Top-Notch Biz: Flying Hainan Airlines on the 787-9 From Beijing to Chicago
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Excellent customer service, hard product and food.
Poor (almost nonexistent) Wi-Fi performance.
After a week exploring Chengdu and Sanya, China (stay tuned for resort reviews), it was time to make the long journey home to the United States. I had flown into the country with China Southern on its new 787-9 Dreamliner, and while the airline doesn’t have a stellar reputation, it far exceeded my expectations. To get home, I set my sights on Hainan Airlines, a mainland Chinese carrier with quite a sterling reputation, which is the exception to the rule when it comes to mainland Chinese carriers. It’s an airline that I’d read a lot about, but frankly never thought I’d get to fly — let alone in business class.
But, that’s where being TPG‘s reviews and travel intern really comes in handy — flying lesser-known airlines such as this one isn’t just accepted, it’s encouraged. Once I found a reasonable one-way fare between Hong Kong and Dublin, it seemed that the stars were aligned so that I’d finally get to fly with Hainan. And though I would never end up seeing Dublin on this trip, this flight turned out to be one of my most memorable to date.
Hainan was running very reasonable business-class fares from Hong Kong to Europe around the dates I was looking to fly home from China. Obviously, routing through Europe would require another flight home from whichever European gateway I’d end up in, but even with this extra ticket factored in, it was still cheaper than booking a transpacific business-class ticket direct to the US mainland. I love to be in the air, so I was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of taking the (very) long way home.
I, with the help of TPG reviews editor Nick Ellis and travel analyst Zach Griff, found a ~$1,400 business-class fare originating in Hong Kong, connecting through Beijing, and terminating in Dublin. While the short regional hop from Hong Kong to Beijing would give me a chance to try out Hong Kong Airlines’ A330, which was no doubt exciting, the real gem we were after was the Hainan 787-9 for the long haul segment to Dublin. We were specifically targeting Hainan’s reverse-herringbone business-class product, and it just so happened that the airline was sending this configuration on the Beijing-Dublin route for the entire month of June.
We booked the trip using The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns Membership Rewards at a rate of 5 points per dollar when booking airfare. The $1,408-purchase yielded 7,040 MR points, worth about $140 according to TPG’s current valuations.
You’re now probably wondering how I ended up on a flight to Chicago when I was ticketed to Dublin.
As it turns out, strong thunderstorms delayed my departure out of Hong Kong, which quickly ate into my two-hour connection time in Beijing. When I finally touched down well after midnight, the ground staff met me at my arrival gate to let me know I had missed my connection and offered to rebook me on the next flight to Dublin three days later. This threw quite a wrench into my plans, especially since my flight home from Dublin the following day was booked with Aer Lingus on a completely separate ticket.
I happened to mention to the agent that I was connecting beyond Dublin to the United States, my final destination, and I guess in search of an alternative to keeping me stranded for three days, she offered me a generous solution: to reroute me on one of their Beijing-USA flights the following day. This was really going above and beyond on their part, since Hainan was in no way responsible for transporting me to the States, but rather just to Dublin. After a few phone calls with the ticketing department, she was able to seal the deal and printed my ticket to Chicago for the following afternoon. The best part: I’d still get to fly on their 787-9 aircraft in the new reverse-herringbone configuration, which was the entire reason we chose Hainan in the first place.
I took a late-morning shuttle from the airport hotel where Hainan had provided rooms for all misconnected passengers, and pulled up to the curb at Beijing Capital Airport around three hours before my flight. Hainan operates out of Terminal 2, which is older and smaller compared to the behemoth Terminal 3 that opened just before the 2008 Olympics.
I scanned the entire departures hall looking for Hainan’s check-in area and it was seemingly nowhere to be found. After consulting the departures board for directions, I realized I was standing right in front of it. It turns out that for everything except the name painted on its planes, the airline operates under the name of HNA Group, which is the parent company of Hainan and 10 other Chinese carriers.
After a speedy check-in at the business-class counter, I was issued my boarding pass and handed an invitation to the HNA lounge. I cleared customs and security and made my way through Terminal 2, which is nothing special, considering some of the magnificent airports found across Asia.
The old terminal is simple to navigate, though, and after a few minutes of walking, I arrived at the HNA Club.
The lounge wasn’t very big, but it was quiet and not even remotely crowded. There was a restaurant-style seating area in addition to plenty of comfortable couches and chairs.
I particularly loved the lounge chairs by the panoramic windows looking out to the tarmac.
Just as I was arriving, the staff was beginning to set up an extensive lunch spread with both western and Asian options.
The beverage station had a variety of chilled juices along with a few spirits, two bottles of wine, and a bottle of champagne.
They didn’t make boarding announcements in the lounge, but they did have a convenient monitor that displayed gate assignments as they were released.
