and it was also the end of my vacation, which was great since it was in Japan.
When I booked these award tickets six months ago, I had the choice for that leg between flying Economy for 40,000 miles each, or 25,000 miles in Premium Economy (plus taxes, plus fuel surcharge, of course). The choice was obvious, all the more that a FReporter had recommended me to choose Y+ for day flights on airmiles.
This report starts at the arrival of the Keisei Skyliner rapid train. Not only there are two competing and comfortable direct train links between Tōkyō and NRT, plus cheaper non-direct ones, but the turnstiles are designed for passengers with luggage (see my CDG-NRT report to compare with the infamous RER-B line).
Furthermore, the staff are here to help the passengers, not check their tickets and catch gate-jumpers.
Next comes a cursory passport check – they basically checked that the picture matched. No matter if you go to NRT by car or public transportation, you must show a passport to enter the airport perimeter.
If you rented a car, the procedure is even more unusual. I picked the car at NRT and drove off like at any other airport – the car was parked within walking distance of the terminal. But you cannot return the car at the same place: you must return it to a small agency in the middle of nowhere five kilometers from NRT (good thing they all have a GPS with a Home selection), where all checking and billing is done (very quickly), and then a staff drives you in that car to NRT… and there is a passport check too.
What I do not know is what happens if you are five PAX in your rental car. Maybe a second staff drives half of the party in another vehicle. Anyway, I first returned here the cell phone I had rented (mostly to be reachable by my Japanese friends, because outgoing calls were very expensive).
Check-in did not start until 9:45; we had to wait ten minutes because we had just caught the Keisei express before the targeted one.
Ten minutes before, there was hardly any staff at the counters, but sharp on time, checking in started, with Sky Priority PAX ushered in first, and that included us, thanks to my wife's FB Gold status.
I hate it when check-in agents stick the luggage tag to my passport, resulting in an ugly stain of glue when the flight is over.
If you zoom in, you will notice that this luggage tag is dated 31 AUG 13, and the flight was on September 1st. It was a reminder of a brief panic when I checked in on AF's website the evening before. OK, we did have a flight coming up, I clicked on the Check flight schedule soft key, and blanched when I read: August 31st, AF275, departed at 11:58. Could it be that I booked the return flight on the wrong day and never saw it? At what cost was I going to get seats at the last minute, on a day when many flights were likely to be full? Thirty seconds of panic until I realized that AF was just giving me the schedule (and actual departure time) of the same flight, on the current day, and that yes, my ticket had always been on September 1st. I do not thank AF's website designers for that bad moment.
In the distance, a reminder that unlike third world airports like CDG, wifi is free without time limit in NRT. Well, actually, there is a time limit of a sort: you need to register again after one year.
You have all reasons to hope to see us again, Japan!
Even though NRT is quite plane-spotter friendly, and even has an observation deck, plane spotting was not a priority, because:
- other FReporters already did it - this was a unique opportunity to visit AF's lounge in NRT, since Mrs Marathon's Gold status expires next March and I am unlikely to recover that status in the near future (well, who knows…) - Mrs Marathon thinks little of waiting for her plane-spotting husband
But I nevertheless negotiated a few shots on the way to and after immigration (decently fast). At the security check, the staff asked me if I had an Ipad (they asked the same in CDG too, on the way in). It really felt like it was abnormally missing, and I asked: Is it OK to travel without an Ipad?. He understood the joke and confirmed, that yes, the Ipad was not mandatory on board.
Let us see what will be my plane identification score this time (I am the laugh of the FR community on that matter).
A DL 757 in front of a DHL 747 and a CX 747
A departing GA 777
An Atlas Air 747
Touchdown of a CA 747
A 747 with a mixed Polar and DHL livery
A VN A332
Now, this plane spotting came with a stiff price. Mrs Marathon spent as much time here as I did alongside the windows, and she did not spend time only.
