John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) – Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN)
STD: 1:45 AM ATD: 1:49 AM
STA: 5:02 AM ATA: 4:24 AM
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER (B-2007)
Flight Date: August 13, 2016
Class of Service: Business
Seat Type: Staggered Flat Bed (Solstys Style)
Seat Pitch: 74 inches
Seat Width: 26 inches
Meals: Warm snack after take off, dinner service mid-flight, and warm breakfast served before landing in Business Class. Alcohol is complimentary
In-Seat Outlets: Yes
IFE: Yes, personal TVs at each seat
Did you know there isn’t a direct flight from the New York City area to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia? I’d never wondered myself, until I was booking a trip to KL for work. Turns out, the shortest flight time there is on SkyTeam airline China Southern, with a 3 hour layover in CAN.
I was intrigued to try flying the airline – I’d admittedly heard so-so things about them at best in the past, so I was interested in test driving them for myself. After all, whenever I run a search for flights to Asia on a SkyTeam carrier, CZ always comes in with the cheapest rates, and I was interested in finding out why.
A 1:45 AM flight sounded like a perfectly fine idea when I booked it. I’d have all day Friday to worry about packing, maybe have a nice dinner at home before heading to the airport. But instead I found myself semi-packed and in my pajamas, binge watching Law & Order SVU on my couch. Somehow I managed to get my act together and make it out the door by 11pm (though was much more interested in napping on the couch).
As I walked into the doors of Terminal 4 at JFK, I immediately found the Business Class check in area. The line was short – just a couple of people ahead of me.
As I stepped up to check in, I pulled out my passport,
“Hi I’m here to check in…”
“BUSINESS CLASS?!” The gate agent demanded
I was thrown off by the ticketing agent’s attitude, but then again it was 11pm, and I wouldn’t be too thrilled to be working either. CZ and I weren’t off to a great start, but I remained cautiously hopeful.
surprised thrilled when I realized the lounge access was for Wingtips lounge. Though I prefer the Delta lounge in Terminal 4, I thought it was worth visiting since I was given access to it through my business class ticket (though I have access to this lounge through my Priority Pass membership, through my American Express Platinum credit card).
The lounge was pretty basic, offering self-serve cold snacks, coffee, cold beverages, wine and beer. The lounge had quite a few seating areas, but felt noisy and claustrophobic since there was very little room between the seats
It was a little busy considering it was midnight, but I guess I can’t complain since I was there too. I walked around the airport looking for a snack (spoiler alert – just about nothing’s open at this hour), but before I knew it, it was time to board.
Boarding was chaotic – whereas most airlines will call up different classes, zones, or seat rows up when it’s time to board, the only distinction between boarding groups China Southern seemed to have was limited to:
- SkyPriorty (including Business class)
- Everyone else
Now, I’m not one for queuing for no reason, but the disorder made me feel anxious enough to stand in line (I usually opt to sit or stand back until my zone has been called to board). There were easily about 30 people in front of me.
I finally managed to make it on board to my seat – 16K. The business class cabin is divided into two cabins – my seat was located in the back cabin.
China Southern’s business class cabin on this 77W is the staggered (Solstys style) product, which offers a 1-2-1 seating configuration (4 seats per row). Window seats alternate, where every other seat is either closer to the window or closer to the aisle. Middle seats alternate between having 2 seats separated by the seat console and seated closer to the aisle, or the two seats right next to each other. The honeymoon-style seats are great for when you’re traveling with someone you know (and want to be sitting in such close quarters with), but awkward if you’re not.
I reached down to load my carry on into the overhead compartment. While my carry on is the standard approved size, I usually appreciate some help getting it into the overhead compartment and this time, a flight attendant came over and offered to help me load it in! Ah, a dream come true. As I settled into my seat, I was offered water, apple juice, or orange juice. I was hoping for something to put me to sleep (read: wine), but I opted for the apple juice anyway. It tasted slightly metallic – would likely opt for water next time.
Directly in front of the chair was the personal TV which was controlled by a handheld remote, and while the screen had touchscreen functionality, all menus did not appear accessible through touchscreen and the remote had to be used to make some selections. However, I was able to pause and play the media using on-screen buttons while I was watching, which was convenient.
Directly below the TV was the footwell, which most find to be too narrow in this configuration. Since I’m only 5’4, this was not an actual issue for me, though I can see how someone taller might find this uncomfortable.
On my left was the seat panel and IFE handset. The seat panel was straightforward and easy to operate.
This also housed the USB and headphone outlet. The USB outlet was no doubt convenient, though I wish it was located elsewhere, since I hate having so many wires right by me when I sleep.
The touchscreen handset was easy a to operate, though the screen was not very sensitive, so I found myself frequently tapping at the same spot over and over again.
