For the average Western traveler, China is a very challenging country to visit. My first and previous experience in this country—exactly one year ago—wasn’t positive.
I had the opportunity to fly with China Southern (CZ) from Los Angeles (LAX) to the airline’s base in Guangzhou (CAN) and later on to Beijing (PEK). My return with them began in Beijing, a quick stop in the industrial city of Wuhan (WUH) flying straight into San Francisco (SFO).
On this trip, I had the opportunity to test the airline’s Airbus A380, Boeing 777-300(ER), and 787-8 Dreamliner.
All my flights with China Southern were below average in terms of passenger experience and treatment from its crew. All of the airplanes I flew were in good shape, though nothing remarkable. The overall service was far from stellar. I found the flight attendant’s service to be dry, robotic, and apathetic. Moreover, the airline’s website and app were disastrous for a non-Chinese-speaking passenger, which in the end takes a toll on the overall passenger experience.
In a nutshell, my experience in China wasn’t pleasing and I wasn’t looking forward to returning anytime soon.
Because of this, when I received an invitation to return to the most populated country in the world, I was skeptical. After reading several online reviews on China Eastern (MU), my expectations remained very low because of numerous complaints related to service, quality, not to mention the same perception I had gained after my trip with China Southern. But I decided to give it a try and see for myself what China Eastern—Delta’s newest investment—had to offer.
My experience with China Eastern began at my home airport in Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Florida. Partner airline and part-owner Delta Air Lines (DL) has a large operation in FLL. Trusting its on-time operation, I decided to book the last flight to JFK, which departs at 19:45 and arrives two hours and 20 minutes before China Eastern’s departure to PVG.
I was quite doubtful on whether to check my bag in FLL all the way to my final destination. But after speaking to Delta’s prolific Social Media team on the airline’s Twitter handle, I was reassured that my bag could, in fact, be checked to PVG.
Arriving into JFK’s T1, I walked to a rather tranquile China Eastern check-in area, where a couple dozen Economy class passengers were queuing up to drop their bags and get their boarding passes. The Business and First Class lanes, however, were completely empty.
As I approached the counter at exactly 23:00, a Chinese agent who spoke perfect English welcomed me and asked for both my passport and Visa. It didn’t take more than two minutes when my boarding pass was printed out, and I, wanting to make sure my pre-selected seat (12A) was still in fact selected, posed the question to the agent:
“Is my seat still 12A, m’am?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Perrella. You’re in 1A.”
I was shocked. I knew I had been booked in Business Class. I had done my research and knew that the Business Class cabin started with Row 6 and that First Class had only two rows, being 1 and 2.
Affirmatively, when I saw my boarding pass, it did not say ‘Business Class.’ Instead, it said ‘First Class.’ I guess I had to add up the numbers myself and realize that I had been upgraded to the private suites on board China Eastern’s Boeing 777-300(ER), which according to the manufacturer, had been delivered a little over a year before today’s flight.
Part of my shock was fueled by the fact that I was never able to properly select a seat through the airline’s rough website, which jumps from English to Chinese versions inadvertently and doesn’t allow, at any stage of booking/managing a reservation, to see a seat map or to change a flight.
Still trying to digest the wonderful surprise, I was asked to go through security. I was also offered an escort to take me all the way to the Air France Lounge, but I’ve been there before and I said no.
JFK’s T1 is busy all day long. One would think past 23:00 things would calm down a bit. Think twice. The TSA line was long, very long. I was blessed to cut through it via the First Class lanes, but then came the TSA screening points where people were trying to cut in and things got a little heated.
This side of the terminal is very poorly air conditioned. It can get very humid and warm, making the entire security ordeal very uncomfortable.
Finally past security, I walked to the AF Lounge, which is located in front of Gate 1. On the way there, both Korean Air (KE) and Alitalia (AZ) lounges are available to SkyTeam Elites; however, China Eastern has chosen the French carrier’s one for its premium passengers.
Upon entering the lounge, I was surprised at the number of people present. Aeromexico (AM) passengers were spread out through both floors, angrily waiting for their delayed flight to Mexico City (MEX). Likewise, our China Eastern First and Business Class passengers roamed, trying to find an open seat to wait until boarding time.