Where is the AF lounge? This was the only plan I saw, just after the immigration control, and was not obvious that the only access to the N1 lounge, located just above the immigration, was actually at the far end of Satellite 1, which appeared to be dedicated to Skyteam flights. The good news was that the gate was meters away from the elevators to and from that lounge.
This is the only place where there is an overhead sign to the lounge. Signage could be improved.
This was all I could take of the A388 from the boarding gate.
Also a departing VN 332
And a KE 739
DL's lounge is next to that of AF, and visibly much larger, which makes sense, since NRT is a secondary hub for DL, serving the Far-East and miscellaneous Pacific islands. Anyway, this is the view just after the welcome counter. It looks like a long corridor here, but it is much wider where the lighting created a double ring on the ceiling.
It does not show on the pictures above, but there are wide windows on the left, providing ample natural lighting and a limited view on a few Skyteam planes at this satellite.
A DL 757
And a KL 747, at pushback.
Ground staff next to the KL 747 before its pushback
There is an obvious market in Japan for Flight Report (maybe Version 3?)! this young Japanese passenger first takes a picture of her BP and passport
… and then of the same planes as I did
How did I know she was Japanese? Next time you see a French girl wear this, call me!
For fans of wifi in the air, a close up of the Ku band antenna which provides the data link with a satellite - there is another antenna inside the plane, providing the IEEE 802.11 (a.k.a wifi) link.
Talking about internet, how about the access in the lounge ? There are four self serve computers in these booths.
One is out of order…
… but this one is not, providing the customary corporate screenshot
Of course, I could use my laptop too, since the staff had given me a small strip of paper with the wifi password of the lounge.
Well, no, I did log in the lounge's wifi network, but did not receive any access to the internet, like in AF's lounge in CDG. I suspect that my laptop has some kind of protection against AF's networks.
But like in CDG, I could log in with my smartphone, and unlike in CDG, I could log in on NRT free no-time limit wifi network with my laptop.
Of course, I chose seats next to a power plug, type A/B/E/F compatible.
I was not the first to do so, and the wall is badly damaged behind that seat.
OK, now what about the food ? Above average by AF standards, which are rather low.
You could have a rather late breakfast
Drinks, and by the way, this was the only place in Japan where I saw no warning that alcohol was prohibited to anybody less than 20 years old. I even had to confirm that my wife is above 20 on a touch screen when I bought her a beer in a 7-Eleven, maybe because she looks much younger than that ;).
Hot meals are replenished at a short interval : there were these when I took a first helping (fried rice and onigiri, with two different flavors),
and when I returned for more, there were meatballs and yakitori.
A few snacks (the kind that was the only food available in AF's lounges in CDG a few years ago)
These sandwiches were also replenished,
… this was what I could choose from the second time.
This is not high class gastronomy; it is actually very similar to what you can buy in a Japanese 7-Eleven, which places it above junk food and well below any small Japanese restaurant. This is on par with AF's catering standards, when you compare AF to any US airline on one hand, and top level Asian airlines on the other hand.
They don't want you to get overweight: the plates are small, and the forks are the smallest I ever used to eat lunch.
There is of course a coffee machine, delivering coffee of coffee machine quality.
The toilets and shower are not the luxury kind – the toilet seats have none of the fancy features that you find in many Japanese homes and hotels – but they are clean (I have yet to find a dirty toilet in Japan). Only two toilets each for men and women and a single shower: it does not take many users to create a waiting line.
I forgot to mention a decent selection of newspapers and magazines, in French, English and Japanese.
OK, now was the time to board AF275, and a staff came around to reminder the passengers.
A look at the empty La Première section of the lounge, just before leaving. It does not look very exciting.
And another at the larger DL lounge (although I wonder about the food offering there, given the price of apples in Japan).
There was a long and orderly line for Economy passengers, and quasi-zero wait for SkyPriority passengers on the right.
Priority seats close to the gate. From a distance, I did not see power plugs, but maybe there were some.
A newspaper stand just before the SkyPriority lane and the ordinary one merge.
