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Comfortable economy seats, efficient service.
Food could be improved, no Wi-Fi.
Earlier in the summer, I got the chance to fly with China Southern on its brand-new 787 Dreamliner in business class and had a great flight. As we were arranging the details of my final trip as TPG’s Reviews intern this summer, we were able to find award availability again on China Southern, though this time in first class, between Guangzhou and Los Angeles (review coming soon!), so once we locked that in, we had to figure out how I was going to get to China in order to catch that flight to the US.
While there are plenty of flights every day between the US and Mainland China, we figured we’d take the long way so I could review an additional product. Since we were booking this whole trip at the last minute, we were looking at cash fares, and Emirates was offering solid prices on its flights between New York and Dubai via Milan. Then, all we needed was a flight between Dubai and Guangzhou, and since I had already flown China Southern in business earlier this summer and was going to try it in first class, we figured that I might as well fly it in economy as well.
Earlier this year, Emirates and China Southern signed a reciprocal codeshare agreement that allowed the carriers to sell tickets on each other’s flights. Combined, the carriers provide two frequencies between their hubs at Dubai (DXB) and Guangzhou (CAN) — Emirates operates a late-morning departure on board its A380, while China Southern flies the late-night red-eye with its B777. I’d just reviewed Emirates’ A380 in economy getting from the States to Dubai.
In total, we paid $516.90 (~£424) for the one-way ticket from DXB to CAN, a fairly reasonable amount for a last-minute, long-haul flight.
With China Southern and American Airlines’ ever-strengthening partnership, including mileage earning and burning and even reciprocal lounge access, I decided to credit my ticket to my AAdvantage account. American has published a distance-based partner earning chart for flights operated by China Southern, which can help you estimate how many redeemable miles you’d earn before you buy a ticket.
My economy fare booked into the discounted Q class, meaning I’d earn miles at a rate of 25% of the actual distance flown, or roughly 907 redeemable miles. I also earned an equal amount of mileage toward my Million Miler balance.
After a relaxing evening exploring downtown Dubai, it was time to head to DXB airport for my 1am departure to Guangzhou. The older Terminal 1 pales in comparison to the world-class T3 complex housing Emirates, but is still leaps ahead of the average airport. The facility is used by most of the major global carriers, including British Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
I was surprised to see China Southern had such a large presence in Dubai. In addition to the daily service to its Guangzhou hub, the airline operates flights to four other mainland Chinese destinations: Lanzhou (LHW), Shenzhen (SZX), Ürümqi (URC) and Wuhan (WUH) — quite an impressive operation for an outstation in its network.
The airline organized its check-in counters by destination, so after having my documents checked, I was directed to the economy-class line for Guangzhou, Flight CZ384.
We had booked my ticket through Amex Travel, so I was unable to manage my reservation directly on China Southern’s website, meaning I couldn’t select a seat or check in beforehand. Once at the counter, I asked if there were any window seats left. The flight was completely sold out, but I was early enough that the agent was able to assign me a window in the midsection of the airplane.
Ticket in hand, I made my way to UAE immigration, which preceded the security checkpoint. During my previous trip to the UAE, I had registered for the Smart Gates, which allowed me to breeze through immigration without having to speak to an officer. I definitely recommend signing up if you hold an eligible passport. The registration takes just a few minutes and can save you a ton of time down the line, especially if you travel to or through the UAE often.
From there it was a quick pass through security, after which I hopped on the train to Concourse D.
Like at many airports, gate assignments were not posted until 90 minutes before departure, regardless of airline or destination. At this point, it was 11pm, so I had roughly 30 minutes to kill before heading to my gate. The terminal had a spacious atrium with plenty of food and shopping, although seating was fairly hard to come by.
At exactly 11:30pm, the large departures board posted our assigned gate, D17, located at the very southern end of the Concourse D pier.
A five-minute walk later, I arrived at the gate. The terminal was pretty empty this late at night, so there was plenty of seating at our gate and the surrounding areas.
Boarding was scheduled to begin one hour before departure, midnight on the dot, but things appeared to be running a bit behind. The pilots and flight attendants boarded at 12:05am, so I figured it’d still be at least 10 to 15 minutes before passengers would be invited on board.
Around 12:20am, the agents finally opened the boarding doors. This gate had two jet bridges, one for business and one for premium economy and economy, so boarding was handled simultaneously using two lanes on either side of the counter. There was no further granularity than that: two lanes, two boarding groups.
