The anticipation during the few weeks before this trip was pretty exciting to me because of the wide options of flights that were available. I looked at anything and everything but eventually decided on United Airlines for the long-haul (because I am a fairly dedicated Mileage Plus member and a 90% United domestic flyer) and Cathay Pacific for the home stretch (since I have never flown them before).
United Airlines #895
Apr 9 12:30 pm depart ORD
Apr 10 5:15 pm arrive HKG
I arrived at O’Hare International Airport at about 10:15AM for the 12:30PM flight. My dad and I pulled up in front of the United terminal and unloaded my two huge pieces of check-in luggage, a “Balikbayan” box full of presents for relatives and a rather large-sized pull-bag with wheels which also contained presents for relatives. Somehow I found room in there to fit MY stuff. “Stuff is cheap in the Philippines, son. You don’t need to bring that much”, my dad kept saying. I also had my backpack which contained my video camera, my SLR, film, extra batteries, reading material, passport, tickets and other miscellaneous needs.
I guess I could have dragged my heavy belongings around but instead I paid $2 for one of those roll carts and proceeded to wheel my luggage over to the half-way filled check-in counter for International departures. I hadn’t said bye to Dad yet because I knew he would be back. While in line, a United employee asked me if I knew the exact weight of my bags, since they really did look that heavy. I told him that I was barely getting away with not paying an extra fee because they weighed 69 pounds a piece (allowable is 70 pounds). He laughed and directed me over to an open agent. Approaching the counter, I immediately noticed that the agent who was about to take care of me had taken care of me once before on a flight from ORD-LGA two weeks prior. I mentioned this to her and sure enough she did remember me! Thoughts of an upgrade Biz circled around my head as we chatted for a little while. She then asked me the traditional security questions, I showed her my ticket and passport and she proceeded to give me my boarding pass. I had seat 32A, which was a window seat in a the first row of Economy Plus.
I asked what the load factors were for our flight and she said that the plane was overbooked by two passengers and there was nothing she could do as far as upgrades. I told her no problem and made my way back outside to meet up with my dad again. We said our hugs and goodbyes and then I headed over to brave the potential security strip-down session. It took me a good 10 minutes or so to get through the security lines as the lines were extremely long. It also seemed like they were searching every other person who went through but thankfully I skated away clean without having to take anything off. Man, it really felt like a major accomplishment avoiding the strip down search and felt really good when one of the screeners waved me in. Anyway, I went to one of the restaurants to grab a quick lunch and then walked over to Gate C16. For those who have never been to O’Hare before, C16 is the first gate you would see as you emerge from the up escalators coming from the Techno Tunnel. Parked at the gate and directly behind the gate agent rests the gray beauty of the 747-400 in United colors. If I’m not mistaken, this gate is a dedicated gate for international flights only. I have seen a 777 parked at this gate before for departures to LHR. Correct me if I’m wrong though.
After the expensive airport lunch, I had a few minutes left before boarding so I took a minute to look for a seat to chill out for a bit from all the eating I just did. But to my dismay, every seat in the boarding area was filled! In fact it was so crowded that there were passengers almost blocking the wide O'Hare hallways and getting in the way of walking passengers. The crowd for this flight was mostly Chinese, or at least Asian anyway. Sorry, but sometimes I can't tell the difference amongst Asian races other than my own. Well, the agent wasn’t lying… this WAS a fully booked flight! Great! I thought, I was hoping I would have the middle seat open for the next 16 hours and be able stretch a little. But it looks like I’ll be bumping elbows with the person next to me and doing the “Double Excuse Me” to go to the bathroom instead. Oh well. So boarding commenced and as usual the peasants had to make way for the suits and ties (as well as the few who were sloppily dressed) in First and Biz. Process was slower than normal because they were inspecting passports and tickets a bit more thoroughly than normal. A couple of passengers also had some carry ons that they couldn’t carry on. And then it was the Premiers and other status holders’ turn but I decided to sit back and have everyone board before me and be one of the last ones to get on instead. I usually make it a habit to be the last one to board - that way I can grab another empty seat if I see that the seat next to my assigned seat is occupied. It seems more of a seamless process that way rather than having to sit down, get up again and then move to the empty seat. I always let the FA’s know of my intention of course. As soon as I heard the last boarding call for Flight 985 with non-stop service to Hong Kong, that was my cue to drop my muffin, pick up my backpack and meet the plane. My passport was inspected with extreme thoroughness, my boarding pass was checked for confirmation and I was off to the jet way! Upon meeting the 747, I gave it my usual two knocks on the side of the door (it’s a little superstition I have) and wished us a good flight both.
