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Guest Review – Flight Report: Air China CA 981 PEK – JFK Boeing 747-8 Business Class Review




Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) – John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)

 

Flight Date: August 26, 2016
STD: 1:00PM ATD: 1:27PM
STA: 2:20PM ATD: 1:45PM
Aircraft: Boeing 747-8
Seat: 81C
Seat: 85C

 

Introduction

JT: While I was on my own adventure in Kuala Lumpur, my colleagues Sam and Laura were in Beijing, for a work trip. After two weeks in Beijing filled with peking duck, dumplings, and porridge, our guest writers head home on Air China’s nonstop flight to JFK.

 

Check-In

Laura: Beijing Airport’s Terminal 3 is so large!  When we arrived, we found a sign directing us to a specific counter in the J aisle for check-in.  There was a huge line checking in for economy class, and after a lot of searching, I found that there was a counter in the F aisle for business class check-in, as well as a separate general check-in area next to aisle A for all Air China first and business class passengers.  We didn’t feel like taking our luggage all the way across the airport, so we went over to the F aisle to check-in, where the line was only a few people long.  When we checked in, they gave us a folder to hold our passport and ticket, which also included a map of all of the lounges for Air China in Beijing.

Air China Beijing International Airport Business Class check-in counter

Air China Beijing International Airport Business Class check-in counter

Sam: Calling Terminal 3 ‘large’ is an understatement, this place is enormous and bustling! The signage was a bit confusing but luckily we arrived with plenty of time to figure out the scene. I’m not sure how common it is for the business-class check in to be in a separate aisle but if one knew to look out for this, the aisle was in the middle of the terminal and very close to the security line, which is convenient. Check in was a breeze and we were quickly off to the next obstacle: security.

Beijing International Airport map

Beijing International Airport map

LR: In the international ‘E’ gates, there was both an Air China First Class Lounge and Air China Business Class Lounge.  Signage throughout the terminal was pretty clear.  By the time we took the train from the check-in area of the terminal to the E gates and went through security, it was already 12:00pm and boarding was scheduled to start shortly..

SM: The security in the Beijing Airport is extremely chaotic and disorganized. I would definitely recommend arriving early and giving yourself additional time. If we didn’t have a separate check  in for Business Class with minimal wait time, I would have been cutting it very close to boarding!

 

The Lounge

LR: The lounge was in an elevated area of the terminal, with escalators and elevators outside.  By the entrance of the lounge, there was a sign showing the layout of the lounge, which showed that the lounge had a total of 434 seats.
For more on Laura’s take on Air China’s Business Class Lounge, see her review here

PEK Air China Lounge check-in counter

PEK Air China Lounge check-in counter

SM: I was a little frazzled from the security experience and found the first class lounge before the business class and decided to see if I could I could get in with my business class ticket and…success! I only had about 15 minutes to spend here before having to run to the gate so unfortunately I didn’t manage to take any photos. This lounge was very large and had a mix of couches, plush chairs, recliners, and traditional tables and chairs. The food options were quite impressive with an array of dim sum, sushi, hot and cold noodles, and a few meat stir fry dishes. There was another station with coffee, tea, juice, and a variety of cookies and snacks. But after a quick look through the lounge I had to get going to get to the gate!

LR: I heard a few announcements while in the lounge, but the size of the lounge and the fact that it wasn’t in an enclosed space meant that it was hard to hear all of the announcements.  There were several boards throughout the lounge showing flights that were boarding.  The board seemed to announce that our flight had started boarding at 12:16 (ahead of the 12:30 schedule). My colleague and I (not Sam) left the lounge around 12:25 to get to our gate.

As we were walking to the gate, I noticed that the terminal had mainly duty-free shopping and luxury shops.  I didn’t see any eating areas or convenience store options during our walk.  Next to our gate was a Costa coffee, where I contemplated getting one last matcha latte to use up the rest of my Chinese yuan.  Good thing I didn’t, because there was additional gate security where they went through my bags and removed any liquids (I had grabbed a small water from the lounge before leaving).  I also heard some announcements that it was the last call for boarding of our flight, which was confusing because it was only 12:30.  I didn’t note any specific lines for business or first class boarding.

SM: I thought it was very strange that on the way to the gate there wasn’t a store to purchase any water or snacks for the plane but as it turns out, we would have to go through additional security at the gate before boarding where they confiscated my (beloved) seltzer water. Apparently, they do not allow any bottles or liquids on the plane.




The Flight

Laura: The plane had two jet bridges; we boarded through the front one.  My seat for this flight was 85C, which is a business class seat in the upper level business class cabin, so we had to pass through the first class cabin to reach the stairs that took us to the upper deck.  

The set up and amenities provided were almost identical to those I had seen on my flight on CA 982.  One difference was that the comforters were not on the seats when we boarded.  Soon after takeoff, the flight attendants took them out of the overhead bins and passed them around.  During boarding, the flight attendants came around with hot towels, drinks (water, orange juice, and champagne) and a food and drink menu.  The attendants also came through the cabin to take our orders and menus.

