Review of Air China flight San Francisco Beijing in Economy

Airline Air China
Flight CA986
Class Economy
Seat 45A
Aircraft Boeing 747-8I
Flight time 12:20
Take-off 07 Mar 19, 13:50
Arrival at 07 Mar 19, 18:10
CA   #84 out of 142 Airlines A minimum of 20 Flight-Reports is required in order to appear in the rankings. 183 reviews
By SILVER 1992
Published on 11th June 2020

air china ca986 san francisco - beijing b747-8i

Part 3 of my Spring 2019 series of flights takes me from San Francisco to Beijing on Air China's flagship Boeing 747-8i, my 10th on the iconic aircraft. So why Air China? How did I get to booking it? How did the flight go? Read on to find out, but as always please do check out the video trip report as well :) 



The wheels were turning for a spring break trip sometime in October 2018, most of which were discussed in part one of this series. With the desire to log in another year of flying onboard a 747 for another calendar year overpowering the desire to log in the A350, I started to look at options that would make the most sense: Korean Air to India have almost always been some of the more expensive options, but Lufthansa felt repetitive even if one flight was going to be on the B747-400, haven’t been on LH’s refurbished plane(s).  

 With most of my searches being on Google flights, I stumbled upon a bunch of options that I didn’t even consider in the past: Chinese airlines! In fact China Eastern does operate a daily flight in to Kolkata, I have spotted this B737-700 in the recent past. They offered a great fare out of the west coast, but with really long connections (over 17 hours!), I knew it wasn’t worth the trouble. Well, it would be my usual Delhi/Mumbai options then!

China Southern flew in to New Delhi, an option via Wuhan & Guangzhou. 777 & A330 options, sounded a whole lot like the Turkish Airlines equipment from summer 2018…

And then finally was Air China! Keeping the best for the last, Air China was the only Chinese airline operating the Boeing 747 aircraft, and the new -8i at that. It once again worked out cheaper to book through to New Delhi, and the return out of Mumbai to New York. A fare less than $550: too good to be true? I have seen unrealistic fares posted on their websites only to jump up 200% (looking at you, Delta) so I was skeptical at first. Imagine my surprise when I found out how easy to use Air China’s website was, in addition to a pain free booking procedure, and receiving an itinerary just fine!

With the number of flights on the A330-300 increasing significantly due to Thai Airways’ equipment change on our way to Cambodia, I wasn’t looking forward to 2 more A330-300 flights, but HEY! Boeing 747-8, on a new airline! The flight details looked like this:
CA986 SFO PEK 07MAR19 1350 1810+1 74H
CA947 PEK DEL 08MAR19 2040 0140+1 333
CA890 BOM PEK 17MAR19 0235 1125 333
CA981 PEK JFK 17MAR19 1300 1430 74H

So then! My first time heading westbound to go home, my first stopover in East Asia, first trans-pacific routing, first stop in mainland China, first time in Beijing…. this was quite the find for less than $550!



Doing some research on Air China I was quite intrigued to learn about the history of commercial aviation in China: six airlines stemming out of the CAAC: AC, MU, CZ, and the now defunct China Northern, China Southwest & China Northwest. Hmm, the last 3 do have counterparts in the USA too, it would seem.

Just looking at the sheer size of fleets of these airlines is mind boggling too: CA at 430, MU at 570, CZ at 620, HU at 235, Hainan, Shanghai, Sichuan well past 100 nearly 200 planes… quite the traffic it would seem! Of course, there will always be the subsidies argument (which helped make for some very interesting China - USA/Europe routes, sustainable or not!)

And now, how about we look at Air China’s fleet? They’ve been good friends with Airbus & Boeing it would seem: ever since their inception in 1988, they’ve had everything A & B have had to offer. For what it’s worth one of the few Boeing 767s they did have operated the Beijing - New Delhi route when it got started. That would’ve been a fun one!  


Looking at Air China’s pre COVID-19 747 operations it was clear that the -8s at least were well used: 2 for SFO, 2 for JFK, 2 for FRA and one for VIP service. The 747-400s would be more domestic flight usage, and the odd international flight here and there.

On the west coast itself Air China had the one flight between Beijing and San Francisco on the 747, 3 flights to LAX (2 x 77W and 1 789), and one between Shenzhen and LAX. Other flights went over to Houston (and Panama!), a 77W and 748 to JFK, and a 77W to IAD. Not too shabby.


Looking at reviews online I knew I had to set my exceptions really low. Although that being said most rants were based on consumer errors that wasn’t really the airlines fault OR operational reasons. I was however very concerned about the layover over Beijing, especially on the way back as it was 1hr30min: fine anywhere else, not quite in Beijing.

