This is a very new route that was launched only in April 2019. Twice a week, Air China would have a 5th freedom flight from Houston to Panama City operated on a Boeing 777-300ER. The other options would be United Airlines which uses a Boeing 737. Between an international long-haul First Class vs a domestic USA First Class, the choice if very obvious.
Air China being part of Star Alliance can be redeemed using Krisflyer miles (and it can be searched directly from Singapore Airlines website). The miles required on First Class is 40,000 miles per person while Business Class requires 30,000 miles (it has since been devalued to 46,000 and 34,500 miles respectively).
So how did the flight go?
Air China departs from Terminal D of George Bush International Airport – the queue at the check in counter looked quite long but I was told that there were only about 100+ passengers flying on that day. Given that it took me almost 15 minutes to get my boarding pass, I think I know the answer for the long queue.
There is a special line for Star Alliance Gold / Business & First Class passenger and TSA precheck that one can use, but don’t expect excellent speed. It still took me about 20 to 30 minutes to clear the security.
As Air China does not operate any lounge in Houston, your only choice is United’s lounge. Both United Club and United Polaris Lounge are located at Terminal E (hence the need to walk). Despite flying in First Class, I had no access to Polaris Lounge (I was actually looking forward to it having missed the Polaris Lounge in Newark). Access is only available for those flying on Long Haul Business Class/First Class (Asia, Europe or South America). Otherwise, we only have access to United Club which unfortunately is a mediocre lounge. If you hold a Priority Pass card, I would suggest to use the KLM lounge in Terminal D instead. If you have time, Landry’s Seafood in terminal C would be a much better option for food (more of it on another post).
Air China’s Boeing 777-300ER has 8 First Class seats upfront, similar to what Singapore Airlines had with their old First Class. The First Class seats are configured in a 1-2-1 arrangement. Although the seats are not as wide as those of SQ’s (at only 23” width) it has a very generous pitch at 80”! There is no need to turn down the seat as once fully reclined, the foot rest will join the ottoman and form the bed. The table’s position can be pulled forward and the ottoman can be used as a seat for your companion to have lunch/dinner with you. The seat colour and design makes it look rather old and dirty.
There is a small clothes rack that is part of the suite wall. It would have been great if the suite comes with a door for better privacy.
Overhead compartments are available for storage and with only 8 seats, you have plenty of space for your carry-ons.
There is a large motor-operated screen between seats D & H for those who are not traveling as a couple but end up in the middle seats.
The crew can converse in English adequately (but not great). I conversed with them mainly in Mandarin (not that my Mandarin is good). As with all Asian carriers, they are generally friendly and warm. The crew were prompt in attending to you and was proactive in approaching you to assist you even before asking for help (as with the case for my wife misplacing her spectacles).
The toilet was spacious and clean, but there were no amenities short of some hand cream from a brand I am not familiar with (Herborist)
The AVOD has very limited selection of movies. The system seems laggy and not responsive. The First Class seats comes with a 23” screen (although I am unsure of the resolution). The earphone is of average quality and the noise cancellation is not great.
Boarding in Houston was done on door 1L (instead of 2L) which reduces the privacy of the First Class cabin during boarding.
Food & Beverage
There was no menu available, hence I had totally no idea what drinks were available. We had drink and towel service on boarding and post take-off. For a short flight, we had a 3 course meal which comprises an appetizer, a main and dessert.
For our appetizer, we had a bakery basket and smoke salmon with cucumber. The dish was ok, nothing spectacular.
We had a choice of 2 mains – seafood with rice or beef noodle. The seafood meal was great with the large and juicy scallops and it was not too salty.
The beef noodle was equally tasty with the beef not being too tough. The crew even added additional vegetables on my wife’s request.
Dessert was just a fruit bowl.
The on-board champagne was a Mailly Brut Reserve which retails for about $57 per bottle (from this website). Not exactly the type of Champagne one would expect in First Class but at least it is not a cheap $5 sparkling wine unlike what they used to serve on China Southern Airlines (as written on One Mile At A Time).
The Business Class cabin was only about half full. The seats are arranged slightly slanted in a 2-2-2 configuration (seats looked similar to the Business Class seats found on United Airline’s transcontinental service).
CA 885 is certainly a much better way to fly into Panama City than United’s 737 with a recliner seat. At 46,000 miles, I would say just go for the Business Class seats at 34,500. It is not significantly better other than a much better privacy. One limitation is that there are only 2 flights a week between Houston and Panama City on Air China.
For long haul, I would probably not splurge the miles on this product. The miles required from South East Asia 1 to North America is a staggering 148,500 miles! You will get a much better value flying on Singapore Airlines’ Suites at 132,000 miles.