An international departure bank existed around about 8pm onwards over at Beijing. New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangkok, Manila, to name a few. This coincided with the 4 arrivals from the USA: JFK, SFO, LAX & IAD. There were 2 arrivals from Canada (YYZ & YVR) 1.5 hours prior to the USA arrivals. Of course, the Asian bound flights weren’t daily.. perhaps 3, 4 or 5 weekly.
AIR CHINA'S INDIA OPERATIONS
The Indian operations saw 9 flights during the week I flew: 5 to New Delhi, 4 to Mumbai. This fluctuated a lot, with Mumbai going down to just 2 and New Delhi to 3. By and large both the routes were operated by Airbus A330-300 aircraft. Air China used to operate to Bangalore from Chengdu & Shanghai but that stopped years ago. In addition, that was on the tiny Airbus A319 airplane.
OPERATIONS @ PEK
While most experiences online commented on the atrociously long security lines between an international to domestic transfer on Air China in Beijing, I was relived to know that international-international transfers weren’t as bad since they’d be in Terminal 3E anyway. More often than not I noted that any layover less than 1hr30min would be sketchy, even if it was all under one roof. 2.5 hours on the way home, 1.5hrs on the way back. I knew I’d be okay on the way in, and no room for delays on the way back.
I also noticed that the New Delhi bound CA947 flight would depart the gate just fine, but a long taxi would often delay it 15-20 minutes, impacting the turnaround in New Delhi and delaying the return by anything between 30 & 45 minutes. The short block times did not help either. This was amplified on the Mumbai flight, but I’ll hold off on this for the BOM-PEK trip report. The 15-20min delay of CA947 was a crucial factor in my selection for the DEL-CCU domestic flight.
So then, what was I expecting on this flight? A slight delay due to how ATC manages traffic flow (military gets priority), a route that looked like the coronavirus cases graph when it spiked earlier this year (mountains along the way mean that westbound flights fly South, Southwest and then west: planes cannot descend in this region below a safe altitude in the event of depressurization), not as good IFE as on the 747, and maybe just an older aircraft in general.
Disembarking B-2481 after a solid flight over from Beijing 10 minutes before the scheduled arrival time, I knew I had to time how long it would take from getting off, walking over to security, security itself, and then walking to the next flight’s gate: at the time of travel Beijing T3 was the 2nd largest airport terminal after Dubai’s T3, this was until Istanbul New Airport started operations a few weeks after this trip.
A key factor helping me this time around was the fact that CA986 was the first of the 4 USA arrivals. I saw the IAD & LAX 77Ws land while walking over to transfer security. Beijing Capital also had more than enough signs directing passengers where to go, but after a while it does get a little tricky to distinguish between international & domestic transfers. Usually there is a person helping out with this, but say you’re in the wrong line and reach the front, you’re pretty much SOL because you’ve lost all that precious time thanks to the short connections CA like to sell.
I walked pretty fast, and was one of the first to enter the international transfer ‘immigration check’, where it was initially unstaffed - they realized CA986 came in a little early. Us Indians had a weird passport inspection dealio, before we were let downstairs to a very congested security area. It did not look like a sprawling transfer hub judging by just the two x ray baggage screeners.
Everything had to be removed. Ever single gadget, power bank, every single wire, untangled. And they’d inspect how big the power bank is, beyond a certain size they’d confiscate it. Pretty interesting. Once again, it helped that the line was relatively short but the return would be crucial.
Right from disembarking to getting a token for WiFi took all of 22 minutes. Nice! That was surprisingly quick & easy. I was just one flight from getting back home! 1830 hours, 2hr10min till departure it only meant one thing: planespotting! Being in a global super hub I knew there would be quite a global airlines to spot. And I was right! EVA, United, Turkish, EgyptAir, Ethiopian… all major Star Alliance players in addition to the usual Air China wide bodies, Qatar Airways & some from the Swire Group over at Hong Kong, both Cathay Pacific and CathayDragon.
Over to Air China!
While walking around I keenly observed what Terminal 3E of Beijing was like. It has everything to be a world class terminal, like the Dubais, and the Singapores and Seouls, but what made it not be like that? There were several shops around, and by 7pm nearly 80% of them were shut. Several places to eat, western brands & companies, but they were just closed. Maybe this would be different on the way back? While PEK offered great views it also came with very long walks that may be problematic for some. They had free drinking water and WiFi - I was able to use a VPN and get through. And around the gates there was this very emerald green hue making it feel like CCU - but everything was so under-lit. The ceilings were very high up, but it was also very claustrophobic in some parts. It just looked dark & gloomy. Not helped by the fact that transit security would have been quite the nightmare had it not been for the short queues. In a way, I was glad my layovers did not last for more than 2.5 hours, but a whole lot of pain would be in store if CA890 on the way back would be delayed. I bet ‘lifeless airport terminal’ has a completely new different meaning now but this just felt…dead.
