Reposting my trip report covering my first flight on a Boeing 747-8i since the content kept getting deleted. I'm also including bonus photos from my trip to the China Aviation Museum!
As a huge AVgeek, my trip planning usually starts when I hear about opportunities to fly planes I either love or haven't tried. With United's announcement back in January that the entire fleet of 747-400s would be retired at the end of October (which conveniently coincided with my partner's birthday), my original plan was to fly to Beijing for the birthday celebrations then select one of the final international flights back to San Francisco. United originally announced that the final flights would depart from Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Beijing and Frankfurt, we decided on Tokyo since my partner hadn't been in Tokyo for a few years and I could try ANA's Dreamliner in the long-haul configuration.
With that in mind, I booked the following flights: 10/20 - Air China from San Francisco to Beijing on a 747-8i 10/27 - ANA from Beijing to Tokyo Haneda on a 787-8 10/28 - United from Tokyo Narita to San Francisco on a 747-400
Itineraries like these require a bit of flexibility and this one was no different. In April, United quietly announced an equipment change for Narita which would swap the 747-400 for a 777-300ER from June 14, effectively removing Tokyo from the list of final flights. I waited a few more weeks for the list of confirmed final international flights which whittled down to Frankfurt, London, Seoul and Shanghai. Once reasonably confident these were the last flights, I called United to check availability and reshuffled our itinerary to the following slightly crazy schedule:
10/20 - Air China from San Francisco to Beijing on a 747-8i 10/28 - Air China from Beijing to Frankfurt on a 777-300ER 10/28 - United from Frankfurt to San Francisco on a 747-400
So how was the flight with Air China? Pretty awesome, overall. While other carriers have more modern business class seats, better catering and more consistent service, everything came together on this flight for me traveling with my partner. This would be my first time flying in a 747-8i, the latest version of my favorite commercial airliner, as well as my first time flying in the "nose" of the iconic Jumbo Jet.
San Francisco is one of my favorite airports in the US for its efficiency. Barely 15 minutes after arriving at the curb, we were checked in and airside.
As the United Club in the international terminal was being remodeled, we made a quick stop at the American Express Centurion Lounge before heading to the gate.
As we left the lounge, I caught a sight that is sadly now part of the history books - a United 747 departing on a flight.
Gate G99 should be marked with permanent Air China signage as this is the only gate used for the daily flight to Beijing. G99 is at the farthest end of Terminal G which means there's no easy way to get a good shot of the plane since the windows along the west side have a patterned applique.
B-2486 was parked at the gate which is Air China's second of six 747-8s but only one of four in service. One 747-8i is in VIP configuration and the other is stored. Unfortunately, it appears as though the 747-8i will be the last passenger iteration of the Queen of the Skies as only three carriers have ordered the plane.
The flight was full and the gate area was packed to the brim. We decided to line up and board early so that I could get some photos of the cabin. We boarded through L1 and were greeted by friendly flight attendants.
While Air China's 747-8i has a fairly typical for a VLA (very large aircraft) four-class layout, the airline blazes a different path with the arrangement of the premium cabins in the world's longest commercial airliner.
The upper deck is equipped with business class seating which is typical for the 747. From this vantage point, the 4.1 meter upper deck stretch over the 747-400 is obvious.
Where things start to get interesting is with the first class cabin. Rather than being in the nose, first class on Air China's 747-8i sits behind business class and in front of economy class on the main deck. It's a unique layout and means that the first class sits in the most spacious part of the plane and first class passengers can deplane first through L2.
Business class on the main deck is split into two cabins with a section immediately ahead of first class and one in the nose. The seats in the nose are my pick since this is where most other airlines have first class. It's also the only commercial plane where passengers are seated at the very front ahead of the pilots. The soaring ceilings and sense of space from the 2-2 arrangement are also great pluses.
Air China’s business class seats are standard fully flat B/E Aerospace Diamond seats. They’re not industry leading but are perfectly comfortable and ideal for couples travelling together.
We were seated in 13 J and L, which is the last row in the nose and the pair of seats at the bottom right in the photo below.
The business class cabin ahead of first class doesn't feel nearly as special or spacious as the section in the nose due to the middle aisle and center overhead bins.
Economy class on Air China's 747-8i is set up in a standard 3-4-3 configuration with decent pitch. All seats except for those behind the bulkheads and at the exit rows come with a footrest.
The premium economy cabin is also interesting. While it mostly follows United's "Economy Plus" model of simply increasing pitch with standard economy seating. Air China tweaks the model slightly by installing bulkhead economy seats for all rows in the premium economy cabin with fixed armrests. Premium economy passengers also get slippers like those in first and business class.
