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.

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.


Cathay pacific Airbus A330 in the OneWorld color scheme


Qantas Airbus A380


British Airways Boeing 777-300ER


China Airlines (from Taiwan) Airbus A330


Elegant Swiss Airbus A340


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


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


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.


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”


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


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


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


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


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.


Air France also flies the Airbus A380 to Hong Kong


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.


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.


Another Cathay A330, this one in their regular color scheme


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.


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.


Boeing Everett Factory and Museum of Flight

While in Seattle, I spent a few days with my friend Jack. He’s a fellow aviation enthusiast so we made the requisite “pilgrimage” to two Seattle-area aviation hotspots: the Boeing widebody factory in Everett and the Museum of Flight at the original Boeing site at King County Airport.


Boeing Factory Tour

Everett Factory
Borrowed image

The city of Everett lies about 35 miles north of Seattle. Since the late 1960s, Boeing has produced and delivered well over 3,000 widebody aircraft from this factory, which features the largest building in the world, measured by volume. The building is so large that 911 regulation NBA basketball courts would fit inside.


Currently, the factory produces Boeing’s 747, 767, 777, and new 787 aircraft. Viewed above is the delivery flight line, where final systems checks are conducted before the test flights. The near row of aircraft are the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, with some Boeing 747-8 freighters in the back.

The factory tour allows up-close views of the different production hangars, where you can see the jets assembled in what can only be described as an example of how manufacturing technology has evolved over the years. Unfortunately, video and still photography (along with all electronic devices) is not allowed on the tour, so I’ve had to borrow some pictures from the internet to illustrate. I’ve noted all borrowed images.

747 Production
Borrowed image

The first stop in the tour is the production facility for the oldest of the aircraft, the Boeing 747. The first flight of the original version of the 747 was in February 1969. The design has continued to be advanced over the decades and the current version, the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental is larger, longer, faster, and much more fuel efficient than the original version.

The manufacturing process has in many ways remained the same. Almost all components of the aircraft are actually built by Boeing there at the Everett factory. Sheets of aluminum are attached to spars and stringers and each section of the plane – nose cone, tail, wings, fuselage barrels – are rivetted together, piece by piece. It takes four month from start to finish for each part to be made and eventually married together.

With the introduction of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Boeing revolutionized the production process. The Everett factory is now the final assembly point for the airplane, with all of the component pieces being produced at other facilities (by bother Boeing and contractors) around the globe.

Borrowed image

These component pieces are large – lengthy sections of the fuselage, entire wings, etc. In order to transport them from factories in Italy, Japan, and Wichita to the final assembly facilities in Everett, WA and North Charleston, SC, Boeing commissioned four modified B747-400 aircraft, known as Dreamlifters. These ungainly looking aircraft significantly reduce shipping time.

We were fortunate to see a Dreamlifter arrive a few minutes after parking at the tour center. I captured the landing on video, above.

Dreamlifter 2
Borrowed image

To remove the components from the Dreamlifter, the tail section swings open. A giant tractor with a head-sized ball bearing is placed under the tail to hold the weight of the tail, preventing damage to the door hinges. It is an impressive feat of engineering!

787 Production
Borrowed image

Once all the components are delivered, they are fastened together in a process that currently takes about seven days. That rate will increase as Boeing become more familiar with the assembly process, but is quite an improvement over the four months it takes to build a B747-8 from scratch.

Needless to say, the factory tour was impressive. Even though it was Sunday, a relatively slow production day, I could have easily spent much more than the allotted 90 minutes standing there, watching the assembly process.


Future of Flight Aviation Center

The tour begins and ends on the other side of Paine Field at the Future of Flight Aviation Center. Compared to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, which we visited later in the day, the Future of Flight is relatively modest. Still, it provides several displays to help you learn more about aerodynamics and the airplane production process.


Posing in front of the nose section of a former Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 with a cockpit section of a Boeing 737 in the background.