Air China's B747-8i B-2481 that flew me in from San Francisco! She'd spend the entire night & most of the morning here before heading back to SFO: usually a domestic flight would be squeezed in…
Emirates A380, but of course!
Couple of 777-300ERs
Hong Kong bound CathayDragon A330
On the plus side, most departures were on different sides of the terminal so it did not get as busy and congested. In fact I did notice several passengers sprawling across seats to nap. Gate E14 for CA947 to Delhi, the 4.8 years old Airbus A330-300 which coincidentally was registered as B-5947 had a slew of activity around it: catering truck, fuel, baggage, cargo…we looked set for an on time departure. She had a bit of busy day that day….
Started out in Bangkok, flying over to Beijing before squeezing in a flight to & from Hong Kong (with just a 1hr turnaround in HKG) and then over to New Delhi. She flew in around the same as B-2481 from San Francisco, so pretty even!
EVA Air B77W from TPE
I was at the gate about 45 minutes before departure. Boarding would start 30 minutes prior to departure: hmmm, fill up an A330 in 30 minutes? Maybe that’s why the flight went late more often than not. Some planes taxied by, but I was a little surprised to see a Delta Boeing 767-300ER! This was the flight that had just flown in from Seattle. Small world, I guess! :P No picture though, lighting was awful…
Boarding did start at 2010 hours, 30 minutes to departure. They were fairly efficient in letting people through. A whiff of tiredness just went through as we waited at the jet bridge. A nice & easy 7 hour flight over to New Delhi. Whew, and I remember the days when a 2.5 hour flight from Kolkata to Mumbai felt like forever!
Not as charming & warm, but the crew were around to greet and guide passengers on to the A330. I headed all the way back of the first economy section: no one behind me, no one to kick me! I took my seat 47A, next to us a Boeing 777-300ER resting for the night. I was surprised to see how full the flight was: hey, if it’s a good deal am sure not a whole lot of people would say no! The cabin filled up, crew assisted with putting bags away, and then for a while it felt like a lull… a delay brewing lull… late connections?
Nope, it was one better. It was baggage being loaded, and before I knew it doors were armed, we were on our way at 2037 hours, 3 minutes before time. The crew on this one certainly didn’t seem as well honed as the the crew on CA986, but that’s alright. While the safety video played they went around they secured the cabin which felt counter productive…. The Rolls Royce Trent 700 engines fired up just fine and we began our taxi to Runway 36R: wind direction had changed, as did the runways during my time at Beijing.
So the way T3E is designed, we had to taxi around the terminal as I have very elegantly drawn in the Google Maps screenshot below. The X is where I got a little jittery: for a bit I thought we were headed back to the gate for some issue, but it was just the taxi route.
The intriguing announcement from the ‘security officer’ happened as we taxied to the active. Several narrow body aircraft at the domestic terminal were present, perhaps parked overnight. An example of ATC’s traffic priorities happened while holding short of 36R: an Air China A321 had already arrived ready to depart, followed by us and then a heavily delayed United UA808 to Washington DC, a 787. The United plane went first, then us, and am not sure how long the A321 had to wait, definitely was a domestic flight.
Lined up with Runway 36R, and took of just fine at 2100 hours, 20 minutes after scheduled departure time. I struggled to stay awake during take off, so I am a bit surprised I held on the camera as best I could. Did I mention that they had the cabin lights on all the way through? No bueno!
The flight went by quickly because of how tired I was, and so how easy it was to fall asleep despite feeling the space crunch: the A330 does not feel as open & wide as the 747-8 and the 787: Boeing Sky Interior!
I did wake up to the first officer’s announcement 30 minutes in to the flight, the one and only communication from the flick deck. He mentioned our flight altitude of 11,000 meters (China does not use feet for flight level(s)), a 7hr10min flight, arriving in Delhi 0410 Beijing time and 0140 local time: on schedule. And that was it, short and sweet! At this point we were slowly turning west/southwest.
Drinks started first of all, I just went for an apple juice and water. It was about 45 minutes in to the flight. In the mean time I tried to play around on the in flight entertainment system: this was honestly pretty bad - touch screen was more of a hammer screen, and the remote control was in the seat arm rest (not a unit as with Emirates or Singapore Airlines for example). Because of the location on the armrest I felt it would be rude to keep waking up the seat mate to change what I wanted to see. Besides, there was far lesser content than the 747-8, and I was happy to keep it on the information screen. Lots of negative points here, but not ideal for an airplane barely 5 years old!
