The Dramatic Demise of Hong Kong Airlines

The Previous Episode : A Cancelled Taiwan Trip

With my Taiwan trip cancelled 1 day before my long weekend, I scrambled to find an alternative destination. As I browsed around the flight engines, I was surprised prices have dropped considerably. I guess people were not in the mood to go on vacation with an epidemic on the horizon. Japan and Korea stood out, with a few low-cost airlines offering HKD$1000 roundtrips to Seoul, and a Tokyo flight going for HKD$1600 as well. While I have been to Seoul and Tokyo many times before, I had set my eyes on nearby places outside both cities. If I were to go to Korea, I would head down to Daegu, while if I were to go to Japan, I would visit the Shizuoka area.

I wasn't entirely comfortable flying red-eye on a low-cost carrier to Korea. I had tried this last year out of Macau, flying Jeju Air to Muan. Interestingly, Jeju also offered Daegu from Macau back then as well. With only 3 hours in the air, I would not be able to get any sleep and wake up grumpy for the rest of the day.

I wasn't planning to fly Hong Kong Airlines originally ...

According to the search engine, Hong Kong Airlines was offering a ticket to Tokyo for HKD$1600, but after searching directly on their website, the number dropped to about HKD$1400 for their Basic Economy with no checked baggage. I had thought this concept was only for low-cost carriers and in the US, where I recall Delta pioneered this below cattle class concept? Not expecting to haul back a container from my short 4-day Japan trip, flying hand-carry only was not an issue. I was planning to hoard face masks, which are not liquids and are light anyway.

With a good weather forecast for Tokyo and its surrounding regions for the upcoming weekend, the next mission was to book the right flight. The outbound from Hong Kong could either be a red-eye or morning. Despite my rumblings with these short red-eyes, I had a deep thought of taking this one since I only had 2 full days on the ground, and this flight can stretch it by most of another day as well. However, a proper night's sleep triumphed in the end and I went for the 9am flight, which would mean an evening arrival into Numazu, a waste of a day.

Another area of concern was whether this airline was still reliable. Hong Kong Airlines had been on the news for a long time already with financial problems and the aviation regulator had voiced out a number of times. This was a dramatic fall from grace as it wasn't long ago when they launched a series of international long-hauls to eat up Cathay's market share, and the media fanned this aggressive expansion and its cash-rich mainland backers. Finally, its parent company, Hainan Airlines, could not save itself but was still able to raise some money. With the regulator about to take action, some of it may have gone here to placate the authorities.

I was initially worried my last-minute purchase could end up in a few nasty surprises on the return, as the airline announced they would further downsize their schedules from over 80 flights a day to about 30 shortly after my booking. After a round of cutting their long-haul network to Canada, the US, and Australia, the Tokyo route was also at risk with 1 of 3 daily flights up for the axe. In fact, some travel insurance companies announced long ago they wouldn't cover this airline. But I was cheap and wanted a good deal. With this as a backdrop, I gasped nervously whether I could fly, or worse, end up stuck in Japan.

I was off to a lucky early morning start, dashing for the airport bus shortly after 7am with my mobile boarding pass on hand. Reaching the airport just before 8am, I went over to their new check-in counters that recently opened last November.

With a decent time buffer, I tried printing out a paper boarding pass from the kiosk, hoping to keep as a souvenir with this airline imminently disappearing. However, it is smart enough to not do that, reminding me the mobile boarding pass is sufficient. There was a line for the manual check-in counters so I didn't want to waste more time for that piece of paper.

Upon entering air-side, a staff took the temperature of every passenger, hoping that anyone would a fever could be held from boarding. However, there are also reports nonsymptomatic people with the virus can also infect others. Security and immigration formalities didn't take long and everyone seemed to be wearing a face mask.

After the formalities, I went to the series of alcohol gel dispensers laid out on a long table to help myself, then browsed the windows to see the new bridge's progress, only a few weeks after my last visit in January.

Hong Kong Airlines primarily uses the new satellite concourse which is a train ride away. Their flagship lounge is also here. Being a bit quieter in these reaches, I had no trouble finding a seat among the many benches even with the next gate ready to board for Taipei as well.

My A330 was already parked at the gate and all signs point to a timely departure.

Meanwhile, a lot of planes were parked out on the tarmac. It could be because they are waiting for their flights given it is still early in the day, or the coronavirus has grounded planes due to slashed flight schedules.

Boarding was called timely with separate lines for Business Class and the rest of us in Economy.

We've known for a few months already that their IFE is down, presumably since they can't afford it anymore. The PTVs only showed that welcome screen for the entire flight. I couldn't even get the flight map going instead.

Only the first row's monitor showed the fight progress charts. Even the safety demonstration was manually conducted.

Having paid for a seat up front and with a left window hoping to catch some aerials over Japan, I noted the first few rows, the dedicated paid-for seating area, was relatively empty. My window was scratched up though, but I had the row of 2 all to myself and felt glad I had spent that extra HKD$85 for that added space and distance from other passengers. We ended up pushing back a few minutes early and the flight deck announced a flight time of just 3h21.

We took off under a cloudy sky, although the ceiling was low and we were above the clouds shortly.

