Flight Review: China Eastern (777-300ER) First Class From New York to Shanghai
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To The Point
China Eastern’s first-class suite is a spacious and comfortable way of getting to Asia — and also a great redemption via Korean Air. The Pros: A long bed and great award availability. The Cons: Highly lackluster food and chain smoking crew/passengers.
Chinese carriers used to be known for poor service, bad on-time arrival stats and lackluster hard products (seats, lounges, etc.) However, that’s changed a lot as Chinese carriers have purchased beautiful new planes and invested in seats that rival their Middle Eastern and Asian competitors. Where they fall short, in my opinion, is in the soft product — food, service, entertainment and lounges. China Eastern is one the top of the Chinese carriers and is the second-largest airline in China (behind China Southern), with its main hub in Shanghai. China Eastern’s wide body fleet consists of 51 A330s that don’t have a first-class cabin and 20 777s that each have six suites — two in the first row with a huge table and storage lockers (since there are no overhead bins), followed by a row of four.
This flight was a first for me in a really unique — and perhaps unhealthy — way in that there was a light to medium smell of cigarette smoke throughout the cabin for nearly the entire flight. My aircraft, a Boeing 777-300ER (B-7883) was delivered to China Eastern in June 2017, so it’s a new aircraft. But that didn’t keep crew from smoking inside of it…
Since Delta does not allow SkyMiles members to redeem for three-cabin first class, I turned to the Korean Airlines SkyPass program, which unfortunately only allows round-trip awards on partner airlines. I decided to fly China Southern’s 777 from Guangzhou to JFK earlier this year and knowing I’d be back to Asia, I booked a random date in the future on China Eastern. (Award availability, in general, is excellent, and you can use ExpertFlyer to search for it.)
While 200,000 Ultimate Rewards points might seem like a lot for a round-trip international first class ticket, it’s actually a lot cheaper than what American carriers are charging. Saver Awards in the US are extremely hard to find and there’s usually tons of availability on Asian carriers since there are fewer people with frequent flyer miles competing for the same award space. Frequent flyer programs in Asia are not nearly as popular as they are in the US either.
I wanted to fly on a specific date, so I set an alert on ExpertFlyer to let me know when there was availability. Though the alert never went off, I later went in to change the date and noticed Korean Air was showing availability even though ExpertFlyer wasn’t. I’m not sure if that was just a one-time fluke, but as I always like to say, “It never hurts to ask.” There may be availability that Korean Air can see and ExpertFlyer cannot. Note that you have to call Korean Air at (800) 438-5000 in order to book these award flights, since they can’t be redeemed online.
In the end, my first-class trip — one-way on China Southern and one-way on China Eastern — came to 200,000 miles transferred from Chase, plus $324.92 in taxes and fees. I thoroughly enjoyed both journeys, although this one was a first for me in a really unique way.
I got to the airport later than usual because I had no intention of utilizing the lounge. I just wanted to go through security and head straight to the gate, as it was a 1:45am departure. I got to JFK Terminal 1 around 12:20am and checked in. I had to go to the desk because you can’t check-in online when booked through a partner. There was no one waiting at security, which was great because Terminal 1 can be horrendously crowded, especially if you’re flying with foreign carriers and TSA PreCheck doesn’t work. Thankfully, I had no issues and was through rather quickly and got to the gate earlier than expected — around 12:30am.
China Eastern’s premium passengers have complimentary access to the Air France Business Class lounge in Terminal 1. However, when I got there around 12:40am, it was already closed along with most restaurants and shops. Instead, I headed to the gate so I could board early and take some pictures.
Cabin and Seat
Boarding was prompt and began 30 minutes prior to departure. It was a bit of a mob scene at the gate but lucky for me, there was a Sky Priority business- and first-class boarding lane. First- and business-class passengers also had access to a separate jetbridge.
China Eastern’s 777 has six suites in the first-class cabin, each of 26.5 inches wide with a closing door and a lie-flat bed.
I was greeted on board with a glass of Champagne. The carrier isn’t cheap like some carriers like Air France, which try to say they can’t serve alcohol on the ground due to duties. China Eastern serves Perrier-Jouet Champagne, which is about $45 per bottle on the ground. It’s not Dom or Krug, but it’s certainly not $10 swill that’s served on many other carriers.
The seats are pretty big, and as you can see by my feet in the image below, the tray table actually comes up from a bottom compartment. Unfortunately, that’s not a storage container but I wish it was.
I was sitting in a window seat — each suite has three individual windows to create one big, long window with shades to close it.
There’s an electronic shade with the door that shuts, too, so you have tons of privacy.
I slept for a solid eight hours because it was already 3:00am and I’d done Soul Cycle earlier that day. After a few glasses of Champagne, I was really, really tired and was able to sleep soundly.
Note that there are no overhead bins in the cabin. Instead, in the middle, there’s a table with a fruit and flower display. Underneath that, there are locker bins and each passenger gets a locker or two to store their belongings. Along the same lines, there’s not much storage at each seat because the one place where one would think to put it only holds the tray table, as I mentioned before.
