Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Never again: Air China

Lately I had my first flight with Air China and I thought it worth a blog post. This in mind and encouraged by Maryam's post about her bad experience with Turkish Airlines I came across Kim's post about the best and the worst international airlines and her link to airline quality surveyor Skytrax. I checked some of the over 260.000 airline reviews by independent travelers. I saw that everybody who travels can tell good and bad stories about airlines, even about the same airline. There are some real strange stories that made me I feel lucky to not have experienced worse.

The thing is, the more I fly the less I am looking forward to all the hassle. Until you board you are often already exhausted and thirsty. With all the worries I have about arriving safe and sound, the first thing I do when coming on board, I look at the flight attendants. These are the ladies and gentlemen I am depending on in the next hours. Will we get along? If they are nice and attentive it gives me a better feeling. Also everything should be clean and tidy. If it looks already bad from the inside, how was the plane serviced from the outside?

So far I have always avoided flying Air China as it is well known that 90% of their pilots speak and understand only poor English. Communication problems between the tower and the pilots during take off and landing as well as between the pilots and the air controllers in the various air spaces that the plane has to fly through can be fatal.

But from Rome back to Beijing I had no other chance then to fly with Air China. The flight that was code shared with Alitalia. I upgraded my son and myself with miles to Business Class to have a relaxed night flight.

And here is what I did not enjoy:

- The big Chinese group that tried to cut the line at the check-in counter. It has nothing to do with Air China, except that it is a Chinese Airline with many Chinese passengers, so you get a quick introduction into Chinese habits.
- First shock: old uncomfortable business class seats like 20 years ago with foot rest only and the least legroom I can remember. If the passenger in front of you leans back with his seat he lands in your soup (I talk about Business Class)
- The toilet already smells from urine before passenger board
- one out of the two available toilets in the BC has a broken water supply, only boiling water comes out, washing hands is impossible!
- The only Chinese flight attendants do not smile and their English is very limited. One even seems to avoid servicing me and my child in order to avoid any language problem.
- Before take off the lights go out completely (no emergency light on the floor), we are for several minutes in the dark, no captain announcement
- No individual entertainment program, no magazines. The two overhead monitors show a Chinese folklore performance, later one movie
- Bad behaving Chinese passengers: using mobile phone through taxi although flight attendant had finally repeated the regulations. And later at night, shouting passengers, almost rioting and using the English "f" word, waking everybody up. It seems that a Chinese man felt disturbed by a Chinese woman behind him nestling in her seat bag and interrupting his sleep. No flight attendant in sight.
- Repeated smoking in the toilet. I can smell this through 5 rows - however indifferent pilot and flight attendant, 2000 yuan fine is ignored. I can smell that the flight attendant himself had smoked.
- More dirty toilets and toilet seats as the Chinese stand on the toilet seats....
- Before landing wrong English announcement (suggestion not to wear coats because it is warm outside... the opposite is the case, it is winter). Okay minor, but in emergency case I hope for the right announcements in English.
- After landing in Beijing, Air China's home base, we are on a far away outside position and need to wait for stairs and bus which does not bother me anymore.

BTW, the food seemed okay. I only had lost appetite after a couple of visits to the toilet (I am travelling with a child).

Am I spoiled? No. If you book business class it is because you want to rest and sleep and arrive relaxed. Other Asian airlines (e.g. Cathay, Singaporean, Emirates) are providing a better Economy Class then this Air China Business Class.

Why is Air China not using their new airplanes on all international flights? I heard that they have the newest seats on flights between Shanghai and Beijing. Air China, although an international airline, seems not yet prepared to serve international passengers.


Anonymous said...

Ha this makes me laugh! I fly Air China 2-3 times a week all over china for work and they're 'OK' always same meals, limited english and yes always need stairs and bus to get to gate which drives me crazy at 11pm at night.

However i would never in a million years fly international with them having heard too many stories like yours including a 4000 pound business fare to london with no alcohol, no entertainment and a seat that wouldn't recline!

Trouble is living in China and travelling all over China, Air China is actually the best of the lot....

- Susan - said...

