Okay, so let’s address the obvious question. . . Why on earth would I want to fly Air China First Class??? I know. I know. I must have heard that question a dozen times when I told people I was flying Air China to Beijing. Everyone warned me that Air China was a terrible airline and my flight would be miserable (even in first class). And their allegations were not baseless.
Reading through other Air China First Class reviews, I found complaints about everything from the inattentive flight attendants and inedible food to the nightmare problems associated with booking Air China flights. There were so many more horror stories than positive ones that even I started to question how they don’t have a one star rating from Skytrax (they have three stars).
But all that aside, there’s no denying they do release a TON of award seats in both first and business class and their first class hard product looks pretty decent. And according to their website, they offer a bunch of perks for premium cabin passengers such as limo service to/from the airport and BMW transfers to/from the planes. So why not? Why not take a chance on the little Chinese engine that could and see for myself what Air China First Class was all about?
Besides, there are plenty of Air China business class trip reports out there but there aren’t so many first class trip reports, especially from Los Angeles. So I bit the bullet and booked a leg on Air China’s “Forbidden Pavilion” First Class as part of my trip to Japan and New Zealand using the last of my United miles before the devaluation. Whether it turned out to be a positive or negative experience, I’m sure some of my readers will benefit from this information.
Air China First Class: Trip Preparation
Like I said earlier, Air China releases a ton of award seats to their partner airlines and I had no problem finding award space on the dates I needed. A few weeks after I booked my ticket with United, I called Air China’s North American call center (located in Los Angeles) to select my seat. The Air China phone agent did not have the strongest grasp of the English language but was able to select my window seat (2L) on the right side of the airplane. Or at least, I thought she did but calling back a couple months later, I saw that my seat was not selected. So I selected my seat again. And I was watching my reservation like a hawk based on Matt’s blog post on Air China’s malicious cancellations. Fortunately, my reservation was fine and nothing happened.
From their website, I saw Air China offered complimentary limo service for their first and business class customers if you were flying to/departing from Beijing Capital Airport. Since I was flying from LAX to Beijing, I gave them a call to see if I could book a limo ride to LAX. Turns out, the limo service is restricted to passengers in F, A, C and D fare classes only. Air China First class award tickets are booked in O and business class award tickets are booked in I so I did not qualify. Sigh. But I did confirm my seat again (just to be sure) and saw that the second phone agent did in fact reserve my seat.
On the day before my departure, I was chatting with another person on Twitter regarding Air China and he mentioned he had received a model airplane from them. I told him I was flying Air China First Class tonight from Los Angeles and was hoping to get my hands on one also. Without me asking them, the Air China Twitter team messaged me saying they had checked their flight roster on tonight’s flight, did not see my name on it and asked me to get in touch with them in case there was a problem.
What I meant by “tonight” was actually early tomorrow morning (1:40 AM) and thus they couldn’t find my itinerary. I appreciated them checking and reaching out to me. But even more surprisingly, they offered to give me a free Air China model airplane when I got to LAX! As you guys know, I just started a 1:200 collection (I have four now) and the Air China Boeing 777-300ER will be a nice addition to my collection.
Air China First Class: Arrival at the Airport
One of the best parts about departing on an international Star Alliance partner flight from LAX is that you get to use the brand new Star Alliance Lounge. It really is one of the best business class lounges and visiting it always makes me happy. And flying Air China First Class?? I would finally get to see the first class side of the lounge. But. . . as luck would have it, Air China doesn’t operate out of the newly renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT). No sir. Instead, they operate out of the much older terminal 2 and thus, no access to one of my favorite airline lounges for me. But in case you missed it, LAX now allows you to access any of the other terminals using your same-day boarding pass so this won’t be a problem anymore.
Reading other reviews, I learned Air China contracts with the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge in terminal 2 for their premium cabin passengers. Slightly better than a domestic US airline lounge, the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge is a huge disappointment if you are expecting to use the new Star Alliance Lounge. Knowing this, I wanted to arrive at the airport early to check out the other Star Alliance partner airline lounge in terminal 2 (Air New Zealand Lounge Koru Club) before heading over to the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge.
I arrived at LAX’s terminal 2 at 9:30 PM and Air China’s check-in area was a complete zoo. The check-in counters had not even opened yet and the passenger line was already out the door. It felt a little awkward as I walked up to the first class line and was immediately assisted in front of a hundred other people.
Check-in was quick and I was invited to use the Air New Zealand Koru Club Lounge before my flight. Confused, I asked if I heard that correctly or if he meant to say the Air Canada Lounge. The agent informed me Air China stopped using the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge two months ago and now uses the Air New Zealand Koru Club Lounge for their premium cabin passengers. Happy for the welcomed news, I made my way to the security checkpoint with my boarding pass.
