Hit By Hainan Airlines’ Notorious Plane Swaps

Filed Under: Hainan, Travel

December is a month of airline review trips for me, as I’m catching up on some products that I’m overdue to try.

In general I like planning review trips last minute, if for no other reason than airlines constantly having schedule changes, and sometimes even having aircraft changes.

While I’m currently on a trip where I’m flying British Airways, Finnair, and Cathay Pacific, next week I’m booked on a trip where I’ll be flying American Airlines and Cathay Dragon to Beijing, and then Hainan Airlines from Beijing to Boston.

I’ve dealt with one quirk and one issue with the return portion of the trip, so I wanted to provide a warning and also ask what you guys would do in my situation.

Hainan Seat Assignments Don’t Stick

I booked the trip about a month in advance, and have been monitoring the seatmap. I had selected a specific seat shortly after booking, and what’s weird is that about a week after I selected the seat it showed as being unassigned on the seatmap.

So I called up Hainan to reassign it. They had no problem confirming the seat, and it showed correctly again. But then a few days the seat showed as unassigned again. No one at Hainan could give me an explanation for why.

I’m not sure if that was just foreshadowing the bigger issue I was about to have, or what…

Hainan Swaps Planes Last Minute

When I wrote about being excited to fly Hainan’s new 787-9 business class, a couple of people warned me to be careful with Hainan’s last minute plane swaps. Or more specifically, they maintain the same type of aircraft, but you end up on a plane with a different configuration.

This was something I was generally aware of, though I didn’t figure it happened that often.

I had been keeping an eye on the seatmap for the Beijing to Boston route in days leading up to departure, and repeatedly saw the seatmap  switch from a business class cabin with four seats per row…

To a business class cabin with six seats per row…

Go figure that today this finally happened to the flight that I’m booked on.

On the most basic level, this post is intended to warn those booked on Hainan that equipment swaps seem to be pretty common, so don’t book Hainan fully expecting you’ll get their new business class.

What Do I Do Now?

I’ve reviewed Hainan’s old 787 business class, so to me there’s not much appeal to flying that again.

The whole reason I planned to fly them was to review their new business class.

Fortunately I booked this award through Alaska Mileage Plan, so if I wanted to I could redeposit the award at no cost.

Assuming the aircraft swap is likely to stick, I need a new plan. The added wrinkle is that I can’t make this trip much longer than it already is, because I have doggy daddy duties at home upon my return, and Winston will be mighty unhappy if he has to go to the doggy hotel longer than necessary.

As I look at options:

  • Unfortunately no other North America Hainan routes from Beijing have business class award availability for my date
  • I’d sure be tempted to review Juneyao Airlines between Shanghai and Helsinki, but at that point I’d be going way out of my way, and it would extend my trip significantly
  • I could review Air China’s new A350 business class from Beijing to Milan, and then from there could book a reasonably priced business class ticket back to Miami on TAP Air Portugal, allowing me to review their A330-900neo
  • I really want to review ANA’s new business class, but there’s only availability from Haneda to London; so I’d need to spend a night in Beijing, then fly Beijing to Tokyo, spend a night in Tokyo, then fly Tokyo to London, then spend a night in London, and then fly home; Winston has strongly rejected this option
  • I’m sure there are other options, but those are the first things that come to mind

For Hainan frequent flyers, what are the odds that my flight switches back to having the new business class? What should I book as a backup? Lastly, if you are flying Hainan, be prepared for an aircraft swap!

  1. “the doggy hotel ”

    Don’t kid yourself. It’s actually a doggy prison.

    Pay someone to house-sit and look after Winston. It’s more expensive for you, but vastly better for the dog.

  2. That’s funny in a nerdy way. Imagine showing up at the check-in counter, ‘Wait! It’s 2-2-2 now? Thank you!’ Walking away (Calling AS for cancellation and redeposit)

  3. This has happened to me twice now on BA – once booked in 1K on 747, switched to 777, and then booked in new club suite 777 switched to old 777… so annoying.

