6 Thoughts On Hainan Business Class

As most of you guys have probably ascertained by now, I just flew Hainan Airlines on their new route between Los Angeles and Changsha. I booked the route shortly after it was announced, as they had amazing ~$1,350 roundtrip business class fares.

Hainan-Airlines-LAX-Lounge - 29

I’ll begin publishing my full review starting this weekend (after I finish the report covering my trip to the Middle East), but in the meantime I figured I’d share my initial takeaways from the outbound flight. I’ve long been wanting to fly Hainan Airlines, especially now that they’re a partner with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

They’re also a Skytrax 5-star airline, so did they achieve that with a generous donation, or earn it fair and square?

Skytrax-Five-Stars

Here are my six initial thoughts about my Hainan Airlines flight, which was operated by a 787:

Disappointing seats

I often say “business class is all about the seat.” Unfortunately in that category Hainan didn’t impress. It’s sort of sad, because Hainan has actually regressed with their hard product. Hainan has a fully flat staggered configuration on their A330s, which they use for their longhaul flights.

But then when they added 787s to their fleet, they decided to install fully flat forward facing business class seats, with a total of six seats per row. That’s a pretty average product, especially for a 14 hour flight. What annoys me aren’t even the seats as such, but rather there’s no privacy partition between seats. Some airlines at least install a small “shield” between seats, so you feel like you have a bit of privacy.

The good news is that my flight was about half empty, so this is less of an issue when you have two seats to yourself. I probably wouldn’t have been as happy if I had someone seated next to me, though.

Hainan-Airlines-Business-Class-Cabin

Extremely attentive service

This is the aspect of the flight which impressed me most. I’ve never been impressed by service on Chinese airlines. It’s not a judgment on the culture, but rather that I don’t speak their language, and I’ve found flight attendants on Chinese airlines to typically not have a good grasp of the English language. So that barrier can cause the service to feel indifferent.

The language barrier was still there on this flight, but the crew was so lovely. They were charming, attentive, and couldn’t have been friendlier. A special shout out to purser Maria, who was a superstar. Despite the rough start to the flight, by the end of the flight I felt like I was almost friends with her.

Maria was just so sweet about everything. As she took meal orders the conversation went like this:

“How may I address you?”
“Ben, please.”
“Okay Mr. Big Ben, I call you.”

Every time I went to the lavatory one of the crew would open the door for me and close it from the outside. Throughout the 14 hour flight a crewmember was through the cabin at least once every 10-15 minutes to see if anyone wanted anything.

Maria had a great sense of humor as well. She asked me whether it was my first time to China. I explained I had been many times before, but never to Changsha, and never on Hainan Airlines. I figured I’d talk them up a bit, and said that I had heard they were a five star airline, and couldn’t help but experience it myself.

Throughout the rest of the flight she’d constantly jokingly reference it. “How was your five star dinner? You like?” She was just so funny, charming, and awesome. I got the same general feeling from the rest of the crew, though not quite to the level of Maria.

Fantastic food

I’ve never been impressed by food on Chinese carriers, though Hainan’s food was fantastic, whether eating Western or Asian. Each person was offered a breadbasket, the courses were well planned out, the presentation was great, etc.

Hainan-Airlines-Business-Class-Food

Hainan-Airlines-Food

They even have cappuccinos in business class. When the crew saw me taking pictures of the cappuccinos, they made a game of coming up with a new cappuccino “design” every time I ordered one.

Hainan-Airlines-Cappuccino

Great bedding

While I didn’t love the seat as such, the bedding was fantastic. There was a sheet placed on the seat itself, two plush pillows, and possibly the best blanket I’ve ever had in business class. I was extremely impressed by that, and especially the attention to detail the flight attendant had when she made my bed.

Hainan-Airlines-Business-Class-Seat

Tidy cabin

“Tidy” is never a word I’ve used to describe the cabins on Chinese airlines. Heck, that’s true even in China Southern first class, where I was one of the only passengers.

This crew was incredible when it came to cabin cleanliness, possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Twice during the flight I saw one of the flight attendants walk through the cabin with gloves on, literally picking crumbs off the floor. Never in my life have I seen that before, on any airline.

The bathrooms were also extremely clean, to the point that the toilet paper “tip” was folded almost every time I visited the lavatory. That’s something I’ve only ever seen in first class on some top carriers.

Hainan-Airlines-Bathroom

Interesting staffing process

Virtually all of Hainan’s longhaul flights are operated out of Beijing, though China has a policy where only one Chinese airline can operate each route between the US and China.

That’s why Hainan flies from Los Angeles to Changsha — there were already airlines flying from Los Angeles to Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu, and Shanghai, which sort of left slim pickings.

Hainan-Airlines-Map

So I was curious, did Hainan hire crews especially for this flight, or did they transfer crews from other bases? As it turns out, the entire crew is Beijing based, so Hainan flies them as passengers from Beijing to Changsha, then they overnight, then they fly from Changsha to Los Angeles. Then on the return they connect the same day from Changsha to Beijing as passengers — that’s a long day!

