Sunday, June 8, 2014

Everything You Dreamed Of

Flying on Air Canada's Inaugural 787 Flight


In my quest to fly on as many Boeing 787 Dreamliner inaugural flights as I can, hot on the heels of Norwegian’s Oakland to Stockholm inaugural flight came Air Canada’s inaugural 787 flight into service.

As with my first Dreamliner inaugural on United, the actual first flight was hard to predict.  It was fraught with last minute changes making advanced planning difficult.  I was closely following Air Canada’s twitter feed, all the while keeping up to date with flyertalk’s huge 787 thread as well as the All Things 787 blog.  All news indicated that Air Canada would fly the Dreamliner on short domestic runs before taking the aircraft international.  The question was – which domestic flight would it be?

Initially, the inaugural flight was scheduled on May 21 from Toronto Pearson to Montreal.  But as aircraft delivery date approached, at the end of April, the 787 was taken off that route.  A waiting game ensued.  Finally, few days before Air Canada’s first 787, registered C-GHPQ, was to fly home to Toronto from the Boeing factory in Everett, insiders on flyertalk posted that the 787 will be making domestic flights between Toronto and Halifax starting on May 23.  I thought it was pretty safe to assume that there wouldn't be further schedule changes, because aircraft flyaway from the factory was only a few days away, on May 18th.  As soon as the first 787 flight was loaded into the reservation system, I immediately purchased an one-way ticket from Toronto to Halifax for $318, inclusive of taxes.


Given it was only one week prior to the flight, I was not able to take advantage of cheaper advanced purchase fares.  Plus, I had to get myself from home in San Francisco to Toronto and back as well.  As a result, in light of expensive fares, I had to redeem my United miles for award tickets.  Nevertheless, I got a great deal on the return trip:  25,000 miles for Business Class all the way back from Halifax to San Francisco via the 787 to Toronto.

Prologue

It was a good sign to see a 787 while starting off on a 787 trip.  Here was United’s Dreamliner getting ready to depart SFO while I was about to do the same.  Yes, the window was really that dirty.  My next window down was even worse.  Shame on United!


I took a delay at Chicago-O’Hare due to Obama being in town.  Air Force One landed there while I was connecting (I didn't see the landing myself because I was in the United Club :D ).  Three Ospreys landed just prior to this photo.  Between the flight delay and the slow-to-show hotel shuttle, I did not get into my hotel at Toronto until after 11 pm.



May 23, 5:30 am. Terminal 1 Toronto Pearson

Despite not getting enough sleep the previous evening, I wanted to get an early start in advance of the 8 am flight to Halifax.  I wanted some time to have breakfast and relax in the Maple Leaf Lounge and partake in the pre-inaugural flight activities (if there was anything at all).

I checked in at a kiosk in the Elite/Business Class area.  Seating chart was still showing a 787…good!


Dropping off my checked bag at the ticket counter, the agent said the bag tagging numbering something rather between the kiosk and the counter was different, so she had to reissue another bag tag.  Whatever.  This only took a few extra seconds to process and I was on my way.  Agents at the next counter position were excitedly talking about working on “a new aircraft” today.  That was my first clue that something special and different was to happen on this day.

Despite the short queue at security check, the wait was longer than expected.  Each bag and person received a thorough review and sometimes, a re-review.  At least the checks were measured and methodical but efficient.

Before going up to the Maple Leaf Lounge, I decided to head over to gate D39 to see if there was anything special being prepared for the flight.  Disappointingly, there was not.  The star of the show was not parked at the gate either.  "Not to worry," I told myself, "it was still early".



6 am, Maple Leaf Lounge


There was a good crowd in the lounge for the early morning flights.  Hot food items such as eggs and pancakes were just being brought out.


I had oatmeal with maple syrup with a cup of fruit and finished it off with a latte from an espresso dispenser.


After traveling through Scandinavia the previous week, I gained an appreciation of automatic espresso dispensers. If that’s how the Swedes have their coffee everyday with their kanelbullar, why can’t I?  Having Starbucks at every corner stateside has made all of us American coffee snobs.  But I digress.

Before leaving the lounge, I asked an agent to reprint my boarding pass on nice-looking ticket stock and had my photo taken next to the 787 model.  “Are you taking the 787 flight today?” one of them asked.  “Why yes.  I specifically came all the way from California to take your inaugural flight.”  The agents were dutifully impressed with my dedication.



6:45 am, Gate D39


As I approached the gate, I was happy to see there was a crowd gathered there.  Moreover, I can see the 787’s distinctive nose and windscreen through the window.  Being a corner gate, however, it was impossible to see and appreciate the Dreamliner in her entirety.


Red carpets were rolled out and there were banners touting the 787.  There was an aura of excitement. The media, enthusiasts, and travelers who did not realize that they ended up on a special flight alike clicked away photos next to the banners and in front of the aircraft.


