Chinese airlines ain't what they used to be

LEE TULLOCH
Last updated 09:31 07/04/2014
China Southern
Reuters

CHINA SOUTHERN: Chinese airlines have changed immensely, for the better.

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I'm writing this on a China Southern flight from Sydney to Guangzhou, where I'll have a one-day stopover, thanks to new 72-hour visas issued on arrival for international passengers transiting China for a few days.

I'm having a lovely time up here in the clouds. I've just watched a pretty bad Luc Besson movie on a very good 15-inch seat-back monitor and I am reminded of the very first international flight I took on a Chinese airline, in 1984.

Qantas had just begun a codeshare with CAAC, the Chinese national airline, which meant that I flew out of Guangzhou (Canton ) on China Air. This flight in the pointy end of a new plane with flatbed seats and friendly attendants in smart uniforms couldn't be more different.

I was with a team of editors from Harper's Bazaar. We'd spent two weeks travelling in China, shooting fashion editorial.

I was the editor-in-chief and my responsibilities included herding buffalo to provide a colourful background to one shot, and herding the hundreds of onlookers who would gather silently every time we set up a picture, gawking at the model's clothes, the camera equipment and the male hairdresser's ponytail.

China in 1984 had just emerged from self-imposed isolation and it was vastly different to now. Most of the people in Beijing wore "Mao suits" and rode bicycles. There were few cars.

There were peasants working the fields, and we gave them pin-on koalas to thank them for modelling in our shots. In Guangzhou, we stayed in a half-built hotel, and they kept building the other half over our heads while we tried to sleep.

We flew domestically two or three times. Most of the team were terrified. The planes were old, and the military aircraft and commercial aircraft had the habit of colliding with each other mid-air, as they weren't yet consulting on air traffic. I foolishly asked someone how safe was the airline and they replied, "Only five crashes so far this year".

I hear people complain about their knees being around their ears on cramped flights these days - but our knees were at ear level on these flights, as we Western giants were so much taller than the diminutive locals. They were lovely to us, though, and brought out gifts every five minutes.

When we left Guangzhou to fly back to Sydney, we stumbled, pretty exhausted, onto the CAAC 747. The plane was nowhere near full and no one objected when we self-upgraded, nabbing ourselves business-class seats. I sat in my seat and put my hand in the pocket of the seat in front of me, looking for the inflight magazine. What I found was the sick bag. It was full.

Several years ago, I was flying domestically from Beijing to Shanghai on an airline I'd never heard of, named after a Chinese province. The plane was very old and the flight attendants, who smiled cheerily throughout, looked not much older than 12.

Unluckily, we headed into a thunderstorm and the plane lurched about frighteningly. When it levelled out, I made a run for the loo. The door was open and I pushed it in. (Warning, the next bit is X-rated.) Sitting on the toilet was a gentleman with his pants down, enjoying himself tremendously.

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These hair-raising experiences are by no means limited to Chinese airlines. Last year, I flew from Paris to Marrakech on the Moroccan national airline. When I arrived at my seat, I discovered someone had ripped most of the foam out of it.

But the professionalism of this flight, plus the high standards of Cathay Pacific and its domestic offshoot, Dragon Air, show how far China-based airlines have come since CAAC teamed with Qantas - 296 million people in China took domestic flights in 2012; that's a lot of passengers demanding good service and safe flights.

Must finish up now. We're about to land in Guangzhou. I'm looking forward to seeing how much that city has changed since 1984. And I'm hoping that my hotel has a roof.

Lee Tulloch flew as a guest of China Southern Airlines.

- FFX Aus

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