As I was walking down the jet bridge, I caught a glance of the beautiful 777 operating the red-eye to Guangzhou. Though China Southern has had the 777-300ER in its fleet since 2014, this specific jet was nearly brand-new, part of a recent order for 10 additional 777s to expand the current fleet. This frame, with the Chinese registration B-20AC, had been delivered to the airline on the May 29. I was now extra excited to step on board and check out the airline’s latest iteration of its economy-class product.
Cabin and Seat
The plane definitely felt brand-new from the second I stepped on board. The cabin was absolutely pristine, featuring elegant blue upholstery and mood lighting.
I was excited to see that China Southern kept the spacious 3-3-3 configuration that the 777 fuselage was originally designed for. As many frequent flyers know, this is an increasingly rare layout as more and more airlines move to a 10-abreast configuration.
These seats were an industry-leading 19 inches wide between armrests — a full 2 inches wider than my 3-4-3 Aeroflot experience earlier in the summer. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but take it from me: The difference is game-changing.
The seats offered a comfortable 32-inch pitch, although some rows offer up to 33 inches.
I soon discovered yet another pleasant surprise: footrests in coach! Of the 47 airlines I’ve had the opportunity to fly with, I’d only ever seen this once before, on the Qantas A330.
With this great footrest, a fairly generous recline and an adjustable headrest, I had no problem getting comfortable and dozing off for a few hours.
The one-size tray table measured 10 inches by 17 inches and was fairly sturdy.
Each seat featured a modern 9-inch touchscreen inflight-entertainment display, which was equipped with headphone jacks and a USB port.
For charging larger devices, there were universal power outlets under each seat.
I was seated in the forward section of economy just behind premium economy and steps away from the first set of lavatories.
I only used the bathroom once during the flight and found it to be sufficiently clean and spacious. There were no additional amenities offered other than small cups for mouthwash.
Amenities and IFE
Upon boarding, passengers were met with a standard pillow and blanket waiting at each seat.
Once boarding was completed, the flight attendants came through the aisles distributing headphones. They were pretty flimsy and not great quality, but with such a short flight time, I preferred to sleep rather than watch movies anyway.
The brand-new IFE systems featured China Southern’s newest entertainment studio, which was nearly identical to the business-class offering I experienced earlier in the summer.
There were roughly 200 movies and 350 TV series to explore.
It featured a flight map from Panasonic Aviation, which is my personal favorite, thanks to its customizability and fascinating features.
Despite being on board a brand-new plane, I was surprised see that China Southern didn’t equip its newer 777 deliveries with onboard Wi-Fi. The new Dreamliners do offer it, which seems a bit directionless in terms of long-haul onboard strategy. That being said, the Wi-Fi on mainland Chinese carriers is notoriously poor, so travelers likely aren’t really missing out on much.
Food and Beverage
With a wheels-up time just after 1am, we were offered a late dinner shortly after departure — the first carts rolled through the aisle about 30 minutes after takeoff with an initial round of beverages and a hand towel.
Soon after, the carts were back with the hot dinner entrees — we were offered a choice between chicken with rice or beef with potato, and I chose the former. The dish was salty but edible, about standard for an economy-class meal. The entree was accompanied by a bread roll, coleslaw and a chocolate mousse.
I slept through entire middle portion of the flight, but flight attendants did make occasional passes offering water and juice.
About 90 minutes before landing, lights were switched on and we were offered a light breakfast. Again, there were two options: bread with tuna (which I’m assuming was in sandwich form), or steamed veggie buns. I was excited to try the dim sum option, but unfortunately it was quite bland. They were filling, though, so I ended up eating both out of hunger.
A focus on quick, efficient service for this short redeye flight.
When flying economy, it’s typically harder to have meaningful interactions with the flight attendants, since they’re charged with serving a much larger crowd. I lucked out with phenomenal service when flying business class with China Southern earlier in the summer, and for the most part, I found these flight attendants equally pleasant.
I was welcomed on board with warm smiles and offered assistance finding my seat or stowing my carry-on. Once in the air, the crew was clearly focused on delivering an efficient and quick service, which to me, is the most important factor in the economy-class experience. Overall, I’d say China Southern checked all necessary boxes in this category.
China Southern definitely offers a competitive economy-class experience for those traveling to and from Asia. I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent hard product, most notably, the spacious 3-3-3 configuration, retractable footrests and generous recline, but there’s definitely room for improvement when it comes to the food and some of the soft-product experiences. I still wouldn’t hesitate to fly with them again, and with seats that comfortable, I’d happily endure their 15-hour ultralong-haul to the Big Apple.
All photos by the author.
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