Flight Date: 03JUN13—I chose Air China for the Beijing-London leg of my journey and although I was a bit wary after my experience with China Eastern last month, but with the allure of the ‘Forbidden Pavilion’—Air China’s name for their first class cabin—how could I resist? I was only connecting at Beijing and had arranged, or so I thought, ample time to connect from my Korean Air flight to my onward Air China flight; however in hindsight the two hours I had allotted were barely enough.
Korean Air uses Terminal 2 at Beijing’s Capital Airport whereas Air China uses Terminal 3. This sounds reasonable enough—how far apart could two terminals be spaced anyway? I was met by an Air China agent who was waiting for me on the jetway. He escorted me to the Air China transfer desk where I was presented with a hand-written boarding pass for my onward flight to London. He then led me down a hallway, through a retail shop(!) and down a flight of stairs…I started to wonder what I had done wrong and that maybe I was being taken to a secret interrogation room for questioning. We ended up at an unmanned immigration desk and after waiting 10 minutes or so, an immigration official arrived. He logged on to his computer, scanned my passport and then attempted to stamp it, however the stamper gadget had ran out of ink! He fiddled and fumbled and then finally called someone to bring him some ink. Another 10 minutes passed and the replacement ink arrived. Never a dull moment at Beijing Capital Airport.
My trusty Air China rep. led me to an outside bus stop area and told me to wait. There were two buses but no drivers so he started calling around to find them. We waited and waited and although I was uncharacteristically calm and cool, he was visibly flustered. Another five minutes passed and all of sudden our wayward bus driver magically appeared from inside the bus—he had been sleeping!
I could see terminal 3 just across the tarmac so I assumed a quick five-minute ride was all it would take…boy was I wrong. The bus started heading in the opposite direction around the perimeter of the airport. Maybe I was headed for that interrogation room after all!
We finally arrived a good 30 minutes later and I made my way to the Air China first class lounge. Terminal 3 opened in 2008; just in time for the Beijing Olympics. It’s massive with super high ceilings. The lounge uses an open-air design and you have a nice vantage point above the main floor of the terminal’s goings-on below. Even though it was still early June and mild outside, the terminal seemed unnaturally hot and stuffy inside.
Like many things in China in general, the Air China lounge is well…kind of funky: plastic trees and plants along with faux leather armchairs dotting the outer areas. The interior section of the lounge contains staff areas and the lounge kitchen. The lounge is set up very oddly with the dining area placed in a narrow section at the far back of the lounge and strange un-staffed bars on the other. Maybe some feng-shui thing?
Being China, you are not allowed simply to log on to the internet either. You have to insert your passport into a kiosk machine located at the entrance which spits out a password and username receipt similar to an ATM receipt. Do they filter the internet access by nationality?
Due to the length of my connection ordeal I didn’t have much time to ‘enjoy’ the lounge anyway and gathered my carry-on and headed to the boarding gate.
I boarded the B777-300 and presented my boarding pass to the flight attendant. I was in 2L and as I was getting situated another flight attendant rushed over and said, ‘not you seat’. I said, ‘excuse me?’ She insisted I was in 20L and snatched my carry-on and headed towards the business class cabin. Aha! Now I understood why they call it the ‘Forbidden Pavilion”; they don’t actually allow you to sit down! I showed her my boarding pass and she still didn’t seem convinced. I said this was my seat and that if she had any issues to call the head purser. English skills were rough, so I’m not sure if she understood me. Nevertheless, they figured out eventually that it was indeed my seat and I was finally allowed entry.
The Air China B777-300 first class cabin has eight seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. The cabin décor is finished in white, dark grey and burgundy. Wow! What a difference between this cabin and the China Eastern product. Impressive.
I got settled in when a flight attendant came by with a set of pajamas, L’Occitane amenity kit, wine list and menu. Soon after another came by with glass of champagne and some nuts.
The Air China B777-300 first class seats are spacious and are similar in design to Malaysia’s A380 first class seats. Flight #937 departed on time and as soon as we reached our cruising altitude I snapped a few more shots of the interior.
Although extensive, both the Chinese and Western menu choices consisted of meat dishes only. As I was the only one in first though, I asked if they could create an impromptu seafood main dish out of the appetizers: lobster and smoked salmon. Again the flight attendant’s English skills were not quite up for such a request, but we all managed with a lot of finger pointing and gestures in the end.
The meal service started out with an amuse bouche of Parma ham and dragon fruit skewer (I ate the dragon fruit and left the ham) and a canapé of prawn in chili sauce.
Following the appetizers was a nice bowl of zucchini cream soup and salad. Lastly, the lobster and smoked salmon.
The dessert choices looked a little sketchy so I went for the cheese assortment instead.
The meal service was a bit hit and miss. The silverware, china, and glassware were all of good quality; however the food itself wasn’t quite up to international first class standards and the inclusion of at least one seafood dish would be a welcome addition as well. The wine and tea selections however, were top notch. I tried a few and I especially enjoyed the Chateau de la Riviere 2002 Bordeaux.
Functionality-wise the Air China AVOD system is state-of-the-art. The English language movie and TV program selection was limited though. I was sleepy anyway and decided to try out the bed.
The seat was the best thing about my Air China flight; very roomy and long with just the right amount of cushioning. I was able to get some much-needed sleep until one of the cabin crew mistakenly turned the lights on!
Air China’s Forbidden Pavilion first class service was a mixed bag. The seat, pajamas, L’Occitane amenity kit and wine selection onboard were great. The connection at Beijing Capital Airport from terminal 2 to terminal 3 was a nightmare. The first class lounge was tacky with a user un-friendly lay out and although I could tell they were trying, the Air China in-flight crew didn’t seem to have received proper training. The flight attendants were friendly and helpful but also bungled the little things like my seat assignment, spilling wine and turning the lights on during mid-flight. Ground crew, lounge staff and the in-flight crew’s English abilities were lacking and it was difficult to communicate. I don’t want to sound mean-spirited or anything as I never came across any outright rude staff members, but Air China needs to invest more resources into service training and language skills. Good intentions by the staff cannot compensate for bad training. If you can source a really good deal on the ticket price I would recommend Air China’s Forbidden Pavilion first class product, however if you’re paying full fare you may want to choose another carrier for now.
Air China Forbidden Pavilion First Class Photo Gallery