2018 Flying & Plane Spotting Showcase Quarter 1
KA 731 Hong Kong - Kuala Lumpur
Hong Kong's airport is trying out new, automated check-in belts to save manpower. This reminds me of the awful system in Toronto where people line up twice, once to get the boarding pass, and a second time to drop the bag. I'm not convinced less humans in the process make it more efficient, especially for many unsuspecting travelers who don't fly that often that will hog up the machines trying to figure out the buttons and how to attach the tags.
My first flight of the year would depart from a bus gate, with a staircase climb to the door from the tarmac.
This aerial view upon take-off will change in the coming years with the 3rd runway being built just offshore.
While the front row seat is supposedly a premium location, legroom does get impeded as a wall gets in the way of my feet extending into the Business Class seat ahead of me.
The meal - seafood pasta
MH 605 Kuala Lumpur - Singapore
I had a long connection for the next leg to Singapore. During the time, I took advantage of the free shuttle buses to the outlet mall nearby. They certainly had the passenger in mind, even setting up check-in kiosks on-site.
KLIA was one of the earlier new airports opened in Asia that changed the face of aviation. That was back in the 90s. The facility hasn't aged too well, and now is not that clean either.
Plane spotting at KLIA was pretty much all Malaysia Airlines. Next door at KLIA2, it would pretty much be all AirAsia.
While Malaysia tried to offload their A380s and failed, it seems they are much happier with their new A350.
The 737 looked quite old, but it was sufficient for such a short flight to Singapore. Over the years, there have been numerous reports of the slight time difference between flying and taking the bus.
The meal - a light snack only given the short flight.
TR 454 Singapore - Ipoh
What is an interesting off-the-beaten track short getaway from Singapore? I searched through the budget carriers' websites and found Ipoh, which is small but interesting enough to occupy a weekend. This would be my first time flying Scoot, Singapore Airlines' budget airline arm.
Singapore Airlines has a few budget airline ventures across the region. They seem to overlap one another and compete against one another. So how do Scoot, Tiger, and SilkAir fit into the grand strategy? Scoot with a Tiger tail might be a disappearing combination in the months ahead as the brands rationalize.
The new Terminal 4 opened recently and so far is not connected to the metro network, people mover, and seems a forgotten neighbour within Changi. To connect to a flight over there, there is a gate with shuttle bus service.
Despite all the automation and technology these days, the manual sign triumphs for its simplicity.
Security check takes place at each gate, so the seating area for the flight is secured. This makes plane spotting very difficult as the gate's windows are not publicly accessible anymore. No toilets are shops inside either so don't budget a ton of time sitting here.
Today's flight is operated by a Tiger tail aircraft. The leather seats looked a bit tired and there were bread crumbs on the seat. Legroom was tight, but it was endurable for a short flight. A bit sad flying has degenerated into this.
For such a short flight, buying a meal on board is probably not necessary. Nevertheless, I scanned around the menu for some inspiration. Prices were not too bad and for a longer flight over a meal hour, I would be tempted to try.
Wifi was also available at a price, although you won't get reception over Chinese airspace. Scoot flies to many Chinese cities, so buyer beware!
I've always wondered who would want to fly a budget carrier to buy a luxury or brand name duty-free item?
With no intention to shop today, I looked outside for some inspiration.
Ipoh airport looked quiet and deserted. We parked on the tarmac and stairs were attached to let us disembark. After a short walk, we entered the terminal where we bunched up in the small immigration area.
MH 78 Kuala Lumpur - Hong Kong
I rushed back from Ipoh to KL for my evening flight home. I was more lucky spotting this time, with a retro livery parked at the gate.
Although the airport has aged, there is fresh new carpet awaiting my departure. The waiting lounge is actually downstairs from the main walkway area.
I would fly on a much newer 737 today, a huge contrast to my Singapore flight a few days earlier. The seat was fully equipped when I arrived.
Even the IFE interface is decent.
We took off over the city although the aerials are nowhere as spectacular as Tokyo or Hong Kong.
