Air China Economy Class Review Ningbo (NGB) to Ulaanbaatar (ULN)
Air China is the only Chinese airline that is part of Star Alliance (besides Shenzen Airlines) and seems to have been given a bit of 'premier mission' from the state owners. As you can observe at many airports their lounges are in a slightly better spot and the organization is slightly more professional.
I had booked a simple trip from Ningbo to Ulaanbaatar in Economy and expected a no-frills but efficient trip. My prior flights with Xiamen Air (Review), China Southern (Review) and China Eastern (Review) gave me a good idea of what to expect on yet another state-owned airline.
I got to Ningbo airport early in the morning and the weather for my connecting airport in Beijing seemed not ideal but the storms clouds were supposed to disappear at lunch time. I spent some time at the Priority Pass lounges that dot the airport. All seems EXTREMELY similar and offer simple snacks, drinks and very slow WiFi.
Air China uses a very similar short-haul fleet compared to its' other state-owned brethren. A somewhat dated plane, well worn seats, not seatback entertainment or WiFi.
However there is always a warm meal and snack served on these domestic flights (it's of poor quality though). Surprisingly this flight was only about 70% full - most of my flights in China were simply packed.
About an hour before takeoff the flight showed as delayed - and so did many others for any departures going north. Seemingly the weather hadn't improved as much. Strangely no new departure time was announced at the airport - it was simply stated go to the gate. This was true for all other flights too which made the gates extremely crowded.
The Flightware app kept updating the departure time and after three more hours - we finally boarded and got going. The flight was initially turbulent but leveled out nicely about an hour into this 1,200 mile journey. However as we were still 250 miles away from our destination the cabin was required to get ready for landing. We kept going from one holding pattern into another flying a few miles north and going in another circle. That did not look good. Eventually we ran out of gas and the pilot decided to divert to Zhengzhou about 150 miles south of our current position. Oh well I was just there.
We landed into sunny skies and waited about 45 minutes on the tarmac. Eventually we deplaned and got into the terminal which seemed rather well prepared for our arrival with water and a snack.
No announcements were made when we would depart for Beijing and we were told to stay near the gate (the airport monitors would not show the flight) and surprisingly 'just' an hour later we went back to the buses and took off for another shot at the Beijing landing. It was a very turbulent descent through the storm clouds but we were all done with clouds at 12,000 feet and from there it was smooth sailing.
This 1,200 journey had taken a solid 12 hours or 15 hours from leaving the hotel.
The next day saw beautiful, sunny skies over Beijing and no more delays. I visited the Air China Business Class lounge at Terminal 3E (there several Air China lounges all over the terminals).
Make sure you know the times for the food buffet as it closes quickly. I found the breakfast buffet of poor quality - however there is a (rather new) espresso stand that makes excellent espresso drinks with a somewhat welcoming barista.
This flight was punctual and even more routine. Surprisingly no hot entrees were served - just the snack box despite being a two hours 'international' flight.
The circumstances of flying of that day were certainly outside the pilot's and Air China's control. Flying in China comes with a massive congestion by the huge demand for space at airports and airspace.
Air China delivered a 'decent product' but could be soooo much better.