Tuesday, August 16, 2016

China Airlines' New Business Class

On a recent trip back to the US east coast I ended up needing to buy a one way ticket from Taiwan, and was looking at prices well over 1,000 USD (30,000 NTD). After exhausting all the options I wound up booking an award ticket on China Airlines for a direct flight from Taipei (TPE) to New York's JFK airport. There weren't a ton of reviews about the 777 business class product, and I was reluctant to fly with China Airlines (CI) because of things I'd head as a teacher to former employees, online reviews, and their poor safety record up to 2003. Yet the improvements on the ground and in the air were incredible obvious and I will gladly fly with CI again.

After a comment from a reader, just wanted to say the experience was great, and while there is some room for improvement, I was satisfied with my choice to fly CI!

Check in:

Check in was a bit of a mess in Terminal 2 with a single row of counters handling several international flights worth of passengers. I arrived about the time check in opened and was shocked to find the counter area swamped with people. The economy class and business class lines were over 20 people deep, the baggage drop line was nearly out of sight, yet the economy comfort and CI VIP-specific check in were literally empty. Everything went smoothly and staff were proactive and helpful about where to line up, but it still took nearly an hour to check in, despite being in a supposedly faster lane for premium tickets. The issue was lack of staff to handle the volume of passengers headed on North American flights which some passengers said is a common issue.

Overall grade: B.
Can improve: Get more staff into terminal 2 for the rush for flights to North America.

Security and Immigration:

Is run by the airport, and considering the volume of people is very smooth. There are some new added security measures which bring things up to a standard roughly equal to China, Japan, the US, Canada, etc., and there are more passengers going through Taiwan now than ever before. The security team had every lane open and was firing people through as fast as they could while still doing their job. The line seemed incredibly long but it didn't stop much and felt more like an obnoxious walk in tight circles than anything else.

Immigration has really stepped up their game in the last decade or so, and the results are obvious. The big winner is letting people with ARC cards use the E-gate machines. Agents are also much better at communicating in English than before and tend to be rather friendly.

Overall grade : A.

Lounge:

Being on a premium ticket and the sort of flyer who finds themselves getting free lounge passes to help kill long layovers, I was curious how the Taoyuan lounges would stack up against the competition. I'd read that the terminal 2 lounge was in desperate need of an update, so I took the ten minute walk to terminal 1 - the airport is a giant square with open access to both terminals past security - and went to the new lounge there.
Main hallway into the lounge. Bathrooms, VIP area, and seeping zones branch off here.


Couches in the main lounge. You can't read the books though.


The lounge features upright chairs and proper tables as well.


It was hands down the nicest lounge I've ever been to. That includes lounges in Korea, Japan, the US, Europe, and Canada. Delta had been advertising their terminal 4 lounge when it opened as being super modern and spacious, and it isn't even in the same league as what China Airlines put together in Taoyuan.
My poorly designed dinner, plate 1/3 + huge cognac.

Here's the highlights:
Modern interior designed around dark stone and wood colors gets you out of the glare of terminal lighting while still offering enough light to read comfortably.
Full complimentary hot buffet of entirely local Taiwanese dishes. Enough range that even a picky non-local traveler could find something to enjoy. 
Fully stocked canned drink shelves, cheese bar, salad bar, lu wei station, coffee and tea station.
Bar included cognac, an aged Dewars (anyone else as grossed out as I was?), white and red wines, Bailey's, and I think one clear liquor.
Incredibly comfortable couches and enough seating that despite being busy I still had privacy.
Showers, clean bathrooms, huge selection of poly-lingual reading materials, a sleeping room, and an extra VIP lounge.
Self-service buffet, left side.

I ate as much food as I could after spending the day packing and getting myself to the airport. I put down three full plates of food, a cheese and lu wei plate, a full glass of each of the boozy drinks - including a taste of the Dewars (still gross) - two coffees, a sports drink, two waters, and a cola. The utensils, glassware, appliances for coffee and tea were all great. The bathrooms were clean, the staff had friendly smiles, and the food was fresh.
Island buffet area with hot entrees.

Unlike other lounges I've been in the staff made boarding announcements for each flight over the intercom and there wasn't a ton of information about flights unless you went to the desk and asked. The staff miscued my flight information a bit, which is my only place for complaint. Approached the lounge staff a bit before my boarding time to confirm things since everything was leaving late due to some runway construction. Online flight info doesn't update regularly, so you can't rely on Google. I got told to go sit down and relax, only to be told about 15 minutes later that the flight was boarding on time and I might miss it. I quick-walked to the gate, arriving in about 7 minutes, only to find that the flight wasn't going to start boarding for another 20 minutes. Despite the mix up, the lounge was well, well worth the moment of despondence when I got to the gate way too early.

Final Grade: A (despite the mess up about the flight time...it was just that nice).