The meal - a full dinner
Hong Kong - Tokyo Narita
Trying to make the best use of my miles, I was surprised there was a good transpacific option on Oneworld. The stopover in Tokyo would make the long journey more bearable. Having been to Europe twice in the previous 3 months, I wanted to go east this time.
Hong Kong's airport is slowly being renovated. This seating area is new, and gone are the traditional long benches.
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.
The rest of the airport continues to be a construction zone. It seems there is no end in sight.
Aerials out of here can be spectacular. With no pollution, Shenzhen's skyline was easily seen to the north behind the hills.
The rest of the city was under my fingertips.
The meal - seafood pasta that was not so filling
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.
JL 10 Tokyo Narita - Chicago O'Hare
Japanese airport restaurants are an odd bunch compared to its international counterparts for not charging extra compared to the city.
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 facilities are also decent although the vending machine selection seems to have gone high-end.
This is my first long-haul experience with JL. The 777 has a fairly large Premium Economy cabin, while Economy continues to retain a 3-3-3 configuration.
This would be a long transpacific sector, departing in the morning and arriving at sunrise on the same day.
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.
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.
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.
I have never been taught this position during sudden turbulence.
Instructions are quite exact by stage of the journey. You really have to give them credit for trying so hard.
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.
My left window was the best place to be 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.
AA 3765 Chicago O'Hare - Toronto
Redeeming this flight was quite interesting to begin with. Since AAdvantage charged a crazy fee for redemptions within 21 days, I opted to use my BA account to snatch up a seat on American for 7500 avios and a miniscule amount of taxes.
The subway system connects both of the city's airports, although the walk from the station to the terminal itself was quite long.
There were lots of check-in kiosks but the process was slow to get my bag tag and boarding pass. The system took forever to complete and prompt for my credit card to charge the USD 25 checked bag fee. After that, I had to haul my bag around the corner to the bag drop desk. This is the automation I don't want Hong Kong to adopt.
Departures are shown in alphabetical order of the destination city. Toronto gets a decent amount of AA flights throughout the day from here.
Terminal 3 was functional-looking and there wasn't much to do land-side. Security was quick and I emerged air-side looking at the maze of small regional jets. De-icing took place right at the gate with retroffited trucks doing the job.
You can see the skyline from here.
We started boarding on-time but before that, an agent came to give valet checked bag tags for our hand carries, which would not fit into the small overhead compartments on the CRJ 700 today so would be checked at the gate.
The CRJ700 looked new and the seats were comfortable with very decent legroom. The cabin height was short so it was easy to bump your head against the fuselage.
I was surprised there was complimentary drink service (filled to the top) with a big bag of pretzels for each passenger.
AA 4330 Toronto - Washington Reagan
Flying out of Toronto for a short trip to the US can get quite expensive thanks to government taxes and lack of competition. Redeeming on mileage is not that much cheaper because Air Canada imposes all sorts of additional surcharges for a supposedly "free" flight. I ended up having to redeem Oneworld, flying American to Reagan, a much more convenient airport to the city centre.
At Pearson's Terminal 3, passengers with checked bags need to stop twice - once to get the boarding pass and luggage tag, affix it, then a second time at the bag drop belt.
Many Canadian airports and a sprinkle of others outside North America participate in US preclearance, where passengers go through US entry formalities at departure it becomes a domestic flight on arrival. While the queueing time is visible online, always leave extra time for this step, and building a buffer to arrive early before departure is absolutely key.
Improvements I've seen at Terminal 1 have also made it here, namely nicer desks and tablets.
However, my flight would leave from a more basic holding pen with just the pure basics, and a lot of people.
Today's plane is so small that it only has a 1-2 seating configuration. The seats were on a slight platform raised from the aisle. Loading was pitiful - not even 25% full on the already small plane. It is coded as American Airlines, although the plane says American Eagle, and operated by Trans States.
As with the typical North American model, we only get a complimentary drink and a snack bag.
AA 4330 Toronto - Washington Reagan
I quite like Reagan airport as it is only a 15 minute subway ride from the city centre.
Like in Chicago, I'm not used to seeing so many narrowbodies. Most of the planes parked here were American though.
