Our journey home from Bali involved an overnight flight on Singapore Airlines (where Jessica got to sit in business class while I slummed it in economy), followed by a six-hour layover in Beijing, and then a lunchtime Air China business class departure to Montreal.
I’ll pick up the final installment of this round-the-world trip at Beijing Capital International Airport. Having enjoyed a nice breakfast with my parents during our quick layover, Jessica and I headed towards the Air China premium check-in zone at the far end of the airport terminal.
There was a bit of confusion among the check-in staff with regards to our checked baggage, which were originally tagged back in Bali the previous night to go all the way through to Montreal.
After enlisting the help of three or four of her fellow staff members, the associate helping us was finally able to locate our bags and ensure they were tagged correctly.
Soon after, she handed us our boarding passes for Montreal, and we were on our way to the departure gate, via a three-minute people-mover journey between Beijing Airport’s main concourse and the international satellite terminal.
Boarding was already called by the time we passed through immigration and security, so we skipped the lounge and headed straight for the gate, where we discovered that we’d be boarding from a remote stand. After one of the longest rides I’ve ever had on an airport bus, we finally stepped out onto the tarmac, where the Air China Boeing 787 Dreamliner that would be taking us to Montreal stood waiting in the smoggy air.
I’ve flown Air China up and down the continent since my childhood, but this would be my first time onboard their long-haul business class. And so, despite the airline’s perhaps less-than-stellar reputation, I was feeling rather excited as I made my way up.
Air China | CA879
Aircraft: Boeing 787-9
Cabin: Business class
Route: Beijing (PEK) to Montreal (YUL)
Date: Monday, January 14, 2019
Time: Departing 1:30pm and arriving 1:15pm
Duration: 12 hours 45 minutes
I was greeted by a flight attendant, who checked my boarding pass, welcomed me to the flight by name (in Mandarin), directed me to turn left into the business class cabin, and walked me to my seat. That’s a welcome onboard done exactly right.
Air China has a total of 30 business class seats on their Boeing 787-9 aircraft, spread out across five rows in a 2-2-2 configuration. These seats are almost forward-facing, but not quite, and are in fact angled very slightly towards either the left or right, with each seat’s footwell positioned underneath the seat console of the row in front of it.
They’re almost like industry-leading reverse herringbone seats in their efficient use of space, except they’re arranged two-by-two, so there’s limited privacy and no direct aisle access from every seat. Couples travelling together would enjoy these seats just fine, whereas solo travellers should pick a seat in the middle aisle and make use of the privacy partition.
I was happy enough with the hard product since Jessica and I were travelling together, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that Air China didn’t choose a more cutting-edge product on these relatively new planes.
The seat and cabin finishes also left me with mixed feelings. Air China chooses a deep shade of purple as the accent colour for its premium-cabin seat cushions, which is a striking look, and I’m a big fan of it. However, the rest of the seat “shell”, as well as the cabin itself, look like they’re straight out of the Boeing factory, with no effort being made to dress up the dull shades of grey and beige.
There’s not even an Air China logo anywhere, which many other airlines choose to display proudly on the front or back walls of the cabin. There’s definitely room for Air China to improve the visuals of the business class experience, in my opinion.
Anyway, I sat down in Seat 13L, which is the right-side window seat in the third row of the cabin, with Jessica joining me later on in Seat 13J next door. Before I even had the chance to start taking pictures of the seat features, the flight attendant was onto me like a flash with a hot towel and the welcome beverage. She also asked if she could help me store my coat and put carry-on bags away, an offer I was happy to accept.
Taking a sip of the champagne, I started looking around the seat. The first thing I noticed is that the seat structure itself is relatively short, and you can quite easily look out over the seat in front of you, making this a business class seat that feels more airy and spacious than private and intimate.
Perhaps as a result of this, the entertainment monitor seems to be on the smaller side compared to many other business class products out there. The two monitors are embedded in the same seat-back surface, alongside a few USB ports and a small storage rack just underneath.
Beneath that is the footwell, where the amenity kit and slippers had been waiting for me upon my arrival. By the way, shortly after offering me the welcome drink, the flight attendant had also knelt to unpack my slippers for me by hand – another gesture of warm and kind service that set the tone for the flight.
The footwell is very cozy, especially in the window seats, where the fuselage cuts into your legroom pretty significantly. Looking at the tiny footwell, I wasn’t really expecting to get a comfortable sleep onboard.