Hey Charley,

Thank you for your comment!
It makes me feel better.
Writing about something unpleasant is not satisfying at all.
I almost did not publish - also because criticizing Chinese often leads to this ‘being racist’ subject.
But I myself was not aware that Air China is THAT bad on international flights. I hope that my blog post warns some people. If someone still wants / needs to fly Air China, then at least she or he is prepared!

Maryam in Marrakesh said...

eeek, that sounds horrible, Suzie! I am scratching Air China off my list! They had better get with the program......there are the Olympics!!!

julia said...

Sounds terrible, the price of the ticket is not mentioned. Some of us who are short of cash might be tempted to use flights that are inexpensive. They used to say Shanghi had the most cranes but that was a several years ago! No comment about the labour market in beijing?

julia said...

ps Korean air isn't too bad.

- Susan - said...

Hi again,

Maryam, I guess these young aspiring stewardesses and hostesses that are undergoing tough etiquett and strange smiling trainings are only appearing for the Olympics in August.

Air China's Economy class seems similar to other ECs. However there is this big gap between Air China's Business Class and other airline's BC.

Julia, I am not sure about the price (We paid with miles only). Although after what Charley said earlier before, I assume that Air China is still cheaper than other airlines. If not: NEVER FLY. If yes: try EC ONLY, and breath through your mouth while using the toilet!

Julia, about work in China, like in every other country it depends much on what you want and what your skills are. If you speak Mandarin even better for a job in Beijing. In Shanghai they speak Cantonese.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with this post, but you had commented on the tiles in my photo of my favorite cafe. They are so beautiful, but you already know this. I have closer shots of these, if you're interested I could send you one of them.
I can also try to ask the owner who is now a friend of mine, their origin, etc.


Fliss and Mike Adventures said...

I have heard a similar thing about Air China... don't think that I will travel with them... maybe I am spoilt... thanks for the bit of advice...

Jason Raish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Raish said...

That's just great. I was afraid of this. I have a 13 hr nonstop to beijing on air china and i've heard it was bad. It's a no meal flight too can you believe it!

My Travel blog

Suzy said...

I'm sorry, but those reasons are exactly why I wouldn't live in China - I don't even like visiting to be honest. Hong Kong is about as close as it gets for me! I am a little biased, in a negative way, because I have visited a lot of industrial towns for work and never really get to see the 'good stuff'...

Elizabeth said...

Air China is obviously not on my list of airlines to chose.
We have had mixed experiences with Royal Air Maroc.
Sometimes we get upgraded to business because my husband has a leg injury.
the weirdest was a flight from Casablanca to NY that went up over Greenland and lasted 10 and a half hours.........
Maryam gave me a horrific account of Turkish airlines and she travels a lot.

Nerine said...

Ah. I've heard about Air China... but somewhere, I began to assume it was improving, likely from the massive PR effort to prepare China for the Olympics. I've only flown Air Canada to China, and of course, it's like other AC routes: everything in French and English plus Mandarin, smiling staff, magazines, movies, etc. Such luxuries I took for granted!

- Susan - said...

The many comments make me think that Air China might contact me soon or let my blog block...
But I they should be thankful for some free recommendations:

Train or train again international flight attendants how 'we-smile-during-the-Olympic-Games' and provide English crash-training. Or replace them with the trained staff.

And please train also the cleaning team how to clean a toilet.

And maybe train Chinese passengers how to use Western style toilets: don't stand on them.

Vilijonkka said...

Oh, now I got a bit scared! We'll finally move to Beijing on 1st of April and my husband is as well going to fly a lot around China with his work. Earlier I have thought in my naive way that he is lucky to see "all" China, but it will be interesting to hear then his opinions about the flights!

Kamara Afi said...

Wow! I love this post. I've lived in Beijing for two years and fly Air China, NYC to PEK nonstop. Everything you mentioned was spot on. But let me add my two cents; AC loves to snatch air miles accumulated. I had almost 70,000 miles and poof, they vanished!!!

Dan Edwards said...

Hi there,

I stumbled on your post and had a good chuckle - I recently had my worst flight ever between Sydney and Beijing on - you guessed it - Air China.

After leaving Sydney five hours late, we reached Shanghai around midnight. Our two hour stop over became a 13 hour marathon when our onward flight was suddenly canceled (no explanation given) and about 50 of us were abandoned in the early hours of the morning in a deserted Pudong airport. At 4am they finally took us to some appalling hotel in a slum on Shanghai's outskirts.

