Earlier this week Air China joined Shanghai Airlines in becoming the first carriers from mainland China to join Star Alliance (see online news December 13). Business Traveller stepped onboard to review Air China's business class offering on the London-Beijing route.
CHECK-IN I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 at 1600 for the 1740 flight to Beijing. With the refurbishment work slowly coming to an end, the area outside the terminal was not as chaotic as usual and I made my way to Zone D. There was one business class desk and the passenger at it was just finishing. Check-in was done by a very cheerful and pleasant lady in an SAS uniform, who had me on my way in minutes with an invitation to the lounge.
THE LOUNGE Air China does not have its own lounge but uses the London Lounge, which is located directly opposite you as you start your walk towards the gates. It is managed by SAS and as a result has a Scandinavian feel, with lots of wood and light colours. The lounge is spread over two floors with plenty of space, a variety of seating types, workstations and a good selection of international newspapers. There is also a wide choice of drinks as well as some snacks, Pot Noodles, salads and cheese. There is free wifi, but the signal was so weak I chose to use T-Mobile instead.
BOARDING The flight was announced for boarding and showed final call at 1645. I made my way to the gate and found a sizeable queue along the corridor, and there was no line for business/first. By the time my boarding pass was checked, all rows had been called and I moved straight to the walkway where I queued again, behind all the other passengers. I made my way to the upper deck where business was situated, but as everyone had got on the plane at roughly the same time, staff were struggling to see to all the passengers. It took almost ten minutes for my coat to be taken. On my seat was a cushion, headset (not noise-cancelling) and some turquoise slippers. As I sat down, a hot towel and drinks were served, and I was offered a copy of China Daily. If you want a UK paper ensure you bring your own.
THE FLIGHT Due to congestion we were warned about a 15-minute delay – we eventually took off at about 1815. After take-off a duvet was handed out, followed by a swift drinks service and dinner. The meal consisted of many courses but only the main offered a choice of dishes. To start was duck foie gras, followed by salad and then mushroom soup (the best thing I ate). For the main course, there was a choice of chilli chicken kung po, leek and lamb stir-fry, and Cajun salmon with shellfish sauce. This was topped off with raspberry cheesecake, cheese and fruit. Personally, I could have done with less food, but of higher a standard. After dinner, a bottle of water was given out along with an amenity kit. This included eyeshades, earplugs, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, and something called “whitening emulsion” – I was not sure if this was for my skin, teeth or the walls.
The Boeing 747-400 has three classes, with first and economy on the main deck and business on the upper deck, fitted in a 2-2 configuration. The seat is of the cradle variety and has a good recline and can be adjusted in all the normal ways. At 1.8 metres, I was a little too long for it, and kept the footrest flat so my legs could hang over the end. I slept relatively well, mainly aided by being tired and the nice duvet.
The in-flight entertainment is AVOD (audio-visual on demand), but I had a few problems with mine. At one stage my screen froze and it had to be restarted, then I couldn’t get the screen out of the arm of the chair. This was remedied by a member of the cabin crew pulling at it with a pair of ice tongs. I couldn’t find the programme guide and had to ask for one. The system only said film one, two, three etc and language one, two, three etc, so you needed to refer to the guide to select your film. There was a choice of 12 Chinese films and 12 “world films”, although many of these were not new releases, so I struggled to find ones I had not seen. I ended up watching Garfield out of desperation. In addition, there is a choice of Chinese and Western music, and six games. About one and a half hours before landing breakfast was served. There was a choice of Chinese or Western. Not feeling hungry I opted for fruit and a croissant.
ARRIVAL We were delayed on approach, but despite this and the late departure we landed only five minutes late at 1155. There was snow on the ground and the airport was congested so it was 35 minutes until we made it to the gate. Immigration was quick and within 20 minutes I had my luggage.
VERDICT Language was a problem with many of the crew, especially when I was experiencing problems with the AV, but once staff knew what you wanted, they were very happy to help. An efficient flight but better and more comfortable seats are available on Air China’s newer Airbus planes.
PRICE At £1,940, it is not the best price for the route but Air China can offer reasonable value, although on some dates checked by Business Traveller, British Airways was offering flights for a few hundred pounds less.