A guide to flying Air China

Air China A330
A330 Business Class on Air China

About Air China

Air China is the flag carrier of China, and is currently ranked as a 3-Star Airline. The hub for Air China is Beijing Capital International Airport (for both international and domestic flights), and Air China is a member of Star Alliance.



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» Read Air China lounge reviews

» Read Air China seat reviews

 

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Air China fleet

Air China has a large, quite modern aircraft fleet, and long haul international flights are normally operated by Boeing 777, Boeing 747-400, Boeing 747-8 and Airbus A330 aircraft.

Beijing Airport

The main airport used by the airline is Beijing Capital International Airport. Both international and domestic flights operate from the most modern Terminal here (Terminal 3). If you’re heading to downtown Beijing from the airport, you can either take a taxi or use the rail link. By taxi, the journey at quiet times is approx. 30 mins, but beware that Beijing traffic can be extremely busy and this journey time can double at peak periods. The rail link is efficient and comfortable, and takes about 20 minutes.

Terminal 3 at Beijing Airport is vast and can be very busy at peak periods. Walking distances for arrivals and departures can be very long – wear comfortable shoes! Domestic flights operate from the nearest sections of the terminal (Terminal C/D). Check in locations are well signposted, and landside there is a section of shopping and restaurants, including Western coffee shops and fast food outlets. Security processing at peak times can be slow, and it is worth allowing plenty of time. Laptops have to be removed at Security, but liquids can remain in bags. If your flight departs from Terminal D, you will have to take the automated people mover, which will add another 10 minutes. To Terminal 3E, allow about 15 mins for the automated people mover transfer. Immigration in Terminal 3E can be slow and congested at peak periods, and in summer months you may find temperatures very hot which makes waiting more uncomfortable.

Air China ground service

Check in service is at a reasonable standard, and there are self-serve check-in facilities. Waiting times for check-in tend to be slowest for peak period domestic flights. If you need English language assistance at check-in, many staff have adequate language skills or they can call a supervisor.

Air China has a domestic First/Business class lounge at Terminal C, the best section being on the lower floor where a more modern facility is available. Food choices are primarily Chinese. The lounge offers shower facilities and WiFi (although speeds are slow).

The international First and Business Class lounges at Terminal 3E are large. In summer months you will find they are warm with poor air conditioning, and in winter they can feel cold. The lounges are similar in layout and the main difference is that the Business Class lounge can be very overcrowded. Shower facilities are poor. To use the Airport WiFi, you need to scan your passport in the lounge and receive the User/Password log in details. During daytime periods, western and Chinese hot and cold food is available in both lounges, plus a reasonable choice of hot and cold drinks – but it is difficult to get a decent cup of coffee! Staff at reception speak English, and most flights are called inside the lounge. Beware that some international boarding gates can be a 10-15 mins walk from the lounges.

Onboard Air China

On international flights, Air China offers First class, Business and Economy class on some aircraft, whilst others will have just a Business Class and Economy Class cabin.

First Class

This cabin offers individual seat pod style flat bed seats, in a 1x2x1 layout. Most aircraft cabins are quite modern and presented in a quite clean state. They are spacious, offer good privacy and there is a large IFE screen. The seat cushioning is firm, and they do not offer a soft mattress for the turndown service. The duvet and pillow supplied is good, although extra pillows are in short supply. The onboard catering is ranked 3 to 4-Star standards, with the Chinese menu generally of a better standard than the Western meal options. A good choice of wines are available. A small amenity kit is provided, slippers and nice pyjamas (it is advisable to select the largest size for comfort). Cabin staff service can be good, but as a large airline there will always be some variations and slight lack in consistency. Most staff have some understand of English and can have dialogue with you, and staff language skills are improving year on year. Choice of reading materials is limited – you will get English language Chinese newspapers offered, and maybe Time of Newsweek, but little other choice. The IFE system is patchy, and you may find that the responsiveness is very slow. Choice of Western movies is offered, as are some TV programmes, but don’t expect much in the way of new releases and many movies are quite old. It is also quite common to find that the IFE guide in your seat pocket has little relevance to the programmes actually being shown on the flight.

