Air China (CA)
B-747-400 Combi, B-2471.
The long anticipated China trip was finally here. We arrived at JFK Terminal 1 quite late and not surprisingly, the check-in line for CA980 was very long. I was concerned whether any adjacent seats, let alone good seats, were still available. After about 45 min of wait, it’s finally our turn. The counters were manned by Lufthansa staff. At first, they told us they couldn’t find any adjacent seats for us. I insisted they try and after a few minutes, they found the Row 36, the last row for us. I was relieved to hear that.
Passing thru security, we headed for the gate. B-2471, a 747-400 combi was waiting for us with its side cargo door wide open. This trip held a few firsts for me – first time flying Air China, first time on a 747-400 combi, first direct fly into China from JFK, and later, my first domestic flights in China. So let’s start sampling the aircraft and service of Air China.
Boarding was called soon and I stepped inside. The 747-400 combi was configured with the first class section in front of D1, and business class on the upper level. The remaining cabin was economy. But as the last ¼ of the aircraft was dedicated to cargo, there were only about 25 rows of economy class seats. The galley was behind economy section in front of the cargo area. The seat pitch was the standard 32 in. The seats were un-remarkable. There were only 2 big screens for most of the passengers, with small TV screens above the door area for passengers sitting too close to watch the big screen. The screens had obviously had too much use – the color shown on them were distorted. There was no in-seat phone or power outlet. Overall, the interior had a very dated look.
The flight attendants were quite cheerful. They scattered throughout the cabin to greet the passengers and help with luggage. You couldn’t help but notice they were all young, slim and good looking. This was quite different from the grandmas/prison matrons of UA or NW. It’s also quite refreshing to hear Chinese spoken throughout the cabin and see Chinese words printed above English on signs. So despite the dated interior, the atmosphere was quite pleasant.
I browsed the in-flight magazines while waiting for push back. I say magazine(s) because unlike most other airlines, there were two. One was similar to other airlines’, with articles, route maps, current month entertainment programs, etc. Then there was another that’s like Air China’s internal communication magazine. This was bit unusual. In addition, there was duty-free shopping magazine in the seat pocket.
We pushed back on time and at around 16:45, there was not too much activity in JFK. We turned on 31L and took off immediately. We turned over Canarsi and circled back heading east. The route would take us over upstate NY, diagonally across Canada, over Arctic Circle, into Russia, Mongolia and China. We will cover the distance of about 12000KM in 13 ½ hours.
The flight attendants sprang into action as soon as the seat belt signs were off. A round of drinks and pack of peanuts were offered; immediately followed by meal service. The service started from both ends of the economy section and was done efficiently. So by 17:30 we were already eating diner. The food was un-remarkable, your typical beef or chicken main dish, along with a small salad, a roll, and a small piece of cake. The portions were small. By 18:15 the meal service was being wrapped up. This is quite different from most other airlines I experienced, where the long-haul meal service would last for at least 2 hours from start drink service to complete tray collection.
So I settled down for the long trip ahead. What better way to past the time than to read fellow a.netter’s trip reports. For this long trip, I printed B-747-437B’s “Pond hopping – Tales of a Transatlantic Nomad” and “Democracy in Action – Flying Across the World to Vote”. The writing was, as usual, very entertaining. I passed a few hours happily sampling, in virtual reality, the best Air India first class was to offer.
They started showing movies at the meantime. The ones shown were Hollywood movies that were 3-4 years old and had nothing to do with what the in-flight magazine was listing. In between reading, I walked around the galley area to stretch my legs. Although most flight attendants disappeared at this time, two were left all the time to man the station. These two did walk across the aisle every hour or so to offer water and see what help they could provide. After a few hours they switch shift with another two. This was much better than most other airlines where most flight attendants all disappear and you had to go to the galley to beg for a drink. They also left water, peanuts, crackers and dinner rolls in the galley for anyone – a slim down version of “Raid the Ladder”.
Partly due to the small portion of dinner, partly due to Sean’s vivid description of Air India’s first class meal service, I felt hungry while we were just north of Winnipeg. This was trouble – there were almost 8 hours to go before the next meal and I couldn’t see myself subsist on the peanuts and cracker left in the galley. I started to secretly blame Air China for its cheap meal and tried to divert my attention elsewhere. The hours seemed past too slowly now.
About 6 hours into the flight, the cabin lights were suddenly turned on and a 2nd meal service was announced! I was really surprised; but hey, this came at the right time. Now I can understand the smaller portion we got before. The food this time was about the same portion; and instead of beef or chicken, we had fish or chicken. Otherwise, a seafood salad of smoked salmon was in place of the vegetable salad earlier. It certainly made the remaining trip a lot bearable. I quickly finished the food and began to sleep.
I woke up with about 3 hours to go. Soon the lights were turned on again and they began to show an in-seat exercise movie. Passengers were encouraged to follow the instructions on screen and exercise. This was not a bad idea. Soon afterwards, pre-landing snack was served. It’s just a small tuna sandwich and some fruit salad.
