Welcome to my latest, and longest, trip report at over 11,500 words and many, many photos. I wanted to share with you in full the experience of flying on Qantas' A380 and 747-400 aircraft. The report is broken it into 4 parts, one for each leg of the trip.
All around me those lucky enough to travel overseas were flying the new A380's with Singapore Airlines or Qantas and here I was stuck on A330's, usually with Jetstar. Much as I enjoyed my flights with Jetstar I wanted to experience a full service airline once more and I wanted to fly an A380.
At the same time I also wanted to fly again on a 747. My very first flight overseas was on one of these birds, as was my favourite flight of all time, en route to Heathrow and Paris on my honeymoon. When I watched those 747's take-off across Botany Bay or ascend above my house I would dream that I was on that classic aircraft.
Work provided me with an opportunity to travel to attend a specialist workshop in London. I paid for my own tickets, taking advantage of the very cheap airfares on offer with Qantas. My routing would take me to Singapore on an A380, then 747's to London and back to Sydney via Hong Kong.
The journey began with tears. This was the first time I was to spend so long away from my wife in over 8 years of marriage and the first night away from my 7 month old son since he came home from the hospital of his birth. Even a day spent at work away from them was difficult enough, so I had no idea how I would survive a week.
I arrived over two hours before my flight was due to depart. The Qantas check-in lady was unable to check myself and my backpack in for the full length to London as there is a maximum 12 hour gap between flights.
Once I had collected my boarding pass there was little else to do but change some currency at the ANZ branch and sit and be with my wife and son. The international terminal is a construction zone, the wonderful views of the food court and waiting areas hidden for now. Besides which, neither of us felt like wandering.
Final sad goodbyes and I stepped through the gates into the immigration queue, filling out the familiar green form on autopilot. There was now little time to do anything but go to the gate and wait for boarding to commence.
I had spent my last trip flying in abject misery, fearful of non-eventuating turbulence, scared that my 4 month old son would be tossed around, listening to him cry with sickness on the flight up, myself sitting in an aisle seat unable to relax and enjoy the view out of the window. Despite my sadness at being away from my family, I did not want to repeat that previous experience. I tried now to recall the excitement and adventure of air travel.
I ran the gauntlet of the mirror-ceilinged duty free store crowding both sides of the path to the gate. No, I don't want to try any perfume!
The gate had big windows through which I could see the whale of an aircraft that would fly me to Singapore. It was VH
-OQA, Nancy-Bird Walton, the first of Qantas' A380 fleet. I just cannot find the stubby, bulbous Airbus A380 aircraft beautiful. That beluga-like hump above the cockpit, the fat wings and a too short body just don't compare favourably to the classically sleek lines of most jet aircraft. But I do love to watch them fly and it was exciting to see the Singapore Airlines A380 lift slowly off the ground outside the gate windows.
It was a beautiful day outside, blue sky and high white cloud crossed by a couple of long streamers of contrails. The type of late afternoon that would have me dreaming of being on a 747 or A380 as it disappeared towards the northwestern horizon as I trudged back to Epping railway station on my way home from work. I tried to recapture that feeling of longing while not betraying the sadness of leaving B and Alex behind.
While the gate staff of QF5, a 747-400 flight to Singapore, desperately called for the last remaining passenger to board, threatening to remove her luggage from the aircraft, I watched the operations outside. An Etihad A346 was taxiing out, dressed in pink, black and checked colours. Then a brown white and gold UPS MD
-11F arrived to deliver its freight cargo, rolling across the skyline of Sydney's CBD.
AIRCRAFT: Airbus A380
The number of passengers waiting at the gate hinted at the large capacity of the A380. I'm pretty sure that the flight was full, at least in the economy sections. There we multiple jetbridges and multiple entrances from each. Which you passed through depended on the class of the ticket you were flying on. These were displayed on LCD
screens above the doors of the windowed jetbridge.
I was downstairs in the economy section. As I handed him my boarding pass the male flight attendant greeted me by name and pointed me towards my seat, 69A.
No arguments with the wife this time over who gets the window seat! I pushed my bag under the seat in front of me, pulled out my camera and explored my surroundings.
I was the "wag" quoted in the Australian from a.net as likening the green seats of the Qantas A380 to those of certain CityRail trains. The truth is very different! I was located in the "green" section of economy and actually found the seat covers, the knitted black and green fabric, quite attractive, especially when lined up against the clean white interior of the aircraft.
