Over the holidays we flew back to the United States to visit family. Comparing all the options, we chose All-Nippon Airways, a Japanese airline and member of the Star Alliance, because with their joint venture with United, it was easy to seamlessly book the entire trip through ANA’s website. Here is a look at the highlights of the flights.
The departure from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport is quite early – about 7:00 – but we arrived early enough beforehand so we could enjoy some time in the THAI Airways Royal Orchid Lounge. The lounge was decorated for the holidays in shades of their signature purple hue.
Now that United has exited the Bangkok to Tokyo route, leaving the flying to All-Nippon, ANA has up-gauged their equipment from a Boeing 767 to a Boeing 777.
The flight still departs too early for my tastes, but at least you begin the day with a pretty sunrise. As Tawn explained it, since he used to work for United and the flights out of Bangkok (to Tokyo and Hong Kong at the time) both departed very early, he still associated early flights with the excitement of working.
We were assigned a aisle and window seat but another traveler was assigned the middle seat, so we gave him the aisle so Tawn and I could sit together. There was a nice view as we climbed into the humid and hazy morning sky above Bangkok.
The flight began with a beverage and snack service, a selection of tasty rice crackers.
The flight attendants at ANA are very friendly. Sometimes their English isn’t perfect, but they are very sincere and quick to respond to requests.
I opted for a western-style breakfast, which if I recall was chicken croquettes served with mashed potatoes. When I say “breakfast”, I mean “meal”.
Tawn chose the Japanese style meal, which was a piece of mackerel served with a variety of pickles and other sides. Both meals were tasty and satisfying.
The planes used intra-Asia have an older interior, with narrower leg room and smaller, more difficult to view monitors. The entertainment system still offers dozens of movies and a hundred or more TV shows, all on-demand. However, the screens are not touchscreen and you have to use the remote controller.
The flight to Tokyo took about six hours and we arrived on a sunny and clear afternoon.
A nice view of an ANA Boeing 767 with the new drag-reducing wingtips. The 767 remains one of my favorite planes, mostly due to the 2-3-2 layout in economy class, where everyone is either on an aisle or no more than one seat away from an aisle.
Narita is an efficient, modern airport through which to connect. We spent some time at the All-Nippon Lounge, which has a good selection of food and beverage, shower facilities, and a nap area.
A meeting of Boeing 787 Dreamliners, the one in the foreground flown by All-Nippon and the one in the background flown by United Airlines. The two airlines have an immunized joint venture for trans-Pacific and connecting flights, meaning that they operate these flights as if they were a single carrier, sharing revenues and expenses.
The sun had already set when we boarded our Boeing 777-300 ER bound for Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
All-Nippon is one of the few carriers to do a 2-4-3 layout in economy class, which provides a range of options for different size groups traveling together. Unfortunately, we ended up with two of the seats in the middle four. However, the good thing is that these are actually two pairs of seats, so the people in the middle each have their own armrest and about two inches between them. That means the seats do not feel cramped.
Also, All-Nippon offers 34″ of pitch (the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in the next row) – this is 3″ more than most US carriers offer. On top of it, these planes us a “shell back” seat that never reclines into your space. Instead, as you recline your seat, your seat bottom slides forward, reducing your own leg room. I prefer this because I rarely sleep on planes, but dislike having someone recline into my space.
As you can see, the monitors are much larger and brighter, and they feature touch-screen technology. There is also a USB port in case you want to charge your electronic devices. There is also a standard power outlet in between the seats.
Tawn and I both chose the same meal, a Japanese style grilled pork dish with cold soba noodles, tofu, and rice. Very tasty. One of the things I like about Japanese meals is that they are served with many small side dishes. The variety of tastes and textures makes the meal very fulfilling.
After dinner, the crew dimmed the cabin lights and everyone was asked to close their window shades.
A view of the rear galley, where there was a bit of space that you could stand and stretch your legs.
Also in the galley was a basket of snacks and beverages with a sign inviting you to help yourself. Flight attendants were also available to take care of any requests, such as brewing a cup of tea for me.
With strong east-bound tail winds, our flight to Chicago was only 10:30 minutes. The return flight from San Jose to Tokyo, a much shorter route, was actually fifteen minutes longer!
Our second sunrise of the day, the first viewed while we were on the ground in Bangkok and the second viewed off the coast of Washington.
About 90 minutes before landing, a second meal was served. This is the minced chicken with noodles (I think!) that Tawn had.
And I had a chicken thigh served with pasta. These meals were a bit lighter than the first meals, but appropriate given that we had departed in the evening and were arriving just after lunchtime.
The cabin with the lights on. It is actually a comfortable enough cabin to fly in, even for the long haul flight. Sure, business class would be better, but for the price, All-Nippon economy class was fine.