The color of the canvas on the jetbridge gave an interesting orange glow to the plane's door area.
Going through the business class
And a view of the small Economy cabin in the rear of the upper deck.
This is the Premium Economy cabin. It has been already described in many reports, but this was a first for me.
The screen is larger than in Economy (21 cm vs. 17cm width, not diagonal – I measured of course). There are two 330ml bottles of Evian water, which were bought on the Japanese market (and presumably sent by boat from France): the labeling was all in Japanese. On the contrary, the water I had with my lunch was served from a French Cristalline bottle (the cheapest local brand, which does not make it a bad product).
The seat pitch is compatible with any passenger of NBA player size and below. Note the sport shoes without laces : you keep taking off your shoes in Japan.
This is as much as the seat reclines, which means very little. The seat is murderously hard. I type this sentence five hours into the flight and my whole back aches (OK, I should have placed the cushion behind me, like my wife did. But her buttocks ache, at time of writing). Whoever selected that seat should be sentenced to a dozen long distance round trips in it. I cannot imagine sleeping in that, and bear in mind that I deliberately slept on tatami mats during half of my vacation. Instead of choosing a shell type of seat which cannot recline much due to the insufficient seat pitch, they should have opted for an ordinary seat which reclines more and provides better comfort when sleeping.
When you are flying in economy, premium or not, and no matter on which airline, the major plus of flying on the upper deck of an A380 is that you have a deep bin for storing a cabin luggage if it is not too thick, like a laptop briefcase. The latch of that of the row before mine would not keep it closed, and a FA provided a piece of tape to secure it shut during takeoff.
Do not be fooled by the Type A/B/E/F/G power plugs. The second I plugged in my laptop power supply, the LED turned red, and the laptop did not receive a milliamp. It did not surprise me: I know from long experience that the power plugs in AF's business class are purely decorative, from my point of view. I worked on this report while the laptop battery was slowly draining, until it was exhausted.
The safety card is hidden here (I had to look for it)
There it is (both sides), on the deployed tablet. That tablet is arguably a significant plus: it extends to a comfortable position for using your laptop (until the battery dies out) or eating your meal.
A FA distributed this comfort kit. The difference with the CDG-NRT flight is that there is no face mask, presumably because this was a daylight flight. That is a typical misguided cheap saving: most passengers in my section of the aircraft tried to sleep.
AF captains (and some senior FAs too) are notorious for their horrendous accent in English. I was stunned to hear the captain making his standard welcome speech in excellent Japanese and English after his obviously native French. OK, he did have a French accent in both languages, but his rhythm in speaking as well as brief hesitations in his message prior to the descent made it clear that he knew the language and that he was not reading a text.
Very unusually in a modern aircraft, the safety announcement the old way, not on the IFE as Asian airlines used me to. The sound level in the French and English version was much too high, so much so that this resulting metallic tone was painful to my ears. I actually considered using the earplugs of the kit. In contrast, the Japanese version was delivered with a much softer voice.
Talking about FAs… I was shocked by the stern look of one of the FAs supervising the boarding, like she was a primary school teacher overseeing kids that she knows are all up to mischief the minute she turns her eyes away.
She was the chief purser, and she later came up to us, a PIL in the hand, to greet these Gold status passengers who had enough airmilage for two round trips to NRT. She asked who was such a FF (no mistake, she made no cliché assumption that it would be me, and my wife was amused to say that SHE was flying a lot in J on AF). She took some time to chat on the weather which had been unusually hot in T'ky? in mid-August (up to 40°C !), and was all smiles doing so. She said that she would like to hear about our impression on the flight and would come back later. When I had Gold or Platinum status, I NEVER had such a personalized greeting and exchange (in the few cases that I had one at all).
Some plane spotting while we were waiting, despite the unfavorable lighting conditions.
A Nippon Cargo Airlines 744
A JAL 787
A TG 744
An ANA 777 behind a KE 737 (-800 or -900?)
