Friday, 1 January 2010

Highlights of UA896

Announcement - Hong Kong 09 Trip Report

The Trip Report will be divided into several sections due to the large number of photos posted for your personal enjoyment and to minimise the number of errors encountered during the loading of the photos. Please click on either the links on the sidebar on the right of the page or at the bottom of each page to move on to the next section. Updates will be added progressively to the trip report, so do check back soon!

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Date: Friday, 11 Dec 09
Sector: Singapore Changi (SIN) -> Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok (HKG)
Aircraft: N173UA, B747-422
Seat: 51A
Departure Gate: Terminal 3, B5

Scheduled Departure Time: 0650 LT
Actual Departure Time: 0650 LT

Scheduled Arrival Time: 1030 LT
Actual Arrival Time: 1021 LT
Arrival Gate: 67

Booking

It had been a number of years since most of us had last visited Hong Kong, thus we decided to visit the Pearl of the Orient during the December holidays when all of us are free. Unfortunately, many other like-minded Singaporeans had similar ideas as well and this had slightly complicated our initial task of securing return air-tickets at a reasonable fare. Currently, there are only 3 full service airlines (Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines) and 1 low cost carrier (Jetstar; Tiger had yet to commenced operations on this route) offer a total of 14 direct flights between Singapore and Hong Kong daily.

After numerous checks and calls to travel agents, we booked our tickets through Misa Travel (www.airfares.com.sg) as they offered the best fares. In comparison, United’s Singapore website was $30 more expensive. However, I had heard that apparently both the global and Singapore site quotes differing fares for the same sector using the same currency terms. United’s website has a useful feature which allows one to check how full the flight is currently booked by using the seat selector feature during the initial booking process.

Sample of booking page on united.com
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We were also able to pre-select our seats at the travel agent’s office, which was great as we could seat together on what would be expected to be a full flight.

Check-in

One of the inconveniences for the United option was the rather early departure time of 0650hrs. This meant that passengers have to check-in by 0500hrs in the morning, when public transport services had barely started operations for the day. I was very fortunate to have a friend who offered me a lift to the airport together in his father’s car, thus saving me the trouble to either camp overnight in the airport or an expensive taxi ride to the airport due to the midnight surcharges. This trip would also be the first time that I would be using the new Terminal 3, as well as my first ride on a B747-400 and on an American carrier.

United occupies both sides of row 8 at terminal 3, with one side allocated to premium passengers and the other to passengers travelling on economy class.

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Owing to an additional security requirement for flights departing to the USA, passengers are required to produce their passport and/or e-ticket to the security personnel for verification against a list of booked passengers before being allowed to proceed to the check-in desks.

The theme for the christmas decorations at Changi Airport this year is "Christmas is bigger at Changi", hence there are a number of oversized christmas baubles placed around the airport for visitors to pose for a photograph.
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The Flight

The rationale for United’s move to Terminal 3 became clear as we entered the gate for security checks. Gates B5 and B6 share a common security check with waiting areas at the side. As the Tokyo bound flight only departs 30mins after the Hong Kong flight, United essentially has twice the usual number of available security lanes to clear each flight, as most passengers would only enter the gate closer to the indicated departure time. By doing so, it greatly sped up the security checks and reduced the queue outside the boarding gates as a result. Passengers were not required to remove belts and shoes, but were subject to manual frisking even if one doesn’t trigger the metal detector.

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Directional signs after security screening to Gates B5 and B6
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N795UA operating UA876 to NRT
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In addition, the gate holding area was completely empty, which was a first for me as all passengers were allowed to board the aircraft immediately after security checks. This allowed for a continuous, steady flow of passengers into the aircraft cabin and eliminates the last minute gridlocks within the aircraft cabin as passengers in the front rows struggle to stow their luggage in the overhead bins.
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The cabin looked well-maintained for a 20 year old aircraft, which might be due to the fact that most of United’s B747-400 had undergone a refurbishment not long ago. N173UA was one of the first B747-400 to join the airline, having made its first flight on 02/10/1989. She was stored for a period of time at Victorville during her career and was since brought back into active service in January 2004.

