Flying back to the US from Thailand

In June, I wrote a post detailing how I decided to fly business class home to the US in July. In this post, I will follow up and share how the experience was – and how I feel about the decision. Hopefully, I will also create a video or two for my YouTube channel. But in the meantime, here’s a start:

My flight departed Bangkok at 7:00 am. I arrived about 5:15 am, giving myself a bit more time than I might otherwise have needed because there is paperwork you need to provide before flying, like a COVID-19 PCR test. The check-in turned out to be quite smooth and security and immigration were, too, because nobody is flying.

The shops were mostly closed and many were boarded up. Those that were open had forelorn employees standing around, looking bored. I walked the long and gloomy concourse to the only THAI Airways lounge that was open, a small, recently rennovated one on concourse E. There were only two other people in the lounge. Food options were limited and all pre-packaged.

About boarding time, I proceeded to gate F5 where I found my ride, an All-Nippon Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in Star Alliance livery. There were perhaps 40 passengers on this 246-seat aircraft, so boarding was quick. To help minimize passenger contact, ANA has changed their boarding zone so, regardless of your status or the cabin you are traveling in, they board from the back of the plane to the front.

All-Nippon is a Japanese airline and their onboard experience is distinctly Japanese. The safety video features characters in Kabuki makeup and costumes and is interlaced with illustrations done in the style of traditional airline safety cards but with Japanese characters. Here is the illustration for the importance of not wearing high-heel shoes (or okobo!) when evacuating the aircraft. You might tear the slide. These touches make the experience really special – you feel like you’ve arrived in Japan even before you have left.

We had an on-time departure from runway 1L, heading south over the rice paddies and factories of Samut Prakan province and then turning north towards Hong Kong as we climbed into the cloudy morning skies. I always enjoy flying, but flying early in the morning fills me with a feeling of possibility, like I am embarking on a grand adventure.

I was traveling in ANA’s staggered business class that is technically “old”, because ANA has launched a new product called “The Room” that is even snazzier. This business class that you see was introduced in early 2010. While it is more than a decade old, it really is still a very comfortable and private way to fly. There are two critiques of the layout:

  • First, they seats are very cubicle-like. A lot of people who fly business class like this layout because it gives you a lot of privacy. And, certainly, during this pandemic it is preferntial to be in a layout that shields you from others. But this layout looks quite boxy and doesn’t quite appeal to me.
  • Second, there are no adjacent seats. Often, the center seats on some business classes will alternate with two seats close together and, in the next row, two seats far apart. These adjacent seats are great when traveling with someone else. ANA didn’t design their old business class for that. However, the new arrangement will feature this.

Overall, the seat was very comfortable. It offered good storage, reclined into a comfortable relaxation position, and when laying fully flat it made for a comfortable bed. The footwell, in particular, is large enough in all seats that you can sleep on your side and still have room for your feet. The bed comes with a mattress cover, duvet, and a substantial pillow. I was able to sleep well and on my 12-hour return from Chicago to Tokyo, slept eight hours.

The above picture is on the Boeing 777-300er I flew returning from Chicago to Tokyo. It had a few small differences from the 787-9 I was on from Bangkok to Tokyo and return, but you would be hard-pressed to notice them. The tray table mechanism is larger and extends from underneath the monitor in the 777 instead of swinging out from underneath the console next to you. Also, the 777 has a small storage box on the wall to the side of your seat. The seats and comfort were quite similar, though, and the service was the same.

You can also see how lightly loaded the cabin was. On my flight from Bangkok to Tokyo, I was the only person in a 12-person cabin.

ANA has a good reputation for catering. Since it was a morning flight, I opted for the western meal instead of the Japanese option. This may seem foolish, since Japanese food should be the obvious choice! But I saved my Japanese food for my flight out of Tokyo, figuring it would be better there. The food was generous in portion size and tasty enough, although nothing outstanding. With the pandemic, instead of serving food from carts or bringing individual dishses and laying them out on the tablecloth, all your food is served on one tray and plastic or foil covers are on every dish.

The flight to Tokyo lasted about five hours. I slept about two hours on the flight, looked out the window, and watched some Netflix on my iPad. The in-flight entertainment system has a large screen and is responsive. The selection of shows is okay but not as extensive as on some airlines. Since I brought my own device, I just used it instead. We landed in Tokyo Narita Airport about 3:00 pm. Above, a view of the Boeing 787-9 I flew from Bangkok, seen parked at Tokyo Narita Airport. This is really an elegant and comfortable plane!

The conclusion about ANA on this first flight, was that the seats were very comfortable, the food was decent, and the service was spectacular. The flight attendants were friendly, attentive, and organized. They knew from the itinerary that I was continuing on to San Francisco, so they packed me a special goodie bag with lots of ammenity items, some souvenir ANA postcards, and two special items shown in the picture above.

The first was a hand-written note that was personalized, talked about a festival that was going on, and referenced my trip to San Francisco. This was such a great touch. Japan has a culture of aviation enthusiasts, so they also included a postcard (on the right) which provided information about the flight such as plane number, plane type, flight level, etc. Again, these are details that go above and beyond the basic expectations and leave me feeling like ANA is a great way to fly.

I had a two-hour layover between flights. Narita was not very busy. Many shops were closed and it was just a shadow of what I usually see when transiting there. I decided to go to the lounge. ANA usually has three lounges in Narita and United Airlines has one. During the pandemic, only one ANA lounge was open and, in fact, they used only the First Class side of their lounge.

The lounge was fairly crowded and attendants were circulating like sharks, checking for mask use when people were not eating or drinking, picking up trays and used dishes, and keeping things in good order. All the foods were pre-packaged but the hot food bar, where you can order noodles or rice and curry, was open. I enjoyed a nice bowl of soba noodles with pork katsu and a glass of draft beer. The views of the tarmac are spectacular and the skies were blue and the grass verdant green. I could have spent all day watching the planes.

