My tour this time started in Shanghai and would include some time in Beijing before heading home with the summary of my exploratory visit. My visits to both of those world class cities will come in later stories. Living in Chicago I flew United Airlines in and out of China but the chariot of choice between the country's two largest cities would be China Eastern Airlines.
I'd flown domestic services on in Japan, long a customer of Western built aircraft but this would definitely be a first. This was a major Chinese carrier operating a service entirely within Mainland China and using the then relatively new Airbus A340 aircraft. The government remains Communist but the Soviet-built fleet was long gone by then in favor of the most cutting edge technology any frontline western airline would have.
Air China had been flying all over the world for years but as the state carrier, even with Boeing equipment, this outfit had never had a reputation for service that would make the likes of Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific nervous. A state run airline for a communist country? Was the manual written in Russian and then translated?
No, this was a brand new outfit, carved from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the old "CAAC" AT&T-style, told to go out and make its own way along with sibling airlines like China Southern, China Northern, China Northwest and China Southwest. Heck, where was "China Continental" or "China Braniff" in all of this? Big Brother might help buy some planes but the service model and business plan were straight out of Wall Street: "You're on your own."
The one way ticket came in at $135 for a service taking two and a half hours to complete. Check-in at the spanking new Pudong International Airport was smooth with plenty of smiles and, since it was a domestic flight, security screening was like anywhere else in the world before September 11th, swift but perfunctory.
In the United States where wide body aircraft are reserved for transcons and flights to Hawaii, Asian countries seemingly know only the heaviest and widest metal in the air. This aircraft normally flies long-haul flights averaging 10 hours in duration. For China Eastern today it was configured in three cabins for 287 people for a flight going no farther up the coast than Miami to Baltimore. Didn't bother me, though, as I had to stop grinning like a fool lest the authorities start to wonder what I was so giddy about.
Boarding in heavily accented English was announced and took very little time to complete, such is the nature of an orderly culture accustomed to taking directions en masse. I found my window seat ahead of the wing, noticed with pleasure the lace doily headrest on each seat and the fresh cut flowers lending fragrance and beauty to the surroundings.
The service was very nice, indeed. We lifted off on time, there was a visually attractive and tasty light meal offered, the flight attendants spoke sufficient English and served with a smile and a nod which doesn't take as much room as a full bow on an airplane. The plane was clean, well maintained, smooth and quiet in the air as most Airbus equipment tends to be. I don't remember the touchdown which means it wasn't sudden and rough. I never for a moment felt as if I had been playing with my life in choosing this airline.
Last I checked Air China still has a long way to go to match the onboard product of its younger siblings. China Southern and China Eastern proudly carry the national brand and, at least in economy, offer just as good an experience as the Cathays and Singapores of the world.
Would I fly them again? The next time I am in China, yes. Or as soon as they join the oneworld alliance, whichever comes first.