Welcome, dear reader, to my first flight report of 2016! I’m kicking the year off by taking my mother to Asia for the first time. Our primary destination is Hong Kong, with brief stopovers — long enough to play tourist for a little bit — in Beijing and Singapore along the way. If, of course, The Travel Gods co-operate with my plans.
The itinerary gives us an eight hour layover in Beijing, during which I’ve booked a private car and guide to hopefully see a few of the highlights. We leave just after midnight on the fourth for Singapore, where we’ll have about 12 hours to play tourist, before catching a late-night flight to Hong Kong, where we’ll stay put for a couple of days before coming home. Unfortunately, this is as long as I could be away, but those who’ve read my trip reports know I tend to book myself this kind of thing from time to time.
The trip got off to a great start — ten minutes after leaving my home east of Toronto to head towards the airport, I answered a call in my car. “Hello, Mr. HometoYYZ, this is Balbla from the Air Canada Concierge team at Pearson. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but….”
Nothing good can come from the completion of that sentence.
Long story short — a couple of days ago, AC had an incident, well-publicized in Canada, where a flight returning to Toronto from Shanghai hit some rather nasty turbulence. Turbulence of the “divert the plane to Edmonton and 20-plus passengers require medical assistance” variety. That plane is still not back in service. So when a 777-200LR called in sick the morning of the second, it left AC with not a lot of options. What they went with was stealing the 777-300ER slated for our flight to Beijing, and sending it (with weight restrictions) to Hong Kong instead of the 77L, while those of us headed to PEK had to wait for the next available 77W to become available. Departure was delayed eight hours and change, and suddenly our layover has gone from “long enough to book a tour during” to “that’s gonna be tight, I hope we make it.”
Oh, the joys of air travel.
At least we got a notification so we didn’t end up twiddling our thumbs at the airport for eight hours, as many passengers, it turned out, did. So we diverted ourselves to visit family who live near-ish to the airport, had some lunch, hung out and visited.
We made our way to the airport for about 5:30, giving ourselves plenty of time to check in, check out the Maple Leaf Lounge, and board our flight for an on-time departure, just eight hours late.
The Priority check-in aisle at Pearson was pretty quiet this evening, so within a few minutes we were checked in. As the boarding passes printed, the friendly agent glanced at our departure to Singapore and commented “That’s gonna be tight.” Yes. Yes, it is. On that pleasant note, with boarding passed all the way (to my surprise) to Hong Kong, we were on our way. Priority security is offered, but hardly needed. There are very few people heading through, and after no more than a five-minute delay, we’re through on on our way to the lounge.
Unlike my normal habit, I don’t snap a picture of the high-speed moving sidewalk that runs the length of the terminal down to the “hammerhead” at the end where the international gates are. Perhaps disappointed that it won’t get its starring moment in the report, the system promptly breaks down about half-way there.
After walking unassisted the rest of the way, we finally find ourselves at the threshold of the International Maple Leaf Lounge.
I’ve covered this lounge a bunch of times in the past, so I’ll kinda gloss over it. The lounge is laid out with two corridors of seating. It’s not terribly busy this evening, somewhat unusually.
This area, until recently, was the “business centre,” with about a dozen cubicles, some with PCs and some with just power outlets.
The food on offer is the same as the last time I was through this lounge, about four weeks ago. Not a bad selection at all.
I decide to take advantage of the “build your own pho” station, and also grab myself a few pita chips and some artichoke and spinach dip, accompanied by a Caesar with a healthy dose of Tobasco and Worcestershire sauce.
It’s all pretty good, although I find the fairly well-spiced Caesar little help when the peppers in the pho prove a little bit hotter than I had expected them to be.
Exploring the lounge a bit more, there’s a pretty good variety of magazines on offer.
And some workstation terminals. Apparently I’m not the only one curious as to when this flight will finally get off the ground.
This secondary bar area is in the farther seating area, for those who don’t want to make the thirty-second walk to the main bar.
