Air China’s Funky New Houston To Panama Flight Launches April 5, 2018

In early February I first wrote about how Air China filed with the US Department of Transportation requesting the right to operate a 2x weekly flights between Houston and Panama City. This flight would be operated by a Boeing 777-300ER, and was expected to launch on March 29, 2018. This route would be a tag to Air China’s existing Beijing to Houston flight, and as a result they’ve adjusted the schedule to make space for this flight.

Air China’s new flight to Panama is now official, and will be launching as of April 5, 2018.

Air China’s current flight between Beijing and Houston operates 5x weekly with the following schedule:

CA995 Beijing to Houston departing 3:00PM arriving 3:40PM
CA996 Houston to Beijing departing 1:00AM arriving 4:50AM (+1 day)

Going forward, they’ll operate the flight with the following schedule on Thursdays and Sundays:

CA885 Beijing to Houston departing 7:40AM arriving 8:20AM
CA885 Houston to Panama City departing 10:50AM arriving 2:30PM
CA886 Panama City to Houston departing 4:30PM arriving 8:15PM
CA886 Houston to Beijing departing 1:00AM arriving 4:50AM (+1 day)

All passengers will have to clear customs in the US so obviously they want to leave enough time for that. The 2hr30min on the outbound seems like a reasonable layover, though the 4hr45min layover on the return isn’t terribly practical, if you ask me. I get that they probably can’t leave for Beijing any earlier, though ideally they’d increase the amount of time the plane spends on the ground in Panama, rather than increasing the amount of time the plane spends on the ground in Houston. My guess is that this is due to crewing, and because the same crew will operate the roundtrip flight from Houston to Panama City.

The flight between Houston and Panama City covers a distance of ~1,770 miles in each direction, and is blocked at 3hr40min southbound and 3hr45min northbound.

While the flight has now been loaded into the GDS, it doesn’t yet seem to be bookable through any online travel agencies, or even directly through Air China (they don’t recognize Panama City as a destination).

While Air China doesn’t really have a globally competitive product, this is unarguably the best premium cabin experience you can have between the US and Central America. Air China’s 777-300ERs have eight first class suites, each featuring direct aisle access. I’ve reviewed Air China’s 747-8 first class, which is similar, for an idea of what to expect.

Then Air China’s 777-300ER business class features 42 fully flat seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. I’ve reviewed this product before.

There doesn’t seem to be award availability on these flights as of now, but once there is (and I bet there will be), here are the general options you have (award costs are one-way, and I’m not including LifeMiles since they don’t have access to Air China awards):

  • Air Canada Aeroplan: 20,000 miles economy, 30,000 miles business class, 42,500 miles first class
  • Singapore KrisFlyer: 17,500 miles economy, 30,000 miles business class, 40,000 miles first class
  • United MileagePlus: 17,500 miles economy, 30,000 miles business class, 40,000 miles first class

Based on looking at published fares on these flights (not including taxes and fees), the lowest roundtrip fares as of now are as follows:

  • Economy: 525USD
  • Business: 1,950USD
  • First: 6,650USD

If these are actually the fares they think they can charge long term then they’ve lost their minds. However, my guess is that we’ll see them lower fares over time, as I suspect the load factor on this flight will be abysmal.

While this route is unique, it isn’t the first tag flight to Latin America on a Chinese airline. Presently China Southern flies from Guangzhou to Vancouver to Mexico City, Air China flies from Beijing to Montreal to Havana, and Air China flies from Beijing to Madrid to Sao Paulo.

Does anyone have plans to take Air China’s new flight to Panama?