All too soon, I had to walk to sattelite four, where United operates its flights. In normal times, they have at least one daily flight to Newark, Washington D.C., Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Guam – and usually two flights to some of the cities. This day, it was down to three flights: Guam, Los Angeles, and my flight to San Francisco. Today’s flight was operated by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Behind my San Francisco flight was the one of Los Angeles, which left about 30 minutes earlier.

Photo from united.com

I chose this flight specifically because I wanted to try United’s Polaris business class. United introduced Polaris in 2016 but to this date, some of their long-haul fleet still has not been reconfigured. Specifcially, that Los Angeles flight, which I was rebooked on by United, uses an older 2-2-2 configuration which means if you sit at a window seat, you do not have direct aisle access. You will note that the overall look and feel is similar to ANA’s business class and the blue color scheme is similar. One advantage is that alternating rows of middle seats are placed closer together, perfect for couples.

Photo from united.com

The seats themselves are thoughtfully designed and similar in space and comfort to the older ANA seats. The Saks Fifth Avenue bedding that you see in the above photo had been modified a bit for my flight. The lightweight blanket was gone, but there were still two sizes of pillos and a duvet. The pajama service, which ostentisbly is available on longer flights, was not available on mine – but that may be because it is only a nine-hour flight.

The seats recline to fully flat and are comfortable. I did find the shoulder space to be a bit narrower than on ANA and I would sometimes run into the long armrest that stretches below the windows. The foot wells can be a narrow in some rows. The bulkhead seats, of which I chose one, have more space and were sufficiently large. I was able to sleep about five hours on the almost nine-hour flight.

Inflight service was not as good as on ANA. There were three flight attendants serving business class, which was about one-quarter full. One of them was brusque and not at all welcoming. The other two were a bit friendlier but just seemed disorganized and forgetful. I had to repeat requests for things and after ordering, one flight attendant told me I couldn’t have my first choice for entree while the other then brought me by first choice. But when I asked about the red wines, one flight attendant brought all three bottles so I could see them, which was a nice touch.

In terms of food, United’s catering is such a disappointment. For dinner, I chose what was ostensibly a filet of beef. It was such a sad, beige looking thing. And the baked side dish, some sort of a truffle-flavored polenta or something, was crusty and forgettable. The roasted beets were nice, because I love beets. The salad was limp and the dessert was some sort of a prepackaged brownie. Just underwhelming. Like ANA, everything was served on a single tray and all the items had plastic or foil covers.

For breakfast, I chose the Japanese option, figuring we had departed Japan so this might be okay. The dish was a tiny piece of mackerel served with the saddest steamed vegetables and a gloppy, sweet sauce. And the muffin, which I hope was meant to be green tea flavored, was this unappetizing greenish color.

The one thing I appreciate is that they didn’t serve breakfast until about an hour before landing. Many airlines will start their pre-landing meal in business class 90-120 minutes before landing, which interrupts your sleep. Especially because they were serving everything on a single tray, dinner was done early and breakfast could be served late, giving passengers more time to rest.

United’s entertainment system is quite a bit better than ANA’s, though. The screen is brighter and easier to see and the selection of entertainment is extensive. If you need to be distracted (which you will be because of the food!), United does that well.

The flight was smooth and not long after breakfast, we broke through the coastal fog to land in San Francisco. We parked at the international terminal and I was the first person to the baggage claim belt, which was completely desserted. Thankfully, the baggage arrived quickly and my bags were among the first off. If you are curious, immigration was very quick and nobody inquired at all about COVID, although I had shown my COVID test results when checking in at Bangkok and again at the gate in Tokyo.

The international flights both had few passengers and a lot of personal room. This changed for the domestic flights, where both my flight to Denver and the onward flight to Kansas City were completely full. Thankfully, I was in business class for these flights, too, so at least wasn’t completely squeezed in.

The domestic flights were both delayed, the first one by almost an hour with no clear explanation given. And when we landed in Denver, we waited another 15 minutes for our gate to free up, which was especially frustrating as many passengers had very tight connections. I did make it to Kansas City only about 45 minutes late, though, and my parents picked me up shortly after.

So, the question is, was it worth it to fly business class? The two international flights had a premium economy cabin, so I could have saved some money and had seats equivalent to domestic first class. Overall, having more room and more cubicle-like space during this pandemic, made me feel safer. And being able to sleep on the flights seemed to help with my jet lag: I really did not suffer any considerable jet lag on this trip. I would not have slept much, or very well, in premium economy or regular economy.

What I don’t think was worth it, was flying with United. I’m a former United employee and really want the company to succeed, but I was disappointed with the experience – especially domestically. I overheard three of the flight attendant for my San Francisco to Denver flight discussing that this was their first flight back from furlough. On none of my United flights, did I encounter any employees (on the ground or in the air) that really convinced me they genuinely appreciated my business. Compare this to ANA, where I was treated as a unique person, and I think I would try to avoid United as best I can in the future.

How I chose to fly business class home in July

Let me start by making clear how grateful and privileged I am to have the opportunity to fly home in business class next month. Everything else that follows in this post is just an exploration of my thought process whether to fly in business class and, once I decided to, decided which airline and routing to fly. (And I’m going to go into serious aviation nerd mode, which maybe only Matt will appreciate fully. Sorry in advance!)

The rationale

I am not yet at a point in my life where buying transcontinental business class tickets is an affordable option. This is my first time buying a business class ticket out of pocket and I made the decision to do so using the following rationale and rationalizations.

Safety. While I know that air quality in an airplane is very high, I am still concerned about being in close quarters for up to a dozen hours with other people. Traveling in business class would put me in a less densely packed cabin and, with some airlines offering more cubicle-like seats, hopefully a greater degree of protection from fellow passengers.