The seats themselves were very comfortable with good lumbar support and a forward sliding mechanism that made it quite nice to recline the seat. I loved the carbon fibre rear shells of the seats. Not only did they mean that drink bottles and knees inserted into the storage net no longer caused bumps in the back, but the material itself was eminently strokable. So obviously light, yet so strong and very nice under the fingers.
One not so good aspect was the seatbelt. The familiar lift-up buckle had been replaced by a car-like button mechanism. Surely this would be more difficult to operate with injured hands in an accident situation. Mine kept slipping longer and I think one of the two passengers next to me had some issues with him. They asked to be moved, but the only spare seats together were right at the back of the aircraft. Fortunately, he was able to use his engineering skills to fix the problem.
Another issue raised by the detractors of the pre-official Qantas A380 were the entertainment unit controls in the armrests. There was concern that passengers would accidently press the call buttons. As the controls are actually stored under arm-rest flaps this shouldn't be an issue and their location means less chance of tripping over a wire from a seatback mounted system. More about the IFE soon.
The cabin still felt very new; shiny and clean. Such a change from the tired old Qantas 734's and 763's I had flown on over the past few years. Rather than the horizontal stripes of those interiors, here there was just a hint of the Qantas honeycomb pattern on the walls.
Once I had settled down in my seat it was time to investigate the inflight entertainment system. I liked the widescreen format seatback touch display. I'll play with movies and television later, but first I want some music for take-off. I was delighted to see "Soundtracks" listed under the music categories, then horrified to discover that it was just showtunes and pop soundtracks like Romeo + Juliet and Saturday Night Fever. Where are the John Williams scores?
I had to make do with the available classical music. At least there were some more modern selections available there, like Copland and Gorecki. I programmed in some of those, then switched over to the real section of interest: the tail mounted camera.
It wasn't the clearest picture, but it was cool nonetheless.
I was located just behind the A380's massive wing. Not the best for round views, but an overwing position is more stable in turbulence than near the rear of the aircraft.
Finally, we undocked from the terminal and began our taxi out to the runway. By now I was quite familiar with the safety briefing, but I still thought about the exits and brace position. I checked the safety card. Interestingly you are now allowed to use wifi (but not Wimax) on board, along with GPS receivers.
The safety demonstration was displayed on the video monitors and by the young cabin crew. Gee, Qantas' chief pilot isn't that boring. Though I think I know the demonstration off by heart, I always think about the exits... You never know...
Demonstration completed as we taxied along, the crew handed out menu cards showing the meals all the way through to London should I be flying that far, along with the timings of the meals.
The captain piped up over the PA, welcoming us all to the flight and informing us that it was perfect flying weather outside, the best aircraft in the world was equipped with the latest weather radar and that he expected a smooth flight to Singapore. The turbulence wuss in me loved hearing that! But, he continued, just in case we should leave our seatbelts on. Those on the right side would get great views of the beautiful city of Sydney as we took off and flew northwest towards Richmond and over the Blue Mountains. Oh, and we should use the tail camera to watch the takeoff.
I had intended to do just that! As we lined up on the runway, the golden setting Sun to my left, I looked through my playlist and selected the most appropriate music I could find, switched to the tail camera view and sat back to enjoy my first flight in the A380.
To the music of Ravel's Bolero we trundled along the runway with far less acceleration than in any other aircraft I have flown. Slowly, ponderously, the whale took flight. I alternated watching the tail camera with peering out the window at the darkening suburbs under the dirty brown and orange sunset light.
It was a smooth take-off, the A380 bludgeoning its way through the air with sheer inertia born of mass. Finally, I was on one of those aircraft I saw on my way home from work flying into the northwest. It was I that was off on the adventure, my dreams a reality. If only my family were there to share it.
Seated just over the rear section of the Airbus' massive wing I could see little on the ground. The light was fading quickly, the sky dark steel, the land fading to soft pink. In flights past I have enjoyed gazing out at the Australian landscape in the evening light, watching the light reflect of the fleeting rivulets of distant summer rains. But it was not summer and the day was too short to provide much light. The vision from the tail camera disappeared to a single flashing strobe atop the aircraft's fuselage.
The crew came through the cabin to serve dinner. The choice of main was chicken and tofu in a soy and ginger sauce or braised lamb in a wine, garlic and tomato sauce with potato and green beans and peas. I had eaten Vietnamese cuisine for lunch and was looking forward to sampling as much Singaporean food as possible, so I decided to have a western break with the lamb, which was very flavoursome.
