The Tokyo Joint: Air China Singapore-Beijing, A330-300 Economy Class

This is the first of many trip reports documenting my recent vacation in Tokyo, rewrote, rephrased, with every effort to remove the effects applied on certain images. The first installment features my flight to Beijing.

Ever since I started working, I’d go on regular breaks just to clear and refresh my mind – it does wonders for me, truly, and I come back with a reignited passion and a glint in my eyes. It had been more than three months since my last vacation – a fact that didn’t catch me unaware. My previous trips were accomplished with a very tight budget of just under a thousand dollars, which is fortunately for now, still manageable in China, but impossible everywhere else. I had my eye on Tokyo. However, I was distracted by my mother who expressed that she’d like to come along, and possibly, bring my younger brother along. She’d lay down ground rules, but wouldn’t accept the consequences of sticking to them. She was extremely adamant about flying certain airlines, but couldn’t reconcile that it’d lead to higher airfares on a more “desirable” airline. Accommodation was yet another issue she refused to grapple with, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Frustrated, I went ahead without her.

It wasn’t the most satisfying conclusion, mostly because in the nine days of her going back and forth, I had missed value deals on Singapore Airlines, ANA, Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific. In fact, within that period, Seoul was momentarily a cheaper option. With AirAsia X out of the question (due to its undesirable schedule), my “best” option was Air China. On retrospect, it offered the best schedules, and as an aviation enthusiast, allowed me to fly through Tokyo’s two airports. The trip didn’t start well. Less than twelve hours before my flight, my employers had informed me that they were changing the direction of the publication (again), and that the restructuring didn’t require any of the staff’s services. It was a turnaround that got me fuming. With a heavy heart, I headed home, did the last of my packing and headed to the airport.

Aaaahhh… Good ol’ boarding passes.

1.5 hours late!

I arrived at the Air China check-in counters to find that my flight’s been delayed, which wasn’t anything really surprising considering the well documented bad on-time performance of Beijing’s airport. The check-in staff reassured me that as long as my flight arrived before 0720hrs, I’d make my connection, which wasn’t very reassuring at all. With so much time, I proceed to the foreign exchange counters, whose rates I realize, aren’t that bad. I love that you could just NETS it, so one doesn’t actually need to withdraw local currency only to change it back to foreign currency. Looking through guides on the web, I was advised to have all my cash withdrawn because there’s hardly any ATM or place that’ll accept VISA or any of the other known payment schemes in Tokyo. The rest of my time was divided equally between Starbucks, the smoking area of Terminal 1 and running about trying to snap pictures of aircraft. We were supposed to depart waaayy before the European and Australian departures, but in the end, I watched them takeoff. By the time my flight had finally arrived, I was very sleepy already.

A very late Lion Air B737-900ER getting ready to turn back to Jakarta while a delayed British Airways is being prepared for her trip back home to London.

Turkish Airlines A330-200 in new colors pushing back for Istanbul.

Finnair A340-300 in Oneworld livery heading home to Helsinki.

I’m in luck! Another airline alliance livery aircraft, this time in the form of KLM’s B777-300ER in SkyTeam colors returning from a short hop to Bali.

As the KLM flight only stops over in Singapore for slightly under an hour before returning home to Amsterdam, the ground crew has to work fast to turnaround the plane. Here, they’re moving fast to deliver fresh pillows.

I was wondering when my plane was gonna arrive…

Air China CA 970
Singapore Changi – Beijing Capital
Aircraft: Airbus A330-300
Schedule: 1205h – 0620h
Actual Schedule: 0140h – 0735h
Load Factor: 91.9% (286 of 311 capacity)
Seat: 39L

With much of the terminal now closing, there was virtually nothing to do except to wait in the gate holding area, which meant it filled up pretty quick. I was expecting an aircraft of mostly Chinese citizens, but the passenger profile couldn’t have been more different. There were Indians, a bunch of Korean girls who were sooo underdressed for late winter the crew had to actually ask them if they were aware their final destination (Seoul) was still mostly freezing, and a surprisingly large group of Japanese. This morning’s crew, was on the whole, very young and mostly pleasant-looking – their bright cheery greetings in English and Mandarin were completely ambushed by distressed incoming passengers who were worried that they’d miss their connections. In Mandarin, their personal apologies and efforts to calm passengers were heartfelt, but in their barely comprehensible English, it was difficult to make out what they were saying beyond the more universal “sorry”.

