Qantaslink QF1408, Dash 8 Q300 VH-TQM, Seat 7A, 31pax 4 crew
Takeoff: 0818 Runway 35
Landing: 0856 Runway 16R
On Blocks: 0858
Photo © Gabriel Savit
I checked in about two hours early, with my bags checked through to Beijing (they wouldn’t check me through to Moscow), then met up with a colleague for some urgent work in the terminal (I work for the airport). Now that I’m silver status with Qantas, I don’t really need to check-in early and request my seat preferences – it’s all preallocated for me. Since I’ve been silver I’ve always received my window seat without even asking. The other major benefit is to get a human voice on the phone almost immediately when calling up rather than waiting the 30mins-1 hour I used to hang around on the phone for!!
The flight was a regular Sydney shuttle that I have taken many times before. But it was a pleasant surprise to find myself on VH-TQM, one of the newer Q300s and one of the few I have yet to fly on. I am a convert to the Dash 8s. I used to hate them, but the Q300s are not only quiet in the cabin but also offer substantially more legroom than the 737-400s that also ply the route (and every other Qantas flight out of Canberra) and which I have learned to dislike intensely…
Flight departed and arrived on time and a light refreshment was served.
30 December: Sydney - Shanghai Pudong - Beijing Capital, 133 pax 19 crew (sector 1)
Air China CA176, 777-200 B-2065, Seat 16A
Sector 1 SYD-PVG
Takeoff: 1248 Runway 16R
Landing: 1945 Runway 35
On Blocks: 1952
Sector 2 PVG-PEK
Takeoff: 0000 Runway 35
Landing: 0148 Runway 36R
On Blocks: 0152
Photo © WEIMENG
After taking the Qantas domestic-international transfer bus, always a pleasure for spotters as it is effectively a quick back-stage tour of Sydney airport including the Qantas jet heavy maintenance facilities, I arrived at the international departure lounge. With heaps of time on my hands, I headed straight to the Air China counters, where check-in was only just commencing. I requested and was provided with a ‘window’ seat, though soon discovered on entering the aircraft that the seat was one of the ‘missing windows’, that seem to mysteriously exist on many planes (anyone know why?). I had plenty of time to check my emails on the free email booths provided in the terminal before going through immigration and customs. The queue for immigration was huge – luckily I had given myself plenty of time – it took a good 30mins to get through, plus more time for security checks afterwards.
Interestingly, I asked for my LH Miles and More details to be put into the system at check-in to be told that their booking system only accepted Air China FF and that I would have to send my boarding passes in retrospectively. Surely this is something they need to rectify – I can’t imagine LH would be too pleased with that system!
Air China operates from the Qantas end of the international terminal, and whilst the retail is as good as the other half of the international terminal, the gate areas need work. There is barely any seating at many of the gates that regularly host fully-laden 747-400s and the white-painted bricks looks really bad and old-fashioned, out of character for what is really a modern first-class terminal in many other ways.
We boarded a little late (15mins), due to the late arrival of the arriving aircraft, but we were able to catch that up enroute to Shanghai. The passenger load was very light with an empty seat next to me and had I wanted it, full empty blocks of 5 seats in the centre section of the economy cabin – a blessing for anyone wanting a good sleep.
The safety video was as per usual, but all in Chinese with rather dubious English subtitles. Also, there seemed to be no formal checking that passengers had actually done up their seatbelts or switched off their mobiles (many had not) before take-off. As for having the seat in the upright position, it was made rather difficult by my temperamental seat which decided to recline at the slightest bit of weight being placed on it – it became a major annoyance when I was trying to eat.
Air China reminds me of flying in the late 1980s and 1990s, in both the good and bad ways. On the good side, Y class legroom was far better than anything I have had recently and the seats were comfortable (none of these hard slim-line seats). However on the negative side, all entertainment was on the mainscreen (no such luxury as PTVs on Air China), much of it only in Chinese and the western movies they did show were old (eg: Sister Act 2) and repeated on each subsequent flight.
After take-off a full lunch was provided, with a choice of pork or beef. I had the beef, which was quite tasty. All food on Air China was Chinese style but very edible and despite warnings from some previous travellers, I was generally able to identify what food was actually being served. Along with dinner, there were several passes by the drinks trolley, which offered only the basics – apple, tomato and orange juice, water, coke, sprite and green tea/coffee. The trolley accompanying the meal had the additional option of (Chinese) red and white wine and beer.