About 7:00, we make our way down to the gate for our theoretical 7:05 boarding time. The gate is straight ahead at the end of this hallway, and there’s already a long line forming. We find what we presume to be the priority boarding line, quickly confirmed by the guy currently at the end of the line. He’s among the many who have been here since they arrived, unaware of any delay, for the initial 2:20 departure time.
There is what appears to be an Air Canada 777 waiting at the gate. So that’s a good sign.
A few minutes after we arrive, they make an announcement. Here’s what I gather from it. They confirm there’s a plane that’s arrived at the gate, and the crew is about to go aboard. Boarding should begin in about 15 minutes. But they’ve switched equipment types, so there will be a lot of seat re-assignments, but they’ll try to keep everyone in the same type of seat as originally requested. But the “good news” is that there will be a lot more empty seats as a result of the equipment swap.
That would suggest that our old nine-across 77W has been swapped for the 10-across “high-density” 77W. Which sucks for anyone in economy. And should mean a seat reassignment for us, as we’re in seats in rows 9 and 10 that don’t exist on the HD plane. The HD business class products has some downsides compared to the “classic pods” arrangement with all-aisle access, but you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got, I suppose.
Boarding is called as promised, and as we approach the podium, a gate agent offers each passenger a promo code for discount on a future flight, as compensation for the delay. A nice, if fairly meaningless, gesture.
Flight: AC31 From: Toronto Pearson (YYZ) To: Beijing Capital (PEK) Date: 1/2/2016 Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER Registration: C-FIVS Seat: 10K ATD (STD): 14:20 (21:04) ATA (STA): 16:50 (23:42+1)
Surprisingly, my boarding pass scans through okay. I was fully expecting it to be rejected based on being an invalid seat on the new plane. I ask the agent to confirm and he says no problem, the seat I’m assigned is fine, and there are 40 seats in business. Interesting. So not HD then, as it’s a smaller business class cabin.
Aboard, I’m greeted by quite a pleasant surprise — instead of the staggered 2-2-2, 1-2-1 seating of the high-density, we’ve got the new 1-2-1 configuration installed on the Dreamliner fleet. AC is retrofitting its 777 fleet with this product over the next six months or so, but I didn’t know that the retrofitted planes have started to fly as of yet. So that’s a significant win, especially when I was expecting a “downgrade” to the high-density model.
The seat comes equipped with the usual AC international offerings — a large and soft pillow, a very nice duvet, the standard amenity kit, a pair of slippers (only offered on flights to Asia), and a pair of earbud headphones for use before the noise-cancelling headphones are offered after takeoff.
The IFE screen is large and beautiful — at the range it is from you, it really is a pretty immersive experience, and the latest-generation interface is straight-forward and easy to use. The welcome screen still displays a 787, despite this being a 777.
The IFE does not seem to have any new films for January loaded, and the variety seems less than what I’d expect on an AC longhaul. The IFE screen is showing AC31 YYZ-PEK, so it knows it’s a longhaul, so it’s not just a matter of the screen being in “domestic mode,” which offers a less extensive lineup of films typically. I choose a film I’m not immediately familiar with, We Are Your Friends, and, start it up, using the provided earbuds. It’s not great, but it’s passable.
Like on the 787, seat controls are done via this touchscreen in the console to the side of the seat. Here’s a look through the various menus offered. The “ambience” menu looks kind of empty without the window shade controls offered on the 787.
Legroom is, of course, more than adequate.
I’ve head some complaints about these seats because there is a footwell space, as opposed to AC’s older pod configuration, which is open. I don’t find it a problem, even though tend to sleep on my side. In fact, I like this configuration a little better as a bed, because unlike the “classic pod” herringbone configuration, it doesn’t taper towards the end. Here’s a look into the footwell.
Elsewhere around the seat, there’s a storage bin (containing a bottle of water) under the “must-be-lowered-for-taxi-takeoff-and-landing” aisle-side armrest, magazine and safety card holder against the side wall of the pod, and this handy storage bin in the top of the console, which is also home to the various ports offered and the wired remote for the in-flight entertainment system.