The security line was pretty short and I got in line with everyone else. As I was standing there, another Air China agent walked up to me and asked if I was Mr. Dozer. I said I was and she let out a sigh of relief that she had found me. She apologized profusely, saying she missed me earlier when I was checking in and that she had a gift for me. She escorted me back to the check-in desk and presented me with a boxed Air China 1:200 model airplane.
She was extremely pleasant and escorted me back through security to the Air New Zealand Lounge. She spoke English fairly well so we had a good chat about Air China operations and she informed me they were also in the process of moving over to the TBIT. Once we got to the lounge, she asked me if I wanted to board early or late. I asked to board early so that I could take plenty of pictures of the cabin before the plane filled up. She agreed and said she would come back to escort me to the plane.
Air China First Class Trip Report
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
Los Angeles (LAX) to Beijing (PEK)
Depart: 1:40 AM on Thursday (1:39 AM actual)
Arrive: 5:20 AM on Friday (4:46 AM actual)
Duration: 12hr 07mn
Seat: 2L First Class
About 10 minutes before boarding time, the Air China agent came back to the lounge and escorted me to the plane. It was not a far walk but as we turned the corner for the gate, I saw how crowded and chaotic the boarding area was. People were standing, walking around and lining up already even though boarding hadn’t been called yet. It was an absolute mess.
Fortunately, I had an escort and she walked me past all those people that I had walked past earlier in line and wished me a pleasant flight. Because the boarding area was so chaotic, I boarded right away and wasn’t able to snap any pictures of the bird at LAX. Boarding was done through door 2L. I presented my boarding pass to the flight attendant and was directed to my seat on the right side of the plane. Upon entering the massive aircraft, my first impression of the first class cabin was that it felt very exclusive and private but a little on the drab side. The color scheme of the seat was clean and classy but the cabin itself lacked personality and felt a little boring.
Once I got some pictures of the first class cabin, I ran back to the business and economy class cabins to snap some pictures before the plane got crowded. There is one large business class cabin located behind the first class cabin with 42 true lie-flat seats. The seats are arranged in a 2 X 2 X 2 forward facing layout similar to United Airlines’ Boeing 787-8 BusinessFirst seats. The seats are slightly angled towards the windows and the center row of seats are slightly angled to the right side of the plane.
Behind the business class cabin, there are three economy class cabins totaling 261 standard seats in a 3 X 3 X 3 layout. If you find yourself in Air China’s economy class, make sure to pick seats in the mini-cabin directly behind business class. There are only three rows of seats in the mini-cabin and the space felt more private and quieter than the rest of the plane.
The Air China First Class cabin is located in the pointy end of the Boeing 777-300ER and is configured with two rows of four “open suites,” in a 1 x 2 x 1 layout. The single window seats are perfect for solo travelers and the middle seats were great for couples traveling together. The middle seats have wide armrests and a full-length divider that can be raised to separate the two passengers if you are not traveling together. Even though the seats were not fully enclosed suites, I still found them to offer a great amount of privacy from the other passengers because the seats are slightly staggered from each other. These seats are very similar to Thai Airways’ new first class seat on the A380.
There are a total of eight seats in the first class cabin and six of the seats were occupied on this flight. There was only one other “real” passenger on this flight as the others passengers were off-duty crew members. The other passenger was a white guy, very casually dressed and looked to be in his late 30’s. He looked strangely familiar to me and I just couldn’t figure out where I knew him from till the end of the flight. He was seated directly in front of me in seat 1L and slept the majority of the flight. I actually didn’t end up chatting with him until we landed in Beijing and realized he was Johnny Knoxville from MTV’s Jackass.
Living in Los Angeles, I’m used to running into celebrities but of all the places I ever expected to run in Johnny Knoxville, an Air China First Class flight to Beijing was the last place I would expect it. He told me he was in town to film a new movie with Jackie Chan but who knows. He could have been pulling my leg but I guess we’ll find out next year if he and Jackie show up in a movie together.
After snapping my pictures, I made my way back to my seat. Waiting at my seat were newspapers, an amenities kit, pillow, blanket, in-flight menu and Air China branded noise cancelling headphones. I stored my carry-on in the overhead bin and sat down to explore the seat a bit more. Each seat had two small pockets for your cell phone, wallet or other small personal items, a slim personal storage closet for your clothes, under-seat storage space below the ottoman and the overhead bin to store all of your belongings. The two middle seats in row one did not have overhead bins directly above their seats.
