In late 2018, China Southern announced its intentions to bid farewell to its then-current alliance mates in SkyTeam. While I had booked some rewards with China Southern over the last couple of years, I’d always ended up cancelling before departure for one reason or another.
But with the countdown on for the airline’s departure from SkyTeam, the clock was ticking on trying their premium products using Delta SkyMiles. And thus, this series of flight-reports, which will chronicle a quick impromptu trip to China and back to be able to “check off” China Southern on my list of experiences before its heading off for greener grass on the other side of the airline alliances fence.
This flight-report is not part of a round-the-world adventure, but as I’ve done with previous RTWs, I’m choosing to reveal the segments as I go. In this case, I’ve done so to explain the booking for each sector as I go.
I didn’t really want to book another adventure so close on the heels of my trip to South Africa.
And yet, here we are.
The start of the year is a quiet time work-wise for me, so is well-suited to these kinds of adventures — but one big series just two weeks after the other seems a bit much.
And in the first week of January 2019, China Southern availability on the YYZ-CAN route was still pretty decent, almost throughout the year. However, this one date alone provided availability for a connection that was the key to make this redemption the experience I wanted. So when it showed up availability including the mysterious connection I sought, I jumped on it.
The total cost for this part of this trip, including the connection I’m avoiding talking about, was 85,000 Delta SkyMiles, plus $215.36 Canadian in taxes and fees. That’s a bit high because both China Southern and China Eastern charge fairly significant international surcharges, in the case of this routing, amounting to about $151 Canadian. A bit stiff by SkyMiles standards, but having come from Aeroplan, I’m used to seeing much worse.
I arrived at Pearson’s Terminal 3 quite early, just after 8:00 pm because none of the inefficiencies I expected to encounter on public transit materialized.
Unfortunately, that meant that the China Southern check-in area looked like this.
I was unable to check in online, so I had to wait for the desks to open. I checked back about 45 minutes later, and things were looking a little bit more happening.
I guess signage for outstations haven’t been updated yet, as the SkyTeam logo is everywhere the check-in lane for premium passengers (including SkyTeam Elites) is still labelled Sky Priority. The benefits of an amicable divorce, I suppose.
There’s only one person in front of me in the lineup for premium passengers, but things still take a few minutes as the passengers in front of me are carrying with a fair bit of luggage that needs to be weighed and tagged.
The check-in agent I get is friendly enough and quite efficient in getting me checked in. She quizzes me about any portable batteries I may have with me and weighs my carry-on bag. The passenger next to me is two pounds over on his check-in luggage, which is causing some discussion with the agent.
I have my boarding passes soon enough, and a request for a seat change on the Flight That Shall Not Be Mentioned Yet is cheerfully accommodated. I’m issued a lounge slip and sent on my way. It’s a perfectly acceptable check-in experience.
China Southern’s gates are just around the corner from the main security checkpoint for international flights, which also serves domestic.
The terminal is quite busy at this hour, with a bunch of departures from 9:00 pm onwards, so I expect the lineup will be quite long.
Or maybe not.
There’s a bit of a wait once I’m through this area, but I’m still through security in just about seven minutes — and that’s after my backpack has to go back for a second look. Too many toys in it, I presume. It’s time to head through duty-free and off to find a lounge.
There’s not much in the way of spotting at this hour at T3, but I do spot this interesting newcomer at Gate 36, from which my flight to Guangzhou will depart later tonight. Nice to see Toronto get the new ride from PR. I wish they’d get some earn-and-burn partnerships (Alaska would be nice…) because they frequently put up pretty affordable business class fares to various points in Asia, and I’d really love to check out their A350.
There’s not much more to see at this hour, so upstairs I go to the small lounge floor. There’s the AF/KL Lounge I took a look at a couple of weeks ago, there’s the Plaza Premium Annex which has been taken over by BA while their own lounge is renovated, and then there’s…
My lounge pass is accepted, and the boarding pass is scanned, and I’m welcomed inside. The lounge is a decent size and is about Plaza Premium standard when it comes to look and feel.
There are a couple of rooms separated by a partial wall, a dining room type of area, and the buffet itself.
