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Old Sep 13, 17, 10:17 pm   #1
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Flying China Airlines as a Delta Elite - Impressions and Advice

I just returned from a very pleasant trip to Taipei entirely on China Airlines, my second trip with them - and thought that as they're an airline that doesn't see much discussion here, it was worth writing up my experiences in a brief thread covering the pros and cons of flying them to Asia as a Delta elite.

Branding
Firstly, if you're like many of my colleagues, you may have China Airlines (CI, 中華航空) confused with Air China (CA, 中国国际航空公司). If so, it's worth correcting that upfront. CI is the flag carrier of Taiwan and maintains an excellent onboard service standard I believe is worth discussing in the same breath as the best Japanese and Korean carriers. (And possibly even nipping at the heels of the likes of CX/SQ.) Air China is the flag carrier of the People's Republic of China and maintains a much, much lower standard of service (most classify them as the worst mainland airline, far behind the likes of Xiamen/China Southern/Hainan or even China Eastern).

Given the awful reputation of CA is widespread and notorious, I honestly think this brand confusion actively hurts CI in competing for premium bookings...

Routes and Aircraft
For a Delta elite, the most relevant CI flights depart from LAX/SFO/YVR/JFK. After a few years of flying a mix of newer and older aircraft, their product is now very standardized - out of LAX/JFK, you get the 777-300ER, and out of SFO/YVR you get their A350. Both appear similar inside and are shiny and new, delivered in the last two years with a really distinctive interior design that has faux-wood paneling and mood lighting. It's a little confusing at first, but it's grown on me and I now find it to be a pretty unique and elegant cabin design.

Given a choice, for west coast passengers I recommend routing through SFO/YVR on the A350 over LAX on the 777. The onboard experience is just a little bit more generous in each class of service on the A350, and LAX is... LAX.

CI also operates flights from HNL on the A350, but I'm hesitant to apply my experiences with other US routes to what is typically a vacation route with different service standards. Perhaps one of our Hawaiian friends can chime in with specifics on the HNL service.

No matter how you slice it, TPE is far away - you're looking at somewhere between 11 and 16 hours on the TPAC to get there depending on the gateway. That's totally fine if you're continuing on to SE Asia or the South Pacific, but you're probably not going to want to connect on CI to Korea or Japan unless you're grinding for miles

Because of this, the times are a little quirky and HND-esque; think late night departures on both the US and Taiwan sides of the trip. This can be a good or bad thing depending on your goals, but at least it is a unique option compared to Delta's mostly midafternoon flight timing.

Onboard Service
China Airlines does an incredible job of onboard service - I'd go as far as to say it's their biggest strength. Unlike some carriers where the service is robotic and impersonal (KE comes to mind), the flight attendants on CI are warm and friendly - but they still take their job very seriously. The lavatories remain spotless throughout the whole flight due to very frequent cleaning, cabin service is very frequent with water and snacks even in economy, and small special requests are granted with a smile.

CI goes above and beyond for SkyTeam Elite Plus passengers, as well. Their service standard appears to include a personal greeting from the purser for STE+ no matter where you're seated, even in economy. I've also gotten other unique benefits, including newspapers, one-off drink refills, rapidly cleared trays after meals, and (most impressively) hand delivered meals before the carts come out when seated in Y.

I particularly appreciated the express meal service because it allowed me to get my first choice of meal, beat the lavatory rush and get an extra few minutes of sleep. All are benefits that wouldn't cost Delta much to provide to DM passengers on international flights; the express meal service would cost nearly nothing to provide and would be a huge driver of loyalty for me when flying in the cheap seats.

In Premium Economy, I also noticed an increase in service attentiveness: the flight attendants tended to track when passengers woke up, and they would bring passengers individual water service very shortly afterward. They also cooked the midflight snack in waves, so there were always fresh sandwiches available as people woke up.