On the shared console between the two seats, you’ll find the rather simplistic seat controls, with two modes: take-off and lie-flat. There’s also a relatively large surface for your drinks and snacks throughout the flight.
The tray table slides out of its holder within the seat console, folding outwards into a full-sized table.
Meanwhile, the literature pocket is placed rather awkwardly next to your elbow, with the entertainment controller stowed adjacent to it.
Then, behind your shoulder on the other side is a large storage space, where the power port and headphone jack are positioned. A small reading light is also nestled here behind your headrest. And as with most Dreamliner aircraft, the windows could be brightened and dimmed using an electronic button instead of window shades.
After exploring the seat thoroughly, I arrived at the conclusion that I really didn’t like this type of business class seat at all – the arrangement of seat features simply wasn’t intuitive in any way.
Thankfully, the friendly flight attendant taking care of me soon returned to whisk my attention away. She passed me the business class menu and wine list, and also asked if I wanted a blanket for the flight.
It’s worth mentioning that the exemplary service I received onboard Air China business class was conducted 100% in Mandarin, and that non-Mandarin speakers probably wouldn’t be afforded such attentive service due to the language barrier.
Many other reviews of Air China I’ve read, written mostly by Western travellers, have mentioned that the crew’s command of English generally isn’t the best, an assessment which I’d agree with based on my observations on this flight.
There’s definitely room for the airline to improve in this regard, but for now, Mandarin speakers can expect a very high level of service when flying onboard Air China business class, whereas other passengers should probably temper their expectations.
Anyway, I quickly browsed through the menu, which read as follows:
And the very extensive wine and beverage list as well, which read as follows:
The flight attendant soon returned to take my order. Like many Asian airlines, the crew kneels at your seat for the meal order here on Air China.
As we began our pushback from the gate, the safety video, featuring a cute panda, played in Chinese with subtitles in English and French.
I also took this time to inspect the amenity kit, which was made by French skincare giant L’Occitane. It’s a pretty standard amenity kit with the usual eye mask, earplugs, dental kit, comb, and L’Occitane-branded lotion and lip balm.
Shortly after takeoff, the cabin windows were uniformly dimmed, so that harsh sunlight wouldn’t be pouring into the cabin. The crew handed out blankets to each passenger, and then began preparing for the meal service in the galley. It felt like there was a sense of urgency to the crew’s movements, which I personally liked very much.
I decided to watch a movie during the meal. Air China has a decent but not too expansive selection of movies and TV shows, and after browsing it for some time, Jessica and I decided to watch Crazy Rich Asians again on both our screens simultaneously.
Thankfully, the entertainment controller was responsive enough for us to synchronize our clicks of the Play button to the exact moment.
The meal service began with a glass of the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru red wine I had ordered, accompanied by some mixed nuts.
Soon after, the amuse bouche and hot canapé was distributed: smoked salmon with a prawn skewer. As a seafood aficionado, I could eat this stuff all day.
That was followed by the Western appetizer, served on a tray: a cold cut plate of king brawn and Parma ham, accompanied with some seasonal greens. Air China’s meal concept is somewhat interesting: they’ll serve you a Western appetizer followed by either a Chinese or Western main course.
I was also offered my choice from the breadbasket, and I had a piece of garlic bread.
My Chinese main course was served next: a sautéed spicy chicken dish with rice. Note that as a result of the seating arrangement, I had to personally pass the dishes back and forth to the crew member on many occasions, which was a thorn in my side when I’m trying to watch a movie. Again, another sign that Air China didn’t choose the best business class seat type.
The main course itself was just fine, I’d say. With so much sauce to go with the rice, it was palatable enough to eat, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say call it “tasty”.
Meanwhile, Jessica ordered the fish in rice wine sauce, which fell well short of my chicken dish in both visuals and taste.
The meal concluded with some dessert, a makeshift cheese plate, and some fresh fruits. The hazelnut chocolate cake was probably the highlight among all three; meanwhile, I call the cheese plate “makeshift” because I feel like unpackaged crackers ought to be at least a minimum expectation for a cheese plate in business class, and, well, we didn’t have that.
Overall, the best thing I can say about the first meal service of this flight was that it was conducted efficiently. The whole thing was over about an hour and a half after takeoff, which is pretty impressive work on the crew’s part.
