Route: Sydney to Guangzhou
Carrier: China Southern Airlines
Terminal and Check In: After arriving into Qantas terminal 3 we boarded the international transfer bus which provided a great Tarmac tour of the maintenance base and dropped us off near the A check in desks in the international terminal. The queues for China Southern at the G desk were relatively long, but fortunately the business/first desk had no queue at all. I found that It pays to ask how full a flight is as I was able to both get a window seat and have the seat next to me blocked so I could spread out a little during the flight. This turned out to be a blessing later onboard.
Once checked in, I transferred some cash at the travelex outlet (which I was determined to avoid, but the queue of Bali schoolies at ANZ was way too long to consider) and then used the express path card through security and Customs. China Southern don’t operate their own lounge at Sydney and instead share the Air New Zealand lounge (along with what seems like every other non oneworld airline). On arrival the lounge was pretty full as there were a fair few NZ flights due to depart, but once a few of those departed the lounge cleared out and felt a bit more spacious.
The food and beverage offering changed while we were there from breakfast to light snacks, all of which hit the spot. I’m not sure if it’s because Delta use the lounge or it’s just a regular Air NZ thing, but they had a very American hot dog stand in the lounge. I didn’t try but it had decent patronage. The best thing about the lounge is the amazing view across the apron and runways, especially as everything was coming in from the south which meant every landing was a great photo opportunity.
Departure: Due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft our departure was pushed back to 11:25 and the gate changed from 56 to 60 (which is right beneath the lounge and thus provided a great view of the turnaround). Once on the ground the aircraft was turned in about 40mins which is pretty good for an international wide body turnaround. The queue for boarding was as long as the check in queue and to get to the business class line you had to push through the economy line as there isn’t much space around gate 60.
On board the crew were pretty friendly when they saw business class on the boarding pass and were very fast to swap my shoes for slippers and hand out some juice and a hot towel. Given the fast turnaround the door was closed pretty soon after we got seated and we pushed back and began our taxi to the end of Runway 34L. Behind Vietnam Airlines and a Qantas 737 we had a brilliantly smooth take off, rotating just before crossing the intersecting east west runway before making an ever so slight right hand turn and heading towards Darwin.
Seat: 3A. Having blocked out the seat next to me in check in I had the pair of 3A and B to myself which turned out to be a blessing as the A seat didn’t recline very far – which the cabin crew advised it was broken. The seats in the business cabin are an angled flat bed seat which means that the seat reclines to a bed, but the bed is at an angle to the floor. When fully reclined one of the arm rests sinks with the seat which gives another few inches of elbow room. The other armrest folds up which allows your other elbow to use the small items storage space and further widens the width available.
On storage there is the overhead bins and a few small holders for your wallet’ phone small camera etc but there isn’t much space for an iPad or even all the blankets and pillows that you are provided with (fortunately the empty seat next to me became a perfect blanket storage unit). The tray table folds out from the armrest and seat controls are located in the centre panel as well as a retractable IFE control unit. There is an adjustable reading lamp in each seat, however mine flickered so much I couldn’t really use it.
The padding on the seat isn’t soft but it’s also not as hard as the first generation Qantas beds. The crew put the spare blanket down on the seat when in bed mode which gave it a little more padding which was a good move. There is also an inbuilt massage function in the seat, but in each massaging seat I’ve ever tried all it feels like is a metal roller forcing it’s way into your back. I’m it sure why airlines keep trying to sell this as a feature – get rid of it and save some weight. Also this model of the seat sounds like it needs an oil as for every movement you can hear the gears spinning.
A Bio-essence amenities kit was provided before take off which contained an eye mask, earplugs, comb and some moisturisers which the crew told me would be good for my skin. If this seat was fully flat and had a little more storage options it would beat Cathay’s older herring bone configuration, mainly due to the extended width. Perhaps a privacy screen would also help if the cabin was full. Otherwise it was relatively comfortable, but the angle made it hard to get to sleep.
Aircraft: The Airbus A330-300 has 4 rows of 2-2-2 in business class behind 1 row of 1-2-1 in first class (where I believe there are actually fully flat beds). The business cabin closed all the window shades however no one in first did so the cabin didn’t get very dark or conducive to sleep on this daytime flight. I’m not sure what’s back in both economy and premium economy as there is a significant galley between business and the main cabin. Well forward of the engines it’s relatively quiet, but some noise canceling headsets wouldn’t go astray. My main peeve with this cabin is the lack of personal air vents and the overly warm set temperature. Fortunately I layered but shorts would have been a blessing! Also the seat belt and no smoking signs didn’t work for the first half of the flight, and then were on for the entire flight (no one paid any attention to it mind you). Overall a spacious mini cabin especially given it was only half full.