They seem to love this trip, though, since the flight is only two days a week, so they got to spend four nights in LA.

It’s also interesting that the captain was as American as bad reality TV and divorce. Hainan Airlines has a lot of ex-pat pilots, so I was sort of amused to hear the captain’s announcement shortly after boarding, after having real communication issues with the crew initially.

Bottom line

All things considered I was pleasantly surprised by Hainan Airlines. I actually wasn’t expecting them to be better than the other Chinese airlines I’ve flown. But I thought the soft product was significantly better, from the food to the service (though that’s based on one flight — let’s see what the return is like!).

I am still disappointed by the hard product, though. I wish this route were operated by an A330 with the reverse herringbone seats, as that would be a significantly more comfortable ride.

How does this compare to what you were expecting from Hainan Airlines business class?

Comments

  1. The food looks really good. Also the setup, especially in the first picture is nice!

    If you’re travelling as a couple, I think it looks like a great option.

  2. Looking at the Seatguru page you linked to, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ll ever see a review of first class on their “VIP” A330… I bet that would be a unique flight!

  3. Your opening comments depressed me, but the rest of it makes Mrs. Fredd and me look forward to it.

    We still want to know how the limo worked out.

  4. Hi Ben, nice review! I understand you didn’t know what to expect, but great you enjoyed the flight!

    However, in the conclusion I miss your opinion on the earlier stated question if Hainan really is a 5 star airline. I would like to hear your opinion on that!

  5. These look like the seats that Turkish use, where there’s a button that causes the center armrest to pop up as a privacy screen. Did you search around for something like that?

  6. Nice to see Chinese carriers stepping it up. I wonder if that one blog post you had a while back that sent ripples through the Chinese blogosphere influenced Hainan’s service for the positive even before you came on board.

  7. So, by reading your previous post they told you that you were not allowed to use you phone during the flight even on airplane mode. Just curious if you had an extra camera to take all the pictures you took or if you managed to somehow convince them your iPhone on airplane mode was not that dangerous 🙂

  8. @L @Ben
    The one-route one-carrier policy absolutely applies on all international routes. There do exist exceptions though. The main exceptions are:
    1) Air China is the state favored carrier and can do whatever it wants. If China Eastern is already flying PVG-FRA and Air China wants to, it can. If Air China is already flying PEK-FRA and China Eastern wants to, it can’t.
    2) Exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis, for instance, China Eastern is permitted to run PEK-BKK although it flies that route less than daily while Air China flies it 4x daily. Also Hainan was allowed to operate PEK-SVO alongside Air China but at a much lower frequency. China Southern requested an exception to fly its A380s from PEK-Europe but was denied.

  9. interesting…in china, the hard product is usually good and the softskills are lacking. But this is the opposite.

  10. Pretty sure there arent any LAX-CTU flights. The only USA to CTU flight is on United, SFO-CTU on B787-8.

    Regardless a great teaser review.

  11. @ Bob Trial — China Eastern operates a flight from Los Angeles to Nanjing with continuing service to Chengdu. Since it’s a single flight number and marketed as a “direct” flight, it’s my understanding it prevents other Chinese airlines from operating the route.

  12. Hainan needs to build Changsha into a regional hub for anything to be viable.

    Not enough International flights out of Changsha, hence even if there is a good gateway via to/from LAX in US, there is nothing to connect to other countries in Asia from Changsha, rendering it pretty useless.

    I think Hainan has a pretty interesting product. When will Alaska finally publish a redemption award chart for Hainan awards?

  13. I’ve always found the “privacy” barriers to be one of the drawbacks to business class flights. Especially during daytime flights and particularly when traveling with someone. The fixed ones that don’t drop down are especially annoying. Then again, maybe I am odd but I like getting to know folks if they are in the mood to chat.

  14. Are the reverse herringbone seats a function of the aircraft (A330 vs B787) or a decision of the airline how the aircraft is configured?

  15. I booked the same flight in 2 months. Would you email me and give me some info on Changsha? Did you enjoy? Anything to skip or must sees? Tips
    Paul

  16. How are the connections from Changsa? Flights and trains etc?

    So where do the reverse herringbone A333s fly then?

  17. I really liked Hainan and slept well when I used them. It also depends how you benchmark them, using miles there are probably better deals out but if you pay for them they were at the time substantially lower priced (not as good as your flight) and if you look at their competition flying C to China their food is better and their seat is competitive with most of the other airlines (looking especially at United).

  18. We took the LAX-CSX flight 10 days ago. I concur in most part with Mr. “Big” Ben especially about the service, food and restrooms, however the restroom in BC did not have a baby changer which makes it easier to change from street clothes to pajamas. The restrooms were kept immaculate the entire flight and I’ve never in the past saved pajamas from my 1st class trips but Hainan’s BC pajamas were just too good to give back. We kept them!