Viewing possibilities are good, although photography at night is a bit of a challenge, particularly since the only plane nearby is off to the side from these windows.
The buffet is small, with just a few hot dishes — beef stroganoff, potato wedges, spicy roasted cauliflower, and a chef station where they’re making a beef ball pho, a change from the Hong Kong fish ball soup that has been offered when I’ve been here in the past.
There’s also a bar with a small and uninspiring variety of booze available, a refrigerated case with desserts and wraps, and this side station with drinks and a couple of soups.
I’m pretty hungry at this hour, so I try a little bit of everything from the hot dishes. To my surprise, the beef is actually pretty good — not terribly tender, but tasty. The potatoes are uninspired but not bad. The cauliflower is a disappointment, limp in a way that does not suggest roasted, and nowhere near spicy in my humble opinion.
I go back to get a drink and request a CC and ginger. I get a generous pour of CC but have to find the ginger ale myself in the fridge. I notice a new hot dish has appeared, with a couple of dim sum options, so I decide to check that out too, as well as grabbing a Thai red curry soup. Everything from this round was okay — nothing overwhelming or disappointing.
The lounge WiFi is pretty solid, once I notice the signs posted with the password. Corporate shot time! And I’m way far behind in my reading. One of these days.
I noticed a shower on the way in, and I deicide it sounds like a good idea to me. I request a shower at the front desk, and am showed into the one shower room in exchange for my boarding pass. It's a large space, although I get the sense that it's only this large to accommodate guests with disabilities.
Everything seems nice enough.
Why look, they even provided these nice little washcloths to…. oh no… wait a second. Are those the towels? Wow. That's kinda ridiculous.
The shower takes a while to warm up – this is Canada in February, folks – but once it does, it's a fine shower, although the water pressure could be ratcheted up a few notches. I leave the shower suite feeling refreshed, although still tired after quite a long day. I get my boarding pass back and head back into the lounge.
As I head back in, I notice two things.
1) the lounge is quickly filling up, which I should expect as we're getting closer to boarding time for both CZ and CX flights, and
2) the pho is now gone, replaced by the familiar fish ball soup. I should have tried the pho when I first got in here, but how was I to know they were going to change soups in middle of the night. Although I guess this is slightly more in-tune with the predominantly Chinese clientele at this hour.
The place is rapidly filling up, so I decide it's time to take a bit of a stroll around the terminal to see what's going on down there. I am, after all, facing a long time in a seat coming up. And besides, it's getting closer and closer to…
When I get downstairs, it turns out that we’ve been moved one gate over, from 36 to 35. I can only presume that someone from the CZ crew lost an arm wrestling match to someone from the PR crew for the gate. That’s how these things are decided, right?
It’s pretty quiet late at night at Terminal three.
There’s quite a commotion at the gate next to us, as the night’s Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi has just announced its status has been upgraded from delayed to cancelled, necessitating the logistical challenge of getting a 777-300-load of people out of the international departures area. Always a good time.
After a few wheelchair passengers and some families with children, the gate agents called for business class passengers to line up at about 11:30. I’m the only one to step up initially from the mob, which surprises the agent. The rest must still be up in the lounge. A few minutes later, I’m invited to head aboard. At this gate, thee are limited opportunities to get a look at your ride, until you get your boarding card scanned and suddenly get up close and personal.
Oh hi there.
From: Toronto Pearson (YYZ)
To: Gaungzhou Baiyun (CAN)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
ATD (STD): 01:19(00:30)
ATA ( STA): 05:59+1 (05:28+1)
I’m greeted at the door, and pointed to the starboard aisle and told to turn left to find my seat. I’m in 13K for this flight, the last-row window in the small J cabin in front of door 2, but behind the one-row First Class cabin on the CZ 777. While I’ve seen this seat before on A380s (where it’s quite common) and A330s, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a 777 with this particular flavour of forward-facing staggered business class seating. I’ve got a “true” window seat, providing a bit of seclusion from the aisle.
A look forward from door two, with the business mini-cabin and First.
And across the mini-cabin. We’d end up with all but one seat taken in this 10-seat cabin.
As I take my seat, a very friendly flight attendant approaches with a hot towel and informs me of our expected flying time of 15:30. “It’s too long,” she laments.
