Friday, July 10, 2015

Cherished Dream

Hainan Airlines San Jose to Beijing Inaugural


In February 2015, Hainan Airlines announced that they would start new service between Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International (SJC) and Beijing (PEK) in June using the state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  As a resident of the San Jose area and a big fan of the 787, of course I had to fly on the inaugural flight.

To fully experience the airline’s much-touted “five-star” service, I purchased a ticket in Business Class for slightly over $3900 round trip, including taxes.  Although Hainan is not a member of an alliance, miles accrued in its Fortune Wings Club frequent flier program can be exchanged to other airlines or loyalty programs via points.com

Pre-Flight


A couple weeks before my flight, the departure time changed 20 minutes from 1:10 pm to 1:30 pm.   I would not normally bat an eye at such an insignificant change.  However, I was surprised to receive phone calls from Hainan, China at all of my contact numbers – plus email – informing me of the change.  Would this be a sign of great service to come? 

Included with my Business Class ticket was limousine service to and from the airport.  I called Hainan Airlines a few weeks before departure to reserve my rides.  Later, I received emails from the airline confirming the pickup and drop-off times and locations, which was reassuring. 

Evening before departure, I watched flight HU 7989, the inaugural departure to San Jose depart Beijing on Flightradar24.  The flight was flown with aircraft B-2759, delivered only three months prior in April.  I was excited that I would be flying on Hainan’s newest Dreamliner!


A new era begins.  Two 787s enroute to SJC:  ANA from Tokyo and Hainan from Beijing!


Ten minutes before promised, my airport ride, a black Cadillac CTS sedan, showed up at my doorsteps.  So began a long but exciting day.  Despite being a Monday morning, there was no traffic slow down and I arrived at SJC before 10 am.

SJC Terminal B – Southwest, Hainan, and Alaska (not shown).


A giant balloon panda along with a banner adorned Hainan’s decked out ticket counter.  It was still early and there were plenty of open positions.


Unfortunately, there was a seat assignment snafu and I lost my pre-reserved seat at row 15 (last row in the first cabin - my favorite row on the 787). Since both window seats at row 15 were already assigned, I moved up to row 12, one row ahead.  A manager from the ground staff apologized for the mix up and as promised, later followed up on email after ensuring my preferred seat on the return flight has been secured. 

Even though counter agents were being trained, service was nevertheless quick and courteous. 

“Space Observer” sculpture by Bjorn Schülke at the Terminal B mezzanine.


Gate 18 is one of two new “swing” gates at SJC, able to be converted between domestic and international configurations.   There, workers and caterers were putting on final touches for the gate event.


And so we waited for HU 7989’s arrival from Beijing while munching on dim-sum dumplings and chicken salad.


At 11:43 am, Hainan Dreamliner B-2759 touched down at SJC’s Runway 30L marking start of a new era at San Jose!


SJC’s Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting delayed their weekly water discharge test by one day so the tradition of a water cannon salute for an inaugural flight can be performed.



I got interviewed by NBC affiliate Channel 11 about my trip.  But I did not make the cut, because instead of noting the positives of the new service, the reporter decided to make an “investigative story” about how the airport’s water waste “controversy” for the water cannon salute was not really controversial at all. 

Photo:  Nick Hesler

The inaugural crew, consisting of nine flight attendants and four pilots, posed for photos prior to the presentations.



The press conference was emceed by Silicon Valley Leadership Group President and CEO Carl Guardino, who made opening introductions.


San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, with City Council members (left to right) Magdalena Carrasco and Johnny Khamis.


China's Consul General at San Francisco, Luo Linquan


San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Matthew Mahood


Hainan Airlines Vice Chairman Mu Weigang (with translator), flew in from Beijing on the inaugural flight.  He noted that the airline had specifically brought their newest 787 just for the inaugural flights today (thank you, Mr. Mu!).


SJC Airport Director Kim Becker


Exchange of gifts



The event culminated with the breaking of a giant fortune cookie.


The Partnership between Hainan Airlines and Silicon Valley's Airport – SJC Will Be A Long and Prosperous One!


Ribbon cutting at the gate door officially opened Hainan’s flight to Beijing.



