Flying business class aboard China Eastern's new Airbus A350s isn't what you might expect of a Mainland Chinese airline, offering private suites with closing doors beyond the more common features of a fully-flat bed with direct aisle access.
Now with daily Airbus A350 flights between Sydney and Shanghai, Australian Business Traveller took to the skies to bring you this review of China Eastern's Airbus A350 business class.
- Frequent flyer program: Eastern Miles, SkyTeam. However, China Eastern is also a Qantas Frequent Flyer partner airline, so travellers can earn and redeem Qantas Points on China Eastern MU-coded flights, and earn Qantas status credits on Qantas codeshare flights also.
- Checked baggage allowance: 2x32kg bags as standard, boosted to 3x32kg for Eastern Miles Silver, Gold and Platinum members and other SkyTeam Elite and Elite Plus frequent flyers, although there's no additional baggage allowance for Qantas Frequent Flyer members.
- Carry-on baggage allowance: 1x10kg bag of up to 115cm, but I had no issues travelling with this plus a separate laptop bag in the cabin, as would be permitted by the published rules of most other airlines.
- Airport fast-track: Priority check-in, Express Path at security/passport control and priority boarding all worked as expected. Priority baggage delivery is also offered for those with checked bags.
- Complimentary chauffeur service: It's available, but quite restrictive: you have to book at least seven "working days" before you fly – which won't be possible for some business travellers – you have to choose between a transfer in Sydney or Shanghai with each flight (you can't have both), you can't request the chauffeur when booked on a Qantas QF codeshare flight, and if you need to change your booking, you'll be up for a $150 fee: in many cases being more expensive than what you'd pay to simply book your own driver.
In Sydney, China Eastern business class passengers are directed to the SkyTeam Lounge, which provides a range of zones for working, dining and relaxing, and was better-stocked on the food front than the last time Australian Business Traveller stopped by.
AusBT review: SkyTeam Lounge, Sydney Airport
Through its partnership with Qantas, business class travellers and Qantas Gold frequent flyers can also opt to use the Qantas international business class lounge in Sydney, but as the current lounge is rather dated and soon to be refurbished, I stuck with SkyTeam.
Qantas Platinum, Platinum One and Chairman's Lounge frequent flyers have one more option in Sydney: the Qantas First Lounge, which welcomes these travellers prior to China Eastern flights with a QF or MU flight number.
As of April 1 2019, China Eastern's daily Sydney-Shanghai flight (MU562) is exclusively served by the Airbus A350, pushing back at 12pm daily (11am outside of Daylight Savings Time) to reach Shanghai at 7:20pm local time: a journey of 10hr 20min. Australian Business Traveller was on board the inaugural flight.
On the return leg, MU561 is wheels-up at 8:20pm from China's financial capital, touching down in Sydney at 10am (9am outside of DST) – a slightly longer voyage of 10hr 40min.
On selected days, the airline also operates a return Airbus A330 service between Sydney and Shanghai, but while some of these flights see fully-flat beds in a 1-2-1 layout, others get angled-flat bets in a 2-2-2 configuration, depending on which A330 is used for the flight.
China Eastern also codeshares on Qantas' daily Sydney-Shanghai flights – and vice versa, with China Eastern's Australian flights also sold with a QF flight number, enabling Australian travellers to earn Qantas status credits.
Finally, China Eastern also links Shanghai with Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland, and seasonally, Cairns, among other international destinations. Other than Shanghai, you'll also find China Eastern flying from Sydney to Kunming, Wuhan, Nanjing and Hangzhou, plus Beijing (via Nanjing or Hangzhou) sold under a single flight number.
A passenger-pleasing 1-2-1 seating layout comes standard aboard China Eastern’s Airbus A350s – providing direct and uninterrupted aisle access for every guest, as you’d expect – but these are no ordinary business class seats: they’re private suites, complete with closing doors.
As the door is the seat’s most distinctive feature, we’ll start there. For take-off through until the first meal service is complete, the doors are locked open, as they are for landing…
… but at any other time during the flight, pulling the nearby lever slides the door shut:
The cabin crew have to manually unlock the ‘closing door’ function at each seat, so if that lever feels tough to pull or isn’t getting the door moving, just ask the crew to unlock your door, if they haven’t already offered.