Leading up to the flight itself I did the usual: weather patterns in SFO (therefore at least an hour’s worth of delays if the 28s and 1s were not being used), CA986’s on time performance (largely good, barring the one time it went up to 28R for departure only for it turn back around and depart 7 hours late, hydraulics), and the odd 777-300ER swap. All part of the fun & games!

As I mentioned before with the website, it was functional, I could select whatever seat I’d like for free. However, there were only the middle section(s) available. I waited for web check in…


….and that was pretty pain-free on the Air China mobile app. Details confirmed, APIS entered, seats selected and I was ready to go for the SFO-PEK-DEL sector, all while seated in front of a Boeing 747-400 of British Airways :)  

Weather would be a crucial factor on the day of the flight: thankfully most of the storms passed through after I flew in on UA428, and had a well rested sleep, occasionally being woken up by some bigger jets taking off. Perfect. B-2486 took off from Beijing on time and was well on it’s way for a before time arrival in to San Francisco. Hooray!


The next morning I left AirBnB at 10 in the morning Pacific, nearly 4 hours before departure. The motive being planespotting despite lugging around the tiny suitcase, no worries!!

Air India’s Boeing 777-200LR service back to New Delhi, AI174 would depart at 1030 hours. I wanted to spot this one. Dropped off at the international terminal, I decided to take the AirTrain to Parking Garage G. Finding a good place to spot, and I got some decent pictures of VT-ALF being loaded up.

The walkway from the parking garage to the international terminal provided good opportunities to spot too, glass being in the way. Was nice to see so many Indian families wait for VT-ALF’s departure to Delhi, but soon it was evident a delay was brewing. An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 pulled in: this was 3 days before the MAXs were grounded all over the world… AC761 from Montreal.  

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United A319, presumably on a short international mission 

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The star of the show! :) 

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Air Canada 737 MAX 8… a few days before fleets were grounded worldwide. This one flew in from Montreal 

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787 from Toronto 

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After a bit I decided I go ahead and get checked in. I really didn’t have to, I had the mobile boarding pass but I wanted a stock collection because why not! 2hr45min before departure I joined the medium line…. several passengers took advantage of Air China’s generous baggage allowance. While most of these took a while to process, it was a quick and easy process for me. The lady behind the counter had a ‘Farewell United 747 Friendship’ pin on. Nice! 

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  Now the logical progression of a journey would be security check. Right? Wrong! It was time for my 2nd round of spotting. By now however AI174 was long gone, and I wondered if I’d catch her in New Delhi. Time would tell. I was treated to a 777-300ER start up, and the 737 MAX 8 - little did I know it was a flying death trap… Peeking in the distance and a 747-8i with blue cheat lines was at the gate: CA985 made a well before time arrival!  

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I then ventured out to parking garage A where JL2 from Haneda (a 777-300ER), Qantas QF73 from Sydney (now a piece of history 747-400ER) and a jet bridge being transported were the highlights.  

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Time to head to security… United and their many 787s. 

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With an hour and a half before departure it was time to negotiate through the TSA lines. Now usually not a stress point, I knew that lines could be really long thanks to POTUS looking to set new records, and the government shutdown being one of them. Understandably, some TSA folk did not report to work during this time. Security took all of 20 minutes. 

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Boarding pass

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After security 

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Time for some more planespotting! SFO is a little difficult for spotting especially at the A & G gates - but the new terrace that had opened up just a few weeks prior promised to be a treat.

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^^ Look at that into CRJ peeking through… or is it an MRJ? 


Still, not the most ideal view of B-2486 but it sure shows how long the airplane is! At just over 250ft, the 747-8 is the longest passenger airplane. Of course, once the 777x comes in it changes, while the Antonov 225 Mriya, while commercial, rarely carries people. Hmm, how about we spare a thought for the Caspian Sea Monster too?

SFO had recently undergone some changes to the gate numbering system: unlike most major airports in the USA which have an alpha-numeric combination for the gates (such as A23X in DFW, C5 in MSP, J5 in MIA), SFO had just the numerals. So with CA986 departing from G101 it didn’t mean that concourse G at SFO has over 100 gates, it simply meant one of over 100 gates in San Francisco Airport, but only recently did they account for alphabet. On to some planespotting in the area, United clearly dominating proceedings here too.

While outside, the former longest airliner showed up: the A340-600! Being the winter schedule Lufthansa switches the A380 service between Frankfurt (summer) and Munich (winter), with the A340-600 only seen in the winter from Frankfurt, and the A350-900 would take over SFO-MUC in the summer. Fun operations, maybe I should consider this in the future. Foreshadowing????? :)  

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Some other departures included EVA AIR BR7 to Taipei, a 777-300ER and China Eastern flight MU768 to Qingdao, an A330-200. Took in some fresh air before being in the giant metal tube for 12 hours, Beijing Airport terminal 3, followed by nearly 8 hours on an A330-300….  

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I love the terrace @ SFO 

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The CRJ among the big guns, the international guns! 