A UA 777
An ANA Cargo 767
A Virgin Atlantic A340
A CZ A321
An AA 767
Two A320s : Air Asia and Vladivostok Avia
A MASkargo A330
A DHL / Air Hong Kong 744
Fedex: an MD-11 and a 777
A departing Jeju Air 738
And a TK 777
A UPS MD-11
We are number six on the waiting line for Runway 18R
Take-off, with a fleeting view of the がんばろう日本! topiary message in support of the struggling population in Tōhoku.
The plane climbs south and makes a U-turn when it reaches the coastline.
NRT from above, with some image enhancement
A passenger did not understand how to operate her seat, and two FAs came to her rescue.
Flying with my wife provides me the ingredient for the traditional champagne glass shot. OK, a plastic glass, this is not business class.
I had my usual glass of orange juice. Any drink came with 10 grams of grissoti, which meant six of them. It would take a severe case of allergy to get sick with that.
Mrs Marathon went so far in her FReporter's companion duties to spill some of her glass of champagne, which gave the opportunity for the FA call test. Nine seconds, not one more, and she was there to clean the (moderate) mess with a smile and a proposal for another glass (my wife declined). The test was therefore considered successful.
There come the hot lunch.I chose the Japanese hot dish version (beef, with obviously over re-heated rice, but nevertheless still edible).
My wife chose the European hot dish, which meant severely over re-heated noodles and beef, so much so that the beef was tasteless and the noodles dried hard. Mrs Marathon left half of it. AF should definitely check the oven timers settings on their A380s: there was the same problem on the way in. The cake was awfully stodgy and she had none of it.
The miso soup came afterwards, as an option. What killed me is that the French speaking Japanese FA asked me if I wanted to try miso soup (quote), like it was a first for me. Wow, I wonder how many hundred liters of it I drank in my life! In Japanese, she simply asked Japanese passengers if they wantedmisoshiru.
You know that you are a seasoned Flight Reporter, when you are capable of taking repeated pictures (with/without flash, changing the angle…) of a cup of coffee, an open and a closed box of chocolate and a measuring tape, in full view of two giggling Japanese girls seated on adjoining seats.
You also know that you are a seasoned Flight Reporter's wife when you collaborate to that non-sensical activity.
I am NOT going to include a picture of the winglet alone, because it is so uninteresting. I with AF invested a few euros in paint on that part of the aircraft.
The lighting was dimmed, and then quasi completely turned off, but…
… but when the FA reached my row and asked me to close my window shade, my non-verbal message was such that even before I had said a word, she said that I could keep it opened if I wanted too. With the same smile as ever, but then, she was the Japanese FA again. We chatted a little on that (I mentioned that I avoided flying KE for their insistence to have a dark cabin in a flight in daytime), and she said Oh no, we only make it mandatory on night flights (and on the way in, the FAs accepted that my shade be open while it was still pitch dark outside).
This is actually another good reason for having a face mask in the comfort kit, even though this was a day flight : a majority of the travelers in our cabin actually slept during part of the flight, with a minority watching movies on their IFE. I only used the IFE for geovision (and the quality of the screen was good for that); my wife watched a movie and did not complain about the screen quality.
The toilets are quite commonplace, but I noticed that the do not throw syringes sign also mentioned that special disposal boxes were available upon request.
The economy cabin, from the rear
A small ice cream was distributed at 16:45 Japanese time.
AF's protocol is that a FA should go through the cabin every 20 minutes to check that everything is alright, and they did it with clockwork precision, at 14:59, 15:19 and 15:39 (I stopped checking thereafter). But unlike SQ's FAs who give you goodies on the way, they are empty handed. There are drinks and food available at the rear of the aircraft, but if you are stuck in your seat by a sleeping neighbor, tough luck. Next time, I should try the FA call and ask for food and/or a drink. That is where the Y+ pitch is a plus : it is much easier to move around when you do not have an aisle seat.
That is what you find in the way of drinks at the rear of the aircraft in flight: miscellaneous non-alcoholic drinks
… and miscellaneous sandwiches, together with salty and sweet crackers.