Here’s a look across the cabin as boarding continues. I’m in 10K, the second of three rows of window seats in the second J cabin, behind door 2. There are four rows of centre pairs in the cabin as well, and a partition wall behind us leading back to the new premium economy cabin, which at a quick glance, appears to be the same product used on the 787, and not on the HD 777. That’s a win for PE pax. I like the small and fairly intimate feel of this mini-cabin.
About this time, my mom notices that she’s unable to find her cabin. When last we saw it, she had put it in the top of one of her bags in the lounge. After searching her bags as thoroughly as we can, we notify the service director, who puts in a call to the MLL, where staff offer to go take a look. The SD observes that boarding is going pretty slow because of the number of new boarding passes that need to be distributed, so if I want to go take a look myself, I’m welcome to do so. So I do, since we’re so close to the lounge at this gate. Unfortunately, no dice — it’s not near the seats we were sitting in, and I don’t find anything while trying to re-trace my steps. Oh well. Even if it doesn’t show up when we get a chance to more thoroughly tear apart our bags, it was an older, cheap point-and-click, so it was probably time to upgrade anyway.
Back on board, I’ve missed the first round of pre-departure beverages, but a flight attendant quickly comes by, and I have some sparkling wine. Not the most generous pour.
Menus quickly follow. I’m interested to see the “signature” item is still the sablefish dish I thoroughly enjoyed back in October. On one hand, I’m excited to get to try it again. On the other, I thought the plan was to switch these signature dishes up on a quarterly basis, so I had been expecting to see something new. I opt to have the sablefish again, since it was so good last time, and nothing else particularly strikes me.
Outside the window, as the ever-so-slow boarding process continues, an AC A330-300 rolls by.
We’re already past our (revised” scheduled departure time, and we still have to go get de-iced before departure, so our chances of making our connection are rapidly changing from “tight but possible” to “fuhgeddaboutit.” I decide to be a bit proactive, and call the concierge line to discuss options. The concierge I connect with suggests a number of options, ranging from getting off this flight and re-booking the whole itinerary to taking this flight, and he’ll alert the PEK concierge of our situation and try to see if we can be rushed through PEK transit (highly unlkely) or handling re-booking at that time (much more likely.) I decide we’re better off sticking with a flight that’s departing to somewhere much closer to our ultimate destination, and with many more options to get to either SIngapore or straight to Hong Kong directly, depending on how the chips fall.
Outside my window, we have a new neighbour, as EVA has just arrived in from Taipei as boarding completes. The safety video rolls, and we push back into the night.
Before we leave, it’s time for that sure sign that it’s winter in Canada — a stop at the de-icing station.
Apparently there’s just a little frost on the top of the wings, so after a quick spray down, we’re off on on a very circuitous route taxiing around the airport to the runway, during which, I play with the moving map. This is a newer moving map than AC has previously offered, with a number of new display modes.
There’s this “flight overview” that takes you all the way from start to finish of your flight. (Note arrival time is estimated at 11:20 pm. Our connection leaves at 12:10 am. So I’d say this connection is increasingly moving from “tight to” “highly implausible.”
Of course the usual flight information.
A “total route” view.
This view that offer’s either a pilot’s eye view….
… or the view out your window.
And this compass view.
Finally, we arrive at the runway, the big engines spin up, and we’re into the night sky over Toronto at about 9:15. It’s a fairly clear night with just a but of low cloud cover.
When the seatbelt sign releases, I go and check out the washrooms, located on the outside of the plane immediately aft of door 2. Nothing terribly out-of-the-ordinary here, although the side wall does feature the maple leaf pattern introduced on the 787.
Back at my seat, service begins with a hot towel.
A further look at the IFE — it sure looks like this display also features a 787.
The standard AC noise-cancelling headphones are offered. They’re not outstanding, but they are fairly good and fairly comfortable, which means they’re dong their job for me.
Pre-dinner drinks are offered, and I have some champagne, offered with the standard warm and highly salted almond and cashew mix.
Continuing to putter before dinner… here’s a look at the IFE remote, a touchscreen affair that lets you navigate through your options if you’re selecting something to watch. Or gives you contextual controls when watching something.
A look across the cabin in-flight. Privacy in these seats is very good.