Premium Economy

This is probably the best argument for flying CI - their affordable and very high quality premium economy class. Given that it can often be booked for $1200-$1500, I think it offers a pretty solid value, especially if you're continuing on past Taipei to a faraway destination in the South Pacific or Southeast Asia and can get extra value out of the connecting flight.

On both 777-300ER and A350 aircraft types, CI uses a hard shell seat that reclines within its frame. It's nominally similar to what AF uses, but a much better design: the seat is a lot more comfortable and the recline is more supportive and conducive to sleep. It isn't business class, and you won't mistake it for even an old angle flat business class seat. But it is a serious step up from ordinary economy. It has a flip up legrest (although I found the angle to be essentially useless), and a flip down footrest on the seat in front of you (that's actually quite nice when awake and watching movies/working on a laptop). The tray table is also enormous, and they also provide an additional miniature flip down tray that's perfectly sized to hold a drink and a snack.

CI Premium Economy is very generously sized compared to other carriers, with competitive to leading seat width and pitch. Between the two aircraft, the obvious winner was the A350 for me; the extra seat width from the 2-3-2 arrangement made it feel much more premium and comfortable, and the cabin is smaller as well making service more personal. The 777's 2-4-2 is still pleasant but right on the edge of comfort and noticeably more restrictive. I got bumped by aisle traffic and carts a lot more during the flight, for example. I'll be avoiding it in the future in favor of the 350, even though LAX offers more miles and schedule flexibility.

CI offers some instructive comparisons for those of us looking forward to DL's premium economy product. Note that DL's premium economy will be 2-4-2, but on the A350. I can now say for sure that I think cramming the same number of seats into a cabin 9" narrower was a mistake on Delta's part; 2-3-2 is the right premium economy size for the A350 for sure. If 2-4-2 feels a little tight on the 777, it's going to be barely better than legacy economy on the 350...

Premium economy also gets a few additional amenities: a much higher quality headset (IMO, nicer than even what you get in Delta One), a zippered amenity kit that closely resembles the previous generation Tumi kit from Delta with more items inside than you'd expect, and an upgraded pillow and blanket. They also serve nicer wines than economy (a sweetish white that resembled a Gewurztraminer and a Chianti, on our flight). While the meal is the standard economy meal, they do serve it with an upgraded appetizer that resembles the business class appetizer.

Premium economy has its own lavatories - one on the A350 and two on the 777. On the A350, lav capacity was an occasional issue and F/As often directed the starboard aisle passengers past the curtain to use the business class lav. On the 777, it wasn't an issue since there were two. In both cases CI uses a hard fastened curtain to divide the cabins and very effectively prevents Y passengers from using the W lavs.

PE lavatories are identically outfitted to Y, though; they don't get the extra lotion that J does. That said, lavatories in all classes come with lovely Acca Kappa soaps similar to those provided at some Autograph Collection Marriott properties, which easily took the award for best onboard soap in my book.

All in all, don't think of premium economy as a cheap business class or even domestic first - it's definitely still economy, so set your expectations maybe a little lower than they might be ordinarily based on the price and buzz around the cabin. People keep saying it's "like domestic first class" or "business class lite", and I don't really find either of those descriptors accurate. But it is a really humane way to travel twelve hours, and I'd book it again in a heartbeat at the right price.

Economy
Ordinary economy is a tale of "great cabin service, meh seating" on CI. Unfortunately, the're a 3-4-3 airline on the 777, making that product tough to recommend on its own. I still managed to have a great flight in the exit row, though (assigned for free thanks to STE+ status). The A350 is a much better 3-3-3 across, but I can't personally remark on that experience yet. The seats themselves are fine - it's just the width issue.

CI offers a "family couch" product as well on the LAX flights - basically, a way to pay for the middle seat in a row of 3 and then flip up the bottom flap of the row to create a flat bed-like surface. I don't think it would be super useful for two adults, but if you were a family traveling with two small kids, booking two family couches - one for Mom and Kid 1, one for Dad and Kid 2 - would almost be preferable over business class. Prices don't seem unreasonable (a couple hundred extra dollars) and it's an interesting option to have available.

