Three weeks ago my wife and I flew China Eastern from Beijing to Shanghai and, thanks to traffic miracles on both ends and the absence of the usual Beijing departure hold, made it door-to-door in about four hours.


Today I flew US Airlines from Washington to Boston, a more-or-less comparable route, in just about the same door-to-door time. One difference: Beijing-Shanghai is more than half again as far (576 nautical miles, vs. 343). Another: often I've been loaded onto a 747 for the Chinese route, versus the Airbus 319 that is standard for US Air. But here's the general compare/contrast rundown:


1) Cost: Roughly $150 advertised fare on China Eastern, vs $385 for USAir. Edge to the Chinese, especially considering that the trip is longer. On the other hand, given the 7- or 8- fold difference in national per capita income, the US fare is obviously more "affordable."


2) Amenities: No contest. China Eastern is way nicer. Hot meals on all flights -- standard choice is "rice" or "noodles," meaning a choice of the side dish that will accompany chicken, fish, etc. Plus, free beer. (Yes, Chinese beer, but still.) On USAir today, tiny pack of pretzels and a soft drink. On the other hand, the "seat pitch" in Chinese airplanes seems an inch or two shorter than even for US economy class, with that much less leg "room."

3) Atmospherics: I have yet to encounter a surly Chinese flight attendant. (Likely reason: it's a relatively much, much better job in China. Also, air travel is a new experience there, with the excitement it once had in America.) Today I encountered only such people on USAir.


4) Airport hassle: The US security-line ritual is a little speeded up since I last encountered it, but still -- taking off the shoes, computer out of the bag, checking of IDs, the whole familiar process. It's just slow. In China: shoes stay on, computer stays in bag, no ID check in the security line (though you do have to have passport or national ID card checked before getting on each flight). Edge again to the Chinese.


5) Airplane hassle: Here's a surprise. It really does take almost twice as long for people to get on the plane, and off the plane, in the US as in China. That's only partly because of the every-man-for-himself rush on and off the plane that is typical in China. Mainly it is because of the dreaded carry-on bags. This is one of my pet peeves: American professionals turning themselves into pack animals, and maneuvering to get onto the plane early so they can cram their rolling bags into the overhead bins. True: their maneuvering cannot come close to the outright stampede of a Chinese "line," but what was dramatic to me today was how much time it takes. The Chinese passengers on average have much less carry-on crap, so on average they get on and off a lot faster. FWIW.


6) Communications: Hmm, I may be seeing a pattern here. Huge edge again to China. As mentioned earlier, in China you are never out of good cell phone coverage. (Reason one: a relatively new network, rather than "legacy." Reason two: national monopoly services!) In a tunnel; on an elevator; anywhere anytime, it works. While waiting for the bags at Logan airport; while going through the Big Dig tunnels; out front of the hotel in Boston -- those times and others, cell phone coverage failed. America's cell-phone system is to a good system, what China's quality-control standards are to good standards.


On the other hand, China's perfect mobile-phone coverage means that people everywhere, all the time, are yelling into their phones.


7) Safety and so on: I was amazed when we landed in Boston that we'd been able to get in at all. I have lost the URLs for my favorite aviation-weather sites, but it looked like "zero-zero" -- no ceiling, no visibility. And the flight had been through bad, bumpy weather all the way. Chinese airline travel has become quite safe, but odds are that U.S. pilots simply have more years of experience in conditions like these. Pilot sounded unflappable through his announcements in what were objectively very demanding circumstances. Point for the US here.


8) Local transport: Believe it or not, big US advantage. Wait for a taxi: one minute at Logan airport, versus half-an-hour norm at Shanghai's dreaded Hongqiao airport.


9) Fashion note: The big Rip van Winkle change since we left the US in the summer of 2006 is the increased popularity of these little worn-on-the-ear cell phones. Boy, do those look stupid if you haven't been told they're hip.


No larger point here, just a side-by-side features chart.

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