They did a good job putting up a few nicer restaurants at the end of the pier and not just crap fast food, but there was barely any place to sit and rest.
On such a nice day, the Washington Monument is easily visible from the terminal.
Welcome back to the small plane!
My lucky window seat would not disappoint as we took off and looped back for a lovely aerial view of DC.
The rest of the trip to Toronto continued to be scenic thanks to good weather. I have never been able to spot Niagara Falls from above before.
Sunset over Toronto also looked great. Although I fly very often, these moments make this commoditized mode of transport a bit more special than buses or trains.
Terminal 3 is a bit lonely, not connected by city buses or the new airport train. The terminal's design for arrivals is a bit messy and not properly sign-posted. It took a lot of navigation to make it to the terminal train back to Terminal 1.
TS 750 Toronto - Varadero
Winter is a great time for Canadians fed up with the freezing cold to escape south. Sun, beach, and plenty of warm temperatures. Cuba is a popular vacation spot for Canadians, who are not restricted from visiting like the Americans. Besides the mainline carriers Air Canada and Westjet, charter airlines like Transat and Sunwing offer very competitive packages to Varadero.
Unlike my last flight to Washington, today's departure is out of Terminal 3's international section. US departures go through pre-clearance and have a segregated transborder part of the terminal.
De-icing takes place in a dedicated area outside the terminal. There were plenty of trucks waiting to do the job, but I noticed there was no colour residue on the fluid unlike my past experience.
We took off towards the west with the snow-covered city below. Typical of flying in North America, they try hard to squeeze every penny out of you with headsets and amenity kits at an extra charge.
I was very happy to leave the frozen land below.
Cuba arrival cards were distributed and the crew went through how to fill these out, emphasizing they don't have extras and we would need to purchase one for a fee on arrival if we made a mistake. These cards are expensive to buy if flying a US carrier or overseas passport holders but are included in the price of my package, which is typical for flights departing from Canada.
Escaping to the tropics would take 3.5 hours. After seeing the Florida Keys, it was time to descend to Cuba.
My first sight of the Cuban coast!
The airport looked old but functional and the line at immigration was manageable. An Air Transat representative was at the exit to direct passengers to the resort bus. To the left of the exit is the cadeca to exchange some Cuban convertible pesos, a special currency for tourists only.
TS 2621 Varadero - Toronto
The great thing with packages is everything is planned out for you, all the way to the bus pick up for the airport. Looking at the departures board, the Canadian agencies really dominate Varadero.
The check-in areas were not too big and 2 long lines snaked out of Air Transat's plebian economy counters. Having checked in online earlier in the morning, I was surprised that the web check-in line was empty. So instead of waiting at least half an hour to drop my bag, I was done in 10 minutes.
I knew I would get bored being at the airport so early, and there won't be much to do there other than surf the web. There were a few shops land-side for rum and cigars. The unmanned post office sold only 1 type of postcard, some maps, but no stamps in the glass cabinets.
Air-side, there were plenty of seats, shops selling pretty much the same fare as outside, and a couple of restaurants. Prices were over the roof.
Wifi is not free in the terminal. Instead, you need to buy scratch cards with the access code. Unlike the ones I buy at the hotel, which are from the same operator, the airport ones only last half as long at 30 minutes.
I wasn't interested in buying American-branded items in the duty-free here, but would you trust buying medicine here?
Spotting was a bit boring as well. There weren't many planes parked here.
Soon, I saw my plane arrive. On my itinerary, it had a "operated by Smartwings" note, which was a bit worrying as the forums have not been kind to this airline. I was relieved to see Air Transat's colours.
We turned north shortly after take-off and I was able to make out Varadero's long peninsula of hotels that makes this place so popular with foreign tourists.
Hungry from a delayed departure, I scanned the menu, which was a good marketing effort to encourage spending.
The reality sets in ...
Back to the point on Canadians escaping to the south for winter, the sun destination industry is quite big. Cancun and Punta Cana seem especially popular.
The sight of a cold Toronto was not appetizing, although the aerial views were still nice.