Boeing Field and Museum of Flight

Finishing with the factory tour just about lunchtime, Jack and I decided to drive back to Seattle and visit the Museum of Flight. Located at Boeing Field, officially known as King County International Airport, the Museum of Flight has an extensive display of restored aircraft and many interactive exhibits. It also features the original Boeing factory, a red wooden barn dating from 1909.


A view of the main display gallery, which features a restored Douglas DC-3 in Alaska Airlines colors, a Lear Fan 2100 with its unique Y-shaped tail and push-propeller, and a Lockheed M-21 Blackbird spy plane.


A reproduction Boeing Model 40B, the aircraft that enabled Boeing to win the transcontinental US Mail contract. The plane was able to carry twice the load of its competitors.


A Douglas A-4F Skyhawk II, a combat aircraft from the mid-1950s that was so light and nimble, it continued to be used for 35 years. This particular aircraft flew with the Blue Angels, the US Navy’s aerobatic team. This plane made a special impression on me because in my childhood, I had the opportunity to see the Blue Angels perform several times and this was the type of airplane they used at the time.


A restored Stearman C-3B, a rugged biplane from the 1920s that was used to grow America’s commercial air mail network. This one is painted in Western Air Express colors.

The Museum of Flight also features an outdoor display area across the street from the main museum galleries. There, you can walk around (and in some cases, through) many of the most successful commercial aircraft.


Immediately at the entrance to the outdoor gallery is the Concorde, a limited-edition commercial supersonic jet that shuttled the rich and famous across the Atlantic Ocean for almost three decades at twice the speed of sound. This particular jet is on loan from British Airways and it flew the final commercial Concorde flight.


The plane is on static display and you can walk through its cabin and peer into the cockpit. Here is a view from the front passenger door, looking to the needle-like nose, which was dropped about 10 degrees when the plane of was on the ground, so the pilots could see the taxiway in front of them.


Inside, you get a sense of how cramped the Concorde was. The interior height was only 6 feet, 5 inches and the two-by-two seating was no more spacious than current premium economy seats. That said, flight time across the Atlantic was only three-and-a-half hours, so you arrived at your destination much more quickly than on a conventional airplane.


The museum also has the first “Air Force One” – a Boeing VC-135B, the military variant of the Boeing 707. This particular aircraft was delivered when Eisenhower was president and was replaced just three years later by a more advanced version.


The aircraft is also open for walk-through tours, giving you a sense of how the presidents and other VIPs traveled when conducting government business.


Compared with the current fleet used to fly the president, variants of the widebody B747, this older Air Force One looks very small. Above, you can see staff seating with the presidential conference room in the background. 


Behind the cockpit and front galley is a communication station which enabled the president to communicate securely from his airborne White House.


The cockpit of the Boeing VC-137B, which looks primitive with all its dials and gauges, when compared to today’s “glass” cockpits with their screens and video monitors.


The museum also has the first flight-worthy Boeing 747. Named the City of Everett in honor of its birthplace, this Boeing 747-121 served as a testbed for Boeing over the years and is sometimes open for display. Unfortunately, the day of our visit, it was closed.


The final item of interest was a Lockheed 1049G Super Constellation. This piston-engined aircraft was one of the most graceful airplanes ever designed and the “G” version first flew in 1954. By that time, it was clear that airlines were moving in the direction of jet planes and the Constellation was one of the last piston-engine planes. This particular plane was delivered to Trans-Canada Air Lines.


View of Mount Rainier in the hazy distance from a control tower exhibit in the museum. You can listen to the radio broadcast from the Boeing Field control tower and watch airplanes (mostly general aviation) land and take off.

It was a full day of aviation geekiness, probably more than most people could handle but, in my view, a day well spent.


Why They Don’t Teach a Three-Point Turn in Flight School

This photo came as part of an email my father forwarded to me.  As a former employee at a major airline, many of the humorous emails he receives (and often forwards) are related to his former industry.  I didn’t take the time to fact-check this one, but I found it funny enough to share with you as a bit of midweek levity.

