This trip report picks up where the previous one (http://flight-report.com/en/report-11841.html) ended off, arriving into the International section of Vancouver International Airport on the way to Hong Kong. Because we showed up early in Vancouver, I’ve got a little over two and a half hours before boarding for Hong Kong, so it’s time to check out the small Vancouver Maple Leaf Lounge, located a little ways down the hall from the “swing gate” (domestic/international) to which my flight from Toronto arrived, and from which my flight to Hong Kong will depart.
A quick scan of the boarding pass on my phone, and I’m permitted entry. I ask how the upgrade list is looking for me this morning, and after a quick check, the friendly lounge agent says it looks pretty good. ExpertFlyer shows J5 still, so we’ll just have to find out what happens at the gate.
The international MLL in Vancouver is strange one. It’s quite small, but aside from the late morning and early afternoon “rush hour” for flights to Asia, is generally quite empty. But during that rush hour, it can be chaotically packed. As I arrive this morning, we’re still a little early for the rush hour, so I have a chance to look around before things get too silly.
The lounge is essentially a single narrow hallway along the outside wall of the terminal, with some lounge chair seating, and a bank of computers for passengers to use. While there are a few power outlets elsewhere in the lounge, the best place to find a plug to plug in is by the long desk full of computers.
At one end of the lounge there’s a “secondary” bar and buffet area, and a raised table with some additional seating. This buffet isn’t typically set up during breakfast hours, though.
The other end of the lounge has the main buffet and bar. The bar isn’t open as of yet, and we’re still on a rather unimpressive breakfast lineup. I’m still quite full from my flight to Vancouver, and I decide not to partake of any food in the lounge. There’s going to be plenty to eat on the flight over to Hong Kong.
Perhaps the best aspect of the lounge is its windows, which make for some great spotting. Unfortunately, it’s a bit early for some of the best spotting, although there is this lovely AC 788 posing regally for photos immediately across from the lounge.
I set up at the desk with the computers to recharge my MacBook and take care of some administrivia for a while, and after about an hour, I decided it’s time to get a little bit of pre-flight exercise, especially because with Kansai, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong and perhaps some others I’m forgetting all slated for early-afternoon departures, the lounge is rapidly getting quite busy.
The Vancouver international section is quite nice, with some attractive features, especially the hardwood-floored central food court area that features natural light from skylights, and a nice little “stream” leading up to a wall feature that includes a fish tank and some native Canadian art.
The rest of the terminal is quite bright and airy, if a little dated in its decor.
And it affords some decent spotting opportunities as well. I spend almost an hour walking around the terminal to get my legs stretched out before the long flight across the Pacific. Here are some of the highlights of who’s hanging out at YVR this morning.
We start with the Chinese trio. A China Eastern 333 headed for ???….
Down at the end of the terminal, an AC 788 is arriving into town.
Meanwhile, a Sichuan Airlines A330 is loading up its return to Shenyang, and frantically paging the last two missing passengers so it can get on its way.
A gate over, the previously-spotted AC 788 is pulling into its gate.
And an Air Canada Rouge B767-300ER begins its boarding process for Osaka/Kansai.
Down the other side of the terminal, there’s this JAL 787-8 that’s just arrived from Tokyo.
And further down, this Philippines 777-300ER has just arrived from Manilla and passengers are still offloading.
Having seen about all there is to see around the terminal this morning, I burn off a few more calories, and then make my way towards D51, which will be our departure gate today, with boarding slated to begin just a few minutes after noon.
This route is served by one of Air Canada’s dreaded “high-density” Triple-7s, so the gate area is always packed, and the gate agents are busy explaining the boarding procedure and offering to take would-be carry-on luggage into the hold, because with 10-across seating and a very tight pitch in economy, overhead bins are, to put it mildly, at a premium.
I approach the podium and ask if the upgrade list has been processed yet, and the agent tells me about five minutes more, so I step off to the side and wait a bit longer.
They start boarding passengers in wheelchairs, and then eventually call Zone 1 before the gate agent looks up at me and asks my name, then hands me my new boarding card. Upgrade secured, I’ll be seated in 1D, an aisle seat in the first row of business class.
