5-star expectations, 5-star letdowns.
Aircraft Type: B737-800
Class: Economy Class
Route: Xian – Beijing
Flight Time: 1:35
Best For: Comfortable, safe, premium flights within China
The Crowd: PMEBs, C-Suites, yuppies and hipsters
Routes: Hainan Airlines is part of the HNA Group, part of an intricate network of airlines whose names and branding serves no real purpose when everything is sold as Hainan Airlines anyways
Best Bits: The Skytrax 5-star status doesn’t mean much, but you naturally feel like you’re in good hands
Worst Bits: Paranoia over safety matches Singapore Airlines’ own paranoia
Hainan Airlines B737-800 Economy Class Report
Skytrax rating or not, Hainan Airlines is generally regarded as China’s, and one of the world’s best airlines. George Soros’ investment in the carrier shot this small-town provincial airline from utmost insignificance, into the nation’s fourth largest airline, with several hospitality chains under its belt. Hainan Airlines even boasts its own alliance – a repertoire of regional, low-cost and full-service carriers offering nationwide connectivity across China, with several more to boot, and even subsidiary airlines overseas such as Africa World Airlines, and France’s Aigle Azur. The need to return to Beijing offered me a perfect opportunity to try Hainan Airlines.
I found that Hainan Airlines flew the Boeing 787 on average, every two days, between Beijing and Xian, which would’ve required me to shorten my time in Xi’an (which I should’ve done on hindsight).
On The Ground
Xi’an Xianyang International Airport is located 47km from downtown Xi’an. Poor traffic conditions round-the-clock within Xi’an, and the long distance means that cabs can be expensive (if they are willing to take you there in the first place, they might request a double fare to cover their journey back into town). Hence, the only viable alternatives are airport buses, or hotel-arranged private transport. The airport buses are frequent and at CNY 25, are very affordable, but they set off from locations around the edges of the city. With poor public transport links (in terms of infrastructure, Xi’an has been overlooked by Beijing) and nothing in sight for many years, the only way to get to these points is to take a cab. There are two subway lines, but these don’t go anywhere near the airport bus’ respective city terminii.
So, the only effective way to get there is to arrange transport at your accommodation, or sacrifice a city-central location, and stay near the airport bus pick-up location at the outskirts of downtown.
There are two terminals at Xi’an Xianyang International Airport. The newer Terminal 2 services China Eastern Airlines and its partner carriers, while Terminal 1 is home to Star Alliance, Hainan Airlines group of carriers, and international flights. Although it’s a decent sized airport, there are very few check-in counters and Xi’an is a second-tier city, which means passengers may not be accustomed to flying and what should or should not be in checked in bags and hand carry luggage. So, make sure you buffer enough time for this. If you need to eat, take note that the landside food options are far cheaper, and far more appetizing than the airside options.
As China’s fourth major airline, Hainan Airlines doesn’t get much priority in terms of traffic rights. The carrier’s flights into Beijing only start departing in the evening, while Air China, China Eastern and China Southern flights into Beijing are better scheduled throughout the day.
Hainan Airlines’ cabin is recognized the world over, for its extravagant reds. Some people think it’s over the top, and not a good color for an aircraft environment, but I think Hainan Airlines perfectly captures the spirit of China. As you board, the music that plays features music from all across China, from Mongolian and Tibetan, to Cantonese and Uighur – it injects dimension and flavor to an otherwise forced homogenous landscape. The crew too, almost seem to be cast to feature people from all over China. The trainee male crew bearing a typical Southern Chinese tan, could be considered local and good looking in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore; a female cabin crew with fairer and sharper facial features reminiscent of Shandong native, Chinese actress Tang Wei.
Ironically, the crew are a lot less friendlier than my inbound China Eastern Airlines flight, or my various Air China flights a few years back. Instead, there was a certain discreet professionalism to their decorum that reminds me of Singapore Airlines. Eyes beaming with welcome, but no body language to boot – everything held back, for some reason, for no real reason.
This was really where Hainan Airlines failed in my opinion. Based on trip reports on other carriers, I expected a hot snack – perhaps a Chinese hamburger, or a bun. Instead, all we got was a few Chinese sweet-savory seaweed nuts, and a drink. Even China Eastern Airlines offered a second, third, and fourth drink run.
As is expected, Hainan Airlines does not offer personal inflight entertainment. Programmes are provided via drop-down screens, and that too, was a disappointment. Whereas China Eastern Airlines screened a Discovery Channel documentary on marine life dependent on coral reef habitats, Hainan Airlines screened a “advert-mentary” on Xi’an, then another one on Beijing. Thankfully, the flight to Beijing was short.
I wasn’t particularly wowed by Hainan Airlines. On the frontline and impressions, they certainly project an air of professionalism that I can’t deny. Their emphasis on safety is also understandable. However, the hardware is simply not up to par with their allegedly legacy dinosaurs. I don’t think I’d consider flying Hainan Airlines on routes shorter than 2 hours – I’ll just stick to the big 3.