About five seconds before landing, a view across the plane and out the window, where you can see planes at the international terminal where we would disembark.
This is the story of my first flight aboard the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, traveling on All-Nippon Airways (ANA) flight 1075 from San Jose, California to Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan. An 11-minute video version of this trip report is embedded here if you would prefer to watch instead of read.
The Dreamliner is a revolutionary wide-body aircraft. Made largely with composite materials, it is about 20% more fuel efficient than the older 767 aircraft it is designed to replace. Despite a four-month grounding earlier this year because of electrical problems, the aircraft has performed very well for its initial customers and is opening new “long and thin” routes like San Jose to Tokyo that could not previously have been served profitably.
I arrived at the airport plenty early to watch the inbound aircraft land, which arrived about twenty minutes late. Having grown up in the San Jose area and able to remember the days when the airport was a much smaller operation, it is exciting to see this cutting-edge plane regularly scheduled to fly here.
ANA operates from terminal A. Now nearly a quarter-century old, I still recall terminal A as the “new” terminal compared to the 1960s era terminal C that was only recently demolished. As a child, I relished the opportunity to walk across the tarmac and climb a set of stairs to board the airplane. To me, that made air travel much more exciting. These days, the two terminals at San Jose are modern and entirely enclosed. Certainly the facilities are nicer but the travel experience is also more sterile.
ANA has a small counter space but lots of employees working check-in. As a Star Alliance gold level member, there was no wait and I was efficiently checked in by a friendly agent. While the agent did not appear to be of Japanese heritage – several of the staff members were – she displayed all the appropriate cultural training such as receiving and handing documents with both hands. This was a nice touch and leads me to believe that instead of relying on contract employees, ANA is using its own staff.
Boarding pass in hand – a window seat in the second row of economy class – I headed up the escalator to the security screening area. The terminal has a single consolidated screening point and while there weren’t that many people in line, the process took a bit of time. In particular, the crew of Mexican budget airline Volaris seemed to be holding up the line, unfamiliar with the TSA’s screening procedures. It took several of the flight attendants multiple trips through the metal detector before they finally removed all of their metal items.
Today’s flight operated from gate 15, one of two gates connected to the International Arrivals Area. This section of the terminal is essentially the connector between terminals A and B. There are few amenities but the windows offer a good view of the tarmac. Unfortunately, the sterile corridor leading to the customs and immigration area means you look out through two sets of windows.
I spent plenty of time taking pictures of the Dreamliner. It is a unique-looking airplane, with an asymmetrical nose. The plane’s proportions make it looks smaller than it actually is, perhaps because it looks unusually low to the ground for so large an aircraft.
After taking plenty of pictures – something lots of other waiting passengers were also doing – I headed to The Club at SJC, a private lounge that ANA uses for its premium customers. The Club is the only lounge at SJC, where the only dominant airline is Southwest.
Located upstairs from the departure gate, the lounge offers limited views of the tarmac but has two large seating areas, workspaces, and a decent selection of food and beverage. They also have a single shower room, so I freshened up before the flight.
It was nearing time to board. ANA operates the San Jose service with a 787 in a very low density configuration, only 158 passengers in a plane that can easily seat more than 220. Because of this, the gate area was not crowded.
After the highest level members of ANA’s frequent flyer program were boarded, Star Alliance Gold members were invited. A single jetway is used at this gate but with so few passengers boarding, it isn’t a problem. I was welcomed aboard warmly and directed towards my seat.
Business class, divided into two cabins, seats 46 people in alternating rows of 1-1-1 and 1-2-1 seating. All seats have direct aisle access and a lot of privacy. The problem with this arrangement is that it isn’t very friendly for couples traveling together. I know that privacy is something that a lot of premium customers value highly, but I prefer arrangements that are a little less cubicle-like.
A small economy class cabin of just three rows sits behind business class and the mid-cabin lavatories. In another configuration, this area has premium economy seating with 38” legroom and only seven seats across. I can understand why they made that choice: there is nearly a foot of empty floor behind the last row in this cabin. Even without installing premium economy, they could have added a few more inches to each of these three rows.
The design of the overhead bins offers plenty of room to store roll-aboard bags placed on their side. The bins also pivot into the ceiling, making for a very open cabin when they are closed. This being a low-density seating configuration, lots of storage space remained even after everyone had boarded.
ANA uses fixed-shell seats in economy, where instead of reclining back into the row behind you, your seat slides forward. I like this arrangement because my personal space remains fixed. With 33 to 34 inches of seat pitch, ANA’s Dreamliner offers several more inches of legroom than most competitors including joint-venture partner United Airlines. My one complaint with these seats is that the headrest doesn’t move up and down and, perhaps because it is designed for Japanese customers, it manages to fall at my neck rather than the back of my head.