According to the email, the pilot of this Boeing 737-200 (an aircraft that is pushing 30 years old if not older) was departing a small airport in South Africa during the night to ferry the plane back to Johannesburg.  The pilot got confused on the taxiway and reached a dead end without the room to turn around.  His solution was to engage the thrust reversers and back out of the dead end, trying to perform a three-point turn.

Off the Runway

Unfortunately, he backed the plane into a culvert alongside the taxiway.  To make matters worse, he tried to get the plane back onto the taxiway by throttling up the engine.  The end result was that the engines ingested all sorts of rocks, dirt, and other debris since they were resting pretty much on the ground.  The damage was such that the cost of repair exceeds the airframe’s insured value and so the craft will be written off.  No word what happened to the pilot.


Of course, silly things happen all the times.  Back in August 2005, a mechanic at United Airlines’ San Francisco maintenance base accidentally retracted the main landing gear on a Boeing 747, resulting on the plane resting on its tail.  Fortunately, no structural damage was caused and the plane was back into service after a thorough check.  No word on what happened to the mechanic.


Aviation Porn – Phuket

The place we stayed in Phuket is just a mile or so stroll down the beach from the international airport.  Far enough that you don’t hear much noise, but close enough so you can walk down and watch planes land and depart.  We also spent an hour or so one morning parked alongside the service road that is the back entrance into the airport, paralleling close to the runway.  Here is a little aviation porn for those of you whose tastes run that way.

And from the beach side: 


THAI Airways A300 arriving from Bangkok.


THAI Airways A330 arriving from Hong Kong


Transaero B777-200 arriving from one of the Moscow airports.


“Be careful!  The jet blast.”  Yes, I managed to stand right behind a Dragonair A320 as it powered up for takeoff and learned just how strong that is.  Smartly, I turned my back to it as it was kicking up a lot of sand.  The blast was pushing little waves about 200 feet into the ocean.


There’s that Dragonair A320 from Hong Kong, about 45 minutes before it sandblasted me.


Another Transaero plane, this one a B747-200, coming from the other airport in Moscow.


Beautiful erosion in the sand banks just off the runway.  You can see the top of the fence in the upper right hand side of the picture.

There will be some Mexican food porn from Houston tomorrow for everyone else.



The past week’s business trip to the United States was brutal.  Some helpful wag calculated that of the total trip time, 29.4% of it was spent in transit to/from the US.  The formula, for those of you looking for it, was (60 hrs / (60+(6*24))).  I’ll share a little bit about the trip over the next few posts, starting with some information about the flights themselves.

Above, a reflection of a Delta 747 at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

My trip was on Delta Airlines, which offered the cheapest economy class prices by far for the dates I needed to travel.  While my company’s policy is business class on flights over 8 hours, I did not qualify for this as technically my agreement with the company is that they will not pay to fly me to the US for meetings at all, since I chose to relocate outside the country.  That’s okay – I appreciate simply having a job!

I worked very hard to avoid being routed on one of the planes shown above because the economy class experience on them is very out-of-date.  (This holds true for United Airlines’ 747, too.)  Instead, I routed myself through Seattle so I would be able to fly on the more up-to-date A330, which features power ports in the front half of economy class and individual seat-back screens and on-demand audio and video throughout the cabin.

My experience on Delta was mixed.  The hard product itself – seats, food, entertainment, etc. – was fine although not amazing.  For the Bangkok to Tokyo and Tokyo to Seattle segments I was able to get an aisle seat in the front half of the economy cabin, so had about an extra inch of leg room and access to the power ports so I could work on my computer without draining the battery.  Additionally, I had an empty seat next to me on both flights.  The seats are actually pretty comfortable and the adjustable headrest does a decent job of cradling your head if you try to doze.

Breakfast out of Bangkok – omelet, potatoes, and sausage with fruit and yogurt.

Pre-landing snack – chicken and cheese croissant – before arriving in Tokyo.