We were eventually able to continue our trip to BJ at 1pm the following afternoon. Then they lost our bags in Beijing!

Total nightmare. No apology, no explanation from anyone in a senior position - just blank looks all round from ground staff who couldn't have cared less...

- Susan - said...

Hi Dan,

that sounds terrible!
I guess, they just couldn't undertand what you had to complain about. SERVICE does not exist in their vocabulary.
What a nightmare. Cheap Chinese hotel in Shanghai's outskirts... yak!

I hope your stay in Beijing made it up to you!

- Susan - said...

To Vilijonka:
the stange thing is that the AC aircraft between Beijing and Shanghai seems more modern then on some international flights.
My guess is, that the Alitalia code shared flight that I took with AC from Rome to Beijing just used the oldest aircraft and the lousiest staff because Alitalia is also a mess. Just a guess.
Because the code shared flights with Lufthansa seems to use modern AC aircrafts. Also Rome to Beijing is not an important route. Alitalia has closed their office in BJ and moved to Shanghai. Maybe that was reason.

To Kamara Afi:
wow, interesting point. Very tricky. Chinese style? Or did you oversee the rules that after 3 years the miles will be deleted? This happens with other airlines too, except when you are kind of a frequent flyer with a gold card.

Sze said...

Oh dear. I'm flying Rome-Beijing-Kul in December and it looks like it won't be that much fun. Though I'm trying to be optimistic since it's supposed to be a newer Airbus A330...

Anyway I would've booked the flight anyway because all other flights were 300 pounds more expensive.

An airline I'll never fly again though is Egypt Air, mostly because of having to transit in Cairo, possibly the most disorganised airport in the world that handles that many flights.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Air China. I too flew on them from NYC-PEK only because of a last minute scheduling problem. I found it just bearable. The major problems came from the other passengers (problems with not following seat belt signs, smoking, ignoring flight attendants, making noise, filthy toilets, lifting window shades for hours with bright sun when they are supposed to be closed for sleeping passengers etc etc.) to be very, very disruptive. Also bad was the entertainment, only 1 big screen for the cabin, no subtitles for movies, etc etc. Forget about air miles, the website for the nation's airline doesn't even work! I avoid Air China as much as I can.

Wali said...

Air China CA 991 24 hour delay from Beijing to Vancouver – Worst Customer service Guy in Vancouver hanged up on me

staceygriff said...

I only had to fly airchina once to never fly it again to Beijing. We flew during August one year and it was so hot that I fanned myself almost the whole flight. Then to get to China have to fan myself. It would've been nice to have a cool flight before all the heat. Plus I felt like a sardine crammed in those seats. We flew Delta once and it was the best. I'm glad others share the same feelings and that it wasn't just me and my husband.

Anonymous said...

Was excited about my trip to Beijing until I arrived at the counter. They overbooked 30 percent of the plane capacity. Given I reserved my seat a month ago I thought I was ready to board. Forget about it, it was a first come first service airline. I was waiting for about 2 hrs at the counter and still no service. Later I saw people waiting in line were getting furious. It turned out that a bitch from a travel agency bribed People at the counter so her guests can fly out. I called her customer service center and It was useless. Finally two or three hrs later they booked me a economy flight to hongkong then travel to Beijing. Wasted a day in the air.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am not a fan of Air China, although I have been flying it on its domestic flights a lot and some international flights. However, I do feel that I can provide a somewhat different voice. First, maybe because I don't have language barrier with Chinese, or maybe attendants on a typical European or American carrier treat an Asian face slightly worse than others, I don't feel that Air China is any better or worse when it comes to being polite to customers compared to most European or American carriers. It is definitely far behind Singapore Airline, Cathy Pacific, ANA, etc., but, in my opinion, has improved noticeably. Second, I have experienced a lot of delays and confusions with Air China, and really hate those experiences, but I have also noticed that they have improved on providing timely information and communicating in a more straightforward manner. Comparing those with my similar experiences in US, I'd say that service levels are comparable, if you don't take English capability into consideration. My advice, for long-haul flights, choose Singapore, Cathy, ANA, Asiana, as much as you can; for domestic China flights, Air China is still better than other choices.


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