Air China CA 981 second floor business class cabin

Air China CA 981 second floor business class cabin

Sam: I sat in 81B for this flight, which is also located on the second level of the plane. 

Air China CA 981 seat map. Credit: SeatGuru

Air China CA 981 seat map. Credit: SeatGuru

LR: The drink menu detailed a few liquor, wine, and tea options.  I didn’t opt for any alcohol, but did ask for chrysanthemum tea.  The food menu had both Chinese and English pages.  For the full dinner meal, it showed the Chinese Lunch/Dinner option and the Western Lunch/Dinner option.  For the ‘light meal’ the Chinese and Western menus were integrated into one page.  The menu seemed to indicate that menu options are rotated seasonally.  

Air China CA 981 business class menu

Air China CA 981 business class menu


Air China CA 981 business class menu

Air China CA 981 business class menu


Air China CA 981 business class menu

Air China CA 981 business class menu

LR: Our first meal was served soon after takeoff.  The flight attendants came around to pull the tray tables out of the shared seat console and place a napkin over them. My tea was served, along with the starter, which was a prosciutto and dragon fruit skewer with a sun dried tomato, and a shrimp and bell pepper skewer with chili sauce.  Though the prosciutto could have been a little thinner, I found the combination with the dragon fruit to be very tasty.  The shrimp skewer was also good.  After two weeks in China, I appreciated that the shrimp had been fully peeled!

SM: I also enjoyed the starter. After running through security and the massive airport I was more than ready for a snack!

Air China CA 981 business class tea and starter

LR: Next my appetizer and salad were served.  They presented two salad dressing options (noted as French or Oriental).  The salad seemed fresh, it was certainly chilled.  The appetizer was a piece of smoked salmon and a shrimp wrapped around a ‘spinach roll’.  Not a huge fan of cooked spinach, so I stayed away from that one.  There was a little container of sauce (unnamed), which I wasn’t a huge fan of.  I am a huge fan of smoked salmon, and this piece seemed pretty fresh. They also brought by a bread tray with around 5 options, and I got two pieces of garlic bread.

Sam: This course was good, the food combinations were strange to me but everything was tasty.

Air China CA 981 business class appetizer

Air China CA 981 business class appetizer

LR: After finishing my appetizers, the flight attendant cleared my finished dishes and brought my entrée (and cute little salt and pepper shakers!).  One item to note is that the flight attendants were very attentive during the food service – my tea was refilled with hot water any time that it appeared low.

The entrée was definitely the low point of the meal.  The potatoes were advertised as “Duchess Potato”,  which Wikipedia defines as “purée of mashed potato and egg yolk, butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg”.  Truthfully, I think it tasted like instant potatoes, so I left it alone.  The beef tenderloin and truffle cream sauce was tasty, but it was a little difficult to cut the beef based on the confines of the container and lack of steak knife.  After the potato fiasco, I didn’t even go near the vegetables.

SM:  I agree with Laura, this wasn’t an impressive entrée. I believe the potatoes were not only instant but they were charred and tasted like smoke. The vegetables actually weren’t bad or maybe I was hungry because I couldn’t eat the potatoes and didn’t care for the beef.

Air China CA 981 business class main course

Air China CA 981 business class main course

LR: Last was dessert.  When the flight attendant took my order, she asked me if I wanted cake or cheese for dessert, so it seemed like the ‘Mango Marble Cheese Cake’ offered on the menu was not available because I got the Opera Cake.  I had to defer again to Wikipedia about what this was (“French type cake made with layers of almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup, layered with ganache and coffee buttercream, and covered in a chocolate glaze”).  I don’t love almond or coffee flavored desserts, but this was pleasant.  Taste and texture was good.  The fruit was also fresh.  

SM: Again, the fruit was delicious! I opted for no dessert and an extra glass of red wine since I was certain that was going to satisfy.

Air China CA 981 business class dessert

Air China CA 981 business class dessert

LR:  After food service was over, they dimmed the lights in the cabin.  During this sleeping portion of the flight, I didn’t see the flight attendants around too much.  They did set up a self-service drink area in the middle of the cabin.  I saw juice, water, and some soda options.  

SM:  I didn’t notice this until the end of the flight but it was a nice option to have.

Air China CA 981 dimmed business class cabin

Air China CA 981 dimmed business class cabin

Laura: I was happier with the IFE options on the way back.  I was expecting the same selection as when I had flown to China two weeks earlier, and had already watched the entertainment that was most appealing to me.  There were a number of new movies that had been loaded, which made me happy.  I watched Keanu, Captain America: Civil War, and The Boss.

Sam: Agreed, the IFE options were significantly better on this flight which was great since we were flying in the afternoon and I wasn’t all that tired.

Air China CA 981 business class personal TV

LR: Around 6pm CST (China Standard Time), they began to bring the lights up with a rainbow light show for the light meal/dinner.  As I took some pictures, I was scolded by a flight attendant for having my phone on.  The light meal consisted of another bread tray option.  We also got seared duck breast, which I thought was tasty.  I also got the beef noodles, which I enjoyed.  I could have used more food during this meal, and when I got off the plane I was very hungry.  After dinner, I watched a movie and then tried to sleep for a few hours.  

