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 an around-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 segment as I go.
You can’t book International First Class with SkyMiles. It’s one of the significant downsides (along with many others) of Delta’s frequent-flier currencies. And it’s just a fact.
You can’t book International First Class with SkyMiles. Period.
But it’s a unique quirk of the program that “Delta One” award bookings on partner airlines on domestic routes book into the highest cabin on the plane. That means if you can find a domestic route on a plane that offers an International First Class hard product, and even First Class service, it’s potentially available as an award.
Except when it’s not.
It turns out that China Southern offers O-class (business award) availability on YYZ-CAN most every day it flies it. And it turns out China Southern offer F-class award space on several of its daily CAN-PEK flights that feature a First Class cabin (777-300ER, A380, and 787-8) almost every day of any week. But getting those two to combine happily into one award is not quite that easy.
I lined up several dates where availability on both YYZ-CAN and CAN-PEK was there on flights that paired well, with connections of between three and five hours in CAN. And I figured that booking it would be no more complex than booking a connection through Taipei with SkyMiles. You call in, you feed the flights, dates, and classes you want, and if you get a good agent, it all comes together with a minimum of muss and fuss.
Except things are different with China Southern. I tried on three occasions for three different dates for which Delta.com showed availability on YYZ-CAN and CAN-PEK, with three different agents, and none of them could get it to book on one award itinerary.
So I convinced myself that the ones I’d seen online in the past weren’t real — that YYZ-CAN-PEK with CAN-PEK in F was a figment of my imagination.
But then, in the first week of January 2019, I happened to search for YYZ-PEK on Delta’s site, and it happily offered me up this date, bookable with one click, and ticketed right away.
Why did this one work when so many others wouldn’t for exact same flight numbers and times? Who knows. Maybe it’s Delta. Perhaps it's China Southern. But it worked out for me, and for no more than the cost of YYZ-CAN in business class, I was able to add CAN-PEK in China Southern’s First Class offering to my adventure.
When I booked this, the piece de la resistence was that it was slated to be on China Southern’s A380. Unfortunately, it was changed to a 777-300ER about a week before departure. Alas, you can’t have everything.
As mentioned on YYZ-CAN, this part of the reward was booked for 85,000 SkyMiles and $215.36 CAD in fees and taxes on Delta’s website.
… he had just arrived into Guangzhou Baiyun Airport from Toronto on China Southern and was about to start about the hard business of connecting.
At the bottom of the jetway, there’s an agent with the names of all connecting passengers on a sign, with updated gate information for departures. A nice touch. Gate 168 is next to my name — which, you may remember from the previous flight-report, was the gate into which we arrived, suggesting that B-7183, like me, was going to continue on to Beijing after arriving from Toronto. An interesting coincidence.
With that knowledge secure, I start to make my way towards domestic transfers.
The first step is clearing immigration formalities, which actually goes pretty fast. First, I have to register my fingerprints with a machine outside the immigration hall. Then it’s a short lineup for immigration itself where my picture and fingerprints are verified — I’ve been through China before, so I presume they were already “in the system” anyway — and my passport is stamped and passed back to me without much in the way of interaction.
I’d like to tell you that connecting international-to-domestic in CAN was as easy as it is in PVG. But it’s not. The problem is that all passengers are shunted into a small transfer hall, where it appears most are expected to wait until their flight is called for transfer security. While the sign pointing to this area says Transfer to Domestic…
…. (See?!) signs refer to the flights currently being boarded are to decidedly non-domestic destinations like Aukland, Christchurch, and Bali. Agents are allowing some passengers to pass through towards security and turning some away to wait in this rather dire space until it’s their turn. But is this the case for domestic flights too? My first couple of attempts to ask these questions to an agent are unfortunately with agents who don’t speak English.
So I just decide to do what comes naturally, and play dumb, joining a queue for passengers with short connections. A male agent looks over my boarding pass, hands me a form, and motions me forward. The only problem is the form is entirely in Chinese characters, and therefore not much good to me. So I approach a female agent and ask if the form is available in English. She takes a look at my boarding pass.
“Oh… you just want to go to the lounge?”
“Do you have any checked luggage?”
<motioning towards="" my="" carry-on="" and="" backpack=""> “That’s all you have with you?”
“This is all I have with me.”
And with that, she takes away the form I had just been given, creates an opening in the cordons, and invites me towards security.
It’s a long snaking line, but fortunately, in my first turn, I notice there’s a very short line for First and Business class passengers. I catch the attention of a guard standing nearby, and after he quickly checks my boarding pass, a cordon is once again opened for me, and I’m in line.
Security is the typical Chinese security experience, with extra attention played to USB battery packs, but I’m through by about 6:50 am and look where security spits me out into the terminal. Right by my gate for Beijing.</motioning>
Outside, my familiar ride is being replenished for her onwards trip.
