Just a few short years ago, travellers weren't even allowed to turn on their smartphones when flying with a Chinese airline, but fast forward to 2019, and Mainland Chinese carriers are now offering WiFi for laptops, tablets, and yes, smartphones as well.
Qantas partner China Eastern provides free and data-unlimited inflight Internet access across a variety of aircraft types, so Australian Business Traveller put the service to the test on a recent China Eastern Airbus A350 flight from Sydney to Shanghai, and the return leg from Shanghai to Brisbane aboard a China Eastern Airbus A330: here's how it fared.
China Eastern Airbus A330, A350 inflight Internet: access options
First up, China Eastern limits the number of passengers that can have Internet access on each flight, which means getting online isn't as straightforward as with other inflight connections.
You'll either need to pre-register on the ground from 30 days before you fly, or keep your fingers crossed that there's still a WiFi pass available on board, with the service capped at access for 100 passengers in total per flight: even though not everybody will be connected at the same time.
The best thing is to pre-register, which you can do via the China Eastern website using your full name and ticket number, and on the next screen, your email address and mobile number.
If successful, a six-character code will be displayed. You'll need to save this for later, and if you're taking multiple WiFi-enabled China Eastern flights, be mindful that each code is for a specific flight only:
You'll also receive a copy of the code via email and SMS, acting as a backup if you forgot to save it manually: as long as the device you've sent it to will be joining you on the flight, of course.
The SMS mentions that you've "won the 258 yuan worth of qualification to enjoy the inflight Internet service", but as there's actually no option to pay for access, that's just a confusing way of saying that you'll get your free WiFi!
Alternatively, you can try your hand at a standby pass aboard the flight itself, covered in the next step, but you can safely ignore the "no mobile phone" comment in the SMS as phones are now allowed (China Eastern should update its wording).
China Eastern Airbus A330, A350 inflight Internet: getting online
After connecting to the 'CEAIR-WIFI' hotspot, you'll land on a Chinese splash screen, which you can navigate by clicking 'EN' at the top right to swap the menus over to English, then hover over 'WiFi', and click 'Go Internet':
If you took our advice and pre-registered for access to guarantee your connectivity, enter your seat number, six-character code and the last four digits of the passport you presented at check-in to get online:
Alternatively, if you haven't pre-registered, head on over to the 'standby' tab, key in your seat number and the last four digits of your passport, and try your luck.
You'll learn of your success (or failure) after a short wait, and if you're all set, your connection will be activated.
Bear in mind that each passenger can only connect one device to the network per flight, so you can't alternate between a smartphone and a laptop (we tried), nor can you try and register the second device as a new connection using the same information as got your first gadget online, or even purchase an additional session (we tried that too, and although there's an 'additional purchase via point' option, it didn't do anything).
My approach is to connect a laptop on a daytime flight where I'll have work to do, and a smartphone on an overnight flight where I'm more likely to be sending messages or doing simple tasks like checking the weather for my arrival city.
Also note that while Chinese airlines used to completely prohibit smartphone use on board, that restriction has been eased, and I had no problems using and charging my smartphone on these flights.
China Eastern Airbus A330, A350 inflight Internet: usability
Other than the process for getting online, the most noticeable difference between this inflight Internet service and that of most other overseas airlines is that you're subjected to 'The Great Firewall of China' – and for the entire journey, not only when flying in Chinese airspace.
This means websites like Facebook, Twitter and Google are all blocked, which also includes services like Gmail; Google Calendar, Docs and Drive; Facebook Messenger and so on, but beyond the usual suspects, the WiFi network itself also actively bars VPN connections and some email protocols.
Even though the service is free, it makes keeping in touch with the office rather difficult, given the VPN block prevents access to corporate networks and the email block stops many programs from syncing inboxes and from checking some emails via web browser, too.
With Google unavailable, I resorted to using Bing China as a temporary search engine, and also found that Yahoo email isn't blocked by the system, so if you know you'll need to send and receive emails during the flight and normally rely on a provider blocked by the Great Firewall, that's one alternative to consider.
Speed-wise, uploads and downloads generally hovered around the 0.25Mbps mark, which was usable enough for the sites I was able to access, although on my A350 flight from Sydney to Shanghai, the connection dropped out several times along the way, often for 10-15 minutes at a time, but it always came back on eventually.
Aboard my overnight A330 journey to Brisbane where I spent the bulk of the flight sleeping, the WiFi worked fine after take-off in Shanghai until I went to bed, and again after waking up – not that I could really do much other than read the morning's news.
The service also offered a 'seat upgrade' feature where you could pay for an onboard upgrade, but these pages were only in Chinese, so you're out of luck if you don't speak the local lingo!
Overall, not the most practical of inflight WiFi installations for business travellers, given the process of getting online and the restrictions in place on what can (and can't) be accessed, but with nothing to pay, it's certainly better than having no WiFi at all, and which still allowed me to get some work done when I needed to.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Shanghai as a guest of China Eastern Airlines.