How China's "big four" domestic airlines compare

By Chris Tudehope , February 13 2013
How China's

Planning a business trip to China and researching what you can expect when flying domestically on China's "big four" airlines — Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and Hainan Airlines?

Australian Business Traveller reader Chris Tudehope spent a month in Beijing, travelling extensively on the "big four", and has this report (with his own pictures) to explain what fellow travellers in the People's Republic can expect.

Hainan Airlines (HU): Beijing-Xi'an, Beijing-Shanghai

The airline has 7 major bases around China, with the two largest in Haikou and Beijing.

At Beijing Airport, Hainan Airlines operates domestic flights out of its own terminal, Terminal 1. It's located next to T2 (and is the subway station you should use for travel to T1).

The terminal operates efficiently, but be sure to refuse any offers for check-in assistance from anyone (I was approached both times, I’d assume due to being a westerner).

Beijing-Xi'an saw me on a Boeing 737-800 with the spacious Boeing Sky Interior — a reassuring sign of a modern plane.

The staff greeted me in English, yet only the purser seemed to have a good grasp of the language. The remainder of the ever-smiling and patient staff gave me a good opportunity to practice my Mandarin.

Overhead screens provided in-flight entertainment.

Breakfast on this flight consisted of congee (Chinese rice porridge), a rather tasty chicken sandwich and apple crisps.

For my gluten-intolerant travel companion (we forgot to mention this to staff prior to travel) the staff bent over backwards to source as many apple crisps as possible (and my friend now has enough to feed a plane-load of Jetstar passengers).

We landed 20 minutes early.

My Beijing-Shanghai (Hongqiao) flight was on an internationally configured A330-200, which had no issues being filled.

Lots of hipster types on this flight, which gave me the impression that Hainan is a bit like the Virgin America of the Chinese market (groovy mood-lighting, skinny jeans and all).

In-flight entertainment was excellent: large seat-back touch-screens with enough choice to rival any international airline (and, being China, more Modern Family than even NBC could offer).

Hainan offered multiple choices for breakfast, and I picked the “egg dumpling with magic sauce” which turned out to be an omelette with sausage and a tomato relish – quite tasty. Staff did multiple runs through the cabin offering drinks.

We landed bang on time.

China Eastern (MU): Xi'an-Beijing

The airline has several major bases around China, with the largest of them at Shanghai’s two airports. At Beijing Airport, China Eastern operates out of Terminal 2, which is next door to T1 and is where the subway station is located.

Xi’an-Beijing was perhaps the worst of all my Chinese domestic flights.

Despite having a very friendly gentleman who insisted on helping me with my Chinese grammar exercises for the duration of the flight, there was no food, nor was there entertainment.

Staff were pleasant enough, but the idea of smiling seemed a foreign concept, much like the geographical knowledge of their own country. 

During all English announcements, it was stated that the flight was going to Hong Kong (which would have been a seemingly minor detour of 4 hours).

And their stern glares dissuaded me from taking pictures inside the plane.

We landed into Beijing 35 minutes early.

China Southern (CZ): Beijing-Harbin

Appropriately enough, the airline is based in China’s south, in the city of Guangzhou. However, it also maintains a large hub in Beijing and several other cities around China.

At Beijing Airport, like SkyTeam alliance counterpart China Eastern, China Southern operates out of T2.

Beijing-Harbin was my first domestic flight within China and it was one of the better flights.

The A320 was rather new and, for the early hour, the staff were all very chirpy and friendly, with one staff member coming to me to ask whether I was enjoying my flight, whether any of the English announcements were incorrect, and what they could do to improve their service.

As someone who had no status with any related airline, I was both impressed and perplexed by this, though my travel companion did suggest that it was due to my being a westerner.

Food was a choice between chicken rice and vegetable noodles. I enjoyed the vegetable noodles, which were tasty (if somewhat oily), and multiple drinks were provided. They then came through to ask who wanted seconds!

Entertainment was the morning news and was provided by overhead screen.

I found it amusing that when I asked for a pen, staff provided me with a China Eastern-branded one!

The flight landed into a very snowy and chilly Harbin 30 minutes early.

Air China (CA): Harbin-Beijing, Shanghai-Beijing

Considered the national airline and based in Beijing at the colossal Terminal 3 (T3) which is some distance from the older T1 and T2, Air China has the largest network out of Beijing.

Harbin-Beijing was an evening flight, operated by a 737-700 with blankets and pillows provided for all. Staff were reasonably friendly and provided a late-night snack of a hanbaobao — Chinese for "burger" (read: sweet bread with some mystery processed meat and cucumber with lashings of mayo inside).

I missed the call for seconds so went to the back of the plane where the staff loaded me up with an additional three "burgers".

Overhead screens provided entertainment for this flight, though most passengers simply slept. Announcements were made in English, but the rest of the flight was purely in Mandarin.

The flight landed 5 minutes late.

Shanghai (Hongqiao)-Beijing was another evening service, and for this one the airline used a Boeing 737-800.

