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Spacious suites, delicious food and personalized service.
Middling lounge experience, dated hard product, no Wi-Fi. Flight attendants slept in the first-class suites.
To finish off my summer as TPG’s reviews and travel intern, we knew that we had to do something big. So, why not fly in first class on the world’s largest airliner on an airline that has ambitions of being the world’s largest? Plus, I’d already flown with China Southern in both economy and business class, so flying with the airline in first seemed only natural.
In a larger sense, I was very interested to fly my first long-haul first-class product of the summer because I wanted to see how it compared to business class, and to see how it stacked up compared to when TPG himself reviewed the product on the Boeing 777 back in 2017. In an industry where a lot of airlines are eschewing traditional first-class products in favor of massively upgraded biz class, would there actually be any differentiation between the two classes?
Ever since American Airlines and China Southern first announced their partnership in mid-2018, the airlines have slowly been rolling out a suite of enhanced benefits for flyers on both sides of the Pacific. In March of this year, the airlines announced perhaps the biggest step of the deal yet: AAdvantage members were now eligible to earn and burn miles on the Chinese airline.
The tricky part is, like many of American’s partner redemptions, these flights don’t show up on the AAdvantage online booking tool. For flights on Cathay Pacific, for example, you’re better off using a different Oneworld search engine, such as British Airways, and then calling American directly to book. China Southern is not part of Oneworld — or any alliance for that matter — so we had to use ExpertFlyer to locate first-class award availability.
We booked this flight as a one-way journey from Guangzhou, China (CAN), to New York-JFK via Los Angeles (LAX), which fell under the Asia Region 2 award chart. Redemptions between this region and the mainland US cost 37,500 miles in coach, 70,000 in business and 110,000 in first.
Though 110,000 is a huge chunk of miles (worth roughly $1,430), it still provides a phenomenal value when compared to the equivalent cash rates. China Southern rarely discounts its first-class seats — and since we were booking fairly last-minute, the cash fares were going for nearly $16,000 one-way.
Round-trip fares aren’t much better, either. They regularly sell for $14,000-$15,000 even when booking months in advance. So, either way you slice it, these seats don’t come cheap, and using miles can provide a phenomenal redemption value (in our case, we yielded 14 cents per mile).
My cab pulled up the curb at Guangzhou International about three hours in advance of my 9:30pm departure to Los Angeles. China Southern operates out of the impressive Terminal 2 complex, which opened mid-2018 and houses the airline’s largest hub operation across its network.
The facility is truly remarkable. In many ways it reminds me of Incheon Airport’s (ICN) Terminal 2, which I had the pleasure of experiencing earlier this summer.
It boasts the modern architectural grandeur found across many major airports in Asia.
I found China Southern’s premium check-in counters at the very far end of the terminal, Row Q. The area was surprisingly quiet, which I found strange given the evening rush hour of overseas flights. There was just one counter serving first and business class, and two counters for eligible SkyPriority passengers. The rest were closed.
I initially joined the line for first and business, but once one of the SkyPriority counters freed up, the agent called me over. After checking my documents, she asked for my seat preference while showing me a sample seating chart. I was assigned Seat 2K, the starboard window in the second row of the cabin. When I hopped on ExpertFlyer, I was ecstatic to see I would be one of only two passengers traveling in first class that evening: me in 2K and a fellow passenger across the cabin in 1A.
The agent printed my boarding passes and gave me detailed instructions on where to find the Sky Pearl Club once I cleared immigration. I headed over to the security checkpoint, where I was able to take advantage of an expedited lane reserved for first- and business-class passengers.
After a quickly clearing immigration, I made my way through the spotless international terminal following signs for the China Southern lounge. The Sky Pearl Club is the airline’s only lounge offering, accessible by both first- and business-class passengers, SkyTeam elites and as of recently, Admirals Club members.
The space was beautifully decorated, offering a serene escape from the bustling terminal.
The lounge itself wasn’t too big, but the crowds were fairly light, meaning there was plenty of seating to go around.
I particularly loved the large leather recliners — my jet-lagged self could barely stay awake once I plopped myself down in these cozy seats. These would be ideal for passing a long layover or late-night connection.
The food selection skewed heavily toward traditional Chinese cuisine, as expected. Both times I’ve visited the Sky Pearl Club, I’ve found the quality of the food to be excellent. They offered a large self-serve bar with a variety of hot entrees, sides and steamed vegetables.