    Also, the complimentary limo service from CSX to our hotel was was seamless. We’ll be returning in a few days and will request the limo service again.

    I agree with Ben about the bedding, however I didn’t like to see them pull it out of an overhead without being wrapped in plastic. And for some reason, maybe in my head, the seat seamed a little less firm and thick.

  19. re: seat layout – when flying business, its almost always with the BF. We both really dislike reverse herringbone because its so anti-social – so for us, Hanian’s seats look perfect. Its why we both massively prefer Delta’s seating to Virgin’s.

    When flying with someone in reverse herringbone configuration one person has to: A) awkwardly hover in the aisle to have a conversation or; B) both have to stand in the galley; C) Not interact. If you like the person you’re flying with – reverse herringbone sucks. lol

  20. The food presentation rivals any, including first class, that I have seen. Interesting choice of decorative plates, sprigs of herb, conscientious saucing, even some the black sesame on the rice.

    Very nice job Hainan, and very surprising. I have flown several Chinese carriers and they are always at the bottom when it comes to food and presentation. Its always such a disappointment because China has such a rich and wonderful food culture.

  21. @lucky
    I think the kind-of “monopoly” policy is not that strict for stopover flights (flights like the China Eastern’s Chengdu-Nanjing-Los Angeles). Sichuan Airlines (with a main hub in Chengdu) has announced a new flight departing from Chengdu to Los Angeles with a stopover in Jinan (in the same flight number and aircraft, also advertised as direct flight).

  22. I flew them 4 years ago from Sydney Shenzhen to Sydney (flight doesn’t operate anymore). I paid for economy on an incredibly cheap fare (about $600AUD return) however paid approx $800 for a one way upgrade at Shenzhen for my flight to Sydney.
    For that flight I had 1A and the seat beside me was free. French champagne as a pre departure in glass, followed by most of the bottle before dinner (I was planning on a good sleep for my overnight flight).
    Entree, Abalone in XO sauce, Main, Beef tenderloin Sichuan, fruits.
    Wines from Australia, USA and amazingly China.
    Bed, amazing (I’m 6ft8).
    Beautiful hot croissants with butter and Jam, fruit salad and coffee.
    They are back flying In Australia and will definitely use them again.

  23. Hi, recently flew with Hainan Business Class for my first time on their new(ish) Manchester – Beijing flight on an A330. Decided to give it a try rather than the usual B.A flight from HRW – PEK option, and also as it was about 600 euro cheaper, return. But a bit annoyed to see that they seemed to be offering upgrades from economy to business for only 100 pounds sterling at Manchester airport check-in. Prior to flight I did some research on sites like this and was looking forward to the flight very much (five-star airline and all that). However, it did not live up to expectations AT ALL. Staff on the way out superb, and attentive and pleasant but on the return journey, quite the opposite and I felt every request was a burden, even though the cabin was not full (but nearly so). Our return flight was delayed by over 3 hours and very little information given by staff, and no offers to help those with tight, or missed, transfers on arrival. At least the new lounge in Beijing was superb, as they have a small private cabin like area where I was able to lie flight and get some sleep. On return journey the seat area was dirty (the person who picked up crumbs on your flight was clearly not working on this flight, and, not alone was the toilet paper not ‘tipped’ like on your flight, there was none left at all after mid way through the flight!). Hardly a business class service. However, the main reason I chose it was in the hope the legroom on the bed would be better than BA. I am 6’3”. Alas, it was only a very marginal difference and I felt the seat set-up on the A330 was very tight overall with awkward boxy layout that you had to squeeze into. I would say the seat was slightly more comfortable overall compared to BA, but was taking sleeping tablet anyway. Also not very impressed with their airmiles programme. I only noticed, by chance, when going to check my flight details just before departure, that I could get a free limousine service, each way. Details were vague but I emailed and, sure enough, it was true. This turned out to be the best part of the service, as picked up at PEK airport on arrival at 5.30a.m. and dropped to hotel, no problems at all, and, on the return, collected from same hotel, late night, 9 days later, and, amazingly, met at the car by a staff member with a trolley, who then proceeded to accompany me on lengthy queues through immigration and first security, to the check-in desk. Almost felt embarrassed having someone push my trolley for about 40 mins. Not sure I would choose them again over BA, unless the price differential was significant enough.

  24. correction to above post. I meant to say lie ‘flat’ and not lie ‘flight’… thanks. Mike.

  25. I’ll take Hainan over BA any day. I can’t believe anyone would support BA unless they’re on the payroll. And the fuel charges and so called taxes they charge on FF tickets is ridiculous. I’ll fly Hainan any day over British “Airs”ways.

  26. What you should correct is your belief in British “Airs” Way, BA is old, worn out and snobby without reason. BA is only prized by UK types who also believe LHA is actually a better airport than LGA or MNL.

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