I’ve a confession to make.
Aircraft Type: A330-300
Class: Economy Class
Route: Beijing – Xian
Flight Time: 1:57
Best For: Cheap domestic flights between China’s tourism cities
The Crowd: Middle class Chinese heading to Xian for a short December’s holiday
Routes: Strictly speaking, China Eastern’s hubs are Shanghai, Nanjing, Xian and Kunming, but in reality, China operates a point-to-point operation.
Best Bits: The efficiency of Beijing Capital International Airport
Worst Bits: Not being able to travel by high-speed rail.
China Eastern Airlines A330-300 Economy Class Report
I love planes, but I love high-speed rail more.
And China, with its 11,000km high-speed rail network, stretching from Urumqi in Central Asia to Shanghai at the edge of the Pacific, excites me more than flying. After all, the prospect of flying domestic in China is a very, shall we say, dreadful prospect. The skies above China are incredibly delay-prone, caused either by random closures by the country’s proud and fierce armed forces, and unpredictable weather conditions caused by the friction of the weather systems between the Gobi desert, the Himalayas and the Pacific Ocean could transform an hour’s flight time into a whole day’s wait on the tarmac. More so than ever, in this time of the year, with the winter season pushing ever further south, and the polar night jet (the thing that is bringing the freezing polar temperatures south)fluctuating day-by-day between the lattitudes (the constant news reports aboard the Beijing subway train reminding of the impending freeze). To add to all of that, Chinese airlines aren’t exactly the most critically acclaimed for their service, support and their safety. So, you could imagine I wasn’t creaming at the prospect of flying domestic in the first place.
From my hotel near Yongan’li station, it costs approximately about CNY 84 to Beijing-Capital International Airport Terminal 2. Seeing as I had an early flight, I had asked the hotel for assistance, only to be quoted CNY 200. Hence, I managed it myself, and called for a taxi, which came in under 7 minutes. Beijing’s cabs now have standard, okay! It used to boast a fleet of mostly tiny Cherys, but has since been revived, like Singapore’s, into a fleet of entirely Chinese-made Korean Hyundais complete with suspension and proper heating.
On The Ground
In a country where the tendency is to impress upon the scale and grandeur, Beijing-Capital International Airport’s older terminals are human-sized, a rarity in China these days. Check-in queues are long, but processed in no time at all. Seriously, they took an average of 40 seconds to check-in bags, hand out boarding passes and all. The efficiency is simply astounding!
For domestic flights, instead of immigration, you pass through identity checks and security. These checks, in my experience, are far more stricter than regular international security. However, just take note of these few simple takeaways, and you’ll be fine:
1) Power Banks cannot be checked in, and are to be hand carried. Passengers are only allowed up to 10,000mAh. Higher capacities may be brought, but there needs to be an indication on the power bank its actual capacity and remaining voltage. Without any indicators, these will be tossed away, so make sure you bring an authentic power bank (those parallel imitation, like the ones at Chatuchak won’t pass).
2) If you’ve a substantial collection of coins, keep them in a packet which you can claim easily should Chinese security require them to be screened again.
3) No cigarette lighters, or matchsticks to be hand carried or checked in, which is a pity, because China has some very cute looking lighters.
Seriously, you cannot believe how relieved I was to have finally passed Chinese security checks. I needed to take out all my wires, cameras, chargers, power banks, coins and shoes for secondary screening, as with everybody else, of course.
With me declared safe, it was time for food, and Beijing Capital T2 has this cheap and affordable place where EVERYBODY goes for breakfast. It’s a canteen style, the food’s good, and best of all, cheap. I managed this Chinese style scrambled eggs and bacon, and dumpling soup for CNY 20.
It’s domestic where Beijing Capital International Airport’s traffic really starts to become apparent. The airport feels more like Singapore’s Woodlands bus interchange, with flights being called at every contact gate, aircraft quickly pushed back and another one towed in to board the next flight. There are also a few ground level common boarding areas, where boarding calls are made on top of each other, with airport buses at the ready to take passengers to their aircraft parked at the remote stand. Only the flights which are part of the Beijing – Shanghai Express (not all are, these flights seem to need to carry codeshares from every other Chinese airline) have it easy – with the contact gates right after security. I wait at Gate 55, but it isn’t long before my flight is called, and I’m bussed to my aircraft.
From the -11 degrees Celsius of the outside, China Eastern Airlines’ Airbus A330-300 cabin is a welcome respite. The crew are decked out in the airline’s recently introduced uniforms designed by Christian Lacroix, which borrows some inspiration from Air France’s uniforms (also designed by Lacroix). The crew look smart, and almost fashionable in their get-up.
China Eastern Airlines is spearheading a transformation to become a global Chinese brand, and has introduced a new livery (albeit dull) and sophisticated branding elements, along with a brand new long-haul product on its new Boeing 777-300ER fleet. These are technically subtle rebrands, but it has far reaching consequences, with China Eastern Airlines being one of the state-owned carriers and known for being the worst of the big three. The aircraft, an Airbus A330-300 is a two-class airliner, and is regularly used on domestic trunk routes, as well as regional flights such as to Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and Singapore. There is no personal inflight entertainment, but the cabin is configured in a comfortable 8-abreast layout, with 33 to 34″ pitch – more than most airlines in the world. The cabin is, for the most part, quite functional, but the seats, colored in the airline’s deep red and blue, liven up the cabin just sufficiently.
Like most Chinese carriers, the seatbelt sign is kept on throughout the entire flight although a case could be made that my Beijing – Xi’an flight was turbulent throughout. Still, the crew do strictly enforce safety during turbulence and takeoff and landing, even resorting to loudly reminding passengers not to get out of their seats.
The reality of domestic flights today across the globe means that the fact that China Eastern Airlines even provides a hot meal, is commendable. I’m no stranger to Chinese food, being Singaporean and all, so the porridge didn’t come as too much of a rude awakening. The porridge, paired with the cold salad of celeries, beans and minced meat, was just the perk-me-up I needed to begin my exploration of Xi’an later today. The apricot croissant was okay, but the sweetness of the pastry balanced against the tanginess of the salad. Chinese love yoghurt, and I can now see why, having avoided it for many years for some reason. It’s very Goldilocks – not too sour, not too sweet, not too thick and not too thin.
There are definitely genuine attempts by China Eastern Airlines to improve, but it still has a long way to go before it lands in the top 10. For now though, they are decent to fly with domestically.