I take the few steps over to the podium and hand over my boarding pass and passport for inspection, and pretty soon, I’m on my way into the belly of the Beast. Business class on the high-density 77W (internally known as the 77P) is a staggered product, alternating between rows of 2-2-2 and 1-2-1, similar to that used by Swiss, Austrian and Brussels across their widebody fleets, as well as AA and DL on some configurations, and others.
AC says it uses these birds on competitive routes with “special pressures” — basically, where it really needs to shovel more bodies into the same frame to be competitive. And shovel more bodies in they do — the 77P seats 100 extra people compared to the normally-configured AC 77W.
The gap is about to close, as AC is starting the process of updating its 777 fleet. All will get the new business class introduced in the 787, and premium economy (and 10-across seating in steerage) will be introduced across the older 77W and 77L fleet. But some differences will remain — while the normal 77W and 77L will get 40 J seats, the 77P will stay with a more modest 30 seats, actually going down 6 business class seats from the current config, which I suppose makes sense, since they’re supposed to be deployed to price-sensitive routes where AC aims to, quite literally, make it up on volume.
With the staggered product, there are winners and losers. Generally, the single “throne” configurations at windowside on the even aisles are the most sought-after seats for those traveling alone. AC has even gone as far as to “restrict” those seats to Super Elite passengers, and they’re usually filled up well before boarding time. But they also get criticism for having a smaller leg well, and some complain they feel a little like a coffin.
The window pairs aren’t bad for those traveling together and wanting a window, but with only one shelf surface between the two seats, and none on either the window or aisle side, there’s little storage space, and of course, there’s not aisle access for everybody on the plane.
The middle pairs each feature one seat that’s aisle-side, and one that’s offset from the aisle by a storage shelf, alternating sides on alternating rows. But at least both passengers in the middle pairs have a shelf, and aisle access without requiring anybody to be awakened.
My seat, 1D, is one of the aisle-side seats of the middle pair. In the bulkhead row, they contain the largest footwell on the plane — I don’t think even the pickiest travelr could find these seats too restrictive. As usual, the seat is kitted up before passengers are boarded, with a large and comfy pillow, a big white blanket, a pair of disposable slippers, an AC amenity kit, and a pair of the “quality” earbud headphones that AC hands out to J passengers. These are offered because the airline doesn’t allow the use of the over-the-ear noise-cancelling headset, distributed after takeoff, until above 10,000 feet.
A large in-flight entertainment screen with a modern and responsive system is mounted into the bulkhead in this row, with a bottle of water set in the “literature” pocket next to the screen. The IFE seems to have not yet been updated for October, still showing the same lineup that was available last month on AC’s IFE systems, and lacking the new offerings I’d noticed on my flight over from Toronto. But hey, at least the movie I did choose to watch on that flight is on this flight as well.
I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to put the touch-sensitive seat controls into the armrest, where they can be unintentionally adjusted, but it wasn’t a great idea. Other than that, the controls are fine. Immediately behind the touch controls are a wired remote for the IFE, which works well, with a release button for the folding table beside. The table is another weakness of this config, and throughout the flight, it seems like flight attendants have to help various passengers deploy or stow their tables.
Pre-flight service begins with a choice of sparkling wine or orange juice. I opt for the former.
And then menus are distributed. This month sees the debut of AC’s much-hyped new international menu with items by Canadian “celebrity chef” David Hawksworth. (What’s a Hawksworth, you ask? Depends on whether it knows any tricks.) It will be interesting to see if it lives up to the hype. I’m somewhat cynical on such offerings on airlines, but still interested to try it.
The captain introduces himself and makes a point of welcoming us aboard “flight Double-Oh-Seven.”
I decide to cue up a movie — The Gunman is the new release that most interests me — sitting through the pre-roll commercials and pausing it as the movie begins, planning to start the movie after the noise-cancelling headphones are distributed. Boarding is progressing nicely, so it’s not going to be too long before we’re on our way, right?
Well, maybe not so much. The captain comes on to introduce himself, and says they’re just adding some extra fuel and we’ll be on our way soon.
Around this time, meal orders are taken. I decide to go with the sablefish, since it’s both the “new” item and the “healthy” item on the menu.
A few minutes of surfing the Web on my phone and catching up on Facebook, and the captain comes on again. It turns out that because of the gusty, rainy conditions in the Hong Kong area, the result of a cyclone just departing the area, they’ve decide to max out on fuel, so loading that on is taking a bit longer than expected. And since it’s a very full flight, on a very densely-seated plane, that means there’s some load restriction, so they have to offload some cargo. Clearly, they also want to have some additional “wiggle room” in terms of extra fuel just in case things are still bad in southern China.
