The flag carrier of China or the national airline of Taiwan? This is a Flight Fight that could get messy. I have quite a bit of experience flying with each of these airlines, so who gets the win and who ends up losing?
Air China (CA) was founded relatively recently in 1988 and is the national airline of China. It became a member of Star Alliance in December 2007.
China Airlines (CI) was founded in 1959 and is both the flag carrier and the largest airline of Taiwan. It has been a member of SkyTeam since September 2010.
Beijing-Capital International Airport (Terminal 3) is the main hub for Air China, although it also has significant operations at Shanghai-Pudong and Chengdu. Air China flies all over the world, including to Sao Paulo in Brazil, although it focuses most on European and North American flights. The experience flying with Air China from PEK T3 – which it shares with all other Star Alliance members – is always a delight, as the terminal is extremely large and still feels fresh. That said, even in a structure as big as this, crowds can sometimes be overwhelming.
Taipei-Taoyuan International Airport is the main operating base for China Airlines as it focuses its future on feeding nations in the South East of Asia while maintaining its strong presence in Japan and North America. The flight experience from Taipei-Taoyuan is merely average, as this airport, which CI share with Eva Air, is one of the more dated in the region.
Air China has an extremely varied fleet of aircraft, mainly using Airbus and Boeing metal. Aside from its narrow-body arsenal of Airbus A319s and A320s, AC has 59 A330s, 27 Boeing 777-300ERs, 13 B787s, and 7 B747s. In 2018, it will also begin taking delivery of around 10 Airbus A350 aircraft. Air China has also ordered 20 of the newly-designed Chinese aircraft, the Comac C919 narrow-body. Air China is not known for the modernity of its fleet, and it could do with simplifying some of its aircraft models, starting by phasing out the older frames.
China Airlines, unlike Air China, has a relatively simple fleet to analyse. It has 19 Boeing 737s, used for short- and medium-haul flights, as well as 4 B747s, 10 B777s, 24 Airbus A330 aircraft, and 10 A350s (with 4 more on order). CI have a well-maintained fleet of planes that always feel fresh – with the exception being the 747 Jumbos, which are now showing their age.
Air China does not have a great reputation for its economy class cabins, even on its newer aircraft. It remains to be seen this remains the case when they take delivery of the A350 in 2018. On the B777 and the B787, Air China use a 3-3-3 formation, with seats each having 18″ seat width and 32″ legroom, which are industry standard specs. On the Boeing 747, AC utilise a 3-4-3 formation with the same seat specs (the wider fuselage of the B747 can accommodate this extra seat).
China Airlines are heavily relying on the new A350 to overhaul its fleet image, and on this aircraft model you can expect to find a 3-3-3 formation in economy class (like with all airlines using the A350). CI let themselves down in economy on the B777, however, as a 3-4-3 formation – compared to 3-3-3 with Air China – means that each seat only has a width of 17″, which can often feel extremely cramped on long-haul flights.
Air China redeems itself with its business class product, which many people believe is among the best in the region. On the new B747, in particular, you can marvel at the spacious cabin located at the very nose of the plane and enjoy the comfy seats; it is a very professional product without ever appearing too sterile (like the comparative offerings of Asiana or Korean Air). On the more populous B777, however, things are a little different, as a mere 60″ legroom at each seat in business class is below the industry average.
On the A350 and the B777, China Airlines can offer 32 (40 on the B777) flat-bed seats with 180 degree recline, each with 22″ seat width and up to 78″ of legroom (when laying flat). The product offered on the A350 is far superior in design and modernity, though, and actually feels more like First Class. In fact, turndown service is offered by cabin crew upon request, and there is also a Sky Lounge Bar for business class passengers only, where you can have a drink and be sociable during flight.
Air China has first class cabins on its B777 and B747 aircraft whereas China Airlines does not offer a first class product at all (since 2015). With Air China, you can find lay flat beds suitable for even the tallest passengers, which can be a godsend on transpacific flights.
Air China’s cabin crew leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the cabin crew look disinterested and even with their intense training, it seems that a cultural stumbling block in China is to be service-oriented towards others. A lot of cabin crew struggle with even the basic things on Air China’s economy class, whereas service does go up a notch (as you would expect) in the premium classes.
China Airlines overall have a very friendly cabin crew, who are professional and attentive at all times. I have rarely had a bad flight with them. From the flight attendant to check your ticket walking on to the plane, from the smiling crew member who shows you to your seat, and from the ‘trolley dolleys’ who serve your meals, everything seems to run like clockwork on CI flights.
Air China has never been known for its catering quality, but it has certainly improved in recent years. On flights of 3 hours or more, you can expect a hot meal, and on flights of less than 3 hours (including domestic routes), a packet of nuts and complimentary drink is served. Business class meals on AC are thankfully more prepared and served on real china (excuse the pun), and while these business class meals are not among the greatest in the region, they are still good enough to merit some of the fare.
China Airlines, at least when compared to Air China, have a very good catering reputation, in both economy and business classes. Mixed nuts and other snacks are offered on all flights, whereas hot meals are offered on international flights. The food on CI flights is of a very good standard, even in economy, although one gripe I have is the use of small snack boxes rather than a full-size tray to serve to passengers. It is in business class, however, where China Airlines really excel, as not only does its presentation look amazing, but sometimes the food even comes straight from famous Taiwanese restaurants and hotels.
Overall Flight Experience
As with most mainline Chinese airlines, the AC cabin crew struggles to maintain order of the passengers and this leads to a very messy flight experience overall. I have even known violent fights to break out on Air China flights. Chinese passengers, while good at heart, seem to be very rude in their treatment of other passengers during flight, as if they have some kind of divine right to be flying. China Eastern and China Southern – the other mainline airlines – also have this problem, so it is not limited to just Air China.
China Airlines, as the flag carrier of Taiwan, goes about its business proudly and professionally, and although it is a small airline compared to others in the region (such as Japanese and Korean carriers), its overall product in most departments really shines through, especially the food and cabin crew – while a trip on CI’s new A350 aircraft will be a joy for any aviation enthusiast!