  4. had this happen worse…. swapped from an old 787 to an even older 737… no lie flats on 6+ hours… no notice. rough

  5. Hainan needs to issue an Electronic Miscellaneous Document (‘EMD”) for the seat assignment to stay. Even though it’s free. Stupid, I know!

  6. Or else you can pick up a $1,300~return business class on China Southern HKG-WUH-JFK. You can both review the 737 and the 787 in one go and compare with your A380 experience. 😉

  7. First world problems. Ben it’s a dog. I wish my limiting factor for extending trips was going home for my dog.

  8. Try Juneyao! We’ve been happy with their short haul service and have seen the 787 a few times from economy. Would love to know what business is like.

  9. where do you go to assign seats on a Hainan flight booked with AS miles? When I goto Hainan website, I get an error that you can only assign seats if you booked the flight on Hainan website.

  10. @ anon — You have to call to select seats, so that’s what I did, and then I cross referenced with ExpertFlyer seatmaps.

  11. @ Matt R — If it doesn’t happen this time, I promise it will happen early in 2020. PEK-PVG-HEL-XXX-MIA just seems like a long way home, heh.

  12. can’t you just book one of the many other routes between China and USA on HU with the new equipment? CSX, XIY, CKG, CTU departures should net you a long haul on their new 787 anyway?
    also don’t hope for it swapping back, it never happens.

  13. Hey Lucky, if you can make your way to Taipei, you might find PAL flights connecting through MNL on to YYZ or JFK (A350 service) for decent prices.

  14. If you do end up in Boston, there are plenty of new hotels to review. I think more hotels have opened in the last 5 years that in the previous 20.

  15. @Lucky
    I know your experience with Sichuan was terrible, but the airline now flies A350s to LAX with a new business class cabin, so maybe you could give them another go on Beijing-Jinan/Hangzhou-L.A then on to Miami?

  16. An EMD would have a ticket number. It indicates that you’ve paid for a seat, even if it’s a $0 cost.

    Most airlines are moving to EMDs for seat selection, which used to be reserved for only seats with a cost. Stupid, but it is what it is.

    So when you select a seat but it doesn’t confirm, it’s like an unticketed segment dropping from a PNR.

    I have no clue how competent Hainan phone support is, but specifically ask that when they do the $0 seat selection that they issue an EMD. I’ve had success with their email service as being competent.

  17. I actually just had this happen in the opposite direction on my return from Shanghai to Seattle. I was prepared for the old business class, then got to the check-in counter and the agent asked me which seats I wanted after I had made reservations over the phone. When I looked confused she explained that the plane had 4-across seating and I turned to my wife and said “if this means what I think it does, we just got a significant upgrade.”

    Anyway, it was a great improvement over the old biz which we’d flown out to Shanghai.

  18. CA’s 350 and TAP’s 339NEO seem to be interesting enough. In contrast Juneyao”s new product has a lot higher chance of disappointing you.

  19. I’d be happy with the downgraded business class since my only goal is to get from A to B in some semblance of comfort, but then again, I’m not a travel blogger.

    I will say, you should consider Rover or similar for pet sitting needs. We always have someone stay at our home with our dog. I’m sure the familiar environment is preferable for the dog and it’s actually a bit cheaper than any doggy boarding/hotel we’ve considered. Win-Win!

  20. The odds of getting the new super diamond J are small at the moment since only 3 of all of the 789s have the seat. The rest of the 789s are split between old J and cirrus J.

    I just came back from a HU mileage run. When I booked it, LAX-CSX had the brand new J and XIY-LAX had cirrus J. A week out, LAX-CSX was swapped to Cirrus and XIY-LAX to old J.

    SO yeah, it’s a few days out when you can be certain which config will be placed on your flight. The seatmap shown for a flight over a week before dep is pretty much meaningless

  21. I would try to go Juneyao to Helsinki since I feel that Juneyao is better than Air China even though I would prefer A350s than 787s.
    These are the airlines I would book if I ever need to go to Mainland China
    1. Hainan Airlines
    2. Juneyao Airlines( If I can’t go with Hainan)
    3. A Foreign Airline (probably Turkish, or Qatar)
    4. Air China or China Southern or China Eastern

  22. Being Australian based, a Juneyao review would be my preference as they present a new *A option into Northern Europe, but the Air China A350 gets you home earlier and would also be useful.

