Kuala Lumpur International Airport – London Heathrow International Airport
Airbus A380-800 (9M-MNA)
0950 – 1635H
Duration: approx. 13hr 35min
1 Oct 2016
The opportunity to take a long (really long) holiday doesn’t come about very often. As it so happens, it came for me so I decided to use these few months to base myself in Asia to make several short hops to my usual haunts in the region. For those who have followed my previous trip reports, these have been covered via countless reports on so many different airlines.
However, one trip stood out from all these regional flights this time. My first trip to the UK, my first time on the Airbus A380, experiencing MH’s sole remaining long haul flight to their one and only destination in Europe. It was a bitter sweet moment as far as I was concerned. While I was getting damp with excitement between my nether regions finally getting my butt onto this gigantic aircraft, I also knew this was probably the last time I’d get to experience one with MH as they are slated to be replaced by A350s by 2018.
Hey, whatever the airline needs to do to survive I suppose.
This trip will begin at the exquisite Golden Lounge in KLIA. I chose a morning flight to arrive in London in the late afternoon, hoping to avoid jet lag in the process. The lounge was very surprisingly un-crowded when I arrived. Facilities are very well appointed and the abundance of space always much appreciated. I happily chomped down a light brekky of mushrooms, fried eggs, and chicken curry with a splatter of marinara sauce. Go figure, there was no pasta to go with the latter.
Intentionally keeping my gastro-escapades light, I did intend to feed myself later in flight to keep myself awake.
No sooner it was time to trot towards the boarding gate. In KLIA, the A380s are mostly confined to the 4 pointed ends of this X-shaped satellite terminal. In attendance this morning were 2 of these giants and mine was docked at C17. The other one must have just arrived from LHR as MH3? I wasn’t too sure.
Anyhoooo…. The boarding gate was specifically designed to handle the A380 which meant pre-boarding holding pens were split into 2 levels. In anticipation for large volume of traffic flow, security checks are channelled accordingly with first and business class separated into their own lane. Thumbs up to KLIA for managing this well as the boarding process never felt crowded with passengers properly segregated.
At this point, it dawned on me that I was about to embark on a personal milestone stepping on-board this giant. With a deep breath, I walked into the upper deck on 9M-MNA – MH’s very first A380 which is at the time of writing about 4.5 years old. This morning, she didn’t take a shower before meeting us resulting in an extremely smelly looking dirty exterior which has seen better days.
“Good morning! *stares at my boarding pass* Mr Soh, welcome on board. Your seat is this way!”
Today I was welcomed and gestured to my seat by May, a chief stewardess in her fiery red kebaya which in my books is seldom seen unless you are on a long haul flight. When the A380 was introduced into MH’s fleet in 2012, they decided to go all generic for their Business Class offering and it was already outdated before launch. The latest MH Business Class product – which features an industry standard semi staggered layout, will unlikely be introduced into their A380. Nothing like playing catch-up, I suppose. So…. How do I look?
Cabin fittings weren’t in the best of shape and were held together by duct tape at some locations. Bulkhead corners looked like they were hammered by a creepy clown who crept out of nowhere hell bent on a rampage. Windows were extremely dirty and there was just no way to wipe them clean as the grime was on the internal layers. 9M-MNA has been worked very hard and it showed at every turn. On sitting down at 9A, it is a bulkhead seat just behind the upper deck front doors so the already fantastic seat pitch was made even more spacious.
Placed on the seat were headsets / pillows / blanket / mattress linen, and all those items were easily stuffed into the side bins next to me. Extremely dirty windows…
It looked like a full flight as more passengers started piling into the cabin, not just in Business Class, but also towards the mini Economy Class cabin in the rear. A commotion soon ensued behind me as the aisle seat pax was seated separately from his wife who was allocated at another window seat at an opposite end.
Unfortunately, May was at the receiving end of the husband’s tirade as he lashed at her for what was essentially the check in agent’s issue in Melbourne. May did ask if his neighbour at the window was willing to give up his seat but the answer was a negative.
Eventually after some back and forth, the furious couple was moved past the bulkhead towards the fore cabin and another passenger came backwards. Sigh, it wasn’t a good start.
By now, the entire team of cabin crew seemed to be scuttering about the aisle up and down as if their asses were on fire or they had red ants crawling up their behinds. Magazines and newspapers were hastily offered and half-smiles became plastic. Pre-take off drinks were dished out in record time and I felt we were almost forced to quickly make our choices.
0950H came and went.
“Cabin crew, please initiate recount of passengers.”
Oh god, no. This isn’t a 737, you know?
A cold towel service was started while the doors stayed opened and I distinctively heard Nisha offer me a “hot towel” even though it was an icy one. The mood in the cabin had turned icy as well.
