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.

2017-05-037

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

2017-05-023

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.

2017-05-024

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.

2017-05-035

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

2017-05-027

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.

2017-05-026

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.

2017-05-033

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

2017-05-028

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

2017-05-029

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.

2017-05-030

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

2017-05-031

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.

2017-05-034

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.

2017-05-025

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.

2017-05-032

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

IMG_4144

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.

2017-05-021

A selection of food in the old lounge in Bangkok

2017-05-022

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.

2017-05-038

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.

2017-05-013

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

2017-05-002

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.

2017-05-003

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.

2017-05-010

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

2017-05-004

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.

2017-05-005

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.

2017-05-006

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.

2017-05-008

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.

2017-05-007

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.

2017-05-009

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.

2017-05-011

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.

2017-05-012

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

2017-05-001

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.

2017-05-014

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.

 

Flying Delta Economy from BKK to LAX

While normally a Star Alliance flyer, I had the opportunity to revisit Delta for the first time in five years on my recent flight to Los Angeles. I looked forward to the opportunity, because I have read and heard good things about Delta’s service, comments from friends that it is the carrier that has defied the reputation of US-based carriers for poor service.

IMG_1478

The first flight was an early-morning departure from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Now seven years old, Suvarnabhumi is settling into its own and is a decent airport to fly from. Delta’s check-in counter was not crowded when we arrived two hours before the flight and the security and immigration process was smooth and efficient.

We encountered a bit of a challenge, as Tawn and I were traveling on separate reservations. When I checked us in online 24 hours earlier, I chose adjacent seats. Between then and our arrival at the airport, one of those seats had been reassigned. Thankfully, the gate agent was able to rearrange seats for us so we were together for the flight.

IMG_1495

Our flight to Bangkok was a Boeing 767-300ER. After years of flying 747s to Bangkok (first as Northwest and then after the merger as Delta), it is nice to see the use of a smaller widebody plane. This capacity discipline helps the airlines focus on profitability over volume and I also think the smaller plane, with its 2-3-2 layout in economy class, is a better travel experience than the 9- or 10-abreast layout of larger planes.

IMG_1481

While we weren’t traveling in Business Class, I thought I would share a picture of the seat. The forward-facing seats are a bit utilitarian but look like a comfortable way to fly. The center section has two seats, so if you are traveling in a pair, you are not completely isolated from the other person.

IMG_1483

The economy class seats are clad in leather, a sea of dark blue that is visually dull but easy to clean. The cabin was clean and in good shape, despite the airplane being 15-20 years old.

IMG_1488

Delta’s entire long-haul fleet offers seatback monitors, with a ride range (hundreds) of TV shows, movies, music, and games. Monitors were bright, high-resolution, and responded quickly to your fingertip touch. Pairs of seats had universal power outlets and these monitors also featured USB plugs.

IMG_1496

One nice touch that Delta has added (or replaced) is distributing free headsets and amenity kits. There was a point post-9/11 where the US-based airlines had cut back every amenity item, which seemed so stingy. For this 5-hour flight to Tokyo, we had eye shades and ear plugs, plus the ear buds. Since the entertainment system uses a standard headphone jack, you can use your own jack or take the complementary ones with you to use again on your next flight.

IMG_1504

The economy class seats are arranged at a 31-32 inch pitch, typical for most airlines. The seats are reasonably comfortable, leg room and knee space is adequate but not impressive. As I mentioned, the narrower plane (only seven seats across instead of nine or ten) is more comfortable as nearly everyone is in a window or aisle seat.

IMG_1517

Once airborne, the cabin attendants began the inflight service: hot towels followed by a drink service, followed by breakfast. The staff was Bangkok and Tokyo based and was generally friendly. The taller flight attendant on the right had a particularly friendly manner to her, a typical “Midwestern Mom” top who was bright and outgoing. These are the type of cabin attendants who really improve the flying experience as they seem to enjoy what they do, which is infectious.

IMG_1506

As it was the final day of a month of vegetarianism for Tawn, I pre-ordered vegetarian meals for both of us. This ensured we were served at the same time. Above is the “dairy okay” vegetarian meal for me, a very cheesy scrambled egg dish that was tasty.

IMG_1508

Tawn opted for the Asian vegetarian dish, which on both flights was more South Asian (Indian) in nature, except for the corn flakes!

