The Tokyo Joint: Air China Tokyo Haneda-Beijing, A321-200 Economy Class

It’s 5am. The temperature’s a measly 2 deg Celsius. It’s drizzling, but that’s barely a worry because the wind is harsh and unbearable.

The streets are still brightly lit with neon signs, and full of people, albeit flushed and reeking of alcohol. The situation’s no different at the platform, where commuters wait for the first trains to arrive in a hidden stupor underneath their hoods, with the only sign of life beneath is the condensation of breath. Even with my gloves and shielded face, my fingers and face were turning numb from the frost and waves of wind. At four minutes to the half-hour, two bright eyes from the darkness, and slowly chugging into the station drenched, a sight which couldn’t have been more welcome. The stench of alcohol is worse inside, though, but at least, the train’s heaters had been turned on. It takes longer than usual, but the JR East Yamanote Line anti-clockwise loop train finally pulls into Hamamatsucho where I transfer for the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda airport.

Tokyo Monorail at Hamamatsucho station

Haneda is Asia’s second busiest airport, and is primarily a domestic airport with a handful of international flights. To keep Narita relevant, Haneda’s international traffic is restricted to the cities of Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei during the day, and selected destinations with limited frequencies in Malaysia, USA, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Mongolia, Singapore and Thailand between the hours of 11pm and 7am. These rules skew aircraft schedules in favor of the Japanese, which eradicates the advantages of Haneda’s proximity to Tokyo for foreigners. For example, a return flight to Singapore departs Haneda at 6.55am, and unless the passengers are wealthy enough to stomach the hefty cab fare during the dead hours, it’ll inadvertently entail overnighting at the airport. Nevertheless, I was still eager to try out Haneda, and the solution was to transit via one of the permitted daytime international destinations. As mentioned in earlier posts, Cathay Pacific’s fares had shot through the roof while China Eastern required transiting between Hongqiao and Pudong airports, so I settled for Air China through Beijing.

Japanese airports tend to favor function over form, and while Osaka’s Kansai airport favors the latter over the former, Haneda’s international terminal balances it perfectly. The result is a small, digestible terminal that’s modern and contemporary as its neighbors, but still retains an essence that is quintessentially Japanese. All these aesthetics are, however, only on the surface, literally, as the airside reverts back to the functional, which is a pity.

After a quick check-in in which my requests for window seats on the port side were swiftly acceded to, I headed up to the observation deck. Japanese airports are typically enthusiasts friendly, and Haneda’s international terminal was no exception. However, with the airport exposed to the elements, the winds at the airport were raging without mercy, and showed no signs of letting up at all. I could barely stand straight and still, I had one hand on my camera, the other on the fence to stabilize myself – I had never experienced winds this ferocious before, and I had to face it upfront later.

With my face flushed, hands feeling like ice blocks from the short exposure to the strong gusts and cold, I sought to warm myself with a rather overpriced breakfast after immigration. Then, I proceeded to engage in more aircraft photography – despite the horrible weather, this is Asia’s second busiest airport after all, which means, planes are constantly taking off and landing. In the midst of it, I found myself in the “unofficial” company of a particularly good-looking Japanese guy who, like me, was also taking pictures. Cute as a button, he got “friendly” by shooting me with the flash on (to catch my attention because unfortunately, the few encounters I’ve had so far in Tokyo can’t speak English at all).

Spotting at Tokyo’s Haneda airport

Airside

Air China CA 184
Tokyo Haneda – Beijing
Aircraft: Airbus A321-200
Schedule: 0830h – 1130h
Actual Schedule: 1020h – 1320h
Load Factor: 100%
Seat: 35A

Unlike a lot of the narrow body aircraft that I’ve flown with various carriers, this one actually felt comfortable, which really goes to show how far leg room and comfortable seats can change the passenger’s travel experience. In this single flight, the crew demonstrated that Air China really deserves its Skytrax 4-star rating, but it was through adversity. Just before our scheduled departure time, the flight deck had announced that we’d be delayed – a group of passengers had just reached the airport and were only now just checking-in. People were pissed – as time wore on, those who had onward connections (read: everybody onboard) became very anxious. Instead of doing nothing, some of the crew went up and down the aisle (multiple times, in fact) performing a drink run, while the rest responded to queries, and calmed some of the more flustered passengers down in fluent English.

Almost 90 minutes later, the group of Spanish students entered the aircraft obviously hung over and still in a joyous mood, to the chagrin of the passengers. Even if we took off at this moment, half of the 185 passengers, including the Spanish students would’ve missed their flights, and the remaining quarter’s, including my connection to Singapore, was now in serious jeopardy. Not helping the situation was the bad weather. Due to strong headwinds, we’d be taking almost four hours to reach Beijing, and the ride wasn’t going to be smooth sailing… The descent and approach into Beijing was most frightening. Lateral jolts, steep drops, constant forceful nudges from all directions elicited screams, and even my male seatmates were displaying genuine fears. In the midst of it all, the crew had managed to negotiate to hold planes, and successfully managed to provide connections for a third of the passengers, and were announcing them as we approached into Beijing Capital.

Lovely breakfast

As if to prove that the roller coaster descent wasn’t a farce, we were parked at a remote gate. It turns out that the strong gusts in Tokyo wasn’t local, it was regional. I was just thankful that the airport bus’ air-conditioners were set to a very warm temperature. I was shaken, but alas, Beijing wasn’t my final destination, and I had to face the wrath of the elements again.

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