Review: Air China First Class 747-8 San Francisco To Beijing

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Introduction: A Weekend In Mongolia
Review: Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge Los Angeles Airport
Review: United Global First Lounge San Francisco Airport
Review: Air China First Class 747-8 San Francisco To Beijing
Review: Hilton Beijing Airport
Review: Air China First Class Lounge Beijing Airport
Review: Air China Business Class 737 Beijing To Ulaanbaatar
Review: Holiday Inn Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Review: Ulaanbaatar Airport Lounge
Review: MIAT Mongolian Business Class 767 Ulaanbaatar To Frankfurt
Review: United Business Class 777-200 Frankfurt To Houston
Review: United Club Houston Airport
Review: United First Class 737 Houston To Los Angeles


Air China 986
San Francisco (SFO) – Beijing (PEK)
Wednesday, July 12
Depart: 2:50PM
Arrive: 5:55PM (+1 day)
Duration: 12hr5min
Aircraft: Boeing 747-8
Seat: 3A (First Class)

I boarded through door L2, where I was greeted by three extremely friendly flight attendants and escorted to my seat. Air China’s cabin layout on the 747-8 is unusual. Right in front of door two are the 12 first class seats, spread across three rows in a 1-2-1 configuration.


Air China 747-8 first class cabin


Air China 747-8 first class cabin

Then in front of first class is business class, which is a layout I haven’t seen on any other airline. Immediately in front of first class are 12 business class seats, spread across two rows in a 2-2-2 configuration.


Air China 747-8 business class cabin

Then in the nose are another 12 business class seats, across three rows in a 2-2 configuration. I always enjoy sitting in the nose, so this is a cool place to sit if flying Air China’s 747-8 business class.


Air China 747-8 business class cabin


Air China 747-8 business class cabin

On top of that, there are another 30 business class seats on the upper deck. Air China’s business class seats are standard fully flat B/E Aerospace Diamond seats. They’re not industry leading, though are perfectly fine. However, I found the color choices to be a bit curious.


Air China business class seats 747-8

Anyway, back in first class, the center seats are great for couples traveling together. There’s a partition between seats, though that can be lowered on demand.


Air China first class seats 747-8


Air China first class seats 747-8

I had assigned myself seat 3A, the window seat on the left side in the last row of first class. The seat was quite comfortable, though I find it a bit odd that Air China didn’t go for a fully enclosed suite. The seat has the same “bones” as fully enclosed suites, but there’s not actually a door. So you have some privacy, but not as much as you’d have on other airlines.


Air China first class seat 747-8

There was an ottoman on the opposite side of the seat, as well as a sliding tray table and personal television.


Air China first class seat 747-8

I like the concept of the sliding tray table (it makes it easy to get up during the service), though this one was badly in need of some lubrication, as it made a terrible squeaking noise when I moved it.


Air China first class seat tray table

Then along the front right of the seat was a small closet, which was only big enough to hang one or two articles of clothing.


Air China first class seat closet

On the right side of the seat was an armrest with a small exposed storage compartment, as well as some basic seat controls. As you can see, while this is still a fairly new plane, it’s already starting to look a bit worn out.


Air China first class seat armrest

Above that was a reading light.


Air China first class seat reading light

Then on the left side of the seat were the more advanced seat controls.


Air China first class seat controls

Then there was a storage compartment with both a 110v and USB outlet.


Air China first class seat storage compartment

Lastly, there was an entertainment controller.


Air China first class seat entertainment controls

Already waiting at my seat on boarding were a pair of headphones. They were decent quality, though not as good as my Bose headphones. While I thought the flower was a cute touch, the headphone case seemed like a strange place to put it.


Air China first class headphones

There were also a pair of slippers waiting at my seat.


Air China first class slippers

Moments after settling in I was greeted by the friendly purser, who explained she would be taking care of me. I find service to be the biggest variable on Chinese carriers, and the ladies working first class on this flight were incredibly well intentioned. She asked how she could address me, and also whether I wanted a pre-departure drink.

For drinks I had the choice between water, orange juice, and champagne. I ordered the champagne, which was room temperature, unfortunately. On the plus side, it was served with mixed nuts and a warm towel.


Air China first class pre-departure champagne, warm towel, and mixed nuts

I was also presented with the menu and wine list for the flight.


Air China first class menu & drink list

I was then given the pajamas and amenity kit. The pajamas were decent quality, though not amazing.


Air China first class pajamas

The amenity kit had L’Occitane products, including lip balm and body lotion. On top of that there was a hair brush, toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, earplugs, etc.


Air China first class L’Occitane amenity kit

Then I was also presented with a newspaper, with the only choice being the China Daily.


Air China first class newspaper

During boarding two other flight attendants came by my seat to introduce themselves and welcome me onboard. I was also offered a champagne refill, though declined.

One of the other strange things about the position of the first class cabin is that the 28 business class passengers board through first class to get to business class, so the first class cabin isn’t as serene during boarding as you’d find on the 747-8s operated by Korean Air and Lufthansa.