On the flight out of Bangkok (6 hours), I traveled with one of the three guests from Kansas City who had been in town the previous two weeks.  Since he slept most of the flight, it was okay that we were a few rows apart.  While in Tokyo we had a few hours transit time so we ate some ramen at an okay snack shop.  The Narita Airport has nice facilities but the food selection within the secure area of the terminal is only okay.  There are better restaurants in the public area of the main terminal.


Out of Tokyo for the eight-hour flight to Seattle, I purchased the above box from the noodle shop to supplement the meal served on the flight.  What was inside?


This lovely katsu (fried pork cutlet) sandwich!  Oddly enough, the bread doesn’t get greasy or soggy at all, even though it sits in the box for a few hours.  It was really, really satisfying to eat mid-flight.


This was the meal served out of Tokyo, beef and (reconstituted) mashed potatoes with a shrimp appetizer and mixed green salad.  The best thing about the meal was the coconut sponge cake.  Portion size is fine and the quality was decent.


Mid-flight they served a slice of banana bread as a snack.  Pre-arrival to Seattle (which was early morning) there was a breakfast sandwich which was quite greasy.

Arriving in Seattle for immigration and customs worked very nicely.  Ours was the first flight of the day, arriving shortly after 7:30 am.  There was no line at immigration and within about twenty-five minutes of landing I had my bags, was through customs, and had dropped the bags on the through-checked belt to continue to Houston.

With about three hours between flights, I had time for a friend to meet me for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, which was a nice opportunity for a brief catch-up.  While there, she gave me a gift she had been holding for me for many months: a pair of banneton, wicker bread proofing baskets that I had talked to her about at some point in the past.  This was a funny and much-appreciated gift I will have to blog about soon.


After a busy week in Houston, I flew Southwest Airlines up to Kansas City.  In order to construct the least-expensive ticket I could, I routed myself on an “open jaw” ticket on Delta, flying from Bangkok to Houston and then returning from Kansas City to Bangkok.  A $100 ticket on Southwest connected the open part of the jaw, resulting in about $350 savings for my employer.  This also gave me the opportunity to fly out of Houston Hobby Airport, the smaller airport on the south side of downtown that is nearly monopolized by Southwest.


As part of a promotion with Microsoft Windows, Southwest was offering free pictures of Santa (that came with a brief demonstration of some new photo editing feature from Microsoft).  These came with a coupon for $20 off your next Southwest flight (before the end of March).  Of course, who could resist getting their picture taken with Santa?

photofuse (58)

In fact, this picture provided useful evidence the next day when I explained to my nieces how I had managed to make it to Kansas City from Thailand.  More on that tomorrow.

After just 30 hours in Kansas City and an overnight inch of snow, I headed for my return trip to Bangkok.  The 6:00 am flight out of KC to Salt Lake City was delayed for more than a half-hour thanks to a string of mishaps by Delta.  First there was the fact that the potable water in the water trucks was frozen – no coffee or tea and no water for washing hands in the lavatory.  (Thankfully they had sanitizing hand gel.)  It had been below freezing all of Saturday so why they didn’t leave the heaters on overnight is a mystery to me.

On top of it, the tow bar froze to the aircraft so it took them several minutes of dousing with antifreeze to get it unstuck.  You would think Delta has never conducted winter operations out of Kansas City!

The long and short of it is that I missed my connecting flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle.  Thankfully I was rebooked on a later flight (and upgraded to first class) that got me into Seattle in time for my connection to Tokyo.  However, my layover was no longer long enough to meet with my aunt and uncle for breakfast in Seattle, something I had intentionally scheduled.

Above, the A330 for my flight at a drizzly Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The flight from Seattle to Tokyo was ten hours long, delayed for more than a half-hour because of electrical problems at the check-in podium.  In fact, the Seattle operations were a disorganized mess.  On the flight itself, I was able to get a bulkhead aisle seat, ensuring that nobody would recline into my personal space, which made the flight reasonable comfortable.  I slept for about five hours, waking every so often then dozing off again.

