This is the third segment of my January trip to visit my grandparents in China. Normally I avoid Chinese airlines because I much prefer high-speed rail for regional travel in China. Once you factor in all the time it takes to drive to an airport, go through check-in, security, etc…, it ends up being almost the same amount of time. Moreover, in my experience, flights in China are very delay prone. In conversations with other people, usually they agree. However, because of the annoyance of picking up train tickets when you don't have a Chinese identification card (you have to go in person) and a really quick turnaround for me, I chose to fly. I found this flight a few days before for ¥340 (~$50). Flights within China are often quite cheap because of the competition with high-speed rail. It's been 5 years since I flew on a domestic Chinese route - let's see if anything has improved.
2019 January Trip
Lufthansa, ORD-FRA, 747-8I, First, United Polaris Lounge (Click here) Lufthansa, FRA-PEK, 747-400, Business, Lufthansa First Class Terminal (Click Here) Air China, PEK-HFE, 737-800 (You are here.) China Eastern, HFE-TPE, A320, Economy (Click Here) EVA Airways, TPE-ORD, 777-300ER, Business, EVA The Infinity Lounge (Click Here)
Beijing International Airport
I forgot to take pictures of check-in. The lines were massive for domestic check-in if you needed to check your luggage. However, if you did not need to check a bag, the lines were significantly shorter and there were automated kiosks that sped things up even further. I did go up to a desk to ask about upgrading to the domestic first class. It would have cost ¥1,900 (~$277), so it was a hard no for me. I thought it was interesting it cost more to upgrade than to have just bought the ticket in business originally (it was around ¥1,700 if I recall correctly).
As usual security took forever in Beijing despite a short line. My flight was scheduled to depart from Gate C5, which was a short walk from security. On my way there I passed by these interesting karaoke recording booths:
There is an Air China lounge in between Gates C4 and C5. I did not have access.
Here's my ride to Hefei, an Air China Boeing 737-800:
To my surprise, boarding began early, at 12:53pm. Boarding was simple: a premium line and an economy line - first class and elites followed by economy. The jet bridge was glass so I got a closer picture with the plane.
Air China's 737s have two rows of business class seats arranged in a 2-2 configuration, followed by economy seats arranged in a 3-3 configuration. My seat was 15J, the starboard aisle seat in the fifth row of economy. Boarding was crowded, so I did not get a good chance to take a nice cabin picture; apologies for that.
The seats were covered with fabric, as is normal for Chinese airlines. The seats were basic, no IFEs, with a normal amount of legroom.
Boarding was very efficient and completed at 1:06pm. We pushed back from the gate at 1:14pm. So far so good, we were ahead of schedule! We taxied for a little before settling down to wait for clearance to takeoff. During this time a flight attendant welcomed certain passengers and handed them a newspaper - I presume this was for Air China elite status holders. We began our takeoff roll at 1:28pm. One thing I noticed about flight-reporting, when I am in an economy cabin, I am paying much more attention to the time, whereas when I'm reviewing a premium cabin product, I almost never remember to check the times for when things happen.
Air China does not offer individualized IFE, but rather there are screens that fold down on each side every three rows. You can plug your own headphones into the seat to listen to to whatever is being played - usually a news feature-type montage from CCTV. The entertainment began at 1:41pm and started with flight information before changing to the feature.
At 1:43pm the captain made his announcement, saying we were expecting a 90 minute flight and warned there might be some turbulence during the flight. As is usual for Air China, the seatbelt sign was kept on throughout the entire flight - the captain would just flash the sign as a reminder whenever we encountered turbulence. One thing I have to praise about both the captain and the purser was their English. In my memory flying on Chinese airlines, the English is usually atrocious (which never bothered me because I am bilingual). I was surprised that on a regional flight both the captain and the purser made their announcements in Chinese followed by very good English.
Service began shortly with a flight attendant coming around with an armful of blankets asking if anyone wanted one - I did not see anyone take her up on it. One interesting fact I picked up from passenger watching was that almost everyone around me seemed to be passed out already, no one had headphones in or books/e-readers in hand. In contrast, on domestic flights in the U.S., you see headphones in every seat.
The in-flight meal was an assortment snacks. The sandwiches were bland, but not too bad. The "Swiss roll" was actually quite tasty. The muffin was a little hard, but otherwise okay. I had a cup of hot tea to go with it - I think it was jasmine tea judging by the taste. Compared to U.S. domestic flights, this is a significantly better meal service.
One interesting service innovation (or maybe I just never noticed this before) was the flight attendant never woke anyone up for the service. Instead, if the passenger was asleep, they would put a sticker on the seatback in front of them telling them to contact a flight attendant if they wanted a meal service. Quite a good idea! In the U.S. a lot of the times it's you snooze, you lose.
The flight attendants came around at 2:13pm to collect the trash. The captain announced our descent at 2:24pm. One annoying thing was that the flight attendants forced everyone to shut off and store their tablets during the descent. Isn't a tablet supposed to be considered a smaller, handheld device? In any case, we landed at 2:59 and arrived at the gate at 3:05, 20 minutes before our scheduled arrival time. It was a few minutes before the doors opened, however.
One last picture of the plane on my way out:
I love small airports - I was sitting in the car 8 minutes after we arrived at the gate.
Beijing - PEK
Hefei - HFE
Overall, the flight was quite a pleasant surprise. Air China has improved. Especially for the price they were offering, I would not hesitate to recommend Air China on a domestic segment based on this flight.
Cabin & Seat: It's about what you expect on a 737, no entertainment (streaming or IFE) is a little annoying, but hardly
Service: I thought that Air China has improved significantly since I last flew them 5 years ago. The flight attendants were much more polished than before. The service was well-thought out and very efficient.
Meal & Catering: A rather bland meal - what you kind of expect on a 90-minute flight. However, it is far superior to what is offered on flights of similar duration in the U.S.
Bottom Line: Given how cheap this flight was, I would not hesitate to recommend Air China on this route.
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