IFE: Each seat has a personal monitor about the size of a square iPad built into the back of the seat in front of you which is controlled by a hand held retractable control that sits in the console between the two seats. Ok now before rating the IFE content I have to remind myself that the key market for China Southern is the Chinese market, thus the western content is somewhat limited, with about 7 Western movies, none of which were recent or appealing (unless you want to watch Harry Potter).
I couldn’t find any western TV programming either so my advice is skip the system altogether and bring a laptop or iPad (I had come prepared with a few iPad movie rentals and a stack of DVD’s for my laptop). One neat feature of the IFE is the ability to select which part of the moving map you see – e.g. The map, flight data or “pilots view”. I remember seeing somewhere that noise canceling headsets are provided but the headsets given were not noise canceling, and the pair i was given only having one ear working.
Meal: Orders for the first meal of the flight were taken just after take off, although no personal menus are provided which is disappointing for business class (especially as I like to collect that kinda swag). Instead the crew present the catering loading chart to each passenger where you select your mains for both meals (which is interesting if you ever want to know what the split between chicken and beef was).
Shortly after a white table cloth, small bread plate and stack of cutlery fill the fold out tray table before a simple salad (lettuce, celery, tomato and capsicum) arrives to start the meal accompanied with a choice of balsamic or italian dressing. The second course, cold meats were served but as the raw fish was placed onto of everything else I had to decline (I don’t eat fish). The crew quickly delivered my main instead which was a nice touch.
Unfortunately the main was extremely disappointing both in presentation and taste. The beef was very overcooked and almost impossible to cut on the semi flimsy fold out table with the butter knife provided. I’m hoping this is due to the delayed departure and not the standard . The beef was covered in gravy and served with a few potatoes, some carrot and broccoli. Honestly it felt more like a meal at an RSL than business class – and I think I’ve had better meals at an RSL.
Previous commercial reviews of this service are accurate on the wine list needing some rapid expansion with only chardonay, a red and beer offered. Bring on some bubbles and some sav blanc would make a huge improvement. I declined the cheese selection which was presented on the trolley as I didn’t really feel like it, although the crew seemed very concerned that I was declining parts of the meal so quickly brought a yummy desert which was some chocolate thing and a fruit selection.
The second meal was served about 3 hours before arrival and was a huge improvement in the first service in both taste and presentation. I opted for the pasta dish, which although simple was just what I was after, served with some fruit and an apricot cake/turnover thing as desert. Nice and simplistically presented on a single tray was a much better meal, even though the turbulence coincided directly with meal time. I’m not sure why airlines serve the second business meal so early, as it would have been great to have finished the meal and then landed an hour later, but alas I feel quite full and satisfied regardless. Unfortunately overall, in my view the meal product provided was not of business class standard.
Arrival: Our approach into Guangzhou was marked by the engines being pulled back followed by a long and quiet gradual decent over Guangzhou. Although the light was rapidly fading I was still able to get a bit of a look down over the city which was massive by any standard. The landing was textbook and very smooth and not what I was expecting after being told of some harrowing experiences by others who have flown domestically within China. A short taxi to the gate and the dual aerobridges attached our A330 to what I discovered to be a massive airport terminal. On the other side of the gate an agent was waiting with my name on a sign. She quickly attached a first class lounge pass to my boarding pass and escorted me to immigration.
I was connecting to a domestic flight and thus expected to have to pick up my bag to pass through customs however this is not the case in Guangzhou. Instead without our bags we waited in a corridor after Customs for about 15minutes, before being able to clear domestic security and take the golf cart buggy across to the domestic terminal. Although the process definitely saves time in clearing customs and rechecking your bag, it could be communicated a little better (as until it was explained to us by a friendly Chinese speaking Sydney based student, we didn’t know why we were waiting in a hallway.)
Crew: The crew were attentive and friendly however as the airline is very China mainland focussed their English needs some improvement to help out the western guests. However the crew arrived within seconds of pressing the call button and were happy to assist people getting their seats into beds. Overall the crew did their jobs well, but were not as proactive later in the flight as some other Asian airlines.
Overall: Given the price difference between this flight and it’s nearest competitors, Qantas and Cathay Pacific was less than $700 I felt a little disappointed on the level of service, particularly with the meal and IFE. However I went into this flight expecting the worst and was somewhat surprised with a higher service level than expected. If the meal and IFE were upgraded, and fully flat beds installed I think China Southern’s reputation would improve. Currently although marketed as business class, it is more comparable to other airlines premium economy product, with a bigger seat. On the plus side the number of mainland China destinations that China Southern can connect you to is impressive. I’ll post another trip report on my domestic flight shortly which is an example of one of many possible connections at Guangzhou.