Soon cabin crew came around asking everyone to close the window blinds and switched off the lights, despite being a daytime flight. I watched Sister Act 2 for a bit of nostalgia before getting a bit of rest. Crew came round regularly with water for passengers.
The flight was reasonably smooth but with a couple of turbulent periods. When this happened, an announcement was made on the PA system about returning to seats and fastening seatbelts. However absolutely no checking was done by F/As and the announcements were totally ignored by passengers. And what made it more complicated is that Air China have a policy of leaving the seatbelt sign on the entire flight (like is common these days with the no smoking sign), and with no announcement made on when the turbulence was supposed to be over, it was anyone’s guess, as the seatbelt sign was never switched off!!!
Two hours before touchdown, lights came on and the regular exercise session was shown on the main screen. On this flight (not on later flights) the commentary was played over the PA in Chinese and it surprised me the number of passengers who were quite obviously following the exercises dutifully from their seats. With DVT and all other health risks from flying, I suppose it’s good that Air China do this and that passengers take it seriously. The exercise program probably lasted a good 15-20mins and after it was completed dinner was served, with a choice of fish or duck. I chose the duck, which was really excellent. The same drink service applied as with lunch.
Soon after we touched down in Shanghai. Parking at a remote stand, we deplaned into busses – the one catch is it was about -10 and a freezing wind. I felt really sorry for the pretty Irish girl sitting near me who was wearing open sandals and had not warmer shoes to change into!!! More worrying (quite appalling actually) was that the open stairs were totally iced over at the bottom 3-4 steps resulting in 5-10 pax having rather nasty slip-and-falls off the bottom of the stairs. No-one injured thankfully but the staff really couldn't seem to care less!!!!!!
Usually I enjoy brief stopovers at airports but I was soon wishing we had simply stayed on board. Not only was it freezing cold with a howling wind, but once we were in the terminal there was no chance to look around or even sit down. We quite literally got a back-stage look at the airport as transit pax were herded down dark passageways, up and down stairs clearly not meant for passengers until we reached a border post, where we all had to clear Chinese customs and immigration (I had expected it in Beijing). After a few complications for transit pax (beyond Beijing) who never expected to have to clear immigration and had no visa – luckily I got a visa knowing I would overnight in Beijing – we were led through a further maze and finally into an overcrowded and crazy domestic departures gate area. It seems that delays across the system meant that Air China intended to merge our flight with another flight to Beijing, thus making the flight a domestic service rather than an international connection service (hence clearing immigration early). We waited in a huge queue with no idea as to what was going on, especially as all announcements were in Chinese and the gate showed two separate flights to Beijing with different status (one boarding, the other delayed). But eventually the line started moving and once at the gate they accepted our transit passes and we herded once again onto the bus and out to the plane. Very carefully climbing the icy stairs, we boarded, the plane fuller than the flight from Sydney (though as they declined to fill out my questionnaire I provide to the captain I don’t have the exact numbers). I was surprised to see the flight and cabin crew was the same – in Australia I’m sure crew would be off-duty after a 10 hour long-haul sector!
Once on board it soon became clear we were not about to take off immediately, despite already being about an hour late. We were told first that we were awaiting more passengers and later that the airport was closed due to ice being cleared from the runway. This was a little dubious as whilst it was bitterly cold, it wasn’t snowing and the airport didn’t look to iced up… that and the fact that muffled roars sounding very much like planes taking off could be heard at reasonably regular intervals.
However almost 2.5 hours late, we did eventually push back and soon took off for Beijing. A light snack of rather disgusting sandwiches was then served along with drinks. I pretty much fell asleep straight afterwards and woke up on approach into Beijing.
In Beijing, passengers from Sydney were separated from the domestic passengers and guided to a separate hall to collect luggage and clear customs. But with the airport effectively closed (our flight much later than scheduled) and about 1 customs officer on duty, everyone was pretty much waved through.
My Air China hotel voucher in hand, myself and another Irish guy off my flight who also had a voucher went off in search of the counter where we were supposed to get transport to the hotel. Not finding it, we headed back into the customs area where an Air China rep went off to find us someone. The sandal-clad Irish girl who I mentioned earlier was also on overnight transit but had not been given a voucher and had no place to stay. So the two of us suggested she just come with us and try and talk her way into a room at the hotel at Air China’s expense (after all the hotel is owned by the airline). We finally got a van that took us the 10min trip the dark hotel where we spent the next half hour trying to work out what was happening re accommodation. Lisa, the Irish girl wasn’t having any luck so I offered that she could sleep in my room. The reception desk people didn’t look too pleased but had nothing to say. But once in the room it was more complex. It truly was a single room. One very small single bed and even less floorspace around it. Poor Lisa who refused to let me give her the bed slept on what little floorspace there was with a blanket we found stuffed on top of the cupboard. I suppose it beat sleeping in the airport and there was a good hot shower in the room the next morning.