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45 minutes before departure, 5 minutes before boarding I decided to head downstairs to gate G101. Pretty full area, and not the best view out of the window, I was interested in seeing how they’d manage to get a 747 full of passengers onboard in 40 minutes and got going: CA986 would usually depart less than 15 minutes after schedule (considered on time) and make up the time enroute.  

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Right on cue, 1310 hours, boarding was called and by and large everyone was very orderly with this. It was so satisfying to see! I was on my merry way at 1326 hours, through the windy twisty jet bridge. There were Chinese newspapers just outside the airplane, I was onboard at 1330 hours to a set of inviting crew. Looking good!

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As expected the calming blue colors with maroon pillows and boring gray sheets welcomed all passengers. I took my seat 45A with no issues. This was going to be a full flight, not a seat empty. At G102 a United 777-300ER flew in from… Beijing! UA889 that is.

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Cabin of the 747! 

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It was a generally comfortable seat: lots of legroom, a leg rest, the generally wide cabin of the 747-8 helped, and IFE looked pretty easy to use. 2 minutes before departure time the Captain came around with his announcement: crisp, clear, easy to understand - you could tell this was not a 747 from the 90s :)

A 11hr40min flight westbound, 36000 feet, and relatively smooth. Lots of emphasis on complying with seat belt signs, too. The crew looked to be frantic in getting everything set for departure.  


1350 hours, right on time, BOOM! The mighty B747-8 is pushed back from Gate G101, flight CA986 was officially under way! An Asiana A350-900 pulled in from Seoul, another reminder for me as I missed the A350 yet again! The 4 General Electric GEnx engines were fired up, very much sounding like a Boeing 787 here. The safety video played, a very cute baby panda featured: I suppose this is Air China’s mascot!  

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A bit of a long taxi to runway 28R, the crew set up the cabin for departure: I was quite intrigued by the security team leader automated announcement. Disobeying their orders is punishable by Chinese law. Never heard anything like it before! 

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With no traffic in front of us, we lined up with runway 28R at 1408 hours. throttles advanced on the 4 levers thundering down the mighty Boeing 747-8 down the runway as we lifted off after a long rotation: my first 747 flight of 2019, 10th overall, we were airborne at 1409 hours. Next stop, Beijing!  

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As expected with the 747 it was a gradual yet elegant climb. I was so happy to be back on the mighty Queen. Drinks were served about 30 minutes in to the flight before lunch, I went for some beer. It would be Yanjing Beer - just beer & wine available on Air China.

Blanket & pillow  

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Beer here! 

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For lunch, they started out with serving the special meals which there were a normal amount. Options for lunch were beef or fish: wherein I went for the former.  

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Lunch started out with some ham & potato salad which was actually very good.

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For the main course it was hit rice and a pepper beef gravy: this was quite good too! Bread & butter was included alongside.

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For dessert, it seemed like an easy out with cut fruit. Hmm…. All in all, what seemed like it lacked in quantity was made up just fine in quality - once again, I wasn’t expecting Air China to set the world on fire wit their meals but then again, this was just fine. 

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And some drinks with that… 

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So once all the trays were cleared out, it was about 2hr20min in to the flight, the crew went around distributing the real dessert - Haagen Dazs ice cream! This is the kinda stuff CX & SQ offer on their flights so on par I suppose :)  

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I settled in to watch some movies on the IFE screen - sure there wasn’t that much content, but it was more than enough to get through the rest of the 11hr40min flight. I did like how it opened up like a scroll - enchanting! I settled for Johnny English strikes again…  

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Spent some more time just looking at the informations screens - we had 6.5 hours remaining. We were just about crossing the international date line, between Alaska & Russia. I took my one get-out-of-jail-free card to get up and stretch my legs a little bit. The lavatory was fairly clean, and a self service bar was set up. I got myself some cookies & a cup of Sprite.  


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Cabin, and a door

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From the self service bar

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Killed another two hours or so trying to get some sleep, and before I knew it the lights came back on, window shades pulled up… we were nearing Beijing! 9hr20min down, and the drinks service before dinner started. I went for some coke & water this time around.  

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An announcement was made describing what was on offer for the meal service - it would be beef with noodles or pork with rice. I went for the beef again: salad was a fairly rudimentary with a thousand island dressing, beef and noodles was a little on the dry side, and for dessert were just packaged cookies. Not as good as the first meal, but definitely passable.  

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For the little bit it was the usual passengers freshening up before arrival, lines formed in front of the lavatories. Just under 45 minutes to go and the usual before announcements happened, requesting passengers to help set up for arrival.  


Timely, 30 minutes before touchdown the Captain back around for more information regarding arrival of the flight. Winds were from the south at 10 knots, clear sky but with a bit of haze, and 55F. A far cry form ND that’s for sure!  

