Air China’s fleet of twenty 777-300ER aircraft offer its flagship ‘Forbidden Pavilion’ first class product. These aircraft are predominantly used for long-haul routes to Europe, North America and also seasonally to Sydney. We took flight CA173 from Beijing to Sydney on the People’s Republic of China’s third largest airline.
Air China have a dedicated first class check-in area at the far end of the Beijing Capital’s sprawling Terminal 3E. By far we mean about as far away from the airport train as possible.
Given this vast space, Air China provide first class passengers with a golf cart to take you all the way back to the security line. There is, however, no priority security or immigration line for first class passengers that we could see.
After making it through to the terminal, we spent several hours in the Air China first class lounge, which was a fairly business class experience.
We wandered down to the gate 40 minutes before departure to find our plane at the gate. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a poor decision.
The plane ended up being delayed. There was absolutely no communication at all, just lines of people standing around waiting to board the flight.
We have had a similar experience on previous occasions boarding this exact flight out of Beijing. Our consistent experiences with poor communication regarding delays means we suggest arriving at the gate as late as possible.
Eventually, we were allowed to board through a priority lane and we were shown to our seat, 2A.
In the end, we departed just over 90 minutes late. We were told that it was due to ‘mechanical’ issues of a nondescript nature.
Eagle-eyed readers will recognize these seats as being nearly identical to those installed on Thai Airways’ A380 (or onboard the majority of Etihad’s fleet, albeit without the doors that close to the suite).
To the left of the seat, closest to the window is a storage compartment that has the USB ports along with headphone and power sockets.
The cabin is laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration across two rows, allowing for eight first class passengers. For passengers in the centre seats, there is a privacy screen that can be raised or lowered (probably depending on whether you know your seatmate or not).
Rather than have a fold-out tray table, Air China have opted for a sliding table that sits above the ottoman when not in use. In some ways, this is more convenient than trying to get a large tray table out as Qantas do in First Class.
The in-flight entertainment, though impressive looking with a large screen, was extremely poor content wise. There were several Western TV shows available but only one episode of each which was a little surprising. The movie selection was particularly disappointing.
Over-ear headphones were available for each passenger, but they were not noise cancelling which seemed like an oversight for a first class product. One irritating thing was that every time there was a passenger announcement the volume on whatever you were watching at least doubled.
As there was only one other passenger in first class, the crew suggested that we move to 1A, a suggestion we took them up on.
Once at our seat, the crew offered a glass of juice or water. Asking for champagne turned out to be a poor choice. If nothing else, the lack of bubbles should demonstrate the poor quality of this sparkling wine.
We were never provided with a menu so we have no idea what we were actually drinking.
In fact, we were never given a menu for the food either. This made the choice quite simple and difficult at the same time. We were offered either a ‘Western’ or a ‘Chinese’ option. From the brief rundown given, we selected the Western option which turned out to be a very poor decision.
Some starters were brought out but unfortunately we can’t tell you exactly what they were. The cucumbers on the left were extremely salty, the other dishes we left well alone.
We decided on a glass of red to go with our meal, of which there were two options, both French. We selected one and it was palatable but not a wine that we would suggest readers searching for back home. It was however a step up on the Great Wall wine served in the first class lounge.
Initially when the main meal came out, it was the Chinese option even though we requested Western. When we queried this, it was replaced with the Western option. With no hyperbole we can say that it was the worst meal we have ever had on a plane.
The ‘steak’ was obscenely dry and the pepper sauce had a strange, very artificial taste about it.
Apart from the meat being only lukewarm it was tough and dry to boot. The vegetables were fine.
The fruit offered after the main course was excellent. We could be tempted to skip the main meal and go straight to the fruit platter if we were to fly Air China in the future.
The cake for dessert was actually very good too – a sort of chocolate and custard construction. If only they could have made the main meal up to the same standard.
After our meal we decided to sleep, with the seat turning into a lie-flat bed with the touch of a single button. The seat itself is comfortable enough to sleep in, as Air China do not provide any mattress toppers (such as those on offered by Japan Airlines).
The bed sits flush with the ottoman at the end of the seat which makes the bed long enough for most. There is also a storage compartment (seen on the right of the photo below) to hang clothing.
After sleeping a good 7 hours, we were offered breakfast prior to arrival into Sydney. The fruit selection was the same as we had after dinner.
There’s a famous phrase about being fooled twice that came to mind after seeing the breakfast offered to us. The sausages were soggy and tasteless and the rest of the meal was not much better.
Whilst this was intended to be an omelette, perhaps a better description would merely be ‘yellow’. It was terrible.
Air China also do not provide pyjamas for any passengers, but each passenger was provided with a L’Occitane amenity kit which was reasonably well stocked for what we expected. The Air China logo is subtly added to the zips.
The kit itself comes with a decent travel sized bottle of body lotion and mouthwash, more than seen in some other airlines’ amenity packs.
Air China’s Forbidden Pavilion may be first class in name, but it is certainly not by nature.
Whilst the seat itself is broadly in the ballpark of other first class products, everything else about the experience was a severe letdown. Even if one overlooks the poor IFE offerings, the catering would have only been barely acceptable in economy class.
Air China operate the only direct service between Beijing and Australia. Even so, we would recommend connecting through Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo instead of taking Air China non-stop.