For almost the entire flight, it smelled like cigarette smoke, which I’ve heard about from other blogs and passengers but experiencing this was a first for me. I’ve heard that with Chinese carriers, smoke continuously comes from the cockpit. On my flight, no one seemed even the least bit worried about the smell, which started about 15 minutes after takeoff. If anything like that ever happened on a US carrier, I think they’d probably divert the airplane and flight attendants would be in full panic mode — but it was a nonissue on China Eastern.
Food and Beverage
As I mentioned earlier, meal service was pretty quick. To start, I had the smoked salmon canapé.
For dinner, options included the Chinese Style or Western Style meal, and I went for the Chinese option. For my starter, I got the steamed prawns with BBQ roasted pork, which was a little odd. The pork was almost as chewy as jerky and I had to reference the menu to remind myself what I was eating.
Then I had the “Caesar” salad, which was greens in a creamy dressing. Nary a crouton in sight!
The duck main dish was confusing — it looked like duck but actually consisted of a few pieces and two of them ended up being taro. Essentially, two of the pieces were vegetarian, which meant there was very little actual duck. The first time I was eating the taro piece, I was like “this is really funky duck.” Once again, the menu helped remind me what I was eating.
The shining star of the meal was the bread basket, which I usually decline. (OK fine, I’ll take one pretzel roll!) But on this flight, I ate the two slices of garlic bread because garlic bread is almost never bad.
Chinese Style menu options included steamed prawn with BBQ roasted duck, a salad, Cantonese broth and a choice of braised sea cucumber with pork rib or braised duck with taro. Western Style options included foie gras, salad, creamy broccoli soup and a choice of beef filet or seared cod.
The flight attendants were more than friendly, refilling my Champagne glass whenever it was running low.
I slept after dinner for about nine hours. In the bed’s lie-flat position, I was able to fully stretch out — and I’m 6’7″. As a point of comparison, I flew in first class aboard Singapore Airlines’ 777 on my way home and the China Eastern suite was definitely longer. Even though Singapore’s food and beverage options were better, having a large bed was great. Flight attendants also put a rose on the bed after turndown service, which was a nice touch.
I woke up and had the grilled NY strip steak as a light meal.
I decided not to eat breakfast on the plane because I was arriving around 5:00am and wanted to eat at the St. Regis. Generally speaking, I don’t like airplane breakfast. But, I did get some fresh fruit, and it was delicious.
For breakfast, options included congee with sides (Chinese Style) or omelets and sausage (Western Style). For a light meal, Chinese Style choices included stir fry sliced chicken or sautéed prawn with asparagus and Western Style choices included grilled NY strip steak or pan seared cod with season vegetable.
Unfortunately, on night flights, there are no soups or desserts offered. I found it to be pretty annoying not only on China Eastern, but most Asian carriers seem to have this same policy. I’m obsessed with soups so to not have either a soup or a dessert was a big let down for me.
I like these 1:45am flights because you can actually exhaust yourself during the day and then get on the plane and go to sleep. And the thing is that you can get a solid eight hours of sleep, have a few hours to watch some TV or movies, take another nap and then land around 4:45am so you’ve got almost an entire day to spend in Shanghai. Plus, when you leave at such an off hour, there isn’t a lot of runway traffic, so we had a quick taxi and takeoff from JFK. That said, because we did leave at almost 2:00am, I was exhausted. I still wanted to taste the food though, so I stayed up to eat after takeoff. Thankfully, service was pretty quick.
While the amenity kit was pretty basic, it’s by Ferragamo and you’ll find all the essentials — a dental kit, an eyeshade and ear plugs, among other usual items. Flight attendants delivered them to us right after Champagne service and before meal service.
Flight attendants will make up the bed for you with a moderate-sized mattress. The pillow was really small, so I used another one from a different seat instead.
China Eastern does give you pajamas, but I brought along my own because I never fit in the airline-provided ones and I prefer to wear Lululemon during the flight. The lavatories were pretty standard — inside was a rose, like you’d find on Lufthansa First.
The in-flight entertainment screen was pretty large and there were about 20-25 movies to choose from. Since there wasn’t an overwhelming selection, I’d recommend bringing your own device.
I stupidly didn’t download a VPN before my flight, so I was stuck on the great firewall during my flight and couldn’t even use Google or Facebook. I was pretty much limited to text messages, but at least the Wi-Fi was free. If you have a VPN, I recommend downloading it before the flight.
The light smell of cigarette smoke didn’t bother me, but I know for other people it could be a huge deal-breaker, so I feel the need to call this out. As nice as the suite is and award availability is amazing, the overall experience is on par with a US carrier in business class on a bad day. I would 100% take the DeltaOne catering over China Eastern — and that’s comparing the Chinese meals on China Eastern to the Chinese meals on Delta, which I think are much higher quality.
We arrived in Shanghai around 4:30am and there was virtually no one at customs and immigration. It was a seamless experience and I was through the entire process in 30 minutes.
In general, I won’t be rushing back to fly China Eastern. But, as a 6’7″ traveler who loves a spacious suite, a nonstop flight to where I’m going and a solid value mileage redemption (200,000 miles for an $8,000 ticket), I don’t regret flying China Eastern.
Lounge: N/A (closed)
Overall grade: C
Have you ever flown in first class on China Eastern’s 777-300ER? Please comment below about your own experience — especially if you’ve ever smelled smoke on an airplane.