The next day us three transit pax met at breakfast, which mainly proved inedible then headed to the airport again. Lisa and the other Irish guy were booked on the 1230 flight to London Heathrow and soon had to check-in and leave, leaving me with a few hours to spare before I could check-in for my next sector to Moscow Sheremetyevo. There is a long enclosed walkway between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 in Beijing which offers good views of the tarmac, hosting all manner of Chinese airlines – a pleasant change to the spotting available in Australia.
31 December: Beijing Capital - Moscow Sheremetyevo, 48 pax 17 crew
Air China CA909, 777-200 B-2060, Seat 35A
Takeoff: 1508 Runway 36R
Landing: 1759 Runway 25R
On Blocks: 1806
Photo © Red-Phoenix AirPics
I soon checked in for the Moscow flight and headed through security and immigration, which took a very long time. Once in, I was impressed by the large number of shops and facilities available in the international concourse, plus once again some good views over the tarmac. The day was cold and clear so the views were good.
We boarded on time and it soon was clear that the flight was VERY empty. But even I was surprised to find out we had a total of 48 passengers on a 300-odd seat aircraft… Everyone had an entire row to themselves, which proved great to lie down and sleep on a block of five seats then migrate to a window for take-off and landing. Service was not surprisingly quick with the usual routine for lunch and then a snack on landing in Moscow. I slept for much of the flight as the video entertainment seemed to be much the same as the previous flights and I was quite tired after a short night’s sleep the night before.
Landing was smooth in a snowy Moscow, but taxiing was very slow and delicate, especially as the final taxi to the gate was over snow, not a cleaned tarmac. But there were no issues and we were soon deplaning onto the airbridge. Being New Year’s eve, the arrivals area was deserted, but that didn’t stop the Russian border officials taking a very long time to process us few passengers. But much better than the hours my brother and I spent a year earlier in the same (then crowded) arrivals hall!!!
7 January: Moscow Domodedovo - Brussels, 77 pax 5 crew
SN Brussels Airlines SN2836, A319-100 OO-SSM, Seat 9E
Takeoff: 1508 Runway 36R
Landing: 1759 Runway 25R
On Blocks: 1806
Photo © Wim Callaert - Brussels Aviation Photography
After a nice week in Moscow and St Petersburg, it was time for the trip to continue. After arriving at the modern and very un-Russian Domodedovo airport (unless you look at the lines of Tupolevs and Illuyshins outside!), we soon checked in and were allocated our seats. The check-in agent changed our boarding passes to reflect earlier boarding; as it turned out headwinds meant the flight was longer than usual and as the plane arrived early, they departed early to compensate – good thinking!
SN Brussels Airlines are really the best European airline I have flown in a long time. Free newspapers were available on boarding, and soon after takeoff there was a very tasty full hot meal service (really tender chicken breast, rice and vegetables). They provided a full drinks trolley beforehand (unlike Air China this included well-known brands of cognac, champagne etc), a separate hot bread service and then tea and coffee. The A319 was spotless and very comfy, and the crew really friendly and helpful. I loved the lovely drop-down LCD screens, similar to what Qantas have in their 737-800s. However without audio entertainment units installed, only visual images were shown (cartoon show).
Before landing the crew came round with Belgian chocolates for all passengers. I also love their inflight "magazine". It is printed as a newspaper and published weekly. And rather than being mostly ads, it’s full of interesting info and articles plus all the usual airline related stuff.
It made be proud to be a Belgian citizen (well half, anyway!), even if I don’t live there!
It’s also worth noting that SNBA are often the cheapest option around Europe (by far the cheapest ex Moscow), and they have useful one-way pricing.
We landed on schedule and deplaned on Pier A right at the end, meaning the dreaded long, long walk to the baggage collection areas. Whilst there are moving walkways, it is still a long way to go.
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I’ve run out of puff for the minute, so I’ll write the return Paris-Shanghai-Sydney-Canberra on Air China A340-300 and 777-200 and Qantaslink Dash 8-100 at a later stage and post as a reply. Thanks for reading so far and don’t hesitate to ask any questions!