Hello from Beijing! I had just arrived from Helsinki on a Finnair Airbus A350, and am currently facing a 6-hour layover at one of the most crowded airports in the world!
True...Beijing Capital International is an airport that pretty much sums up the population issue in China right now. Throughout the entire terminal, you could see people literally everywhere - there literally just wasn't a corner where you could lay down for some rest.
After re-checking our baggage and clearing security, I headed to the domestic area of T3, and encountered this weirdly translated sign:
The domestic area of T3 is near the business end of runway 36R, and a lot of Air China narrow-bodies could be seen taking off in close proximity to the terminal. I went around the concourse for some spotting, and managed to find a 747-400 operating a domestic flight to Guangzhou. Just several years ago, the 747-400 was Air China's flagship, and operated all of the lucrative international long-haul routes. Now, only three of these birds remain, all of which are operating domestic routes within China right now. In fact, the first flight that I have taken as a child was on an Air China 747-400 from New York to Beijing.
At the gate I was departing out of, there was an internationally-configured Airbus A330-300, the type that had been originally assigned to my route. I had heard that Air China does not have the most desirable A330 interior, and that most of their planes are dirty, both on the exterior and within the cabin itself. Oh well - we'll just have to wait and see.
I decided to take a nap on the chairs because it was still 3 AM in Finland, so naturally, I was very tired. When I woke up, boarding had just begun, albeit at the adjacent gate. I was pleased to see that the aircraft sitting there was also an A330-300, but for some reason, I couldn't access planespotters.net; thus, I couldn't determine the interior configuration of our aircraft.
Before The Flight
As with many other flights in China, no boarding priorities were respected. Thus, once boarding was called almost an hour behind schedule, it was essentially a "free-for-all." After checking FlightRadar24, I had determined that the aircraft taking us down to Changsha would be B-5913, a 2-year old 2014 build. I was expecting the interior to be fresh and revamped, but I was starting to have second thoughts as I walked down the jet bridge. First of all, the exterior of the plane was covered in black stains, presumably from the smog that it constantly flies in and out of. There was literally soot all over the fuselage and wings! Had I not found out that this A330 was a mere 2 years old, I would have assumed that it was halfway through its operational lifetime with Air China.
Secondly, Chinese airlines are not known to install the most recent and innovative seats in their aircraft. In fact, most aircraft delivered to Chinese airlines come with thick, cushioned seats from the 1980s, and the most outdated entertainment system possible. Although ship 913 had been flying for only 2 years, the interior seemed extremely dated. The walls and ground were covered with dust, and the occasional piece of garbage. The plane itself felt like it had not been cleaned in over a decade! What is this, Air China?!
August 13, 2016
Air China flight # CA 1363
PEK (Beijing-Capital International) - CSX (Changsha-Huanghua International)
Airbus A330-343 (B-5913)
Flight Time 02:37
The entertainment system was working when I arrived at my seat, the last row of the 2-4-2 seating arrangement on the A330 before it begins to transition into an 2-3-2 arrangement due to the narrowing of the fuselage. I found an outdated Thales entertainment system, which, surprisingly, is also favored by British Airways and Qatar Airways. Although the entertainment screen was of a good size, the image was not crisp enough, and was prone to reflections from light coming through the windows. Furthermore, the screen was not HD, but it was perfectly fine for a 2.5-hour flight (the distance from Beijing to Changsha is roughly equivalent to the distance from New York to Miami).
Upon scrutinizing the entertainment selection, I found one significant problem with it. Almost all the content was in Chinese, with only two or three movies/TV shows in English. Since this internationally-configured A330 is commonly used on flights to Europe, I can see a huge problem with foreigners who don't understand Chinese flying this airline. Several games were also available, which were all in Chinese as well.
We pushed back on time, somehow with all passengers seated comfortably and no fights breaking out between them and the crew. However, as we taxied to the departure end of runway 36R, I could see a huge queue of planes lined up ahead of us. Uh-oh, this cannot be good...
Long story short, we were caught up in the middle of the noon departures rush at Beijing. The takeoff queue stretched as far as the eye could see in the haze, and to make matters worse, there were also aircraft lining up on the opposite of the runway for departure. This meant that they had to alternate the departures from each side of the runway, so the process would take more than twice as long as expected. The entertainment system was turned on for the passengers to enjoy during this time, but what I found really surprising was that the Flight Attendants kept on saying "We will be taking off shortly in 15 minutes. Please remember to fasten your seatbelts," every 15 minutes for two hours straight! Now I get why passengers are so uncivilized when traveling by air in China...
Strangely, several announcements were made about the use of cellular devices while on the flight. Cell phones were to be turned off at all times during the flight, no exceptions. I find this policy a bit draconian, but at least it allows me to disconnect from the digital world and enjoy the flight (although this particular flight, as you will later find out, was not that enjoyable). There have been rumors that China will abolish the policy, but I presume it will be a fairly long time before we are finally allowed to use cell phones on flights operated by Chinese airlines.