The weather was hazy over Mongolia and northern China. We were over the barren and flat Gobi desert while the snack was served. The further south we go, the ground began to rise up but also became greener. Soon we were over the mountains north of Beijing; and sections of the Great Wall became visible. In no time, the aircraft landed on PEK Runway 36R smoothly.
PEK was a busy place at about 1800 local time. There were aircrafts of Chinese airlines from all over the country, as well as LH 340 and TG 744. One interesting aircraft was a Tu-154 of Czech Republic. A few Y-8 of China Postal Airlines were the unique local feature. As we approached the gate, one can see its longitude and latitude painted above the gate. The local temperature was 37 degree Celsius – welcome to the heat of Beijing.
June 14th, 2004
Air China (CA)
After several days of sightseeing and enduring the heat and humidity of Beijing, it’s time to fly Air China to Shanghai. We arrived at PEK about 2 hours before our flight to go through the formalities. Check-in was done efficiently, and soon we were inside PEK’s new terminal. The terminal has everything a modern international has to offer. To me, however, the excitement was on the tarmac and taxiways. There are too many different Chinese airliners to photograph.
In the last few years, the Chinese airlines were going through consolidation. Many smaller ones had been absorbed into the 3 remaining majors – China Southern (CZ), China Eastern (MU) and Air China (CA). Some smaller ones still retain their identities while others had lost theirs. This presented very interesting scene for the spotters. One can see Donier RJ with Hainan Airlines livery operating out of PEK – Hainan is over 3000 km away from PEK and there is no way for an RJ to cover that distance. There was also MD-82 in CZ’s livery – until recently, CZ only operated Boeing equipments. CA used to only operate international flights, and had a large fleet of Boeing and Airbus wide bodies along with a small batch of 737s. Now CA’s wide bodies operate side by side with A-319/320s and 757s coming from the mergers with China Southwest Airlines. In any case, despite the hazy sky, I spent the next hour happily snapping at the various airliners paraded by.
Here are some pictures taken that day:
Photo © JZ
Photo © JZ
Finally it was time to board. We took the bus to our aircraft – 777-200 B-2060 parked at the remote stand. The first impression of the 777 was very good. It’s clean, roomy and the seat pitch was 33-34 in. – much better than the 744 I was on. The flight attendants were equally cheerful and eager to help. They even served pre-flight drinks of water and kiwi fruit juice.
The flight to Shanghai was just over 1 hour. The meal service started quickly. For this domestic flight, we got a piping hot large bread roll wrapped in tin foil, 3 pieces of corn beef and turkey/chicken, a small salad and a small fruit salad. The idea was to make your own sandwich. It’s bit un-usual, but hey, this in China, remember? And the fact we got this full meal service on this 1-hour or so flight was in itself un-usual compare to services on the same sector over North America.
In no time, we started the descent to Shanghai Hong Qiao Airport (SHA). The camera on the landing gear was turned on so the passengers could see the ground in front. Unfortunately, it’s rainy and very cloudy and we only saw ground at the last minute. However, seeing the piano keys on the runway rushing up to meet the landing gear was quite an interesting experience.
Since Pu Dong (PVG) became the major international airport for Shanghai 4 years ago, SHA now caters to domestic traffic only. The old international wing, where we docked, was very empty. We quickly passed through the un-used passport control area, picked up the luggage and exit into the cool drizzle of Shanghai.
July 5th, 2004
Finally, it’s time to head back to US from Shanghai. We left our hotel at 6:30 to have enough time for our 8:30 flight to PEK. The check-in was very quick. They even checked-in our small bags we originally planned to carry on.
The old international terminal was very quiet. Most stores weren’t even open at 7:30 AM. Now that there was no difference between international and domestic departure, I wondered to the old domestic side. Mostly China Eastern and Shanghai Airlines use this side. Things have definitely changed for MU – they used to operate most MD-80s on domestic flights. Today, it’s most 737s and A-320/319s. MD-80s no longer dominate SHA like 5 years ago. When I got back to our gate at around our boarding time, the MU A-300-600 heading to Kun Ming was still there. Finally, they announced boarding and we had to take a bus to our aircraft.
The bus took us all around SHA to a remote stand where Air China B-737-300 B-2490 stood among 737s of MU and Shanghai Airlines.
I found the seats pitch to be exceptionally small in this 737 – about 30 in. at most. One was really shoehorned in and it’s not possible to change the seating position. I was glad that the flight was just over 1 hour. We were delayed for over 45 minutes due to traffic control at PEK. Again, we had full meal service on this flight. The Chinese option of breakfast was rice congee, only on a Chinese airline you will get this.
Soon enough, the flight touched down in PEK. We then had to pick up all luggages and re-check in at the international transfer counter. As we were delayed, we were almost the last one check in for CA 981 to JFK. We only get the center seats. I was not happy about it. But what can you do?