SM: I ordered the beef and noodles as well which I really did not enjoy. I didn’t eat much and when the flight attendant came around to collect my dishes she noticed that the food went mostly untouched and offered to bring me anything else. I requested some additional fruit (I really love fruit!) and she returned very promptly and was apologetic for the meal.

Air China CA 981 business class light meal

Air China CA 981 business class light meal

LR: I got up to go to the bathroom a few times, and noted that it appeared pretty clean the whole time.  I enjoyed the small flower touches.

Air China CA 981 business class bathroom

Air China CA 981 business class bathroom

LR: Despite the delay in take-off, we landed about half an hour early.  Unfortunately, they kept us on the tarmac for over an hour because of traffic at our assigned gate. We didn’t pull into the gate until 3:00pm.  

SM: Sitting on the tarmac after a long haul flight is not pleasant however I took the time to catch up on some American news and check in with friends now that I could access cellular data after 2 weeks!




The Takeaway

Check in: Average – 6/10
LR: 6/10 – No clear signage about business class check-in. Once located, actual business class check-in service was good.
SM: 6/10- I never would have found the business class check-in on my own and even though we gave ourselves 3 hours to get through check-in and security, I only had about 20 minutes between getting through security and boarding so the extra time spent checking in at the economy kiosk would have made it a close call!
Lounge:  Average – 8/10
LR: 8/10 – Food was fine, plenty of seating.
SM:8/10- Seeing as I pretty much ran through the lounge, I can only comment on the aesthetics and layout which were very nice!
Boarding: Average – 8/10
LR: 8/10 – I boarded pretty fast, but we also arrived at the tail end of boarding.
SM:8/10- Boarding was fast, however I was surprised there was additional security at the gate.
Food: Average – 6.5/10
LR: 7/10 – Lot of small things that were good, only a few that were not.
SM: 6/10- One of the worst things I have ever eaten in my life was on this flight, and it was referred to as “mashed potatoes”. The snacks were good though.
Seat: Average – 10/10
LR: 10/10 – Very comfortable!
SM:10/10- So comfortable and made the flight so much more enjoyable.
Cleanliness of aircraft: Average – 10/10
LR: 10/10 – No complaints here.
SM: 10/10- Everything was very clean!
Crew: Average – 9.5/10
LR: 10/10 – Very attentive during meal service, seemed fine the rest of the flight
SM: 9/10- Only because they didn’t clear the trays as quickly as I would have preferred.
IFE: Average – 8/10
LR: 8/10 – Appreciated the rotation in the IFE offerings.
SM: 8/10- Much more options than on the flight from New York.
Elite recognition: N/A
Flight Timeliness: Average –  10/10
LR: 10/10 – Flight time was about an hour shorter than advertised, though JFK seemed to punish us for this.
SM: 10/10- We had to sit for an extra hour after landing but this wasn’t their fault of course.
Overall: 76/90 (84%) ★★★★★
LR: After a good experience on the way to China, I think the way back was a little bit better, which was good because I was awake for most of the flight!  I would definitely fly them again, but probably would try and eat before I got on the plane.

SM: Similar remarks, the flight was very enjoyable but next time I would be prepared with my own food!

 

JT: After reading this review, I’d have to say this 86% was pretty generous, though maybe it’s because the food served on the flight makes such a huge impact on my experience! Plus, can’t say I’m a fan of business class cabins where passengers have to climb over each other to access the aisle. I’ll have to turn to our Star Alliance expert, Arun, for more on this flight.

AS: This seems par for the course to me – a solid product with average to below average catering. Once again, it’s the norm for the Chinese carriers – and I don’t understand why given how good Chinese food can be – to score low on food. In fact I know that fellow Star Alliance carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways struggle so much with Air China catering that they actually ‘double cater’ (as in they load both the inbound and outbound meals) at their respective hubs in Singapore and Bangkok as CA simply couldn’t meet their quality standards.

But they’ve for the most part invested well on their hard product. Crew can be hit or miss and on this sector they seemed to be on point (though language still can be a continual issue). Joey brings up the problem of the 2-2 configuration that necessitates climbing over your seat mate and it’s a valid point – though on Air China’s incoming aircraft the layout will change to a staggered one similar to what you see on the current China Southern A380/777 fleet. 

Laura and Sam’s experience on Air China basically validates my view on the airline that while they will never be the best in the industry, they are a ‘just fine’ option across the Pacific and if JFK is your choice New York airport, they are the only Star Alliance option out there from Beijing. Air China to my mind remains a tie with China Southern (with China Eastern a distant third) as the best Chinese airline flying the skies today. There are bit part players such as Hainan Airlines which do offer a superior overall product but given their small international footprint they become a bit irrelevant in this discussion. 

There’s much to work on but I wouldn’t count on much being done for the foreseeable future given the fact all three of the big Chinese airlines are government owned. 




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