since the last time we reviewed it. After my flight, I'm confident that it has.
For my first overseas adventure as TPG's reviews and travel intern, we had our eyes on Sanya, a beach-resort destination on the southern coast of China's Hainan Island, which is filled with just about every major luxury hotel brand you can think of. So I needed to find a way to get myself to Asia. After scanning Google Flights' handy map tool, I discovered an underlying trend: Many airlines were running cheap business-class fares originating in Vancouver, British Columbia. Mind you, we were booking this ticket less than a week in advance, so "cheap" in this case meant anything under $2,000 for long-haul business class.
China Southern's brand-new 787-9 from Vancouver to Guangzhou presented an attractive option to hop the Pacific. Browsing different departure and arrival city pairs, I found that the cheapest fare was actually connecting beyond Guangzhou and terminating in Chengdu. This itinerary priced out at $1,711, over $800 less than if I had terminated in Guangzhou. I would be flying an extra segment in China Southern's regional 737-800 business class, so this was a win-win in my book. We put the $1,711 charge on The Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x points on airfare (when booked directly with the airline or through American Express Travel on up to $500,000 in purchases per calendar year), raking in a total of 8,555 Membership Rewards points (worth over $170).
Flying China Southern is also a great way to earn American AAdvantage miles. The airline left the SkyTeam Alliance at the beginning of this year, a move intended to help them strengthen their partnership with American, which purchased a 2.68% stake in the company back in 2017. American's website provides a mileage-earning chart for China Southern flights, so it's easy to estimate how many miles you'd be earning for any given flight.
American awards mileage credit for China Southern flights based on actual distance flown. I was booked in "I" class for my transpacific flight and "J" class for my domestic leg from Guangzhou to Chengdu, so in total I earned just shy of 7,500 redeemable miles for this one-way ticket (worth about $105).
Note that in order to claim these miles, you need to call the AAdvantage help desk directly, as the online mileage request form doesn't recognize CZ ticket numbers (yet). Make sure to have your ticket numbers and itinerary handy so the agent can assist you over the phone.
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I arrived in Vancouver on an Air Canada Rouge flight from Las Vegas. The two airlines aren't codeshare partners, so the counter agent in Las Vegas predictably could only issue my boarding pass to Vancouver and told me I'd have to recheck with China Southern once I arrived. Thanks to interline baggage agreements, though, I was able to check my bag from Las Vegas through to Chengdu.
After clearing immigration and arriving in the landside terminal, I made my way to the international departures area, which was fairly busy, with time for peak overseas departures approaching.
China Southern operates two flights a day from Vancouver, an early-afternoon departure on board the 787-9 (the flight I was taking), and a 2am departure on the smaller 787-8 variant.
There were two main lines for check-in: economy class, which was rather full, and one for business class, which had just a handful of people queueing.
After a minute or two, I was invited up to the counter to be checked in.
I had preselected my seat, 17A, which was one of the private, window-facing seats that were tucked away from the aisle. When I confirmed my seat with the counter agent, she informed me that my seat assignment had been released, and now 17A was shown as blocked (airlines routinely block seats as crew rest or for weight and balance purposes). She apologized for the mixup and said she could offer me the seat right in front, 16C, one of the aisle-facing seats. I asked if there were any of the "true" window seats remaining (seats with the letter "A" or "K"), but they were all occupied.
I was bummed. As a lifelong plane fanatic, I had done thorough research to figure out which seat had ideal window alignment and the best wing views, so I had carefully chosen 17A for those reasons. At that point, though, there was really nothing I could do -- and I was way too excited to be flying my first Dreamliner to even think twice about it.
The agent printed both of my boarding passes, along with an invitation to -- ironically -- the SkyTeam lounge. Nothing about the experience so far seemed consistent with the airline's departure from the alliance, with even the words "Sky Priority" printed directly on my boarding pass.