Despite watching the line of Air China and Hainan Airlines aircraft taking off one by one, there was a special visitor to Beijing that stood out among all others.
Sure enough, I managed to catch Air Koryo's sole Tupolev Tu-204-100B, registered P-633. It was operating JS 152 to Pyongyang, the capital of the most isolated nation on Earth. (Side note: You can also see a XiamenAir 757-200 in the background, a fleet type that is common in America but extremely rare elsewhere. In fact, most of Shanghai Airlines' remaining 757-200s were sold to Delta a few years ago)
Finally, after a wait of 1 hour and 56 minutes, we were finally given the clearance to line up on the active runway! With a powerful (and extremely loud) roar, the force of the Rolls-Royce Trent 772C-60 engines pushed me back into my seat. After a short takeoff roll, we were up in the air on a steep climb above the outskirts of Beijing. We made a right turn south, flying directly over the mountain ranges that surround the capital city of China.
As we climbed to our cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, I couldn't help but notice how hazy the air was. The air quality in this part of the world was just terrible! I was shocked by how many hazardous particles there were in the air - something must be done to preserve the environment here!
I took a small nap before an announcement regarding the meal service was made. A complementary hot meal on a domestic flight less than 3 hours long? Yes please! This is almost unheard of on domestic flights in the United States - save for those transcontinental flights and east coast - Hawaii flights. Beef and chicken options were available, and I went with the chicken, with was stir-fried ground chicken with vegetable and white rice. It was served with a bread roll, Chinese preserved vegetables, and a cookie for dessert. I don't have a photo of the meal, unfortunately. The meal was somewhat bland, but a packet of chili oil helped spice things up a little bit. The meal was not the best that I've had on flights, but certainly a welcome addition to the short domestic flight. How I wish U.S. airlines invested more in food for their passengers!
Perhaps coincidentally, the trays were cleared immediately after I finished everything on my tray. I did find the flight attendants operating this route to have very poor english, but I do understand some Chinese, so it wasn't a problem for me at all. I have been told that Air China's international flight attendants are all fluent in English (presumably that's the reason why they were selected to operate the lucrative international routes), but I can't imagine a foreigner taking an Air China flight without a lot of awkward moments during the flight.
I spent some more time checking out the extremely limited selection on the entertainment system. I watched a short documentary about the strongest man on Earth, and played some Do Di Zhu against the computer. Do Di Zhu is an extremely popular card game in China, and according to the in-flight entertainment system, it is a game where "two peasants bring down the landlord by forming strategic card combinations. The landlord must choose his hands wisely or else he'll lose to the peasants." It wasn't the best way to spend my time on the flight, but it wasn't entirely fruitless, either.
After napping for another 30 minutes, we began our descent into Changsha. I was sitting on the side of the aircraft that faced the sun, so there was a huge glare when I tried to look out the window. We made a few turns over the rural areas of central Hunan province, before initializing our final approach. Like airports in many other Chinese cities, Changsha Huanghua International Airport is located a good distance from the city, in the outskirts of Changsha county. Our final approach was conducted over a large swath of land that consisted of small towns and farming communities. We had a hard landing on runway 18, almost 2 hours late. We parked next to a Korean Air A330 from Seoul, and because we were seated in the last few rows, it took quite some time before we disembarked.
Like any other domestic flight, we went straight to baggage claim after landing, where we met our relatives, who were waiting for us. After lots of greetings, we were finally on our way to the bustling city center of Changsha.
If this happened on a domestic flight within the United States, the passengers would presumably be entitled to apologies from the flight crew, some snacks/drinks, or even compensation, in the form of credit with the airline. However, we received none of those things after a 1-hour delay in Beijing and a 2-hour delay on the tarmac, amounting to some 3 hours of delays. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case with many domestic flights within China, with delays of up to 6 hours reported during peak times. Some of this could be attributed to ATC (Air Traffic Control) strikes, but I think the problem at stake here is the fact that most Chinese airports are operating at maximum capacity, and are in dire need of an expansion. My advice for travelers in China is to make sure you have an extra-long layover in China whenever possible, in order to make sure that you don't miss your connecting flight. Chinese carriers are notoriously known for their terrible customer service, especially Air China. That being said, the 2-year-old internationally-configured A330 that we flew on was surprisingly very dirty, both on the inside and outside. Furthermore, it featured an extremely outdated product, compared to what other carriers are offering these days. The crew had no apologies to offer for the delays, but in terms of the service, it was quick and efficient, though the flight attendants themselves worked with a completely robotic expression, and did not interact with the passengers at all. Quite frankly, there are many ways that Air China can improve itself to be a leading global carrier. Unfortunately, they have consistently received a terrible reputation due to delayed flights, outdated and dirty interiors, as well as poor customer service. I do want to know that they are currently modernizing their fleet with brand-new Boeing 747-8Is and 787-9s, which both come with a much-improved hard product across all classes. I look forward to trying these products some day, and see if Air China has invested in improving its public image, because if it continues to be the way it is now, I'm afraid to say that Air China will be in a steady decline.