Flying China Eastern to China gave me some trepidation. It’s customer service rep is not good. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised but it was a unique experience in a couple of ways…
We chose China Eastern to Shanghai because I could easily use some Delta points I had sitting spare in an account. Travel out of Australia in December is very expensive so being able to cash in 35,000 points plus taxes was a great opportunity. The points value plus taxes meant the fare cost the equivalent of around $US500 with taxes compared with the cheapest online cash fare I could find on the same flight of $US786. Booking on the Delta website for a China Eastern using Delta points was a very straightforward process. I had a confirmed flight within three minutes. This included seat selection -albeit from a very limited range of available seats.
It was impossible to manage my booking on the China Eastern site as it only permits flights directly booked with themselves.
This site provides little practical advice around check-in and seat selection. It is one of the worst airline websites I have ever encountered with a confusing layout, poor illustrations and unhelpful content. I ended up calling China Eastern for help which was readily given via their Sydney, Australia number. I am not sure if the Mandarin version is better but the English one needs a complete overhaul.
Unusually, the online check-in required I enter the ticket number and not the booking reference number. It was remarkably logical check-in. I was able to move seats but not get an extra legroom seat.
I got to Melbourne airport far earlier than I normally would. I had been told people come very early to check in with China Eastern to snag the best seats. One Chinese colleague told me it is because Chinese people want to maximise the time they spend in the duty-free shops!
On arrival at the check-in area, I found three people lined up in the business check-in queue (which I was able to access thanks to my Qantas platinum status). That group were confused Economy class travellers who moved on leaving me at the front of this queue. The economy line had about 120 -140 people in it when check-in opened, three hours before departure time.
Minutes before the check-in opened, the contract staff working for the airline, rearranged the entire check-in line set up. The result was the business class line was reversed so instead of being first in line, I was the last. Not a big deal when there was just three of us but it could be unpopular with customers if the line was longer. The whole line rearranging, however, was done brusquely and rudely.
The flight turned out to be oversold and Business Class seats were available to Economy class passengers for $A1,000 and First Class for $A3,000. I was hoping for a free upgrade on the basis of my Qantas Platinum Status but that was not to be! If I had bought the Business class upgrade, the total fare would have been $US1,248 compared to a paid Business Class seat of $US2,465. I figured my Emergency Exit seat would be enough for this overnight leg.
My friendly check-in agent helped me buy one of the emergency exit seats which China Eastern sold for $A130 ($US101). Sky team Gold and Platinum customers can get the same seat for $107 ($US83) but that deal does not extend to Qantas gold and Platinum. It would be nice if the airline could make the information regarding seat selection a little more clear on their website.
Security and immigration were very quiet and I was in the Qantas lounge less than 30 minutes after check-in.
The Check-in staff did not inform tell me about lounge access. I knew that Qantas gives China Eastern access to their lounges so I turned up and got to enjoy the marvellous Qantas First class lounge (again, thanks to my platinum status). I rate this lounge so highly because it exceeds most benchmarks I apply for a lounge! It is one of the best in the World with an a la carte meals developed by Australian chef Neil Perry, a lovely sitting area with great runway views, and spotless showers which were welcome after travelling to the airport on a very hot southern hemisphere summer’s day.
Over the last few months whenever I have used the Qantas First Lounge, I have enjoyed their calamari followed up by Perry’s take on the Aussie/NZ favourite: Pavlova with seasonal fruits, meringue, yoghurt gelato and persian fairy floss. It is reportedly Qantas most popular dessert!
It was hard to pass up on those again. For the main course, I tried their cheeseburger and a salad.
Boarding announcements for China Eastern are made in the lounge which is useful.
I boarded early using the Premium lane so missed the organised chaos of the rest of the cabin. The cabin crew warmly welcomed us aboard in English and Mandarin. The smiles were warm and genuine. The passenger make up was largely Chinese people returning home after holidays in Melbourne with a few Australians travelling to China and a sprinkling of transit passengers bound for Europe and North America.
Be warned. Passengers on this flight. were not very discerning with bag organisation! The customers who had pre-boarded before me, had a baby and had filled two overhead compartments with their stuff. I placed my bags as close as I could to my seat and watched as people shoved them around and threw their bags on top. Clutch your fragile stuff if you are mad enough to fly with any valuables! More on the baby later…
On Board: 9/10
The three class 777, having made its first flight in May 2017 was very clean and had a very attractive colour scheme.
The First Class in the front of the plane has six open suites of with a 79″ pitch and 26.5″ width. Seats recline 180 degrees.
52 flat bed seats Business class seats with a 75″ pitch, 23.6″ width and 180 degrees are located between the First and Economy cabins. The Business class cabin layout is 1/2/1 with all seats angled away from the aisle. The seats themselves give a lot of space but the cabin felt very crowded.
258 Economy seats with a reasonably generous 32 and 33″ pitch fill out the rest of the cabin in a 3/3/3 configuration. The seats recline six degrees and have a 17″ width. Each seat came with pillow and blanket.
My emergency exit seat had heaps of leg room. I also had the row to myself….for a short time.
Two passengers wandered up and down the aisles during the Boarding process openly looking for “better seats“. They shouted back down the cabin to the rest of their families further down the plane, the numbers of the seats that seemed better. In the midst of boarding, these people moved seats and were then moved back when the real seat holders arrived! One passenger moved himself to a business class seat from which he was ejected.