I left the lounge once my gate was assigned about 90 minutes before departure. I followed signs to the very end of the terminal and down a flight of escalators to a ground-level gate hall, at which point I grew a hunch that we’d be using a remote gate.
Once I turned the corner and found the gate podium with buses lined up behind it, my suspicion was confirmed.
The downstairs area didn’t have much seating, but luckily my flight to Chicago was the only one boarding around that time, so it was enough for us.
Boarding began right on time with passengers slowly filing onto the buses.
With remote gates, priority boarding really becomes obsolete: Everyone is packed onto three or four buses that only depart when they’re full. And once you arrive at the aircraft, it’s a bit of a mob scene walking toward the air stairs.
I know I’m probably an outlier here, but I love remote gates anyway. There’s something charmingly old-school about boarding an aircraft via stairs — not to mention the views of the plane are always spectacular.
After soaking in the views and getting my fill of Avgeek shots, I stepped aboard the 10-month-old 787 Dreamliner and was welcomed by the lead flight attendant. I was far from the first person to board, yet I was the first passenger in business class — which shows just how random the boarding order can be when using remote gates.
Cabin and Seat
Hainan has three configurations of its 787-9 criss-crossing the globe: a dated 2-2-2 configuration, and two versions of a modernized 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone layout. This 787 was delivered from Boeing’s Charleston, SC, plant in late 2018, so it was equipped with one of their newer reverse-herringbone products. It had 30 business-class seats spread across seven rows along the windows and eight rows in the center.
I elected to sit in roughly the same spot as I had on my China Southern flight – the last-row window seat, just in front of door 2L. I usually prefer sitting toward the rear of premium cabins, since these areas typically get less foot traffic and have better views out the window.
My seat had a small decorative pillow, with a larger pillow and duvet blanket that were brought out during the turndown service later in the flight. I appreciated this, since a bulky pillow and blanket tend to get in the way when you’re doing anything but sleeping.
I really loved that the window seats had an open ottoman rather than an enclosed footwell. It definitely made the seat feel less constricted than others I’ve flown in.
Under the ottoman was a small storage area ideal for shoes, slippers or a small bag.
The seat’s side console boasted many bells and whistles, including a majority of the seat-function controls.
The direction-adjustable reading light offered three different brightness levels.
To its right were an IFE remote control device, three-prong audio jack, USB port and a seat-control keypad.
The seat controls weren’t too customizable, but they did offer three default positions — takeoff/landing, lounge, and bed — and a few arrow buttons for minor adjustments.
The forward compartment had a securable hook, perfect for holding the noise-cancelling headphones with space remaining for additional storage.
Below the main shelf space was a single 110V universal power outlet and convenient bottle holder.
On the aisle-facing side of the seat was a retractable armrest that provided great support when dining or working on a laptop.
As usual, though, it has to be stored for takeoff and landing.
Immediately adjacent to the armrest was a storage compartment. It wasn’t particularly wide, but it was very deep, reaching all the way down to the floor.
A two-part tray table swiveled out from the console, measuring 11 inches long and 18 inches wide.
I had no issues getting in a few hours of work on my laptop later in the flight.
The seat converts into a fully-flat bed measuring just over 75 inches long, which is about 6 feet, 4 inches. While the physical seat cushion is 22 inches wide, it felt much wider since there’s no barrier immediately to the right, offering a significant amount of shoulder room.
The bathrooms were about standard in size, and were kept impeccably clean. Both the sink and toilet had touchless operation.
There were some basic amenities, including hand lotion and a fragrance spray, along with disposable cups for brushing or rinsing.
During one of my walks around the cabin, I used one of the economy-class bathrooms. I was surprised by how spacious it was — significantly larger than those in business class — thanks to the built-in changing table for parents with young children. And, there was a window! The extra shoulder space made it my go-to bathroom for changing clothes during the flight.
Amenities and IFE
Hainan supplies Samsonite hard-cover travel cases for their amenity kits, durable and high-quality. They reminded me of Delta’s signature Tumi amenity kits, which are some of the best out there.
Inside were a dental kit, floss, hairbrush, socks, eyemask, multi-purpose cloth, and Clarins branded lotion, fragrance, and lip balm.
I was really excited to see Hainan provided Bose QC-25 headphones for business-class customers. These were some of the best I’ve used on an airline.
A pair of beige slippers were waiting on my seat when I arrived. They were standard, but comfortable.
After the dinner service concluded, the flight attendants walked through the cabin distributing pajamas. They came in a branded zip-lock plastic package.
The two-piece pajama set was supremely soft and comfortable. They were offered in multiple sizes, so mine fit perfectly.
As the purser was handing out the pajamas, she asked me if I’d like a turndown service, which I of course accepted. She walked to the galley closet and returned with a pillow and duvet blanket pack, and in just a matter of minutes, had converted my seat into an inviting and comfortable bed.
The large 15-inch IFE screen boasted a wide selection of content, including several hundred movies and TV shows, audio and gaming.