The seats are 23 inches wide, offer 80 inches of pitch and recline to a full 180 degrees. Each seat is equipped with two reading lamps and a universal electrical outlet. There are no USB power ports or air vents.
As I was taking pictures of the seat, the flight attendant came by to introduce herself. She addressed me by name, advised me of our flight time and explained that I could “dine on demand.” Because this is such a late flight, the lighter meal is offered immediately after takeoff and a more substantial meal is offered prior to landing (but I could order whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted). I told her that I would take the suggested meals at the suggested time and selected my main dishes.
She then came back with a hot towel (one of many, many more to come), glass of water, orange juice or champagne, and a ramekin of nuts. I chose the orange juice.
The L’Occitane branded amenities kit was soft and packed full of stuff. There were L’Occitane branded tubes of hand lotion and lip balm, generic eye shades, ear plugs, socks, comb, moist towelette and a dental kit. The kit itself was nice but the eco-friendly cloth case felt a little on the flimsy side and probably wouldn’t be practical for reusing.
Once we were airborne and the seat belt signs were turned off, I went to the lavatory to change into my Air China First Class provided pajamas. The provided pajamas only came in two sizes, large and extra large. I’m not the biggest guy but the large size pajamas were HUGE on me and I was swimming in them. The pajamas were blue in color with red piping, button up and had the traditional Asian collar. They were soft, comfortable and slightly more fashionable than Asiana’s first class pajamas but not something that I would ever wear again so I didn’t even take them home with me.
There are two lavatories for first class passengers. The lavatories are a decent size and had a fold down bench for changing clothes, L’Occitane face and body products and oral hygiene kits.
I exited the lavatory and made my way back to my seat. The flight attendant saw me, offered to take my clothes and hang them for me in the closet by my seat. She then came back to set my table and offered another hot towel and glass of champagne.
Dinner started with a seared scallop salad and a bread basket. For the main course, I chose the sea bass with beurre blanc sauce.
After the main course, my plates were cleared and I was given another hot towel. There was no cheese, dessert or caviar service. I hate to say this but the food was not tasty and I barely ate any of it. I was starving so I picked at it as much as I could but I wasn’t happy about it. This was not a good first impression of their catering and made me think all those Air China horrible food stories were turning out to be true.
After my table was cleared, the flight attendant asked if I wanted my bed made. I agreed and went to the lavatory to freshen up. The turn down service included a thin mattress pad, duvet, a second pillow, closing of all the window shades and a bottle of water. I laid in bed and watched a movie (47 Ronin and it was terrible) before falling asleep.
While I was lying in bed, the flight attendant came by to offer me snacks and asked if I was comfortable. I think she noticed I didn’t really eat much of the food. I told her I was fine for now but that the cabin was extremely warm. She went to the front, turned the cabin temperature down a few degrees and it was perfect. In fact, it was the most pleasant cabin temperature that I have ever experienced on an international flight. As you guys know, most cabins are kept at an unbearable high temperature so I’m gonna start asking them to turn down the temperature from now on.
Though not as wide as Thai’s first class seat (23 inches versus 26 inches wide), Air China’s seat was still very comfortable in bed mode and I slept for a solid six hours. I would have slept longer but woke up in hunger still with a few hours to go. Not being able to fall back asleep, I used the call button and asked for a “movie snack.” I ordered the fruit plate and noodle soup.
My table was set and I was given another hot towel and a drink. The hot soup really hit the spot and the fruit plate was a nice palette cleanser. My table was cleared and I was given another hot towel. After my snack, I actually stayed up to explore the in-flight entertainment system a bit more. Seeing that I was staying up, the flight attendant brought me some tea, cookies and a piece of chocolate.
The in-flight entertainment system was decent. The 23” monitor was large but was not very clear or crisp. The Audio Visual On-Demand (AVOD) entertainment system had a large selection of music CD’s but only a mediocre selection of American movies such as Noah, Divergent, Need for Speed and Ride Along. There were also single episodes of television shows such as Arrow, Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Elementary, a handful of video games and a moving map. Annoyingly, the IFE system was not made available until we hit cruising altitude and there were Chinese commercials before every movie.
About two hours outside of Beijing, the cabin mood lights were turned on and the flight attendant came by to set our tables and prepare for our dinner service. My table was set and I was given another hot towel and drink.
Dinner started with assorted cold canapes, Chinese appetizers and minestrone soup. I know, I thought it was an odd combination also. For the main course, I chose the Chinese dish which was a mixed seafood dish with XO sauce and assorted vegetables. After my main course, my plate was cleared and I was offered cheese, a fruit plate and dessert. I’m not a big fan of cheese so I went with the fruit plate and dessert which was strawberry cheesecake.