From the top down to the cabin floor, the door is 118cm in height – so you’re not totally hidden from passengers and crew walking past in the aisle – but you still get a good sense of privacy, and I didn’t feel too ‘closed in’ with the door shut.
To the seat itself, there’s adjustable mood lighting, joined by a reading light, water bottle holder, two storage compartments and a headphone hook to your side…
… with the headphone outlet, AC and USB power and a contactless card reader for duty-free purchases just below – although on the power front, connecting most AC chargers will block access to the USB port, meaning you’ll most likely only be able to juice-up one item at a time:
I also found that I couldn’t fit an AC charger into the outlet at the same time as my (BYO) Bose headphone adaptor was connected to the audio port, given their proximity shape: although that problem doesn’t exist when using the airline-supplied headphones, or Bluetooth with the entertainment system: but more on that later.
Nearby sits a remote control for the inflight entertainment system atop the most commonly-used seating and lighting controls. Those in the window seats will also find a button to control the motorised shutters, although these can also be controlled by pressing the button under each window…
… and if you spotted a key that looks like a moon falling asleep, that’s for your ‘do not disturb’ light: activate it, and the crew won’t wake you for meals when you’re resting, with a similar moon icon illuminating outside your seat:
Passengers in the centre pairs have a communal divider instead that can be opened if travelling with a companion, or closed if flying solo:
Back to the seating controls, a subset of those can be found within a vertical side panel, which are easier-accessed than the other buttons when lying down…
… and for a little extra storage – beyond the vast shelf space available to you throughout the flight – there’s a nook down by your legs, with room enough below that for shoes, too:
In front of you sits an angled, carpeted floor that’s a handy foot rest when sitting upright…
… with the tail end lining up with your fully-flat bed…
… which stretches to approximately 190cms all up (75 inches), at a width of 52cm (20.5 inches):
The crew offered a blanket to put over the seat if I wanted to sleep, but being a daytime flight, I declined a nap and got some work done instead, with the tray table proving very stable with no ‘typing bounce’, and with ample room for my Bluetooth mouse as well beside the laptop (not pictured):
Finally, there’s one more storage space at your disposal – a small area for items like watches, rings, pens and other little bits, accessed by pressing the keys labelled “push”, with the lid also doubling as a mirror when opened:
Being a business class journey, you’d be hard-pressed to want more from the seat: except, perhaps, for this side armrest to be moveable rather than fixed in place on seats that reside closer to the aisle:
While the armrest is fine where it is for those simply watching movies or enjoying a meal, when working on a laptop – as many business travellers do – it’s too high for typing, which means avoiding it: placing your arm next to it, rather than your elbow on top of it.
This made the usable space of the seat feel a little squeezy when working for an extended period, and being able to move this out of the way would perfect an otherwise-comfortable seat, but being a staggered layout, I observed that passengers in the alternating rows with seats closer to the windows had a moveable armrest instead, making those seats a little more desirable.
Separately, China Eastern also has a 'Business Class Plus' cabin on board its A350s, being larger suites in the first row of business class – a true 'mini first class' – but with business class service.
Priced above a regular business class ticket, these can be booked via the China Eastern website, although the experience we're reviewing here is that of the standard business class cabin.
The service begins with a choice of juice or water before take-off (no bubbles until you're in the sky)…
… and passengers can pre-order their preferred drink for later – in this case, a Champagne I’d not tried before but which was perfectly drinkable: the Irroy Carte d’Or Brut.
Being a noon departure from Sydney, the first meal is lunch, beginning with a duck liver terrine and smoked duck breast with apricot chutney, with a choice between creamy mushroom soup or pork and apple double boiled soup. I chose the former, which was incredibly tasty, with bread arriving not long after the photo was taken:
For the main course, the following options were provided:
- Barramundi fillet pan-fried with lemon and white wine, saffron rice, broccolini and zucchini
- Duck breast roasted with citrus juice, crushed potatoes and braised cabbage
- Ginger and shallot king prawns with steamed rice and seasonal vegetables
- Lamb Mongolian-style with steamed rice and seasonable vegetables
Although duck was already covered in the appetiser, as I was bound for China, selecting it again for the main was an easy decision.