Once we checked the luggage, we headed down to the lower level of PEK for lunch. There was a big food court serving regional flavors from all over China. There was sample for every dish they serve. It’s very tempting to walk by the counters and check them out. The food court also caters to airport employees, so its prices were very reasonable. For anyone who wants to have a last Chinese meal while in PEK, check it out.
However, on this day, my mind was not on food. There was a huge thunderstorm over Beijing the previous night. So the sky now was very clear. As soon as we finished lunch, I headed towards the departing gates to take more pictures of airplanes. I was not disappointed – PEK is definitely a spotter’s heaven. In addition to airliners large and small from all sorts of Chinese carriers, there were JL MD-11, JL 747-400, SK A-340-300, NH 767-300, OS A-330, KA A-330, KE 747-300, just to list a few.
July 5th, 2004
B-747-400 Combi, B-2470
Finally, it’s our boarding time and I waited till the last minute to board the bus to our waiting aircraft. Along the way, the bus stopped for a CA 737-400 to pass. I was surprised to see an airport worker hiding behind the taxiway sign, waiting for the 737 to pass, as can be seen in:
Photo © JZ
Finally, the bus circled around half of PEK before reaching our 747-400 combi, B-2470. I settled to my seat in 27E for the long-haul flight ahead.
We were delayed for almost 1 hour before takeoff. There was no reason given for the delay. Again, meal service started right away and was wrapping up less than 2 hours after took off. While eating, I felt the plane making turns. I felt strange, as we should be on a straight course at this time of the flight. Since I couldn’t look out the window anyways, I didn’t think too much of it.
Suddenly, there came the announcement that there was some mechanical problem with the aircraft. The crew had determined that we couldn’t continue further and had to return to PEK to fix the problem; and arrangements would be made once we reach PEK. A silence fell on the passengers, and then people started asking all sorts of questions to the equally bewildered flight attendants. I now realized the why we had to turn a while ago. I quickly thought through the situation – we certainly would be heavily delayed and it would be very inconvenient when we reach JFK. Maybe we had to spend the night in PEK. Then my thought switched to the aircraft and landing – as we were fully loaded with fuel to JFK, fuel jettison was inevitable. Now, I was really disappointed about not having a window seat. How often would you get some rare fuel jettison pictures?! Throughout the whole flight back, I was never in doubt of our safe return; while many others expressed their fear.
Soon enough, we were landing at PEK. Indeed, there were two fire engines waiting for us by the runway. But we landed without incident and taxied back to our old stand just like a normal flight. Some ground crew and vehicles surrounded our plane once we came to a stop at the parking stand. Some workers got onboard to check things out. Soon we were asked to de-plane with all carry-on luggage. People left orderly, without much complaint. I asked a few ground crews as what was the problem. They just smiled and refused to answer.
We were bused back to our departing gate. They brought out water and cookie as soon as we got in. In a few minutes, they announced we would be departing again at 20:30 – a 7-hour delay compare to our original departure time.
Secretly, I welcomed the delay. It gave me another 3 hours in a busy international airport full of activities of many “exotic” airliners. The sky was deep blue, the sun was behind me – what else can I ask for? I found a window overlooking the runway 36L/18R and happily spent the next 3 hours spotting and photographing. A security guard wondered around that area but ignored me. As this side of the airport was dominated by CA and MU, I got most their aircrafts. In between, I got MD-82 and A-300-600 still in the now merged China Northern livery, Shang Dong Airlines 737, Shen Zhen Airlines 737, Hainan airlines DRJ and 737. CA provided us a lunch box of rice and chicken for diner. The only thing I could ask for was for PEK ground stuff to wash the windows – now I was going too far
But here are some pictures taken during those 3 hours:
July 5th, 2004
B-747-400 Combi, B-2468
Around 20:00 they announced boarding again for CA981. We were led to a gate where B-2468, another 747-400 combi was parked. For the first time in my travel in China, we didn’t have to take the bus to the aircraft. We took to the evening sky and began our long flight toward JFK.
The flight was rather uneventful. The crew reversed the meal service to quickly handout the small sandwich box meant for the pre-landing meal. They then turned off lights to let people sleep. In fact, as most were still full from the box lunch provided on the ground, very few took the sandwich and the cabin fell quiet quickly.
Somewhere over Siberia, I woke and walked to the rear galley to stretch. I pulled up the shade and admired the ground from 30,000 ft above. It was 6 am local time and the rising sun lit the mountain and river below. One doesn’t usually see Russian Far East and the vast land just goes on forever. After about 1 hour, I returned to my seat and fell asleep quickly. I only woke up when the lights were turned on for the meal before landing. The food and the remaining of the flight were unremarkable. We landed on JFK 22L at 2100 local – 7 hours behind schedule.
P.S. the next day, there was a news on the Chinese websites about CA981 returned to PEK due to fuel leak. The news then spent 2 paragraphs on the recent law enacted in China stipulating the airlines to compensate the passengers for the full price of their tickets if the flight was delayed by more than 8 hours. CA was just saved from this costly compensation as they keep the delay to 7 hours.