My tables was then cleared and yes, you guessed it, I was given another hot towel.
As you assumed correctly, dinner was not good either and I barely touched any of it. Everything tasted “fishy” to me and the flavors were just terrible. And it wasn’t because I’m not used to the food. I’m Asian and I eat this stuff all the time. So it wasn’t good because of a lack of familiarity but rather a lack of flavor. Not even the cheesecake was good and I only had one bite of it. However, I did eat all my fruit.
After dinner, the flight attendant came by to thank us for flying with Air China and wished us a pleasant journey. About 30 minutes before arrival, the headphones were collected. Landing was uneventful and we arrived into Beijing’s Capital Airport’s terminal 3. We actually parked at a gate so I didn’t get to see if I would get a BMW transfer or not.
We exited the plane through door 1L and made our way to the transfer gates. We had to clear passport control and security before transferring to the departure gates. At the early hour of our arrival, passport control was quick and easy but security was another issue.
In case you didn’t know, China has a restriction on spare batteries. Apparently, you can’t have any spare batteries (external batteries) that are over 100wh. But not only that, they won’t let you bring any spare batteries that don’t state how large the capacity/output is. For example, I had my Jackery Mini charger taken away from me. The problem was not the size of the battery but that it didn’t have the capacity/output printed on it.
And truth be told, I don’t even know how large the capacity of the Jackery Mini is. I looked online and the Jackery Mini charger is 3200mAH but I have no idea if that’s greater or lesser than 100wh. Here’s a guide on what you can or cannot carry onboard through security in Chinese airports. And I recently saw that Thailand had the same restriction so who knows if this is just an Asian thing or if it will become more widespread to other countries. Either way, I would leave all my spare batteries and external chargers at home if I were you.
Air China First Class final thoughts
So one flight doesn’t give the whole story but how did I enjoy my first flight on Air China First Class? Well, I can’t say that I enjoyed it more than my first class flights on Asiana Airlines or Thai Airways but I can say it was definitely better than expected. Air China has a good first class hard product. It’s very similar to (but not as good as) Thai Airways’ new first class product and better than Asiana’s old first class product. Even though the seats were not fully enclosed suites, I still found them to be spacious, private and provided a good sleep. The IFE was decent and there was a mediocre selection of entertainment to keep you occupied for the 12+ hour flight (more so if you like Chinese cinema).
And despite what I heard about Air China flight attendants, I had a fantastic crew on this flight (and on my subsequent flights from Beijing to Seoul and Shanghai to Taipei). They were pleasant and helpful even though they didn’t speak English all that well. They walked the cabin and checked on me and Johnny frequently. He slept the majority of the time but when he was awake, they took care of him with as much attention as they did with me.
But it’s Air China’s catering that is their weakest link. Their food is just horrible and doesn’t offer the quality or refinement that you would expect from a first class product. And I’m jumping ahead here with the trip reports but Air China actually has really good food in their first class lounge in Beijing and business class lounge in Shanghai. They must suffer from the same problem that Thai Airways has where their ground catering is much better than their in-flight catering.
And speaking of ground services, don’t expect anything special when arriving at Beijing Capital Airport. There are no escorts, spa services or buggy rides here.
For those of you that enjoy a lot more pictures, here’s a video slideshow that I created.
Other trip reports in this series:
- Introduction: How we booked our trip using United miles
- Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge at LAX
- Air New Zealand Lounge at LAX
- Air China “Forbidden Pavilion” first class Los Angeles to Beijing, Boeing 777-300ER
- Air China first class lounge at PEK
- Air China business class Beijing to Seoul, Airbus A330-300
- Hilton Seoul
- United Airlines “BusinessFirst” Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita, Boeing 787-8
- Asiana business class lounge at ICN
- Asiana business class Seoul to Tokyo Narita, Airbus A330-300
- Conrad Tokyo
- Hilton Tokyo
- ANA business class lounge at NRT
- Thai Airways “Royal Silk” business class Tokyo Narita to Bangkok, Boeing 747-400
- Thai Airways Royal Silk Lounge at BKK
- Thai Airways “Royal Silk” business class Bangkok to Auckland, Boeing 777-200
- Hilton Auckland
- Emperor Lounge at AKL
- Air New Zealand Koru Club Lounge at AKL
- Air New Zealand “Business Premier” Auckland to Shanghai, Boeing 777-200
- Air China business class lounge at PVG
- Air China business class Shanghai to Taipei, Airbus A330-300
- EVA Air Evergreen Lounge at TPE
- EVA Air “Royal Laurel” business class Taipei to Los Angeles, Boeing 777-300ER