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Why China Eastern will not pass as a world-class airline.

February 3rd, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Late one December evening, I was pondering my options for a quick trip to South Korea in the coming January. As always, my search for a reasonably-economical fare started with Skyscanner, being the ultimate litmus test for travel on any given sets of dates.

Timing considerations were one of the priorities for this booking — that is, the total travel and transit time required for the return trip. Ultimately, I came across an itinerary that worked best with a reasonable price tag attached.

It was with China Eastern, an airline that I’ve yet to fly with. Admittedly, because I had status with SkyTeam (Sky Priority Gold), there was a lesser hesitation on my part to take the leap of faith with this China-based airline. So without further ado, the ticket was purchased through an online agent, and my confirmation and itinerary subsequently e-mailed to me within 24 hours of payment.

The journey

Flying from Singapore to Busan meant that I’ll be doing two flights in each direction — that is: Singapore-Shanghai + Shanghai-Busan; and vice-versa. Coincidentally, I managed to score myself a different aircraft type for each leg, which made for some very interesting experiences.

Some quick stats for the flights:

  • Total flight time between Singapore (SIN) and Shanghai (PVG) was just under six hours in each direction; Shanghai (PVG) and Busan (PUS) clocked in at around 90 minutes per flight.

  • Aircraft types flown: Boeing 767-300 (SIN-PVG); Airbus A320 (PVG-PUS); Boeing 737-800 (PUS-PVG); Airbus A330-200 (PVG-SIN).

  • Out of the four flights, only one aircraft wore the China Eastern livery — with the other three branded in Shanghai Airlines paintwork.

  • One “in-flight meal” was served on each of the four flights, but I decided to skip the meal service on the first flight due to timing (I’ll elaborate more on this).

What went wrong?

It all had to do with the general service attitude by the staff of both China Eastern and Shanghai Airlines, which are seemingly working as one (and don’t feel it an issue to operate via co-branding — not that it seemed to make any difference).

My first exposure came upon boarding my Shanghai Airlines Boeing 767 flight to Shanghai-Pudong. While, admittedly, the somewhat-dated cabin interior didn’t kick things off to a great start, I was greeted by a yawning cabin attendant who would later be working in my section for the flight.

Granted that it was a past-midnight flight, and typical folks would look forward to catching a few winks of sleep. But it’s ridiculous to find working professionals, who’ve obviously been given their appropriate rest time prior to the flight, showing a lack of respect for their job, customers/passengers, and (more so) themselves.

(Later in the flight, the same cabin attendant was seen sleeping in her jump seat during the lights-out period. I may not be sure about Shanghai Airlines’ (or China Eastern’s) policy on cabin crew procedures. But I don’t believe sleeping on the job was permissible.)

Next up, overall demeanour. Almost every cabin attendant I saw showed a lack of interest in serving passengers. Their unwillingness can be seen in how they carry themselves throughout the flight via their actions and facial expressions. Also, the way in which they responded to questions, how they served food and drinks to passengers — I never ceased asking myself “why do they seem to hate their jobs so much?”

Speaking of poor interaction, the announcements made over the public announcement (PA) system throughout the flight were rather poorly done — especially those in English. With poor grammar and wordings aside, the pronunciations of these made by both flight attendants and tech crew (yes, including those in the cockpit responsible for flying the plane) were either indecipherable or simply came out as a heap of mumbo-jumbo. It got so bad that I gave up trying to work out what was being said…

And all this occurred on the first leg of my journey — which made me dread about just how things will be for my remaining flights. Not the best feeling to have when doing multi-segment flying with the same carrier.

On the ground at Shanghai-Pudong, the service quality and attitude by the China Eastern ground staff were no different.

Landing just before 6am, I came to the realisation that I needed to register at the transfer desk prior to returning to the departures area for my connecting flight, even though I had my onward boarding pass. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to clear security.

Problem: There were around 70 to 80 people waiting in the general queue to do the same thing. Processing time (upon further observation) was around 2 to 3 minutes per passenger, with only 2 ground staff servicing this group. “Ridiculous” was the only thing on my mind at that time.

Fortunately, there was a Sky Priority desk — meaning I wouldn’t have to stand in-line senselessly for the next hour-or-so (there was virtually no queue). Again, there was minimal interaction with the China Eastern staff (submit boarding pass and passport, details recorded and boarding pass stamped, collect boarding pass and passport).

(On my subsequent flights, and on the way back, the experience was pretty much similar — sans the yawning crew member.)

What they did right?

What struck me as interesting, but not surprising, was how the non-China Eastern staff involved in the various stages of the service provisions had managed to perform their roles significantly better than the actual airline responsible for my flights.

This included the SATS (Singapore Airport Terminal Services) ground staff responsible for the check-in and boarding processes, and the hosting of a shared airline lounge at Singapore Changi International Airport; and the Korean Air ground staff at Busan’s Gimhae International Airport, responsible for check-in, boarding and access to its own airline lounge (via SkyTeam alliance arrangements).

I was happy to have been served by such reliable and pleasantly-mannered members of staff at both Changi and Gimhae airports. With these being the first passenger service points for China Eastern outside of their home market, it creates a positive set of expectations to follow.