Business Class

Most Air China long haul aircraft offer flat bed seats, arranged in a 2x2x2 layout. There is a newer type of seat on Boeing 777-300ER and Boeing 747-8 aircraft (quite similar to Lufthansa newest seat), and a slightly wider, older style seat on Airbus A330 aircraft. Both offer reasonable comfort, and a nice duvet and pillow are provided. Pyjamas appear to have been discontinued, but you will receive an amenity kit and pair of slippers. The onboard catering is not that different to First Class above, and again you might find that Chinese menu standards are better than Western options. Cabin staff service is efficient and staff work hard through the meal services, and the same comments apply for language skills. The IFE system is patchy, and you may find that the responsiveness is very slow. Choice of reading materials is limited – you will get English language Chinese newspapers offered, and maybe Time of Newsweek, but little other choice. Choice of Western movies is offered, as are some TV programmes, but don’t expect much in the way of new releases and many movies are quite old. It is also quite common to find that the IFE guide in your seat pocket has little relevance to the programmes actually being shown on the flight.

Economy Class

Air China Economy class seats provide a reasonable standard of comfort, with an average seat pitch and legroom. For the Cabin Seat Layout plans, we suggest you refer to our Airline Seat Plans guide where you can view Air China aircraft cabin layouts. A blanket and pillow are provided, both at a 3-Star quality level. The Economy class onboard catering is ranked at 3-Star standard, with a choice of Chinese or Western meal options. Quantity of food provided is okay, but don’t expect any culinary delights on most routes. Chinese tea is served with the meal and you might have to ask a few times if you want to get a beer or wine served – and these very often are served warm and not chilled. The cabin staff tend to be younger in this cabin (compared to First or Business) and most are quite enthusiastic and have a pleasant demeanour. They are trained with standard English language phrases, and you may find that some questions you ask are met by puzzlement – persevere and they will normally get an English speaking member of staff to help. The IFE system is patchy, and you may find responsiveness very slow. Choice of Western movies is offered as are some TV programmes, but don’t expect much in the way of new releases and many movies are quite old. It is also common to find that the IFE guide in your seat pocket has little relevance to the programmes actually being shown on the flight.

Domestic Flights

The majority of domestic flights are operated by narrowbody Boeing 737 or Airbus A320/321 aircraft types, although some busier routes may use Airbus A330 or Boeing 77 aircraft. The onboard product has First Class seats, quite wide and configured 2×2, and standard Economy 3×3 seating. Due to intensity of use, some of these aircraft are looking more dated and worn inside the cabin for seat condition and décor. A meal or snack is normally served in both cabins, subject to flight duration – shorter 60-90 mins flights may only offer a beverage.

Cultural Differences

It is worth remembering that there are clear cultural differences amongst many Chinese travellers, and some of these may be disconcerting to western customers. This is an area that the Chinese government has been trying to address in recent years, and in 2013 the China National Tourism Administration published a 64-page Guidebook for Civilized Tourism (encouraging better manners). As far as air travel is concerned, you are likely to notice that queuing is often disorderly and when for example flight boarding is announced, there can often be a rapid stampede of travellers pushing and shoving to get through the gate quickly. Loud talking (almost shouting) is another trait you might find disconcerting both on the ground and onboard flights. Spitting remains an issue despite educational promotions to stop this. Despite airline staff best efforts to keep passengers seated after landing, you may also find a number of passengers standing up to retrieve luggage whilst still taxiing. We guess that bit by bit such practices will gradually improve in coming years, but don’t forget there are 1.4 billion potential Chinese travellers.

VERDICT

Air China product and service standards have been improving during the past 5 years, and the newest aircraft provide standards that are most competitive when compared to western and other Asian carriers. You don’t choose a Chinese airline if you must have standard western food and amenities during a flight, and it is also important that you don’t expect every member of staff to be able to chat to you in English (or other language). Staff are generally well trained and provide service in quite a regimented and disciplined manner, and remember, they often have to deal with very demanding Chinese customers. At the right price, we see Air China as a good choice if you are planning a trip to China.


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