The service was spotty with a crew that was generally unfriendly.  One flight attendant, Jamie, had a sour lemon expression the entire flight.  During the flight she handed me things (food, water, etc.) a dozen times and each time I made the effort to give her a cheery “thank you”.  You see, I think it is my responsibility as a customer to initiate the friendly service I would like to receive.  Not once did she say ‘thank you” or acknowledge me in any way, verbal or nonverbal.  Terrible, unfriendly service.

Now another flight attendant, Ann, was the complete opposite.  She was cheerful and friendly, patting me on the shoulder when I declined a mid-flight treat of an ice cream sandwich (“They taste mighty good in the middle of the flight!” she advised) and laughing with other passengers throughout the service.  I am going to write a letter to Delta and offer praise for Ann and a note of concern about Jamie.  If even half of Delta flight attendants were as friendly as Ann, I would probably fly them regularly.

The final segment, Tokyo to Bangkok, was delayed by more than an hour.  I had time in Tokyo to use the public showers ($10 for thirty minutes) which makes for a nice mid-trip refresh, and also had a chance to get a bite to eat.  Comparing the two adjacent concourses, United’s operation out of Tokyo is much more organized and professional than Delta’s, using better signage to explain the boarding process and has a generally more updated look to the gate areas.

I landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 12:10 Tuesday morning.  Here’s a tip to help you deal with immigration lines: there are two immigration areas at the Bangkok airport and there are monitors outside each showing what the lines at the other area look like.  It is worth the walk of about 150 meters to go to the other immigration area if the queues are shorter.  I ended up clearing immigration and customs in less than forty minutes, which for late night at Suvarnabhumi is quite good.

Tawn picked me up and I was home and in bed by 2:30, exhausted and glad to be back.  More in the next few days about the Kansas City portion of the trip. 


Behind the scenes at Long Beach Airport

Those of you who aren’t aviation geeks will be happy to know that, pretty soon, I’ll run out of blog entries about airplanes and airports and aviation.  I’ll get back to normal things like food and travel and… more food.

LGB_logo Saturday morning I work early.  Alex headed back up to the Bay Area and Bill and I headed on a secret behind-the-scenes tour of Long Beach Airport.  Bill’s one of those affable people who makes friends with everyone and, as such, always seems to know just the person to help out with any need.

When I mentioned that I’d love to get a peek behind the scenes at LGB, he started putting those connections together and the result was this early morning tour.

To protect the integrity of those connections, I won’t give a any details about how we got onto the other side of the fence.  Suffice it to say that we were escorted at all times and were well within the bounds of the law.

LGB Map Long Beach Airport has a long history and despite having very low levels of commercial traffic (caused by some of the strictest noise control ordinances in the nation) it is also one of the busiest general aviation fields in the United States.  The airport is probably most famous as the home of the Douglas Aircraft Company.  During World War II, more than 4,200 C-47 aircraft – the military version of the workhorse DC-3 – were manufactured at this airport.  Additionally, more than 3,000 B-17 Flying Fortresses were produced here, too.

The entire tour took place within the secured grounds of the airport, mostly following a service road that runs alongside and around the end of the runways.  We started on the righthand side of the map, near the passenger terminal, and continued clockwise around the airport.

I’ll group these pictures in as logical a sequence as I can and try to make the explanations as interesting for you as possible.

The road took us down to the arrivals end of the main, 10,000-foot runway, in the lower right of the map.  The road actually ran right alongside the taxiway and we stopped so I could get out and shoot some footage and take pictures.  I’ll include the video footage when I write my trip report at, but here are a few pictures.  As I mentioned, LGB has very low levels of commercial passenger traffic, so there aren’t that many flights.

A jetBlue Airbus A320


Delta Connection (operated by SkyWest) CRJ-700


We stopped by the different facilities operated by Gulfstream, the manufacturer of corporate jets.  Gulfstream operates a completion facility here, where planes that have been constructed are flown in, unpainted and unfinished, and then are completed here.  They are pretty secretive about their customers so I had to snap pictures on the go.

