Trip Report & Review – Air China’s “Forbidden Pavilion” First Class Beijing-Houston

It was only a bit over a year ago when Air China first launched the Beijing to Houston service and I must say it makes sense for them. Flying into a Star Alliance hub, passengers can easily connect to tons of domestic destinations via United. Air China is operating the 777-300ER on this flight which features their latest hard products in all three classes: Forbidden Pavilion (First Class), Capital Pavilion (Business Class), and Economy. 

I booked this flight using United miles and while United’s system showed that I was confirmed on the flight, when I called Air China to reserve my seat, they claimed that they could not see my reservation. I knew this was a problem, and resolved the problem after four very lengthy phone calls to both airlines. United was much more helpful in this regard—probably more helpful than I have ever experienced with them—and they reached out to Air China management for me to get this fixed.

A few weeks before my departure, Flyertalk had a swarm of posts about Air China award tickets being mysteriously cancelled. Fortunately, this did not happen to me and I flew in a cabin with a few empty seats.

This trip report/review is part of a series. See also:

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Air China (CA) Flight 995
Beijing (PEK) – Houston (IAH) |  Boeing 777-300ER
1500/1545+1  (13 hour 45 minutes)
First Class  |  Seat 2A

Boarding started on time and there was just one line for First, Business, and Premium Economy passengers, much like how Cathay Pacific boards in New York. I couldn’t help but chuckle at Air China’s translation of “Premium Economy,” with the literal meaning in Chinese being “Super Economy.”

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As with other flights departing Beijing to the US, there was additional security at the boarding gate to enforce the 3-1-1 rule. And as usual, a lot of people who have never experienced that before got super upset when their $5 bottle of Evian got confiscated.

I was welcomed on board by a flight attendant at the boarding door, but I wasn’t escorted to my seat. The cabin was spacious, and like the lounge, the design was very utilitarian. The white plastic barriers between seats felt very sterile, but the red-and-gold fabric of the seat helped make the cabin pop a little.

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Air China’s First Class is in a 1-2-1 configuration, with 8 seats total in two rows. I reserved seat 2A ,which was a window (and aisle…I guess) seat in the second row.

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The seat was quite wide and comfortable for both lounging and working.

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The seat featured a decently sized TV and a table that slid forward. A variety of newspapers were waiting at the seat, as were the menus. Just by counting the number of seats with newspaper, I could tell this was going to be a pretty empty flight, and we departed with only 3 of the 8 seats occupied.

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Also waiting at the seat was the blanket. There was also a L’OCCITANE amenity kit—the bag was made of linen and the contents were fairly basic.

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The headphones were Air China branded, and I am frankly not sure if they were noise canceling, but if they were, they definitely didn’t get that part of the job done.

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Seat controls were integrated with the entertainment system, though the control was something I hadn’t seen before…easy to use nonetheless. 

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There was also a closet at the seat  which had…one single green plastic hanger. Seriously, if the seat wasn’t gold and red, I might have thought this was a hospital in the sky.

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A flight attendant came by to offer a hot towel and a pre-departure beverage.

There were two flight attendants serving the First Class cabin. They greeted me in English and continued their service in English until I told them I could speak Mandarin if they felt more comfortable. While their English wasn’t perfect, I could understand everything they said with no problem.

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I was also given pajamas and slippers. Both were super comfortable, but I have to note that the pajamas shrunk like crazy (from an adult medium to a child XS) when I threw them in the dryer at home.

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We took off without a hitch, and the crew closed the two curtains in First Class as soon as reached cruising altitude. They did invite me to dine anytime, but I decided to eat right away so I could get some shut eye.

The meal service began with mixed, warmed nuts.

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I had a glass of red wine that was…drinkable, though I don’t remember what it was exactly.

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My table was meticulously made and complete with a flower as decoration. The first course comprised a chicken skewer, and three Chinese cold dishes.

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I was also offered a personal bread basket, with a manageable and appropriate amount of bread that didn’t seem too wasteful.

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I had the soup and selected an abalone and chicken dish as my main course, which was delicious!

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I had a fruit plate and a cheese cake with raspberry sauce for dessert.

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The sun was just setting and I decided to get some sleep. The crew brought over a bottle of water, and made my bed for me.

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Sadly, I lost all the pictures I took of the bed, so you’ll just have to take my word for it—it was perfectly comfortable, and I got a few hours of sleep in.

About 8 hours into the flight, I decided to have a snack and get some work done. I ordered a mango pomelo sago, perhaps one of my favorite deserts ever, and was served promptly…makes sense, because it’s cold. Still hungry, I ordered beef noodles, which was also served promptly…complete with a fold-up disposable fork. The picture below explains why they could serve it so quickly.

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I got some work done and watched some TV and soon it was time for breakfast. I had the beef noodles and they were actually served in a proper bowl and with real silverware.

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I wasn’t wowed by Air China, but adequate and unmemorable was the theme of the flight. The service was attentive, flight attendants polite and hospitable, food edible, and bed comfortable, but there was nothing that truly distinguishes the “Forbidden Pavilion” from an international business class product, let alone other international First Class products.

There aren’t really a lot of options for a direct Beijing-US flight and if I had to choose within Star Alliance, I would still pick Air China over United. Make no mistake, neither airline offers a good First Class product, Air China is just marginally better.

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