I think I was the last to get the lamb as the attendant apologized to the row behind me.
It was served in a tray with sides of a mesclun salad with lemon dressing, which proved a little tricky to eat in the confines of an economy class seat, a tasty and soft Turkish bread roll, Bega tasty matured cheddar cheese and crackers and a Cadbury milk chocolate. I selected an apple juice to go with it.
No dessert was served with the meal (unless you count the chocolate), but the crew came through later to hand out pine-lime Splits. After such a nice meal, these cheapo packaged ice/ice cream combinations were a major disappointment. Save on the crackers, drop the roll, even the chocolate, but give us a decent dessert Qantas! If it must be a packet ice cream then how about a Dixie Cup or a Weiss Bar? Even a Magnum would be better.
With nothing to see outside it was time to re-examine the inflight entertainment system. The detailed flight map showed us taking a surprisingly NNW course into Queensland, though we were about to make a more westerly turn. The last times I had flown to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore we had flown over Broome in Western Australia, but our course this time was more northerly, crossing the coast over the Northern Territory. Any ideas? To avoid the West to East jetstream?
I liked the fact that you could listen to your playlist while viewing the flight map and the tailcam. Also that you could pause a movie, switch to those other views and switch back, although to do so you need to go back through the menu system to the movie that you were watching and resume it.
The movies and television programs were divided into a number of different categories. The television choices were interesting. I was excited to see that "Little Britain USA" was available, but when I went to view it all I got was a blank screen! Pity the only Doctor Who episode was "The Next Doctor", which I had seen far too recently.
One channel was called "The Edge" and its selection looked like that of SBS on a Friday night, with documentaries like "Love me, love my doll", "Transvestite wives" and "A womans' guide to brothels". I applaud Qantas for being bold enough to screen such material, embarrassing as it might be for a passenger to watch it!
Unfortunately, it was too the latest crop of just released cinema movies to have made their way on to the system. In my somewhat fragile emotional state I felt like something light and fluffy. "The Watchmen" was the only actionish movie and looked too dark, the rest were serious dramas or chickflickish movies that I would rather share with my wife.
Luckily another channel had the list of Oscar winning films back to 1969, so there were plenty of choices there. I selected "Patton" which I had seen once before on television and enjoyed. The night before my home music server had randomly played one of the tracks from the Patton soundtrack album and I had felt like watching it again.
A pre-movie message warned that the film was unmodified from the original. You could tell, because halfway through the movie was replaced by a black screen with the word "Intermission" written on it!
I couldn't watch the entire movie. I just could not focus. My attention span seems to have decreased after baby Alex. It difficult even to watch a one hour television program now without being interrupted!
At one point I think I heard someone playing the harmonica in the cabin, which wasn't as whisper quiet as I had been lead to believe. I took out my MyLO to type some notes, plugging it into the socket behind the row in front of me. The passenger in the aisle seat asked if I had wifi, taking out a PDA, but I explained that, despite appearing in the onscreen guide, it had not been implemented yet. Pity! I did love the power socket though.
I missed my wife, missed being able to chat with her. Normally, she is right beside me when we fly and I don't mind the lack of electronic communication, but tonight I felt cut-off. I was sad and I needed to let her know that I loved her, so picked up the entertainment control/phone from out of the armrest, swiped my credit card, and wrote her an SMS for US$1.90.
Typing on the firm QWERTY keyboard was difficult, as was the onscreen keyboard. There is an option to email yourself a copy, presumably for no cost, so I used that to send her the message via email as well. Just 160 characters, but it was enough to feel better.
The crew walked through the cabin with a hot chocolate service. Surprisingly nice hot chocolate, not frothy, but with marshmallows. I've had a lot worse from expensive cafes. Love the concept.
The couple next to me helped themselves to lots of chocolate chip biscuits and softdrinks from the snackbar at the rear of the aircraft. Trapped in the window, I couldn't be bothered to go to the effort of going there myself. I asked the attendant for some fruit and was given a cold, crisp apple. They alternated between apples and bananas according to her.
"Why do you have to make me feel so constipated?' sang Weird Al over the IFE.
It was a pretty smooth flight, though we hit some chop near the border between Queensland and the Northern Territory then over Timor. It always seems to me that flights get bumpier as soon as the cabin crew start serving meals! The only time the seatbelt lights came on were as we passed over the southern tip of Borneo, just as the crew began serving supper. A few small drops, it wasn't too bad, and only lasted 10 minutes.
