Malaysia Airlines / 30 April 18 / B737-800 / MH PVG-KUL / Business Class
Tl;dr – It’s not too bad, but avoid red-eye flights under six hours at all costs. Product is dated but still acceptable, timing of the flight is absolutely horrendous. Also, catering out of Shanghai airports generally suck.
In another one of my crazy business trips up to Shanghai, I made the mistake of planning to travel back to Singapore via Hong Kong during the Easter weekend when half the territory is going on holiday. True enough, I didn’t manage to get any seats out of Hong Kong, so I ended up booking myself on Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur and the only option available was a red-eye departure.
The flight departs from Shanghai Pudong airport at an ungodly hour of 2.30am, scheduled to arrive into Kuala Lumpur at a little over 8am.
Now, for those who are unacquainted with Shanghai airport, this is one of the worst hub airports I’ve ever been to. The astounding lack of good quality restaurants, lounges and shopping is even more stark now as compared to what’s available in town. The lack of customer service at almost all travel touchpoints – from check-in, security, immigration – coupled with standard long wait times makes this airport an undesirable one for me.
I left my hotel at about 12.30am for the 40-minute cab ride to the airport, and got to the kerb at about 1.15am. When I arrived at Terminal 2 – where Malaysia Airlines operated out of – the terminal was completely dark with only a handful of people within. You could have thought that the airport was closed, except that it’s not (it is technically a 24-hour airport).
Only three check-in counters were opened, and there were nobody in line when I got there. When I was checking in, the check-in agent was multitasking – checking me in while playing his mobile game. I let it go given that it’s really late at night and I know how tough is it to stay awake with nothing to do.
One of the best things about travelling during such zombie hours is the lack of queues. I swept through immigration and security checks in less than five minutes altogether, a new record for me in Pudong, so much so I had some time to check out the lounge.
I made my way to the gate at about 2am, half hour before departure. The gate was still not ready for boarding when I got there, and as usual lines has already formed up. A glance at all the tired faces, you could tell that everyone was waiting to get in their seats so they could sleep.
The choice of aircraft for this red-eye service was a Boeing 737-800, a narrowbody which holds 16 in business class and 144 in economy. Malaysia Airlines ply Kuala Lumpur-Shanghai twice daily, and uses an A330-300 on the day flight and this smaller aircraft on the overnight flight, a decision which baffles me.
Now a little bit about MH’s 737s. Malaysia Airlines has a relatively large fleet of about 52 of these birds, which they use primarily for domestic and regional services, and Shanghai was one of the furthest destinations they have for this fleet.
The 16 seat business cabin was laid out in a 2-2 across configuration, and featured recliner seats which was hardly ideal for a red-eye. Each seat measured 21 inch across and had a pitch of 42 inches.
Obviously there wasn’t any fancy controls to handle, apart from some mechanical buttons to control the seat back and leg rest.
Given that this is a red-eye service that departs at a god-forsaken hour, I was bracing myself for grumpy cabin crew. Who wants to work through the night?
Fortunately for me there was no such thing. The crew was friendly, albeit a little quiet, but still very professional in the truly Malaysian hospitality.
In the front, there were two cabin crew including the inflight supervisor, who worked the business class while the rest were at the rear. When we first boarded, they quickly offered earphones and a choice of welcome drink of juice or water for pre-departure drinks. Consistent with other flight reports, no alcohol was offered on ground.
I noticed there was no newspapers distributed or offered to passengers when I was boarding and was wondering if that’s normal. When I got to my seat, I realised why – the newspapers were stuffed into the seat back pockets at random. I had a copy of The Star, while my neighbour had a copy of the New Straits Times. Given this was 2.30am I decided that it was a bad idea to be difficult and request for a Chinese newspaper for the sake of it.
As a narrowbody, this means that while premium passengers get to board first and relax in their seats, they also end up being exhibits while the economy class passengers file through from the front door. Awkwardly that means your every move, whether you start getting comfortable and all covered up in your blanket, or having your pre-departure drink, is being observed by all 100 over passengers as they move pass you.
Soon enough, as the plane pushed back and took off on the 5-hour journey down south to Kuala Lumpur, the lights never came on and most of the cabin went to sleep.
I went up to the crew and asked for a glass of champagne, which they obliged. I supposed they were a little taken aback given that most passengers went straight to sleep, while this alcoholic (me) wanted some bubbly at an unearthly hour.
Feeling bad for having to open that bottle, I had a second round, before finally retiring for the night.
About 90 minutes before landing, the lights were turned on and breakfast service commenced. The sky was starting to light up as it was about 6.30am in the morning.
To start off breakfast, there was a side of fruits, yogurt and a choice of hot bread. I went for the croissant, which was surprisingly light and fluffy.
For mains, there was three options in Business – a western breakfast, an oriental option of dim sum, or the classic Malaysian choice of nasi lemak. Instinctively I went for the last choice, given my love for the dish. Unfortunately the rice was a little too moist and mushy for my liking, and lacking the distinct coconut aroma, but otherwise the curry chicken was good.
Overall the flight service was very acceptable, despite the choice of timing and aircraft. Understandably, given the economics of routes in and out of Malaysia, one can understand why Malaysia Airlines operates the B737 on many of its routes given the weak demand on many of the routes especially after 2014, despite very good prices.
Poor Malaysia Airlines’ reputation had taken a tremendous beating since the twin tragedy in 2014 and ticket prices have been consistently low since.
In what seem to be an uplift, it has most recently taken delivery of the A350 which has promised to offer a much better experience, including in-flight wifi, and will also start moving away from the A380 to better manage its commercial performance. Given the slow and steady shifts in the business I do look forward to much improvements in the product and the classic Malaysian hospitality that it has always strived to offer.