Here’s a teardown of the amenity kit. Pretty much everything you’d expect.
The table is set for dinner, and then the main tray is offered with appetizer and salad. Bread and drinks are also offered. I request some water, and ask for a suggestion for a white wine to accompany the rather delicately-flavoured sablefish. He suggests the Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s quite good.
The tuna tataki starter is great, as it was last time. I really like the range of flavours, from the tart and sweet passion fruit puree to the sour and deep sauce with mushrooms.
The salad is really nothing too exciting — a collection of a few random leaves and about four grape tomatoes. But what’s this I spy next to it?
Yes, it’s still the omni-present Air Canada little bottle of balsamic vinaigrette, but this time it’s got a lemon twist! Welcome to 2016, folks! Seriously, the new dressing make a difference. It cuts the strength of the balsamic, which was overpowering in the previous dressing, and adds a bit of a fresh new twist. A welcome change. Until this is the only dressing AC offers for the next six years.
Appetizer and salad dishes were promptly cleared, and after a brief wait, my main arrived.
As last time, this was excellent, surviving cooking in the hostile environment of an aircraft very nicely, and the light but acidic flavours shone through. Once again, a great main course, even as someone who’s not the biggest fish person.
After dinner is complete and the tray is taken away, cheese and fruit are offered from a cart. I take a little bit of everything, and of course, a little glass of port to accompany. All very good.
Dessert caps the meal, a simple bit of chocolate with a nice crunch to the crust. The berries add some brightness to the flavour. Normally, I’d probably have some Bailey’s in a coffee, but I didn’t want anything to harm where I was planning to next — to sleep.
As dinner ends, we’’re up over the top of Hudson Bay, according to the moving map.
I put on a documentary about a group of New Zealand-based senior citizens who enter an international hip hop dance competition — seriously — put my seat back into full bed mode, and settle in for the night. I don’t see much of the documentary. I sleep for a solid five hours, and as I wake up, we’re approaching the northern shore of Siberia.
I go looking for another movie to watch to pass the time while writing a bit of this flight report, and eventually find something I can rarely turn down under the Spotlight section on Hollywood Hotels: Lost in Translation. I think I’ve watched this about five times on planes at this point, and I always love it.
A flight attendant comes around partway through the movie with glasses of water, and feeling a little peckish, I request the dim sum snack. It’s quickly brought around, and is nothing outstanding, but it does the job.
That movie over, I decide to continue with the Spotlight and choose Grand Budapest Hotel, which I’ve seen before, but I’m not quite sure I entirely god. It’s whimsical and entertaining, but I’m still not quite sure I got it, especially as I ended up napping through much of the middle of the film. I had forgotten that Bill Murray is also in this movie.
When it ends, I check the moving map on the handset. We’re a little bit over two hours out of Beijing at this point, so time for another movie.
The oddball comedy of Grant Budapest Hotel kinda worked for me, so I decide to try another film in the vain that I’ve watched in part before, but I don’t think I ever completed, The Darjeeling Limited. To my great surprise, the first actor you see in this film? Bill Murray. Also in a bit part here, just like Grand Budapest Hotel. Weird.
A few minutes into it, the bank of mood lights along the side of the cabin start to come up, so I presume the pre-arrival meal — whatever it might be called at either 9:00 in the morning or 10:00 at night depending on your perspective on time zones.
Service begins with a hot towel, and then a flight attendant comes around with a tray of juices.
About this time, I head up to the lav, and on the way back, ask one of the flight attendants if AC put cappuccino/espresso machines in the retrofitted 777s, as they had installed in the 787s, although they’ve been quite problematic. He says yes, but he’s not sure if it’s working or not, as the retrofit is brand new. But he asks if I’d like him to check on it. I say sure, if he’s got a minute. And a few minutes later, he returns with a very tasty cappuccino.
Here’s a look at the back of the J mini-cabin, emblazoned with the airline logo. A nice touch.
Tablecloths are offered, and the tray is presented with yogurt, a decent fruit plate, and a choice of croissants or blueberry muffins. I always enjoy AC’s blueberry muffins, for some reason.
