Last year, I went on holiday to Europe. When I was deciding which airline to fly with, I had a tough choice to make. I could fly Air China, which I'd never flown before and knew very little about. Their website was stuck in the dark ages (seriously - it may have been built in 1999), and they were awarded a "Most Improved Airline" award for 2011. It didn't exactly strike me with confidence.
But then I found out that the open-jaw return ticket into Paris and out of Rome in peak season was going to cost me just $1500, taxes included. While the layover on the way to Paris was seven long hours, it was only a few hours more than their competitors. The return trip, on the other hand, was a mere four hour wait - fairly standard. Plus they didn't charge for exit row seats - they were allocated on a first come, first serve basis basis, which appealed to me.
My second option was Qantas and British Airways. For $1850 or thereabouts I could bounce to Europe on the old kangaroo - assuming it got off the ground, what with all the industrial disputes. The transit time was shorter, but for the price my flights would have to be in and out of the same city. Plus I'd have to pay another couple hundred bucks for the exit row (a necessity for my lofty partner on long haul flights). And having had a couple of pretty dire experiences with the airline in the past, I wasn't all that sure that my flights with them would be much better.
Finally, I could fly with one of the emerging premium service airlines - Emirates or Qatar. But that would cost me $2000+, and suddenly my plans for eating my way through Europe seemed less likely.
It was a tough decision - should I save myself a few hundred dollars and fly the cheap thrills no frills Air China, or should I spend the extra dough for a more pleasurable experience?
I booked Air China. Trust me, I can see you shaking your heads. I saw those looks for pity for months. The conversations went a little something like this:
Me: "I'm going to Europe soon!"
Colleague: "Oh how exciting! What airline?"
Me (looking sheepish): "Air China."
Colleague (with sympathetic arm pat): "It can't be THAT bad, right?"
On the day of my flight, I was prepared. I had books, my laptop and a music player for entertainment, a bag full of sandwiches (in case the food was dreadful), and a four hour head start (to nab those exit row seats).
The flight to Europe went well. My partner and I got to the airport before anyone else, so those exit row seats were ours. Sure, we had three hours to kill in the airport before boarding, but luckily my plethora of entertainment options kept us happy. The food on the plane was average, but edible, and my sandwiches were a good stop gap measure. The entertainment system on board was surprisingly decent, and while the seat padding was woeful, the legroom was magnificent.
The return trip, however, was not so smooth. Even though we got to the airport four hours early, a huge tour group had arrived just before us. The check in counters were woefully understaffed, and not only did we not get those exit row seats, we also had to rush through the airport to get to the gates on time. Of course, when we arrived, puffing after our cross-airport sprint, we found out the flight was delayed.
When we boarded the flight, there was one empty seat in the bulkhead area, which my partner was able to plead his way into – phew. However, while we experienced good service, I can’t say the same about a young couple who’d booked a bassinet for their three month old baby. Despite having confirmed availability of the bulk head area, they were seated in a regular row. When they asked for their seemingly confirmed seats, the flight attendants told them they couldn’t move the family occupying the row they’d requested, but offered a spare seat in between the couple, so the baby sleep in between them.
The couple protested such an arrangement, but to no avail. Mother and baby were in tears, the flight attendants were unsympathetic, and the family occupying the contentious row were faux oblivious. A resolution was eventually reached (the couple were moved to the front end of the plane, much to the chagrin of the family in the bassinet space), but the experience left me with a decidedly bad taste in my mouth.
I will think twice about flying with Air China again. If you have no special requests, have low expectations, and make your own arrangements for entertainment and food, Air China will get you there. But if I was travelling with a child or had special needs, I’d be coughing up the extra couple hundred bucks for peace of mind.