The day finally came when Chris and I are about to embark on what we hoped to be an unforgettable journey half-way across the world. And we were right. As you may have read before, we snagged an incredible deal to fly from New York to Bali, Indonesia via Shanghai, China for just $385 roundtrip. The only caveat was that China Eastern Airlines had very mixed reviews online, citing poor customer service onboard, inedible food, and even reports of their flight crew smoking in flight. In addition, like all Chinese airlines, the use of mobile phones whether it’s on airplane mode or not is prohibited and they are usually very strict about enforcing this. However, I was actually somewhat excited to fly the airline, to really see if these reviews are right.
Flight 1: China Eastern Airlines (MU 298), New York (JFK) to Shanghai (PVG)
Flight 2: China Eastern Airlines (MU 5030), Shanghai (PVG) to Denpasar (DPS)
Chris and I met up at JFK’s Terminal 1 at 9PM, three hours and 45 minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart. When we got there, the line was already significantly long. However, after standing in the main line for about two minutes, I had an idea. The night before, I flew from Syracuse to JFK in first class on Delta, China Eastern’s SkyTeam partner airline. Flying first class grants you SkyPriority access, which means you get to skip the long line and get priority check-in. But tonight, we were flying in economy. I politely asked the airline agent if it was alright to check-in at the SkyPriority desk since I flew first class on Delta the night before. She didn’t seem phased about it, and only motioned us to get our passports out. We ended up saving about 30 minutes. Since we had plenty of time, we just went to the food court located in a mezzanine above the check-in area and took photos, discussed our trip, and relaxed.
Our aircraft for the 15-hour flight to Shanghai is a Boeing 777-300ER, my favorite. The Boeing 777 was first introduced on June 7, 1995 to United Airlines, on the very day I was born. The -300ER is the longest variant, equipped with a pair of GE-90 engines. Unfortunately, most airlines have now configured its economy class on this aircraft with 10-abreast seating, which means seats are narrower than usual. Weeks before the flight, Chris and I did the classic “I take the window and you take the aisle” move in hopes that the middle seat will remain open. The moment of truth came when we finally boarded the flight.
On our flight to Denpasar, we were flying on an Airbus A330-300. Seats on this flight were much more spacious 8-abreast seating with the 2x4x2 layout which made the 6-hour flight comfortable. It ended up being a completely full flight which was fine since Chris and I got two seats to ourselves thanks to the better layout.
Boarding began around midnight, first with first and business class passengers, and then two main boarding groups for economy, which was a similar process on our connecting flight. Since we were seated in the front cabin, we were one of the last ones to board. Unfortunately, when we got to our seat, Row 44 (GO CUSE!), an elderly Chinese man was already seated in the middle seat. We tried to ask him to move to the aisle seat, saying that Chris and I were traveling together. Like anybody would, it shouldn’t be an issue for anyone assigned to a middle seat to move to an aisle seat, especially on a 15-hour flight. However, this man, while very friendly did not understand us. I flagged down a flight attendant, who was extremely helpful and friendly. She spoke to the man in Mandarin and without hesitation, he grabbed his stuff, smiled and bowed, and moved to the aisle seat. He was asleep for most of the flight, but when he was awake and we needed to get up to go to the lavatory, he was always smiling and bowed his head.
In-Flight Entertainment and Free WiFi
Perhaps one of the most surprising facts about China Eastern is that it offers free WiFi. The only issue is that you have to sign up for it before your flight on their website. However, the process is quite simple. You simply type in your credentials and flight information, and the airline will send you a code via email that you use to log-in during the flight. Speeds were slow, but really can’t complain since it’s free. Do make sure that you have a VPN since most things like Google, Facebook and Instagram are blocked. The service is advertised as only available on the Boeing 777, but upon boarding our connecting flight to DPS on an A330, there was a WiFi sticker posted by the door. I suspect you can get extra WiFi codes by flagging down a flight attendant.
In addition, each seat was equipped with 10.6″ personal televisions. The entertainment selection was decent, with about a dozen or so recently released Hollywood movies and some older classics on the menu. The TV selection however was extremely poor. However, for a 15-hour flight, the option is enough to keep yourself entertained.
Service on both flights were perhaps the most surprising part of our China Eastern experience. Although the flight attendants were not as polished as Singapore Airlines, or as polite as Asiana Airlines, or as interactive as most US-based flight attendants, they were extremely efficient, responded to requests right away, and spoke good English. On the flight from JFK to PVG, I was still hungry after dinner. I pressed the flight attendant call button and politely asked if I could get another meal. Without hesitation, she left for the galley and came back with a new meal and even apologized that my first option was no longer available. On the flight from PVG to DPS, I slept through the meal service and only woke up when the flight attendants were already clearing up the trays. They ended up placing a heart-shaped sticker on my seat that said something like “Don’t worry, let us know if you want to eat!” And the moment I opened my eyes, two flight attendants rushed to my seat, offered me a meal and a drink, and made sure I was taken care of. Chris was also feeling sick and refused to eat the whole meal, so he only requested some bread bun. Rather than giving only him one, a friendly and concerned flight attendant came back with a tray full of bread, and kept handing Chris more.
In short, the food sucked. On the flight from JFK to PVG, my noodles tasted like wax. If I would have squeezed some lemon over it and closed my eyes, it would probably be the same thing as eating a candle from Bath & Body Works. Breakfast on the flight was a little bit better with some edible dim sum pieces next to the same noodles dish from dinner. Despite this, the saving grace was the freshly baked bread served during dinner and warm croissant for breakfast. This also filled the cabin with an amazing smell. Even 5-star airlines like Asiana and Singapore doesn’t serve warm bread in economy, so that was a very nice touch.
On the flight from PVG to DPS, I was served a side of octopus which is quite odd for an in-flight meal. I didn’t realize how bad the meal was until I fully woke up from my brief nap and realized I was eating octopus. However, we came in prepared and packed loads of snacks from the airport so it wasn’t a major issue. So if you’re flying on China Eastern soon, pack some protein bars.
Legroom on both the 777 and A330 were similar, averaging at 32 inches. The A330 felt more spacious however since the cabin was arranged at 2x4x2 as opposed to 3x4x3, which meant it was about an inch wider. Both seats were well padded and recline was pretty generous which made for a more comfortable flight. The cabin on the 777 and A330 was also brand new and very well maintained, so as far as cabin comfort goes, China Eastern receives high marks. The only other issue is the lack of individual air vents, but unlike most Asian airlines, the cabin was kept at a cool temperature.
Yes, the Cabin Smelled Like Cigarettes
We can officially confirm it. A few minutes after taking off from JFK, we smelled the scent of cigarette during flight. I’ve read numerous reports of this happening but it was surreal to actually experience it for yourself. It’s quite ironic considering the multitude of no-smoking placards around the aircraft and the in-flight announcement that it is a non-smoking flight. Fortunately, this only lasted for a few minutes.
Barring the fiasco of the return segment, which I will detail later, China Eastern was a solid airline. Although the food could be better and we could do without the cigarette smell, all our outbound flights departed and arrived on-time, service was consistently good, seats were comfortable, and they were enough entertainment options. For the price we paid, I was pretty impressed. However, the return segment was quite the nightmare, so stay tuned. Overall, it’s a solid 6/10.