Next, the breakfast options — omelet, chicken fried rice, or congee — are brought down the aisle on a cart. I like this kind of presentation, since you get to see what’s on offer before making a final selection. For example, I rule out the omelet, because it’s the exact same omelet offered on AC breakfast-time domestic and transborder flights. It’s a pretty good omelet, but I’ll probably have a few of them this year, so I feel like something different. The congee it is for me.
The congee is the same as I had for my pre-arrival meal on a recent PEK-YVR flight (reported here) and it’s pretty good, with green onions, ginger, and chicken.
With breakfast over, I check on the moving map, and we’re getting very close to our destination. However, on descent, we circle for about ten minutes. Par for the course with PEK, I suppose, but it makes it further unlikely that we’re going to make our connection to Singapore.
Eventually we do straighten out, and come down into the enveloping smog of Beijing, touching down at about a quarter to midnight, 25 minutes before our flight to Singapore is slated to leave.
It is really thick even on this cold (right around freezing) night. We taxi for a while, and for a minute or two, I think we’re going to park at a remote gate — because why shouldn’t everything be slowed down? — but instead we turn into the main terminal.
We’re released from our seats pretty quickly, we step out into the terminal about midnight Beijing time, fortunately arriving at the gate directly in front of a transfers desk, where a couple of AC staffers are working, one on domestic transfers, and one on international.
We’re about third in line for the international transfers, but only stand there for a few minutes when I hear a voice call out my name, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. I identify myself and the local concierge at PEK comes over, and pulls us aside. He says he’s talked to Singapore Airlines, but they’ll only wait another five minutes, so making that flight is going to be impossible. He says he reviewed our itinerary, an wondered if making to Singapore was important? I say no, it was just planned to spend a few hours playing tourist there. So he suggests our best plan of action is to go to the hotel AC has arrangements with, and he’ll get us flights directly to Hong Kong in the morning or early afternoon. I say that sounds like a good plan to me, so he shows us over to some seats, and heads towards the counter with our passports.
About this time, I notice that who should be parked on the gate just to the left of ours but our would-be ride down to Singapore. Alas, it was not to be, and it pulled away a few minutes later.
The concierge comes back in a few minutes, suggesting an Air China flight at 1:00 pm today, direct to Hong Kong. That sounds good to me, so he heads off to take care of the details. It takes him about ten minutes to do so, and he returns with what appear to be boarding passes, but are actually paper tickets (!!) for the Air China flight. He explains the process for checking in tomorrow, which will involve finding the managers’ desk for CA, handing over the paper ticket and hopefully getting a boarding pass. Having heard some stories about CA, and knowing the language gap we are likely to encounter, I make it a point to plan to arrive early. Fortunately, the concierge jots down the number for his office for us, so if there are any challenges tomorrow, we can give him a shout. I have a sinking feeling I’ll be calling him tomorrow.
He then shows us to customs, and approaches some sort of a special lane that isn’t open, but after a quick talk to the customs agent, she lets us through. From there, it’s the train back to the main terminal, downstairs to ground transport, and outside the bus is waiting to take us to the nearby Langham Place Hotel, where we’ll stay until sometime tomorrow morning.
We’ll pick the adventure — and the experience trying to get going with CA — in the next flight-report. Thanks for reading!
Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge International
Toronto - YYZ
Beijing - PEK
Definitely a case of one little thing that kinda wrecks a flight that was otherwise very good. But when that one little thing is causing me to misconnect on an eight-plus hour layover and wrecking plans for two days that's a big thing. Good flight, once it got in the air.
And concierge access (afforded to AC top-tier elites and international business class passengers, although only the elites have the number to reach them) once again proves its value, both on the notification and on expedited handling of rebooking once we did finally arrive in Beijing.
Langham Place was also a very nice hotel -- and it was nice not to have to be up at oh-dark-thirty to catch a super-early flight, the way is often the case when you're put up in a hotel by an airline as a result of IRROPs.
2 LIKESLIKE TO THANK THE AUTHORTHANKS ! FLIGHT-REPORT LIKED
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