At last, I was able to find a seat and enjoy a glass of warm Champagne – all ice was melted and there wasn’t a single staff member to be seen to ask for a refill – Snacks were also scarce, so I patiently waited until it was time to leave and enjoy the First Class service onboard the plane.
Overall, the JFK Air France lounge was in poor shape, especially after the AF A380 had recently pushed back from the gate on its nightly flight to Charles-de-Gaulle. I can’t imagine the number of people that had been inside the lounge minutes before I had gotten there.
One hour after I’d settled in, I decided to walk to Gate 16, where my China Eastern Boeing 777-300(ER) was being prepped for the long transpolar crossing to Shanghai. As I walked down the terminal, the only two flights boarding at the moment were a KE A380, which was immediately pushed back for its flight to Seoul-Incheon (ICN), and our flight to PVG.
Once boarding was called at precisely 01:00, I managed to slide through some people and board behind a couple passengers who seemed desperate to jump on the plane. The two jetways connected to the airplane divided boarding flows, with premium passengers boarding through the left, and everyone else through the right. Accordingly, I walked down the left side and reached the L1 door, where three smiling Flight Attendants were expecting me.
The two jetways connected to the airplane divide boarding flows, with Premium passengers boarding through the left, and everyone else through the right. Accordingly, I walked down the left side and reached the L1 door, where three smiling Flight Attendants were expecting me.
“Certainly. I’m in 1A,” I replied.
“Wow, 1A? Please, please follow me.”
And there it was. My own private suite. The number-one seat on this one-year-old Boeing 777-300(ER).
“Thank you, I’m very excited to be here,” I said.
“My colleague Lulu will also be serving you tonight.”
Lulu is a very young, nice looking Flight Attendant who greeted me with a shy smile. She really looked happy to be serving me tonight.
And so, I settled in. My carry-on was placed inside a closet that’s located on the side of the First Class bar, as no overhead bins are installed in First Class. My jacket was hung inside my own private suite closet, where my pajamas and amenity kit were expecting me.
My first impression of the secluded First Class cabin was an overwhelming sense of privacy in a rather light colored ambiance. Two suites are located on both window sides in rows 1 and 2. In the center back, a honeymoon suite is available with two seats which can be converted into a king-sized bed. At the front of the cabin, attached to the bulkhead, is a super large table which works as a bar as soon as the airplane reaches cruising altitude.
Six lucky passengers are able to enjoy a walk up bar and full privacy in a small, intimate cabin space. The First Class seat has a 26.5-inch width that turns into a 6’7″ fully flat bed.
China Eastern came up with an elegant First Class design, brought together with creams and natural colors that contrast a deep colored carpet. Sleek lines and symmetrically framed windows give a certain Orient appeal, which differed the cabin from other premium carriers.
The IFE consists of a 24″ HD screen that’s properly placed at eye level in front of the seat, all complemented by in-flight WiFi, power outlets, and USB ports. The Panasonic eX3 entertainment system is an excellent fit for this aircraft, though the interface chosen by China Eastern is perhaps one of the most basic in the industry.
The IFE comes with a remote control that, in my case, was unfortunately not functioning properly. First Class screens are not equipped with touchscreen capabilities, therefore the remote control is fundamental for the operation and enjoyment of the system. However, I didn’t pay attention to it as the late departure would guarantee several hours of sleep until we arrived into Shanghai.
As I explored my suite, Li immediately came back with a tray offering me three types of pre-departure drinks: a glass of Champagne, and two virgin cocktails made with apple or orange juice.
“Is the Champagne cold, Li?” I asked.
“It certainly is, would you like to try it, Mr. Perrella?”
At the same time, she brought a menu with the offerings for dinner and breakfast. She described the two options as either Chinese or Western, and stood there waiting for my choice. I found this a little odd since I didn’t really have the time to carefully read the menu, but given her enthusiastic service, I leaned towards the Chinese option, and for breakfast, an omelet.
Right before closing our doors, Li came back offering to activate the complimentary in-flight Wi-Fi, which, according to her, “would be activated as soon we leave the ground.” Enthusiastically, I said yes and pulled out my iPad. Li was kind enough to log me in herself, and I was ready to surf the net while flying in heaven.
Soon later, the boarding doors were closed and only one additional First Class passenger shared the super exclusive cabin with me. Everything was set for a memorable experience.