IMG_1509

The food tasted fine, with strong flavors, and the overall quantity was appropriate to the length of the flight. Expectations are never too high for airline food and by placing the bar at a reasonable level, were were not disappointed!

IMG_1513

Near the end of the flight, warm sandwiches were served in an unappetizing-looking foil bag. The roasted zucchini and tomato sandwich we received was surprisingly tasty – the cornmeal crusted roll was very nice – and was sufficient to stave off any hunger before arriving in Tokyo.

IMG_1523

We arrived to find drizzly weather in Tokyo. Above, our plane from Bangkok with the Narita International Airport control tower standing against a grey sky. Our connection time was short – only scheduled for one hour but a bit longer as our flight was about 20 minutes early into Narita. This gave me time to take pictures of some of Delta’s other planes:

IMG_1547

The massive Boeing 777-200, the same type of plane we would fly into Los Angeles.

IMG_1556

The classic shape of the Boeing 747-400, which I love looking at but don’t really enjoy flying in economy class because of its dense, 10-abreast seating layout.

IMG_1557

Our plane parked at the gate, about to board. For the flight across the Pacific Ocean, I was unable to arrange for two seats together, so had upgrade both of us to the “Comfort Plus” cabin, which is the premium economy product. The only significant difference is about four additional inches of leg room plus the ability to board ahead of the other economy class passengers.

IMG_1562

The view from the jetway before we step aboard. The Boeing 777-200 is a large plane, impressive in its size.

IMG_1681

The business class and other premium economy passengers had already boarded, so we found the bins over our seats already full, and had to struggle a bit to rearrange space for our items. This was necessary as we were at a bulkhead row and could not store any personal items at our feet.

IMG_1586

The view out the raindrop-strewn window with a Boeing 747 in the background.

IMG_1570

For this longer flight (about 9 hours eastbound), Delta offers a bit more in their amenity kit: toothbrush and toothpaste in addition to the eye mask and ear plugs found in the flight out of Bangkok.

IMG_1571

A simple printed menu laid out meal and beverage choices and at the bottom, had a clever guide to activities during different phases of flight. Again, I think these relatively inexpensive investments (printed menus, amenity kits) make the overall experience more pleasant and improve the passengers’ impression of the airline.

IMG_1614

Here is a peek into the business class cabin ahead of our seats. This aircraft has business class arranged as individual pods in a “reverse Herringbone” layout, with all seats facing the aisle. I dislike this arrangement because facing the aisle means you make eye contact with anyone walking past. I also dislike this arrangement because if you are traveling with someone else, there is no way to communicate with them conveniently during the flight.

IMG_1664

This picture, taken later in the flight, shows one passenger in business class still stretched out in the lie-flat bed position. While I’m sure the seat is comfortable, the seat still looks a bit cubicle-like.

IMG_1599

Our view a bit after takeoff, as the storm clouds reflected the fading rays of the sun.

IMG_1621

The cabin crew was just as friendly as the previous flight’s and began their service not long after reaching our cruising altitude.

IMG_1617

Nuts and pretzels were served along with our choice of drinks. Alcoholic beverages are complimentary on the Asia flights, although it doesn’t appear that many people choose to drink. We did have a glass of wine with our dinner.

IMG_1624

My meal was tasty but nondescript: some sort of a slaw on the left with a Thai-like dressing, a hummus-like spread with asparagus, and a rice and curry dish that was tasty but difficult to identify.

IMG_1628

Tawn’s meal had some similar elements but with a regular lettuce salad and rice with roasted vegetables. Again, portion size was appropriate and the flavors were fine.

IMG_1633

The Delta blankets are comfortable but tissue-paper thin. The cabin crew passed our half-liter bottles of Evian water on both flights, making it easier to stay hydrated and reducing their workload since frequent trips with a pitcher of water and cups was not necessary. This also probably reduces the amount of plastic waste, as one bottle per person is much less plastic than five or six cups would require.

IMG_1634

The cabin was darkened although many passengers watched movies or shows during the flight. Unlike at some airlines, the Delta cabin attendants on this flight did not mandate that window shades be lowered, which was okay as the entire flight took place during the night.

IMG_1656

The sun only started rising about two hours before we landed, so having window shades opened actually allowed for a natural wakening to occur for those who were sleeping.

IMG_1661

Ice crystals formed at the base of the windows, a reminder of how bitterly cold the air is at 40,000 feet.