After towels and empty drink glasses were collected, we all sat there awkwardly as there was nothing much to be done. At 1025H, the announcement finally came for all ground personnel to leave the aircraft as we were ready for departure.
No reason was given for the delay although the captain came on the blower to apologise and promised to make it up in the air for an on time or even early arrival into London.
1030H: pushbackPart of the duct-taped bulkhead is visible bottom left of the photo.
A slow taxi brought us to 32R for an immediate take off. Speaking of which, it was one of the quietest ever experienced. After we rotated, I thought we were never getting airborne as the beast took her own sweet time to get up there – almost A340-like to be honest.
The northerly heading was set and kept for the rest of the flight to Europe. The first half of the journey saw us flying over heavy clouds and there wasn’t much of a view to speak of so that explains little photos out of the window.
After the seatbelt sign was off, I swear the climb continued past Langkawi.
May (assisted by another steward) came around distributing amenity kits by Porsche Design. Last time I had a black one, this time it was white. The usual works of mouth wash, eye shades, tooth brush, an assortment of creams and hair brush (so useless for me) etc were strategically stuffed in there.
No sooner did May appear again hurriedly taking our meal choices for the 1st meal service.
“Good morning Mr Soh, you have pre-booked the Grilled Fillet Mignon?”
As May continued down the aisle, bar service began earnestly with the drinks cart. I settled for an exotic glass of still water while my neighbour decided since it was past 10pm in New York, a gin tonic was in order. While we lounged and filled our mouths with nuts, tray tables were prepped for the meal service with crisp white linen.
1st course: My absolute favourite of all time – MH’s satay service.
The satay trolley didn’t disappoint. However, MH has cut back on the number of sticks given per serve, I am very sure. I received only 3 measly sticks, as recent as last year I had 5. Although it did state in the menu we are welcome to ask for a 2nd serving of these delicious chargrilled meats. Think my neighbour enjoyed his satays as well. Both of us ended us using the greasy sticks to push remaining peanut sauce into our mouths like little messy children. It wasn’t a glamourous sight, but what the hell.
2nd course: Cauliflower soup.
With our main meal trays, we had a choice of 3 starters.
- Peppercorn crusted salmon with Asian slaw
- Beef pastrami with Waldorf salad
- Cauliflower soup with parmesan toast
Sounds divine, doesn’t it? But…
These appetisers were prepared right before our eyes on the rather beat up generic meal cart along the aisle. That meant noisily cracking covers of little transparent disposable food containers open and pouring it onto a small plate – that was how my neighbour received his Asian slaw. Plopping out of what was essentially a takeaway box onto airline china - charming. In my case since I chose the soup, May gave it a little shake and poured it out of a thermos flask into a bowl. Exquisite, classy…..
Soup was very Campbell, and the parmesan toast icy cold. I decided to dunk the entire toast into the soup to warm it up.
Main course: grilled fillet mignon from Chef-On-Call menu
Very courageous to have steak on a plane without specifying how you like it to be done. I know, sometimes it is nice to have a bit of excitement. While I normally take it medium rare, this one was almost well done. Thankfully, it didn’t become all dried up and rubbery. It was still rather tender and juicy.
Dessert: Fresh fruits
Although there was a choice of lemon tart or Haagen Dazs ice cream, I decided to be boring and went for the healthy option.
Final event: Cheese plate… By now I was so stuffed I totally skipped this course and asked for my tray table to be cleared. Absolutely well fed and sleepy.
After the meal service was concluded, we were midway over India. On hindsight, that was an extremely lengthy meal run! Cabin then became darkened and cabin crew went about highly encouraging everyone to pull their window shades down. I felt like a naughty boy getting forcibly coaxed into an unwanted nap so I would stop squirming to annoy the adults. This is a day time flight and I would prefer to leave my shades up to enjoy the view, thank you. Not wanting to be led out of the aircraft in plastic cuffs at Heathrow, I decided to comply with the cabin crew who have been nothing but nice thus far.
There was nothing left to do but to set the seat into a lounge position and fire up the movie channel on the PTV. I swore to make sure I kept myself awake during this day time flight to avoid jet lag.
Flipping through the channels, MH Select (while numerous) could not hold a finger to EK’s ICE or SQ’s Krisworld. I am one who intentionally skips certain films when they are being screened in theatres because they are classed as “plane movies” in my books. I would utilise occasions like now to go through the airline’s IFE library to catch up on movies I had set aside.
On this flight, I had time to partake in…
- Independence Day 2 (Bill Pullman needed a job and what’s-his-name Hemsworth showed how shallow his acting can get… truly horrid),
- X-men Apocalypse (splendid),
- Deadpool (hilarious) and …
- Now You See Me 2 (some sequels should never be made).