During boarding the purser took all of my meal and drink orders. I’m sure I could have told her I wanted to decide later, but she asked me my order for the first and second meal, as well as what I wanted to drink with both meals. Like, I’m really not sure what I want to drink in 10 hours…

While I’ll have more on the menu in a bit, one bizarre feature is that Air China has a “daily special” in first class. I can appreciate the concept of a special every day in a restaurant, but for an airline that just seems silly.

Even stranger, they didn’t have the correct daily special.

“If you want, you can have the daily special. Today is Saturday, so you can see it here.”
“I think it’s actually Wednesday though, no?”
“Let me check.”

She returned a few minutes later to tell me they didn’t have the correct daily special. Hmmm…

Then she also took drink orders, but they didn’t actually have most of the wines on the first class list. It was all just very strange.

At 4:15PM the door closed, and much to my delight, I was the only passenger in first class. Yay!

At 4:25PM we began our pushback, at which point the safety video played. The video was incredibly adorable thanks to the panda in it. However, am I the only who thinks the animated ladies in the video have larger than usual bosoms?

One of the benefits of the first class cabin being a bit further back is that you have a nice view of the 747-8 wing. What a giant!


Pushing back at SFO

It took about five minutes for our engines to start up, and then we began our taxi to runway 28L.


Taxiing at SFO

This involved crossing runways 1L & 1R.


Taxiing at SFO

As we approached the runway the captain made his welcome aboard announcement, informing us of our flight time of 11hr15min. His English was reasonably good, certainly better than the pilots of Air China 981. 😉


Taking off runway 28L SFO

Our takeoff roll felt shorter than usual for such a big plane, and it was awesome to watch the 747-8’s wing flex as we accelerated.


View after takeoff from SFO

We had a smooth climb out, and despite that, the seatbelt sign stayed on. Actually, the seatbelt sign remained on the entire flight. Apparently it’s an Air China policy. If there actually is turbulence, the pilots just flick the seatbelt sign again, and then everyone is advised to return to their seats. To me this seems like a dumb policy. It would seem to me that it’s better to use discretion with turning the light on than to always have it on.


View after takeoff from SFO


View after takeoff from SFO

About 15 minutes after takeoff I headed to the lavatory to change into pajamas. There are two lavatories located behind the first class cabin. However, the crew has to keep them locked, so they’ll unlock them as you approach. That’s because first class is right in front of economy, so thy explained that economy passengers try to use them if they don’t lock them.

The lavatory was a good size and featured the new Boeing design you’ll also find on the 787.


Air China first class lavatory

The lavatory had some modest amenities, though mainly I just have to commend the crew for always keeping the bathrooms spotless (don’t get me wrong, that’s how it should be given that I was the only first class passenger, but often that’s not the case).


Air China first class lavatory amenities

Air China doesn’t have wifi, so once back at my seat I browsed the entertainment selection.


Air China first class entertainment selection

I started with the airshow. Air China had the system where you can choose the view you want, which I like.


Airshow enroute to Beijing


Airshow enroute to Beijing

As far as the entertainment selection goes, it was… well, okay. It could have been worse, but this really wasn’t a competitive selection. If you’re picky I’d certainly recommend bringing your own entertainment.


Air China first class entertainment selection


Air China first class entertainment selection

I ended up watching “Chips,” which was terrible, but seemed like the best of the options based on my (terrible) taste.


Air China first class entertainment selection

After takeoff the crew asked how soon I wanted to eat. I said right away, so the meal service started minutes later.

Here’s the menu, including the daily specials that weren’t loaded correctly:

And here’s the very long drink list, which doesn’t really reflect what was actually available:

Service began with a warm towel.

Air China first class lunch service — warm towel

Then I was served a glass of champagne, along with more nuts. Air China serves Lombard champagne in first class, which is… fine. It’s certainly better than Duc de Paris. 😉


Air China first class lunch service — champagne and mixed nuts

After that a big tablecloth was brought to my table, and I was served the canapés. This included shrimp wrapped with prosciutto, and then canapés with salmon and cheese. They were… fine.


Air China first class lunch service — canapés 

After that my table was set, including a breadbasket and the Chinese appetizers.


Air China first class lunch service — appetizer 

This included a pretty basic bread basket with four pieces of bread.


Air China first class lunch service — bread basket 

The Chinese appetizers consisted of a vegetarian roll, barbecue pork, and barbecue eel.


Air China first class lunch service — Chinese appetizer 

Next I was offered a minestrone soup, which was reasonably tasty, though only lukewarm.


Air China first class lunch service — minestrone soup

For the main course I had some sort of a lobster dish, which wasn’t actually on the menu, but rather seemed to be replacing the daily special. It was reasonably good, and the highlight of the meal.


Air China first class lunch service — lobster main course

Next up came the three course dessert, which included a fruit plate, cheese plate, and chocolate cake (the other option was cheesecake). I also had a glass of white wine to accompany it. I have no clue what it was, since the drinks on the menu didn’t match what they actually had.