Pushback and Takeoff
Our Triple Seven pushed back at 01:29, sixteen minutes ahead of scheduled departure time (SDT), and Lulu came to pick up my empty glass of Champagne.
In a very modest English, she said:
“Mr. Perrella, our flight time to Shanghai is 14 hours. Please enjoy your flight.”
And every time Lulu or Li said something to me, they’d do it kneeling down, smiling, looking at me in the eye. I had never been so carefully addressed in any airline experience ever before. My previous CZ experience was dry at best. Here, I really felt special.
As we taxied around a foggy JFK, we lined up with the runway and performed a powerful, long takeoff. Our heavy aircraft then climbed through the dense, humid fog and turned North heading towards Canadian airspace. Our flight would take us straight to the North Pole and then fly South towards Siberian airspace and enter China on a Southwestern course.
At around 02:15, I started feeling very tired. My eyes began to close, though I was starting to get hungry. After a while, I had fallen asleep and when I opened my eyes, I saw Lulu kneeling down trying to close my suite’s doors. When she noticed I had awakened, she asked if I wanted to eat or continue resting.
Since the flight was going to be so long, I told her to please begin the service I had so anxiously been waiting for. The excitement woke me up and I was ready to enjoy the in-flight meal experience.
At 03:00, my table was set. The large suite has a table that also works as an ottoman. Lulu came by and helped me pull the table up, and bring it close enough so that I’d be comfortable.
A table cloth was placed to cover the wooden surface, along with precisely-placed cutlery, a tiny butter plate, and my choice of sparkling water with ice and lemon. Given the late time, I decided not to indulge on the vast wine list that was being offered on this flight. It is also a personal choice on long-haul flights, as wine seems to worsen my jet-lag effects.
I must say I was very impressed at how the table was set. Lulu was very precise at placing each item, and she did it with incredible ease.
An amuse bouche rapidly arrived: a nicely designed bowl with turkey breast on top of white cheese and bread, a pepper and pickle stick, salted pretzels and some rather tasty mixed nuts. It was a nice way to start the dining experience.
Later on, Li brought what she described as “the best tomato soup she has ever tried.” I hadn’t originally ordered it, as it’s not part of the Chinese menu. But since she was so kind and described it so well, I decided to give it a shot.
The soup was, in fact, delicious. Not the typical creamy tomato soup—it was a tomato broth with several, finely cut vegetables. A basket of bread was placed at the upper corner of my table.
“I hope you liked the soup. I know the chef who makes it,” she said.
“You were totally right, Li. It was delicious!”
“May I bring you some more? We have plenty,” she replied.
“No, I bet there’s a lot more coming my way, but thanks!”
Then, the listed appetizer was carefully placed in front of me. It was a sesame crusted tuna with pineapple skewer and two perfectly cooked asparagus.
Coming up, the main course and the star of the show arrived: the delicious, typical Chinese Braised Spareribs in honey sauce, served with vegetables and noodles. As a side dish, a mixed greens salad with Thousand Island dressing was brought to my table.
The ribs were spectacular, fall-of-the-bone with the typical tangy flavor that good Chinese ribs are supposed to have. The vegetables, especially the broccoli, were perfectly cooked and had wonderful flavors coming out of them.
The hearty garnish of the spicy noodles were hot and tasty bringing together an amazing dish. I couldn’t be more pleased.
Lulu came back and cleared my table. She asked if I wanted to see the cheese list and desert. But at the time, 04:00, I declined and decided to call it a day and try to get some rest.
“Mr. Perrella, I hope you’ve enjoyed dinner. Whenever you’re ready to sleep, here are your pajamas and we’ll make sure your suite is ready for you.”
To say I was in heaven, would be an understatement!
I stood up, went to the large front lavatory and changed into my China-styled pajamas, furnished by a Chinese brand called Leaves Fashion.
After using all the basic items in the Ferragamo Amenity Kit, I went back to my suite, which had been already turned into a full-flat bed with two covers and one pillow, and the electric shades had been brought down.
Lulu came by to make sure I was comfortable, and when I asked her for an additional pillow, she ran to the front and brought me a new one.
That’s when I closed the doors of my little corner of heaven and slept for the next eight hours. I didn’t wake up once. In fact, I didn’t want to wake up. I wished the plane would turn around and continue flying for another 14 hours.