I asked the FA there for a coffee (of the instant kind), and then complained politely about the power plug not delivering any power and my laptop being consequently drained. He first explained that could be due to the adaptor, and I failed to make him understand that since the LED turned red when I inserted my plug in, this could not be a case of an incompatible plug not establishing contact.
But then he told me that in AF's A380s, there are plugs for recharging laptops at several locations in the aircraft in J and Y (and possibly in P, I presume). Why don't you bring your laptop there? Haha, that was becoming interesting !
In economy, the power plugs are to close to the next to last door on the left, on the main deck. They must be activated by a FA, and lo and behold, my laptop was receiving power !
I stayed there for an hour or so, working on this FR, until the battery had recharged enough to last until landing. Not very comfortable, especially since three teenagers kept chatting next to me, but a laptop addict can endure any conditions to have his drug.
The story is not over, for the same FA told me that the power plugs next to the seat needed some kind of activation too (it was unclear, and he was obviously not technical enough to make it clear). And would you believe that when I returned to me seat, my laptop did receive power ? No, he had not done anything special; the power supply just broke up (a favorite engineer's expression which means the opposite of breaking down) .
The route had been cloudy all the way since we had left Japan, and briefly cleared up to clear up when reaching Sweden. I saw Stockholm, with tiny Gamla Stan Island in the center here, and then the cloud cover was total again.
I would not call this a dinner, but a light cold meal, and it was OK for what is was. It is (Premium) Economy, after all.
I motioned to the chief purser after the dinner and discussed about some of my findings. She admitted that the ovens on the A380s were difficult to set adequately, resulting in that overheating. Meals are improved in Y+ on AF flights from September 1st, but due to the rotation of the aircraft, we just missed the improvement – that is also the reason why we did not receive paper menus. And yes, there was an IFE failure that they did not have time to fix at the time of the safety demonstration, so they switched to manual mode. She was genuinely horrified when I told her about her own unsmiling look during boarding.
During the descent, announcements were made on various connections that passengers on board would use. I found that much less passenger-friendly than having it displayed on the IFE: the noise disturbed all other passengers, it was hard to follow and you had only two chances (in French and English versions) to catch the information that you needed.
The weather cleared up during the descent. This is a barely acceptable attempt at an air-to-air picture, possibly of a SU aircraft.
Touch down at 16:43 local time.
We waited for the take-off this AF A340
Meanwhile, an Easyjet A32x had landed behind us.
We arrived at the jet bridge at 16:53. A last look at F-HPJD
The fast track for the immigration at CDG? Well, it was obviously slower than the PARAFE automated gates, and the immigration was true to its reputation with its reputation with only three policemen to handle a fully loaded A380. With the added bonus of a CDG staff telling the passengers to approach the counters and the policeman telling them seconds later to please wait behind the yellow line. How about training the former about the basics of his job?
Priorities were respected at the luggage delivery, and ours were delivered at 17:29, which means 32 minutes after the plane had reached a complete stop, a poor performance by Asian standards.
The journey ended with the fun of the RER-B line to Paris. Of course, the escalator up to the corridor leading to the station was stopped.
And of course, there is no escalator down to the train platform: the designers did not imagine that passengers might have heavy luggage.
But before reaching this point, you need to buy a RER-B ticket. I helped two Japanese travelers buy theirs from the machine (no, it does not accept bank notes, yes, the ticket to Paris is valid to all stations within the city, no, the standard Metro ticket they had from a previous trip could not be used from CDG, etc…). Spending some of my time helping distressed Japanese travelers was the minimum I could offer, remembering the uncountable number of times Japanese people went out of their way to help me during my own vacation.
You can now skip the ensuing tourist bonus and jump to the conclusion.
Since some Flight Reporters include pictures of their hotel room, I decided to expand to show some accommodations unlike you standard Western hotel. Of course, you can stay in a standard hotel, but the layout of the breakfast restaurant at the top floor can be unusual. The point here is to take advantage of the view, which is not a problem in a country where eating side by side in front of a restaurant counter is usual.