The crew were still professional despite dire news about their jobs and unpaid leave that they now have to take. They announced the meal service would be amended for health and safety reasons, but they still offered 2 hot choices for breakfast. I chose the Hong Kong style beef stir-fried noodle, which was a bit salty so the yogurt was a good offset. I wished they had a disinfectant wetnap in the cutlery pack though.

The seat pocket still had plenty of reading material. Despite being owned by Hainan Airlines and not really a truly Hong Kong carrier, they do quite a good job branding their unique local identity. Browisng the magazine, they even have special lai see envelopes with distinctly local icons.

I suppose this lie-flat seat is on their A350, a product they will shortly discontinue as their Vancouver route will end imminently. Vancouver was their last North America route after San Francisco and Los Angeles were previously cut.

Their China focus probably accelerated their demise during the anti-government protests, and coronavirus may just finish them off for good.

I believe I used to have a Fortune Wings membership, but didn't bother digging the number out as I don't intend to fly with them much or even think they'll be around when I have enough to redeem. The redemption rates are not that good anyway.

The duty-free catalogue is thick and full of all sorts of querky products. The crew had announced deliveries to Hong Kong and mainland China addresses was possible, and purchases of well over HKD$4000 would earn a 20% discount. They even sold Taiwanese alcohol.

The middle section of Taiwan was enjoying a sunny day, and typical of the winter season, the northern part of the island is typically grey. I couldn't spot Taipei today.

I ventured to the back for a look at the loading. The back section had a lot more people than empty seats. Some were very cautious, wearing a layer of plastic like a raincoat, so they can keep extra clean. The lavatory was clean but with the bare minimum facilities. Notice being a mainland Chinese-backed airline, some of the signage displayed Simplified Chinese, and not the Traditional Chinese used in Hong Kong. Don't let this airline's name fool you - it is not a truly Hong Kong airline.

After the bathroom break, I took a few photos from the empty last row. Red is the theme here.

The crew had handed health declaration forms to each of us earlier during the flight. However, it was all in Japanese and I didn't want to risk mistakenly completing some crucial details and end up in quarantine. Some characters I could decipher, such as Hubei, but the yes or no boxes don't seem decipherable.

With the flight map showing the Japanese coast is near, I set my eyes for Kagoshima's volcano, Sakurajima. Soon after, we passed Miyazaki and its famous airport the juts out into the sea.

We continued to skirt off the coasts of Shikoku and Honshu and as we passed Osaka, I got my camera ready to spot Mount Fuji.

Unfortunately, we veered further off the coast and I couldn't spot the mountains anymore from my scratched window.

We then turned north for final approach. I couldn't spot Tokyo Bay either with the hazy blue sky.

Upon landing, we taxied around the perimeter of the airport. The taxiways are not straight and required many turns along the way. I recall there were many disputes with Narita's farmers although there is construction happening around these areas. It took quite some time to reach our designated area in Terminal 1.

As we neared our parking bay, the plane stopped and the flight deck announced a delay as there is someone else pushing back ahead and we also need to be towed to the gate. No wonder the engines were turned off.

Nevertheless, the doors opened about 10 minutes early despite the long journey from landing to gate.

The arrivals hallways were empty and we had to go through a quarantine zone before reaching immigration. First, a few staff reminded us to complete the health declaration form, and they had English versions available here. Then, we lined up for the 2 counters who reviewed the responses and asked a few questions, including a detailed list of all my accommodations for the entire trip (not just 1). A note displayed on the side showed our temperatures were being taken as well. Once complete, I was given a blue piece of paper, and there was a sign at the counter that I needed to obtain that piece of paper to enter Japan.

With the bottleneck here, there was no line whatsoever for immigration. Portable machines lined the immigration hall. Each machine was manned, which seemed to defeat the purpose of automation. The staff scanned my passport on the machine and all I needed to do was to give my fingerprints and pose for the photo. Then I was off to a manual counter, where I got the entry sticker for my passport.

With no checked bags, I whisked through to the customs exit. There was also no line and I was asked whether I've been to Hubei recently. The customs officer then asked pretty much the same questions as the form, and opened my hand-carry to inspect it. Not long after, I was let off and I emerged land-side.

Narita is quite far from the city and I recall the train ride was both long and expensive. A couple of years ago, I discovered a low-cost bus that took me to Tokyo station for just 1000 yen. That bus still exists and frequencies have increased. They recently rebranded but their ticket counter was very visible at the baggage claim exit. The price remained just as good today. I paid by credit card and the ticket showed boarding at bus gate 31, a long walk across to the other side of the terminal.

An hour later, I reached Tokyo station, where I hunted down the right office to buy my special rail pass, and I was off to Shizuoka.

Hong Kong Airlines offered a decent hard product and good service on board. Despite the hardships that staff faced, from delayed wages last year to the recently-announced frequency cuts and no-pay leave, the crew professionally served us well. However, this airline appears too often on the news for all the wrong reasons, which I attribute to incompetent management, dragging down their good staff along with them. It would take the very brave and adventurous to book advance tickets with them nowadays with so much uncertainty ahead.

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