Brian Salter's Blogs:
Flying HMMOG Airways – and living to tell the tale

 

I am worried. No, I mean it; I’m really worried. I have just mentioned to fellow Dubai blogger Miss Sunshine that I have booked myself a return ticket with China Southern Airlines to Beijing and her reply is beginning to haunt me. “Holy Mary, Mother of God!” she says. “Are you mad?”

It turns out that she has flown this exact same trip with CZ some six months ago; and to say she did not enjoy the experience would probably be an understatement.

I explain to her that as I booked at such short notice, my normal first choice – Qatar Airways – was full. Surely it can not be that bad, I press her. I mean, I add matter-of-factly, nothing could be worse than British Airways, save perhaps for American Airlines or Tarom of Romania? Surely?

Her reply gives me further room for concern.

I decide to do some homework. After all, Ms S may just have been unlucky. I look up Trip Advisor. It usually contains a load of unbiased reports which in the past I have found quite useful.

But the omens are not good: “possible savings aren't worth it - if you're getting cooped up in a plane for however many hours, there are a lot more comfortable and safer ways to do it than with CZ”… “You get what you pay for. Not a lot.”… “Seats are very tight; a major issue for anyone over 6 ft, chap behind me had his legs in the aisle most of the trip and can't blame him”... “Planes slightly seedy”… “I wouldn't choose to fly China Southern if I had a choice”.

But it is too late. I have booked the non-refundable ticket and I am destined to fly with them, like it or not.

I decide to think positive. Let’s do some research on the airline itself; and what better place to start than their web site. In 2009, I learn, CZ was the world’s 3rd largest airline by passengers carried. In addition, it was Asia’s largest airline in terms of both fleet size and in passengers carried. It is also the 4th largest airline in the world in domestic passenger traffic and 6th largest in scheduled domestic passenger-kilometres flown. China Southern Airlines also carries more domestic cargo than any other airline.

There you are. It surely can’t be that bad if it is that successful! China Southern Airlines is committed to providing timely, convenient and considerate services to every passenger, the CZ site continues, which provides some slight relief before I read on to one of their news releases…

Secretary of the Ministry of the size of China Southern Airlines Xinjiang Flying School: May 5, 2011, China Southern Airlines Xinjiang Branch of shares from the party secretary to the Ministry of flight segments, branch secretary of the agency to learn together the microblogging knowledge. On the microblogging definition, characteristics, uses, development status, usage and advantages of such a comprehensive understanding, focusing on China Southern Airlines, China Southern Xinjiang Branch was registered micro-blog columns set up for use, influence, etc. terms of discussion and study, it was agreed that micro-blog --- this highly malleable social media platform will surely be a new flight safety department, exchange of experiences, technical seminars, business improvement, security branding, internal communication, etc. from to the far-reaching implications. Secretary also said you should set an example, full use of micro-blog the development of this platform for sustainable security.

I think this is where I am meant to write ‘sic’ after this entry! So, errr, there you go. I’m not intending to fly to Xinjiang and hopefully the English spoken on board my flight to Beijing will be slightly more comprehensible…. Hopefully…

I turn to another section of the CZ site. Ah – here is something I can better relate to: China Southern held its sixth flight attendants recruitment competition at Wanda Square in China’s Chongqing on May 14. The competition is going to recruit 1,500 new flight attendants and it attracted 3,000 local beauties to compete for the posts.

Well, they always say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder…

I try to reserve a seat on the flight rather than take a chance I will be assigned an aisle seat. Leg room is always a problem for me on Asian airlines; none more so than with Cathay Pacific which not only has its seating laid out for midgets, but also has the most uncomfortable seats that could ever have been designed, and that have recently been installed on all their aircraft. So I get back onto the web site and press the myriad combination of buttons to try to get me to the seat reservation section.

No can do. It appears only some flights can have their seats booked online and Dubai to Beijing is not one of them. I make a mental note to arrive at the airport in plenty of time to assure myself of my necessary comforts.

Fast forward a couple of days and Dubai Airport is once again graced by the presence of your favourite blogger. I am fourth in the queue at check in and a charming check-in girl from DNATA handles my booking. She gives me an aisle seat and wishes me a pleasant journey. I run the gauntlet of Dubai Airport’s ghastly immigration officers and then settle down with my Samsung Galaxy to pass the time till boarding.

It appears that the entire flight is made up of Chinese passengers, save for two Indians, a couple of Arabs and me. As the flight is called, a surge of passengers tries to be first in the queue. The moment of reckoning has arrived….