Air Canada social media reps were promoting their #FlyingAC787 contest, where one lucky tweeter can win a pair of Business Class tickets.  They were also making a corporate video about the inaugural flight.  They interviewed me about my interest on the 787 and me flying on the various inaugural flights.  Here I was with Victoria after she interviewed me.


Special “tickets” with 787 pin were handed out.  Other than that, the red carpet, the banners, and a special announcement prior to boarding, there was not anything else special.  That was disappointing.  On the inaugural United 787 flight, there was a food spread at the gate, speeches, ribbon cutting, and everyone received a commemorative certificate.

Canadian fashion television personality Jeanne Beker was present (I didn’t know who she was at the time).  She is seen here on the red carpet and attracted quite a bit of attention.  After boarding, she gushed, “I’m trending!”


Wanting to get some clean photos of the cabin prior to boarding, I went up to a gate agent requesting early boarding.  By now, it was 7 am, one hour before the departure.  My request was denied, however, the agent said we were going to board now anyways.  With my boarding pass in hand and at the ready, I was the first in line.

Not familiar with the boarding process in Canada, I was asked to show my identification, which was not at the ready.  That took few extra seconds of fumbling to get to.  As a result, the person in the next line got processed before me and went ahead of me.  Normally, that is not a big deal…except…

As we approach the aircraft, the flight attendant greeting passengers at door yelled, “hey, we got our first 787 customer, get the photographer!”  So there he was, getting his photo taken while I stood behind him, saying disappointingly, “hey…what about the second 787 customer?”  More proof that no one ever remembers the second of anything.

Grumble, grumble.  I scrambled on board ahead of the crowd behind me to get photos of the cabin.



Aircraft:  Boeing 787-8
Registration: C-GHPQ (1st Air Canada 787)
Manufacture’s Serial Number/Line Number (Variable Number):  35257/160 (ZA610)
Aircraft Delivered:  May 12, 2014

Flight:  AC604, Toronto Pearson (YYZ) – Halifax (YHZ)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival:  8:00 am – 11:05 am
Actual Departure – Arrival:  7:58 am/9:29 am* – 12:25 pm
* Second push back; aircraft returned to gate

Takeoff YYZ Runway 23:  9:42 am
Landing YHZ Runway 05: 12:20 pm

Flightaware flight track



Personal Achievements:
  • First Time Airport:  Halifax
  • Second 787 inaugural flight
  • Eighth 787 flight
  • Fourth 787 “first flight”
  1. United 787 first revenue flight
  2. ANA 787 San Jose – Tokyo-Narita first flight
  3. Norwegian 787 Oakland – Stockholm-Arlanda first flight 
  4. Air Canada 787 first revenue flight


After running around getting my photos, I finally got situated in my seat, 4K.  I normally like to sit in the last row in Business Class, but I have learned from previous trips that the last row in the first cabin on the 787 does not have windows.  The guy behind me in 5K was surprised at his windowless seat.  However, as a consolation, he said with 787’s larger windows, he was still able to get somewhat of a view through the windows ahead.


 Legroom


Armrest storage with remote control, AC power outlet, USB port, and three-plug headset port.


Ahead is the 18-inch in-flight entertainment system enRoute.  It is touchscreen with a color touchscreen remote control.  The swipe control remote is not as smooth as a smartphone or tablet, but it works and looks nice.  It can also display the in-flight map, which allows you to keep tabs on the flight while watching a movie. That's nice!  Only the basic items were available for selection directly from the remote, however, forcing you to reach and make your selection from the main screen for certain functions.


 Executive Pod seating guide


What is this?  Some random strip of foam filling the gap between the seat pod and the sidewall?  Looks like it was intentionally placed there so items don't fall through and disappear.  Still seems out of place in a nice cabin like this.


Mark, our flight’s Service Director came up to me and introduced himself.  I was offered water or orange juice.  We chatted a bit about me logging inaugural 787 flights.  Later, headsets, menu, and newspapers were offered.  I skipped the newspaper, to which Mark said, “you are probably too excited to read anyways.”  Was it that obvious?  LOL.


Over the PA, the captain introduced himself “along with a whole bunch of captains on the inaugural 787”.  Weather in Halifax was expected to be cloudy with 9°C.  Service Director Mark added this was the cabin crew’s first time on board the Dreamliner as well and they are just excited as we were.

At 7:58 am, we pushed back from gate 139, two minutes early.  Safety demonstration was performed live and not via the seat back display.  The expected flying duration was 1 hour 39 minutes (distance: 799 miles according to the map).

As we pushed back and taxied out, a large number of ground staff was seeing us off and taking photos.

 

A couple dimmed windows ahead.