Economy catering is fine; the meals are appropriately sized and tasty. They definitely follow a Taiwanese flavor profile, so if you are a picky eater, you'll probably want to request the western option... but the food is fresh and well presented.

Booking and Mileage Earning

Most CI TPAC bookings will end up being done directly with their flight numbers and ticket stock, I suspect. Delta does theoretically codeshare on most of the CI transpacific flights, but getting them booked is a challenge since Delta.com goes out of its way to avoid offering them unless connection times from a smaller market require it. The Delta codeshares also won't let you book some of CI's more compelling connecting destinations, like SYD/MEL/AKL/BNE, and they can only be booked in economy or business (no premium economy).

That discussion is relevant mostly because it influences how you earn miles. CI flights booked on an 006 ticket or with a DL flight number earn based on the usual MQD rules. But CI flights booked on their ticket stock earn based on a percentage of miles. That can be favorable or a bad deal, depending on the fare you pay and the cabin you're traveling in, so make sure to double check which setup is best for your situation..

One thing is consistent, though - MQM earning is very poor on CI-coded flights. (Think 75%, even in premium economy.) If MQM are a priority for you, they might not be the right choice unless you can manage to book the DL codeshare. For me, I'm drowning in MQM and it's less of a concern.

In a further wrinkle, if you do end up booking CI-coded and ticketed flights via SFO/LAX, you may discover that the domestic connections end up booking on Alaska or Virgin America, not Delta. That isn't a problem for me, since I maintain dual status, but may be a dealbreaker for some. (I suspect part of the rationale here is that AS offers more late-night flights that are timed to connect with CI than Delta does.) Unfortunately, this also means if you arrive into LAX, you don't have a conveniently accessible lounge to use during your connection (since AS isn't a SkyTeam carrier, you aren't eligible for access to the KE lounge.)

If you do maintain dual status, I can confirm I was able to put both my AS and DL numbers in my reservation, and everything worked as you'd expect: SkyTeam Elite Plus recognition on CI, automatic advance MVP Gold upgrades on AS, and proper mileage credit to both programs. I did book with AS-coded flights, though; I wouldn't recommend booking the CI-coded connections unless you are trying to credit to the Dynasty FF program.

Airport Experience

This is an area of potential improvement for CI. It's not that they're bad, necessarily, but TPE isn't as nice of a facility as other Asian airports, and their lounges are inconsistent. I hear that the TPE T1 lounge is fantastic, but it's not convenient to flights to and from the US; you can walk to it, but it's a fairly long haul through the terminal. The TPE T2 lounge is really showing its age in a bad way; it's a sad little basement space with limited seating and finishes that are worn and dated. The catering is good, at least, with a made to order noodle bar and extensive dim sum.

In SFO, the CI lounge is...... pretty grim. It's good for peace and quiet, but food and beverage is squarely in "one little bus tub of fried rice and some sad sandwiches" territory. if you're looking for food and amenities you'd be much better off talking your way into the AFKL lounge next door instead. Think PDX Sky Club and you're on the right track...

Conclusions
CI is a great airline and my new favorite way to get to southeast Asia. And in both Y and W, I have found I really enjoy both the hard and soft product (unusual for partner airlines for me). STE+ seems to actually mean something with them, and their brand new aircraft are a nice change of pace from other airlines flying inconsistent, worn and dated cabins across the Pacific.

They've definitely got my attention with their premium economy product as well. I won't say it's luxurious, but booking premium economy offers a bit more comfort at an affordable price. Unfortunately, since all the ways in which DL differentiated their PE cabin from CI are negative, I have serious questions about whether Delta's equivalent with less space will be worth a similar price.

