Question for everyone. How many Skytraxx 5-star airlines currently exist? There’s not many. 11 actually. Today we’re talking about one of the lesser known ones, at least stateside, Hainan. It joins the dusty ranks of Etihad, shares the skies with over-the-top Singapore and hangs out with the always spicy Cathay Pacific. I recently tried their economy-class product from Seattle to Hong Kong via Beijing. Let me show you how that went.
Opening Act: How I Ended up Riding Dirty
Long-haul economy, ugh, so miserable. That’s for people who fail at the award travel game, right? Maybe. But being a savvy award travel player is a bit like being a good poker player. You need to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.
On this trip, which ended up taking my Hainan virginity, I began my flight search like always. Deciding on a general region I’d like to visit, and then taking a look at Star, Onewold and Skyteam premium cabin award availability. It wasn’t great.
That’s how I wound up riding dirty. In my experience, redemption values are rarely great flying to Asia in economy. Fares are so reasonable, that in most cases, I like to just hold the points. In this case, I paid $585 round trip, Seattle to Hong Kong.
After booking, I wanted to make sure I reserved the best seat available. Here’s were things go a little wonky. It never ceases to surprise me that airlines spend millions modernizing their fleets, and then only the bare minimum necessary to provide a self-service online booking management system. In this regard, Americans have it pretty good. All 4 major domestic airlines let one seamlessly manage their flight online. Not necessarily so with Hainan.
I had to Google “Hainan seat reservation” to find the appropriate website. Weirdly, this wasn’t actually available from the reservation management page. The link provided on that page errored out. Nevertheless, after selecting my seat via the Google link, I was able to go ahead and select. Nicely, despite being only a couple days from departure, our Boeing 787-9 looked relatively empty.
After selecting what appeared to be something decent, the seat selection was then visible on my reservation management page.
Check-in and Boarding
Arriving at Seatac, we see that Hainan only has one counter for each cabin. Not surprising, considering they only operate two flights from the airport. One to Beijing and the other to Shanghai.
Check-in was very smooth, with landside operations being handled by Swissport.
However, being an airline with a relatively small US footprint presents a problem, they’re not a TSA Precheck partner. Which means you’ll be taking of your shoes and unpacking your laptop. Really annoying.
Hainan did their best to help with the situation. Even knowing the relative futility of it, I still asked if there was any way to apply my known traveler number to the reservation. When booking, there was actually a field where this info could be provided to the carrier. Sadly, they let me know what I already knew, that a KTN when flying Hainan offers no benefit. However, I was provided with a small, “sorry for the inconvenience” gesture. The check-in agent marked my boarding pass “premium lane”, which meant I slithered by the normal non-precheck economy line like a slimy little snake and made my way right to the front. From here, it was business as usual, with the pointless display of security theater commencing as I was forced to strip my carry-on luggage bare of electronics and shuffle shoeless through the “we promise we’re not looking at your junk” deficit-increasing body scanner. Just like a beaten down drone. In any case, it was a nice attempt on Hainan’s part to help alleviate part of the hassle.
Past security and it was a short train ride out to the South terminal gates, where most international flights depart from. Out here, we find a lone Priority Pass lounge, The Club at SEA, conveniently located right next to our gate.
The Club, operates several locations across the country. Though they don’t have a great reputation, they’re not too bad either. Some free drinks and food prior to boarding still beats the terminal, especially considering it’s proximity.
Boarding itself was what we’d politely call a complete cluster. No clear zone announcements and what appeared to be one long economy line. It was so disorganized that people near the rear weren’t even sure they were queuing for the correct gate. Hainan’s free-for-all method makes Southwest’s boarding procedures look like a finely tuned Swiss watch.
Heading down the jetway and we’re first greeted by one of Hainan’s outstanding flight attendants. Every time I fly a foreign carrier, I always have to wonder what it would be like if they, and their US counterparts were to do a little cross-training. Throw a couple miserable United FA’s on a Hainan flight while simultaneously let the Hainan crew work United metal. I bet it would be hilarious. Passengers on both would be utterly confused and both crews would likely hate each other.
Getting to my seat, the very non-Instagram worthy 39-Alpha, and we see a very nice presentation. A tidily wrapped blanket and a small pillow.
Settling in and it would appear that something magical is afoot. A rare unicorn of the skies. The holy grail of economy-class travel. The empty middle seat.
This initial euphoria is often quickly replaced by the anxiety that just one more person was going to walk through that door. You frantically look up and down the aisles for any stragglers that may be headed your way, and then in happens. Cabin doors close, luggage bins up, and you breathe a sigh of relief.
However, even though all-appears to be well, you’re not out of the woods quite yet. There might always be that lone traveler looking to switch seats or some other anomaly that might ruin your poor-man’s business-class seat. In an attempt to ward off any would-be seat-ruiners, you frantically stack the middle with backpacks and pillows and give anyone who even looks your way the most uninviting grimace you can muster. Hands off my empty middle seat assholes.
Luckily, in this case, all proved well, and all 18 glorious extra inches were ours for the nearly 12- hour flight.
As we got going, I took the time to acquaint myself with Hainan’s in-flight entertainment system. It had a polished feel to it. The monitors were clear and high-def. However, content was a bit lacking. There was a plethora of Chinese-language films, but not many Western titles, maybe two-dozen if I had to guess. All with annoying subtitles. I was able to find something to pass the time, but was disappointed by the selection.
