China Eastern was formed when the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) divorced its aviation administrative divisions from its commercial services. China Eastern was created as the domestic and international airline to primarily serve China’s commercial capital Shanghai, but the airline has expanded rapidly and now has several hubs elsewhere in China. China Eastern has also expanded by acquiring smaller domestic competitors. Their strategy has been a success and the airline posted an enviable US$807 million profit in 2010. In 2006 the airline was partially privatised and in 2007 various airlines scrambled to buy a stake in the company with Singapore Airlines emerging the suitor. In 2010 China Eastern was welcomed into SkyTeam and as part of the application process the airline dramatically improved many aspects of its services and procedures. The airline’s network is constantly expanding and they currently serve more than 100 destinations in China and beyond.
Few people rave about their China Eastern experience, even in Business Class. Passengers book the airline because it is cheap and/or convenient. All crew and pilots are Chinese with minimal foreign language skills. If you don’t speak Chinese or English, brush up on your sign language skills. Crew are generally young, thin and attractive and perform their jobs efficiently but are not known for going the extra mile or for topping up your drink. Female crew uniforms are out of date and male crew all dress like pilots.
China Eastern has a comprehensive domestic Chinese network with hubs in Shanghai, Kunming in south central China and in China’s tourist mecca of Xian, home to the terracotta warriors. International flights hub in Shanghai’s ultra modern Pudong airport and the airline also serves Beijing and several other cities with foreign services. The airlines network around eastern Asia is comprehensive while they provide many links to other major cities in North America, Europe and Australia. The focus of the airline is providing flights for China’s expanding number of passengers and serving their needs.
China Eastern is very competitively priced. Domestic flights are priced similarly to US domestic flights, however China Eastern generally keeps to its schedule and provide complementary meals and drinks on all services. The airline’s target market is basically price conscious Chinese travellers, so Westerns who venture onto the carrier are pleasantly surprised with savings they make, especially if travelling with excess baggage which is generally ignored.
China Eastern’s catering is unlikely to ever win any awards and is stereotypical Aviation Food. It even says ‘Aviation Food’ on the wrappers just in case you forgot. Meal presentation is not high, but serving sizes are more than adequate but generally bland. China Eastern’s sugar laden bread is truly awful. Americans and Europeans are typically surprised at their free meals, even on short domestic flights.
China Eastern is in the business of transporting people, not entertaining them. The airline has a very basic entertainment offering; essentially dropdown TV screens showing a single movie or the older style of large centre screen. They typically show popular Chinese films with English subtitles. The airline also provides audio headsets and an uninspiring in-flight magazine.
China Eastern has enormously improved its ground services over recent years. China’s modern airports are lavish and efficient and shame their American counterparts. Baggage is handled with care and responsibility and check-in queues are short and efficient. Outside China standards are different, with longer queues and problems at check-in. Ground staff can regard ticketing issues as a nuisance and treat the passengers with them as one too, however are unlikely to charge extra fees.
China Eastern’s premium product has a long way to go, if the airline ever plans to match prestigious competitors like Taiwan’s China Airlines or even China’s award winning Hainan Airlines. China Eastern has First and Business class which offer very similar services, resembling older style products. Catering is certainly better but remains unmistakable airline food. Short distance flights in Business are quite mundane as are the airlines lounges.
China Eastern provides a very OK sort of Economy class. Before passengers should complain about anything they need to remember the savings they’ve made by choosing this airline. Passengers are known for carrying excessive personal belongings onto the flight and are overwhelmingly Chinese; so don’t expect long chats. Meals, entertaining, seating comforts and procedures are all very average and difficult to praise.
Eastern Miles is the name of the airlines frequent flyer programme which has joined the SkyTeam network of airlines so can be used globally. Like all loyalty schemes considerable travel needs to be made before benefits are achieved and there are certainly better SkyTeam programmes to join; such as Korean Air’s. China Eastern seldom upgrades passengers with reference to their official policy so even high tier members may miss out if there are any going.
China Eastern began with an appalling corporate culture. The airline was stacked with party hacks or the well connected who often trampled on the rights of staff, even outside China. Things have got a lot better and incompetence is being replaced by skilled managers. Oddly enough, for an airline that still has considerable room for improvement their profits demonstrate they must be doing some things right.
China Eastern has had a large number of accidents and incidents in its relatively short lifespan which do not receive the attention they deserve. Instead of investigating problems the airline and China’s CAAC go to great lengths to smooth things over, so the true nature of the cause of problems remains a mystery. However the airline is investing heavily in modern Airbus, Boeing and Embrarer jets while lifting its game in pilot training and accountability.
A value for money airline providing a very basic level of service without the bells and whistles.
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