The seat as equipped upon arrival, with the pillow and a bagged blanket bundled in with the seat belt. Cute.
The service items come fast and furious. The same flight attendant appears with a tray of beverages — juice or water. I go with water, and the small glass is promptly refilled when I drain it.
Legroom. As usual with these seats, getting in and out is actually a little tight.
The IFE screen is active and is a decent resolution.
The footwell. It feels like it’s close enough that the bed is going to be quite short. We’ll find out soon enough I guess.
Slippers were located in a seat-side cubby, but the flight attendant approaches and offers to put them out for me, taking them from their storage place, and laying them out. It’s not quite the Garuda F shoe treatment, but it’s a unique touch you don’t often see. The slippers themselves are just fine, and while they aren’t huge, they aren’t too small for my size-twelve feet.
Continuing our tour of the seat, in the side wall we find the headphone port, USB port, seat controls and touchscreen IFE remote above a small armrest that can flip up when you put the seat into bed mode.
This cubby — which continues the slippers, amenity kit, and headphones — is about the only storage space at this seat aside from the tabletop next to you.
The power port is located next to the seat near the aisle.
Literature and storage space on this aisle-side tabletop. The only problem here is that in the “true” window seat, putting your items here feels like you’re putting them on display for anyone walking by. But at least it’s a bit of storage space.
Menus are at the seat when I get there. This is a Chinese airline, so I’d better get to know what they have to say quickly. No telling how long they’ll stick around.
Note to China Southern: I will copy edit your materials in return for flights. Thank you!
A look out the window as our neighbouring A350, scheduled to leave just five minutes after us, is getting ready to go.
The amenity kit is pretty basic, and will probably not get much more of a look than this.
The headphones offered. They look fine, although we’ll have to wait until I try out the IFE to see how they perform.
Meanwhile, the flight attendant returns to take my meal orders — both for dinner and breakfast — and drink orders for both to boot. Why do Chinese airlines insist on doing this? And then, there’s that other oddity of Chinese airline service — as expected, having ordered, the menus are confiscated. But I’ve got pictures to prove to myself it really did exist. While the FA gently suggests the beef for my main, I end up choosing the prawns and scallops for the first course, and then the congee and dim sum for the second meal. She asks if I like Chinese food. I resist the urge to just deadpan a “No, can’t stand it,” because I’m not sure how sarcasm crosses language barriers, and while her English is very solid, I can tell that using it requires some effort on her part.
Drink orders for this meal are also taken at this time, which seems a little odd to me. Although I guess I’m likely to know what I want to drink with breakfast.
After my last flight, I’m so excited to have a working IFE system that I’m happy to watch the moving map even when it’s not moving.
Overhead. No air nozzles, but modern signage as you’d expect from a two-year-old bird. Although perhaps a Chinese airline might want to have reminders more regularly through the plane that smoking is forbidden.
Pushback right on our scheduled departure time of 12:30. There’s a bit of a manual safety demonstration, and then the safety video is played. It’s unfortunately very jumpy, and artifacty — kinda like the video is being performed by a system not quite powerful enough to play it. I wonder how this will play out when it comes to the IFE?
Not surprisingly as it’s early February in Canada, we have to stop by de-icing to take a load off before departure. This takes a good 20 minutes.
Then we’ve got a long taxi out to runway 05, but we make it there, and takeoff is about 1:20 am into snow flurries.
I’ve decided not to put on a movie upon departure because I want to get to bed as quickly as possible after the meal, so I just enjoy the podcast I’m listening to for a while. Eventually, I’m woken up by a flight attendant — not the one I’ve been primarily dealing with — as she places the tablecloth. I guess I was tired.
Time to visit the lav before what my father would have definitely referred to as “dining at the elite hour.” There is a massive galley section around doors two on the CZ 777, and it includes two small lavs on the starboard side. They’re not very fancy, but they’re kept quite clean throughout the flight.
It should be noted that the seatbelt sign was still on at this point, and would remain on for the duration of the flight. Clearly, just one of those kinds of flight crews. This is one of my pet peeves of flight deck behaviour. We’re on a 15-plus hour flight — leaving the sign illuminated for the whole flight just ensures that even the most timid-to-break-the-rules person is going to have to get up eventually.