Yes, I do realize that international flights have very light loads, but that doesn’t mean the flights I will travel on will have light loads. And, as I saw since booking, the airlines have rejiggered their schedules to consolidate passengers onto fewer flights. (When I booked, United was selling tickets for six flights from Tokyo Narita to their US hubs. Four weeks before departure, it is down to two flights and my booking has been changed two times.)

Benefit of solo travel. Unfortunately, Tawn will not join me on this flight. Since there is only one of us flying, the budgetary impact is half and it feels a bit easier to justify spending a bit more.

Random rationalizations. We haven’t flown in nearly a year and a half. I haven’t been back to see my family in even longer. I turned fifty last year and had wanted to treat myself to a business class flight. Airfares are a good bit lower than they historically have been so now is a good time to splurge. See? There are plenty of rationalizations to supplement my rationale!


“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”

Benjamin Franklin


The process

Once I decided to fly business class, I searched for options using the following criteria:

Star Alliance. If I was going to be shelling money out of my own pocket for this experience, I want to make sure I earn miles. My mileage program of choice is with Aegean Airlines, a member of Star Alliance. This means that, given the limited number of airlines flying into Bangkok at this time, my choices were All-Nippon Airways + United (they operate a joint venture across the Pacific), EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Turkish, or Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss).

Single ticket to my destination. I prefer to book directly through the airline’s website rather than through a third party. This way, if I have problems, the airline has the greatest incentive to fix them. EVA, Asiana and Singapore could only book me to their US destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. I would have to book the connecting leg to Kansas City myself. This was an unacceptable complication during this pandemic, when schedules and circumstances can change with little notice.

Flying in a cubicle-like business class. Some airlines use more open (and older) business class seating arrangements where the seats are in pairs arranged 2-2-2 with aisles in between. I actually quite like this way of flying, especially when traveling with Tawn. But in this pandemic era, I want to be in more individual, “cubicle” style seats where I don’t have to see, interact with, or step over a seat mate when getting into and out of my seat. Lufthansa, Turkish, and United operate some or all of their fleet with a 2-2-2 layout (or, in the case of Turkish on some planes, a 2-3-2 arrangement as pictured above!)

Maximizing flying time. This may seem crazy, but if I’m going to pay for the business class experience, I want to get the most time I can to enjoy it. And this isn’t just a value-for-money proposition but also a sleep proposition. If you are flying a shorter flight like Tokyo to Seattle (just about 8 hours) you won’t have as much time to rest as you would on a flight like Hong Kong to Chicago (about 11 hours). With lie-flat seats a norm in business class, I want to opportunity to get at least six solid hours of sleep, to help minimize jet lag. This means I wanted flights across the ocean at least 10 hours long.

Price. Despite my rationalizations, budget was still a consideration. There was more than a US$1,000 difference between the least expensive business class fares offered by the different airlines and the prices varied quite a bit between day, exact routing, and even when I searched. Most tickets were coming in around US$3,500 – $4,000, which was feeling a bit rich for my wallet. Finally, I found one that met my criteria for only US$2,098.


The result

After several weeks of comparing options, I settled on a ticket purchased from United Airlines, which includes multiple segments flown by All-Nippon Airways. United and ANA are joint-venture partners on their entire trans-Pacific flying plus many connecting routes. This “metal-neutral” arrangement means they are able to coordinate all aspects of flying, pricing, and selling and share the costs and revenues as if they were a single airline for those routes.

I liked this itinerary because it would feature United’s new Polaris business class seat from Tokyo to Newark and All Nippon’s slightly older business class seat from Chicago to Tokyo, which both are well reviewed and offer nice private cubicles. Additionally, the long trans-Pacific legs in both directions meant time to enjoy the meal service and entertainment, while also getting a solid six-plus hours of sleep in. I was also excited to fly through Tokyo Haneda on the return, an airport I have never visited.

Unfortunately, it turns out I forgot an important criterion when booking my flights:

Approval by Thai authorities. To enter Thailand now, you need the local Thai embassy to issue a COE (certificate of entry) and this includes flying only on currently approved inbound flights. All-Nippon was selling the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Bangkok but it was not yet on the Thai government’s list of approved flights. Sticking with this booking would mean taking the risk that Thai authorities would approve the flight at a later date. And, if they didn’t, I would have to change the schedule, with the chance of a penalty fee or fare increase. After the Thai embassy initially rejected my COE application, I contacted United to make a change in the return schedule. Thankfully, there was no cost to do this.


The recurring LAX change

United actively reviews and optimizes its schedule, sending regular emails notifying you of changes to your booking. Some of these are minor – a flight departs a few minutes earlier or later, or the flight now has a different number and is operated by a different United Express carrier.

But as the departure date grew closer, United started paring back its trans-Pacific flights. This is not a surprise as demand for international travel has remained much lower than for United States domestic travel, which has rebounded in the past few weeks as vaccination rates increase and infection rates plummet.

My first notification was that I had been rerouted through Los Angeles on my outbound trip, connecting to Kansas City by overflying to Chicago and then backtracking. This was not okay because it didn’t meet two of my criteria: the flight to Los Angeles comes in well shy of 10 hours and it is flown by aircraft with United’s older business class configuration, which features 2-2-2 seating. If I was going to fly, I was going to try out the new product.

Thankfully, a call to United reservations fixed that. With no charge, they put me on the Tokyo to Houston flight, a nice 12 hour, 10 minute flight on a Boeing 777-200 featuring the new Polaris business class. Plus, they could connect me from Houston to Kansas City nonstop.

A few weeks later, I received a second notification. The Houston flight was now cancelled and I was again routed through Los Angeles, although this time connecting to Kansas City through Denver instead of through Chicago. Los Angeles again?!

At this point, I thought that maybe I would have to accept my fate and just fly into Los Angeles. It is a nice enough airport. The United Club has an outdoor terrace with a view of the airplanes. But I wasn’t happy about not flying their new business class product. I went to the United website to see what other flights they were operating from Tokyo.