IMG_1669

About 90 minutes before landing, the flight attendants served sandwiches and a snack box with yoghurt and fruit inside.

IMG_1671

Our sandwiches were slightly different, although mine did not have any cheese despite being a “dairy okay” vegetarian option. Plenty of tasty Starbucks coffee was served.

IMG_1673

Overall, the Delta experience was a positive one. At a certain level, I would still choose an Asian-based carrier as I think the overall experience is better (especially in terms of toilet cleanliness – US-based crews don’t seem to like to keep toilets clean). Nonetheless, the Delta crew was friendly and the hard product (seat, food, inflight entertainment) is competitive.

Los Angeles to Kansas City on United

We cashed in some United Mileage Plus miles for one leg of our domestic travel. Thankfully there were “saver” fares – discounted – for first class so we routed through Houston on the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to try their BusinessFirst product. 

  

The Dreamliner is the newest plane in United’s fleet, a fuel-efficient composite construction wide body jet. 

  
The plane’s lines are beautiful, and the wing flexes gracefully during flight. 

  
The BusinessFirst cabin features pairs of seats, angled to provide some privacy but close enough for couples who are flying together. 

  
Seats recline fully flat so you can sleep. 

  
I dozed for an hour or so fairly comfortably, although the narrow end for your feet is a tight fit. Not all the seats have the same amount of foot space, I discovered. 

  
While it was a domestic flight, nuts and sparkling wine were served shortly after reaching cruising altitude. 

  
There was a choice of two entrees: a beef chili with melon and feta salad. 

  
Option 2 was enchilada soup and chicken salad. Both were fine for a three-hour flight. 

  
Warm chocolate chip cookies for dessert. 

  
Large touch screen monitors provide a ton of on-demand entertainment options. 

  
Two happy travelers!

  
With nearly three hours to kill in Houston, we made use of two United Club passes a friend gave me. The club in the E terminal has sweeping views of the gates. 

  
After sunset, we made our way to the gate for our connecting flight to Kansas City aboard an Airbus A319. 

Overall, the flights were positive. The service was friendly and the experience was with the miles (25,000 each) that we redeemed. 
 

Trip Report: BKK-NRT-ORD on All-Nippon Airways

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.

IMG_1507

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.

IMG_1512

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.

IMG_1516

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.

IMG_1529

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.

IMG_1533

The flight began with a beverage and snack service, a selection of tasty rice crackers.

IMG_1535

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.

IMG_1537

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”.

IMG_1540

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.

IMG_1536

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.

IMG_1559

The flight to Tokyo took about six hours and we arrived on a sunny and clear afternoon.

IMG_1583

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.

IMG_1592

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.

IMG_1615

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.

IMG_1618

The sun had already set when we boarded our Boeing 777-300 ER bound for Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

IMG_1632

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.

IMG_1634

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.

IMG_1643

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.

IMG_1654

After dinner, the crew dimmed the cabin lights and everyone was asked to close their window shades.

IMG_1651A view of the rear galley, where there was a bit of space that you could stand and stretch your legs.

IMG_1658Also 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.

IMG_1660

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!

IMG_1706

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.

IMG_1668

About 90 minutes before landing, a second meal was served. This is the minced chicken with noodles (I think!) that Tawn had.

IMG_1669And 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.

IMG_1677The 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.

IMG_1687

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.

My First Flight on the 787 Dreamliner

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.

ANA Cover

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.

P1270263

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.

P1270269 2

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.

P1270297

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.

P1270281

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.

P1270294

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.

P1270289

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.

ANA Seating

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.

P1270298

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.

P1270300

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.

P1270301

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.

Seat 04

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.

P1270311

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.

P1270316

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.

Flight Tracker 1.png

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.

P1270323

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.

P1270338

About forty minutes after departure, inflight service began with hot towels – real cloth towels – followed by a beverage service with snacks.

P1270341

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.

P1270344

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.

P1270347

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.

P1270352

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.

P1270370

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.

P1270356

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.

P1270360

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.

P1270371

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.

P1270375

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.

P1270350

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.

P1270379

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.

P1270384

Snacks and beverages were available in the galley throughout the flight. The selection was basic – some crisps and crackers along with bananas.

P1270345

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.

P1270388

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.

P1270308

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.

P1270389

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.

P1270411

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.

P1270419

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.