Back at my seat, I’ve been presented a small dish of nuts. It’s an interesting mix. The peanuts and almonds are unsalted, and I’m not sure what the dark brown nuts are, they look like small walnuts or something, but they’re lightly candied and quite delicious.
Up next, a tiny glass of not-quite-cold water is invited to the party.
And then two simple canapés are offered. Both are quite pleasant.
The glass of champagne I requested was delivered next. While I quite like the Heidsieck, and it’s a significant upgrade from the days of Lucky from One Mile At a Time mocking the airline for serving something called Duc du Paris in international First, China Southern (or at least this flight crew) could definitely stand to learn the correct temperature at which to serve champagne. This glass is the same slightly-cooler-than-room-temperature as the water, which takes away a bit from the experience.
A couple of oddities about the table setting — while the napkin I’m presented does not have a button hole, my “tablecloth” does. And secondly, why is this little plastic knife presented along with the stainless steel stuff?
The bread basket is offered next, and I take a couple of pieces of garlic bread. Delicious, thoroughly soaked in garlicky goodness, this is in the upper tier of airline garlic bread I’ve had the chance to taste. It’s unfortunate the bread basket doesn’t make a second appearance, because I’d have happily (and greedily) scarfed down more.
When ordering our meals, soup orders were not taken. And now I see why. My main FA makes her way up the aisle with a cart with the two soups on display. I choose the double-boiled pork soup, and while it’s quite tasty, it’s only just lukewarm. Are the serving temperatures off today, or is this soup usually served just barely warm?
The pacing of this service is excellent. The flight attendants are working their butts off to get this meal done as quickly as each passenger would like it to be done without making it feel rushed. As I’m finishing my soup, she appears with the starter course, a combination of small bites. To my surprise, it’s the vegetable salad roll that’s the star here, particularly with a bit of the leftover sauce from the shrimp and some juice from the lemon wedge. Everything is good, though.
As soon as I’m done that, my drinks are both refilled — they’d needed it for a while, but who’s keeping score — my plates so far are cleared, and the main is delivered from the galley. I picked this because it seemed the lightest, and perhaps the tastiest, of the mains, and it exceeded my expectations. The seafood was surprisingly not overdone, and the sauce wasn’t overly hot but had enough punch to fight off the effects of altitude on the taste buds, the rice was fine, and the Chinese broccoli was very nicely prepared, just slightly wilted but still crisp. I really enjoyed this dish.
As I’m finishing it, the flight attendant wheels the cheese cart through the aisle and asks if I’d like to partake. I request a bit of everything, and she takes the trolley back to the galley and returns with my plate. Another above-average offering. The cheeses were all delicious, presented with an appropriate number of crackers, and the grapes, while very large, were seedless.
Rounding out the meal, she wheels a cart with all the dessert items down the aisle, and I take some fruit and the mango sticky rice. The dessert itself is nothing to write home about, but the fruit are excellent.
As soon as I’m done, my table is cleared, and a small bottle of Evian is presented to get me through the night.
I’m quite impressed by this meal, both the quality of the dishes and especially by the pacing. Despite packing in a full meal service, we’re done barely 1:40 after departure, which is appreciated since it’s now 3:00 in the morning.
We’re up over Northern Labrador and headed for Nunavut as dinner wraps up, and I decide it’s time to get some shut-eye.
The crew seems to agree with my assessment, as the lights are turned down, and the cabin is bathed in very Qatar-esque mood lighting.
I turn off the moving map, put my seat down into bed mode, put on my favourite go-to-sleep podcast, and drift off to sleep. I find the footwell a bit restrictive, but it’s nice and tall, so it’s not a problem for a side-sleeper like me. The bed length is adequate for my 5’11” frame, but I think if you start adding many inches beyond that, you’re going to run out of space pretty quickly. The pillow is better than KLM’s pillows, but still could use an upgrade or a companion, and the offered comforter is quite adequate for keeping cozy. Also, the cabin is held at a reasonably cool temperature for sleeping. On an Asian airline!