Inside my seat pocket, I found my headphones and stowed in a zip up case. The sound quality was decent, though I’ll admit I’m no sound pro, but they got the job done. (What was off-putting however, was when the flight attendant collected these 40 minutes before landing…)
A little odd was the placement of the outlet, which was located on the front side of the seat console. It was definitely a bit awkward reaching over to plug things into it but I digress. The tray table was folded up into the seat in front of me and held in place with a clip. This was fairly easy to move in and out of place and did not require any elbow grease to do so (unlike some other business class tray tables).
I looked through the menu as I noticed the Flight Attendants were taking orders. I flipped through the menu – it had two halves to it. The first half for flights from Guangzhou to New York, the second for the return flight. It all seemed fairly standard, though I noticed a section at the end called “Snacks” but didn’t give it too much thought.
Soon the Flight Attendant came by to take my order. I opted for the lobster for my dinner, and the dim sum breakfast. She asked me if I wanted a snack – I opted out, but as it turns out I had no idea what I was turning down (more on this later). She asked me if I wanted to be awoken for my meal if I was asleep when the meals were served, and I let her know I did. She took my menu as soon as I was done ordering (though I much prefer to hold on to it to refer back later on).
Not too long after I got comfortable, I watched the safety video come on and buckled my seat belt. As the flight attendants came by to do their safety checks, one of them stopped at my seat (thought I knew how to fasten a seat belt) and gestured to me to suggest I had not buckled in properly (apparently I don’t!). I realized there was a third strap that goes across your chest – I’ve seen these on planes with seats that face backwards, but admittedly have not noticed these on standard forward facing seats. Learn something new everyday.
We were ready for take off at about 1:48am and I was more than ready for bed. As I settled into my seat I found my amenity kit and a pair of slippers tucked into the side pocket. I pulled both out (not quite sure what the slippers were since they were packaged in a shoe bag), and a Flight Attendant came by and enthusiastically grabbed the bag out of my hands, broke the safety seal open, and gently placed the slippers by my feet. She seemed very excited to make sure I used my slippers (I did). I do love slippers in the cabin and hate it when they don’t always provide these on long haul flights (this means you DL) – I hate fidgeting and finding my shoes when I have to get up in the middle of a flight.
The amenity kit was about as basic as it comes. The exterior was fabric and bore no China Southern branding, but rather, that of the Bioessence products inside it.
The kit came with the standard toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, comb, and earplugs. The kit also came with a cotton pad and earbuds (strange since there wasn’t anything in particular to use these with), plus some hand lotion and lip balm from Bioessence.
I (mistakenly) thought that dinner would have been served shortly after take off, but I soon realized that was not the case as the others were served their snack. Not sure if I missed this, or if the Flight Attendant neglected to let me know but I was certainly confused. I knew I could have put in a later order but I opted against it since nothing on the snack menu was particularly appealing to me.
Since it was around 2 am Eastern Time, I decided to go to bed and skip what would have been my second dinner. I soon transitioned my bed into the sleep position. The plane is oddly warm (a sharp contrast to most others that tend to be frigid), and the comforter was not too thick so it worked well with the temperature.
Before I knew it was being poked awake with a stick. I guess it didn’t occur to me exactly how I would be awoken for the dinner service, but the stick idea did not cross my mind. It was about 10 am Eastern Time when the dinner service was served.
First they served the crostini and teriyaki skewer and peanuts. I ordered sparkling water, but instead they brought me tonic water. I tried to let the Flight Attendant know but she didn’t seem to understand what I was saying.
The beef skewer was tasty and lean, but the crostini were bland and dry. I was a little surprised by those, since a crostini sounds pretty simple and easy to make, but I guess it doesn’t travel well.
They served the chicken soup next, which was not terrible, but tasted mostly like canned cream of chicken soup (which is a good thing if you happen to like that!). I couldn’t remember what soup I had ordered (since I had done it hours before), so I asked the FA what it was, and she said she didn’t know. I would have checked the menu but they had already taken it away from me.
The seafood cocktail arrived shortly after and I’m sad to report it was dry and gummy. I love shrimp, but I could not stomach eating the rest of the plate. I didn’t try the dressing, mostly out of fear.
The main course was served next. Based on the dishes served prior to this, I didn’t have high hopes. So far the only thing I moderately enjoyed was the beef skewer. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t terrible! I wouldn’t consider this by any means “good”, but considering I was expecting the worst, this was at least edible. I would liken this to ordering takeout from a local restaurant 3 star-yelp-rated restaurant on the Upper West Side – not the worst, but you could easily do better.
After my plate was cleared, cake, fruit, and cheese was brought over. The chocolate mousse, I’m sad to report, was bland and lacking – it left me wanting more. The fruit plate was mostly good, though the purple grapes were a little past their prime. The green grapes served with the cheese was much better, though the crackers didn’t compliment the cheese very well (too starchy).