No matter if it was the middle of O-Bon, a major three-day holiday in August, which could be easily extended to the previous week-end this year, there was one city in Japan where finding vacancies was not a problem, and this motel was not booked full. Tourism dropped dramatically in this city in the past couple years.
Some Japanese motels are much more kinky that this one. The Japanese invented the concept of the love hotel, where you spend a couple hours away in a more secluded place than in your parents' home and its paper partitions. The rates for a full night are reasonable on weekdays, making them an option if you have a car, because they are located in the outskirts of the cities.
Unlike the previous motel, there is no internet connection, because you do not go there to chat on the internet with virtual friends.
For a really traditional Japanese housing, better head towards a ryōkan, literally a “travel house” . Where do you sleep? Do not worry about that; a maid will have prepared the bedding while you have dinner downstairs.
Breakfast (and dinner too) may be unlike what you are used to, but this is the real Japan, which did not change since I first set foot there decades ago.
This is a typical place where you would eat this.
The room was good, but nothing compared to a private home in the countryside; you need to have good introductions to get a chance to share a few days of a Japanese family's life, like here on the Western coast.
This is what standard bedding looks like, in the home of our friend Atsuko near Tsukuba, similar to that in a ryōkan.
Tsukuba? This is where Flight Report's correspondent in Japan lives, and we could not miss this opportunity for a Flight Report meeting there. Olrik suggested to come with him to Tsukuba's matsuri (Japanese festival) , setting a hard to beat record in Flight Report meeting standards.
Hours of dancers of all ages, from the somewhat older generation
to the youngest
before some of the more impressive floats I ever saw
How did that structure get under the bridge ? Well, it is entirely telescopic, and does make it (barely so!)
The word taiko means big drum, and that means BIG. This one also just makes it under the bridge, and you cannot dismantle it, of course.
They can really be creative when it comes to decorating a float (these ones are inflated, so no problem under the bridges).
It became dark some four hours after the beginning, and the show was not over yet. These are made of paper on iron structures, lit from within.
At last came what a matsuri was originally for: carrying around a mikoshi, i.e. a portable shrine. You need to be careful when using the word portable, because you may need many enthusiastic carriers: the heaviest I ever saw weighs two tons!
The Flight Report meeting ended in a local restaurant. Cheers!
Air France Lounge
Tokyo - NRT
Paris - CDG
The synthesis of this report is a high contrast picture for AF. Given that this is Y+, the seat is unacceptably uncomfortable, and I join the FR community in that it is a no-no for a night flight, compared to the A380 Y seat. But then, for a night flight, the Y seat in AF's 77W is worse than awful (re. the FR of my PEK-CDG flight earlier this year - in French only as of writing).
The crew was top-level and was a good example that AF does have dedicated professionals. What was even more encouraging was that the purser wanted to have a feedback from us about our experience to help her improve her team's performance. Because of that, I chose to award a top Crew grade, even though their protocol is much less than that of SQ and CX, to name airlines that I flew on.
I do not expect meals in Y+ to be different from those of Y, but I do not accept that they are equally burnt in both classes (in Y on the way in and Y+ on the way back). Economy does not need to rhyme with gastronomy, but they are outrageously careless about the fodder for steerage.
The IFE is better than that in Y, but then you pay extra. There were a few magazines in a rack at the rear of the cabin that we both found uninteresting, so that brings zero bonus point.
CDG's public transportation accessibility for people having even a single piece of checked luggage is below reasonable expectations, and the luggage delivery delay is too long (but not badly so, in our case).
In conclusion, I would say that in Y+ for a day long distance flight, you definitely get your airmiles' worth. On the other hand, better choose Y if it is a night flight, or if you pay with real money.
(Note : a bug keeps jacking up the destination airport's last three grades to 10. They should be 7.5 / 6 / 8 / 9)
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