The Flight

 

 

Aircraft:  Boeing 787-8
Registration:  B-2759
msn/ln:  38056/274
Delivered:  April 2015 (age 0.3 years)

Hainan Airlines (HU) 7990
San Jose International (SJC) – Beijing Capital (PEK)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival:  1:30 pm – 5:00 pm (next day)
Actual Departure – Arrival:  2:04 pm – 5:09 pm (next day)

Take-off SJC Runway 30R:  2:15 pm
Landing PEK Runway 36L:  4:47 pm

Flight Duration:  11 hours 41 minutes

Flightaware Flight Track:



Personal Achievement:  Sixth 787 Inaugural Flight

  1. United Airlines 787 First Revenue Flight
  2. ANA San Jose – Tokyo Route Opening Flight
  3. Norwegian Oakland – Stockholm Route Opening Flight
  4. Air Canada 787 First Revenue Flight
  5. American Airlines 787 First Revenue Flight
  6. Hainan Airlines San Jose – Beijing Route Opening Flight

With all the hoopla for the inaugural ceremony, boarding for the flight did not start until about 1:20 pm, ten minutes before scheduled departure.  While boarding, I was disappointed not seeing goodie bags being handed out like some previous inaugural flights I have experienced.


I quickly made my way to seat 12A, second row in Business Class.  I wanted to get some photos of the cabin before the crowd took their seats.  This was made difficult, because the cabin crew immediately went to work.  There was no time to settle in as I was “bombarded” (I say this kindly, of course) with my departure drink, warmed nuts, choice of hot or cold towel, and choice of magazines and newspapers.


There are two Business Class cabins, each with three rows.  Seat pitch is 74 inches, in 2-2-2 layout.  This layout is about one generation behind the latest cabin design that provides direct aisle access from all seats.  Though less private for the solo traveler, this configuration doesn’t put each passenger behind tall walls making one feel less claustrophobic.  This configuration also makes the cabin feel more spacious.  In fact, while banking on approach, I was able to enjoy the view below through the row of large windows on the opposite side of the cabin.


“Hainan Passion” – airline’s own special drink – as recommended by the flight attendant.  Taste was typical of a mixed fruit drink.  The nuts (including those of the macadamia variety) were warm!


The menu “Gallery Service Collection” was then handed out.  I know typically, the meal order would follow quickly, so there would not be time to explore the cabin further.  I read through the multitude of choices: there were four dinner options (two each for Chinese and Western) and same number of options for the pre-arrival meal.


Being a Chinese airline, I went with the Chinese option, but had a difficult time deciding between the two choices.  As expected, the Flight Manager Liza came and carefully took my order, methodically reading off each course and carefully noting my choice in her leather portfolio.  The drink order would not be simple either. There was more than one option for hot tea (should have expected this – it is a Chinese airline, after all).  I flipped to the beverage page and quickly decided on longjing.  Finally, I was asked whether I wanted to have my dinner immediately after takeoff or at another time.  Having a choice on the meal time gives nice flexibility if one had a late breakfast or lunch prior to departure (I had neither).

Seat back reading material
Menu, safety card, and airsickness bag

The captain welcomed everyone on board the inaugural flight to Beijing.  Flight duration was expected to be 11 hours 40 minutes.  Weather in Beijing was clear skies with temperature of 31°C.  Our departure would be delayed a bit due to paperwork, but he wanted everyone to enjoy the “Dreamliner five-star service”.

Headsets and slippers
Amenity kit featuring Bulgari items

While waiting, Liza asked me whether the cabin temperature was comfortable and needed adjustment.  A bit taken back, having never been asked this before, I replied, “feels fine”.  She also explained the seat controls and lighting operations.

Unfortunately, the map on my 15-inch in-flight entertainment (IFE) system did not work initially.  There was obviously a glitch, as I finally got it working (albeit only intermittently) on the second half of the flight.  New airplane gremlins? 

At 2:04 pm, we pushed back from the gate, 34 minutes late.  Our Aviation Port Services ground crew lined up and gave us a hearty wave goodbye while media and airport staff photographed our departure.  Unfortunately, that was my last photo prior to reaching cruising altitude.  Apparently, CAAC’s electronics policy is stuck in the 1990s and I had to put away my camera for takeoff. 


Here is what we looked like from the other side.  And video.

Photo:  Nick Hesler
You can see me in waving at the fifth window from the front!
Photo:  Kendrick Dlima



At 2:15 pm, we lined up on 30R and made a long sprint down the runway.  With a sharp pitch up, we took to the skies and banked east and then south on the standard “Loupe” departure from SJC.  Cabin noise up front was noticeably quiet.