After a bit of research I realized that the flight to San Francisco was operated with the new business class product. Even though the flight is about a half-hour shorter than Los Angeles, I figured I would trade off a bit of eating or entertainment time, to enjoy the new Polaris product. Another call to United reservations fixed the booking.

So, three weeks before departure, this is what my itinerary looks like. We shall see whether United changes it again. Looking at the number of seats already selected for the flight to San Francisco, it looks like business class may be at least one-third full, so unlikely they will cancel that flight. What I find especially interesting, is that there hasn’t been any changes to the return booking. This makes me think that All Nippon is more disciplined (or less agile) in their approach to scheduling.

I’m excited about this itinerary. It will be a treat (and a privilege) to be able to try the business class products, to pamper myself a bit, and to hopefully be a bit more protected from the risk of falling ill while flying. I end up arriving two hours earlier into Kansas City, which I know will be appreciated by whoever picks me up from the airport! The chance to fly through San Francisco is a treat, too. It’s my hometown airport for the first 30+ years of my life, I haven’t been there in a few years. My only regret is that there isn’t enough time to visit anyone!

Thanks for indulging me as I gush about the experience. I realize it is nerdier than about 99.99% of the population will appreciate. But I’m looking forward to the trip and really am enjoying the planning aspect as much (maybe more) than the actual travel aspect.

2018 – a year in the air

As 2019 begins, I took a few minutes to look back and see how my travels for 2018 looked. As much as it felt like I was traveling a great deal, my actual number of flights was not much higher than last year and I flew fewer miles by far.

2018 travels 2

  • 2018: 54 flights flown – 76,263 miles
  • 2017: 52 flights flown – 94,240 miles
  • 2016: 59 flights flown – 92,234 miles

I had many more short flights to nearby destinations such as Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong and fewer long-distance flights: only one Europe trip this past year and no trips to Australia and New Zealand. 

My best flight experience last year included the free, unexpected upgrade on EVA Air from Toronto to Taipei. They moved Tawn and me from Premium Economy to Business Class and for such a long flight, it was greatly appreciated. 

Who knows what this year has in store. As much as I love to travel, it would be okay if the number of flights didn’t increase!


Trip Report: Singapore Airlines Premium Economy

In my last post, I wrote about my experience flying in premium economy class on Lufthansa. Recently, I have flown twice on Singapore Airlines in their premium economy cabin: once to Paris and the second time to Australia and New Zealand. I’ll do a quick review of the experience here as a point of comparison.

The planes

On my flights between Singapore and Paris and Singapore and Melbourne, I flew on the Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane flying. On the flight between Singapore and Auckland, I flew on the Boeing 777-300ER. Both planes feature premium economy class in a 2-4-2 configuration.

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Above, the Airbus A380 after our arrival in Paris.

Of the planes, I prefer the Boeing 777. The Airbus A380 is a massive, double-deck plane and it simply feels like a huge plane with heaps of passengers in it. In reality, the A380 has only 379 seats (Lufthansa puts 509 on the same plane!) so it is not as densely configured. Nonetheless, the Boeing 777-300ER has only 264 passengers so feels much less crowded.

The cabin

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On the Airbus A380, there are 38 premium economy seats in a 2-4-2 layout. The seat is 19.5 inches wide with a 38-inch pitch. According to the stats on SeatGuru.com, this is 1.5 inches wider than on Lufthansa. That said, I did not find the seat any more spacious.

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There is a large seat back monitor, which is controlled from a remote in your armrest. The screen appears marginally larger than on Lufthansa but that doesn’t make a huge difference.

The seat has many storage areas and useful amenities, including an individual power port and a USB plug. The magazine pouch has a cheap, plastic feel and was broken on two of the seats. Overall, the seat was comfortable although I found it more so if I place a pillow on the front of the seat cushion under my legs.

There is ample legroom and, as with other airlines’ premium economy, each passenger has his or her own armrests. There is also a nice pillow and large blanket for each passenger along with noise-cancelling headphones.

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As a comparison, here is a view of the regular economy class during the flight. It is in a 3-4-3 layout and feels considerably more crowded.

The service

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Before departure, the flight attendants did not offer beverages – different than on Lufthansa. Menus were placed in the seat back pockets. Singapore does offer a “book the cook” option, allowing you to select certain main courses in advance, a feature Lufthansa does not offer in premium economy.

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After takeoff, warm towels were handed out followed by a service of drinks and nuts. The signature Singapore Sling cocktail is available as well as a full selection of premium beverages.

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The flight attendants are friendly and attentive. They are more polished than at Lufthansa, in terms of having very specific customer service phrasing they are expected to use. Some people perceive this as robotic, other people like it.

As an example, when Tawn asked for a beverage that they didn’t have on the cart, the flight attendant said she would be happy to get him the drink but it would be a few minutes – but would he like something else while waiting?

I thought that was a good touch.

Also, when I was boarding, the flight attendant saw my boarding pass, recognized my seat number, and said “Oh, 35D! You have the special meals ordered, a XYZ for dinner and XYZ for breakfast.” I was impressed that he remembered that off the top of his head.

The meals

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Meal services are decent, although I liked the ones on Lufthansa better. Here is a braised beef dish with mashed potatoes.

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There as also a Chinese-style stir fried chicken with rice, which was a little oily but tasty. Notice that for this flight served out of Paris, we had a little block of cheese.

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The breakfast service before arriving into Singapore was sad. This quiche and hash brown was limp.

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And the waffle was soggy and the egg rubbery. Overall, a poor showing from Singapore airlines.

While I do not show them here, I did try the “book the cook” meal service when fling to the southern hemisphere. While I liked having the option of choosing a meal in advance, I was not overwhelmed by the quality of the catering. Only the cumin-spiced lamb chops out of Melbourne were impressive.