As tends to happen in aircraft ovens, the duck was cooked more like chicken which made it a bit tough to cut, but the sauce gave it a nice flavour when putting a little of everything on the fork:
I’d also requested a white wine to pair with the main – Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay, a table wine I'll often drink at home – which arrived with water, too.
Dessert follows with a selection of cheeses and fruits: I opted-out of the cheese but happily accepted the fruit…
… but was tempted by the ‘Hokey Pokey’ ice cream on a second pass – in the same ballpark as a burnt caramel flavour.
An “anytime you wish” menu has you covered for snacks throughout the journey, offering potato chips, nuts, preserved fruits and fresh fruits, and with a 7pm arrival into Shanghai, dinner is served around two hours before landing.
It begins with an appetiser of smoked salmon with celeriac remoulade salad, and fruit on the side…
… with a choice from these four main courses to follow:
- Bean curd black mushroom and Sichuan pickle with stir-fried egg noodle
- Prawns sautéed in white wine cream herb sauce with linguini saffron, mushrooms and baby spinach
- Lamb cutlets with cumin chilli and leek with steamed rice and seasonal vegetables
- Stir-fried mixed vegetables with black mushroom and Gingko nuts with stir-fried egg noodles
I stuck with the seafood theme and selected the prawns, which were perfectly tasty, but could have done with about half as much of the creamy sauce:
Closer to landing, passengers were offered a second bottle of water, which proved handy for the long taxi ride to my Shanghai hotel.
Entertainment & Service
In front of each passenger sits an 18.5-inch HD touchscreen monitor, offering a selection of entertainment choices: enough movies to get you through the flight and back home, but without as extensive a library as some other airlines provide, and with a rather limited TV show line-up.
Beyond what's stored on the aircraft, the Airbus A350's external cameras also provide for interesting viewing, particularly on take-off with three cameras to choose from.
I find these to be a great backdrop when working on a laptop, and will often keep the cameras open until there isn't much to see, when I'll revert to the more typical moving map: when not watching a movie, of course.
Speaking of movies, the headphones provided by the airline seemed a poor fit for the premium 'private business suite' experience, with a style and sound quality as you'd expect from a pair in economy, and which weren't noise-cancelling or even noise-reducing:
The headphones were also collected about 45 minutes before landing – preventing theft, by why anybody would steal this set, I'll never know – so you'd be wise to bring your own higher-quality pair.
That's what I did, and at first, it was annoying that I couldn't connect them to the headphone port when the power point next to it was in use, but I quickly spotted a familiar logo on the entertainment screen...
... and was pleased to discover that I could wirelessly pair my own cans to the inflight entertainment system, which worked really well, and had me wishing that more airlines offered this feature:
The controller next to your seat also has a touchscreen of its own and can be used to check on the progress of your flight without interrupting your viewing on the main screen:
On the service front, slippers and an amenity kit with the usual items were provided at each seat...
... and the crew on today's flight were friendly and attentive without being intrusive or passing through the cabin unnecessarily, and all had a good command of the English language (except when I ordered a white wine and a red was delivered, which was easily and promptly fixed).
Complimentary inflight WiFi is available on board, which we'll cover in a separate review, but as I've found with most Chinese airlines, the seatbelt sign remained on for the entire flight, so you have to use your best judgement as to when to stand up: quite different to the 'light on, sit down' approach of airlines from most other countries, including Australia.
As the window shades are motorised, the cabin crew also closed them all after take-off, but didn't object to passengers re-opening them who wanted a view or just a little natural light, as I always prefer on daytime flights.
All things considered, I've been to China many times before but hadn't previously flown with China Eastern from Australia, and was pleasantly surprised with the experience: a sliding door in business class is more than can be said of most other airlines, and as a tech enthusiast, having Bluetooth-compatible inflight entertainment and free inflight WiFi in a modern Airbus A350 cabin makes for a pleasing experience overall.
But having said that, if you're planning your own journey with China Eastern, keep in mind that the airline uses a range of aircraft types across its Australian routes, spanning older-style Airbus A330s with angled-flat beds in a 2-2-2 layout through to the airline's newest A350s with private business class suites, so if you want the sliding door and guaranteed direct aisle access, aim for the A350, if it fits your schedule.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Shanghai as a guest of China Eastern Airlines.