In all, we’re about an hour late for pushback. I should have just started the movie without the noise-cancelling headphones, but hey, I’ve waited this long, might as well wait a while longer.
The safety video is shown. I find it funny that although the J scenes are filmed in the 787-style cabin, the scene showing the stowing of the tables is particular to the aircraft. So on my flight from Toronto, it was old pod slide-up table, and on this HD plane, it’s the pop-out table.
Our taxi is short and uneventful, and we’re soon lined up for a seemingly very long takeoff roll, and up and away into the early afternoon sky over Vancouver.
The flight deck quickly releases the crew to start the service, and then extinguishes the fasten seat belt lights. I get up and stretch my legs.
There are four lavs available to J passengers on this bird — two that are “J-only” located immediately behind the flight deck on the port side of the aircraft. These are typical, smaller washrooms.
And then there are a pair behind the business cabin, shared with Premium Economy passengers. These are located in the back of the center block of the plane, immediately behind doors L2 and R2. One of these is a smaller washroom much like the forward lavs, but without the curvature of the plane’s sides, and the other one is a much larger, wheelchair-accessible washroom. Although the trash bin in the larger washroom is already overflowing a bit, the lavs seem to be well taken-care-of by the flight attendants, as this was not the case in subsequent visits to the facilities.
The smaller lav.
The larger lav.
Back in 1D, service begins with a hot towel, and then drink orders are taken. I request some champagne and it’s brought out with accompanying warmed cashews and almonds. I’m grateful for the snack, because with the hour delay in getting off the ground, my decision to skip a snack on the ground in Vancouver has left me quite hungry.
The service director comes around with more nuts, pouring them into my ramekin from a tumbler. They’re not warmed this time, but still just as welcomed. She introduces herself, apologizes for the delay, and says we’ll likely be to Hong Kong about 6:30 pm, a little over an hour behind schedule. She asks if I have a connection to worry about, but fortunately, I do not.
Next up, the long-awaited over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones are distributed, and I start my movie.I wouldn’t rush out to see The Gunman if you haven’t already. But that’s just me. It passes the time and gives me something to look at during lunch.
Next up, tablecloths are draped, and shortly after that, trays are handed out from the service cart, containing the appetizer and salad. Bread is also offered, and as usual, is much better than the domestic/transborder bread offering.
The salad is about as plain as I’ve ever seen on an AC international flight, and is served with the same balsamic and olive oil dressing Air Canada has been serving for years and years now. This is one part of the service I’d really like to see change from time to time. It’s a good dressing, but it’s really monotonous.
The tuna tataki, though, is very impressive. I’m starting to believe in this Hawksworth deal. It seems very fresh, and brings in a little bit of spice, a little bit of sweet, and a little bit of savoury with the mushrooms. Just delightful, and easily the best starter I’ve had on AC. Maybe one of the best starters I’ve had on a plane.
Up next is my second Hawksworth dish, the main course. I’m now definitely on-board. This is very good. The sablefish holds up well to the unkind process of reheating in an on-board oven, and remains tender and flaky. The sauce is delicious. Even the rice, with just a slight taste of vinaigrette, is very good, and somehow, the bok choy isn’t nearly as soggy as other bok choy I’ve had on AC TPAC flights. All in all, I’m quite impressed. Probably the second-best entree I’ve had on Air Canada, after the lamb dish offered ex-LHR.
The cheese course, always a favourite of mine, was up next, along with a little taste of port. Two things of note — this was done from a cart, which means AC must have figured out service logistics on the 777 HD. Previously on my high-density 77W flights, the cheese plate was included when the tray was given to the passenger at the beginning of the meal. Ans secondly, this is the first time I’ve seen it done as a fruit and cheese service. Previously, it was just the cheese with grapes.
And finally, lunch comes to a close with the Hawksworth chocolate fondant cake. Simple, and delicious, although I’m not quite as nuts about this as I was with the tuna or the sablefish. But still very good. Dessert was also delivered from a cart with the whole cake on it.