And now it’s time for me to get replenished too. I’m off to the lounge.
It takes me a few minutes to get my bearings and figure out where the Domestic Lounge is located, but eventually, I figure it out. I have to head upstairs, and after a short walk, I find it.
First and Business customers go to the left, China Southern elites go to the right. The agent checking me in fills in a card that looks like a lounge invite to me, but doesn’t give it to me, just adding it to a pile she has, and motions for me to head to the left and into the lounge.
The Domestic Lounge is a reasonable size, although it doesn’t seem like there’s as much seating as I’d expect for an airline the scope and scale of CZ at its primary hub. But even in what is a busy time for just about any airline lounge in the world (the morning rush) there’s quite a bit of seating available.
The lounge is built around this central buffet and dining space.
There’s a cute kids area. Would it be bad form to “liberate” that inflatable CZ plane? Of course, I didn’t. But I have to admit I thought about it.
I’m not sure what this rather formal space is about, but later in my stay, a CZ agent was sitting here. And no one else.
This bar looks out on the Sky Garden, an intriguing feature of the Baiyun Airport domestic portion. Unfortunately, while it offers an opportunity to get outside at the airport, part of it is also the smoking area.
Drinks and refreshments off to the side.
Some of the seating options.
Oh yeah… did I forget to mention I was heading into China the day before Chinese New Year, in the middle of the biggest annual migration of humans on the planet? Because I totally didn’t know that when I booked these dates. Oh well, it’s a happy coincidence, actually. I get to celebrate two New Year’s Days this year.
There’s a rather extensive buffet with many Chinese and Western breakfast favours on offer, and a chef preparing noodles to order.
I request a wonton noodle soup from the chef and am handed one of those buzzing pagers you get at restaurants. While he’s making my noodles, I check out the rest of the buffet, but ultimately just settle on a couple of dim sum items. I don’t want to fill up entirely heading into my flight.
The noodles are ready quickly enough, and I add some spicy pork, and other condiments to them find a seat at which to enjoy them. The noodle soup is pretty good, although maybe a step behind China Eastern’s noodle bar noodles at PVG. Or perhaps I just wasn’t liberal enough with the accoutrements. The dim sum items are also quite good.
After enjoying my second (third?) breakfast of the day, I pull out my laptop and connect to WiFi. It’s wide open, and it works well. Corporate shot time!
It’s from this seat that I finish off my YYZ-CAN flight-report. As I’m working on it, a young agent stops by to inform me that my flight is delayed by about 40 minutes. She tells me to wait here, and that she’ll let me know when it’s time to board. That’s a nice little bit of service, but it raises questions. She wasn’t the agent who checked me in, so how did she know who I was without checking my boarding pass or anything else? While most of the lounge residents are Chinese, there are at least a handful of other Caucasians in the place, so it’s not like the “go find the white guy” strategy would work.
Since we’re going to be a while, I decide it’s time for a little bit of espresso from the machine. I don’t really think it’s espresso — it’s too large a pour, and it drinks too easily — but it’s still damn fine coffee, to borrow from David Lynch.
I putter for a while longer and eventually make my way over to the FIDS to see if there’s an update on my flight. While I’m standing there, the same agent appears next to me and says “You wait here,” and motions for me to sit down.
I take this to mean that it’s not yet boarding time, and ask her where the facilities are. No response. The washroom? The restroom? Nothing. Okay, I’ll just say it. Where’s the toilet? She shows me there.
When I come out, she’s still waiting and tells me to wait here for just a second. She then goes and gets another agent, who motions for me to follow her as she starts to walk out of the lounge. Wait a second. Am I getting an escort to my plane? Actual ground services? Colour me impressed!
Indeed, she does walk with me all the way to the gate, where she parts the crowd for me. Boarding is already underway. She then walks me down the jetway before wishing me a good flight and handing me off to the flight attendant working First on this flight. We’ve skipped right past Boarding Time, let’s get into the good stuff.
From: Guangzhou Baiyun (CAN)
To: Beijing Capital (PEK)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
ATD (STD): 09:58 (09:00)
ATA ( STA): 12:12 (12:05)
China Southern has a tiny one-row First Class section on its 777s, in the expected 1-2-1 configuration. The semi-enclosed suite style reminds me somewhat of the First Class seats Thai has on its A380. Although those are in a much more muted cream colour, as opposed to the purple predominantly featured in these China Southern seats.
A dish for a hot towel, menus, a glass of lemon water, some candies and some cookies await me along the outside ledge as I step aboard.
Two pillows! The smaller one makes a good lumbar support, while the bigger one is a pretty good pillow for sleeping.
Cookies and a sleep mask. The left two cookies taste vaguely almond-like, while the one on the right is odd. It’s somewhat sweet but has a hint of a flavour that almost seems like garlic. It’s good either way.