From its lounge position, the seat gradually extended itself into a fully flat position and the next thing you know, I had fallen asleep – very much against my wish of staying awake to avoid jet lag. So yes, it was that comfortable I hadn’t bothered with lining it with a mattress cover or curling up into the thick blanket provided. I only woke up when I had extreme urge to pee….
Maybe it is age, I found myself getting up to use the toilets almost every hour. Being in the pointy end of the aircraft, you do not really have to disturb your neighbour (mine was by now snoring in slumberland) so it was all good. Whenever I went to the lavs, it was the perfect opportunity to peek into the galley where the crew huddled mostly when not doing drink runs. Having perused the Chef On Call service, your name is remembered by them whenever friendly banter begins while waiting for a lav to be available.
“London is my favourite destination…” offered one
“Can’t sleep, Mr Soh? Hungry or not?” asked another
“Your holiday is HOW LONG??” mused another one
“These toilet sensors ah, sigh…. They aren’t working at all today” lamented Nisha
Indeed, this battered aircraft also had toilet doors which didn’t latch when locked. Thus, the lav availability indicators would stay green on the bulkhead outside, resulting in bewildered passengers like me gently yanking unceremoniously on half locked toilet doors. There was an occasion I actually opened the door with a woman’s back facing me, but her pants were nowhere to be seen. No, I didn’t stumble into a solo mile-high club in action – rather it was the result of a very loose toilet door latch. Later as the flight was concluding, I observed the indicators turning red so I assumed whatever the problem was – it got solved.
On one of my toilet trips, I ended at the front of the upper deck. On other airlines, this area would sometimes be a lounge where people just hung out. On Air France, it is a “museum”. Etihad installed apartments units. However, MH decided it would be wasted space hence decided to place more toilets all around the front around the stairs giving it a very utilitarian feel.
A bar of sorts greets you once you come up the grandiose front stairs but it was sadly not being used although brightly lit. A half-baked effort of stocking the bar up came in the form of a little basket placed in the corner filled with chips, cookies and chocolate bars.
The In-flight Supervisor, the man of the hour… slowly made his way up the stairs and saw me hanging about that area.
“Sir” he nodded
“Hi…” I said
“Yeah, they are all occupied”
“Behind, there’s some more” and he gestured aft rather curtly
“All occupied as well. Erm, are there toilets downstairs?”
“Downstairs First Class. Go behind, behind, over there behind…”
Oh emm gee, was I being shooed away?! How rude! Oh my goodness... I suppose I was encroaching into somewhere I wasn’t meant to, at least it felt like that. Over there behind THIS, mister.
After that baffling incident with Dr. Strange, I snuck back to the sorry excuse for a self-service bar one more time to pseudo-raid it for some snacks before stealthily heading back to my seat. Kudos to the crew who saw me with my stash and took the initiative to ask if I wanted some drinks to go with it. Not so stealthy after all.
By now, we were jetting over Turkey leading to some amazing scenery of snow-capped mountains making an appearance.
Turkey… Hmmm… Made me think of oiled up wrestlers, turkey delights, Menemen, kebab and the actual turkey bird. No wonder, my stomach was now rumbling so I decided to “ding” the call button to enquire about a second meal (my 3rd now if you consider my earlier raid of the snack bar).
MH’s new dining concept for long-ish flights consist of the actual 1st meal service, and the 2nd one is basically a “DINE ANYTIME” consisting of a long list of ala carte items. For a flight this long to London, theoretically you can order a meal every hour on the hour right up till 2 hours before landing.
“Mr Soh, need anything?” this time it was Calvin, we had a little chat earlier on about nothing while I was holding on to my exploding bladder
“Think I am ready for my 2nd meal.”
As we jetted into Europe, it took about 10 mins before my table was set up again and out came my dish. Chinese style wok fried beef with rice. While delicious looking, it definitely wasn’t what I ordered from Chef On Call. After a rushed apology, Calvin returned to the galley with the wrong order and came back with the correct one.
Garoupa Fish Curry Kandar – absolute flavour bomb as expected.
As airline meals go, the portions are usually so small I finished it in 2 bites. Deciding on the main menu DINE ANYTIME now, I zeroed in onto the Grilled Prawn Skewers. Nisha came out to clear the remains of the Curry Kandar and replaced it with the prawns. It wasn’t as flavourful as the curry, that’s for sure but it hit the spot to make me full… And slightly sleepy – again.
I fell back into my comfortable seat after the meal and began my snore fest. When I next woke up to pee, we had flown past Frankfurt and was fast approaching the English Channel. Arrival announcements soon began in earnest to prep the cabin. Mood lighting was alternating between a light purple and pink to simulate sunrise. Seriously, my mind can’t be fooled. Sunrise my behind, ok?