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For the Paris flights, premium ice cream was served – a nice treat.

The timing of the service was generally fine. The exception was the overnight flight from Melbourne to Singapore. Only 7.5 hours in length and departing at midnight, there is only a light snack service to begin with (which I slept through) and a full meal is served before landing. Unfortunately, they started the service 2.5 hours before landing. Had they pushed it back another 30-60 minutes, it would have allowed people to get more rest.

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In terms of inflight entertainment, Singapore Airlines has a huge selection of movies, TV shows and music to keep you occupied. The selection was wider than on Lufthansa, although there is only so much time you have on the flight so on either airline you will be able to find something to fill your time.

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The screen is high-resolution and bright and the controls were responsive. Unfortunately, the screens were not touchscreen, requiring you to fiddle with the handset controller.

The lounges

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Singapore Airlines has just recently opened a new lounge in Bangkok on the D concourse, a location superior to their previous lounge on the A concourse. The lounge is beautiful and continues to have a wide variety of foods and beverages.

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A selection of food in the old lounge in Bangkok

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Above, in Paris all the Star Alliance carriers use a shared lounge facility which has a good selection of food and beverage but which can become quite crowded and is also a bit dark.

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Most disappointing is the “Gold Lounge” in Singapore, especially the one in Terminal 3. Singapore Airlines, like all Star Alliance members, welcomes other members’ gold-status passengers. In Singapore, their main hub, they have a separate lounge just for non-Singapore gold members. These lounges are not that nice: crowded, limited food selection and no showers or other amenities.

Overall

Premium economy is usually a reasonable value: more space and comfort without breaking the bank. Depending on the route and when you fly, Singapore offers some attractive prices for this good service.

Comparing Lufthansa and Singapore, they are quite similar. Singapore has a better entertainment system. Lufthansa has better food and a slightly better seat. Singapore has friendlier flight attendants but slow service. Lufthansa has service that gives you more time to sleep but with flight attendants who, while professional, are not as buttery with their words. Lufthansa offers better lounge experiences across the system; Singapore offers good lounges for non-Singapore passengers everywhere but in their hub city.

At the end of the day, if the two airlines offered me the same price on the same route, I would choose Lufthansa as I think the experience was just slightly better. But you will not go wrong with Singapore at all.

In a few weeks, I will be flying EVA Air, the Taiwanese carrier, on their premium economy service. I will post another report covering that trip.

 

Trip Report: Lufthansa Premium Economy

This is the first of two reports about premium economy experiences. For longer-haul flying, I am reaching a point where being crammed into economy is painful but business class is unaffordable. The compromise is to pay a bit extra for premium economy which is sometimes quite a good value. In this report, I cover a round trip between Bangkok and Lisbon (returning from Barcelona) on Lufthansa made in October 2016.

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The plane

Lufthansa adjusts the capacity on the Bangkok-Frankfurt route throughout the year to match demand, everything from a 509-seat Airbus A380 to a 251-seat Airbus A340-300, which was used both directions on my trip.

The Airbus A340 is a comfortable widebody plane but the type was introduced in 1991 so it is not the latest technology. The normal economy class configuration is 2-4-2.

The cabin

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The premium economy cabin, which is located between the business class and economy cabins, has only 28 seats, arranged 2-3-2.  These seats are 18″ wide and have between 38-39″ of pitch, the distance from one point on the seat to the same point on the next row.

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Leg room is quite reasonable although when the person in front of you reclines, you will still find it difficult to get out unless the person in the aisle seat gets up. There are plenty of storage spaces for items and there is a foot rest on the seat in front of you. Bulkhead seats instead have a leg rest that extends from the seat cushion.

One feature of these seats is that there are two armrests for each passenger so no fighting for personal space. This is a huge advantage over regular economy.

Large touch-screen monitors are available at each seat. The image is bright and the responsiveness of the system is good.

The seats are comfortable although a bit firm. After a few hours, I ended up sitting on my pillow to provide extra padding. Recline is quite deep but I still find it difficult to get any meaningful sleep. On the outbound flight, I probably slept about four hours total. On the return flight, less than two.

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As a comparison, here is a view of economy class mid-flight. You can see the premium economy cabins in the distance, separated only by fabric dividers hanging from the overhead bins. You will notice the monitors in economy are smaller and there is an extra seat in each row resulting in only 17″ width and narrower armrests.

The service

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Before departure, water or juice is served and menus are distributed. There is no advance meal booking beyond the usual dietary and religious meals. The selection consisted of two main courses. For these flights, each approximately 12 hours, there is a main meal and then a breakfast closer to arrival.

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After reaching cruising altitude, a drink service commenced. There was a wide selection of beverages and premium economy includes sparkling wine and a premium beer.

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The outbound dinner was a choice of pork Panaeng curry or pan-seared veal sausages with onion sauce, sauerkraut and mashed potato. I chose the latter. It came with an appetizer of coleslaw with smoked chicken breast and a dessert of apple strudel with vanilla sauce.

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Before landing in Frankfurt, a breakfast of cheddar cheese omelette with Lyonnaise potato, ratatouille and tomato with fresh fruit was served. There was no other choice.

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For the flight from Frankfurt back to Bangkok, we had a choice of beef goulash with carrot zucchini stew and potato leek mash (which I chose) or tomato mozzarella fiorelli with basil cream sauce and tomato concasse. The appetizer was a seasonal salad with pumpkin slices and Italian dressing. The dessert was mango pie with creme fraiche.

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Breakfast before landing in Bangkok was scrambled egg with cheddar cheese accompanied by diced chicken breast, Chinese vegetables (which seemed to be missing) and potato wedges with a dessert of vanilla curd cream with blueberries.

Overall, the food quality was good and the quantity was sufficient. The food is served on ceramic dishes with metal cutlery and glass stemware, which creates a nicer impression.