Though the meal served was just okay at best, I will admit i was pleasantly surprised that China Southern used real plates instead of tray dishes. (Which speaks highly of how low my expectations were going in)
I stopped by the bathroom a few times on the flight. The bathroom was pretty simple, and only offered hand lotion and mouthwash by way of amenities. Even so, on each of my multiple visits to the bathroom, it was always clean, which was very much appreciated. While I had hoped for a little something extra (this is the kind of thing I’ve seen in a coach bathroom), at least they kept it tidy throughout the flight.
I took a quick walk around the cabin and found a small snack area where they had some desserts, fruit, orange juice and water set up. A few passengers were gathered around it (though there were no seats to lounge on) chatting, so I grabbed a piece of fruit and went back to watch some TV.
Since I prefer to watch TV shows on planes, I usually make my way through most of the IFE roster of shows that I like pretty quickly – especially on a 16 hour flight. The shows were pretty good – some of my favorites were available, but only a couple of episodes of each, and a season or two old. That wasn’t terrible. The worst part was the 3 minute and 20 second commercial that played before and after every episode. And after the commercial at the end, the next episode did not play. So, if you weren’t paying attention, you could be subjecting yourself to over 6 minutes of commercials before watching the next episode. Truly painful on a long haul flight. I gave up on watching shows after a few episodes and went back to sleep.
Before I knew it, I was being nudged awake for breakfast. The breakfast service was served around 2:30 PM Eastern Time. Before the dim sum plate was served, a bowl of milk and cereal was offered. I took some corn flakes but asked for sugar. It wasn’t until the flight attendant returned with my main breakfast a good 15 minutes later did she realized she hasn’t brought me the sugar I asked for (when I reminded her about it). As she was about to walk away, I asked for soy sauce for my dumplings. She seemed very confused and walked away. She soon came back with the sugar. I asked her again for the soy sauce, and she looked at me inquisitively before walking away. I soon realized the soy sauce was a lost cause and ate my meal without it.
This was a general theme I noticed with the service. While the FAs were kind and eager to help where they could, if I asked them anything that they didn’t understand, the desire to help kind of dropped off, not so much because they didn’t want to help, but I don’t think they quite knew how. It’s always tough flying a foreign carrier where English isn’t as widely spoken as it is where I live (and have lived), but I had hoped for a route that goes to and from JFK, the flight would be staffed with at least one fluent English speaker.
The dim sum was not bad, though I’ll admit I could have done with more dumplings and less rice. The meal was served with congee, which I’ve had usually with some toppings to spice it up, but this one was served plain and tasted bland. One surprise was the cereal, which I thought would be pretty standard, was unfortunately stale. Meal preferences aside, I thought this was one thing that I would be able to enjoy, though that was evidently not the case.
At around 4pm Eastern Time, 4 am China Standard Time the pilot announced we were beginning our descent. The cabin was lit up in bright color-changing lights. Shortly after the announcement, the crew came by to collect headsets (right in the middle of an episode of person of interest, which I earned by watching a redundant 3 minute commercial).
We landed not long after, about 30 minutes early, which was appreciated despite the late take off. We got to our gate and were off the plane fairly quickly – not that I was in any rush, after all, there were no lines for immigration at 5 in the morning.
Check in: 6/10 – almost got yelled at before she would process me!
Lounge: N/A – (but seriously if I could rate this lounge it wouldn’t be great)
Boarding: 6/10 – felt like a zoo! Where was the line? When is it my turn to board?
Food: 4/10 – lots of major let downs, though some worse than others
Seat: 8/10 – standard staggered Solstys style seats
Cleanliness of aircraft – 9/10 – clean upon boarding, lavatory kept clean throughout flight
Crew: 7/10 – crew was pleasant and eager to help where they could, but the language barrier was a tough one. Anytime I asked for something off-script, they wouldn’t know how to respond or help and often they would just walk away without assisting me instead of finding someone who could help
IFE: 6/10- a 3 minute commercial every time you watch anything? Yikes.
Elite recognition: 3/10 – I’m not entirely sure that they knew what SkyTeam was, other than leaving out Priority Boarding signs and mentioning that they were a SkyTeam airline. No recognition at check in or once I boarded.
Flight Timeliness: 10/10 – Departed on time, landed early.
Overall: 50/90 (55%) ★★★★★
There are easily better carriers than China Southern, no doubt. While their food is on the underwhelming side (just when I thought Aeromexico defined “airplane food”), it is not a bad way to get to Asia from New York for around $3k. If you’re earning miles on a SkyTeam carrier, this is a decent way to cross the Pacific on a flatbed seat for about half of what most carriers charge in Business Class – and earn MQMs while you’re at it. I wouldn’t set my expectations to high though – and I’d consider getting something to eat before boarding (just in case!).
On a side note, I have to point out this sign – most airlines depict the “no smoking” and “fasten seat belt” images – China Southern chooses to underline no electronics on the plane (smoking’s okay, I guess, after hearing about recent complaints/report)