The inflight entertainment system is an “on-demand” system with touch screen controls. The selection of movies, TV shows, games, and music is extensive – plenty to keep you occupied on your flight. The system was also one of the more responsive that I have used. When you touch the screen, it reacts promptly. The overhead passenger service unit features a new design and it was nice to be on a wide-body airplane with personal air vents.
Boarding was complete in about fifteen minutes and soon enough we had pushed back and the safety demo was finished. As the engines spooled up – a higher pitch whine than I’ve heard before – the ANA ground staff lined up to send us off with a wave. Being a small airport, we reached the departure end of runway 30 R in just a few minutes. Number one for takeoff, we pulled onto the runway and launched into our roll without a stop.
Our departure followed an interesting path, indicated in green on the map. We leveled off at 5,000 feet and maintained that altitude across the south end of the bay, towards Woodside.
Meanwhile, aircraft were circling wide on our left (yellow on the map), cutting behind us to line up for arrival on runways 28 L and R at San Francisco. While I am confident the air traffic controllers were keeping a close watch on us, the other aircraft came a lot closer than you usually see from your window. It was nice to have such a good view! As we approached Half Moon Bay, we resumed our climb, joining the westbound route across the Pacific.
About forty minutes after departure, inflight service began with hot towels – real cloth towels – followed by a beverage service with snacks.
The snacks were simple – rice crackers – and the selection of beverages included complimentary wine, beer, and spirits. The crew was friendly and helpful and there were no difficulties in communicating with them in English.
An in-seat menu card described the general service while the specific meal choices for today’s flight could be read on the inflight entertainment system and also on laminated cards the flight attendants had on their carts.
For dinner, I chose the Japanese option – a chicken teriyaki dish served with cold soba – buckwheat noodles. The portion was generous and the food was tasty. The dinner also included miso soup served from a pitcher.
Afterwards, flight attendants distributed Häagen-Dazs ice cream – a simple and satisfying dessert. Since the meal was served with metal cutlery, I could use an actual spoon to scoop the rock-hard ice cream instead of the flimsy plastic one contained inside the ice cream container’s lid.
After lunch, I walked around the mostly-full cabin. You can see the windows, which are about thirty percent larger than conventional airplane windows. Truthfully, this didn’t make as big an impression on me as I thought they would. Sure, the windows were large, but the biggest effect was that it made the cabin look narrower. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but because I am used to a standard-size window, as I looked across the width of the cabin and mentally estimated the width, the wall looked closer to me than it really was. Instead of shades, the windows use LCD controls for different levels of shading. Above, you can see two of the windows at the maximum-dark setting.
The rear cabin has eleven additional rows of economy class seats. As you can see, the cabin has a spacious feel and the 2-4-2 arrangement is quite pleasant. Unfortunately, ANA is moving towards a 3-3-3 arrangement like most operators so the comfortably wide seats will be a thing of the past. I can understand the economics but will say that as a customer, I will go out of my way to fly an 8-abreast 787 instead of a 9-abreast configuration.
The other thing I noticed is that the screens on the entertainment system are coated in such a way that they are not visible unless viewed almost straight-on. For example, I couldn’t tell if the person seated next to me had his screen on until I leaned over to look. This would seem to be a good thing, minimizing extraneous light and also giving greater (although not complete) privacy in what you are viewing.
The galley and entrance to the crew rest area are at the rear of the cabin. This arrangement is nice because it gives the crew plenty of space to work and minimizes the number of passengers congregating in this area. Instead, the congregate mid-cabin by the lavatories.
Three lavatories are in the middle of the economy class cabin, located by doors 3 left and 3 right. I didn’t get a picture or video of them, but the doors are hinged in an interesting way. Instead of pivoting on a hinge at one side of the door or folding in half, the door slides and pivots into the toilet, lying flat against the side wall. This improves the accessibility of the lavatory although isn’t intuitive. I noticed several people pushing and pulling the door before they figured out how it moved.
The lavatories are high-tech on ANA featuring lots of buttons, including for the automated bidet, in case you need to wash your bum afterwards. When you press the flush button, the toilet seat cover is automatically lowered. Oddly, though, the flush happens while the cover is still lowering. Lavatories were kept clean with flight attendants tidying them throughout the flight.
The LCD shading for the windows is interesting. Instead of having physical shades that you pull shut, there are two buttons that allow you to increase the tinting along five settings from nearly transparent to nearly opaque. It seems that the most transparent setting still seems to have a light tint to it, or at least that was my impression.