I didn’t explore the candies, but the water with lemon was appreciated.
Slippers have been laid out awaiting me putting them on in this legroom shot. The FA serving First would point them out a little bit later, surprised I hadn’t already changed into them. But I always keep my shoes on until we’re safely off the ground.
Looking forward, on the ottoman at the end of the suite there's a bagged blanket and a mattress pad that I wouldn’t ultimately end up using, and a large IFE screen.
A look across the aisle. ExpertFlyer had suggested I would be alone on this flight, but we ended up with three of our taken. The passenger in 1A was certainly a nonrev. He spent much of the flight chatting with the flight attendants in the galley. Another subtle hint was that he was wearing his employee ID badge. Neither he nor the passenger in 1D would take any service on the flight, which leads me to suspect that 1D was also a nonrev.
Along the side of the seat, there’s a storage cubby with literature and headphones.
Another deep cubby alongside the ottoman. I’m not sure what it would be useful for storing, though.
The power port is along the outside wall of the suite near the ottoman.
The rear part of this outside wall lifts up, revealing a couple of small storage spaces, the IFE remote, and the USB and headphone ports.
The headphones look to be a step down from those offered on YYZ-CAN in business class, but I can’t really say because I didn’t end up trying them at all.
There are decorations hung for Chinese New Year.
My four windows for this flight. What a treat.
And now my first hot towel of the flight presented. The FA asks if I’d like anything else to drink, suggesting juice. I say I’m good with the water. She explains that the delay in our flight was caused by an air traffic control hold from Beijing. I know. I’m shocked. Shocked. I’m sure you are too.
Let’s take a quick look at the menus, shall we?
As I’m perusing the menu, the FA reappears and explains the menu to me, noting that the hot pot and the beef noodles are two signature dishes offered for Chinese New Year. I decide to try the beef noodle soup for my breakfast.
Having made my decision, she snaps up the menus. I didn’t even get to look at the wine list!
She asks what I’d like to drink with my meal, and I say champagne and water. She asks if I’d like to have some champagne now, and I am somehow able to be convinced.
When I drain it, a refill is quickly offered. I’m not sure what they’re pouring, because I never got a look at the wine list, but whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Probably in my top five favourite airline champagnes. A real treat. It would be even better if it were appropriately chilled.
We push back a little after 9:30. Time of a bit of spotting as we taxi.
We start with this bird, which I’m pretty sure will be repainted sooner than later, but for now, is still wearing the old team uniform.
The newest Boeings — a 737-8 MAX and the 787-8. It’s funny that China Southern’s livery is so otherwise bland, but then they create that impressive livery for the 787 fleet.
Two of the only Chinese whales.
And a hometown A330.
A CZ A321 Neo in front of an array of different tails from the same company.
I think this Dreamliner will soon be scooting back to Changi.
Well, there’s quite a different airline for you. I didn’t know Mahan had the flying pencil in its fleet.
A better look at the China Southern 787 as we approach the runway. Again, I really like this livery.
After taxiing for a bit longer, we get airborne a couple of minutes before 10 am, for our all-too-short 2:15 flight up to Beijing. Two observations: It’s really quiet up front, and for this short domestic run, it was such a quick roll compared to the run required to get off the ground with 16 hours of fuel in Toronto.
As we climb, I put on the moving map, kick back and relax, enjoying the map and nature’s IFE out my wide array of windows.
Unpacking the pouches with the duvet and mattress pad. I wouldn’t end up using the mattress pad, but the duvet was quite nice.
About 20 minutes into the flight, the FA stops by to place the table linen on the rather sizeable pull-out table.
Then, my drinks are delivered, along with CZ’s signature nuts collection, which is decidedly saltier this time around.
The table is then almost immediately set for breakfast… lunch… brunch… the meal.
Unfortunately, I missed getting a picture of the appetizer, which was a couple of fried oysters and some fried fish presented cold. It doesn't sound terribly good, but it actually was. Please note, it in no way resembled the appetizer described on the menu.
Up next, the FA drops off these three dumplings, explaining that they’re part of the traditional New Years meal. I’m not sure what all is in them, but corn is the dominant flavour.
As was the case on YYZ-CAN, the dishes come out fast and furious, with the double-boiled chicken and ginseng soup up next. Very enjoyable, and most importantly, piping hot. I guess they figured out the ovens between flights. Either that or you can’t slum it in J and expect to get hot soup. Considering my main course, this would be my pre-soup soup.
And speaking of soup — here comes the main. It looks simple. But wow. It’s a rich, beefy, salty (and piping hot!) broth, with thick slices of beef and nice noodles.
It gets even better when the various accompaniments are tossed in and mixed up. I didn’t use the soy sauce because the broth is already quite salty, but everything else gets tossed in, adding a bunch of heat, flavour and texture to an already excellent dish.