Although I get that the average Chinese passenger might not recognize the need for it; since it’s very likely that the most frequent Chinese flyers are unskilled laborers or in general, people who, perhaps never fiddled with such high-tech gadgetry besides maybe a television, a radio and a cellphone; I was still slightly disappointed that the aircraft wasn’t fitted with personal entertainment, but hey, at least every seat came with a pillow and a blanket (which was really annoying). Despite that, I was never really bored. (Currently, PTV/AVOD is only available on Air China’s A330-200 and B777-300ER fleet on flights between China and Europe and America). After meals served and quickly collected, most probably to allow passengers to rest, the lights were quickly turned off, with the crew promptly coming down telling us to shut our window shades.

As expected, no PTV.

Seat pitch’s at 31 inches, but Air China employs the new style seats where the seat cushions slights forward, and reclines a little to give the illusion of a greater recline, and that really helped with the comfort.

Typical SATS catering.

You have to request for tea, coffee and beer because for some reason, it’s not available from the trolley. Do be specific when you ask for tea, because “tea” gets you Chinese tea, so it’d be good to know what are “English Breakfast” and “Earl Grey” in China Mandarin (they differ from Singapore, Hong Kong, American and Taiwanese Mandarin, so do check). Nevertheless, the Chinese tea inflight is simply fabulous. Wine’s pretty horrid (China’s not a mature wine making nation yet) but beer’s as good as the best, mostly because when the Germans and Japanese colonized Qingdao and Manchuria respectively, they left behind breweries in perfect working order.

I still had difficulty sleeping though. For one, I was wearing denim (note to self and you readers: NEVER wear denim on a red-eye or long-haul flight), and secondly, the aircraft was freezing. In the pitch black environment, the lavatory signs felt very bright, and the crew were aware of this as they did very silent but nevertheless frequent water runs, and tried to block it, with little success, but I applaud them for trying. It was barely a half an hour after lights-out that I realized why we were told to close our window shades. A little after 3am, the eternal star-lit blackness gave way to a navy blue, and by four, a paper-thin faint horizontal appeared in the most gentle manner – morning had arrived.

This being my first flight in sixteen years with a flight time of more than six hours, I was anticipating breakfast, unaware that gone were the glory days of travel where you’d be served two meals in a six-hour flight. So naturally, with my hunger pangs not cured, I was a little jumpy and to be honest, game for some food. Feeling an incoming gastric, I wanted to ask the crew if they had anything for me to tide me over. However, my fellow window passengers decided to raise the window shades anyhow, and this reignited the calm which had been so peacefully maintained throughout much of the flight. Now completely bombarded with questions about connections and transfers, it seemed immature of me to disrupt the crew’s “peacekeeping efforts”. With the time approaching seven, and no feeling of descent in “sight”, even I was starting to get jumpy. Would I make it for my Tokyo flight, I wondered.

One of the better sceneries I’ve shot, with absolutely no effects.

I can’t believe it’s so bright over China at 7am. Time to descend.

One minute past 7, and the aircraft finally begins descending, and rather steeply I might add. This manuever, along with the timely captain’s announcement, gives the crew enough time to bide their time as they escape to their confines to change. With the seeming exception of Singapore and Malaysia Airlines, full-service East Asian airlines’ flight attendants wear different outfits inflight and on the ground, and Northeast Asian carriers even take the step further with another set of uniform during meal service. As if they understood the mounting delays, the pilots put the aircraft through a very sharp brake immediately after complete touchdown, barely using half the runway. Before long, we docked at our final resting place.

It’s -2 deg C in Beijing.

Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 3 is the world’s second largest terminal by area, and is the fortress hub of Air China.

Look out for my next post as I continue my journey to Tokyo…

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