Next step is to book an award ticket in business and try CI up front. The seat looks fantastic, but the open question is how well the soft product holds up... any experiences others can share in that department would be greatly appreciated!
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Old Sep 13, 17, 10:41 pm   #2
  
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CI were my favourite airline, I enjoyed their business class over any other airline. But sadly they stopped flying my route.

Thanks for sharing your experience.
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Old Sep 13, 17, 11:42 pm   #3
  
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I second the thoughts on Premium Economy. I haven't experienced it on the A350 yet, but I loved the product on the 777 via LAX, and the A350 sounds even more promising.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 1:50 am   #4
  
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Great write-up.

I've flown the CI 777 in long-haul biz several times now -- mini trip report plus food pictures posted in the Other Asian Airlines forum:

CI from SFO to TPE

April biz amenity kit:

China Airlines (CI) biz amenity kit

In TPE the T1 lounge really is much nicer and IMO worth the walk. It's pretty easily walkable in 10-15 minutes depending on your walking speed, and there are moving walkways in at least one direction (IIRC each terminal's walkways are one-way in the direction of the other terminal)

While TPE is no SIN (is anything?) I don't think it's that bad. The layout is pretty simple, there's lots of shopping, and they have made an attempt to have interesting displays on the history/culture of Taiwan in many of the gate areas (primarily B/C if memory serves). Boarding area is also very clearly separated with ropes for biz/elites so no gate lice issues.

Agree with your assessment of the CI vs. AF/KL lounge at SFO they may try to direct you to the CI lounge but you can gently remind them if you are STE+ that you should have access. (They agreed but then asked to swipe my PP card anyway, shrug). If you are craving congee or red bean soup though...

CI lounge photos:

http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/membe...ober-2015.html

I've mentioned previously that I am not a fan of the post-midnight departure but as others have pointed out it does generally mean you are tired enough to sleep right away and then be awake for the early morning arrival.

However earlier this year CI added a second frequency that leaves SFO late afternoon/early evening and arrives TPE in the nighttime. Right now it looks like both are operated on the A350 but I have a January flight (on the post-midnight flight, lol) that is showing as a 777 (the afternoon flight is still an A350 then)

IMO it's a reasonable place to burn pesos for a J partner award, although if you want to book a connection you have to call in because the DL site won't return any connecting itineraries on CI.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 2:11 am   #5
  
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I had booked a CI PE trip to New Zealand back when they put you in business for the beyond TPE flights. Unfortunately, my employer asked me to delay my retirement and I gave that up (employer ended up buying me business class to NZ to replace). My limited interaction with CI, booking and cancelling was a good one.
I had an intra-asia flight with them a few years back that was good.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 3:15 am   #6
  
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i miss flying them. delta used to sell those CI operated under DL codeshare flight numbers. i managed to get one last time back in february, but they are no longer available. the prices were very competitive. i remember paying roughly 3K for business class, and the change fees were like $80. i was able to earn the full MQMs and MQDs based on delta's earning. i really enjoyed their service, food and seat comfort. hopefully delta will put those codeshare flights back in the system again.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 6:41 am   #7
  
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The characterization of CA service by the OP here I wouldn't agree with. Yes, in the ground and transit at PEK is close to horrible and leaps and bounds behind TPE, but in flight CA has excellent product (often better than CI) and service. Certainly better than MU and DL.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 9:26 am   #8
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The updated reverse herringbone seating in the B777 are nice but I truly hate the ancient A330 J seats I often get stuck on for regional flights. Totally agree on the service, very nice.

The TPE T1 lounge is a very competitive business class lounge, really too bad they don't allow us to take the Sky Train between terminals, perhaps when T3 opens up. The "basement" T2 lounge is under construction right now I believe so they opened up the T2 First Class lounge and it's quite a step up from the basement. Very soothing feel, good service, and the food is MUCH better, I'd say even surprisingly so. But again it's only competitive against other good business lounges.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 10:36 am   #9
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Originally Posted by RealHJ View Post
The characterization of CA service by the OP here I wouldn't agree with. Yes, in the ground and transit at PEK is close to horrible and leaps and bounds behind TPE, but in flight CA has excellent product (often better than CI) and service. Certainly better than MU and DL.
Fair enough - I'm not a *A guy and am going on general impressions of colleagues who are, not on personal experiences. That does seem to be confirmed by their very poor 2-3 star SkyTrax ratings (2* for food service and IFE, 3* for seating and staff) compared to the other mainland airlines, though - but I freely admit that SkyTrax is nonsense and unreliable.