All crew on this flight spoke reasonably good English (as did most passengers for that matter — ah, the influence the west has had on Shanghai!)

Again, pillows and blankets were handed out at the beginning of the flight and overhead screens provided entertainment.

The late-night snack was what could best be described as a salmon mornay roll which was quite tasty, though not to the liking of my seat-mate who made a kind donation to my tray table so that he could sleep — no complaints from me.

Interestingly enough, one member of cabin crew asked me for my number “to follow up on feedback” (which I had not provided). Perhaps they wanted to discuss the wonders of the salmon mornay roll.

The flight landed on-time and we parked at a blisteringly cold remote stand where we had to wait for what seemed like an eternity in -5C and strong winds (which explained the vomitron-like landing) on the bus.

General impressions

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised flying domestically in China.

The non-aligned and non-government owned Hainan Airlines provided the best on-board experience by a long shot.

I'd pay slightly more to travel with Hainan, as they also got me to my destination early or on-time.

However, China Southern and Air China also provided enjoyable flights that got me to my destination on-time with friendly crews and tasty meals.

But I would avoid China Eastern like a 10-hour layover in Dubbo. The crews were not friendly, nor was there food or entertainment — a clear choice when there are similarly timed and priced flights on other airlines which provide more.

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Chris Tudehope is a languages student (speaking four at last count), frequent traveller and passionate observer of up-and-coming countries.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 May 2011

Total posts 734

Great read and nice insights by an AUSBT reader. Thanks for your efforts to document your domestic flying experiences in China Chris!

12 Jul 2011

Total posts 76

The HU proposition seems very interesting! Thanks for the review :)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Feb 2013

Total posts 54

Having lived in China until recently and flown many domestic sectors, I would concur with this report. China Southern and Air China are OK, and Hainan are a cut above. China Eastern is best avoided. The airline lounges are generally not up to international standards.

The general standard of ground staff for all the Chinese airlines is well below those in most of NE and SE Asia, particularly at airports other than Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. As a westerner you may get slightly better treatment than locals - sometimes due to a fear of getting into a 'discussion' with you in English which will demonstrate to their supervisor that their English skills are not what they are expected to be. Although occassionally being a westerner will mean you are completely ignored or dismissed because they think its just too difficult to try to converse with you.

Like anywhere else, being respectful can produce results, particularly as many Chinese are quite brusque in dealing with airline staff. I can well remember queuing to checkin at the first class counter at Beijing when a policeman appeared at the counter just as I got to the front of the queue. He was accompanying an important guest and he told the checkin agent to ignore me and checkin the important person first. She appeared to take some pleasure in telling him to waiting as see had to deal with the westerner first, and then she took great care to explain everything to me in great detail, and make the policeman and the government official wait as long as possible.

Don't lose your temper - it will be counter-productive (although occassionally a deliberate, controlled, decision to appear to be on the verge of losing your temper can produce results).

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 667

Great advice there, Martin. I'd add that China is one country where the "give up and try again with someone else" rule at the airport works exceedingly well, partly because of the saving face thing, and partly because of the saying no thing.

It's amazing how many different answers you get if you suddenly fake receiving a phone call when the desk agent isn't giving the answer you want, take yourself out of the queue, and come back when someone else is ready to deal with you.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

29 Aug 2012

Total posts 23

Totally agree with you there Martin. I used my slightly annoyed tone a few times with taxi drivers and it got results (including a 50km taxi ride for the equivalent of about AUD$10). Airports are indeed interesting places in China...


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 May 2012

Total posts 76

Thanks for the advice Chris, if only it was two days ago. I have just purchased a one way ticket on MU,Chengdu–Kunming–Bangkok ha ha. At least from yours and other reports my other domestic flights with Air China should be ok.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Jun 2012

Total posts 54

Melb-Guangzhou on China Southern. Recommend it. Good value for money.

Air New Zealand - Airpoints

16 Feb 2013

Total posts 1

Interesting.  I live in Taizhou China and Find Hainan Airlines out of Ningbo or Hangzhou to be absolutely terrible.  Surprisingly Air China out of Hangzhou is very cheap (as little as AUD85 for a first fare to Shenzen),  reliable and curtious service.  I avoid Hainan like the plague.  Considering you get 55 airpoints back from Air NZ airpoints for Hangzhou-Shenzen sector in first it's a no brainer.  Shenzen airlines have now joined Star alliance and offer flights from both Guangzhou and Shenzen to taizhou (HYN) for as little as AUD100 in First.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

29 Aug 2012

Total posts 23

That's interesting to note. Most of China's airlines seem fairly regionalised (with but one indication being the wide array of inflight magazines available dependent on where your flight is going!) Prior to any flights I asked a number of Beijingers their thoughts on airlines and these seemed fairly in line with what I wrote. However, being in a different region, the landscape I would assume is fairly different for you. Interesting that HU is so far down the pecking order. What makes them so terrible out of the airports you mentioned?


22 Mar 2012

Total posts 200

By the way "and, being China, more Modern Family than even NBC could offer"-Modern Family actually aires on ABC not NBC in the U.S. 

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