On the menu this evening were steamed fish, beef brisket, Chinese kale and seasonal-vegetable stir-fry.
They also offered a on-demand noodle bar, complete with garnishes and protein add-ons.
The food was complemented by a great selection of sodas, juices, tea, water, coffee and a full-service bar.
Overall, I’d rank the Sky Pearl Club as a solid business-class offering, but below par when stacked up against competing first-class products. Don’t get me wrong, my visit was very enjoyable — hot food, good bar, showers, comfortable seating — but it lacked the distinctly premium ground experience that now comes standard with leading first-class offerings.
After a relaxing hour in the lounge, the departures board indicated my flight had begun boarding. I collected my belongings and made my way over to Gate A155, which was less than a two-minute walk from the lounge.
It was at this point that I realized I had the dreaded “SSSS” (Secondary Security Screening Selection) printed on my boarding pass, four letters that you don’t want to ever encounter. Although the algorithms behind this process are somewhat of a black box, they’re usually triggered by irregular travel patterns — think last-minute, one-way tickets bouncing from country to country — so I can’t say I was surprised.
Boarding was in full swing by the time I arrived, so the economy-class line stretched down the concourse while the SkyPriority lane had already been cleared out and boarded.
As a first-class passenger, I was eligible for the SkyPriority lane, so I walked right up to the podium to board.
As anticipated, I was pulled aside for the extra screening. Back in my non-revenue days with Delta, I was a frequent SSSS-er for the exact reasons described above, so I was somewhat familiar with the 10-minute ordeal. I was shocked to see that after a quick glance in my backpack, they returned my boarding pass and sent me on my way.
I was directed down the first jetway, which boarded through the very front of the lower deck, where the first-class cabin was located.
Cabin and Seat
I was greeted at the front cabin door by the purser, who escorted me to Seat 1K rather than my assigned 2K.
“We thought you’d prefer to sit a bit further up, since it’s quieter and further away from the galley,” she said.
They had already set everything up in my new seat, so I happily took them up on their offer.
At nearly 9 years old, this product certainly wasn’t the most modern on the market, but I’d argue it’s still one of the most comfortable. The suites were absolutely massive, significantly more spacious than any other product I’d flown in.
The seats themselves were 29 inches across — over 7 inches wider than business class — and the suites measured an incredible 45 inches from wall to wall, a wider space than what you’d find on some top-tier first-class products like Swiss or Emirates.
The suite walls stood roughly 5 feet high, which provided an excellent amount of privacy from any activity in the aisle.
The pair of sliding doors transformed the space into a fully enclosed private suite.
If you’re traveling alone, window seats A or K are definitely the way to go. But if you’re traveling with a companion, the middle pairs are a phenomenally comfortable and private way to travel. With a retractable divider and two closed doors on either side, you and your companion will be treated to a 7-foot-by-7-foot private oasis in the sky.
After taking my seat, the purser took my small carry-on luggage and stored it in my locker. This cabin has no overhead bins, so instead there were eight private lockers at the front of the plane, one for each first-class passenger.
The seats didn’t have too much built-in storage. There were a few small compartments for storing loose items, but nothing large enough to store a backpack or purse. The large ottoman, for example, lifted to reveal a small compartment, which was convenient for storing my shoes once I changed into slippers.
There was more storage on either side of the seat, but it was still fairly limited overall.
Under the right armrest were the IFE remote, USB port and headphone jacks.
Also under the armrest were the seat controls, which offered an adjustable headrest, seatback and footrest. The control pad included buttons for a reading light and a “Do Not Disturb” indicator.
This privacy feature activated a red light on the exterior of the suite, allowing you to have a bit more uninterrupted downtime when taking a nap or watching a movie.
The reading light over my left shoulder was quite small and dim, so I preferred the pair of lights on the overhead panel, which provided bright and ample lighting.
A single power outlet was farther up in the suite, closer to the ottoman, which wasn’t an ideal placement but great to have regardless.
The tray table was stored in the side console to the right of the seat, and was easily ejected by pulling on the lever.
The table itself was massive, measuring 19 inches deep and 23 inches across.
These plush seats converted into a large lie-flat bed 29 inches wide and 6 feet, 7 inches long. I’m just over 5 feet, 10 inches, so I had absolutely no problem getting comfortable.
