Fuelled by the booming Chinese economy and a population keen to hit the tourist trail China’s airlines have been rapidly expanding in recent years. Where once they flew only between a couple of key Chinese cities and a handful of regional destinations, companies like China Eastern Airlines have spread their wings and a developing international network of routes across the globe offers a cheap path to China.
Hardly a household name, here's a look at what you can expect from a flight with China Eastern, including common concerns such as safety, whether the staff speaks English and what sort of amenities they have on their aircraft.
Where the Airline Flies
In common with the strong regional identities of the country itself, China’s airlines still maintain distinct connections with their region of origin. For China Eastern this is Shanghai and the majority of its routes are to and from Shanghai. If you’re heading to Guangzhou or Hong Kong you’ll find better connections through China Southern Airlines and for Beijing, Air China.
Alongside China Southern Airlines and Air China, China Eastern Airlines is one of the country’s three big carriers and the ninth biggest airline in the world by the number of passengers flown. In 2010, the airline became a member of the global Star Alliance.
Aside from its headquarters in Shanghai, the airline has secondary hubs in Xi’an and Kunming, two major regional Chinese capitals, as well as smaller hubs at Wuhan, Hefei, Kunming, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. The airline's domestic routes are very well developed with flights to several dozen Chinese cities, including Lahasa in Tibet. The airline boasts the best connections to middle and eastern China.
Compared to its competitors China Eastern’s regional network is limited and although the usual suspects of Bangkok, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur are present – China Southern Airlines and Hong Kong’s Dragon Airlines offer far better and more frequent connections.
Internationally the airline is expanding. China Eastern Airlines has a particularly well-developed network to Japan, with flights to a dozen cities, and also excellent connections to half a dozen cities in Korea. The airline flies to several key European cities, including London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Rome. There are also flights to Melbourne and Sydney and New York and LA.
Booking and Website
The airline has done much to improve the look and functionality of its website and booking tickets are simple and straightforward. English language is available and prices are given across several days allowing you to compare the cheapest fare. Rules and regulations of tickets are clearly displayed and well explained and there are regular fare promotions.
You can also book China Eastern tickets from most major travel agents and through online travel portals such as Zuji.
Aircraft, In-Flight Entertainment, and Seats
China Eastern Airlines has invested in a number of new Airbuses in recent years but large parts of the fleet are still dated and amenities onboard are not up to international standards. The airline has made a concerted effort to improve services on board in recent years and is probably ahead of its Chinese competitors but still has some way to go to catch up with its Star Alliance partners.
As is to be expected with older planes some of the upholstery is worn and this can affect the comfort of the seats. Economy class is cramped and seats or table trays can occasionally be broken. For business class travelers, the service is likely to be a disappointment with grumbles about seats that don’t fully recline, poor food choices and few premium extras.
Aside from a handful of international flights, including New York, London, and Tokyo, which feature personal entertainment systems, most flights feature a ceiling screen every dozen or so rows which is usually tuned into a Chinese film or TV show. Some flights don’t feature any in-flight entertainment.
The quality of the food and meals is ok if you stick to the basic noodle and rice Chinese dishes but the Western concoctions are usually best avoided – sometimes this is not a problem as they frequently run out. They claim to offer special pre-ordering of meals for vegetarians and vegans although reports of these meals actually turning up are rare.
English Language Speaking Staff
Like other Chinese carriers, the English language ability of staff is very much hit and miss, if improving. While you certainly shouldn’t expect proficiency it is very rare that at least one member of the cabin crew will not be able to communicate in English on all but the smallest domestic hops. Internationally most staff speak ok English and there can be problems with communication over meals, drinks and other requests.
China Eastern Airlines onboard staff do get positive reviews for their service and are usually friendly and helpful despite the language barrier. This contrasts with customer service staff at airports and ticket desks who are often ranked somewhere from incompetent to hostile. If you do have a problem with a ticket or a connection it can be difficult to resolve easily.
Safety Record and Punctuality
Travelers unfamiliar with Chinese airlines can be nervous about flying with China Eastern Airlines and concerned about safety standards in China generally. China Eastern has been involved in a number of crashes in the 90s, although all have involved smaller regional aircraft.
The most serious and most serious was in 2004 when a small Bombardier crashed killing all 54 passengers. Incidentally, this was China’s first fatal plane crash for several years and there has been just one more since. Despite the crash, China Eastern Airlines meets all international safety standards and has a safety record on par with other international carriers.