Earlier this year over Sunday lunch, my wife remarked at very much missing her two best friends who have left these shores for new lives in Shanghai. “Let’s go for the weekend” I said. “Don’t be daft” she said. “No, I mean it…leave it to me” I said.
9.45a.m on May 27th 2004 and we are at London Heathrow Terminal 1 boarding AY832, Finnairs 10.20 departure to Helsinki. My investigations revealed a gem of a fare…£1,100/each Business Class return LHR-PVG via Helsinki with AY. Flying Business had allowed us to use BA’s swanky new T1 Club World check in centre and Lounge, which although not as nice as those in T4 has been much improved as a result of the use of T1 by BA intercontinental flights as well as Domestic & European.
We take up our seats, 2E & 2F in the Business Section of shinny new A321 OH-LZF. Although just recently delivered to AY, I am surprised that seats are fabric covered and not leather as favoured by most other European mainline and even secondary carriers. Seats notwithstanding, doors are shut and push back is bang-on time. The main cabin is pretty much full, but the Business section has no more than a 1/3rd of the seats occupied. Our departure today is on 09R which involves a lengthy taxi (including past the Concorde parked on R/W 23 which quite frankly still puts the various taxi-ing Boeings and Airbuses to shame with her stunning looks). Luckily the queue is only short and the 321 is soon lined up and pointing East. The take-off is, as ever, sprightly and we are soon entering our left turn to track-out over East Anglia, the North Sea and then the Northern European Coastline. With the bus climbing to cruise altitude, the service begins and quite frankly there is nothing wrong with champagne at 10.30 in the morning! We are served a very good lunch with a raw fish starter, cooked fish main with salad and fruit desert. Finnairs excellent wine choices are free flowing and after an hours flight, with no one behind I ease back the seat and watch the clouds clear to reveal the beautiful and dramatic Baltic coastline unfold below us. Our flight time will have us into Helsinki at 15.15 local and on time the nose dips and we begin a gentle decent into Helsinki Vantaan passing over the thousand of Islands in the Gulf of Finland and then the many lakes that seem to pepper the Southern Finish Coastal lands. An excellent landing and we are soon parked at gate 15 amid a sea of Finnair tails.
Our onward flight, AY57 departs at 17.00, so we enjoy a brief respite and refreshments in the excellent Finnair 1st Class lounge over-looking the tarmac and the mighty MD-11 OH-LGA which will soon whisk us half way around the world. Our flight is called and we enter the forward airstair and for the 1st time ever in my life I have the pleasure of turning left as I get on a plane to take up seat 1A!
I have flown the MD-11 before in the colours of both Delta and KLM and quite frankly it didn’t much impress me. However my previous journeys were in the back of the plane and hopefully this time the grating engine noise should not be a problem. Service commences whilst pax are boarding with champagne. With the cockpit door open, I can see the crew going through their checklists and setting off all sorts of alarms, buzzers and audible warnings…they know what they’re doing! The cabin of course is showing its age when compared to newer 744’s and 777’s, but certainly has a quality of space and light helped by those massive windows! The seats are typical previous generation Business Class; basically just big and fat with a reasonable re-cline and generally comfortable. Our seats 1A & 1C guarantee we will not be disturbed. As with our earlier flight the Business Cabin is barely 1/3rd full.
15 minutes after schedule the doors are shut and the giant MD-11 creeps backwards. The once clear skies are now grey and a steady rain is falling. The wind must also have veered as we are making our way back to the opposite end of the runway we landed on just two hours ago. The MD creeps into position and then thump as the CF6’s are unleashed and the MD-11 gallops its way to V1 which is achieved in just under 40 secs. The nose lifts and then the tell tale wobble as several hundred tons of wide body transfers it’s weight from the ground to the air. The big jet gives little shrift to the now stormy air and we enter a giant 180 turn to the East as the front landing gear clunks in below us. As with our earlier flight, the service is excellent, with very good fresh fish dinner served along with those excellent wines, cocktails and champagne. I have already made a corporate decision to eat my dinner and then get my head down for the majority of the 9 and half hours it will take us to fly to Shanghai. This decision is very much supported by the pretty hopeless Finnair in-flight entertainment!
I awake two hours out from PVG having taken in enough sleep to see me over the next 24 hours and having it broken briefly by my wife grabbing my hand during a bout of stiff turbulence. “Don’t worry my love” I say, “when I look worried you can look worried” she is assured and drifts back to sleep. I love that 1st dawn light breaking through the cabin window and the enormous changes in colour that occur to cloud structures and the ground as the sun emerges from the Eastern horizon. A good breakfast is served and with the AY crew going about their pre-landing business the mighty MD dips it’s nose into the seemingly perpetual murk that surrounds Shanghai. Pretty much nothing can be seen during decent until we are over the wide Yangtze expanses close to Shanghais modern new(ish) Pudong airport. Our captain announces “prepare for approach” and the MD-11 settles into its slowing approach, pitching as flaps and gear are deployed in series. Over the numbers and we are still high in the air here at the front, but it’s a greaser and the impressive MD-11 thunders off the knots and bears off on to a high speed taxi-way. Shanghai is smog bound but warm and as you’d expect full of Chinese and Eastern exotica that would have spotters snapping and logging all day. The terminal is impressively quiet and customs soon passed. Unfortunately whilst waiting at the baggage carousel a little Chinese man wanders over. “Mr C…?” “Yes” I respond. “Your bag…its in Japan”. I’ll add nothing more than to say I turned up fully intact 2 days with the inconvenience very handsomely covered by my Amex insurance!
It’s June the 1st. We’ve had four full days in Shanghai partying, sightseeing, shopping, eating but barely sleeping and we are back at PVG having just checked in for our 10.10 departure to HEL. We enjoy the comforts of the China Eastern Business lounge before boarding OH-LGD which is today operating AY058. As I look down the boarding gates at the endless rows of wide-body twins and quads waiting for their pax, the sight of the MD-11 certainly raises a smile in me with the thought that today I will again be flying something “just a little bit different!” Again it’s 1A and 1C for me and the missus, with a scheduled flight time of just under ten hours. Doors are shut and the cabin is somewhat fuller than the outbound flight, perhaps just over half full. The MD is soon shaking its way into the warming morning air and setting a course West. Although the service standards are again good, unfortunately Finnairs Shanghai caterers are clearly not up to it as a disappointing lunch is served. The ten hours drifts past via books, a film, newspapers, occasional continuous staring out the window and a walk around the entire plane which reveals up-back is only half full. Eventually, the Gulf of Finland appears on the moving map and we begin our decent into HEL ending in an on schedule greaser of a landing and short taxi to gate 31 adjacent to two other AY MD’s.
After a brief delay, flight AY833 is finally called and we leave the Finnair Business lounge and board OH-LZE another A321 and for the last time take-up 1A and 1C. Thereafter follows a pleasant flight typical of the many thousand made daily by passengers all over Europe. Awaiting for us over the UK typically is gloomy blustery weather as we fumble around in the clouds in the LAM hold. Eventually the continuous left turn is broken by one to the right and we join the busy aerial highway over the capital which ends at the threshold of LHR’s 29L.
We have flown half way around the world to spend a weekend with friends in Shanghai. The Finnair Business fare was a bargain and overall I am impressed by AY’s efficient and courteous service and generally good food and beverage standards and range. The 321’s were as you’d expect, save for the leather seating. Although the MD-11’s certainly show their age, I found them very pleasant to ride in, perhaps for me for the last time, although you never know!