Entering the plane, I was greeted by a male Chinese FA who asked me, “Hey, you look familiar! Haven’t you been on one of my flights before?” I said, “Uhhmmm… maybe but this is my first international flight this year”, to which he got embarrassed about but I think he was just making conversation. I asked him how the plane looked and he said it was full but there were a few no-shows. I proceeded to walk over to row 32 and found a middle-aged woman sitting in the aisle seat, 32C. Alone! No one in the middle seat! “Oh yeah baby!” I was hoping that I was the last passenger who boarded and sure enough I was. The same FA walked over and said, “Looks like one of the no shows went in your favor.” I smiled at him and then greeted my new 32C friend. This was the perfect seat; directly next to the leading edge flaps, nothing in front of me but the video monitor, a quiet neighbor and no one to my right. A Business Class seat aside, I couldn’t ask for more.
After all the English, Cantonese and Mandarin announcements were made and after a demostration of our Jumbo’s safety features, we pushed back from the gate and proceeded to carefully taxi to the runway. I wish I could tell you our taxi route but to my extreme disappointment, Channel 9 wasn’t activated by our captain. Taxi was quick and all other planes seemed to have given way to us as we hardly made any stops. I was hoping I would be able to spot some international carriers but all I saw was company livery almost the entire way. Nothing exciting considering that I see UA colors all the time. As we approached the holding point of Runway 27R I noticed that we were the 4th plane in sequence for takeoff in a line of at least 8, which comprised of a mixture of American MD-80’s and various-sized United jets. As far as I could tell from our quick turns, we were the only heavy jet lined up for that runway. Turning onto the runway, I focused my eyes on the length of our big mama’s wing. Not before long, our captain revved up all four engines to a high pitch, released the parking brakes and off we went. As the back of my head abruptly kissed (what United calls) the headrest, I immediately heard the rumble of the wheels underneath us and 30 seconds later our wheels left the pavement. I looked out the window and saw the straight wing morph into a slightly U-shaped one. It was an awesome sight!
Climbout was smooth and powerful. We made a gradual right turn towards Wisconsin and eventually headed towards the Canadian border. The weather was beautiful with minimal clouds and as a result, there was very little turbulence the entire way up. The view was great looking down as buildings, landmarks and other planes in the air were in clear sight. I kept checking Channel 9 but dissapointingly all I heard was the music. It was good music, but I really wanted to hear cockpit voices! I wanted to identify the planes I was looking at as well. Shortly, our captain came on the PA system and informed us of our flight time of 15 hours, 45 minutes and our cruise altitude of 39,000 feet. As soon as the seat belt light went off, about (I kid you not) 15 people unbuckled their belts and made a mad dash for the lavatories. It eventually turned out to be a rather long lavatory line which at times got in the way of the in-flight service carts. I could tell that the FA’s working our section were getting a little irritated by the line because they couldn’t move freely about the cabin
. As it turned out, they ended up doing an excellent job of efficiently distributing our hot towels and serving us our drinks and meals despite the crowd of people huddled around their workspace.