Onboard:

First class was about a quarter full for this flight, so boarding was super simple. The airline offers water or orange juice as you settle in, but apparently you can just request whatever you want and they'll give it to you. It was only after I'd gotten my OJ that someone nearby ordered a beer. I figured I'd had enough in the lounge anyway so I didn't order more, and I was more than happy I didnt when we got delayed on taxi for half an hour. Key takeaway though is no champagne welcome for China Airlines premium cabin.

View of the first few seats. It looked this empty all flight long.

Faux wood paneling and warm colors everywhere.

The staff was incredibly adequate. They weren't robotic and plastered on smiles like some of the crews I've seen with EVA, but they weren't loose and relaxed like American crews. It was pretty obvious they were going through everything they'd been trained and little more, even with the Taiwanese folks on board. I tested the waters early by asking a question about the menu choices for breakfast and was met with a very friendly, and neutral response. The biggest moment of real interaction was when I got some water mid flight and caught the staff point blank talking about me and the right way to tell me they were going to refill my bottle in Mandarin. The moments after when they realized I'd switched to Chinese was they only time the staff went off script.

Breakfast

People like to complain about airline food, but for me even a US carrier's food is passable. Only time I've not eaten something served as a meal on an airplane was actually in a US carrier's transpacific first class cabin. Toe to toe with my experiences in American business class China Airlines' meals were better. Steak was done right, the sides and appetizers showed hints of culinary creativity, and the portions were great. Desert included a small portion of ice cream and fruit. The plates were inspired by the National Palace Museum collection and the soup bowl was a panorama of a lake. The napkin had a stitched in button hole, which you don't see too often anymore in restaurants.

Starter.

Salad course.

Soup with a lake that dries up.

Steak dinner. It was so good I forgot to photo before starting...

A round of deserts.

The drinks get their own section here because of how many choices business class cabins will give you. Unfortunately I didn't like the choices on China Airlines, and I tried them all. The champagne didn't go with any of the food - even just considering flavors of the dishes I didn't order it failed that test - and wasn't offered until meal time. Would've been a decent welcome drink, but even there it was a bit too tart for my liking. Johnny Walker blue and Kavalan Solist aren't exactly inspiring whiskey choices for flavor, but they do impress with name recognition. Considering how bold the champagne choice was, the whiskey collection was too weak. The red wines were completely standard, and while I went through them just to try them out, nothing inspired. The biggest winner was the port, served in a very undersized port glass, which was boldly strong, a bit sweet, and I swear I must have drank half a bottle of it. Bottom line for my palate was that everything was a bit off balance - including the super strong port - and I actually stopped trying new drinks because the experience was souring my mood. Apparently wines taste different on the ground and in mid flight, and one wonders how many airlines actually do taste them in the air like they claim.

Mid-cabin lounge is a let down compared to what you get on other airlines with similar services. The staff stand in the galley and one half has been set up to look like a bar. Alcohol is obviously not self serve, but does come out of the big bottles. You can choose from a range of cookies on both sides of the "bar" and there is an impressive collection of teas. I took one of each style for the road so I could try them, and as far as packaged teas go are all quite high quality. They serve terrible coffee onboard unless you ask for a Nespresso, of which they have four strength and flavor choices. Cupped right, served right, and didn't disappoint.

Seat from the top. Note the missing antimacassar.

The seats and foot cubbies are fine for people who are 6'3 (my height) or so and below. Television was huge, tons of in flight entertainment, an in flight chat system which no one seemed to be using, a small digital library, and an intuitive user interface. I found the fixed pillow on the seat to be an obnoxious feature as the flight went on and it's the only thing that I'd redesign about the seat itself. The seat isn't a pure 180 degree lie flat in the sense that you'll feel like you're going slightly downhill, and its not as seamless when deployed. Otherwise it's on par with the industry's best, including Delta who leads the pack for US airlines as far as I'm concerned. Storage space was beyond ample, there were compartments everywhere and plenty of knee room to both sides while in full sleep mode. They offer a turn down service, which I don't think anyone took, and I doubt includes better blankets or pillows. The pillow was a strange cheap velvety texture, incredibly hard, and I gave up on using it thanks to the fixed headrest issue. The blankets resembled that beat up, gaudy, plaid micro fleece blanket you use when you strap things to the top of your car.

Grade: A
Room for improvement: No fixed pillows in the seat, bedding.

At destination:

Most of the services in JFK are handled by Delta Airlines and Customs staff of terminal 4, so there isn't much to say here, other than China Airlines staff were doing a great job of making sure everyone who had tight connections was getting hustled off to their next flights. The impressive part was how well the staff handled of the volume of connections at other terminals and with partners besides Delta, including Jet Blue.

Grade: A.

Final take away:

A lot of people, myself included, have stayed away from China Airlines after bad experiences or because of a previously suspicious safety record. If you're looking for a premium business class experience across the Pacific, I would strongly encourage you to give this new product a try. It easily launches CI towards the top of the pack to join companies which have long held a reputation for having premium products. Short of international first, you'd struggle to find something better. Great food, comfortable seats, huge television, great service on board with a good crew supporting you on the ground. Award tickets are cheap, and if you pay cash your money is definitely going to have been well spent.