Dinner started soon after. Loads of special meals were handed out first. Many passengers unfortunately did not book theirs in advance so the crew had a difficult time explaining this to them: like I said, not the most honed crew but they did just fine. For dinner, announced over the PA system were three choices: chicken, fish or vegetarian. No pork or beef on India bound flights, ever. I went for the chicken.
For the started salad it was mostly shredded lettuce, a piece of cucumber and a singular cherry tomato, grapefruit dressing. Bread & butter. Steamed white rice, chicken & vegetables in a basic soy sauce based gravy, and pieces of watermelon for dessert. No where near as good as what was on CA986 but still edible. Service complete, I decided to catch up on some sleep at 1hr55min in to the flight.
Time to sleep!
I got no less than 4 hours of sleep in, and pretty undisturbed if anything. I was surprisingly comfortable during the flight! All of a sudden there was just over an hour remaining of the flight. I checked our position in the map: Kolkata just due South of us! Heck, divert, divert!!! :D
The lavatory was just behind, I took my one free joker with just an hour to go of the flight, just before it would get busy, just before they’d turn the seatbelt signs on. To be honest, not very clean. Not clean at all.
Lights turned on like I was starting the shadow of eclipse move past the sun, brightness piercing through in to everyone’s pupils. Announcements happened, crew went around clearing everything up. There was also an announcement thanking us passengers for our cooperation: maybe to go along with the security team leader announcement?
Descended down just fine, and came down on to Runway 28, touched down at 0128 hours after flying for 6hr58min. Still 12 minutes till we get to the gate for an on time arrival! There were several Jet Airways planes grounded, could not take my eyes off of them. I hoped for their survival.
Some other international traffic included a DrukAir A319 parked away, Star Alliance Ethiopian B767-300ER, Aeroflot & Cathay Pacific A330-300, some Jet Airways wide bodies (777 to Amsterdam & Toronto, A330 to Hong Kong): it’s these planes that kept Jet afloat for as long as they could. These were the real money makers, but just not enough. There was also VT-ALF, the 777-200LR I spotted over at SFO! How about that :D
9W's last moneymakers…
There were some heavily delayed flights as well: the Air Canada 787-9 to Toronto, and an Air France 777-300ER to Paris. Now due to the Pakistan airspace closure all Delhi bound flights had to fly southbound all the way to Mumbai before turning back up north towards Delhi. This added 1.5 hours inbound, and another 1.5 hours outbound. So anyone with even a comfortable 3 hour connection in Europe was more or less out of luck. British Airways I think actually tweaked their schedules to account for this and still make their North America departure bank(s).
So the major arrivals at this time (within an hour of CA947’s arrival from Beijing) were a Lufthansa A380, a KLM Boeing 777, Swiss A330, British Airways 747, Jet Airways 777, an Air India 787 among others… and most flights were loaded to the brim. Long immigration lines…
We docked at the gate 17, a final burst of power to get us in to the gate, we were on stand at 0138 hours, 2 minutes before scheduled arrival. Unlike the passengers on CA986, many folk decided to stand up which led to the crew pleading them to sit back down. There’s a lot of things that cannot be solved in the universe, and passengers unable to follow seatbelt signs on the ground is one of them.
AC 789, AI VT-ALF B77L from SFO, us at Gate 17
I was able to disembark within 9 minutes of coming to a stop. Most passenger retreated to the restrooms, I made my way to immigration having made that one bathroom break onboard just over an hour ago. Delhi had opened up a completely new immigration section to the right for e-visas and foreign passport holders, emptying out the regular section.
Remember I mentioned the European flights coming in late? This helped with how quickly immigration went through: it only took me a minute, a new record for me at New Delhi! These lines would progressively get much longer as the European flights slowly funneled in.
Bought some duty free items as the plan was to check in the easy to haul suitcase for the domestic flight home. It took me all of 30 minutes from disembarking from B-5947 to heading towards departures for the next flight. It was eerily quiet at Delhi, but I knew it would be bustling soon.
And that'll be all for this one! In Delhi safe and sound just fine, no issues. On to the next part!
2 flights down on Air China, 2 still to go. This flight felt more akin to what I have read online but I still feel a lot of ‘hate’ there was unjustified. I could not access the IFE well enough (bad) but I chose not to after figuring out it would be challenging to do so (so maybe a fair shot on BOM-PEK). The meal had 3 choices, which is unlike what’s on LH/BA/LX/KL/AF/QR/EY/EK - but notice how there wasn’t a secondary snack service before arrival? I though this was very very interesting! The meal was OK at best, bland, but edible. The crew were average at best, I appreciated their efforts in trying to explain things to passengers but it wasn’t as warm. That’s alright. The seat wasn’t as good as the 747, but given how tired I was it was easy to fall asleep. Heck I would’ve fallen asleep even in an IndiGo A320’s seat to be honest. Most importantly, I got to New Delhi safe & on time. Air China had therefore delivered.