With dinner, and my movie, over, I check on the moving map and see we’re out over Alaska. I put on Big Hero 6 and put my chair down into bed mode. As I expected, I don’t get too far into the movie before I’m off to sleep. With this seat being right on the aisle rather than recessed, I was concerned I’d get bumped or otherwise disturbed in sleep, but that wasn’t the case for me. Being in the first row, where there’s likely less traffic going by, probably helped with that. And the seat is actually decently private when fully reclined. I didn’t feel I was unduly watching my neighbour sleep, and I suspect he wasn’t watching me either. So that’s good. The only problem I had was that whilst sleeping on my back, my left arm would sometimes fall down through the open aisle-side armrest, a slight annoyance.
I get a good long nap in, and wake up just as we’ve crossed the date line.
I put on The Equalizer. I’m not on a roll when it comes to movies on this trip.
With the movie over, I get up and stretch and walk around the cabin a little bit, then head to the forward galley to request the chicken fajita wrap from the snacks menu, and a Coke Zero. They must have these pre-heating, because the flight attendant brings it about 90 seconds later, and it is absolutely piping hot.
It’s an okay snack, but not too exciting. It’ll keep hunger at bay until the pre-arrival meal, at least. That’s probably about three hours from now.
With my snack, I put on Taken, which I never got around to watching. Decidedly better than the other movies I’ve watched so far on this flight. I’m still surprised I had not seen this prior to now. By the time it’s over, I’m a little sleepy again, so I put the bed all the way down, and drift off for another little while.
When I wake, the lights are starting to come up, and some passengers around me have the tray for the pre-arrival meal. So I groggily prop myself up to a semi-seated position to signal my interest in some more food. There’s a (formerly) hot towel already waiting next to my seat. That strikes me as being a little odd.
The tray is brought around quickly by the friendly service director, and another flight attendant comes by with one of each of the main dishes so I can make my choice. I go with the chicken breast, and kinda regret it. The pre-arrival meal generally isn’t AC’s strong suit, and this one is particularly uninspired. But it fills the hole.
At this point, we’re coming up on Taipei. Not really enough time left in the flight to warrant putting on another movie, so I browse the documentaries section of the TV listings, and find a bit about the scientific concept of space. It keeps me entertained for the next hour or so.
As it completes, the first officer comes on to let us know we’ll be beginning our descent momentarily but that he expects we’ll be put in a holding pattern due to congestion and weather conditions on the ground in Hong Kong. The guy beside me obviously bristles. He’s got a tight connection home to Australia.
Normally, I find the announcements on Air Canada, which must of course be delivered in both official Canadian languages, a bit of an annoyance. But on this flight, where they’re delivered in English, French, Cantonese and Mandarin, it’s really quite annoying. It feels like it takes about 20 minutes - and four times stopping and restarting my IFE - to simply say “Please make sure your seatbelt is fastened.”
With my science lesson over, I struggle to find anything else of an appropriate length that interests me, so I settle on a British travel show about the top 10 adventures to have in South America. That does the job, and by the time it’s wrapping up with number one — Angel Falls — we’re breaking through the clouds into the rainy skies above Hong Kong.
It’s not actually raining at HKG as we settle onto the runway, and we’re quickly on the ground. After a surprisingly quick taxi, we pull in to gate 28, much closer than AC usually warrants. But we’re also a couple of hours late.
Disembarking is done through 1L, so I’m quickly on my way, and as usual, there are a bunch of HKG-uniformed staff waiting for the planes with signs for people on various connecting itineraries. There are a lot of them. I hope they make their flights.
After a short walk, it’s a long lineup for customs. I take this opportunity to pop in my prepaid Hong Kong SIM and get my phone up and running with data service. When I’m about half-way through the line, they open up the Visitors lines at the far end of the terminal, and we’re shepherded over there. Ignoring any and all sense of travel etiquette, people are sprinting to get in line ahead of people who were previously in front of them. No honour amongst thieves with this bunch. Nevertheless, getting my passport checked doesn’t take more than about ten minutes, and since I’m just traveling with carry-ons, I’m soon free landside, and headed towards the airport bus depot to catch a bus into Sheung Wan, where I’ll likely not sleep in my hotel room for a number of hours, because time zones suck.
Then it’s a busy day of meetings before catching the bus back to HKG and doing this all over again in reverse. See you then!
Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge, Domestic
Vancouver - YVR
Hong Kong - HKG
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