Friday marked my first long-haul, international flight on Air China. I'm a travel snob. I have airlines I like, I hoard frequent flyer miles, and with the possible exceptions of Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways, national carriers usually mean lower prices, but poor service.
So how was it? When I couldn't check-in online, I was both aggravated and nervous. I didn't want to end up in a middle seat, so I went to the airport three hours early to make sure I got a window (more on why window seats are the best choice later). I was assigned to boarding group one, which, to me, is critical for an enjoyable flight. Of course, when it came time for the general boarding call, there were no numbered groups, and everyone just boarded at once.
Getting on the aircraft, no matter in what class you're traveling, it's critical to get on early. Why? Because that's the margin of error for additional space. Getting on early means having time to take out your computer, your iPad, your reading material, and anything else you will use during the flight, and then put your bag in the overhead. I plug into any in-seat power so that on the off chance someone else wants it, I've got first dibs. It's also usually on upon boarding, so if my laptop isn't fully charged, it can start charging.
"Experienced" flyers are supposed to take the aisle because there's nothing to see from the window anyway (that's true), and this way you can get up whenever you like (technically true). Here's why that falls flat. Except for tall passengers, the aisle doesn't give you more room. Anyone who has flown at least on an American carriers knows that sitting in the aisle seat guarantees that one of the bovine attendants will make contact with you every single time she or he walks past, rousing you out of the sleep you're trying to get on a 13-hour flight. The window protects you from such contact, and gives you a wall to lean against for even better rest.
The window seat also offers more space. Huh, you say? Between the window seat and the aircraft wall there are nooks and crannies that only the window passengers enjoy, and into that space, one can place a laptop, an iPad, or a host of other narrow things, including books. This creates more space and therefore, a more comfortable flight. Just make sure to hold onto those items during take-off and landing, as the angle of the plane can cause them to slide, and getting them back will be tricky. The window has one more advantage, which I shall come to shortly.
On boarding the Air China 777, I was pleased to find an in-seat screen, and more importantly, in-seat power. Both of these help mitigate my number one rule of travel: never trust an airline to entertain you or feed you. You never know when you're going to get the seat with the wonky monitor, the wonky headphone jack, or, as any United passenger can tell you, the entertainment system that needs to be rebooted every 15 minutes. The same goes for food: you'll get two choices, gross and grosser, and if you don't like either, it's going to be an awfully long flight. Eat before you get on the plane, and bring snacks. The meal will never be so good that you regret eating in advance.
One thing I've found consistently true with Chinese passengers (this is not a generalization, it is based entirely on my experience of flying back and forth between the China, the US, and Southeast Asia for 18 years): they don't check-in online and they don't use in-seat power. This was also true on this flight. I'm always amazed how the average Chinese passenger boards with no reading material or other form of amusement for the next 12 hours.
Air China's inflight entertainment had far more English-language choices than I expected, with one twist: any TV programs offered featured only one episode, whereas usually, but not always, United will offer as much as a full season of a given program.
Food was barely edible. As a friend of mine once said, "It's amazing that China has some of the world's best food, and absolutely the worst airline food imaginable." One big difference that worked: on United, meals are served about 90 minutes after take-off, a snack halfway through the flight, and then another meal 90 minutes before landing, which always seems rushed. Air China handles it better: there's no snack, but the second meal comes four hours before landing. Better choice.
We received seven seat belt warnings in the first 20 minutes of the flight because of "turbulence," which I must not have felt, and eight within the first hour. Clearly turbulence is a big thing for Air China. Here's the other reason why you shouldn't take the aisle seat: my two seatmates got up a total of 10 times during the flight between the two of them. That's f#*@ing annoying, especially if you're trying to sleep. Two years ago, while I was sitting in the aisle, my seatmate got up five times, including twice while meals were still trays. Trust me, take the window, and let other people be inconvenienced when you want to get up, not vice-versa. Full disclosure: I got up zero times during the flight.
As we made our final approach to San Francisco International Airport, I looked out the window, seeing landmarks like Stanford University. I thought to myself, gee, I've never seen flaps extended that low, although they were not beyond normal operating range. At this point, I looked up, and saw a smaller United commuter jet above us, about 70-100 meters away. Now, I've landed in dual-runway situations before, and seen other aircraft at reasonable proximity. This was not like that. By the time I pulled out my iPhone, opened the camera, and took a photo, the plane had already begun to move away, but the closeness caused our plane to do a go-round. A "go-round" means you come in for a landing, but for some reason cannot or will not land, and the pilot guns the engines and takes the plane back into a landing pattern. It's a bit disconcerting if you've never experienced it. I chuckled because it confirmed for me that our distance to the other plane was indeed improper, and I saw it continue down to make a landing. It also made me think of Air China pilots' recent demands for better pay and conditions, and how they believe continued current working conditions might "threaten flight safety."
Bottom line: I didn't mind the flight but Air China still wouldn't be my first choice. But now that they're in Star Alliance, Air China will likely get a lot more passengers for whom their schedules work or for whom they're just a bit cheaper.
P.S.: The immigration line for non-US passport holders at SFO is a disgrace, at least on the day I arrived. The line stretched so far back at there was almost a vanishing point.
Photos: Steven Schwankert/the Beijinger
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