AC 103 Toronto - Vancouver
In the hunt for aurora borealis, I have tried Iceland, which failed, and considered Finland, which was too expensive. Until now, I have overlooked that Canada is a great place to see this natural phenomenon. Yellowknife is almost half way from the east coast to Asia already, so when it costs only 25,000 Aeroplan miles to redeem this domestic flight, I jumped at the opportunity, despite Aeroplan's atrocious extra charges tallying to CAD $180.
This would be a long journey as there are no direct flights from Toronto. I have to go to Vancouver first and connect there. The first leg is on one of Air Canada's high-density 777s, an awful place to be for a transpacific trip, and probably the same for a transcontinental one as well.
Even for a flight of almost 5 hours over the breakfast hour, all food is for purchase only. The only freebie would be basic drinks such as water, juice, or Coke.
Despite disappointment so far, it was all forgotten as we crossed the snow-covered Prairies and Rockies under clear skies.
I noticed a few of these city time displays with a distance indicator. New Delhi's population seemed awfully low. I quite like the system's display of both distance from origin and destination to give a perspective on how much more to go besides just a mere time indicator.
AC 8833 Vancouver - Yellowknife
Vancouver's airport looks quite cozy and warmer than Pearson. My gate would be in a remote concourse, which was already busy with lots of Japanese tourists. The agents announced the flight was likely oversold and requested volunteers to come forward for the next flight. This was out of the question for me as that would mean a day late in arriving, messing up my 3 nights of tours that have already been booked. This is the day to be gate lice and grab that seat on board.
I was surprised the cabin looked new with even a few rows of Business Class in a 1-2 configuration up front. Economy was in a 2-2 configuration with TVs at every seat.
The one bathroom at the back was spacious.
Once again, a proper or half proper meal would cost money.
Over 2 hours later, we landed on-time into a snowy Yellowknife. There are no jet bridges here. You get to enjoy the arctic climate right at the door.
AC 8224 Yellowknife - Calgary
I wasn't able to redeem the Vancouver flight for the journey home, and had to settle with a transit in Calgary instead, then fly red-eye back to Toronto. Air Canada doesn't run that many flights to Yellowknife despite the busy winter tourist peak season. In fact, they are not really a dominant airline here.
Air Canada flies the Q400 turboprop for its twice daily Calgary service. That's less than 80 seats. I was booked on the 2nd flight and unsuccessfully tried to standby for the earlier one.
Yellowknife's airport is quite small, with one side for arrivals and the other side for departures, all on the same floor. The polar bear theme is quite strong.
There wasn't much to boast about in the small air-side lounge. It doesn't have enough capacity to handle 2 flights of passengers at the same time. There was 1 cafe open, a few vending machines, and a small washroom.
De-icing difficulties caused a further delay, which slowly ate into my connecting time in Calgary.
2 hours later and an hour late, we reached Calgary, where the weather was still cold.
AC 158 Calgary - Toronto
Despite being over an hour late, I still had time to wander around for the airport about 45 minutes before boarding at 00:15. The terminal has been renovated with little carts transporting passengers around running on a BRT-like set of lanes. Bright red lights turn on to warn passengers as one of the carts near as they must cross the vehicle lanes to get to the exit, or to the gate.
With empty gates everywhere, I could take a close-up of the horrible zoned boarding lines and why Air Canada can screw up boarding even for a narrowbody.
Tonight, I would be flying the new 737 MAX. The seats were comfortable with a large TV screen. The IFE was, however, not turned on and would remain off for the entire journey.
There were a few rows of Business Class up-front. No lie-flat beds here.
Red-eyes are never pleasant even on a new plane, although the sunrise was beautiful.
AC 1944 Toronto - Bogota
Air Canada has a respectable South America network out of Toronto. In late 2017, prices to Colombia became very affordable, costing less than CAD $600 including taxes. Although it is operated by Rouge, this 6-hour international flight came with surprisingly free perks, including 2 free checked bags and a meal on board. Strangely, my domestic hop to Yellowknife, which had a longer combined flight time, didn't offer any of these.
Terminal 1's eateries do look quite sleek and appetizing, although I would be fed on today's flight so I wouldn't spend more here.