The lack of a confining footwell was also a huge plus, giving the seat an extra spacious feel when in lie-flat mode.
I loved the fact that I had three entire windows to myself. The 5-foot walls enclosing the suites allowed each passenger to enjoy natural lighting without disturbing his or her neighbors.
There was a single bathroom at the front of the aircraft serving the small first-class cabin. It was quite spacious, roughly double the size of your average economy-class bathroom, and with only two passengers using it, it was virtually spotless the entire flight.
The airline also provided bathroom amenities from Tuscan Soul by Salvatore Ferragamo, including fragrances and lotions, and a bottle of mouthwash.
Up in the forward galley was the primary staircase leading up to the business-class cabin. I’ve still never had the chance to fly on the upper deck of an aircraft. It’s definitely at the top of my list!
Amenities and IFE
The soft product was definitely an area where this experience stood out. Having flown China Southern’s business class, I had a fairly good benchmark of comparison for just how enhanced this product really was.
Upon boarding, my suite was stocked with a huge spread of amenities for the flight. For starters, I found an amenity kit, slippers, mattress pad and a copy of the day’s newspaper waiting on the ottoman.
The amenity kit was by Salvatore Ferragamo, stocked with branded hand cream, lip balm and fragrance, in addition to an eye mask, earplugs, toothbrush kit, cotton pads, cotton swabs and a comb.
My personal favorite amenity was the pajamas, exclusively for first-class customers. They were incredibly comfortable. After commenting how great they were to the flight attendant, she gave me an extra pair to take home with me as a souvenir.
Even the slippers were more plush and luxurious than those offered in business. They were unwrapped and laid out on the carpet of my suite upon boarding, which was a simple yet thoughtful touch. They even came with a shoehorn.
The first-class bedding was absolutely phenomenal. In addition to the plushest comforter I’ve had on a plane, we were provided with two pillows and a mattress pad for lining the seat cushions.
After the turndown service, I returned to what was probably the most inviting bed I’d ever experienced in the sky.
I was pinching myself as I got settled in bed 36,000 feet above Japan.
Now onto the entertainment. For starters, the airline provided a pair of noise-canceling headphones that delivered in terms of sound quality and comfort.
My IFE remote was broken, which typically isn’t a bother when you have a touchscreen, but this time the screen was over 6 feet away from the seat, so it required me to unbuckle and stand up whenever I needed to hit play or pause or change what I was watching.
China Southern’s A380s feature an older entertainment system, and it definitely was noticed, especially since I’d recently flown on board one of the airline’s brand-new 787 Dreamliners that feature a much more modern IFE system.
The interface was more sluggish and the selection less extensive, but it did the trick. There was still plenty to entertain yourself on this 13-hour long-haul.
The majority of my IFE usage was spent tracking our 7,200-mile journey across the North Pacific.
These A380s have undergone almost no modifications during their eight-plus years of service — meaning no Wi-Fi retrofits on these birds. The airline is equipping its new Dreamliner deliveries with internet service, but they have yet to formally announce any plans to bring their A380 jumbos online.
Personally, I’m not a heavy internet user when flying. If it’s offered, sometimes I’ll splurge just because it’s there, but I’m not particularly disappointed when an airline doesn’t offer it. I know that’s not the case for many people, though, especially when traveling for business, so it’s definitely something to be aware of when given a choice of aircraft.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Upon boarding, I was greeted with a small tray of welcome snacks (a fruit pastry and macaron) and a glass of lemon water.
After perusing the menu and having my orders taken, I really began to get excited for the six-course extravaganza that was to come.
The meal service kicked off shortly after departure with a smoked-salmon canapé and a small dish of warmed nuts. I paired the starter with a glass of Piper Heidsieck Champagne, which is the same as in the airline’s business-class product.
I was then offered a choice of hors d’oeuvres: smoked salmon with free-range chicken breast and beef roll with asparagus, or marinated duck with bamboo shoots. I went with the former. The salmon was surprisingly fresh, and the chicken was tender and flavorful.
Next up was the soup course. We were offered three options: carrot cream, Chinese pork and Chinese beef soups. I chose the carrot cream, which was phenomenal.
The accompanying breadbasket included several whole-grain rolls and even a few pieces of garlic bread.