As we held short of Runway 33R for departure, all other traffic took-off ahead of us.  Hmmm…something was wrong.  After about 10 to 15 minutes of waiting, the captain announced that the flight computer indicated there was an issue and we had to return to the gate to get it fixed.


We taxied onto 33R and exited at Tango.  In the mean time, couple folks, presumably mechanics flying with us, went up to the cockpit to investigate.  Someone quipped, “there is probably no shortage of employees and mechanics on board this flight!”


At 8:40 am, 42 minutes after initial pushback, we were back at gate 139, where maintenance awaited for our arrival.


We were asked to remain seated while mechanics boarded the aircraft “to clear the issue”.

This bonus time allowed me to explore my Executive Pod further.  Here is the seat down flat to the bed mode.


A new one for me, seat firmness adjustments.


Yet another new feature for me, electronic window tinting adjustment from the seat control panel.  You can still control the window tint directly using the button below the window.  The two controls are tied.


Service Director Mark offered water while we waited.  He asked me whether I had experienced similar delays on my other inaugural flights.  I grimaced and said, “no, this is the first time”. “Oh no!” he replied disappointingly.

With the indicator cleared and maintenance paperwork signed off, at 9:29 am we pushed back once again, now 1 hour and 29 minutes late.

As with the previous engine start, I noticed something different from my other 787 flights.  The air conditioning stops at engine start.  As a result, there was a sudden and eerie silence followed by the gradual rumble of the engines before the air conditioning whooshing returning.  Maybe I just have never noticed it, but I do not remember this happening on my previous 787 flights.


At 9:42 am, we took-off from Runway 23, and Air Canada’s inaugural 787 flight finally took to the air.  Unlike the enthusiastic crowd on-board United’s inaugural flight, there was no applause or cheers.  Despite the excitement I saw pre-flight, there was not the same type of energy and enthusiasm as on United.  Maybe Canadians are just more reserved?

At takeoff, I noticed the GEnX engines were quieter than Rolls Royce Trents, experienced one-week prior on Norwegian.  The Trents have a distinctive whirling whine at takeoff (which I am quite familiar with watching ANA 787s taking off from my home airport) whereas the GEnX does not.

You can see and hear a comparison between the two on the videos here.  Both were taken from row 4. 

Views of the in-flight map.  It was funny seeing the whole airplane covering up our entire route on the global view!  Cruising altitude was 41,000 feet.


Cabin service started with a hot towel.  Interestingly enough, despite this being a two aisle aircraft, two flight attendants tending a pair of carts (drink and food), served one aisle at a time.  The left aisle got served first before the carts came down to my side at the right.

With 50 minutes of flight time to go, I got my breakfast tray: “healthy option” with seasonal fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal.  There was a choice of breads: white, wheat, or cinnamon bread (I went with cinnamon bread, which Mark recommended the marmalade – excellent combination), drink (I skipped it), followed by coffee or tea (I went with tea).


The fruit plate was impressive!  I would expect such a nice and plentiful dish on the ground, but not in the air.  Everything tasted fresh.  The oatmeal initially was very soupy and did not look appetizing.  But after awhile, the oats soaked up most the water, making it a bit better (though still not perfect).  I commented to Mark how nice the fruit plate was.  He said they just recently updated that dish and the accompanying dried fruit for the oatmeal was new as well.  The omelette, on the other hand, remains unchanged.

Finishing my excellent breakfast (the fruit at least) with tea.


Engine view with dimmed window.


Loo with a view.  BTW, the toilet seat no longer lowers automatically.  A later delivery Norwegian 787 I flew on was the same.


After breakfast, I went back to door 2 to get photos of the famous 787 archway.  I wasn’t the only one with that idea; there was quite a crowd wanting to get photos there.


I must say Air Canada did an excellent job with their branding and styling throughout the cabin, including the lavatory.


Our special flight was quickly coming to an end.  The captain hoped we enjoyed our ride on the brand new 787.  He added that we would be greeted by emergency vehicles upon arrival at Halifax, where we would be receiving a "rainbow spray" for our aircraft.

Just before landing, flight attendants came up to everyone in Business Class and solicited comments for the new seats.  I thought Air Canada did a great job with this product.  Even though I have never flown in Air Canada’s current (and soon-to-be-replaced) Business Class, everyone praised the window seats now actually face the window!  Air Canada added a lot of subtle but nice features – such as adjustable seat/mattress firmness, color touchscreen remote control with map, and a pod that is private but not claustrophobic.  Compared with other Business Class seats I have been in, I really think this is the best product.  I am looking forward to an excuse/opportunity to fly on a long distance overnight flight on the Air Canada 787 in order to give this seat a proper test.

It wasn’t long before we were down through the overcast and landed on Runway 05 at Halifax.  We passed a row of spotters at the fence line next the runway and received our water cannon salute from the airport fire department while taxiing to the gate.