I squeeze myself into the melee and find myself on board a brand new Airbus A330. Could I have jumped in time and space into a parallel universe? Or am I still lying in my bed dreaming my impossible dreams?

For starters the leg room is better than anything I have ever experienced in any economy cabin on any airline. (I find myself wishing, later in the flight, that the passenger immediately in front of me would put his seat back so that I can reach the pull down table with my onboard meal, it is that far away!)

Even the onboard toilets in Economy class have flowers placed in them – not plastic ones, but real carnations - which adds a nice touch.

True, the flight attendants are, as many had previously written, surly to the point of rudeness; but during the flight I do not see a single Chinese passenger saying thank you or even acknowledging the trolley dollies as they hand out drinks and meals. Breaking the mould, I venture a smile and a 谢谢 as I am handed my glass of apple juice and am rewarded with a charming smile and excellent service from there on in.

The girls, by the way, all look as if they have been picked from the ranks of China’s basketball teams, for they are all tall and slender – probably, I decide, so they can easily reach the overhead lockers that so many of the passengers have great difficulty coping with.

As the flight is not full, the passengers don’t even wait for the doors to close before wandering around looking for a better seat. A game of musical chairs ensues as one moment a middle aged woman wearing a micro skirt plonks her bottom down on an empty aisle seat, only to find on going to the loo that her place is immediately taken by an old man who is dissatisfied with his place at the back. An argument breaks out on her return, but the man is adamant that this is now his chair. Unfortunately floozie’s original chair has been taken by someone else and so the charade continues up and down the plane.

We taxi to the end of the runway and we’re off. A pre-recorded tape is played to those few of us who don’t understand the very detailed Chinese announcement being made. We cherish the chance to serve you, we are told, as the flight attendants simultaneously bow to the passengers, Japanese style. Could these girls have been trained by JAL, I wonder?

The lights are turned off for the night time take off and we are away. Almost everyone falls asleep as in common with many airlines, the heating is turned up sending everyone into a comatose state.

Twenty five minutes later the lights are turned on again with drinks being served. But the majority of passengers keep on sleeping, and I wonder if this is a deliberate ploy on behalf of the cabin staff to lighten their workload.

The courtesy wash bags with complimentary toothbrush, earplugs, eye shades and so on are handed out. One old guy, unsure what to do with his ear plugs, carefully pushes one up each nostril before seeing where others stick them. He slowly removes them and stuffs them into his ears before curling up and going to sleep.

All is now quiet on board as the lights are again turned down to almost zero. The so-called entertainment system consists of some overhead screens showing in turn a couple of Chinese films and a Harry Potter movie covered in Chinese ideograms. I don’t see anyone bothering to watch.

Some of the passengers decide to use the generous leg room to curl up on the floor, rather than adapt their bodies to the shape of the chairs. After one bolshie individual sticks her legs out into the gangway, tripping up every person brave enough to stumble up the almost pitch black aircraft, one of the attendants comes to remonstrate with her. But she will have none of this and continues cursing everyone who trips over her legs throughout the flight.

Eventually it is time for breakfast. The lights are turned up everso slightly as hot wet towels are handed out to those very few people who are actually awake at this ungodly hour. The majority continue to sleep on and are only finally woken up when the lights are switched on to full power as the trolley dollies once more start handing out the breakfast trays.

There is a choice of beef noodle or chicken noodle. Not a chop stick in sight. Just a very small fork and spoon. But the food is not at all bad as airline meals go and I, in common with the Chinese, slurp up the noodles with my mini-fork hoping the gravy doesn’t fly everywhere as I do so.

Finally a short film is shown going through loads of possible exercises that can be performed in the comfort of your seat to relieve cramped and tired muscles. This, it appears, is the moment the passengers have all been waiting for. Almost in unison the planeload of people go through their callisthenics together, waving arms in the air, bending their heads in all directions and generally having a jolly good time!

We arrive in Beijing a full hour ahead of schedule and tumble out into the old and slightly dilapidated Terminal 2 building (in complete contrast to the brand spanking new and very impressive Terminal 3).

I step back into my original parallel universe. Could this really have been the same airline that Miss Sunshine had warned me about? I make a memo to self to check at a future date that we were indeed talking of the same flight. For I would certainly fly China Southern again, even if Qatar Airways was not fully booked another time.

Holy Mary, Mother of God – what an airline!