Below, a new, unpainted Gulfstream sits on the ramp.  I believe this is a Gulfstream G550.


On the other side of the airport, one of the Gulfstream jets is masked and partly painted.


Next door to that is a shiny new Gulfstream, just out of the paint hangar.  Note the weights that are on the nose gear.  Note sure why that is.  My theory is that the interior is still empty so there the center of gravity is behind the main landing gears, making the plane at risk of tipping back onto its tail.


Military jets.  Long Beach is still the production facility for the Boeing C-17.  Boeing purchased Douglas several years ago but the heavy lift C-17 is still manufactured here and ones that have been damaged are returned here for extensive repair.  There is one at the airport that suffered a lot of damage in Iraq and had to be flown back at 10,000 the whole way (compared with 30,000 – 40,000 feet normally) so that the cabin would remain unpressurized.

Below, a new C-17 is finished at the Boeing hangar on the northeast corner of the airport.


The B-1 bomber shown here is undergoing some sort of testing or modification, although of it isn’t clear for what purpose.



The legacy of Douglas Aircraft is shown by this decades-old sign that Boeing has kept on the facility where the Boeing 717 (a derivative of the MD-80, which was a derivative of the DC-9).  Sadly, it won’t be around forever as I understand that this facility is to be torn down.


We saw some classic older jets, including this Grumman HU-16A Albatross.  This flying boat was dates from the 1950s and its unique fuselage design allows it to land in the open ocean, handling waves better than most of its counterparts.


The following planes are two DC-3s (or Douglas C-47, as it was originally manufactured as part of the war effort) operated by Catalina Flying Boats, an on-demand operator who flies mostly cargo flights to Catalina Island.  They have contracts with all the carriers like FedEx and UPS along with the Los Angeles Times to deliver copies of the daily paper to the island.




About thirty minutes after I took this picture, we were on the other side of the field and I was able to take video of this plane taking off for a trip to Catalina Island.  One of these days, I’m going to fly on a DC-3.  There is one that does excursion flights in Melbourne, Australia and I have my eyes set on it for a future trip.

Other cargo operators have a presence at LGB, including UPS and DHL (formerly Airborne Express).  Here are some shots of a converted DHL B767-200 freighter.  It started out as a passenger jet for All Nippon Airways (ANA), a Japanese company, before being converted in September 2000 to freighter duty.



Private jets abound at LGB.  As mentioned, it is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country.  It is kind of funny that local residents who complain about noise and don’t want any increase in commercial operations, fail to realize that these private jets – especially the Learjets and Gulfstream corporate jets – make much more noise than the commercial passenger planes that are flown these days. 

Here is a small corporate jet ready for its passengers on the ramp outside AirFlite services, a fixed base operator owned by the Toyota Corporation.  Toyota’s North American operations are headquartered just up the 405 freeway in Torrance, so it makes sense that they would operate a service for corporate jets at the closest airport.


A few minutes later a valet brought the luggage out of the lounge using the same type of cart you would find at a fine hotel.  What service!

Some very rich people have converted former commercial aircraft to be their own private jets.  Here is an MD-87 (again, a derivative of the DC-9) that is now privately owned.  Compare that to the tiny prop jet next to it!


For those with truly vintage taste, may I suggest a Boeing B727-21?  Dating back to 1966, this air frame first flew for Pan Am before being sold to Alaska Airlines.  It now is operated by Valeant Pharmaceuticals, previously known as ICN Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of exciting drugs like the synthetic cannabinoid Cesamet.  Yes, fake marijuana fuels this plane.  I’ll skip the obvious jokes about getting high.


From the northwest end of the field I had the privilege of sitting at the end of the runway and watching a plane land.  Here’s a jetBlue A320 in the distance with the pyramid-shaped gymnasium at Cal State University Long Beach on the horizon.


Standing near the arrivals end of the runway (close to two miles from where the picture above was taken) I get a good view of an Alaska Airlines MD-90 on short final approach as a SkyWest CRJ700 waits to enter the runway.