The emergency exits which were sold for $130 on the ground were filled very quickly by passengers who simply up and moved into them. Some airlines (for example Air Asia and Qantas) chase passengers out of these premium seats unless they have paid. This was not the case with China Eastern. What do you think? If a paid emergency exit seat is available after boarding, is it “fair game” for anyone to grab it or should people pay?
Compared to other Asian carriers (Singapore, Thai, for example) the China Eastern flight attendant requests (such as lower your shades and buckle the seatbelts) are much more abrupt. They appear to lack the niceties you would see with these other carriers. This is clearly cultural. They definitely worked hard and appeared to care about passengers, however. They just did everything bluntly.
Safety Briefing: 4/10
There was no attempt to engage passengers in the safety briefing whatever. The cabin attendants chatted in the galley while passengers chatted, made mobile phone calls or watched movies. No wonder passengers grab as much cabin baggage as they can in an emergency situation. They probably would not know they are not supposed to.
One gentleman brought his baby back with him to sit next to me in the Emergency Exit. This is a breach of civil aviation regulations in Australia and China.
A couple of the flight attendants scolded him and tried to get him to move the baby with clear visual explanations that we were seated at an exit row.The father alternately ignored or challenged the attendants. Other cabin staff ignored the baby and acted as if it was invisible. Others stopped to admire and play with the baby. I acknowledge photo quality is not good but it shows me seated in the emergency exit with the baby next to me! I have sat in this row many times and this was new to me.
Passengers regularly blocked the aisles during the flight, chatting away- even during turbulence when the seat belt sign was illuminated. One of the most concerning moments during turbulence was when the baby and the mother sat next to me playing during one of the turbulence episodes- neither wearing a seatbelt. If we had hit a particularly bad patch of turbulence, the consequences would have been dire. Don’t do it, parents. Belt up.
Take off- 30 minutes late
We began our acceleration on runway 34 heading 351°. This was my 200th takeoff out of Melbourne airport and this was much faster than I have ever experienced. The pilot really put his foot down. Was it because we were late or is this a China Eastern thing?
I was not very hungry having had a good meal in the lounge. My intention was to sleep as much as I could. I was still awake, however, when the meal service arrived. This followed one of the oddest conversations I have had in the air for a long time. There had been no announcement about the meal choices and there was no written menu provided. A cabin attendant who had been speaking in Mandarin to everyone around me as she moved down the cabin with the catering cart, switched to English for me: “Tonight’s meal choice is Chicken with Noodles and Seafood with Rice but we have no Chicken Noodle left so would you like the Seafood with Rice?“. Why tell me a choice that is not available?! I turned down the seafood rice.
The cabin attendant shook her head mournfully and said “You do not want seafood rice?“. “No”, I said. She gruffly handed me a chickpea salad, bread roll and fruit salad. A little while later, she came back with a Business class plate with spiced lamb and rice. I appreciated that gesture. That was actually an impressive service rescue.
The Baby in the seat next to me was fascinated with my meal and kept trying to grab it. Did I mention there was an unbelted infant in the emergency exit? Still does my head in.
The Breakfast served two hours before landing was chicken noodle or an omelette with fruit and a very passable plain croissant. I chose the chicken noodles which were delicious but wondered as I ate them, how different to the dinner meal were they?!
Every seat came equipped with personal TV. The First Class seat TV sets are 24″, Business Class 16″ and Economy Class 11.1″. Apparently as well as TV and movies, you can order your duty free! I did not test.
The entertainment system worked really well and was not too clunky to operate. It just lacked content. For example, the comedy section which on most other airlines is stuffed full of Modern Family and Big Bang re-runs contained just one show: the Just For Laughs Gags. There were some good Asian movies which I was glad to be exposed to. Essentially, I was here to sleep.
The wifi was easy to connect to but did not load any pages. I have read in other places, it is diabolical to try and use.
I was caught taking a photo with my mobile phone and told in no uncertain terms, that the phone had to be off for the whole flight. My defence that it was in flight mode was not enough! I now know that Chinese carriers have a strict phone ban. Most administrations around the world allow passengers to use cell phones during all phases of the flight if set to “aeroplane mode”. Not in China. Passengers have been arrested for mobile phone use by Chinese authorities os be warned and prepared! iPads, tablets and laptops are allowed to be freely used.
Landing -17 minutes early
We landed in a foggy cold Shanghai on Runway 16L. As we touched down and decelerated down the runway, two passengers left their seats and headed toward their luggage in the overhead compartment. The flight attendants yelled them back to their seats. It is clearly a regular occurrence as the crew kept a very vigilant watchful eye for the six-minute taxi to the gate.
Immigration was a little slow but I made it to the Shanghai Maglev station by 6:24am, 46 minutes after touch down.
My Flight Rating: 71%
About the Airline: China Eastern Airlines is China’s second-largest carrier by passenger numbers carrying about one hundred million people last year on 490 planes to 217 airports. It was founded in 1988.
Slogan: World-Class Hospitality with Eastern Charm
Skytrax: Skytrax rates them as a 3 Star airline. Skytrax customers give them 5/10
Safety Rating: Airline ratings gives them 7 out of 7
Frequent Flyer Program: China Eastern is a member of Skyteam so passengers can earn and redeem points.
Positives: Nice plane, good food (when available).
Negatives: Entertainment, website, blunt customer service
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