The comfort provided by a large, fluffed mattress that’s placed on top of the full-flat bed, along with the closed suite, the soft and luxurious Ferragamo eye shades, and the soothing roar of the triple seven’s GE-90s, combined perfectly for a pleasant sleep. What did I miss? The potential Northern Lights spectacle happening outside our windows as we crossed the North Pole.
Once fully awake, I began feeling a little hungry. It had been almost nine hours since I had dinner. But my biological clock went tilt: even though the local time was 02:30, my real time was already 13:30. “Was it time for a late dinner, breakfast, or lunch,” I said to myself. Then I thought, “let’s have them all!”
So that’s when Lulu came back, not before asking if I’d slept well. Using the same precision to set my table, Lulu seemed well rested and ready for the next and final service on this wondrous flight. She said the crew rest area on the Triple Seven is super spacious and comfortable. And it showed.
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
A much-needed plate of Corn Flakes was brought—the perfect way to wake up. Following up, a basket of warm croissants and pastries arrived, paired with some butter and strawberry marmalade. Up next was a pretty dish with an egg omelet served with finely cut baked potatoes, two sausage links, bacon, and tomato—the typical international breakfast.
And at last, a magnificent bowl of hot noodle soup arrived. The typical Chinese dish was succulent and quite spicy. The rice noodles were long, tasty, and filling. It is one of my favorite Asian dishes and I was so glad to have tried it on board.
To put an end to it, Li brought a small plate of fruit with blueberry yogurt, the final note to the most bizarre and delicious breakfast I had ever eaten on board a plane. The fruits were surprisingly fresh, and the yogurt was rich and tasty. I admit I ate a lot, but I was happy and satisfied.
All in all, I enjoyed every bite of this excellent meal. And the fact that Lulu and Li took such great care of me, made it all even better.
Descent and Arrival
As our Triple Seven began its descent into Shanghai, the First Class bar was picked up, both Flight Attendants passed by to make sure I didn’t need anything else, and I stepped into the lavatory to get changed into my clothes.
When I returned to my seat, an immigration card was placed on the table for me to fill up. Lulu came to say that Shanghai was “very cold. Temperature is 13 degrees Celsius. Please use your sweater.”
I found this to be super caring and I appreciated her advice.
Then Li came back to my suite and advised that we’d be arriving one hour 35 minutes ahead of schedule. And, in fact, our Pilots performed a very soothing approach and at 03:28 local time, we touched down at Shanghai-Pudong International Airport.
To my disappointment, the trip had come to an end. Favoring tailwinds took away over one hour of First Class enjoyment, and we arrived into a cold, dark Shanghai not wanting to leave the airplane.
After a quick taxi to the gate, our engines were shut down and it was time to deplane.
Before bidding farewell to my two amazing flight attendants, Lulu asked if she could take a picture with me. Of course, I gladly obliged and not only took one, but three photos with this enthusiastic girl. It was fun to watch her using her Chinese App, which transforms selfies into animated characters.
As I stepped out of our Triple Seven, two China Eastern escorts were expecting me right outside the gate. They took me all the way to baggage claim and stood beside me until the bag came out, over one hour after landing.
According to the escort, my bag had been selected for “sanitary inspection”, and because it was so early, the sanitary officials took longer than usual screening times. This was the only flaw of an otherwise perfect trip.
What can be said after such a heavenly experience? To complain about something would be completely unfair not only to the airline but also to the wonderful Flight Attendants that took care of me during this trip.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, my previous experience with competing China Southern wasn’t stellar. Their Flight Attendants were borderline rude and never cared to make me feel welcome on board their planes. They were basic, robotic, not special. They even yelled at me for using my iPhone to take pictures of my seat and meals.
That was my first impression on China. I actually didn’t want to go back because I thought that behavior was the norm amongst Chinese Flight Attendants. But thankfully, China Eastern proved this wrong. I couldn’t have asked for better, more caring people taking care of me from check-in to picking up my bag at the destination.
Even though China Eastern doesn’t excel in terms of luxury—like using ultra high-end brands such as Dom Perignon for their Champagne—they have managed to come up with a product that makes passengers feel comfortable and special. And to me, this is what flying is all about.
Hopefully, this level of service can be replicated on their many flights around the globe. And I’d be curious to try their Business Class service and compare it to what I’ve witnessed on this special trip from New York to Shanghai.