Sleep comes easy, and I wake up about four and a half hours later, feeling pretty refreshed. I’d like to sleep more, but I just don’t feel like it’s going to happen right now, as it’s a little past 8:00 am as far as my body is concerned. Well, we still have about halfway to fly, so I’m sure I’ll have a chance to get in another nap later. We’re out over the Barents Sea and headed for Siberia as I check in with the moving map.
I get up to stretch my legs and visit the lav. At the rear of the galley between the business class cabins, there’s this small snack bar set up with buns, fruit, sweets, and other bites.
With so long left in the flight, I decide I should try out the IFE, so I pull out the handset and choose a fil — again, one I’m not terribly familiar with, but it sounds interesting.
The provided headphones are adequate but not nearly as good at noise-cancelling as my Bose. And unfortunately, the jaggies that struck during the safety video also manifest during the pre-roll commercials and movie. It’s not bad enough to ruin the film, but it certainly is distracting and significantly less than ideal, as the audio also shuts off for an instant with most glitches. Here we can see Maggie mid-glitch.
While the privacy of this seat is generally excellent, owing to the empty space beside it, the closet here is also a bit of a privacy challenge. It’s accessed by the crew far more often than I would have expected, and while I didn’t find the opening and closing of it disturbing, it might be a concern for light sleepers.
About an hour into the movie, the house lights start to come up, and the flight attendants appear in both aisles with hot towels.
I guess we’re doing breakfast now, with nearly six hours still left in the flight? China Eastern serves its pre-arrival meal quite early as well, in my experience, but it seems odd to have the last scheduled meal with six hours left. Granted, I am getting hungry, so this would have been a good place for a mid-flight snack. But here we are. Let’s see how breakfast is.
I get up to go to the washroom, and there’s a tablecloth left for me when I get back. Here’s a bit of an odd one — when I go to resume my movie, it’s suddenly in Russian. Fortunately, I’m able to correct that quickly.
The meal service begins with my pre-requested orange juice and coffee. The orange juice isn’t the best, but it’s cold, so I’ll count that as a win. The coffee is surprisingly good — hot and reasonably strong.
Next up, the table is set with a yogurt, utensil kit, and a choice of cereals — Corn Flakes, Bran Flakes, or Mueslix. I go with the latter, It’s offered with an incredible flooding of milk. The FA asks if I’d like some more, but I figure the poor flakes are already drowning, so they’ve probably had enough. Everything is decent.
The breadbasket is offered next, and I take a cherry danish and a croissant. Both are good. The danish is very hot.
Checking in on our progress, we’ve proceeded into Siberian airspace, with just less than six hours left to Guangzhou.
My movie has come to an end, so it’s time to pick my next selection. How about a Gyllenhaal doubleheader? This one's just as light-hearted and soul-lifting as the Maggie movie. Which is to say, not at all.
There are pre-movie commercials — all for luxury cars because China — that have one feature I’ve not seen before, a countdown to when your movie starts in the upper right-hand corner.
When I’m done with the breakfast starters, my main course is quickly delivered. It’s quite good for airline dim sum. The congee isn’t terribly exciting but is enjoyable nonetheless. The various dumplings and rolls offer an impressive variety of tastes and textures, and both the pickles and spicy veggies in the left compartment of the three-spot condiment tray are both winners in my books. The egg is way too salty though.
All in all, I’m quite happy with the breakfast. I’m left feeling full and satisfied. My orange juice is refilled as I go.
Breakfast ends with a very similar selection of fruit to what was offered at the end of the first meal, just minus the strawberry. Again, it’s terrific. The menu called this the prelude. But then, it called my hometown Toronro, so we can’t really trust it.
With breakfast over, I’m offered another bottle of Evian for the second quiet period. Then another flight attendant asks if I’m connecting internationally or staying in China. I can’t reveal the answer to that question, but I will be arriving into China at least, so I’ll need an arrival card. And that’s the only hint you’ll get from me.
After that, the lights go back out, and we’re back to the QR-like dim purple glow in the cabin as I watch my movie.
With the movie over, and about four hours out of Guangzhou, the film comes to an end, and I decide that a little bit more napping might be in order. We’re just about to enter into Mongolian airspace as I put my bed down and head off to sleep.