I mostly wanted to clarify that CI is from Taiwan, not the mainland, so for folks unwilling to transit the PRC for visa or other reasons they may be needlessly avoiding them.

Last edited by BenA; Sep 14, 17 at 12:05 pm Reason: Clarifying details of SkyTrax ratings due to typo
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Old Sep 14, 17, 12:10 pm   #10
  
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I seriously hope that DL will be forced to rethink their cramped PE seating on the A350 given this competition.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 12:29 pm   #11
  
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I like CI a lot, except for the lounges at TPE which I find to be of very poor quality.
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Old Sep 14, 17, 12:31 pm   #12
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I seriously hope that DL will be forced to rethink their cramped PE seating on the A350 given this competition.
Unfortunately, DL is joined in the 2-4-2 party by CX and SQ; I fear it's likely CI is the one who will eventually have to react in the inevitable race to the bottom
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Old Sep 14, 17, 6:57 pm   #13
  
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Originally Posted by BenA View Post
Fair enough - I'm not a *A guy and am going on general impressions of colleagues who are, not on personal experiences. That does seem to be confirmed by their very poor 2-3 star SkyTrax ratings (2* for food service and IFE, 3* for seating and staff) compared to the other mainland airlines, though - but I freely admit that SkyTrax is nonsense and unreliable.

I mostly wanted to clarify that CI is from Taiwan, not the mainland, so for folks unwilling to transit the PRC for visa or other reasons they may be needlessly avoiding them.
Oh yes, and you are very right that the many - far too many - people probably confuse CI with CA. Also you are right that SkyTrax ratings are total nosense and mostly just random (or bought) "rating."

Personally I find that TPE is one of the best airports to transit. CI lounges at TPE are one of the best SkyTeam lounges, due to ample seating of all types, and the best food of any SkyTeam lounge hands down. In flight on CI food can be very good to almost horrible (rarely inbetween), and the angled lied flat or even more ancient 747 seating is dated, but now CI is adding the A350s on more and more routes taking out the A330s with angled lie flats and 747s with the truly ancient product. So, in flight product lacks consistency, and can be very good to not-so-good. But the airport, ground operations, transit experience, and the lounge are some of the best in SkyTeam. (In terms of in flight product and service, GA probably takes the cake as the best SkyTeam airline, with VN a close second; for both so for long haul and longer regional flights.)
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Old Sep 14, 17, 7:24 pm   #14
  
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Great thread; keep it coming.

For fun, I took a look at a trip on them in mid-February (leaving 2/10 and returning 2/19). SFO-TPE and return in PE on a "supersaver" fare priced out at $1,263.22 per person; they had a RT "supersaver" business ticket at $4,146.22 per person for the same dates. The times of travel were interesting: depart SFO 0005, arrive TPE 0555 +1 (13:50 in duration); return, depart TPE 2340, arrive SFO 1840 the same calendar day (11:00 in duration).

Delta did not have a code-share on this particular trip.

Last edited by ND76; Sep 14, 17 at 7:41 pm
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Old Sep 14, 17, 8:24 pm   #15
  
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DL's selective cooperation with CI is frustrating. If I want to go MSP-TPE connecting in LAX or SFO to CI, CI's own booking engine and ITA usually both suggest Sun Country for the domestic segments! The same routing on DL.dumb often has combined pricing higher than separate R/Ts for the domestic and international portions on the respective ST carriers. Also, is there any way to book CI PE under a DL flight number?
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