During the flight, light refreshments (sandwiches, fruits, pretzels, candy bars) were available for snacking.

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Shortly before landing, small chocolates were distributed throughout the cabin. Service from the flight attendants was friendly but efficient. It was notable that effort was made to complete the first meal service quickly, presumably so passengers could go to sleep as both flights are overnight.

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The inflight entertainment system worked well and has many options. By the return flight, I did feel like I was running out of things that piqued my interest. Thankfully, the seats have USB and power ports, so I was able to pull out my laptop and work and use my iPad to read and watch shows.

The system does have a nice maps feature that shows computer-generated views from the tail and the cockpit of the plane. This gives a perspective of what the outside world looks like although it is misleading because the above pictures of our final approach into Frankfurt shows daylight but it was in fact before sunrise.

The lounges

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Premium economy does not come with lounge access but as I have “gold” status with one of the Star Alliance carriers, I was eligible to use the lounge. In Bangkok, I was able to use the main THAI Airways lounge. Other lounges closed too early to use as the Lufthansa flight departs after midnight.

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In Frankfurt, I was able to use the Senator lounges, which are very modern, have a huge selection of food and drink, and offer showers for transiting passengers.

Overall

I particularly liked the 2-3-2 layout in the plane. The middle seat next to me with empty both ways, giving me even more space. The food was tasty and good quality. And the lounge in Frankfurt was truly refreshing. Connecting through Frankfurt is convenient and results in efficient travel times to Europe from Bangkok.

The seat cushions were a bit firm for my tastes (although I find this on a lot of planes), the selection of inflight entertainment was a bit uninspired and Frankfurt is not the most pleasant airport to connect through as it is drab and not particularly intuitive to navigate.

I managed to get an attractive price for this flight, only about US$ 1,400 round-trip. The usual premium economy price is closer to US$ 1,800. The extra space and increased comfort made the trip much less taxing and, for the money, was a good value. Lufthansa’s premium economy would be worth taking for future trips.

 

The Long Delay to Shanghai

After three busy days of meetings in Hong Kong, I made the over-optimistic travel plan to catch a 7:15 pm flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai in order to deliver a training at 9:00 am the following day. Given the air traffic congestion in China, especially into Shanghai, that proved a painful mistake.

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My flight was scheduled on Dragonair, a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific that operates more of the local and regional flights, especially to China. When I checked in at the airport about 90 minutes before departure, the agent said the flight was showing on time, even though all other flights to Shanghai were showing massive delays.

Sure enough, about five minutes before boarding time, the departure was rolled back two hours. Apologies were made and vouchers worth about US$10 were offered. (In fact, the agent told me I could just show my boarding pass at any restaurant in the airport to receive the discount; that turned out to not be the case.)

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At the revised departure time of about 9:30 pm, the delay was suddenly extended another two hours to 11:30 pm. While I understand that there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty about when the departure times will be (the captain later explained we initially had been given a 3:30 am departure slot) it seems clear that they knew the 9:30 pm departure was not realistic and it should have been revised earlier.

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Finally, we started boarding about 11:00 pm and pushed back not too much after 11:30. We were in the air quickly and on our way for the two-hour flight. When I checked in online, I was able to get a bulkhead row, albeit a middle seat, so enjoyed at least a bit of extra leg room. The flight was full.

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Dinner was served – they actually even handed out a simple menu. The started was a shrimp and angel-hair pasta salad. The main courses were steamed sole with bean curd and black bean sauce over rice, or a pork with apple cider stew and fusilli pasta, which I chose. The pork was okay for airplane food, nothing special. Dessert was Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which is always nice.

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When we landed in Shanghai, the only gates still available were the remote stands in the cargo area, which is quite on the opposite side of the airport from our normal terminal. While I didn’t complain too much – at least I was able to exit via stairs and get a nice picture of a UPS 747 freighter – the bus ride took more than 15 minutes, literally around the perimeter of the airport.

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The upside was that the immigration queue was short as we had arrived so late. It did take another ten minutes for our luggage to arrive and the taxi queue also took about fifteen minutes as there are few cars that late. I finally arrived at my hotel room at 3:30 am and was downstairs in the meeting room at 8:00 am.

It was a long day, but not too bad. I had a good group of students, staff level learning the basics of presentation skills. They all pushed themselves outside their comfort zone, delivering in English even though for many of them, it is a struggle. One girl was petrified and after her three-minute introduction presentation, was nearly in tears. Everyone gave her a lot of positive feedback about being brave enough to face her fears. Was very moving.

 

THAI from Bangkok to Taipei

My second trip for the new job, and my first where I am working (as opposed to undergoing I boarding) is to Taipei. I will facilitate three days of workshops for the local team. 

Here is a quick photographic tour of my flight over. 

 
My flight was scheduled for 7:15am, meaning an early departure from home. I made it to a very crowded Thai Airways Royal Orchid lounge where I enjoyed a bit of breakfast. 

  

From my seat I watched the first sliver of orange on the horizon erupt into a rising fireball as a Cathay Pacific Airbus A330 pushed back for the early Hong Kong departure. 

  
By the time I walked to the gate, the concourse was bathed in a warm light. As a morning person, I find this a peaceful and pleasurable time of the day. Even when traveling. 

  
Despite being the hometown airline, THAI still uses remote gates for many departures. This means boarding a bus and driving a few kilometers across the airport. I enjoy it as it afforded me a chance to snap this photo of an Airbus A380 in the distance. 

  
And this Boeing 747-400 parked at the stand next to ours. 

  
To protect passengers from the sunlight – or perhaps to stymie our photo-taking – the boarding stairs are covered in a plexiglass canopy. 

  
Our climb out of the airport was smooth. I had an aisle seat so needed to be creative to get my picture. 

  
The choices of inflight meals were pancakes or fried rice with chicken. I had the rice. It was fine but nothing memorable. 

