But with a new interest in aviation came a startling discovery: there are low-cost carriers in Japan! One of them is AirDo (Hokkaido International Airlines or HD), based in HND and flying to 4 destinations in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.
Their most frequent destination is CTS, with 9 daily flights. For those who can book two months in advance, the one-way fare is 10,000 yen using the AirDo Special ticket. Back in December when I was researching the low cost carriers, I realized I could fly to CTS and back on the same day for 20,000 yen (about US$165). I checked the Snow Festival dates and found that there were plenty of AirDo Specials available for February 6th, the first day of the festival.
I bought the tickets on the internet and was surprised to find that seat selection was also available, something that other LCC's don't have in Japan. I chose window seats each time of course. Rather than pay on-line, I printed out the reservation number and went to my local convenience store to pay and was happy to discover a 2% discount was applied for buying on-line. All-in-all a very simple process - now I just had to wait a couple of months.
February 6, 2007
Haneda (HND) - Sapporo Chitose (CTS)
Flight HD 13
Departs: 7:45 (actual 7:50)
Arrives: 9:20 (actual 9:19)
Scheduled Flight time: 1hr 35min
Boeing 737-400 JA391K
Seat 21A, Economy Class
An early start to the day saw me boarding the 6:47 train from Shinagawa to Haneda. It is the express train that takes 15 minutes to the airport. At the airport I rode the 2 story escalator to the departures floor - it is always exciting approaching the check-in counter, especially for an airline I had yet to fly.
HD is located in terminal 2 along with NH and 6J. The check-in counter is to the far left of the terminal and there was no line. I showed the agent my receipt and she printed out both boarding passes (the return boarding pass as well!) with a smile. The flight would board from a bus, another happy occasion for me as buses in HND are always an experience.
Security was a breeze as usual in HND (although I only had a camera) and 30 minutes after leaving my apartment I was airside. I had a few minutes before boarding the bus, so I walked to the other end of the terminal getting some registrations. Nothing interesting this morning, just a bunch of NH birds getting ready.
At 7:30 it was down to the bus loading area where my fellow passengers were waiting. I bought a bottle of water for the trip and as I emerged from the store they started boarding. No passport checks here, the boarding pass goes in the scanner and the tear-off portion emerges from the other end. Smooth boarding process and onto the bus.
The bus boarding lounge is between Gates 58 and 59, down on the 1st floor. I love walking out and hearing the engines of planes preparing to leave. It is tough to sneak a picture in here as they are trying to get you on the bus as quickly as possible. In Japan, before the bus starts moving, the driver warns everyone the bus is about to start and to please hold on. The bus then lurches out and makes it's way around the North Pier over toward the tarmac where several planes are parked.
As we are proceeding along the bus suddenly stops. Oh, look, there's an NH A320 passing in front of us. The bus driver calmly announces "Sorry for the delay, we are stopped to allow the plane to pass in front of us". Nobody seems to think anything of it, the conversations continue while I stare as the plane passes and then turns on to the taxiway. I am always in awe when I am so close to a moving plane, it is something that happens so rarely, but most people don't care.
After the plane has cleared our path, we continue to the plane. I know we are getting one of two 737's for this early flight and it turns out to be JA391K, with the Asahikawa paint on the lower left of the fuselage.
Photo © K.L.Yim
I got off the bus and onto the plane, stupidly forgetting to get a picture. As I entered the plane, I noticed some newspapers stacked in the overhead compartment. Even more surprising on a LCC was to see two copies of the Japan Times, one of the English newspapers in Japan. I asked the FA if I could take one and he said "Of course". Wow! I had never seen an English newspaper on a domestic flight in Japan and wondered if they had done this after checking the passenger list in advance. I will never know, but was happy to have some reading material for the flight to Sapporo.
I took my seat and noticed JA737C sitting just a few metres away through the window. I snapped a picture in the morning sun, the AirDo truck adding a bit of an interesting contrast. The Skynet Asia livery is one that I enjoy as it is a welcome change from all the NH blue and JL red that dominates HND.
Little was I know that this would be the last decent aircraft picture I would get today.
The second busload of people boarded in the meantime, and then the third and final bus arrived. Once everyone was on the plane, they moved the stairs back and closed the door.
There is no real push back with these flights, the engines start and then you are off to the taxiway. We were going to take off 16R today, which seems to be the most common runway for take-off at HND and my favourite as we take off over Jonanjima, a great spotting area that is still one of Tokyo's greatest secrets.
Sitting on the left side of the plane, I saw a JL747 taking off as we taxied. We made it to the end of the taxiway and I could see JA8574 (JL AB6) in front of us preparing to take off. As we turned left, I could see 3 planes lined up behind us: JA737D, another Skynet Asia 737; JA8257 (NH 763); and JA767A (Skymark 767). Still too worried to bring out the camera just before take off, but I'm sure it was nice seeing 5 different liveries from the observation deck. We just needed a Starflyer to complete the HND domestic line-up.
Finally it was time to take-off. We accelerated and seemed to go wheels up very quickly, but what a view. I was looking over Tokyo and could not believe how much I could see. Even better, as we were going north, the view didn't change - I had 3 or 4 good minutes of time to pick out the different areas of Tokyo. Central Tokyo is much smaller when you are airborne, but the urban area stretches forever.
We continued climbing and eventually left the sprawl below wispy clouds. I lost myself in the newspaper for a while until the drinks cart arrived. Nothing special here, apple juice in a paper cup, but what do you expect on such a short flight.