As one of the busiest airports, LGB is equipped with a state of the art emergency services department.  Here is one of their newest crash trucks, always on the ready in the event of a crash landing.


Finally, for those of you who live in the Southland, the aircraft that brings you news and traffic, Sky Fox 11.  It also brings you badly biased political views, but that’s probably not the fault of the pilot.


After the tour ended and the morning overcast started to burn off, I took this last picture from the top of the car park, looking past the overcrowded little terminal at LGB and you can see the B-1 bomber and DHL 767 that are pictured above.  Based on this, you can get an idea of where I was on the field.


Many thanks to Bill and his connections for making this once-in-a-lifetime tour happen.


Beauty of the West from 35,000 feet

My eight days in Kansas City ended too soon.  Packing my bags on a wet Wednesday morning, I said goodbye to my nieces and headed to the airport for my flight back to San Francisco.  Below, see you at Christmas.


Normally, I save my pictures of airplane trips for trip reports on, but this was such a beautiful day for flying that I want to share some of the pictures with everyone.  Below, a soon to be vanished sight – Midwest Airlines’ MD-87.  In the next few weeks they will be cutting their fleet by some 40%, removing all of these planes from service and cutting their staff by about the same number.  Tough times in the US airline industry.


The western United States is a rugged, mostly barren land and it gives some idea into the American psyche: there is lots and lots of room, lots of frontier to be civilized, and always the possibility of reinventing yourself somewhere new.

Some of that land is flat and ugly (much of Nevada, based on having driven it) but much of it has great beauty, beauty carved by the elements over untold millennia.  Much of it is hard to appreciate when you are driving across the country, because much of it is hidden.  But from 35,000 feet you can see the sheer size of some of these geologic formations, a vastness of scope that is both vertical and horizontal.

Let me share these photos with you:

The Rocky Mountains just west of Colorado Springs, Colorado.


A deep glacial valley on the left, carved into the alpine mountains.


A small town lies in the valley below a mountain, somewhere near Aspen, Colorado.


A river winds through dry lands, cutting across the face of a butte.


Area near Moab, Utah and Canyonlands National Park.


West of Canyonlands National Park, heading towards Nevada.


Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Notice all the smoke from various fires.  In the upper-right quadrant is Yosemite Valley.  If you look carefully, you can see what I think is Half Dome.


I may be wrong (and I’m sure someone will correct me if I am) but I think this picture – a close-up of the one above – shows Half Dome in the center of the picture about one-third of the way in from the left side.  Amazing how much smoke there is.


Hopeton, California in the foreground with the Merced Airport and the city of Merced in the background.  This is west of Yosemite Valley where the Sierra Nevada foothills give way to the Central Valley – California’s agricultural engine.


The airport shown below is in Patterson, California, where the Central Valley gives way to the Coastal Range.  San Luis Reservoir is visible in the distance.


As we descend over the Coastal Range the path of a high tension power line is visible, a clear swath cutting through the trees.


We enter the Bay Area in the Warm Springs/Irvington district of Fremont, turning northwest towards the airport and flying over the colorful salt evaporation ponds near the Dumbarton Bridge.  Moffett Federal Air Field is visible in the background.


As we head for Foster City and the San Mateo Bay Bridge, I spot a United Airlines A319 slowly moving closer to us.  It is clear that we will be executing a parallel approach for runways 28 Left and 28 R, something that can only be done in the right weather conditions when visibility is excellent.  This is because the runways are only 750 feet (229 meters) apart.  Below, the city of San Mateo with Coyote Point Regional Park just coming into view in the foreground.


What follows is an aviation enthusiast’s dream: an excellent view all the way in of another aircraft landing.  I captured it on video and am including it below for your enjoyment.  Rather humorously, when my seatmate, a retiree who spends her time between Milwaukee and Sonoma, saw the other plane, she announced that she hoped he would pull away soon.  She apparently thought we were playing chicken for only one runway.