Flight Report : Hong Kong - Tokyo - Chicago

I have traditionally favoured redeeming Star Alliance to fly from Asia to North America across the Atlantic with a brief stop in Europe to make best use of my miles (an example from 2012). My initial research into mid-January availability showed many options including Austrian Airlines and through China, although my 2016 itinerary from Haneda to Toronto did not pop up this time. So when I scanned oneworld for availability out of curiosity, I was surprised there was a good transpacific option with Japan Airlines. The stopover in Tokyo would make the long journey more bearable. Having been to Europe twice in the previous 3 months, maybe doing a longer trip to the other side of the world wasn't so attractive by now.

oneworld's coverage in Asia is quite bad compared to Star Alliance. Cathay Pacific is typically stingy to release award seats to its own program, so I usually don't have much hope they would even flow down to its partner carriers unless it is very close to departure. This routing was unique as I could manage to squeeze a short sightseeing half-day in Taipei and also an overnight in Tokyo before crossing the Pacific to Chicago. All this for 37,500 AAdvantage miles only - same as an Aeroplan routing. Yet I would not fly AA on both flights.

As departure drew nearer, I dropped my Taipei stop and decided to go direct to Tokyo. The wonderful thing with AA is changes to redemptions are free if the start and end points don't change, so as Cathay released inventory, I was able to tweak my flights to snap them up without change fees. AA's Hong Kong call centre is typically easy to reach. I thought they don't have a very big membership base locally yet.

Departing from Hong Kong is a breeze with short check-in and security lines. With some plane spotting time, I explored the renovated sections of the terminal. Gone were the traditional rows of seats for a more irregular pattern. The way the seats face seem to give a bit more privacy.

I quite enjoy plane spotting here. The windows are great, easily accessible, and there are many airlines. I was excited to find a few A350s parked today.

+ my first time seeing ANA's 787 in Hong Kong.

Boarding was timely and I sat comfortably in my window seat on this big 777 jet.

With departure towards the east today, my window would give some nice aerials of Kowloon on take-off. The skies were crystal blue and dry today.

With no pollution, Shenzhen's skyline was easily seen to the north behind the hills.

Unfortunately, being behind the wing, the engine trails would obscure part of my window's view. I wasn't planning to splurge on a Business Class seat this time.

East Kowloon is slowly being transformed into a cheap business district, an alternative to sky-high expensive rents on the Island side.

The eastern suburbs are dense although the countryside is not too far away.

With the city behind me, I turned my attention to the in-flight service. First came nuts and a drink. The seats are old although the entertainment system is just as good as the newer aircraft.

Next came dinner. The seafood pasta was tasty although the portion was a bit small overall. The other parts of the meal were nothing to write home about. It was geared for a Japanese route as there was a cold noodle appetizer with seaweed. The Middle East 3 still do meals far better.

Cathay's IFE selection is quite good with a decent interface. I noticed a new Made in HK tab with some classic local content.

I am a fan of the old long-haul seat thanks to an innovative storage compartment right below the television.

Late night tends to be a busy time for most large international airports, but due to Narita's curfew restrictions, the airport shuts down quite early. By now, JAL's counters were deserted and closing as I made my way upstairs to departures to try my luck checking into the next morning's Chicago flight. No dice. Check-in an bag drop can only take place on the day of departure.

Disappointed, I made my way to the shuttle stop for my free hotel pick-up. The airport hotels around Narita were not expensive at all. I scored a single room with private bath for about 4000 yen only!

I woke up refreshed the next morning and after a short shuttle bus ride, I was back at a busier Narita for the next leg of the journey.

Check-in was smooth and with my big luggage gone, I went on to explore the terminal. Upstairs, it has the typical wide selection of restaurants, which didn't charge a premium compared to the city. The observation deck was much smaller than Nagoya although there were far more planes to spot here.

Kit Kat has a wide selection of flavours unique to Japan. They have made a cross-over with Tokyo Banana, another famous local snack, to create a banana chocolate for curious tourists to bring home as a souvenir.