Furthermore, as many frequent travelers know, the industry seems hell-bent on continuing to install those weird two-pronged audio plugs. Most headphones will require an adapter, which any savvy traveler should have. For anyone interested, here(Amazon) are the ones I use. When it came to my monitor, the left channel plug was jammed with something, and thus unusable. I had to get wonky, and use the audio from the middle seat while watching the right one. A process that involved hitting play at the exact same time and hoping I got them in sync. I didn’t bother addressing this with the cabin crew, because realistically, what were they going to do?
While I was not impressed with the movie selection, I was very impressed by the in-flight moving map. It was great. Several different views and a “command-center” are enough to satisfy even the most die-hard map obsessed flyer. Still no A350 style tail cam though. Sad times there.
First In-Flight Service
After taxi, takeoff and initial climb out, we were greeted to something not always seen in economy, an amenity kit. Nothing fancy, but still very appreciated. Inside, we’ve got a pair of socks, earplugs, a toothbrush/toothpaste kit and an eye mask. Nice. I usually stash these for when I have guests at my house. Just want to give any overnighters the full business-class experience.
Next up, we were given a menu to glance over before meal-time. I consider this a really nice touch. Often, an attendant will simply say “chicken or beef” without any further details. It’s a small gesture, but appreciated nonetheless. Sadly, when it was actually time to eat, they were out of everything besides the Mongolian beef. I didn’t mind, but really hope passengers further back weren’t hoping for pork or tilapia.
With lunch, I decided to go ahead and do what every devoted liquor enthusiast does, and daintily annihilate a Heineken, one of only two beer choices available to the economy-class Hainan passenger. This led to the immediate need to consume another Heinekan. A quick call button press and the flight-attendant was off to fetch me one more. Unfortunately, she returned to inform me they had already depleted their reserves. Very disappointing, since the Chinese brewed Yanjing alternative is quite foul. It’s weird to think that less than two hours into our Pacific crossing, and they were already running out of beverage.
After my failed attempt at a double-beer lunch, I moved on to what would prove to be the most disappointing aspect of this flight, the WiFi. Prior to departure, or even booking for that matter, I did a little Googling and found Hainan claims this feature is available on their fleet of 9-series Dreamliners, which I happen to be on.
However, a quick survey of available networks and we see nothing. I did ask an FA about availability, to which I received a response of something like “no, sorry, not this flight”.
Pre-departure research led me to believe, the oldest 9 series Dreamliner operated by Hainan should be about 3 years of age. Definitely new enough to be equipped with satellite-based internet. Nevertheless, I was curious as to the vintage of this specific aircraft. After landing, I checked up on Bravo 1132, and see that it was delivered in September of 2018, about six months before this flight, nearly brand-new.
The fact that this aircraft, despite being such a recent addition to Hainan’s fleet isn’t equipped with WiFi as advertised, makes me believe that the carrier is just bold-faced lying. For what it’s worth, our return flight didn’t have any coverage either. In that flight’s case, the aircraft in question was delivered just 3 months ago. So bottom line, if you’re flying Hainan because of some claimed in-flight connectivity, don’t.
The next 7-ish hours were pretty uneventful, a combination of trying to sleep, syncing the monitors so I could watch something and being annoyed that there was no WiFi.
As we flew over Eastern Russia, dinner time arrived. Available for this meal was fried rice with chicken or pork goulash. I have no idea what goulash is and I find that planes aren’t the place to be adventurous, so I went chicken. I’m not sure if it was the fact that anything tastes good after 10 hours of squirming around, but it was quite delicious. Still no Heineken to wash it down though.
Landing in Beijing and we deplaned via some portable stairs. Others may not agree, but I actually find this method of disembarkation kind of fun. It’s something different, and it gives one a really cool chance to check out the exterior of the aircraft.
On the ground, were two, and only two, actually there might have been a third, buses to transport all passengers to the terminal. It was really obnoxious. Hainan appeared to do everything they could to uncomfortably cram everyone in for the semi-long ride to Beijing Capital Airport’s T2.
Transferring in Beijing
So, about that terminal. It’s just terrible. Inside, and communism is on full-display. As per usual, one needs to head through transfer-security before proceeding. It was the most obnoxious display of invasive searching and suspicion I’ve ever seen at any airport. I’m not joking when I say that they actually opened up my chap stick and smelled the contents. Just gross. Who knows what commie rear that sniffer has been up. These guys make the TSA look like fairy angels from heaven.
Aside from feeling violated by the hand of Mao, the great Chinese firewall meant no social updates, Google or YouTube while you wait. Also, it’s really hot with very subpar AC. Or maybe it’s not even on this time of year. Beijing’s Terminal 2 is just the worst.
Overall, I’m left wondering where exactly the 5 Skytraxx stars are coming from. In many ways, it felt like a United flight with a cuter/friendlier cabin crew. The only two problems encountered were the broken audio jack on my outbound flight and the fact my SCUBA gear was delayed upon return.
I would have no problem flying Hainan again, but I wouldn’t necessarily be as excited as I was the first time.
Compared to other 5-star airlines, the whole experience felt less premium. Admittedly, the fact one must transit through Beijing’s uber-Marxist Terminal 2 detracts from the whole package, and that’s not necessarily fair to pin that on the airline. But it is hard to separate the two. Like most things in life, the answer to whether I would recommend this product to a friend depends on price. I know, not groundbreaking stuff. For example, if I were departing Seattle for Hong Kong again, I might look towards Asiana or ANA, both members of the 5-star club, with connections in the exceptional Seoul Incheon or Tokyo Narita airports. Or, better yet, give Cathay’s new nonstop service a try. Combine these vastly superior transit options with better in-flight AVOD and at least equal to in-flight service and I think that’s worth a couple hundred more.