Photo:  Kendrick Dlima

Antiquated electronic policy continued to prevail.  An announcement reminded everyone that electronic devices were not to be used until the seat belt light went off, which occurred when we reached cruising attitude some 20 minutes later.  Cabin windows dimmed to half darkness, but I was able to override mine back up to full brightness.

Foul mood caused by separation anxiety between me and my camera and lack of map on the IFE was quickly quelled when dinner service began.


Flight attendant’s beverage tray was lined with a sheet commemorating our inaugural flight.  I wanted to take a photo, but Liza instead gave me an unsoiled sheet as a souvenir.


Hot longjing tea along with canapés.  The tea was brewed just right with the correct temperature.  It tasted perfect!


Hot towels came through for the second time.  Place setting at my table was set individually.  Two flight attendants, each playing a role in a choreographed play, took parts from the place setting cart and carefully placed each item on my table.  Silverware were unwrapped their cloth napkin bundle and placed in front of me.  Everything from the ying-yang shaped salt-and-pepper shaker to the toothpick had a specific place on the table.  Capping it all off – my very own bread basket.  Yes, my friends, no hard decisions on wheat roll or garlic bread – you can have it all!


Starter – Fried five spices bean curd with marinated squid and mushroom


Soup – Egg white bouillon with crab meat.  The soup was rather salty but definitely tasted crabby.


Just like a fine Cantonese restaurant, soiled silverware were changed out for new ones between courses.  The airline must carry an extra cart just for all the utensils they change out during meal service. 

Salad – with a choice of three dressings poured in front of you.


Ninety minutes into the flight, we said goodbye to Washington state and turned northwest paralleling the British Columbian and Alaskan coastal panhandle.  And entrée was served.

Entrée – Stewed beef flank, sautéed bok choy with black mushroom, and steamed seabass served with fresh steamed rice.  Condiment was Hainan style hot chili sauce.  The rice was just warm – not steaming hot - a bit too cool for my liking.

The chili sauce tasted interesting.  It was made with yellow latern chili, found only in Hainan.  It was nothing I had ever tasted before.


Everything else tasted typical of what one would get a fine Chinese restaurant on the ground.  The only thing exceptional was the crab soup.  Having soup on board an airplane is still a novelty for me.  Crab soup?  That was luxurious! 

With the completion of the main meal, all silverware, plates were picked up and out came the dessert cart.  Choices were cheesecake, ice cream, or fruit.  The cheesecake was the fanciest looking thing there as the ice cream was just a small cup of Häagen-Dazs – the same kind I had flying economy on ANA. I thought this was the weakest part of the meal.  Yes, the Chinese is not really known for dessert, but a traditional banquet closer such as sweet red bean soup would have gone well here.


All was not over yet…

To celebrate our inaugural flight, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group provided a sheet cake, chocolate bars, and trail mix. Hainan contributed with a packet of commemorative postcards printed for the occasion, along with a special gift – a coupon for $50 off on our next flight.


Since I was the first passenger the cake cart came to, Liza asked whether I would do the honors of cutting the cake. I was taken back. “You want me to cut the cake?!”  Proudly posing for the company camera as well as my own, I made my first-ever in-flight cake cutting in front of an audience of the few other passengers in the forward cabin.


I had the eBay corner!


Finally, Liza informed me that the pre-arrival meal would begin two hours before landing and asked whether I would like to be awoken for breakfast (“yes”).  In addition, once I was ready for bed – in order to have “better sleep” - the flight attendants would provide turndown service and be providing pajamas. Unfortunately they were out of smaller sizes; I had settle for XL.

Like setting the table at dinner, turning the seat down for bed was yet another production.  Bedding kits consisting of duvet, top and bottom sheets, and second pillow were stored in large vacuum-sealed bags in the overhead bins.  The idea was your bed got made while you change into your pajamas in the lavatory.  But since our cabin was only half full, it was easy to stand in an unoccupied row to get out of the way.


Crew kept the lavatories clean throughout the flight.  You knew this because paper towels and toilet paper always had the folded triangle lead.  Impressive!


With windows in the full dark mode, I laid down for my nap and this is what I saw – full sun glaring into my eyes.


Being a window seat guy through and through, I appreciate the concept and technology behind 787’s electrochromatic windows.  However, when sleep is the priority, this idea is only mildly successful in execution. 

