After the long wait in the transfer area, it felt nice to be back in the wide and spacious terminal. The signs were easy to follow and I had to pass by various duty free shops before reaching the escalator that leads to the Air China Business Class Lounge on the second floor. The lounge agent checked my boarding pass and then before I made my way inside, I requested for a locker to place my luggage, as well as for wife access which would require me to use my passport and a machine will print out a unique user id and password.
The lounge itself is large and with the high ceiling of the Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 3, it was airy. The location of the lounge reminds me of Cathay Pacific’s The Wing lounge. Sadly though, the lounge amenities weren’t as polished. There was 2 separate food area, with one end serving hot food, including a selection of noodles, sushis and soups. There was a small dining area at the end as well. The noodles were pre-made and laid out on a tray for guests to enjoy unlike the noodle bar in The Wing which is made to order. The place was a bit messy and cramped but the quality of the food was acceptable. Another food section contained snacks and sandwiches with a wide selection of beverages. By the reception desk, there was also a wide selection of newspapers including Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune, a rarity in Chinese airports and lounges. However I noticed that the work of the censors applies to newspapers as well since all the IHT copies were missing a page 4, related to the headline story on China in the front page. The upside was that the internet was at least working well and I still manage to go around the censors in China by using a VPN to access facebook.
After my lunch of beef noodles and lounging with some fruits while catching up on the news, I asked for a shower room. Turns out there was only 2 shower rooms in the lounge, and they were occupied, so I waited for around 15 minutes. This time round, the problem was one of the shower rooms had a faulty and non-operating tap, so I waited another 10 minutes for the one and only shower room. It took a while for the cleaning lady to prepare the shower room for my use, but the floor was slightly damp and they did not even replenish the shower cubicle with fresh shampoo and shower gel. I had to get the cleaning lady for new sets of toiletries, and the lesson here is to check if all amenities are in order before starting your shower!
At least the water pressure and temperature was good enough for a refreshing shower, and with that I was ready to leave the lounge since I thought it might be a walk to the gate, but the lounge agent let me know they will make the necessary announcements, thus I returned to find a good seat whilst munching on a pre-packed fruit bowl. After 20 minutes and still no announcements, I decided to just walk around the terminal and explore since the lounge was just so plain in comparison to the rest of the terminal…
The walk to my gate did not take too long and I still had time to get closer by the windows to admire Ethiopian’s new 787 docking into the terminal. Curiously enough with all the spats between Japan and China, there was a lot of ANA and Japan Airlines flight in Beijing. In fact JAL and ANA also flies their 787s to Beijing, hence PEK might just be the place to go to if you want to spot these planes, though spotters should obviously wait until they are no longer grounded. During my time in the airport, I also got to enjoy China Southern’s A380 taking off from the airport.
Upon reaching the gate, there was a long queue waiting to board on the Economy line while the Business priority line was empty, but as they called for boarding, the Priority line was not opened due to lack of staff. There was 3 staff around, but only one seemed to be able to scan the boarding pass. Okay so I wasn’t the first into the plane since it was a few moments later until the agent noticed that there was a reason for Business class passengers to be given priority boarding…
CA969 Beijing PEK – Singapore SIN
Thursday 3 Jan 2013
Airbus A330-300 B-6503
Seat 12L moved to 11C
Once at the door, as I showed my boarding pass, I was led to the cabin and shown to my seat. One stewardess helped me to place my hand-carry items onto the overhead bins, while another proceeded to show me a selection of magazines and newspapers. At this point the cabin was relatively empty, but soon my seat mate arrived and the cabin gradually filled up, but it was perhaps less than half full. As I prepare to be seated, the stewardess unwrapped the slippers and placed it at the floor, positioned for me to slip into them. Another stewardess came back with hot towels and offered welcome drinks. It seems that some of the passengers were pleased as I was with this cabin. It was amazing, and I dare say it is better than SQ’s regional business class cabins on their A330s.
Apparently the crew were very excited and enthusiastic about working for Air China since they beamed with pride indicating that all PEK-SIN service is managed using the same business class configuration in a 2-2-2 layout with full lie-flat seats. There was ample space in front, and because of the design and colours of the cabin, it felt more spacious than business class on Qantas’ A380. Such enthusiastic crew would certainly indicate a good flight ahead since I had a similar crew on my ORD-ICN flight on Asiana.
As we waited for pullback, the crew went around and passed menus for today’s flight. Apparently the crew was kind of expecting passengers to be fast readers and came back fast to take orders. The menu was amazing for an intra-Asia flight and presented in Chinese and English, with a wide variety of selections. After choosing my meal selections, I was asked for my beverage choice after take-off and I selected Longjing (Dragon’s Well) tea, a green tea variety which China is famous for. Just as the doors closed, I was expecting my seat mate to move since there were plenty of seats around, but he didn’t, so there goes my chance of occupying both seats.