Some Tibet Spring bottled water was passed out after our plates were withdrawn, and the cabin lights and windows were dimmed almost entirely, which I thought was an odd decision for a flight departing at midday in Beijing. Nevertheless, it seemed like most passengers did want to get some rest, and we were feeling pretty exhausted after our earlier red-eye flight too.
Jessica went to sleep almost immediately after finishing our movie, whereas I worked on my laptop for a while before deciding to rest for a while as well.
First, I headed to the restroom to freshen up. It’s a pretty standard Boeing 787 restroom, with not too much space to maneuver. The business class amenities were limited to a few bottles of hand cream and lotion.
Back at my seat, I transformed the seat into lie-flat mode. The sleeping surface looks comfortable enough…
…but as I had suspected, the footwell is very constricting, and it’s impossible to spread your feet more than a few inches apart. Thankfully, I was able to get some decent sleep on my side with my knees bent, which was more comfortable than keeping my feet planted in the tiny footwell, but that doesn’t excuse the poor seat design in the first place.
I fell asleep with about nine hours of the flight left, as we were flying over Russia’s Sakhalin Island…
…and awoke after a solid four and a half hours, as we were well over Alaska.
I decided to order a “Movie Snack” from the menu: some Kang Shi Fu cup noodles, along with a coffee. It’s a guilty pleasure, this stuff.
Note that the noodles were served straight out of the carton, whereas other airlines serving instant noodles, like EVA Air, would plate the noodles in a delightful bowl for their business class customers. Little details like these are what continue to separate Air China from the best of the East Asian carriers, in my opinion.
I spent the rest of the flight getting more work done on my laptop. There’s no wifi on Air China’s 787s (which is very odd since the airline does offer wifi on other planes, but not its newest-generation ones), so I had to work offline.
I was surprised when the cabin lights were turned on with more than three hours of the flight remaining, and the crew started preparing another meal service. It turns out that Air China doesn’t serve a traditional “breakfast” meal on the Beijing–Montreal route, instead serving lunch right after takeoff, followed by the dinner service a rather long time before landing. Hmm…
Despite not being too impressed with the first meal, I wanted to give Air China’s onboard delicacies another chance, so I happily allowed the flight attendant to set my table. This meal began with an egg tart, which is one of my favourite snacks.
Once again, you get a Western appetizer and then your choice of Chinese or Western main course. The appetizer was a salmon and vermicelli salad with thousand island dressing, which I thought was a pretty odd combination of ingredients, but didn’t taste bad at all.
Rather amusingly, the Chinese main course was once again Kang Shi Fu beef noodles, though this time a more dressed-up version of the dish (with actual chunks of braised beef) compared to the instant variety.
I was happy to see that this one was served in a proper bowl, and as a noodle lover, I enjoyed this meal much more than the first!
I also ordered another coffee to drink. Next to me, Jessica was fast asleep, and having earlier asked the crew not to be woken up, she therefore skipped the second meal entirely.
After this meal was complete, there were still about two and a half hours of the flight to go, which was a rather novel feeling on a long-haul business class flight, since I’m usually accustomed to the second meal being served shortly before landing.
I worked for a bit longer, but then I put my laptop down to admire the beautiful morning light over the horizon as we made our way across the Canadian Arctic down towards Montreal. It’s worth savouring every second of these moments, when your flight path just so happens to perfectly capture the sun doing its magical things.
Anyway, the remaining few hours of the flight passed by without incident, except for the moment when we passed under the cloud cover and the snowy Montreal landscape popped into view. It was a harsh reminder, as we descended into Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, that after spending two weeks traipsing around the world and indulging in tropical luxury resorts, we were now back in the thick of it in freezing cold Canada.
Air China business class is nowhere near as bad as some of the horror stories out there might lead you to believe, but alas, it’s not great either. Even as someone who wanted to give Air China the benefit of the doubt, I still ended up with a feeling of “this is okay, but could be much better” with regard to multiple aspects of the experience.
The crew’s service is excellent when communicating in Mandarin, though their English levels do fall short of what might be expected from a global airline. The food is very much hit or miss, with more of the latter than the former. And the choice of a wholly uncompetitive business class seat on these new Dreamliner aircraft simply didn’t make any sense to me.
As I mentioned when booking this trip, I was lucky to snag transpacific business class award space on any airline at all, so in that regard, Air China certainly fulfilled its duty of “being better than economy class”. I’m definitely not in a hurry to fly with them again, although given how frequently I go back to Beijing, I’ll probably have to at some point!