Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Japan Airlines 001 Economy Class (SFO - HND)

***This post is part 2 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

This trip started out in the worst way imaginable. Well maybe not the worst way imaginable, because there are a number of things I can think of that could have been worse, i.e. coming down with mono on the day I leave, my car exploding on the way to the airport, etc. etc.

But coming as close as I could to ruining the start of my trip, I got to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) exactly 36 minutes before the on-time departure of my flight to Tokyo. The back story is a bit complicated, but let's just say my initial plans for a ride to the airport fell through at the last minute, and I had to frantically beg for a drop-off from a family member - which consisted of pretty much driving through rush hour traffic all the way to the East Bay before going back around to SFO.

In a scene straight out of Home Alone, I ran through the airport like a madman to the check-in counter, practically begging the lady to let me on the plane. She made a few calls to the gate and told me I was extremely lucky, printed out my boarding pass, then made no guarantees about whether or not my luggage would actually get there on time. At that point, I could care less. Crisis averted, trip un-ruined, blood pressure normal once again.

All joking aside, I really have to give my thanks to Japan Airlines, whose check-in lady I described above was actually one of the nicest people I've ever come across at an airport. There was no castigation, no attitude, just a singular focus to help me get on that flight. She even called over another employee over to walk me through security. When I got to the gate, they had almost finished boarding, and I was pretty much the last person on. I have to say, this was probably the fastest I've ever gotten on a plane for an international flight - less than 15 minutes from check-in to sitting down at my seat. Talk about sweating bullets.

Japan Airline 001
Boeing 777-200ER
San Francisco (SFO) - Tokyo Haneda (HND)
Thursday June 30, 2011
Departure: 7:20 PM (scheduled) / 7:19 PM (actual)
Arrival: 10:35 PM (scheduled) / 10:52 PM (actual)
Duration: 11h 15m (scheduled) / 11h 33m (actual)
Seat: 25D (Economy)

This was my first time flying with Japan Airlines. Boarding was orderly and non-eventful, although I did get there just a tad late :) I barely had enough time to snap a quick photo of the tail of my plane before heading to the jetbridge. For this route, JL flies the newer 3-class 777-200ER with Business, Premium Economy, and Economy. Unfortunately I would only be trying Y today, though I was not to be disappointed at all. I chose to sit in 25D, the left-most seat in the center block, since I prefer to have aisle access on long-haul flights. This seat was also in a mini-cabin with only four rows, while the bulk of economy seats were in the larger cabin behind us. Pitch was a relatively comfortable 31" even for a 6' guy like me. The flight load in Y looked to be 100%.

The plane had an underside camera installed that was turned on throughout the taxi and take-off, which was very cool. This was a view that I had never seen before, and ironically towards the end of the flight, provided quite a scare to all the passengers.

Approximately 15 minutes after take-off, seat belt lights were turned off and the flight attendants went to work. Japanese rice cracker snacks and earphones were distributed.

Approximately an hour in, flight attendants came down the aisle with the drink and dinner service. I asked for an orange juice despite the complimentary wine that was also available; I was saving the drinking for after the arrival :) The choice of dinner was chicken or fish... I went with chicken, and I have to admit, this was one of, if not the best meal I've ever had in Y - no exaggeration whatsoever. The barbecued teriyaki chicken was flavored perfectly, moist, and quite generously portioned. The cold soba noodles and tempura came with it's own individually packed sauce that was also very, very good. And finally, the blood orange sorbet dessert was light and quite unique compared to the usual vanilla ice cream fare.

Perhaps due to the near-heart attack I suffered on the way to the airport, I promptly fell asleep after the meal for a good 3-4 hours. When I awoke we only had about 4 hours of the flight left, which gave me just enough time to fiddle around with the MAGIC in-flight AVOD system. The selection of new films were quite extensive but not so much the music, so I settled down with "The Adjustment Bureau". It turned out to be a decent film that at least kept my mind occupied for next 1:40.

Water runs were quite scarce throughout the flight as the flight attendants mostly stayed in the galley. I went back a number of times asking for more water as I felt a bit dehydrated. Shortly thereafter, breakfast was served, consisting of either an omelet or congee. I felt obliged to try the congee since I was flying JL, and indeed it was simple and delicious.

As the pilot came on the speaker indicating that we would shortly start our decent into Haneda, flight attendants began their preparation. I must say, despite the hospitality and service one tends to find on Asian airlines, I really do feel somewhat safer when I'm flying with the U.S. carriers. Yes they may be curt and a tad over-strict with rules, but at least I feel like our safety was always paramount. As our plane descended below 10,000 ft. there were still plenty of people milling about, people using electronic devices, seats and tray tables down, and window shades not put up. Flight attendants never really seemed to enforce common rules and sort of just let passengers find their own ways to prepare for landing.

As we neared Haneda, it was getting close to 10:00 PM, with our scheduled arrival being 10:35 PM. The underside camera was turned back on and it was very interesting to see the bright runway lights approaching towards us. We were not more than about 500 ft. from the runway when suddenly, without warning, the engine thrust increased significantly and we jolted upwards towards the sky at a heavy incline. I think all the passengers were caught off guard and everyone on the plane immediately became deathly quiet. Everyone was looking around or staring at the monitor showing the camera view - which was promptly turned off. Approximately 5 minutes after, the pilot came back on with a cryptic (and heavily accented) "we try land, now we try again". Not the type of thing you want to hear from the pilot after an aborted landing!

After making a very wide turnaround and burning off another half hour, we came in for a second landing attempt, and (thankfully) we were successful this time around. The camera was turned on again for the second attempt and I think that made it even more nerve-wracking. Despite knowing that this was probably quite a common occurrence, scattered clapping erupted around the plane.

The new Haneda International Terminal was quite beautiful, and featured plenty of windows for me to finally take some pictures of our bird. She's a looker, even with the old livery.

Disembarking and immigration went rather smoothly without delay. And most surprisingly, my luggage made it on the same plane as well! At past 11:30 PM, I was already exhausted, but I was determined to find my way to the hotel by using the infamous Tokyo subway system. Not sure if this was me being extremely adventurous or extremely stupid... probably the latter. Either way, I ended up getting off at the wrong station and extremely lost. I swear, looking at the Tokyo subway map is like looking at 10 spiderwebs overlayed on top of each other. Thanks to a couple of very helpful Japanese people who tried their best to speak English, I finally determined where I was, but just hailed a cab for the rest of the way since I was actually not too far from the hotel.

By the time I reached the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, it was already 12:30 AM. After which I went out and drank with my friends, who had already been waiting for me at my hotel for more than an hour. As they say, when in Rome... or in this case, Tokyo :)

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