Air China first class lunch service — cheese, fruit plate, and dessert

The meal service was done about 90 minutes into the flight, so the service was paced well. The service throughout the meal was exceptionally well intentioned and friendly. I had two flight attendants taking care of just me, and they did a great job. They weren’t necessarily the most polished crew I’ve had, but they sure tried hard.

The food itself was okay. I’d say it was roughly on par with what I’d expect in business class, and wasn’t any better than what I’ve had in Xiamen Air business class or Hainan business class. I think the food in first and business on Air China is roughly the same. In first class they don’t even plate anything on the plane — it’s all just heated up in the oven and then served straight away.

After the meal I was offered a bottle of water and a landing card for China. I should mention that China has a policy against using cell phones inflight. Even in airplane mode they don’t allow it. I tried to get away with it, but when the purser noticed she politely said “I would suggest you not use your phone, please.”


Air China first class bottled water and immigration card

After the meal and finishing the movie I asked to have the bed made. While they were making my bed I snapped a picture of the staircase. While not as grand as the A380 staircase, it is more impressive than the 747-400 staircase.


Air China 747-8 staircase

The good thing about having the cabin to yourself is that you fully control the lighting in the cabin, so the crew checked with me to make sure I wanted the lights completely out. Yes please!


Air China 747-8 first class cabin

The crew did a great job making my bed. The sleeping surface itself is quite large, though I didn’t find the bedding to be great. There was just a thin mattress sheet, and then a pillow and duvet, which were fine. Overall it was a comfortable sleeping surface, though there are definitely more plush beds in the sky.


Air China first class bed


Air China first class bed

By the time I was ready for bed we were about 2hr20min into the flight.


Airshow enroute to Beijing


Airshow enroute to Beijing


Airshow enroute to Beijing

I must have been tired, because I slept much more than usual, and woke up just under three hours before landing, so I got about six hours of sleep.


Airshow enroute to Beijing


Airshow enroute to Beijing

Within a few minutes of waking up the crew asked if I wanted anything. I just asked for a coffee. For what it’s worth, there’s a small snack bar behind first class, though it wasn’t well stocked. (I’m not sure if that’s because there was just one first class passenger, or if it’s always that way).


Air China first class snack bar

There was also a snack menu. However, apparently many of these can only be consumed while watching a movie. 😉

Without asking I was offered a warm towel, package of Milan cookies, raspberry yogurt, grapes, a Godiva chocolate, and a Kit Kat.


Air China first class snack

I decided to work for a bit, and the crew told me I should let them know when I wanted to eat the pre-arrival meal. About 90 minutes before landing I told them I was ready.

The pre-landing menu read as follows:

The meal service started with a warm towel and some orange juice.


Air China first class pre-landing meal — juice and warm towel

The starter consisted of grilled scallops on a mesclun salad. Compared to the first meal it was pretty good, though the scallops were a bit on the chewy side.


Air China first class pre-landing meal — appetizer

However, the main course was phenomenal. It consisted of seabass with beurre blanc sauce, and was great.


Air China first class pre-landing meal — seabass

To finish off the meal I was offered a fruit plate, and also ordered some coffee.


Air China first class pre-landing meal — fresh fruit and coffee

We began our descent way early. About 50 minutes before landing the crew was asked to prepare the cabin for landing. I know crews have a lot to do before landing, though I find it annoying to have to sit upright, put up the windows, etc., this far out. We descended pretty steeply at first, but then leveled off at a low altitude, where we flew for about 20 minutes. #BeijingATC


View approaching Beijing

As usual in Beijing, there wasn’t much in the way of views due to the smog.


View approaching Beijing


View approaching Beijing

At 6:55PM we had a smooth touchdown at Beijing Airport.


View approaching Beijing

Upon exiting the runway we had to hold position for about 10 minutes due to congestion. Fortunately it was only a short taxi after that.


Taxiing Beijing Airport

However, rather than getting a gate, we got a remote stand. How they can’t find a gate for a 747-8 blows my mind.


Remote stand upon arrival in Beijing

On the plus side, being able to walk on the tarmac next to a 747-8 is a treat.


Air China 747-8 upon arrival in Beijing


Air China 747-8 upon arrival in Beijing


Air China 747-8 upon arrival in Beijing

There was a “VIP bus.” Unfortunately this wasn’t just for first class passengers (that would have been nice), but rather was for all premium passengers. That meant the bus was filled like a sardine can. The driver also didn’t seem to have much regard for the fact that he had dozens of standing passengers on his bus, based on how he drove.


Air China “VIP bus” to immigration

Immigration lines were short, and I was off to the Hilton Beijing Airport.

Air China first class bottom line

My flight in Air China first class was pleasant, though this isn’t one of the world’s best first class products.

What impressed me was the friendliness of the crew. They were well intentioned and professional overall, and having the cabin to myself I received great service. I also slept extremely well, thanks to the decent size bed in first class.

At the same, everything else about the experience was more on par with what I’d expect in business class.

However, if you’re flying to Beijing, Air China is a great option to avoid connecting. It just wouldn’t be my first choice if traveling elsewhere.

If you’ve flown Air China first class, what was your experience like?

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