Once I finished the newspaper was done, I looked at AirDo's in flight "magazine". Not a lot of information, but what I found very interesting was they had the approaches for each airport they flew to. Clearly an aviation enthusiast had added this and I spent several minutes studying the charts for each airport. The three HND approaches were clearly detailed as were the two approaches to CTS (RWY 1 and 19).
While I was engrossed in this, the flight began to descend and for a few minutes I was able to see the water separating Honshu and Hokkaido. We were then over land and it was apparent we were taking the straight-in approach to RWY 1L or 1R rather than circling around to 19.
As we neared Sapporo the snow began to appear on the ground. We touched down and quickly left the runway turning toward the terminal. I could see a few other planes at the gate, but nothing exciting.
After deplaning, I went to the AirDo counter to see if I could change my return ticket for later that day. I had originally booked the last flight back, but wanted to get back a bit earlier as the weather didn't look favourable. As it was a super cheap fare I didn't expect to be able to change it, but surprisingly the agent said no problem and promptly corrected my boarding pass. It is hard to believe this is a LCC, the service is superb.
It was now time for some spotting. I went to the 3rd floor where the observation window is located. CTS does have an observation deck, but it is closed in the winter. I had a good view of the parallel runways, but the airport doesn't see much activity. Furthermore the terminal is set up in a semi-circle, so you can't see the gates that are on each side. It had become a dull, grey day and I couldn't get any good pictures so after about 40 minutes I decided to take the train to the city.
CTS is connected to downtown Sapporo by JR's Airport Express, a train that leaves every 15 minutes and takes about 35 minutes to reach Sapporo station. It can be crowded and seats are not always available but it is much cheaper than a taxi.
I won't get into the details of my few hours in Sapporo, but it was cold, raining, snowing, windy, and generally unpleasant. I wandered the 12 city blocks, snapped a few pics of the ice sculptures, and silently cursed myself for forgetting that Snow Festivals usually happen when it is really cold outside!
After a few hours it was time to return to the airport. I boarded the return train to CTS after waiting almost 20 minutes (for some reason, the train I wanted to board didn't run that day, so we had 2 trains worth of passengers). It was crowded and hot and I promptly fell asleep, waking 30 minutes later as we neared the airport station.
February 6, 2007
Sapporo Chitose (CTS) - Haneda (HND)
Flight HD 22
Departs: 16:40 (actual 16:45)
Arrives: 18:10 (actual 18:23)
Scheduled Flight time: 1hr 30min
Boeing 767-300 JA8258
Seat 45A, Economy Class
I arrived at the airport around 16:20 about two hours before the flight at 18:30. I noticed that AirDo had an earlier flight at 16:40 and decided to see if I could switch to that. Amazingly, it was no problem either, and I was issued a new boarding pass. Again it was a bus boarding, which was interesting as there seemed to be empty gates, but it turned out to be a great ride again.
There wasn't much time to spare, so I quickly went through security and down to the bus area, through the check in gate and on to the bus. The bus was crowded as we drove around the airport to where the plane was parked. The parking sport was close to the other runways as I saw the JSDF 747 20-1101 taxiing for take off.
Photo © Bjoern Thomsen
(CTS has two sets of parallel runways, 1/19 are used for commercial traffic, while 0/18 are used by the military). The bus was too crowded to get a good shot, but I was happy to add a new plane to my spotted list.
I boarded the plane and made my way to the back. Row 43 was two rows from the last row, so I moved to the last row which should be 45 and sat down. After a minute, the people in the middle seats were talking about row 46 - silly them I thought, there is no row 46. I looked up at my row number and oops, there is a row 46! Row 44 is missing as the number 4 is considered bad luck in Japan. I moved one row forward to my assigned seat before the proper occupants could embarrass me.
As I waited for the rest of the passengers to board I heard a large roar and looked out the window to see a fighter jet flying low over the runway and then executing a near-vertical climb. A few seconds later another did the same, and then another followed. Quite impressive, but my knowledge of military aircraft is severely lacking so I couldn't identify them although later investigation revealed they might be F-15s.
They seemed to be on a training exercise as the same pattern happened twice more, but I couldn't get a good picture (story of the day).
While I was watching the fighters, the rest of the passengers had boarded and it was time to leave. It was a long taxi from the other side of the airport, as we were taking off on 1R. With so little traffic though, there was no waiting once we turned onto the runway, just the quick acceleration and we were airborne. I had a great view of the airport for a few seconds and then we banked and entered the clouds.
The flight back was quick as I dozed off for about an hour, waking as we began our descent. I expected to land on 34L, but as we drew closer, I realized that we would be landing on 16L. It was dark but this provided a great view of the port areas as we turned left twice to line up with the runway. I had spent many days watching planes using this approach, but this was the first time I had been in a plane and it was exciting to fly over the cycling route I used every weekend.
After touchdown we taxied to a gate (no bus this time) and I was about the last person off the plane. As I walked through the airport I noticed that the traffic pattern had changed again and planes were taking off on 34R. Switching to the earlier flight was fortunate as it allowed me to enjoy the 16L approach.
That is the end of the trip report, sorry for the lack of pictures here, but it was a grey, overcast day at CTS and the few pictures I did take are not interesting.
HD has a website in Japanese at http://www.airdo.jp/ap/index.html. The English link there just opens a window with some contact phone numbers for reservations.
The good news is that there are Japanese baseball games scheduled for both Hakodate and Asahikawa this summer, two of the other destinations that HD flies to, so I hope to visit them as well and file trip reports again.
This is my second of 4 Japan domestic trip reports for February, next up is OKA, where the weather was great so there will be a few more pictures for that one.