The Kansai Episode: Cathay Pacific Hong Kong – Taipei Taoyuan – Osaka Kansai, Airbus A330-300 Economy Class

Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the most difference.

Fifth freedom flights – the right to carry passengers between or to a third destination under the same flight number – are few but not uncommon. Planes like the Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 can fly further than ever before, gradually making stopovers obsolete. It was only two decades ago that flights from Singapore to the US West Coast entailed mandatory pit stops in Hong Kong and Honolulu. However, some fifth freedom flights still remain. Some, like Singapore Airlines’ flights to the Americas have a stopover because a nonstop flight might be financially taxing for the airline, and uncomfortable for passengers. For the others, it’s the revenue opportunity that is undeniable. Cathay Pacific still retains a rather impressive network of fifth freedom services, most of which are a nod to the airline’s earlier days. Closer to its Hong Kong hub, it offers a multitude of Japanese destinations out of Taipei as extensions of its Hong Kong – Taipei shuttle flights. So, when the opportunity afforded me, I decided to add a second stopover in Taipei en route to Osaka Kansai Airport.

I spot EVA Air’s newly delivered Airbus A321.

Thai Airways Airbus A380 getting ready for its short hop back home.

My favorite United Airlines livery.

This Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-400, an ex-Singapore Airlines aircraft gets ready for a long-haul run to Canada.

Enlightened by the brilliant work that goes in the kitchen at Tim Ho Wan, I was now ready to embark on my real vacation. Realizing it was nearly noon – my flight was departing at 1.20pm – I hastened to the airport in the midst of a now fully awakened Hong Kong. From Mongkok station, I made my way to Tsing Yi via Lai King for the Airport Express, and I was soon at the airport in a jiffy. I didn’t exactly have to run, but I couldn’t explore the airport’s airside facilities. By the time I make it to the gate right at the end of the terminal, they were already boarding their last passengers. As I made my way through the aerobridge, into the aircraft and down the aisles, I find the flight unsurprisingly mostly filled with Taiwanese visitors. The young adult males aboard seemed to reinforce the stereotype that young Taiwanese guys were good lookers. This was spliced with quite a few Singaporeans (recognizable from the accent) who had most likely connected from the earlier 9am departure out of Singapore.

My Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300 which will take me to Taiwan and Japan.

This afternoon’s flight, Cathay Pacific CX 564 to Osaka Kansai via Taipei Taoyuan, was operated by the Boeing 777-300. It’s a large capacity aircraft, and a workhorse of the Hong Kong carrier, flying on the airline’s highest density routes to regional points like Shanghai, Taipei and Singapore. I was resigned to Cathay Pacific’s old regional product like the inbound flight earlier this morning, but was surprised to see it being fitted with the old long-haul product complete with movable headrests, more legroom and some audio-video on demand. The cabin was immaculately clean, but was clearly showing its age. My seat, 52A, seemed hell-bent on making this two sector flight a living hell. The personal television screen’s resolution was poor, while the remote’s controls were unresponsive. With the crew anxious to get the plane to the runway, I hold off my grievances until after take off.

As the crew walk past, I sound off to the flight attendants my concerns. To be honest, I had no real expectations whatsoever. I thought of electing to propose to the crew that I switch seats with my middle seat partner who was more interested in getting an hour’s shut-eye than actually utilizing the inflight entertainment. I could just listen to music, but my iPhone’s battery life was dangerously low, so that was out of the question. Instead, the flight attendant, Noomi was full of gracious apologies and a promise to reseat me. I’m fairly sure they didn’t know I was continuing on to Osaka, so all that effort for just an hour’s flight was admirable, moving and commendable. When she came back with my new seat assignment, I was so grateful that they accorded me an emergency exit row – all 3 seats, empty, for me. It was really more than I could ask for, really. Several attendants, including Noomi herself, occasionally came round checking up on me – needlessly apologizing. So, that was what it felt like to be a frequent flyer.

This warm and delicious snack is more than sufficient for the 55 minute sprint to Taipei.

Look at the amount of legroom I have! I’m struggling to reach the bulkhead.

30 Rock is lovely with Jack McBrayer.

The crew then quickly began the catering service. For an hour’s long flight, serving 350 passengers food and making sure they’ve time to finish, and for you to collect and secure the leftovers is a daunting task for the crew. But they execute it with the utmost efficiency and professionalism. We’re served a warm ham and cheese bun, and orange juice, and for those who finish their snack fast, straight tea and coffee. Barely after my last bites, I feel it in my bones as the aircraft nose angles down as we make a gradual descent into Taipei. Still, the crew never rushes to secure the cabin. But somehow, they manage to collect the trays, and many do have a nice bout of hot beverage to round-up this short hop. Once the crew collect the headsets, I move to the window seat to view the landing of the island I had an irrational repulsion towards.

I don’t dislike Taipei, but I am a firm believer in independent and objective thought. However, the provincial capital has left an undesirable impression on me despite me not having seen it before. It’s too “mainstream”. Taipei, in all its colorful and flamboyant glory, is a Mecca among the gay community in Singapore. There, and Bangkok. And possessing the knowledge that every other gay guy has been there is, well, a real buzz kill. It’s the same for the Thai capital. Each time I visit, I will inadvertently bump not only into Singaporeans, but people I know. I go overseas to escape the familiarity; I need the isolation, and I feel like Taipei is too popular. With hopefully a long and happy life ahead of me, I know I’ll some day visit the ROC, and hope that when I finally take the plunge, I’d be able to cast aside my preconceptions.