Finally, it was time for the entree. There were a whopping five options offered on this flight: grilled beef tenderloin, baked Pacific salmon fillet, stir-fried Arctic clams, roasted pork jowl and traditional Cantonese hot pot.
I try to choose the local entrees whenever possible, so I went with the hot pot. Unlike many soup-based variants of the dish, the Cantonese-style hot pot is served on a bed of rice with an assortment of cured meats and vegetables on top. It was a deliciously authentic and flavorful meal, and I was quite happy with my choice.
Course five of six was a fruit-and-cheese plate, a prelude to the dessert and sweets to come. It included a standard variety of cheeses, dried peaches and plums, in addition to carrots and a few crackers.
I was already stuffed at this point, but who can resist dessert? I chose the vanilla ice cream, which was accompanied by another large fruit plate. All of the fruit was fresh, while the ice cream was a perfect way to close the meal.
For snacking in-between meals, first-class passengers had access to a walk-up bar at the very front of the plane. It offered a fruit basket, a few wrapped sandwiches and an assortment of sweet pastries. While there was a decent selection of wine and liquor, I imagine they weren’t intended to be self-serve, as there were no bottle openers or cocktail mixers in sight. That being said, flight attendants were readily available to prepare drinks in the galley.
After a solid night’s sleep and a movie or two, we were fast approaching the northern coast of California. On most long-haul red-eyes, the prearrival meal is treated as breakfast, since passengers are usually waking up just prior to landing. So even though we were touching down in Los Angeles at nearly 8pm local time, the prearrival meal was breakfast-inspired.
The meal started with a basket of warmed bread and pastries, strawberry yogurt and a plate of fresh fruit.
I craved something more substantial than a light breakfast, so I appreciated that the entree selection included both standard breakfast items as well as lunch and dinner options. On offer were a panfried chicken breast, hotcakes with maple syrup, traditional Chinese congee and a Chinese beef noodle soup.
I went for the Chinese noodle soup, which was the highlight of the entire dining experience on this flight. Not only was it beautifully presented, it was accompanied with fresh garnishes and was absolutely top-notch in flavor.
Overall, I was quite impressed with China Southern’s first-class catering. While my business-class experience was hit or miss when it came to the food, this dining experience was remarkable.
As far as I know, there’s only one commercial flight experience where you are guaranteed a personal flight attendant: the $40,000 Etihad Residence.
China Southern’s first-class cabin is typically staffed with two flight attendants, one serving each aisle. So while I’d usually be sharing a flight attendant with three others, this flight was unique in that I essentially had a flight attendant to myself.
My flight attendant was nothing short of phenomenal. From my first step on board the airplane, she made every effort to personalize my experience. After settling in, she came by my seat to formally introduce herself, walking me through what to expect for the inflight service and amenities. She was beyond thrilled to hear I’d flown China Southern twice before, but was especially honored that this was my first first-class experience with the airline.
In addition to giving me her personal recommendations off the menu, my attendant was meticulous in her service. She always checked in to see how I was enjoying each dish or beverage, proactively offering suggestions and pairings based on what I liked and didn’t like. My drinks never dipped below half full before she was in the aisle to promptly offer a refill.
Between meals, she routinely stopped with small indulgences such as refreshing Chinese herbal tea paired with a small snack. I didn’t even have to ask for these — she knew my tea preferences, how I drank my coffee and even caught on to my chocolate addiction.
The one service element that somewhat threw me off was that the First Class suites were essentially used as a free-for-all crew rest bunk. Once dinner had finished and lights were shut off, flight attendants began trickling into the cabin, one-by-one, until all six empty suites were occupied. I think it’s one thing to upgrade off-duty employees traveling for leisure purposes, but I just found it strange that the airline would allow its uniformed cabin crew to be lounging around in what it considers its most premium and exclusive offering. Because of this incident, the otherwise near-perfect service score took a significant hit.
China Southern’s first class may not be the first airline to pop into people’s minds when thinking about crossing the Pacific, but I found it to be a great experience. While the hard product can feel sterile and outdated, it remains one of the most private and comfortable rides in the sky. The experience is more than compensated by a spectacular soft product, with mouthwatering food and wonderfully attentive service. While I don’t recommend anyone shell out $16,000 for a ride in one of these suites, burning 110K AAdvantage miles is a great way to experience this affordable slice of luxury.
All photos by the author.
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