China Southern is a strange beast.
China’s — and Asia’s — largest airline has a particularly unusual and not particularly helpful brand, and I’m not just talking about the suggestive shape of the cotton-tree flower on its tail.
Much of what the airline does in terms of its passenger experience is decent, especially in terms of the bones of its product, but it keeps stumbling on the final 20 percent, counteracting the other 80 percent.
And this is particularly obviously shown on its latest business class cabin, which has been filtering out onto social media (the airline’s and others’) recently.
The basic seat is a good one: Recaro’s CL6710 is a solid modern seat of the ‘compact staggered’ variety, the sort that has arrived on the scene in the last few years to provide direct aisle access with maximum space efficiency.
They do, of course, suffer from the problems with all staggered seats: the ones situated across a side table from the aisle are much more private and much less prone to being disturbed by passing crew or passengers.
But the slight angle away from the aisle with which Recaro has created the CL6710 — no, you’re not wrong, their seat naming is terrible — is what really makes the seat.
Interestingly, China Southern chose not to make its center pairs in the “honeymoon” style, where the center pairs immediately adjacent allow you to fall asleep next to your romantic partner (or put up a privacy divider between you and Pat from Accounting).
El Al, by contrast, did choose “honeymoon” pairs, and as a rule, airlines do that when they think their passenger mix has a substantial upmarket leisure element.
China Southern, by contrast, looks to think differently about its market.
I very much like the semi-open cupboard storage space, which is new. This is a smart move to allow both temporary storage (for a phone, say, or a pair of spectacles) but also to enable passengers to have a more secure space to stow their things.
As an added benefit, it’s also easier to spot at a glance whether you’ve left anything behind.
Safran’s RAVE inflight entertainment is a solid pick as well: it’s the smoothest I’ve seen in recent years, but the proof will be in the content pudding.
Now onto the finish, which is… honestly, a bit disappointing and very ‘old Chinese airline’, after recent excellent choices from Air China and China Eastern.
This very blah generic blue is truly awful: it’s Delta from ten years ago and just gives a deeply dated feel to the cabin, especially when it wraps around the side of the footwell/side table combination.
It’s leather, too, which is good for wear-and-tear but gets awfully sticky during a long flight, so thoughtful airlines are moving away from it as a primary seating surface material.
I’m not hugely cross about the beige trim around the seat, which reminds me rather of Qantas’ current Business Suite, but I have huge reservations about the ugly faux-wood effect that looks like it fell out of an American 1970s sitcom’s television room.
Not only is the panel effect hideous on its own, but the horizontal lines on the door of the little cupboard do strange and rather unpleasant things to the pattern.
CMF — color, materials, and finish — opinions, of course, remain subjective to an extent.
But these just aren’t great, and highlight a wider issue with the big three Chinese airlines (China Southern, China Eastern and Air China): their branding is neither particularly consistent nor particularly good.
With the exception of the most recent cabins from the other two, their cabins aren’t particularly attractive either.
That would be fine if we were ten years ago and the business class game was to pack ‘em flat and sell ‘em cheap.
But it’s not: not only is the domestic market gaining an increasingly internationalized sense of aesthetics and experience, but the international market also has ever-rising expectations.
China Southern needs to do better.