Just in case you’re curious, I opted for the Chicken with Garlic Ginger Sauce for the main course, which turned to be quite delicious. The smoked salmon was quite delicious as well but of course, nothing beats eating it at a restaurant. The Eli’s Mango cheesecake was so good, I had 3 of them. Apparently they had extras of those and my male Chinese FA friend who greeted me earlier ensured that I had a couple of more (maybe out of embarassment from his earlier comments). After the meal, I was ready to go to sleep but decided to read my book about a firefighter's true stories about the World Trade Center events and the latest issue of Hemispheres
instead. I still think that Hemispheres
is one of the better US-based in-flight magazines around. Continental's is pretty good too. For international airliners I tend to favor PAL’s Mabuhay
magazine. I couldn’t sleep so I decided to wait for the showing of the first movie, KPAX. If you haven’t seen KPAX yet, I have some serious advice for you… don’t. Save your money. This is quite possible the most boring movie I have seen yet. Remember the movie Powder a few years back? Well, that's a close second. Anyway, KPAX put me right to sleep for a good 3 or 4 hours and woke up for the showing of Joe Somebody which I watched parts of. I made sure to stay up for Ocean’s Eleven, however, which was really good even on a tiny 15 inch screen. After chatting with my neighbor for a bit I went back to sleep and woke up for the final meal service which was served approximately an hour and a half before arrival. I decided to have the Tortellini with Rosemary tomato sauce which was served rather dry but I made the most out of it. I didn’t have any wine on this flight so I can’t comment on that. Having low tolerance for alcohol, the last thing I needed to do was sober up at a foreign place.
The sights out the window during the descent to Hong Kong were non-existent because of the thick clouds in the area. I was hoping to see the island airport from the air but the low clouds and fog got in the way. I was also hoping to hear our approach path on Channel 9 audio but, again, all I heard was music on the headphones. I still kept hoping our Captain would turn it on during mid-flight or during our initial descent so I kept checking every now and then. The clouds were so low in the Hong Kong area that I saw the airport from only about 500 feet in the air, and then it was a smooth touchdown on Runway 25R. During final approach, I kinda wished that I was landing at KaiTak instead. But my flight was a straight in approach for the most part with a few turns here and there so it was kinda boring compared to what KaiTak could have offered. We pulled into I believe Gate 62 and deplaned rather quickly. I think everyone on this flight felt the fatigue of the 16 hour trip.
At Chek Lap Kok
Chek Lap Kok is a beautiful airport. I am not surprised that this was rated the best in the world. I would give it my top vote in looks alone. You locals have it made here. And this is coming from a guy who calls ORD home! I honestly can’t see how this airport can be improved much more. Architecture, ease of check-in, convenience, overall views, general spotting, on-time departures/arrivals and friendliness are all top-notch. I highly recommend transiting at HKG if you have the option.
While walking around, I couldn't see any approaching or departing aircraft since it was so foggy but I did see some airlines on the ground that I don't normally get to see in Chicago like China Eastern, Singapore Airlines (although they reinstated service to ORD just recently), Cathay Pacific, PAL, Asiana, Korean Air, Thai Airways, Malaysia Air, India Air, Air Pakistan, China Southern, QANTAS, Air China, Royal Brunei, etc. I tried taking pictures of as many of them as possible but I only brought one roll of slide film. Almost every plane I saw was a wide body, along with the occasional Chinese-based DC-9’s and Cebu Pacific’s multi-colored 757. After walking around some more, I finally checked in for the Cathay Pacific flight that would take me to Manila and then went upstairs to use the internet and do some window shopping.
Cathay Pacific #905
Apr 10 9:20 pm depart HKG
Apr 10 11:15 pm arrive MNL
So I boarded my Cathay Pacific Airbus 330-300. It was a nice plane with Cathay’s usual vibrant and unique green interior and the standard 2-4-2 config. Chek Lap Kok has dual jetways but boarding still took a while and since I had already been traveling for 20+ hours (without a shower and a good shave at that) I was anxious to sit down and just watch the view from inside the plane. I originally had seat 41A but as soon as I was informed that someone already occupied the seat next to me, 41B, I politely had my seat changed to 61A.