There was, however a long wait for take-off which I think is the usual case for Beijing, resulting in flights into and out of Beijing frequently getting delayed. There seems to be like forever as I watched planes after planes taking off and landing at the runway. The sunset and comfortable cabin of the Business Class made the queue more pleasant but it was dark by the time we really took off. Just after the captain allowed the seat belts to be taken off, I took this chance to head towards the back where the last row of Business Class was empty to take some shots of the cabin and as I crossed the curtain into Economy, it was a full cabin.
Air China’s economy still looks pretty decent in a 2-4-2 configuration not unlike what Cathay Pacific has in its A330 fleet. this also means AVOD on every seat and it would be one I would be comfortable to spend in for a regional flight as well! Unfortunately, I did not have the courage to take any photos of the cabin in such a full flight, so I returned back to the comfort of the front cabin. I went back to my seat and took the chance to try out the inflight entertainment system, and this is where Air China fails a bit. There was nothing wrong with the navigation and ease of use, but the selections were geared more towards Chinese travellers, and choices other than the usual blockbusters were limited. However, the screen is of a good size and brightness and contrast was much better than other regional business class cabins I have been on. Thus far, I think CX > SQ > QF > OZ > CA in terms of inflight entertainment selections, though they are all much better than domestic US flights in Business class that has crappy entertainment screens even in a 5 hour NY-LA flight…
A short while later, the white wine I ordered was served along with a bowl of nuts and I asked for an additional glass of water along with it. I enjoyed the nuts with a TV show and it was great that Air China has a pretty decent selection even if it is not great. It seems that just right after I finished the snack, the business class meal is served in a similar manner as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines with the appetizers and main courses on a single tray. The cabin crew will also walk around offering garlic bread to passengers which again is similar to premium Asian carriers! I was then served my glass of tea which was freshly brewed, however there was something wrong with the tea since it was sweet. One of the crew member noticed the mistake immediately and came back for my cup of tea and presented me with a fresh cup, though offered no explanations of it whatsoever.
The appetizers served was ‘Five-Spiced Smoked Pomfret’ and with the garlic bread, was very good, and I reckon the garlic bread is on par with what Cathay and SIA serves. A chinese salad of ‘Marinated Bran with Vegetables and Peanut’ was also served in the tray. The vegetables were crunchy and the marinated bran gave just the right flavour.
The main course of ‘Braised Chicken and Chestnuts with Yellow Wine Sauce’ that I picked was amazing since this was the first time I had such a dish and the taste was sweet at just the right portion. The chestnut that was served alongside the chicken pieces were also tasty and maintains a moist texture that makes it a great pairing. However, the dessert that came along after the meal was absolutely disastrous. Save for the fruit platter which was alright, the hazelnut cake was bad. It wasn’t inedible, but it was just a bunch of sugar and flour baked without any taste of hazelnut… No wonder most of the passengers stopped at the main course.
Anyway I was filled from the main course, and I decided to recline the seat fully, but there was another fault here again as the seat was stuck and does not go beyond a certain angle. Thus I called for the crew using the button and even with their help did not manage to move the seat to a full bed. Eventually I was moved to 11A which was empty, but it turns out that seat has the same fault as well, but luckily seat 11C was working just fine, so I managed to use 11B as a bed and 11A as a storage to place my stuff, and for the landing views. The crew were very friendly and apologetic in changing the seats for me and it didn’t feel like I was bothering them at all. The crew were also very knowledgeable in this flight during my chat with them as I enquired about their service from PEK to YVR which is also served by Air China using the Airbus A330 in the same cabin configuration. As I ended the conversation, I also asked for some souvenirs from the flight and the crew handed me a pack of playing cards, but they did not have any stationery kit.
With still some way to go in the flight, the cabin lights were dimmed for passengers to rest after the meal and as I reclined the seat to a full flat-bed position, I placed the blankets which were placed at the start of the flight on every seat on top and lie down on the nice soft pillow. Both the blanket and pillow made the cabin a touch more luxurious than Business, as they made sleeping way more comfortable. In fact I might even say it is close to what Asiana Airlines provides in First, with the difference being one needs to make the bed themselves. I lay down to complete my TV show, and took some time to explore the other functions of the inflight entertainment including the air show. There was also an interactive map view by Google which seems like a nice touch though there doesn’t seem to be anything special compared to the normal airshow on other planes.
Since it was a long day for me and I knew I had an early flight the next day, I decided to take a short nap before landing in Singapore. It was easy to fall asleep on the bed and as I woke up, it was time for descent into Singapore and the cabin lights were lit up as the crew got busy to prepare the cabin for landing. I freshened up and went to take some ending photos of the cabin from the last row. All along the crew did not really bother me for all the photo-taking which I appreciated. It was a smooth landing into Singapore and this is one of the best airports to arrive into after a long day because of the fast immigration and baggage claim. Even though I arrived at Terminal 1, it was still fast passing through passport control and I was out of the terminal in half an hour which is the norm here.