Tickets in hand, I made my way to the security checkpoint. It was pretty packed, but as a business-class passenger I was entitled to use the FasTrack lane, which saved me around 20 minutes of projected wait time.
Vancouver's international terminal was pretty neat, featuring plenty of dining options and many open spaces.
After a pleasant walk through the concourse, I arrived at the SkyTeam lounge. Check out TPG's full review of the lounge here. The space is reserved for first- and business-class passengers flying a member carrier, as well as SkyTeam elites regardless of travel class. The lounge is also accessible through a Priority Pass membership.
The lounge itself sits on a mezzanine above the primary terminal floor. It was bright and spacious, although a bit oddly shaped. There were plenty of available seating areas, even with a slew of overseas departures to Europe and Asia within the next few hours.
The food wasn't noteworthy. I arrived in the late morning, so they still had the breakfast setup, which consisted of western options such as eggs and sausage patties, crepes and cold sandwiches.
While I was in the lounge, though, they began transitioning to the afternoon lunch spread -- and as is the case with most lounges, it was a notable improvement over breakfast.
They had a few western entrees, including a make-your-own pasta bar with veggies and meatballs.
The stations for dim sum and noodle soup were probably the most appealing, but I was saving my appetite for my flight, so I had to pass.
The nearby cocktail bar had a good variety of spirits, coupled with a few minifridges stocked with sodas and juices.
My favorite lounge feature was the elegant self-serve wine bar, with automatic red, white, and rosé wine dispensers.
They had a bottle of Geisweiler Excellence Brut Champagne also available for self-serving.
Slightly over an hour before my flight, I headed down to my gate, D65, which was toward the end of Concourse D. Despite a fairly full flight, the gate area had more than enough seating. YVR airport seemed so well-designed in that respect.
These gates were not airline-specific, but China Southern had already set up their branded boarding signage (again, with SkyTeam logos everywhere) to guide passengers to the right line.
I decided it wouldn’t hurt to inquire about my original seat assignment, 17A. After reviewing the seat map, the gate agent verified that they had indeed blocked it -- but, as it turned out, they wouldn't be needing the seat. A few keyboard clicks later, she tore up my boarding pass and printed me a new one with my original seat, 17A! Don't get me wrong: I would have had an incredible experience either way, but now that I was sitting up close to the amazing Dreamliner windows, it made this flight that much more exciting. I couldn't wait to get on board.
In the few minutes left before boarding started, I walked over to the big panoramic windows to get a glimpse of the 10-month-old Boeing 787-9 that would be flying me across the Pacific that afternoon.
These birds really are an engineering marvel. In just the four-day span before I took this flight, the $292 million machine had planted its wheels in far-flung airports around the globe, anywhere from Auckland, New Zealand, to London, England.
Boarding commenced right at 12:05pm, 45 minutes before departure. There was no first-class cabin on this aircraft, so, as a business-class passenger, I was the first person aboard the plane.
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After checking my boarding pass, the flight attendant at the boarding door walked me over to my seat, 17A, which was in the last row of the cabin. China Southern selected the popular Thompson Vantage XL seat for its new 787 business-class, similar to the one on its larger A380. You can find variations of this seat in premium airline cabins around the world, including the Qantas 787 and the Delta One Suite on the A350 and 777.
The 28 business-class seats were arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration across seven rows. The two middle seats followed the same directional alignment, so there weren’t any honeymoon pairs that were particularly better for couples than the rest.
The brand-new cabin was absolutely stunning. I was captivated by the massive Dreamliner windows, which gave the interior bright and airy ambience.
A signature feature of the Vantage XL seat was the privacy divider, which on the window-facing "A" and "K" seats, provided a cozier space tucked away from the aisle.
By comparison, the "C" and "H" window seats were much more exposed to the aisle, and the seat console actually displaced you quite a bit away from the window.
The privacy divider itself actually provided a good amount of storage, including a small shelf and a closed-door compartment.