Thankfully the "refreshment" as it was called differed from the menu's "cheese ravioli in mushroom and basil sauce", instead replaced by "penne and roasted vegetables in pesto sauce." I hate mushrooms, but love pesto, and this unneeded additional meal wasn't too bad at all.
It was served with a rockmelon and honeydew salad, topped by a single grape, and a Tim Tam. I asked for a lemonade, but they only had ginger beers remaining out of the softdrinks. I suspect that the passengers' snackbar raids had depleted their stocks.
I must have fallen asleep after the meal, only to be woken by my neighbouring passenger to facilitate the collection of my food tray. Soon afterwards, with half an hour's flight time remaining, we began our descent into Singapore.
As we dropped closer and closer down I switched the screen to the view from the tail camera. Below us, the waters around Singapore were filled with the lights of many, many cargo ships waiting to use the port facilities. But on the screen ahead of us, to the forward left of the aircraft, were flashes of lightning, distinct from the flashing aircraft strobe. The weather forecast had said storms, but I hope that we wouldn't have to fly through one to land. That would be rough.
Watching us approach the runway on the tail camera was pretty amazing. Down, down, down towards the path of lights. Then a couple of thuds as our wheels touched down on the tarmac. Welcome to Singapore!
It was like viewing a computer game with the tail camera as we taxied towards the gate, past a wider variety of airlines and aircraft types than can be seen in Sydney. Before long we were disembarking from the aircraft and into Changi's Terminal 1.
I had been really impressed with Qantas' A380. The seats were comfortable, the service good, some interesting entertainment options. The worst aspect of the aircraft was the cabin windows. It was almost impossible to get a clear view out of them at night due to the gap between the panes causing undue reflections. Other than that, no complaints from me! I hoped that I would enjoy the 747 flights just as much.
Terminal 1 was looking tired and rather run down. As the travelators moved us out from the gate area I thought I caught a glimpse of a colleague from a sister division of my workplace going in the opposite direction.
Prior to passing through immigration I spotted a Bengawan Solo kueh shop, so I had to stop and purchase my favourite kueh lapis (the cake, not the agar-agar type).
Immigration was pretty quick as usual. It's not like there is any agriculture to protect and the tropics are usually the source, not destination, of pests. Then it was collect my bag and out of the gate!
I was only staying a night in Singapore, so I didn't want to lug my big backpack around with me. Left luggage is hidden away on the bottom floor, and worked out pretty cheap at SG
$4.30 for 24 hours.
The tourist office informed me that, at 11:35pm, I had just missed the last train for the night and recommended that I catch the airport shuttle bus or a taxi. I opted for the shuttle bus and it proved to be a blessing in disguise.
As I waited for the shuttle bus to leave I tried, unsuccessfully, to take advantage of the free airport wireless. It's necessary to sign up and the sign up script seemed to be broken. Perfect Singapore wasn't looking so perfect right now, at least at this terminal.
The minibus drove us out upon the wide motorway from the airport, the canopy of tropical trees lit by the amber streetlights. I love these late night arrivals into tropical countries as there is always some life to speak of at any time of night.
My journey was relatively short as I was the first drop-off for the bus. I had chosen to stay at the Hotel 81 Tristar in Geylang. It was a discount hotel, quite far from the tourist action of Orchard Road and Marina Bay. According to the Lonely Planet guide it was in Singapore's red light/gay area, which, I can assure you, was of no interest to me.
However, the area was one of the reasons that I had selected the hotel, along with the broadband internet and pricing half that of many other areas. Geylang is a Malay Muslim area and the late night activities meant plenty of food! I love the Malay and Indian cuisines of Singapore and Malaysia, but because my wife is of Chinese descent, the relatives usually take us to the Chinese areas and I miss out. This was my chance to pig out on my kind of food.
As the bus drove down Joo Chiat Road I could smell durian in the air from the shops nearby. It's not a pleasant smell, to put it mildly, but it brought back memories of previous stays in Malaysia and Singapore
Right beneath the hotel was Mr Teh Tarik and, despite being well fed on the flight, I could not resist a Milo Tarik and a banana roti, followed by the kueh from the airport and a drink of Kickapoo. It took three goes for the hotel to find the right room for me, one with working broadband. It was okay, a place to sleep, then tomorrow to eat!
Part 2 coming up shortly...