Comments

  1. Really not sure that 2h30 is enough time for 300 people to clear customs in IAH. I flew through there from the UK to Costa Rica a few years ago and was appalled both by the speed (or lack thereof) of going through all the kerfuffle to enter the US only to leave it again moments later, and by the atrocious attitude of the staff there. On the return leg, in a line full of Costa Rican nationals all having to clear immigration into the US (and I seem to remember having to collect our bags and then re-check them??) transiting through IAH, mine was one of two white/caucasian-looking families who were both taken out of the mostly Costa Rican appearing line and brought to the front. The decision was entirely that of the staff organising these lines, and both mine and the other families looked on with embarrassment and disbelief as we were ordered to move. Entering the US as a foreign national is, frankly, an unpleasant and intimidating ordeal, and neither of us plucked up the courage to say anything for fear of starting angering the stern looking staff and missing our onward flights, but in hindsight I regret this deeply.
    Regardless, I do my best to try to avoid transiting through the US if only for the immigration hassle. I wonder what would happen if much of the flight onward to PTY missed it because of the immigration formalities?

  2. Too cowardly to address your concern at the time, yet you freely do it on the world wide web. Sad

  3. Unpractical. As US cannot yet handle sterile transits, transiting through a US airport is an absolute disaster. Better fly into PTY via a better routing, avoiding US altogether.

  4. @ Tom

    Familiar experience. The total misdesign of the airport logistics, combined with the staff attitude ‘there is always another flight’ makes it impossible to safely transit through US.

  5. @Brodie You’d have to be a complete idiot to give pushback prior to having been admitted into the US, regardless of the situation. That said, I have had occasion to complain to a supervisor AFTER clearing immigration and customs.

  6. @Ron
    I believe IAH has been trying to roll out some express intl-intl transit program, as I can recall from my MEX-IAH-LIM experience last August.

    For Chinese nationals, transiting through Canada isn’t any better. For the Air China PEK-YUL-HAV flight and the China Southern CAN-YVR-MEX flight, you still need to do pretty much the same. Transiting through Europe saves you from the visa and baggage problems, but taking two long-haul flights is certainly worse than one long-haul flight plus one short-haul. Sadly there had not been many transiting options for NE Asia-Central America/Caribbean.

  7. I have to admit that I really don’t understand the horrible times they run the IAH-PEK leg. What makes it so impressive is that they manage to both depart and arrive at such achingly awful hours.

  8. @Z
    Didn’t know Canada was equally clumsy in airport logistics handling. Never been there.
    Logically one would think that some copy-pasting from any Asian or European airport could bring quick improvements.
    Remains a mystery to me why airports are so poorly designed in North America.
    Anyway, involuntary experience has taught me to avoid transiting through those until the moment where standards are at par with the rest of the world.

  9. @ Lucky – Unlike Air China’s PEK-YUL-HAV and PEK-MAD-GRU flights, China Southern’s CAN-YVR-MEX service isn’t bookable solely between Vancouver and Mexico City.

  10. @Christian: I actually much prefer the IAH-PEK leg hours. If you were a tourist at either place, it saves you a night of hotel.

  11. I don’t see why they couldn’t have made the ridiculously early 750am departure in Beijing any later, make it like 10am, and they can cut the return layover without affecting crewing for the IAH-PTY-IAH roundtrip

  12. @Thanh – It’ll save a night’s hotel for some people, but for others it’s still rough trying to check in at seven in the morning.

  13. @ron and Z, actually, YVR has a couple fifth freedom flights to US that use sterile gates, namely CX and PR. I believe CZ uses the same gates, so there won’t be any need to clear immigration and customs unless you need to exit the airport. I’m not sure about YUL, though.

  14. Economy: 525USD
    Business: 1,950USD
    First: 6,650USD

    Are you freaking kidding me? A great way to dissuade pax!

  15. The Tom Bradley international terminal at LAX seems to be the only one in the US set up for sterile transit.

    Although Air New Zealand and Air France passengers to/from Auckland and Tahiti need the clear immigration, as far as I understand their bags still go to the final destination. After immigration they are guided back into the airside departures hall

  16. Doesn’t IAD still do? Now that I live West Coast, I fly from here direct to Europe so have not arrived via IAD in 20 years.