You could also find the primary seat controls, which offered an excellent degree of customization. The divider also housed the inflight-entertainment remote control, a standard 110V universal power outlet and the three-prong headphone jack.
Each seat-back boasted a 15-inch IFE touchscreen, a multipurpose literature pocket and a metal coat hook.
The tray table was in the main console and could be easily ejected by pressing a small lever just above the seat cushion.
The table was a bit bizarrely shaped, but the two elongated bottom corners actually made it more comfortable to work on a laptop or enjoy a meal. At its largest, the table measured 21 inches wide and 12 inches long.
Later in the flight, I converted my seat into a 180-degree lie-flat bed that measured 77 inches long and 23 inches wide. I found it to be really comfortable. I tend move a lot when I sleep, but had no issues finding a comfortable position throughout the flight.
A main contributor to the seat comfort was the fairly spacious footwell, which didn't feel tight in the slightest.
When in the lie-flat position, a smaller control strip on the side of the main console was within easy reach, which made it much easier to to adjust my seat without having to sit up fully.
The business-class bathroom wasn't particularly large but was spotlessly clean. The flight attendants performed quick tidy ups between each passenger to keep it pristine.
The counter had a hygiene kit, which included a couple fragrance sprays, body lotion and mouthwash.
Small disposable cups were provided for the mouthwash.
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China Southern provided a fairly plush pillow and blanket for business-class passengers, which really contributed to a solid quality of sleep on board.
The noise-canceling headphones were not from any major brand name, but they were pretty decent.
Also at my seat upon boarding was a pair of brown slippers. They were comfortable and convenient for walking around the cabin without having to put my shoes on.
All business-class passengers received a soft-case amenity kit from the Swiss luxury brand Chopard.
Inside the kit were Chopard-branded moisturizer lotion and lip balm, a toothbrush and toothpaste, cotton rounds, cotton swabs, an eye mask and a foldable brush.
The 15-inch IFE screen was bright, crisp and was responsive to touch.
The sidebar on the left of the screen was used to navigate content. The IFE boasted over 200 movies and over 400 TV shows among other content like music and games.
I particularly enjoyed the flight map, which was highly interactive and customizable. I always love to track my flight's progress throughout the journey.
The handheld IFE remote allowed for seamless multitasking, such as the handy ability to view the flight map without interrupting a movie.
China Southern provided an entertainment pamphlet so I could quickly browse all titles at once, which I actually found to be quite convenient over scrolling endlessly.
The airline is gradually equipping its fleet with satellite Wi-Fi. Since the Vancouver-Guangzhou trek is operated by its brand-new 787-9, my aircraft was among the select frames to feature the in-air connectivity.
On my flight, business-class passengers were entitled to complimentary Wi-Fi, while customers in economy could use cash or miles to purchase a variety of browsing passes. The airline used a customized login portal where passengers were prompted to enter their seat number and the last four characters of their boarding ID (in my case, my passport) to determine eligibility. After entering my details and accepting the terms of service, I was taken online absolutely for free.
On the downside, though, internet speeds weren’t great. Forget using any picture-heavy social media like Instagram -- I was barely able to send an email or answer a simple message. Even though we were flying over Alaska at this stage in the flight, the onboard Wi-Fi on most Chinese carriers still routes through servers in China, so many western media sites were blocked.
When I connected on my laptop, the enhanced online portal offered flight tracking, shopping and even additional entertainment to stream directly to my device.
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After getting settled in my seat after boarding, the flight attendant came by with predeparture indulgences, including a glass of orange juice and a chilled towel. I found it interesting that many Asian carriers (at least the ones I've flown) tend to present their refresher towels ice-cold, while the American carriers all serve them scalding hot. Which one is actually more refreshing? That's a tough call -- I actually enjoy them both.
The flight attendant asked whether I wanted anything else to drink before we left the gate, so I went ahead and ordered a glass of the Charles Heidseick Reserve Champagne. Unfortunately, this was the only taste I would get, as they ran out before we even left the ground.