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Slowly but surely, the sun went down as B-2481 was slowly brought down as well. We descended via the GITUM 4A Standard Terminal Arrival (STAR) for runway 19.

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It was a hazy hazy Beijing, and I knew Delhi would be something similar (if not worse…) A bit of a rough touchdown on Runway 19 at 1745 hours after a flying time of 11hr26min (14 min less than planned!). The 747 was brought to a near standstill as we taxied towards Terminal 3E.  

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On the way there were several Air China birds parked in remote bays - not sure if grounded or just parked, but it is a widely known fact that CA had several planes grounded even before the MAX fiasco and COVID-19. Towards T3E, of course an Emirates A380! And after several Air Canada narrow bodies, a Toronto bound 777-300ER.  

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We docked at Gate E09 after just a 5 minute taxi, which was supersonic in Beijing…. a code F gate. Quite unlike several flights I have been on, even when the aircraft stopped at the gate, even when the engines shut down, all passengers stay put obeying the seat belt signs. Nice!

Still seated!  

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The original scheduled arrival time being 1810, we were here 15 minutes before time. I disembarked after waiting 10 minutes - a 747 load of passengers! Most critical being that we had beaten the Los Angeles arrival: a lot of international transfer passengers on this flight, in fact the 777-300ER had only just touched down as I made my way to the international transfers. 

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Air China

Cabin crew8.0

San Francisco - SFO


Beijing - PEK



And that’s all for this one! A very very good flight on Air China to kick things off! I was happy to spend more than half the day on a 747, this being my longest 747 flight yet. Air China had delivered so far: I made it to Beijing safe, secure & before time, while the food onboard was satisfactory, IFE content passable and a pretty comfortable seat that actually made this flight… well, fly by.

On to the (relative) unknown, the Airbus A330-300 to New Delhi!

Information on the route San Francisco (SFO) Beijing (PEK)

The contributors of Flight-Report published 3 reviews of 1 airlines on the route San Francisco (SFO) → Beijing (PEK).


The airline with the best average rating is Air China with 7.1/10.

The average flight time is 12 hours and 10 minutes.

  More information


  • Comment 556432 by
    KévinDC TEAM SILVER 5257 Comments

    Hey Jish, thanks for a great report on the beautiful Queen of the Skies.

    I have yet to fly the 748i since it's so rare and not operated by any carrier I would find myself travelling usually, but I hope I can fly on one at some point. I get plenty of regular 744 action, though, haha.

    this was quite the find for less than $550!

    That is an insanely good price for such a far-away destination! Hell, I've paid more for domestic flights. Nice find!
    Mainland Chinese carriers are pretty notorious for these super low fares, which used to mean low-quality experience, but they've definitely improved in the passenger experience department over the past decade or so.

    Air Canada 737 MAX 8… a few days before fleets were grounded worldwide.

    Enjoyed the planespotting. Say what you will about the MAX, that was a sexy looking bird in the new AC livery, wow

    It was a generally comfortable seat: lots of legroom, a leg rest, the generally wide cabin of the 747-8 helped, and IFE looked pretty easy to use.

    Wow, leg rests are veeeery rare in Y these days, especially on newer a/c. Looks like there were multiple power sources too, which is nice (AC power below seats and USB in IFE screen).

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Comment 556436 by
      jish.b SILVER AUTHOR 285 Comments

      Hey there Kevin, thank you for stopping by! I think this trip more or less made me decided that the 747 is in fact my favorite: of course, I've only had 10 flights so far: 2 of them on the new 747-8, 2 on the 747-400M (mixed config) and 6 on the 747-400... I am happy to have had opportunities to fly onboard this iconic airplane.

      You rightly mentioned of Chinese carrier's low fares being a facade: in their own way I can attest that Air China have stepped it up compared to what I have seen online. Would I rank 2016 UA over 2019 CA? No - CA was much better, but I am sure UA have stepped it up in response to DL. And the features as you pointed out of the seat made for a very good flight.

      I hope they find a resolution for the MAX sooner than later. As you'll see in the upcoming reports, I was booked on a MAX.... hmmm.

      Thank you for stopping by!

  • Comment 556636 by
    airplanelover1 20 Comments

    Hello Jish.b, thanks for the detailed report! It is always nostalgic for me to see a report regarding SFO, my home airport, especially with the awesome spotting pictures. As for Air China, I have heard many mixed reviews about the airline from friends and family to people online, so I am glad that you had a fairly good experience with them! I do hope I can fly them (LH or KE as well) just to experience the 747-8i. Thanks again!

  • Comment 556686 by
    ThomasDutch GOLD 458 Comments

    Thanks for sharing your report about CA and this bird. Air China is definitely not the best one around, but it deserves far more credits than it is currently receiving by lots of users. Also how was the entertainment? The content is usually very lacking with them.

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