The view as we approach Taoyuan Airport is agrarian – neatly fashioned farm plots lining the scenery as we reach the airport. By now, the lack of a good rest on the red-eye into Hong Kong was now getting to me, and I was feeling really tired. Still, I stay awake. We come in for a soft landing, with the uneven surface of the runway calls for a bumpy retardation. Knowing that you’ve landed on runway 6L is humbling, because the crash of Singapore Airlines SQ 006 was so fresh within my mind. Just a few nights before, I was watching Air Crash Investigation on YouTube. So, it was definitely really strange. We park at the gate, but there’s nary an announcement about passengers continuing on to Osaka. So, once the seat belt sign was off, I took the opportunity to inquire about it from the crew nearest to me. He phoned it in, and seconds later, an announcement was made: I could either stay aboard, or stretch out my legs at Taoyuan Airport. Flight attendant Noomi was nowhere to be seen, so I reiterated my concerns about my seat to the steward, who assured me that he’d see to my little “seat problem”. Having heard that Taipei Taoyuan was no Hong Kong or Changi, I also asked him whether there was anything worth seeing at the airside area. He adds that aside from going for a smoke, there’s pretty much nothing to do. Nevertheless, I make the decision to deplane. It was interesting, bidding the crew with an amusing “See you later”, instead of a farewell – their expressions changing from a professional posture to that of a more genuine amusement.

In Transit

Taipei Taoyuan Airport’s Terminal 1 is, as confirmed, uninteresting. The terminal has been given a facelift and now resembles Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita in its interior while the exterior was said to be inspired by the architecture of Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport, but it’s all style but no substance. The seemingly lone cafe is woefully inappropriate, duty-free shops virtually inadequate, and souvenir saloons unsatisfactory. Besides a single smoking area, there’s virtually no place to rest your feet or sit down, and without more improvements, I can’t see how Taoyuan might expect more transit passengers, even though China Airlines is a SkyTeam member while EVA Air will join Star Alliance soon. With literally nothing to do or see, I head to the smoking area outside gate B8 for a smoke, and I bump into Tsuyoshi, the male steward whom I spoke to earlier. We try to converse, but his body language and the rate he was puffing suggested that he didn’t have time to indulge me in free speech, and within four minutes, he bids me farewell as he heads back aboard for the usual pre-flight briefing. Once I was done, I strolled back to the gate as slowly as I could, which wasn’t an easy task since the gate was just next to gate B8.

At the waiting lounge for gate B6, I find that I am one of the very, very, very few that had come from the incoming flight from Hong Kong who was continuing to Osaka. Most disembarked at Taipei, and in its replacement was virtually a Japanese clientele. In the interests of profit maximization and survival (Japan Airlines was nearly liquidated a few years ago), Japanese carriers ANA and Japan Airlines have retreated back to their sole fortresses to Tokyo’s two airports, leaving other city pairs up for grabs. Cathay Pacific rides on their abandonment and seems to be making a killing on these Taiwan – Japan routes.

I bet Taipei Taoyuan took some design elements from Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports.

My boarding pass is scanned without a fuss. “Damn, I haven’t been upgraded”, I thought. As I walk down the aisle, it’s clear that I had been rather recognizable, with the crew greeting me with “Welcome back” and “Hello again”. I return to seat 52A, and notice there has been some work done. The remote, previously detached with wires sticking out, had now been taped around a few times for good measure – a considerate quick fix, but I knew it was more than that. I hit “mode”, and predictably, it doesn’t respond. I hazard that the crew kind of knew it wouldn’t work, because Noomi checked up on me again, so did Tsuyoshi. Without any prompting, they said they’d reseat me after takeoff. By now, the realities of not sleeping well were catching up with me. I teeter between consciousness and slumber – missing the safety video presentation and takeoff entirely. Locked and loaded, we rumble down the runway, finally pointing in the direction of Osaka. Shortly after we level out, Noomi returns with a post-it – “your new seat, Sir”, she says. “I apologize for this inconvenience”. “It’s okay, you and your crew have done so much for me already”, I assure her, and accept the slip of paper with nothing but “32F” scribbled onto it. Not quite a window seat, but at least, I had something to keep me occupied.

Scoot and China Eastern Airlines in EVA Air’s home base. Quiet airport, Taipei Taoyuan seems like.

Delicious seafood pasta.

I arrive at my new seat towards the front of the aircraft to find myself completely surrounded by Japanese, and just in time for meal service. It curiously felt a lot more cozier here than where I was. The legroom felt a tad more generous, so generous in fact, that I didn’t feel the need to recline my seat at all. In addition, the ambiance made it that more comfortable (although I think that might be due to the fact that most of the passengers in this forward cabin had their window shades down). After a delicious bout of seafood pasta accompanied by a really “okay-not-terrible” wine, my body finally shuts down for the rest of the flight… until we land at Osaka’s Kansai Airport. As I exit the aircraft for the last time, I thank the crew for all their efforts to ensure that my flight was a comfortable one. In one moment, they had reignited my love for travel.

Thank you, crew of CX 564.

With not a lot of time on my side, I make my way towards the transport hub after collecting my luggage at the baggage claim. Like Hong Kong International Airport, Kansai Airport’s transport options are simple enough to get to. The arrival is at the ground floor, with buses to Kyoto, Nara and selected terminals in Osaka just outside that. To access the railways, you head up a level just before the exits, and follow the signs. Like what you might expect from Japan, there are quite a few options available at Kansai Airport station. Different rail operators serve different destinations, with price ranges differentiated by distance and levels of comfort. Naturally, you’d have been given information by your booked accommodation on your best course of action. If you’ve come here cold and are just figuring it out afresh, you might be stuck in a rut, because the nearest manned information centre is back at the terminal.

As per instructions handed down by Titus, I take the Kansai Airport Rapid Service by JR West to Tennoji, before transferring to minami-Morimachi on the Osaka Subway Tanimachi Line.

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