The primary meal service began about 30 minutes after takeoff. It was kicked off with a small dish of mixed nuts, a miniature quiche and a mango pastry.
Next up was a chicken-ginseng-and-ginger soup. It was simple but quite flavorful. The soup was accompanied by a selection of warm breads, from which I chose garlic bread and a pretzel roll.
The final hors d'oeuvre was sliced beef and a scallop served with a small bite of wakame seaweed salad and cold veggies.
Soon after the appetizers were cleared, my main dish was brought out. I chose the Sichuan-style pork entree with a side of egg rice, bok choy and a shiitake mushroom. The pork was OK, though it was a bit overdone. The rice and veggies on the side were better than the pork itself.
The fifth and final course, dessert, was a fresh fruit plate and a small berry cheesecake soufflé, all of which were excellent.
Overall, the dinner service was pretty solid. The meals were served at a good pace, and in general the food was simple but tasty.
About 10 hours after takeoff from Vancouver and just under two hours until touchdown, the flight attendant came by to wake me up for the prearrival meal. On daytime westbound flights to Asia, the prearrival meal is usually served as breakfast even though most flights touch down in the late afternoon or evening. As such, the meal started with a light breakfast spread including fruit plate, Greek yogurt, warm bread, coffee and juice -- regardless of which entree you chose.
For the main course, the menu offered heartier breakfasts including a western egg dish, but I wanted to go for something a bit more savory. I opted for a beef entree with rice, which I found to be a solid improvement over the pork earlier in the flight. The beef was tender, and the sauce was perfect.
The meal was finished off with a sweet mango pudding.
I was fairly satisfied with the catering on this flight. Though they missed an opportunity to deliver more energized meal options, the food was solid. Sure, I've probably had better, but I've definitely had worse. I also like to give airlines the benefit of the doubt on flights departing from stations that aren't hubs, where catering tends to be less under their control.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="No" /]
Overall, the service was exceptional on this flight. Each member of the crew was energetic and thoroughly excited about their job. They shared a common desire to serve and please, which translated to a professional and friendly service that definitely exceeded my expectations.
My only gripe with the service was the upfront ordering that seems to be pretty common practice among Chinese carriers -- but because it's standard, it really had nothing to do with my specific onboard crew but rather the airline's policy as a whole. While still parked at the gate before departure, the flight attendant took my food and beverage orders for the entire flight -- even breakfast -- and then promptly retrieved both menus. It just felt rushed to be guessing what drink I'd want to accompany my meal a full 13 hours ahead of when I'd be eating. The main issue, though, was not being able to hang on to the menus, which made it difficult to explore any alternate selections throughout the flight.
Aside from this minor quirk before departure, the service was really great throughout the entire journey. I was addressed by name in nearly every interaction with the crew. They seemed to really care about passengers' needs at all points in the flight -- even between meal services, when many cabin crew tend to disappear, they were walking through the aisles fulfilling any requests that might arise. The one time I used the call button was met with an immediate and enthusiastic response.
Toward the end of the flight, the flight attendant who had been serving my section walked over and personally thanked me for flying with China Southern. She then asked me what I thought of the flight, specifically whether I enjoyed the food and service on board. I enthusiastically shared my satisfaction with the experience and thanked her for such personalized and attentive service from takeoff to touchdown.
Flying China Southern's new business-class product on its 787-9 was a great experience. It's increasingly apparent that the airline has been investing heavily in both its hard and soft products to effectively compete against rival Asian carriers -- many of which are considered the world's best. And I'd say the airline definitely packs quite a punch: While the dining experience has room for improvement, a brand-new aircraft, solid business-class seat and polished service will always keep me coming back for more. I walked off this flight with a smile from ear to ear, and I'm definitely looking forward to flying with China Southern again soon.
All photos by the author.