Again, I had the entire row all to myself - all of two seats (hey, every bit helps). It was a half full flight with about 90% Filipinos on board, about 50% of whom were kids. Loud kids! Thank God that flight was only less than 2 hours long! And thank God Cathay airplanes have PTV's. As soon as I received my headphones, I immediately put them on to listen to some soothing music. I even checked to see what was playing on Channel 9 since I missed United's so much. I know it was a long shot but it was worth a try. I eventually watched Friends for almost the entire flight just to block out some of the cabin noise from the kids sitting behind me.
Taxi and takeoff were uneventful on this foggy night and after the delicious noodle meal, we were on our initial approach to Manila. Before taxiing, our Captain announced that the plane had a problem with its interior lights so they would not be dimmed during landing. As a result, I couldn't see much of what Manila looked like from my window since the interior was so darn bright. I managed to see some buildings and some wooden houses and some dotted lights but that was about it. And I had to really paste my face to the window to see all that to avoid the interior reflection. That was the first time I had ever experienced a night landing with a fully bright interior so I had to get used to the new procedure. I had studied the Ninoy Aquino airport pattern in Hong Kong so when I noticed that we were flying for a good amount of time over Manila Bay I knew we were going to be landing on Runway 24... and we did! Apparently, Runway 6/24 is the preferred runway of choice for landing since, not only is it the longer of the two runways (the other is 13/31), it is the only runway that has a working ILS and operational approach lights. The also use it for noise abatement rules after a certain time at night. Touchdown on the A330 was rough and hard but from what I hear that plane was made to land that way with the stiff landing gear. It took a while to deplane but I was patient despite the fatigue.
Overall, my Cathay Pacific experience was good… service was quick and professional and with a smile. And they seem to do a good job of keeping their passengers well-informed from the time boarding starts. The only complaint I have would be the seat pitch. Being close to 6 feet, I was a little tight in my seating arrangement but I guess the PTV's compensated a bit for it. At least enough for the short flight anyway. And in all honesty, because of the seats, I probably wouldn't consider Cathay for a long-haul journey despite the PTV's. I'd prioritize leg room over entertainment any day. I can always read a book. But Cathay is very high on my list of excellent airlines and I would highly recommend them to anyone under 6 feet.
At Ninoy Aquino Airport
Immigrations is always a nightmare in Manila and this night was no exception. It was crowded since a Northwest flight from Japan also came in at the same time so I started talking to a guy my age who was also visiting Manila after being in the U.S. Army for some years. When I got to the booth a half an hour later, the Immigrations Officer gave me the "You're American, come on in" treatment after he saw my U.S. Passport. He stamped a "Balikbayan" stamp on it and nodded his head. I said "Salamat Po" (thank you) and went to the carousel to wait for my bags. Living in the U.S., it was so weird to see a place where Filipinos are the majority. There were a few Americans (whites and blacks) walking around, some Middle Eastern, Chinese and Japanese but the place was packed with people like me. This was still a shock to me since I hadn't experienced this in a while so I stood there for about 15 minutes and just observed. Every Filipino I saw had at least one balikbayan box, some as many as 8, but mostly between 2 and 3. Then my bags came. I picked them up and placed them on the little baggage cart (free) and walked over to Customs where I was waived by a Customs Agent to go to her empty line. I gave her a couple of bucks for her courtesy and pretty soon I was on my way outside. As soon as I got outside, I saw A LOT of people waiting across the street. For those who have been to Manila, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about - crowds and crowds of people everywhere trying to get a first hand glimpse of their loved ones. After seeing this, I knew I was in the Philippines!
I hope you enjoyed my first trip report. Please comment. Thanks.
Its better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than be in the air wishing you were on the ground. Fly safe!