With a market capitalisation of US$20 billion Air China is the biggest airline in the world, however by passenger numbers it ranks number 3 in China and sits at number 10 on a global scale. Like everything else in the Middle Kingdom the airline has grown exponentially since its formation in 1988 when CAAC, the Civil Aviation Administration of China separated its airline services from its public service duties overseeing China’s aviation sector. Air China’s success is not a rags to riches story as the airline always had ambitious plans and is fulfilling them. It has progressively improved its fleet, its services, its safety record, its reputation and made a great leap forward joining Star Alliance in 2007. Overnight the airline went from an almost exclusive Chinese carrier to an important international player with an extensive network stemming from one of the world’s most sophisticated airports in Beijing. Air China is listed on the Shanghai, Hong Kong and London Stock Exchanges and also owns shares in several rival airlines.
Few passengers choose Air China for its on-board service. Stories of passengers smoking on board are urban myths as are other ‘horror stories’. Service is ordinary at best which is an improvement on terrible which it was only a few years ago. However as other airlines provide deteriorating service, Air China’s is definitely improving. Crew typically speak Chinese only and are dressed rather unimaginatively but provide an adequate level of service. Don’t expect your glass to be topped up.
Air China’s focus is on its giant domestic market. It has a comprehensive route map around China together with an extensive network to destinations Chinese travellers wish to patronise. While Air China almost doesn’t need foreign customers, passengers who do fly the airline may find it surprisingly convenient and really should stop in Beijing for an eye opening look at the World’s fastest growing economy. Oddly enough Air China serves more German cities than Lufthansa.
Air China sets its price to attract bargain hunting Chinese customers so foreigners are likely to be pleasantly surprised to find their fares very competitive. While passengers will not be paying too much for their tickets it needs to be borne in mind the service will be unmemorable.
Air China provides a very basic level of catering in all classes. Apparently China’s budget travellers do not have high expectations from their airlines and Air China does not disappoint. The airlines catering service is minimal and they aim to just make it adequate. Even Business and First Class are adequately appropriate. While the unimaginative but adequate meals are being enjoyed passengers should remember how little they have paid for their airfare before complaining.
Most Air China flights have the older style of entertainment with a single TV screen at the front and audio headsets. Shorter distance domestic flights have nothing more than their in-flight magazine. On international flights the magazine is in English and Chinese. Movies will be either Chinese with English subtitles or English with Chinese subtitles. Long distance flights can be boring so bring a book.
If you have images of crowded third world airports with passengers bringing chickens and goats you will be disappointed. China’s airports are sleek, modern, attractive, safe, efficient, quiet and often luxurious. Westerners, particularly Americans and British will realise just how far they have been surpassed by China. Baggage handling is similarly sophisticated and efficient and theft from bags an unheard of occurrence. Outside China the airline operates reasonable ground service and noticeably lifted its game following its admission to the Star Alliance.
Air China’s premium product does not match more prestigious airlines however is steadily improving. Seats are spacious, comfortable and the cabin is relaxing however it lacks a luxurious feel. Air China’s Lounges are also rapidly improving and are seldom overcrowded unlike those of Western legacy airlines. Crew are respectful of premium passengers and ground managers have been known to upgrade attractive young females so the real premium passengers (i.e. businessmen) ‘have something pleasant to look at!’
Air China’s Economy Class is very ordinary and does not have any outstanding features. Long distance passengers who have a chance to include Beijing as a stopover really should take advantage of it. Extensive connections and laxity over baggage allowance work in the passengers favour but drab interiors, staff who speak only Chinese and unexciting catering can make long flights feel like eternity.
Air China’s Phoenix Miles loyalty programme is still developing. Initially the airline had a terrible reputation for not crediting miles to members account however that has largely been resolved. The programme’s inclusion in the Star Alliance network means it has global worth, but like all programmes points are practically worthless and the airline barely considers members first when upgrading. Other than flights, the scheme is of little use for other purposes.
Air China is steadily improving. The company was once corrupt and incompetent at almost every level of management but has improved enormously. Until recently, making a profit seemed a secondary priority. Managers typically had little concern for passengers and treated frontline staff badly. The airline has lifted its game and employment practices have improved and the airline is now more interested in making a profit, but still has a way to go on that front.
China’s airlines have poor safety records and CAAC seems more interested in covering up accidents than in preventing or investigating them. Air China’s international pilots often have poor comprehension of English and this can result in pilot error. Flights can be overstaffed and achieving a consensus in the cockpit can delay decision making with disaster consequences. Fear of making the wrong decision can mean no decision is made until too late. Ground maintenance has been sloppy in the past but is rapidly improving. Older aircraft are being replaced by the latest Boeing and Airbus models with a modern fleet of Chinese built Comac C919’s on the way.
A rapidly improving service that provides a value for money but ordinary experience.
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