The 747-8i also features a new staircase. While not as grand as the main staircase in the Airbus A380 or unique as the original spiral staircase in the 747-100, it is a nice improvement over the one in the 747-400 with windows at the upper landing, dramatic LED lighting and sculpted side paneling.
Moments after settling in, we were greeted by a friendly flight attendant who would be taking care of us throughout the flight. She asked if we wanted a pre-departure drink and presented us the menus. This pleasant initial interaction set the scene for the what turned out to be surprisingly polished and proactive service, usually a big variable amongst Chinese carriers.
Experiencing pushback in the nose is more interesting as you can easily see the tug right below. Our neighbor at G100 was a Lufthansa A380 heading home to Frankfurt.
The windows of the 747-8i are 8% bigger than those in the 747-400 with a more ovoid contour. The overall shape and size is similar to the windows in the 777.
Our takeoff roll was long and we had a smooth climb out over San Francisco. The 747-8i's GE GEnx engines are significantly quieter than any of the three engine options on the 747-400.
Interestingly, Air China's policy is to leave the seatbelt sign on throughout the entire flight. If there is turbulence, the seatbelt sign is simply pinged again with the announcement to return to seats and fasten seatbelts.
After about 15 minutes, I started one of my many tours around the beautiful plane.
The view out of R2 on any 747 is something I will always find awe-inspiring. The wings of the 747-8 are a great update in a family with consistently beautiful wings. As I'm not a big fan of winglets, I actually find the 747-8s to have the most graceful wings in commercial aviation, even more so than those of the 747 classics.
I walked straight back to R4 for the rear view of the gorgeous wing and noise-reducing chevrons.
Heading back up front, I stopped again for a better look at the staircase. Who doesn't love stairs on a plane?
After I returned to my seat, our flight attendant asked us for our meal selections and the meal service started minutes later with a selection of canapés.
We both had the beef short ribs as our mains which were nice and finished off with dessert.
The meal service was completed about 90 minutes into the flight and paced well. The service throughout the meal was friendly and polished. A point to note is that my partner speaks Mandarin, which improved the communication levels. Though in general, the crew would interact with me in English and would only defer to my partner when we were stuck.
The food itself was fine, nothing extraordinary but better than expected.
After the meal, we were presented with bottles of water and asked to close the window shades, a common practice with Asian carriers.
Settled in for the long flight ahead, I took a sound level recording. The 747-8i is a very quiet aircraft, particularly in the nose.
The lights were dimmed and I fell asleep. After a few hours, I woke up somewhere over Alaska. I once again took a stroll around the plane and caught this incredible view of Denali National Park from R2.
I browsed the entertainment selection and watched a couple movies, snacked on some items from the small snack bar behind our cabin and asked for cup noodles, which were served along with cheesecake and fresh fruit.
I napped again until we were in Russian airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk.
The entertainment system uses Panasonic's eX2 inflight solution and has a decent selection of Western and Chinese movies and programs.
While the touchscreen-equipped handset is a nice inclusion, the execution isn't as advanced as other carriers such as Singapore or United where you can view the map and play a program simultaneously. Basically the handset is primarily a program selection tool.
The second sunset on our journey, this time from our side of the plane.
As I was taking this photo from L2 over Jilin, China, the purser tapped my shoulder and asked if she could borrow my camera for a special shot.
She promptly scurried up the staircase and came back a few minutes later this neat photo from the flight deck, which is generally off-limits to passengers, both on the ground and in the air.
She then asked me to pose on the staircase for a photo and subsequently took about 30 shots while another flight attendant adjusted the lighting using the control panel by L2.
About 90 minutes before landing, the mood lighting slowly came on and the crew started the pre-arrival meal service.
Our selection for main course was halibut in a beurre blance sauce with saffron rice which was nice.
We began our descent and landed slightly behind schedule due to the strong headwinds. This was definitely one of those rare times where I was happy we were landed behind schedule.
Bonus! Photos from my visit to the China Aviation Museum which is the only one of its kind in the whole country and an aviation geek’s paradise. The museum features 300 rarely seen aircraft and military equipment. Countless Chinese- and Soviet fighter jets and bombers sit alongside obscure commercial aircraft. The entire compound is nearly abandoned yet patriotic Chinese military music is pumped out nearly everywhere.
The F-6 fighter was a copy of the Soviet MiG-19 and produced by the Shenyang Aircraft Company.
One of the very visitors that day walking down a row of Tupolevs.
The very pretty rear-view of the Ilyushin Il-62, one of my favourite airliners.
AMEX Centurion Lounge
San Francisco - SFO
Beijing - PEK
My flight with Air China was very pleasant overall. The experience flying the latest version of the 747, being seated in the nose and the friendliness of the crew were all treats and I will remember this flight for a very long time.
Best of all, this flight was just a prelude to a nostalgic flight on one of last United's iconic 747-400s.
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