  23. @ Peter — Realistically no. Seat types are not guaranteed, and things only get significantly more difficult when you’re on a partner ticket.

  24. Why don’t you fly Philippine Airlines from Manila to US? They always have cheap fares and I’ve never seen a review. Please

  25. Your comment: “Fortunately I booked this award through Alaska Mileage Plan, so if I wanted to I could redeposit the award at no cost.” I believe that is not true anymore, Alaska started charging a $125 change/cancellation fee a few months ago. The only time that you won’t pay the fee is if you change/cancel your award ticket within 24 hours of issuance.

    I personally would not risk flying long haul in a lesser configuration. I would go with Air China even though it’s not really a better airline but at least you’ll get a better seat in a newer plance.

    Good luck.

  26. The Hainan Airlines plane has been switched out from the B787-900 to the A350-900 from the 17th December to operate every second day to Boston over the Christmas period (A350 carries an extra 40 passengers and more cargo compared to the B787).

  27. THis has happened to me three times on Hainan, including from Beijing to Boston. Now, I just book one of the middle aisle seats to guarantee free access to the aisle and no one stepping over me. But their new business class is pretty, pretty good.

    It’s possible that they change the seat configuration again one or more times). I’ve had it change within 24 hours of my flight. Frankly, I’ve accepted that I never know which configuration I’ll get.

  28. How about just waiting for Cathay Pacific to release one of the those last minute first class award tickets to the US and reviews the latest updates to its first class product?

  29. I agree with Adrian. I think a lot of us would be interested in an updated report regarding CX first class, including the soft product and whether recent events seem to have had any impact on the in-flight service experience.

  30. I vote for Air China and TAP. Two new product …. shortly following the recent article about TAP’s new fleet

  31. Lucky, if you are intending to fly the new “dream feather” business class product (the one shown in the post with beige colour scheme) then you are most likely out of luck. As far as I know, the roster for these planes is totally random and there are a very small number of them in Hainan’s fleet, so in most cases, the 1-2-1 config you are seeing on Expertflyer is the old 2017 reverse herringbone seats.

  32. I had exactly the same scenario a month back. I was glad I grabbed a good solo window seat on the new 787. Suddenly after a few says that seat was gone. Contacting Hainan is not one of the most enjoyable things to do. I was given a middle seat on the old 2-2-2 layout. Eventually to my good luck like a miracle 3 days before the flight it went back to the new 787 and I grabbed a window seat. Upon check in at Beijing airport again I was given a middle seat and managed to get window once again. Its a pity that an airline with such a good in flight service has an appalling preflight experience irrespective of whether its their terrible website or call center or check in or lounge. Since I was holding an Alaska air ticket check in online was also not permitted!

  33. Same thing happened recently on LAX XIY but then it swapped back a day or two before. Not sure what’s up but I wouldn’t panic and rebook.


  34. If the Air China A350 + TAP Portugal flights get you home about as fast as the Hainan ones, you might as well do it. Otherwise, I’m assuming you have enough Alaska miles to book Hainan again in the future and try again; getting home before the holiday rush near Christmas would be my first priority in your shoes

  35. I think these notorious “aircraft swaps” are apparent throughout most Chinese carriers.

    I am flying CZ 3113 CAN-PEK on the 19th which is supposedly operated by an A350. Being the wary traveller, I have been checking the seat maps on a near daily basis. Worst fears came true when the seatmap suddenly reflected as a B738.

    Immediately rang up China Southern’s hotline expressing my disappointment at the downgauge to only be informed that the only way out is to pay a penalty fee to change to the A380 slot later that evening.

    Absolutely furious since this flight has historically only used a narrowbody for 7 days out of the past year, according to FR24.

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