As we nosed towards earth, almost on cue my fellow passengers suddenly had so much stuff to reach for in the overhead bins. We’ve been flying for almost 13 hours by now and this minute you decide you need that jumper / book / spectacles / socks / tampon….. Like seriously… wtf?Arrival preparation commences. Notice the duct tape up there.Till this point, I have never ever seen the United Kingdom before in my life…. Ever!
I craned my neck in an effort to peer out of the extremely dirty windows to catch my first glimpse of my ex-colonial master’s land. And there it was, Southend-on-sea… The English coast… slowly came into view, patches of green and little village clusters hazily appeared in the horizon. I took a deep breath. We then joined the extremely busy Heathrow approach pattern which kinda followed the Thames towards London. Lower and lower we descended, a few turns here and there and all of a sudden, the grey smear of urban sprawl that is London made a dramatic entrance right in front of me. I saw them all from up there, Tower Bridge, London Eye, the gherkin, Big Ben. The best seat in the house. What say you?
I smiled. Felt as if I was having sex for the first time.
Runway 27R soon beckoned as we touched down very gently without any reverse thrust onto a wet and drizzly Heathrow. A rather long taxi ensued towards Terminal 4, where MH operates out from. It felt like 5 years before we finally pulled into Gate 5, right next to a Royal Brunei 787. In fact the taxi took so long we travelled into an entirely different weather system by the time we docked.
There were no arrival cards loaded, neither were there express passes for premium passengers to clear immigration. Once the door was opened, the crew were greeted by ground staff who only had express passes on hand and the “Oh we weren’t told about immigration forms” were hastily muttered.
Terminal 4 arrivals
I can see why this terminal was woefully inadequate for BA’s use before Terminal 5 came into the equation. It is small, cramped, and frankly ill-equipped to deal with rush hour arrivals. Immigration was choked full with passengers who are barely awake, let alone able to function after a long haul flight. Bed hair, bad breadth, crumpled clothes, grumpy parents with noisy kids. One A380’s worth of passengers descending into the arrival area was enough to clog it creating a bottle neck from hell. To compound the already hairy situation, there was a mad dash for arrival forms and clearly not enough pens. It was noisy, chaotic and a disorganised affair.
I looked down onto the Express Pass I had in my hand as if it was a Willy Wonka golden ticket to the chocolate factory. I pushed past a quarrelling family, stepped over fallen baggage, meandered around clueless first timers and sauntered down to my counter. With no check in luggage, I was able to be away from the pandemonium and stamped into UK officially within 30 minutes of stepping out of the plane.
I met up with some of my friends who had arrived earlier from Adelaide via Doha on a Qatar Airways A380 and they mentioned it took them more than 90 minutes to clear immigration without the express pass.
FINAL THOUGHTS – A380s, the never ending twilight saga
MH A380s don’t get a lot of action these days as the airline starts re-delegating them to charter duties. Regarding MH’s previous A380 destinations… CDG was axed, MH 72 to HKG has since been quadra-downgraded to a 737-800, SYD is now all A330. So that sadly leaves them plying on the 2 daily KUL-LHR service until the A350s come about. It is rumoured these models will be the recipient of MH’s premium economy product. It remains to be seen what the concrete plans for this fleet are failing to find buyers in the 2nd hand market. Having surplus A380s hanging around isn’t a pretty sight as 2 of these models are always seen parked in the vicinity every day at any given time.
FINAL THOUGHTS – Business Class meal servce
Am I the only one who yearns for the good old days of flying where meals were exquisitely prepared in front of our eyes from beautifully presented silver trolleys? While I don’t expect these to happen anymore, perhaps its best for the preparation portion to be done in the galley. I know the soup isn’t supposed to come from a bubbling pot scooped with a deep ladle, but I’d prefer to hold on to that illusion for a while longer. Plastic takeaway food containers and thermos flasks…. Seriously.
FINAL THOUGHTS – The general business of MH
Overall, MH gave me the feeling that they had given up the fight. On their flagship route in a flagship aircraft, you would expect them to up their game, not hold back and splash out the works. Instead, I was presented with what I thought was a very lack lustre product from a generation before with no regard to ensure a premium experience. From an extremely dirty aircraft, to a tattered duct-taped interior with half functioning toilet doors - MH felt like a beaten and tired outfit.
However, proper credit much be extended to this team of cabin crew servicing Business Class. They were warm and despite being rough around the edges, managed to come through with genuine smiles and were generally very happy to respond to any request.
The same can’t be said for Dr Strange, unfortunately. God only knows why he chased me away. I thankfully didn’t encounter his royal self after that.
Hopefully with the introduction of the A350 – it will be a sign of great improvement.