Air-side, there were more shops and lots of people lining up to pay for snack souvenirs. I turned my attention to the planes. There were plenty of JAL birds at this part of the terminal. My last flight with them was in 2014 for a domestic flight.

The way the terminal is designed makes photographing at the gate slightly more difficult since the gate lounge is downstairs from the main walkways.

The 777 has a fairly large Premium Economy cabin, which has 1 seat less per row.

Cattle class was still in a 3-3-3 configuration, a more humane arrangement these days. I was able to secure a seat at the back where the row becomes only 2 seats, giving me more legroom and easier access to the aisle. I didn't mind the lavatory being nearby at all. The cabin didn't smell or look new but was well-maintained and clean. This would be a nice home for the next many hours in the air.

A decent neck pillow was included at every seat. It looked similar to what Etihad had on offer. Browsing the reading materials, I noticed paid wifi is available, as well as a drinks menu.

We took off into yet another crisp blue sky.

With the coast in sight, I would say goodbye to Japan. See you on the other side of the ocean!

The first meal was tasty although the beef rice looked a bit clumsy. The presentation was an improvement from Cathay but still not as nice as Emirates. Flight attendants remarked the passengers who have fallen asleep or required special instructions.

The sun slowly set over Russian territory and as I emerged from my nap, I spotted some creamy texture in the night sky. This was my first time seeing the aurora, although the camera can see it in green which my eyes could not. As I took picture after picture trying to find a good setting on a fast-moving plane, one of the flight attendants came by to see what the excitement was about. She knew it was the aurora as well.

I would return to Canada's Northwest Territories the next month to see the aurora from the ground, and take even better pictures.

JAL's IFE system has a simple menu. The selection of entertainment wasn't the largest although I noticed some interesting "do not do on the plane" behaviour images. You, behave!

I was particularly amused by the safety position in the event of turbulence. I have never seen such a suggestion before.

With arrival into Chicago a few hours away, I browsed the Customs Declaration Form help page on the IFE. There is no preclearance in Japan, so I might encounter a nasty long lineup upon arrival.

Over Canada, breakfast was served. This is the only time I had soup on the plane outside Business Class. The pamphlet that came with this mushroom and chicken soup revealed it was not typical cheap fare. The accompanying bread was the perfect compliment to the thick and delicious soup.

JAL's cup noodles appear to be quite famous, although I didn't see them offered in-flight as a snack. You can order them from the duty-free catalogue instead!

Not only is the IFE full of proper behaviour content, the paper literature also had a mouthful.

Instructions are quite exact by stage of the journey. You really have to give them credit for trying so hard.

The sun was starting to rise again as we descended for landing. I have gone back in time to yesterday morning due to the time difference.

The main reason why I chose my left window was to spot the city on approach. Having done my research for the previous few days' arrival flight paths, I was confident my choice of seat would be a beautiful choice.

I have been quite lucky on this trips with lovely weather over Hong Kong, Narita, and now Chicago. On approach, I saw O'Hare's many runways and Chicago's skyline in the distance. I guess we would loop out into Lake Michigan and return from the east for landing today. Chicago's vast sprawl would be at my finger tips!

I last visited Chicago in 2006 and this would be my 3rd visit. Prior visits were somewhat dampened by bad weather, and the forecast was good for this morning albeit at very cold temperatures. Luckily I didn't arrive during the polar vortex earlier in the month!

We flew right above the Loop towards Lake Michigan, so I had to wait until we make the 180-degree turn to see the skyline in full again.

Then on final approach, the magical sunrise view came to light.

It sure looked cold this morning!

JAL provided a great flight with good food, friendly flight attendants, aurora borealis, lovely aerials, and a punctual arrival. Immigration into the US has been streamlined with machines so the whole entry process was quite quick and much better than I had expected. Unfortunately, the terminal was a distance from the subway station so I had to connect on the terminal train and drag my suitcases through many corridors before finding the Blue Line into town. By then, the sun was shining beautifully over the frozen city.

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