  
The rest of the 3-hour flight was smooth. I watched “Good Will Hunting” again. Enjoyable movie and glad they show some classics. The seat buckets are a bit uncomfortable. By the end of the flight my tail bone was already aching.  

All in all, the flight was uneventful, the hard product (seat, food, entertainment) was acceptable but not extraordinary, the soft product (customer service) was friendly but not outstanding. 

Touring a Qantas Airbus A380 at LAX

The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft. On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes and see this massive plane from a perspective unavailable to regular passengers.

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Qantas, Australia’s largest airline and the third-oldest in the world, flies multiple daily flights to Los Angeles International Airport from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Generally, two of these flights are operated by the A380 and because of the time zone differences, the planes spend most of the day on the ground at LAX.

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A friend who works at LAX was kind enough to offer a tour of the plane, a rare treat for a lifelong aviation enthusiast like me. Now, as the planes had a long layover, Qantas uses this time for maintenance and a deep cleaning. The planes had only just arrived and so they were pretty untidy when I viewed them. Normally, the interiors are immaculate, so don’t let these pictures affect your perception of the airline.

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With 40% more usable floorspace than the Boeing 747-400, the Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft. Two decks running the entire length of the aircraft can accommodate up to 800 passengers, although Qantas has just 484 passengers in four cabins: First, Business, Premium Economy, and Economy.

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The aircraft is 72.7 meters (238 feet) long with a 79,8 meter (261 foot) wingspan. There are 14 exit doors, 4 engines, and the aircraft range is 8,500 miles. While the Boeing 747-8 is slightly longer, the Airbus A380 is overall a larger aircraft.

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My walk around the plane took several minutes, as the plane is so large, it is difficult to take in its full size, especially when you are up close.

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Looking up at the tail, which reaches 24.5 meters (80 feet) tall, gives you some sense of the scale we are talking about.

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While there were two A380s parked at the airport, we visited Nancy-Bird Walton, the first A380 delivered to Qantas. It was the 14th overall A380 built and its first commercial flight with Qantas was October 20, 2008. Interestingly, this plane suffered an uncontained engine failure on November 4, 2010 and made an emergency landing in Singapore. There were no injuries, but repairs to the plane took more than 16 months and cost more than US$140 million. It has served safely ever since returning to the skies in April 2012.

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Climbing nearly three stories to enter the plane, you get a sense of the massive size of the wings. Even with more than four decades’ experience flying and sufficient knowledge of the principles of aerodynamics, I am still amazed that something this large can take to the air!

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Entering on the main deck, a left turn leads us to the intimate First Class cabin. There are 14 individual seating pods, which offer privacy but are not as enclosed as on many of the Middle East carriers. I like this balance because on the carriers with “suites”, you feel like you are stuck in a cubicle at work, albeit a very nice one!

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The 22-inch wide seats rotate to the side and then recline into a fully-flat 79-inch bed. In this mode, you feel very like you are in your own cocoon. When you are ready for bed, the flight attendants add a mattress and a duvet, so you will sleep cozily. Round-trip tickets between LAX and Australia run about US$23,000 in this cabin, so of course the experience is luxurious.

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Heading towards the back of the plane on the main deck are two massive Economy Class cabins. Each has 17.5-inch seats in a 10-abreast configuration. Each seat has its own touchscreen monitor with loads of free entertainment.

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While the seats are comfortable enough, especially with the adjustable headrest, at just 31″ pitch (the distance between the same point on two rows of seats), I would find this a tad too cramped for a 14-hour flight.

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At the rear of the main deck is a spiral staircase that takes you to the upper deck. Hidden away at the rear of this upper deck is a smaller Economy Class cabin. With just 30 seats and a large exit row, these are the seats you want if you have to travel on a budget!

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Just ahead of the small upper deck Economy Class is Qantas’ Premium Economy cabin. These seats are arranged just seven-abreast and at 19.5-inch width and about 38″ pitch, are equivalent to First Class seats on a domestic flight.

IMG_2205AWith only 35 of these seats in this mini cabin, this would be my choice to enjoy some comfort on a long flight without breaking the bank.

IMG_2208AAhead of the Premium Economy cabin are two Business Class cabins, seating a total of 64 passengers. The seats are arranged in pairs, six-abreast. This layout, which has been in place since the introduction of the A380s, will soon be replaced with a new layout which allows each passenger direct access to the aisles. Truthfully, though, I prefer this type of pair seating as it feels less confined to me and is a better arrangement when traveling with another person. Even which the seats are reclined, it is not difficult to get to the aisle.

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The seats recline to a fully-flat bed that is nearly identical in dimensions to the First Class seat. The primary difference, as near as I could tell, is in shoulder space, which is narrower in the Business Class product. Also, you are more exposed, although the padded “hood” ensures privacy and helps dampen any noise. When I fly long distances, sleep is more important to me than caviar, so I would opt for the Business Class seat and save some money. (Of course, I am still a long way from affording a Business Class ticket!)

So far, everything I have shared is pretty visible to the average passenger, although they don’t let you ramble about on the tarmac! So let me share some of the behind-the-scenes views.

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In the middle of the main deck is a door that looks like a regular lavatory entrance, except it has a combination lock on it. Open the door and there is a hatch in the floor and a ladder descending into the cargo hold level.

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Descending into the belly of the plane, there is a flight attendant rest compartment, that has 12 bunk beds, private pods in which the crew can sleep during the flight. Long-haul crews are assigned rest periods of several hours and they can choose to rest here. Each bunk has a curtain, reading light, and other amenities. They are small places, similar to the capsule hotels in Japanese train stations, and the one wedged in under the stairs has barely any room for your feet.

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There are also four economy class seats in the back of the galley located at the rear of the upper deck. With curtains for privacy, these seats allow another place where flight attendants can sit between performing their duties.