As typical with these kinds of lay-flat seats, I had to line my body up with respect to the cushions in order to get support at the correct location.  Having an adjustable lumber also helped.  The cabin temperature later got too warm for me.  I opened the vents above my bed and was surprised to hear how loudly the air hissed in the hushed cabin.  I closed it a bit to quiet it back down.

I got only about four hours of productive sleep (really – more of a nap) and decided to get up with four hours to go.  For comparison, on the return trip, I got a very decent six to seven hours of solid sleep.  I also got properly prepared for sleep on the return, wearing my new PJs, eyeshade, and eyeplugs.  I surprised myself, actually, that I slept for that long when I had to be woken up for the pre-arrival meal. 

After some struggle with the laggy IFE, I finally got the in-flight map to show on my screen (yay!).


I made my way to the “middle bar” next to door 2R and helped myself to some fruit and nuts.  A flight attendant refilled the fruit plate and asked whether I had rested well?  “Not too bad,” I replied.


We hit some moderate turbulence near southern Siberia.  Pilots announced that it would last around 30 minutes.  Cabin crew remained seated and announced service would be suspended. 

I was getting concerned this turbulence would cut into the pre-arrival meal.  After experiencing that elaborate dinner, I wanted more!  Luckily, turbulence subsided in good time.  A bit over two hours to go, simulated sunrise slowly filled the cabin.


Once again, hot towel.  Coffee, juice, or tea?  I decided to go soft drink and threw off the flight attendant.  Like dinner, table setting was a choreographed exercise with each item neatly placed in front of me. 

Unlike dinner, each course came out one after another culminating in a full table.  Steamed dumplings served as appetizer.  My noddle main course was stir-fried noodles with shrimp.  It was accompanied by pickled vegetables and soup.


For reference, here was the other Chinese meal choice, the rice main course.


With a change to clean silverware, fresh fruit closed a fine and tasty meal.


All was not prefect, however.  Conversing with other business flyers after the flight, those that ordered special meals were disappointed with meals they received, both in terms of the quality and the simple fact that their dietary concern for the special meal was not met. I spoke to the crew in Mandarin, the airline’s own language.  However, for those that spoke only English, overheard in the cabin, communication was problematic when Q&A between passenger and crew went outside of the box.

Typical with all fine dining (and service-oriented) establishment in China, I was given a survey booklet evaluating the airline’s service.  It was quite comprehensive, covering everything from the ground service to IFE to the meals and, of course, cabin service. 

A pre-landing announcement was made our Captain:  weather in Beijing was expected to be overcast with temperature of 34°C or 93°F.  We expect arrival at 4:55 pm.  “Thank you for flying on the inaugural San Jose to Beijing flight – tell your friends!”

At 4:57 pm, we touched down at PEK’s Runway 36L.  As we made the long taxi to Terminal 2, we bumped along on the concrete slabbed taxiway, causing the airplane to jar around and plastic grinding noises in the cabin.   The airport needs to repave those taxiways!


At 5:09 pm, we arrived at gate 210.  Total distance was 5934 miles according to the IFE monitor.

Post-Flight




After thanking the crew for their excellent service, I was surprised to find an airline staff member holding a sign with my name waiting at the foot of the jet bridge.  “I did not expect to see you until I get outside, I almost missed you!” I said. “I will be escorting you through the airport,” he replied.  In all of my years of flying (with some recent flights in Business Class as well), I have never experienced this.

So this guy guided me through the concourse, through the fever inspection thermal camera, through passport check, waited with me for my checked bags to show up (too-long-for-Business-Class, I thought), and pushed my trolley through customs.  He waited for me at the ATM and finally dropped me off in the parking garage to the awaiting black Mercedes sedan.  It was a hot hand-off to the driver, who already had the Benz fired up with the air conditioning running.  “Yu-Ning Hotel?” the driver confirmed.  “Yes, in the Dongcheng”.  As a proud do-it-your-selfer, at this point, I had quite a smirk on my face getting a taste of the high-life.  We made it into the city proper via the Airport Expressway on a shockingly quick 20-minute trip. Equally shocking was yet another 20-minute trudge in afternoon rush hour traffic through the city to my hotel.

Almost 19 hours after leaving home, in a literal, pampered, door-to-door service, I crossed the Pacific from the center of Silicon Valley to the heart of Beijing – ready for a night on the town at Wangfujing.  What a five-star experience it was!

Copyright © 2015 Ben Wang.  All Rights Reserved.