At its darkest, you can still see through the window although little light passes through. That may not make sense when I write it, but when you look at the windows from the side, they appear to be completely opaque. When you look at the windows straight-on, you can see through them as if they were very dark sunglasses. Mid-flight, which was still full daylight outside, the cabin was dark although not as dark as with physical window shades. If I’m not mistaken, I think the flight attendants were able to master set the windows to the darkest setting although individual passengers could modify the settings for their own windows, making them more transparent as they wished.
Snacks and beverages were available in the galley throughout the flight. The selection was basic – some crisps and crackers along with bananas.
About two and a half hours before landing – just a little early, in my estimation – a second meal service was offered. Unlike lunch/dinner, which had clear “Japanese” and “Western” options, the choices for the breakfast were less distinct.
I had the chicken cacciatore, which was pretty tasty. The portion size was smaller than the previous meal, but considering that we had eaten just five hours ago, that was okay.
One feature of the Dreamliner is that its cabin is pressurized to the equivalent of a 6000 foot elevation instead of at 8000 feet, as found in most airliners. Also, humidity levels are slightly higher, about 15% versus less than 5% normally. My impression was that the cabin was a bit more comfortable than normal. I travel frequently across the Pacific and find I get very dried out. The effect could just be psychological but on this flight, I felt less dehydrated.
The rest of the flight was smooth as we descended into an overcast northern Japan and landed on-time in Narita. As we approached the airport, there was a lot of other traffic and on our turns there was always a good view of other planes. The rice paddies were also vibrant green and just starting to turn golden yellow.
Again, thanks to the low-density configuration, it took just a few minutes to deplane. My nine hour, forty-five minute flight aboard the ANA Dreamliner left me with a positive impression of both the airplane and the airline.
All things considered, I would go out of my way to fly ANA in general and the Dreamliner in particular on future trips. Additionally, flying out of San Jose was a very convenient option so I will keep that in mind for future trips to and from the Bay Area.
I told you we were done with Tokyo and, yet, we’re not. After checking in at the airport, Tawn and I took the train back one stop to the town of Narita. Longer-term readers may recall that we did this during an 8-hour layover in Tokyo in March 2007. For those of you who haven’t been reading that long, here’s a brief account:
Narita is the town where Tokyo’s main international airport is located. It is an hour by train northeast of the city, has a very old and beautiful temple, and is known for its unagi – grilled eel.
Taking the local train from the airport back to Narita, I remembered to take a picture of the daily news headlines posted in the train car. You don’t need to be able to read Japanese to tell that sex sells!
Narita isn’t a very large town, maybe 100,000 people, and its agricultural roots are still visible, although much of the town now supports the nearby airport industries, including the many hotels where overseas aircrew spend their one- or two-night layovers.
The walk from either of the train stations to the temple is only about ten minutes, following a cute street lined with little shops selling all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs. Just in the last two years, we’ve noticed a lot of change on this street, though, with several older buildings and mom-and-pop shops demolished in favor of newer, more generic stores, restaurants and bars.
Right across from the tourist information office is a small grilled eel restaurant. The kitchen faces the street and you can look in and watch the chefs grill the skewers of fresh eel.
You order and pay at the front counter, receiving little paper tickets. Then take a seat at a table (or in the traditional seating area on tatami mats, at the back of the restaurant). A few minutes later, tender, sweet and crispy unagi comes your way!
I’ve said it before and will say it again: if you have about six hours between flights at Tokyo Narita Airport, it is worth your effort to go through immigration and take the train into Narita Town.
After our return to the airport, Tawn did a little browsing in the shops and I went up to the observation deck. Japanese airports still have observation decks that are open to the public, which I think is a great thing. (Being an aviation enthusiast and all…)
A Japan Airlines 747 touches down on the main runway, the same one that the FedEx MD-11 crashed on a few weeks ago. I wasn’t able to spot any signs of that accident. In the foreground is a Korean Airlines 777.
With Delta Airlines’ recent acquisition of Northwest Airlines, they have been quick to repaint the Northwest fleet, at least the planes flying internationally. Now you are able to see something that didn’t exist just a few months ago: a Delta 747 and A330.
Beautiful new area in Terminal 1. While Narita doesn’t have all the amenities of Singapore Changi Airport, it is a more beautiful airport.
Since we had cashed in a few remaining miles to fly business class, we stopped by the All Nippon Airways lounge. If you are flying Star Alliance through Tokyo, don’t bother with the United Airlines lounge – go straight to ANA’s as it is much nicer.
With shower facilities and a good selection of food and beverage – not to mention an excellent view of the airfield – the ANA lounge was a nice place to relax before boarding the flight home.
Our friend Masakazu, whom we had joined for shabu-shabu and sukiyaki a few nights earlier, had emailed several of his friends who were working the flight back to Bangkok. The upside of this was that we received very friendly and attentive service on the way back home, including a complimentary bottle of wine to slip into our bag just before arrival!