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Another hidden space at the front of the Business Class cabin is the purser’s station. This small workplace and several storage closets are cozy, but provide extra space for the crew. It is worth mentioning that on Emirates, the Dubai-based carrier and the largest operator of the A380, this space is used for showers for First Class passengers.

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We also explored the flight deck, which is located several steps above the main deck. When you go through the first door (in which I was standing as I took this picture), you enter an entirely self-sustaining area. To the left (at the top of the hand rail) is a lavatory for the pilots and to the right are two pilot rest areas.

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The pilot rest areas are stacked like two puzzle pieces. Each contain a comfortable chair, similar to a Premium Economy seat, and a bed. The A380 flies with four pilots and they work in shifts. All four pilots are seated in the cockpit during takeoff and landing, but during the cruise phase, the off-duty pilots can go to the rest areas if they wish.

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The A380 uses a “glass cockpit”, which means that instead of dials and gauges, monitors display all the primary functions of the plane. Additionally, all Airbus planes use a “joystick” device (visible to the right of the co-pilot’s seat) instead of a yoke or control column.

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Of course, my childhood dream was to be a pilot and I am jealous of the view that my friends who are pilots have from their office windows.

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To get a sense of just how high up you are in the A380 cockpit, I leaned out the window for a selfie! Must be careful not to mess up my hair.

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After poking around a bit more, we climbed down from the plane. I walked underneath, which is high enough to walk under without ducking, but low enough that you can reach your hand up and touch the belly of the plane. The view above is of the main landing gears: four bogeys with a total of 20 tires.

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These wheels are about as high as my sternum. Combined, they can handle up to 575,000 kg (1,268,000 lb) maximum takeoff weight.

IMG_2298The view looking forward to the nose wheel. In the distance, a Qantas Boeing 747-40 sits in the hangar, undergoing maintenance.

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I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes tour of the A380. Many thanks to my friend at Qantas for giving me this unique experience and I hope that one of these days, I have the opportunity to fly Qantas across the Pacific.

Learn more about the Qantas A380 experience here.

Spotting at HKIA

A few photos from yesterday afternoon at Hong Kong International Airport:

  
An Asiana Airbus A321

  
Moments after the Asiana A321 pushed back, it was replaced by the same model but from Vietnam Airlines. 

  
There were several All Nippon Airways planes preparing for flights to Japan. This is a Boeing 767-300. 

  
While the Boeing 747-400 is a rapidly vanishing type, there were several fine examples yesterday including this one from Korean Air. 

  
And this one from Carhay Pacific. They have only three passenger models still in service but several cargo models, including the one taxiing out to the runway in the background. 

  
Here is a closer look in artistic black and white! 

  
The newest jumbo jet, which some would say has taken the 747’s crown, is the massive Airbus A380. Many airlines fly these planes to HKG, including British Airways. 

  
Emirates Airlines from the UAE operates the A380 from HKG to BKK, continuing to Dubai. They also fly a nonstop A380 service to Dubai in case you don’t fancy a visit to Bangkok. 

  
The Russian airline Aeroflot has multiple flights a day to Hong Kong. This Boeing 777-300ER was about to board for a return trip to Moscow. 

  
HKG has a great diversity of carriers. This EL AL Israeli airlines Boeing 777-200 was preparing for a flight to Tel Aviv

  
Heading in the opposite direction is this Fiji Airways Airbus A330-200 heading to Nadi. 

  

Thai Airways offers several flights a day to Bangkok and Phuket. This Boeing 777-200 is being readied for the 2-hour flight to Bangkok. 

  
And, finally, the Cathay Pacific Airbus A330-300 that took me back to Bangkok. 

Spotting at HKG

Last August, Tawn and I took at short trip to Hong Kong to celebrate the fifth anniversary of our marriage. I realized this weekend that I never posted the photos I took the afternoon of our return flight. Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok International Airport is one of the best places for spotting: lots of large windows offering mostly distortion-free views of the many airlines from around the globe that call on HKG.

I hope you enjoy.

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Cathay pacific Airbus A330 in the OneWorld color scheme

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Qantas Airbus A380

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British Airways Boeing 777-300ER

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China Airlines (from Taiwan) Airbus A330

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Elegant Swiss Airbus A340

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Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300 – the terminal in the background handles flights to/from the Mainland

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Korean Air’s Airbus A330 in a robin’s egg blue color that I find very fetching

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Looking over the top of a Cathay Pacific B777 to enjoy another Cathay B777-300 in the Spirit of Hong Kong color scheme. This picture also provides a very good sense of just how built up Lantau Island has become, adjacent to the airport.

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From the land of Hobbits, an Air New Zealand Boeing 777-200ER

P1290361Cathay has since retired the passenger versions of their Boeing 747-400, the “Queen of the Skies”

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Dragonair is another local carrier, also flying the Airbus A330. You can also see the British Airways A380 in the background.

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A pair of Airbus A340-600s, the front one belonging to Virgin Atlantic and the back one from Lufthansa.

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Something new and different, an Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner

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Singapore Airlines also operates the Boeing 777-300 into Hong Kong

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London, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong are three great cities to view the Airbus A380. This one is operated by Emirates and makes a stop in Bangkok before continuing to Dubai.

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Air France also flies the Airbus A380 to Hong Kong

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Lufthansa is one of the few carriers not to give up on the 747 passenger version. This is their newest plane, a Boeing 747-8i.

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A Hong Kong Airlines’ Airbus A330 with a surprise guest in the background: a Boeing C-17 Globemaster operated by the United States Air Force.

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Another Cathay A330, this one in their regular color scheme

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Turkish Airlines Operates the Boeing 777-300ER into Hong Kong. One of the newer members of Star Alliance, I would like to try them one of these days.

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One of the more interesting color schemes on an Airbus A330 belonging to Air Seychelles. The Seychelles are off the east coast of Africa, north of Madagascar. Don’t worry, I had to look it up, too.