  17. Can someone please tell me would the best way to get to Panama from Sydney be the United to Houston flight then do this Air China down to Panama, do you think this would this be available in one booking??????

  18. 2.5 hours might seem ideal for a layover, but at IAH it is not uncommon for non-US passport holders to wait that long in line (from experience). Super easy with Nexus/Global Entry, but very few on the flight from PEK to IAH will have that. I see a lot of misconnects in Air China’s future.

  19. @Kyall

    I would take LAN to SCL and connect there to PTY. No need to expose yourself to the US airport mess

  20. @ron or even better through MEX. While I believe some of Aeromexicos flights to Asia do a quick stop in TIJ (outbound only) it’s way better for a non us citizen to transit through Mexico than the US

  21. If transiting, I (Asian national) need to clear customs & immigration, wouldn’t that mean I have to apply for US visit?

    What happens if I do not have a US visa? Does this mean I wouldn’t be allowed boarding in Beijing?

    If I am allowed boarding in Beijing, would I be mishandled in Houston? As an illegal visitor? In handcuffs?

  22. Ben,

    While it doesn’t show on the award chart yet, United practice is to charge more for partner awards when they operate the routes with their own metal. So I don’t think we’ll see those redemption amounts on CA.

  23. Perhaps for Americans it sounds a long time. But as a foreigner I’ve been in an imigration Line for three hours.

  24. PTY tends to get pretty crowded around 4pm onwards (inbound flights are arriving for evening bank connections, heavies to AMS, MAD, CDG are on the ground). Wouldn’t be surprised if they have to have these timings just to make PTY work both from gate space perspective, as well as onward connections on CM.

  25. I am not sure why people think US connections are so bad. My gosh, flying into LHR, whether connecting thru the horrid Connection Center, or for arrival into the UK, that process is abysmal. LHR sometimes makes FRA look like paradise.

  26. @ May

    1) You will not be able to board without US visa.

    2) In the unlikely case you would, the plane won’t take off as passengers to US need to be pre-cleared before a plane is allowed to take-off. Without all passengers cleared, the plane will stay on the runway.

    3) Should you even get through the pre-clearance and allowed to fly, you will no doubt get caught in immigration, dragged into the famous interrogation room that all airports have, intimidated and interrogated as if you were the next Carlos the Jackal, then handcuffed and deported straight back.

  27. How much demand is there between pek and pty? Or IAH-pty happened to be lucrative and CA wants to make money on?

    For thru pax experience, I think extending YVR flights to pty, or as someone mentioned LAX tbit is much better as both offer sterile transfer.

  28. Exactly, if clearing US customs is required, you would need a US visa. I agree I do not think that the time in IAH is enough…

  29. When QR used to fly SIN-DPS back in the day, there was a long ground time in DPS since the crew did a turn from SIN. They actually blocked off part of the lounge QR used in DPS for the crew then, and you would see them in the lounge (at least the flight I took which didn’t have a delay and was on time).

    Air China I would imagine could do the same in PTY perhaps, or just suck it up and pay to overnight the crew in Panama for more ideal connecting times.

    Also @Lucky – this route is more for prestige I think given that China and Panama just launched diplomatic relations in the last few years. Panama recognized Taiwan for ages and only recently switched to recognizing Beijing.

  30. @Kevin

    I think LHR is a paradise compared to these rathole American airports. But of course, Lucky despises LHR and won’t have a good word to say about it, or London. Racism.

  31. We live in houston and just booked the wife and I on the IAH-PTY-IAH for 40k each way – so 160k for both of us for 1 week trip. The same would be 70k each way resulting in 280k miles for both of us and that too business class. Using united miles.
    Now I’m sure the food won’t be good – all we care about are comfy seats. United has dominated this route and flights are expensive. The only catch is that flights are Sunday’s and thursdays so we did thu to thu. Wish we had more options especially with houston being the 4th largest city in America!

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