This is a continuation of my report on my round trip journey from Washington Dulles to Seoul’s Inchon International Airport and back via San Francisco, Tokyo Narita, and Los Angeles on United Airlines.
Party II – Tokyo Narita – Seoul Inchon
Saturday, November 2
NRT-ICN UA Flight 837
Boeing 747-400 Economy Class
After being transported to the gate by buses, transit passengers were again scrutinized by Tokyo Narita’s security despite the fact that we were not leaving the secured area. Apparently, the Japanese do not trust other country’s security checkpoints as I was re-searched upon landing at Narita both going to and from Korea. This prompted a lot of grumbling from those passengers with tight connections. I loved the translation of the sign at the beginning of the check point, which said, “To prevent hijackings and other acts of aggression [et cetera]…” A very Japanese way of putting it, so blunt and to the point.
I found Tokyo Narita’s foreign airline terminal (which, not surprising due to their third party rights is dominated by Northwest and United departures) to be rather dull. It basically consists of a half a hexagon shaped main building and four (one being under repair/construction?) round offshoots that serve as the main waiting areas and gates. As I had about two hours to wait before my flight continued on to Seoul, I took some time to glance through the duty free and souvenir shops. I ended up hanging out in the space between two gate arms, which is occupied by a bar and a central waiting area. Exhausted and dazed, I bought a beer and some edamame (boiled soy beans) and sat amongst a group of Americans who were complaining about the food in Japan (why they were traveling internationally I don’t know).
One nice thing about Narita is that it does have a lot of windows. Saw quite a number of Asian airlines that I do not normally see on the East Coast, including Thai and Singapore Air. However, departures/arrivals were still dominated by ANA, JAL, and US carriers (Continental, United, Northwest, American, Delta). I saw a Continental 777-200ER land from Newark as well as a Delta MD-11 in the old livery (well, the one between the old and the current livery). Also saw several JALways flights with the special vacation schemes.
Still exhausted I attempted to find a bathroom with a western type toilet free. As is the case in Korea, bathroom toilets are a mixture of the “throne style” and the Asian “trench style” (urinals, thank god, are the same). After I searched for a while, I gave up after finding only the trench available. I decided that I could make it to the plane rather than risk falling on my face trying to go the bathroom.
The UA routing to Seoul was, in contrast to the flight from SFO, packed and there were lots of people waiting back at the gate. As usual, people were trying to get upgraded and the check-in person made an announcement that all first and business seats were full. Most of the travelers appeared to be either Japanese or Korean tourists, rather than passengers inbound from the US. I assume that United (and Northwest) are able to sell tickets to Japanese and Koreans on routes to and from Asia from Japan. Interesting, there were only a handful of Western travelers, mostly middle-aged white business men or veterans going back to Korea for a visit.
Boarding, as was the case with all my United flights, was very quick and well organized. This time I ended up in seat 47K, which is next to the mid-cabin galley at the front of the regular economy cabin, behind the exit row. I just love those 747 bank-vault doors. In some ways, my seating position, blocked by the galley, detracte from the “wide-body” sensation, However, it was neat to watch the galley activity. I also had a much better view of the video monitor, which compensated for the lack of a functional video system on the last leg. The cabin crew on this flight was mostly Asian, but all were American rather than being Japanese. I assumed they were based in Tokyo, but I was not sure. They were very friendly however, as were all the flight attendants on the UA flights (with one exception, read on). I don’t know if it is because they are always friendly or because they are happy people are flying during this tough economic time.
The flight was very packed, and I did not have the luxury of an empty seat next to me. It was the only time that I had to worry about bumping elbows with anybody. We backed up on time and our pilot came on to inform us about our flight time (less than 2 hours, about 1:40). He also told us he would switch on Channel 9 on the audio system, which would allow us to hear his conversations with “the federales.” It was the only time during my journey that a captain allowed us to hear the air traffic control. This was great! I listened intently as we taxied to our take-off position in front of a Northwest DC-10. Our take off was smooth and we climbed quickly up to our cruising altitude. It was nearly dark by the time we left the gate so our journey was to be at night. I kept the shade open, however, and watched the lights of central Honshu and, later, South Korea, slide by.
The crew ended up replaying Men In Black II, which I ended up watching again. We were served a nice filling snack which consisted of a strange, but tasty, roast beef sandwich with cole slaw on top, a cookie, and fruit, with, of course, free drinks. I ended up dozing for the last twenty minutes of the movie (the only time I got any sleep on my journey), but woke up when the captain announced our descent into the Seoul-Inchon area. I listened intently to the ATC channel. I have to say it was great to hear Seoul Approach tell us to turn right, and then have the plane turn right. It certainly gives you a sense of control. We came in for a landing after a Thai flight and in front of a Cathay Pacific flight flown by a boisterous Australian pilot.
I was amazed at how beautiful the new Inchon Airport is, with its silvery stainless steel structure and swooping curtain wall glass. I also like the fact that the jetways are glass enclosed, which gives one a great view when boarding. We taxiied by a huge long line of Asiana (included 747s, 777s, A321s) and Korean Air aircraft (Same). We ended up parking next to a Cathay A330 in the United Area. Deplaning was quick and we walked through the incredibly wide corridors to passport control. The floors at Inchon are wood paneled, and in many ways it reminded me of the new terminal at Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport.
After baggage claim and customs, I met my friend in the arrivals hall. We ended up taking the KAL bus into town. It is a great deal, only $12 and it has 3-across (rather than 4 across seating) leather seating that recline almost fully back. The ride is about 45 minutes if traffic is light (1.5 hours or longer if the traffic is heavy) and the bus stopped at the Holiday Inn and the Grand Hyatt before stopping at my hotel, the Sofitel Ambassador. I have to say, after a 22 hour journey from IAD, I certainly slept well that night.