At 12:25 pm, we arrived at gate 24, one hour and 20 minutes late.

In the gate area, there was a good number of media representatives covering our arrival.  Airline staff and travelers alike were taking photos and excitedly waiting for their first ride on the Dreamliner, on the aircraft’s return flight back to Toronto.


I tagged up with Victoria and her team and made some closing comments about the flight and the nice Business Class seats for their video.  I also chatted with the now famous Passenger Number One, joking how he beat me and now he has all the fame.


Welcome to Halifax!


After picking up my rental car, I joined local spotters at the fence line to catch the Dreamliner’s departure back to Toronto.  There, I met a news crew from CTV, where they interviewed me.  So here I am, my first ever speaking part in the news!


http://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=369321&binId=1.1145463&playlistPageNum=1
Click to see the CTV Atlantic news clip


C-GHPQ taxiing out and climbing away from Runway 05, back to Toronto.



The Next Day

After playing tourist in Halifax, 24 hours later, I was back at the airport for the return flight to Toronto on the 787.

Flight:  AC615, Halifax (YHZ) – Toronto Pearson (YYZ)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival:  1:05 pm – 2:30 pm
Actual Departure – Arrival:  1:03 pm – 2:17 pm
Takeoff YHZ Runway 32:  1:16 pm
Landing YYZ Runway 05:  2:08 pm

Flightaware flight track


Unlike the inaugural flight, this flight was uneventful.  Service was the same as the flight to Halifax, except backwards.  ;)

Hitting just the highlights...

C-GHPQ inbound from Toronto making a smoky touchdown on Runway 05.


Maple Leaf Lounge in Halifax


View of my plane


Departure and arrival boards


At the boarding gate, announcement was made about this being a 787 Dreamliner flight.  Tweet #FlyingAC787 to win a free trip on Air Canada.


My seat on the return flight, 4A.



Captain announced that “some of you probably got a nice surprise upon boarding” being on the 787.  There were four captains in the cockpit, including a Boeing training captain.

The lady behind me in 5A commented “how luxurious” this aircraft was.  I told her it was the aircraft’s second day in service.  We chatted a bit about the 787 and Air Canada’s fleet plans.

Flight duration was expected to be 1 hour 51 minutes at 32,000 feet (distance: 800 miles according to the map).  We expect an early arrival into sunny (yay!) Toronto.

Pre-departure orange juice or water was offered.  Service Director Mike introduced himself to each Business Class passenger.


At 1:03 pm, we pushed back from gate 27, two minutes early.  Once again, the safety demonstration was done live instead of on video.  Not sure if that is standard procedure on this aircraft.

At 1:16 pm, we took off from Runway 32 at Halifax.  Once again, I noted how quiet this aircraft is at takeoff, absent of the distinctive whirling whine of the RR Trents.

Drink service:  Coke Zero with lemon and mixed nuts.  The nuts were not warmed (not sure if they were supposed to be).


For lunch, I had a tough time deciding between the salmon and the chicken breast.  I chose the salmon.  Like the outbound flight, food and drink were served one aisle at the time, fortunately, being in an “A” seat this time, my side got served first.


Cheers!


This same menu came up again later in the day on my flight home to San Francisco.  The meal decision was simple on that flight!  So for reference, here is what the chicken breast dish looks like.


The chicken was better.  I really liked the couscous.  The salmon was bland and dry and not very flavorful.

The cabin was absent of the first day hoopla.  It was just a routine flight.  After lunch, I did a quick walk through of the cabin.

Business Class


Premium Economy


Forward Economy cabin


Cruising altitude was 40,000 feet.  Here we were on the descend.


At 2:08 pm, we touched down on Runway 05 at Toronto.

Taxiing past 787’s spiritual predecessor, the 767.


Nine minutes later, at 2:17 pm, we came to a stop at gate 124.


At the gate area, the 787 still commanded attention.  Many walking past (especially pilots) stopped in their tracks to take photos of this beautiful bird.



In the end, overall, my trip was success!  Being in the news was cool, of course.  I was disappointed that there were not more pomp and ceremony and the crowd was not more enthusiastic.  However, despite being a short domestic flight, service on board in Business Class was excellent.  I was impressed to see hot meal and personalized service on a two-hour domestic flight.  I was happy to get a small flavor of what to expect on a long-haul flight on Air Canada, both in the hard and soft products.  On my future overseas trips, I will definitely look to route myself on the Air Canada 787.

Finally, I would like to thank my friend Captain Mike, who graciously used his certs to upgrade me on the inaugural flight but himself was unable to get to Toronto in time to fly on the flight with me.  Sorry you were unable to make it, Mike…I miss you.

Copyright © 2014 Ben Wang.  All Rights Reserved.