China Eastern has been taking to the skies with very aggressive fares in economy and business class all across the planet. China Eastern is the main driver of sub $500 (and often sub $400) fares round-trip from the US to Southeast Asia now. I was very curious to try their product.
I had used the online check-in just 24 hours before the flight and selected seats for the two of us on the right side of the 3-4-3 configuration. I left the middle seat empty and wagered on nobody taking it – or if so, I would move into the middle seat so we could sit together.
Check-in at Los Angeles International seemed extra-crowded and an online boarding pass is not valid to go up to security at TBIT. However, there is a separate (hard to spot) line for passengers without bags, which took less than 5 minutes. With our boarding passes in hand, we could go upstairs and security was very quick and professional despite the seemingly menacing crowds. Neither China Eastern nor the terminal offer TSA Pre✓ (but you can go to the American Airlines Terminal and go through security there and use the connector).
The Korean Air KAL Lounge does not accept Priority Pass users before noon and the newly added Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at LAX requires you to exit security to go over to Terminal 2. So no lounge for us but the food court at TBIT is excellent and has a number of fairly priced options. I wasn’t sure the food would be edible aboard China Eastern (I kept my expectations as low as possible) so we bought plenty of food for the whole journey.
Boarding was with long lines but they were fairly well-managed – there were no stressful moments despite my expectations and prior experiences in China. The plane would be almost full with just a few seats empty. As it happened, my middle seat gamble paid off and nobody would occupy it.
The China Eastern Business Class seats are the same as on Air France (we originally learned to love the seats at Cathay Pacific aircraft) and they looked superb. I also took a quick peek into the suites-equipped first class, which made me very excited to try it out soon!
Economy class looked very new as well and looked reasonably clean, plus the bathrooms were kept VERY clean during the whole flight.
Boarding was much less chaotic than I expected and everyone settled in quickly. There were NO pilot announcements the whole flight. We caught an initial 30-minute delay but no communication was made as to why (or about anything else).
Chinese aviation safety rules require all passengers to NOT USE A MOBILE PHONE while onboard an aircraft. This applies to all flight classes and airplane mode. The shiny USB chargers seem a little useless if you can’t use your phone. Confusingly, you can use an iPad mini and China Eastern also provides free WiFi. It worked rather well but keep in mind that the satellite connection terminates in China, so many services like Google, Twitter and Facebook are blocked, which limits the use of it. Data transfer rates seemed rather stable at 1 Mbit during the flight.
There are also power outlets at EVERY SEAT. However, very few people had brought electronic devices onboard (or used them during the long flights).
We had an initial 13.5-hour flight time and would land almost exactly 13.45 hours later.
I was amazed by the sheer size of the display in the seat back and I loved the crisp and bright LCD screen and how easy, intuitive and fast the menu was. Nevertheless, there were just five (!) TV shows to select from and about 30 Hollywood movies. It was all re-runs for me (does that mean I watch too many movies?) With some more content, this could be some of the best IFE.
The crew were somewhat friendly but only knew a handful of phrases in English – none of my questions were really understood. It also seemed that everyone was extra-cautious. There were at least three safety checks done by the flight attendants (including searches for mobile phones) that it was a bit spooky. It also seemed like the pilot obsessed about the pre-departure checklist and take-off speed (we seemed to take off much slower and later than usual). It was all within normal boundaries but somehow felt extra-cautious.
I was hungry and ate my bagels purchased from the LAX terminal right after take-off. Service from the flight attendants started rather quickly, as just 60 minutes later the first service ran through. There was free alcohol (yes, even red wine) but the tofu dishes smelled and looked less than appetizing so I was very happy I had brought my own food. Most passengers seemed to not eat either.
After another movie, I fell asleep and missed the mid-flight food service, so I can’t say more than it was a ham and turkey sandwich.
2 hours before arrival, another full dinner service came through and surprisingly I had some of the best economy airplane food I have ever had. I feasted on the yummy seafood pasta dish and while I anticipated the landing.
I wasn’t as tired as the long flight time would indicate, thanks to the rather quiet aircraft (both passenger and aircraft noise) and the good entertainment.
After landing at Shanghai, we had to clear security (they wanted all power packs out) and then we made our way to the Priority Pass Lounge. Nothing exciting there and the next flight to Bangkok would board exactly on time. Our boarding passes and passports were checked a total of 3 times before entering the plane and the boarding pass one more time when we entered an exact copy of the 777-300ER we had just left.
Indeed, China Eastern runs the same long-haul configuration on this short four-hour flight. Not that it mattered much for economy but both business and first class cabins looked the exact same (and were deserted). We each got a whole row on this second flight and all I can remember was the take-off and landing. There was a snack service for sure and the flight attendants offered to give it to me just before landing, which I thought was a nice touch.
In summary, China Eastern has a bunch of things to improve but for the ultra-low prices, it delivers a quality product that will soon compete with the best airlines out there. China has mastered manufacturing and I have no doubt it will master airlines (and, to an extent, service) as well. If you find a good deal and get a new plane, go for those China Eastern deals. I’m now really excited to try them in business and first class.