But in the case for China Eastern, with the harsh reality being a contrasting display of customer service routines, such a scenario actually does more harm than good. As explained, this airline has a very different level of appreciation where dealing with its customers is concerned.

Things to consider…

Poor customer service standards

China Eastern was my first patronage of a China-based airline (this does not include Cathay Pacific or Dragonair, which — in my books — are “Hong Kong based” airlines). Expectations, therefore, were set to appropriately-lower levels (based on what was previously shared with me by friends).

With that said, I was still rather appalled by just how the cabin and ground crew handled its customers/passengers. Generally speaking, they weren’t all rude — but, instead, lacked a natural want (whether it’s truly natural or orchestrated/trained-to-be) to serve.

“Customer service #101…”, anyone?

This seemingly-lacklustre nature of customer service has much to do with the local China-based (or, more specifically, Shanghainese) culture — and China Eastern, as an airline working on the world stage, and as a SkyTeam alliance member, should be more responsible and well-aware of this rather-important factor.

Service attitude

Out of the many China Eastern and Shanghai Airlines staff I encountered before and after my flights, most of them showed a lack of interest in their jobs through a collective display of somewhat-poor service attitude. Not only did it seem like a no-smiles policy was in force. But the grouchy look on their faces, it killed any chances for a more-positive atmosphere to transpire.

Is staff morale at the airline collective truly that bad? Or does it’s employees despise their jobs so much, to the point that it’s shown to passengers to prove a point?

Language skills

Mandarin may be the national spoken language. But for China Eastern, which also operates international routes, the cryptic-sounding English that virtually all its cabin attendants demonstrated was worrying. Especially more so for the chosen crew member who’s responsible for passenger announcements — they were always so badly spoken out!

On one particular flight, I had no idea what the first officer was blabbering about in his attempt at an English announcement (although I did find out towards the end of his slurred speech that it was concerning our flight conditions).

When compounded with the aforementioned issues, it creates awful service encounters that rather be left unspoken of.

Service routines

I take issue with some of the service routines set out by China Eastern.

For example, there was always a lack of clarity when it came to boarding at the gate. Those elderly passengers or parents with children did get to board first on two out of four of my flights. Pre-boarding for SkyTeam Sky Priority members were either forgotten about (Busan and Shanghai) or wasn’t recognised at all (Singapore). Crowd control, in general, was poor due also to the inconsistent boarding practices at the different airports.

During flight, the flight attendants would always follow the same sequence of cabin service irrespective of the current time and the duration of the flight. It roughly goes like this (upon reaching cruising flight level): serve meals throughout cabin; serve drinks; collect all meal boxes/trays; and cabin service ends. While they do give people sufficient time to finish their meals and drinks, the crew will always attempt to complete the service in the shortest time possible.

(On my first China Eastern flight, which left Singapore just after 0100 (1am) local time, the serving of the meal came one hour into the flight, being 0200 (2am). Given the time, most people were more interested in catching a few winks over sustenance — and a quick “before-landing” meal would probably have made more sense…)

To top it off, the fasten-seat-belt signs were never turned off — which begs the question: “Why have them as lit-up signs in the first place?”

I don’t suppose the airline has considered making their service procedures more flexible and sensical at the same time…?

Aging aircraft cabins and sub-standard lounges

Just like the airlines’ customer service efforts, the presentation of their aircraft cabins, specifically with their older fleet of aircraft, leaves a lot to be desired.

While it’s highly unlikely that China Eastern will be retrofitting their older aircraft, going for their newer aircraft types (for example, the Airbus A320 and A330) would be a surer bet where overall in-flight visual and creature comforts are concerned.

Similarly, the airline lounge at their home base in Shanghai-Pudong wasn’t anything to celebrate about either.

While I appreciated the quiet space away from the general populous of the departure terminal, it didn’t exactly measure up in terms of the quality of facilities offered.

There were big (worn) lounge chairs with shared side tables in between. A limited selection of food items were on offer (hot and cold), fruits, and drinks including juices, water, and tea and coffee (there was a self-service machine that could make cappuccinos and espressos).

Betters those lounges operated by the American-based airlines, though…

The attending receptionist at the “First Class Lounge” made flight boarding announcements the old-fashioned way: by going around the lounge and literally broadcasting it at the top of her voice. It was an eye-opener, and also the only time where I understood every single word of English that was said.

Would I fly China Eastern again?

I probably wouldn’t hesitate taking another China Eastern flight, on the conditions that the total fare wasn’t as high as its competitors with a better hard (aircraft and facilities) and soft (overall customer service) product. If I didn’t have my SkyTeam Sky Priority status, the experience would’ve probably been quite underwhelming given the poorer customer service attitude exercised throughout my flights.

Their overall undesirable nature to serve really bugged me. By comparison, even low-cost carriers, like AirAsia or Tigerair, could provide a far-more endearing passenger experience between the airline and its passengers.

If the customers were of the local demographic (that is, the Chinese from China), this particular concern of mine probably mattered little. But in a global sense, it’s a major fail — and one that needs careful attention by the airline to bring itself to a new level of competitiveness.

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