Today's flight is operated by an old but renovated 767, which is a nice widebody with a 2-3-2 configuration, a far more preferable option than the high-density 777 on the mainline.
The first meal - similar with mainline meals on other international flights
There are no television screens on board, but wifi is available to stream their entertainment on an app.
The worst part of the journey would be at the airport. Canadians and foreigners use different lines to cross immigration. Canadians have a dedicated line as they need to pay an extra head tax to enter the country. The other foreigner line was also long and snaked around for quite a bit, with an intermittent lights off to make things interesting.
AV 16 Bogota - Medellin
The initial numbers looked deceiving. Bogota and Medellin are 250km apart on a straight line but the bus takes over 11 hours through winding mountain roads. Bus travel was not appetizing, so flying would be the way to go. The surprise came when Avianca's Business Class was actually cheaper than Economy Class. Unfortunately, this luxury experience on board would not be replicated on the ground with a long line for check-in.
This would be my first flight on Avianca. My other options were LATAM and VivaColombia.
The Avianca lounge is across from the first gate. The lounge was not crowded, which was probably because of the little food selection available - some finger sandwiches, fruit skewers, peanuts, and drinks.
With my Business Class boarding pass, I enjoyed priority boarding and found a very comfortable seat in the 3-row premium cabin at the front. These are not the same Economy seats with the middle seat blocked, but nicer leather recliners arranged in a 2-2 configuration. Each seat had a PTV and noise-cancelling headsets were handed out.
We would only be in the air for less than half an hour, so only drinks were served.
AV 9510 Medellin - Cartagena
With Bogota and Medellin being more intensely urban, my Colombian itinerary would go for a relaxing turn by heading towards the Caribbean coast to the historic city of Cartagena. I had initially booked this direct flight, but less than a month later, my itinerary was changed to backtrack to Bogota on AV 9319 and then connect to AV 9550.
Medellin's airport wasn't busy at all and the check-in formalities didn't take long.
What startled me was the original direct flight to Cartagena was still there. AV9510 was scheduled to leave on time at 1:03pm. So why was I bumped off that flight?
This time, I would spend the short flight out back in Economy Class. The views were just as good.
The meal - a juice in tetra-pack form vs. plastic cup in Business Class
The major reason why I wasn't that upset when my itinerary got changed by the airline was because Bogota is quite a decent spotting airport and I had no objections returning to do some more.
The hardware was still decent with PTVs.
Now I was back in Bogota for a short break before my next flight.
The PTVs were slightly worse off but the IFE was still all right.
Goodbye, Bogota. See you in a few days!
The excitement would come on final approach as Cartagena's skyline passed on the left side. I had a lucky window again today.
We would end the journey at a remote stand, offering more opportunities to take airplane photos from the tarmac.
AV 9775 Santa Marta - Bogota
After a few days enjoying the Caribbean coast, I had to return to Bogota once again for my long flight back to Canada. Santa Marta's airport is actually right by the sea, and was surprisingly new.
By now, I am quite comfortable with Avianca to relax and enjoy the short flight.
Bogota is located fairly high up in altitude, giving it a temperate climate and starting signs of altitude sickness.
Unlike my previous flights that parked at the sleek terminal, the gate today would be in a more modest and makeshift facility. This is the domestic terminal, seemingly the original dingy facility that probably won't give a good impression for international travelers today.
Some of the planes parked nearby looked quite antique and interesting.
This is what flying used to be like.
AC 1945 Bogota - Toronto
With the Santa Marta flight arriving on time, I had many hours to go before my international connection. I took my time walking from the old domestic terminal to the new building.
Some of the shop designs are also quite nice.
Did you pack enough coffee to bring back home?
HKG-KUL KUL-SIN SIN-IPH KUL-HKG HKG-NRT NRT-ORD ORD-YYZ YYZ-DCA DCA-YYZ
YYZ-VRA VRA-YYZ YYZ-YVR YVR-YZF YZF-YYC YYC-YYZ YYZ-LGA LGA-YYZ
YYZ-BOG BOG-MDE MDE-BOG BOG-CTG SMR-BOG BOG-YYZ