It had a fantastic flight map, the feature I typically use most during a flight. It was fully customizable and very detailed.
The IFE remote essentially offered a fully functional second screen, which allowed me to effortlessly navigate the system without having to sit upright or lean forward to reach the screen.
Hainan’s only real pitfall when it came to onboard amenities was the lackluster Wi-Fi, an issue that is somewhat widespread with Chinese carriers. The airline offers complimentary Wi-Fi (up to 130MB of usage) on their 787-9 aircraft, but the speeds were painfully slow and browsing options were limited due to the Chinese-hosted servers blocking many Western sites. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my speedtest to generate a report, but take it from me — if Wi-Fi is a crucial amenity for your transpacific crossing, make sure steer clear of Chinese carriers.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Upon boarding, the purser came by with a chilled towel, a small tray of nuts and a flute of Champagne. It was a nice way to kick off the long journey back to the US.
After takeoff, the flight attendants quickly began the meal service. The first course wasn’t on the menu — a small bite to enjoy before the official lunch service began. It was some sort of beef with grilled squash on a skewer, and it was pretty tasty.
After the meal opener, the flight attendants delivered beverage orders. I went for the Chilean cabernet sauvignon, which was excellent.
Shortly after, they set up the tablecloth and accompaniments. Each passenger got a small bread basket, which contained white, wheat, and garlic rolls along with a few breadsticks.
Within a few minutes they delivered the appetizer of chicken topped with mushroom roulade, accompanied by a tender scallop.
As soon as I had finished the plate, they brought out the main course. I decided to go for the Chinese entree, which was delivered in a neat tapas-style presentation (JetBlue, is that you?). It included a spicy pork dish, steamed vegetables, garlic duck, a handful of accompanying sauces, and a bowl of steamed rice. There was also a side salad with passion-fruit dressing, and of course, the bread basket that had been delivered earlier in the meal. Everything was flavorful and delicious.
I skipped the fruit and cheese and went straight into the good stuff: a plum pie accompanied by a small-bite brownie and raspberry coulis. As if that wasn’t indulgent enough, the flight attendant insisted I take a small cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream to go with it.
Hainan’s dinner service was impressive. For its Chinese menu options, the airline partners with Chef Dong Zhenxiang, who, according to the menu, has been consistently named the “best chef in China.” There was a good variety of western-inspired options as well, but Chef Dong’s dishes did not let me down.
Although I slept for the middle portion of the flight, the menu advertised a list of snack items available on demand between the two meal services. These ranged from from rice noodle soup to a spinach tortilla wrap.
After a solid night’s sleep, I was awakened by the flight attendant for breakfast. She delivered a cup of hot coffee and orange juice and then my order of onion and beef quiche with grilled tomato and chicken sausage. The main dish was accompanied by a small bowl of yogurt and granola and, to my delight, another basket of warm bread and pastries. I’m usually not a big fan of eggs on planes, but the quiche was fantastic.
After clearing the main course, FAs came around with a plate of fresh fruit, which served as a great palate cleanser.
The breakfast was simple but really hit the spot for a pre-arrival meal. In general, Hainan’s catering was among the best I’ve experienced.
Hainan is has a reputation for great service, and the polished and professional cabin crew on this flight definitely lived up to that.
The meal courses were delivered efficiently, without feeling rushed. On this 13-hour long haul, the meals were served at a relaxed pace. I thought it was perfect.
As with my flight on China Southern, the only thing I’d change about the service was the unnecessarily rushed ordering from the menu upfront. When I first stepped on board, the purser requested my food and beverage orders for the entire 13-hour flight and then quickly retrieved both menus. This time I was prepared — I took pictures of everything so I could explore the menu options throughout the flight, especially for beverages. I really don’t see a reason for airlines to follow this protocol, but again, it seems to have less to do with my Hainan crew and more to do with Chinese carriers in general.
This really didn’t detract from my experience. In fact, while the service closely resembled what I experienced on China Southern, Hainan slightly edged out its competition with its exceptional flight attendants. Every interaction was personal and genuine to a degree I really hadn’t experienced before.
Something I also found special (which I also experienced on China Southern) was the personal visit from the purser just prior to arrival, thanking me for flying with them and asking for my thoughts regarding my flight experience. It’s sets a great tone that these carriers open up to direct feedback on board, a testament to the pride they take in their service.
Even before my first step on board the aircraft, Hainan demonstrated outstanding hospitality in accommodating my delay and missed connection — especially since airlines typically claim no liability during weather disruptions. What could have ended up being an exhausting, expensive and dragged-out ordeal was remedied by the airline’s steadfast drive for customer satisfaction.
During nearly 13 hours from Beijing to Chicago, Hainan provided a world-class travel experience, offering delicious food and superb onboard amenities along the way. Plus, with cheap fares and a competitive business-class product, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value for your buck across the Pacific.
All photos by the author.
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