The flight attendant takes the time to warn me that the chilli is hot, although I beg to differ. She also asks if I can use chopsticks before presenting them.
And she offers frequent refills of the bubbly. But I keep forgetting to ask her what they’re pouring. It’s still lovely and looks even better with a backdrop of clouds behind it.
As I’m eating my main, and beginning to feel stuffed, the FA stops by and asks if I’d like anything else “Like some fish, or some beef?” At first, I think she might be offering me additional contents for the soup, but it quickly dawns on me that she’s asking if I’d like any of the other entrees on the menu. I manage to suppress my “My God, woman, are you trying to kill me?” expression long enough to politely decline. Nice of her to ask, though. I guess with no other takers for the catering, there were some options left.
When I’m done, my dishes are quickly collected, and fruit and ice cream are offered for dessert. The fruit is just as good as on YYZ-CAN.
The ice cream, though, is harder than diamonds. It will be quite nice in about 15 minutes.
With the meal done, I decide to check out the lav. There are two immediately behind the flight deck on the port side, with one against the side of the plane, and one in the middle section off that one aisle, roughly the same configuration as the First Class lavs on Cathay.
And indeed, the centre lav is a bit smaller, much the same as on Cathay.
And the one against the wall is larger and equipped very similarly to Cathay. I guess this is the 777 First Class standard?
Having done my solemn flight-report duty of reporting on the loo, I return to my seat, where I’m offered another hot towel.
And then I put my seat down to test the bed out. It’s quite long and quite comfy. I think I actually drift off for a few minutes of napping.
Shortly afterwards, I’m offered a third hot towel. I’m not sure why this one is provided. But whatever. It’s always nice to refresh a bit.
The FA stops by with a bottle of water (Gordon Bay, a brand I’ve only ever seen on China Eastern before… but it seems to suggest it’s Canadian), along with some snacks, in case I get hungry later. I thank her very much for the thoughtfulness. I'm sure they'll come in handy at some point.
When I take my slippers off for naptime, they’re quickly rearranged by the FA. As for the slippers themselves, they’re excellent. Soft and comfortable and sized right for my feet. The shoe bag they’re in implores you to “Take Me Home,” and I take them up on the offer, slipping them into my bag before landing. I’m sure I will use them again at home.
Sadly, by this time we’ve started our descent. My FA stops by to inform me that it will be about 1 C when we land in Beijing, quite a bit cooler than down in Guangzhou. She doesn’t much like cold and is concerned as to whether I have a jacket with me. I do.
A couple of views as we get close to Beijing Capital.
About to land, we pass the massive Terminal 3. Unfortunately, we’re headed for the comparatively dilapidated T2.
But not directly, because I’d say this parking spot looks like we’re going to a bus gate.
As we line up to exit the plane at door two, my FA once again reiterates her taste for all things cold and asks if my jacket will be cold enough. It looks light, but it keeps me warm when shovelling snow in -30, so I’m pretty sure it’ll do just fine.
I run a gauntlet of FAs wishing me a happy new year on the way out and head onto the airstairs. Naturally, I have to pause for a fuselage shot.
And for a couple of last looks this plane with which I have travelled so far.
And then it’s off to the bus. It’s actually quite pleasant, with the sun out and just a smidge above freezing. Crips. Fresh. I probably would have been okay even without my jacket.
I’m ushered towards a small bus, and I’m the last passenger to board. It’s a short drive back to Terminal 2, where we’re deposited seemingly into the bowels of the terminal, with loud fans blowing exhaust from the terminal itself. There are signs indicating that they’re renovating the terminal’s bus lobby, and basically apologizing for the lacklustre facilities at the moment.
As it’s a domestic flight, it’s just a walk through the baggage hall before I’m landside at Terminal 3, only about ten minutes after deplaning.
From there, I just step outside and find the hotel shuttle bus, and head off to the Cordis, the hotel formerly known as the Langham Place, where I’ll be staying while I’m in the Beijing area.
I luck out, and get assigned a room that looks back at Terminal 3, and has a pretty good view of the active arrivals runway. It doesn’t look great because I’m shooting with a cellphone that’s limited to 2x optical zoom, but it’s good enough for hours of entertainment for me.
And that’s where we’ll leave this flight-report. We’ll pick it up soon with…. whatever comes next.
Thanks for joining me for this adventure thus far, and I hope you’ll join me as the series continues.
A very good experience sampling China Southern's international First Class. While the hard product isn't revolutionary, it's a fine and very comfortable offering.
Service was friednly, courteous, proactive, and on point, and the catering really worked well for me.
Combined with a nice domestic lounge in Guangzhou with some semblance of ground service, and it was a fine experience from start to finish. I'm glad to have had the chance to try it.