When I take up, we’re southwest of Beijing. According to my watch at this point in the flight, I’ve slept six and a half hours, which I’m pretty happy with. But it notes I’m not getting deep sleep, which I guess is understandable.
I head back to the lav to freshen up and discover that on the port side, one of the lavs in the galley at door two is much larger. If you care about such things, it’s the only lav in this space with a door that pulls out to open, as opposed to having a fold in it.
On my way back to my seat, I grab a turkey and cheese sandwich and a little cheesecake square from the galley snack bar to tide me over. Both are fine.
Shortly afterwards, the flight attendant notices my second bottle of water is gone and replaces it. I take this as an opportunity to ask her to try the pork noodle soup from the snack menu. She takes a minute to go check in the galley, and then comes back to confirm it’s available.
It’s delivered a few minutes later, and while it’s quite delicious (especially when it’s hit with all of the chilli oil), it’s once again just barely hot. Is this a cultural thing? A safety thing? A malfunctioning heater? I’m curious at this point since liquids and liquid-heavy dishes that are supposed to be hot have been just lukewarm consistently.
I head to the lav after finishing, and when I return to my seat, my dishes have been taken away, and the bit of the chilli oil I spilled has been cleaned up. They are apparently paying attention without being overly visible.
After that, I take a moment to fill out my arrival card, so I’m ready for arrival into China. I spend most of the rest of the flight catching up with writing this flight-report while the moving map slowly advances in front of me.
The primary flight attendant who’s been taking care of me stops by to inform me that we’ll be landing at about 6:00 Guangzhou time, about an hour and twenty minutes from now. It’s eighteen Celsius in Guangzhou, which is quite a bit warmer than it was back home. A couple of times she’s done these types of personal “announcements,” usually relaying the kind of information you typically get briefed on from the flight deck. We never actually heard from the flight deck crew at any point throughout this flight. About the only way, they asserted themselves was in their failure ever to turn the seatbelt light off.
Moments later, she stops by with a tray of (tiny) glasses of water. Some hot, some cold. I take a “cold," and it’s only slightly cooler if that, then the soups. It’s basically room temperature. I like that they do the slice of lemon in the water, giving the drink a bit of life without filling it with calories.
Service wraps up with another hot (warm) towel.
Shortly after that, the flight attendants insist we put the shoulder belt equipped to the seat into position, even though we’re still almost 30 minutes out of Guangzhou.
Soon enough, we begin our descent. It’s still as dark as we arrive as it was when we left Toronto. It’s just a day and a few hours later.
Touchdown is right at 6:00 local time. My Sunday has effectively disappeared into the ether.
It’s not a long taxi to our place, and we end up following this Follow Me car towards Gate 168 at Baiyun.
Parking, with an empty gate next to us and a 737-800 a couple of doors down.
And then, a miracle happens. The seat belt light actually does turn off. It’s a miracle!
We line up at door 2L, but end up being let out of door 1L and into the terminal, where I’m on my way to find my connection.
But we’ll get to that particular topic in the next flight-report in this series.
Thanks for joining me on this first leg, and I hope you’ll join me for what comes next.
My first experience with CZ left a very positive impression on me. While the cabin is not perhaps as good as its rival MU's reverse herringbone product, I think they have an edge on soft product. Service was well-intentioned, friendly, and courteous. I know this is something that will vary greatly by crew, but this crew was also better with English than I have experience on my flights with MU. The attendants in business class would search for a split second for the occasional word or phrase, but other than that, no problem.
Catering was a significant surprise in a good way. While I expected it to be acceptable, it was significantly better than that. It was actually quite good. I'd put it a step behind Hainan, but a step ahead of China Eastern, in my limited experience with each carrier.
Speaking of which, with this flight, I have now flown all of the Chinese carriers' routes from Toronto -- MU to PVG, BR to TPE, CZ to CAN, and HU to PEK. Achievement unlocked.
All in all, based on this flight I'd call China Southern a best-kept-secret within SkyTeam. But then, maybe that secret is why they're on their way out of the alliance. Too bad, because based on this flight, I'd keep to redeem on them again.