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While it was by no means as extensive as Cathay Pacific’s efforts on their own examples, the cabin was clean with the old economy seats starting to show their age due to its design.

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However, there were some disturbing patches of grease on the underside of the overhead luggage bins.
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Seat pitch was standard at 32” and a sealed blanket was provided along with a pillow at each seat. However, the headphones were only coiled up neatly and stuffed into the seat pocket, which causes me to wonder if the headphones had been cleaned from the previous flights, as most other airlines provide the headphones in a sealed packet. Inflight Entertainment was basic, with a choice of audio channels and main screen video. Thankfully, the original bulky, low contrast CRTs and main screen projector had been replaced with LCD displays during the refurbishment.

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The refurbished aircraft have a different safety card as the premium classes have different seat designs, with a “Premium” added besides the aircraft model on the front cover of the card. From the left to right: 1992,1998,2008 versions of the same aircraft type of the same airline.

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It was interesting that newspapers such as Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao were not made available at the entrance to the aircraft, as most full service carriers would provide them for passengers. Instead, limited copies of the free local newspaper Today was offered to passengers by the cabin crew instead.

After waiting a short while for a Cathay Pacific Cargo B744F ‘Silver Bullet’ to land, the aircraft turned onto the runway and rumbled down for an immediate takeoff, rotating just after passing the fire station and took to the skies.

Holding short of runway 02L
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Following a series of turns, we settled into a smooth climb and I noted that the noise level was not as terribly loud as many had reported it to be. In fact, it was comparable to that of the B777 and A330, but of course it could not be measured against the new A380 which was built upon an entirely new generation of engines and structural design.

Performing a bank while climbing over Johor
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On the main screen, Aliens vs Monsters was being shown and a choice of English and Mandarin were available from the audio channels. I was quite disappointed that the famed Channel 9 which allowed passengers to listen in on radio exchanges between the cockpit and the air traffic controllers was not available on this flight. As a repeat of the jazz channel was available instead, I decided to watch the movie on the main screen.

Breakfast was served 45mins into the flight and passengers were handled a very cold mealbox which appeared to be, and probably was, taken straight out of the chiller. As a gauge of how cold the box was, condensation immediately formed on the plastic packaging of the pastry when the box was opened. The sugared pastry was mostly tasteless except for the almond pieces on top of it, and was accompanied by what tasted like a banana muffin. Thankfully, the muffin though cold, was moist and quite edible in comparison. The box comprised of a bowl of cut fruits, which included honeydew, watermelon and very sour pieces of pineapple which sole purpose seemed to be to forcefully jolt passengers out of their slumber. A usual choice of drinks was available from the trolley, and it seemed that United uses coffee beans from Starbucks to brew their coffee, as it was proudly printed on the Styrofoam cup that it was served in.

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Snackbox closed with a cup of orange juice.
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The meal boxes and cups were easily and efficiently cleared, allowing passengers to walk around in the cabin or catch a short nap (if they had recovered from their encounter with the pineapple cubes in the meal box earlier that is). After the main screen movie had finished screening, episodes of Grey’s Anatomy were shown until the aircraft was about to start its descent. As promised by the cockpit crew in their announcements earlier, it was rather clear of clouds for most of the descent over the South China Sea, and landed 5mins ahead of the estimated time on runway 07L at 1015hrs.

Overflying one of the many small islands out of Hong Kong
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Shadow of the aircraft on the water on final approach
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Spoilers and Flaps deployed upon landing on runway 07L
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Cathay Pacific A330 B-HLM parked at Gate 71
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Cathay Pacific B747-400 B-HUG following our aircraft
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As we taxied to our gate, I noted that a Jetstar A320, 9V-JSH which was operating 3K691 on the same route, landed approximately 5 mins after us. This would mean that we had somehow managed to overtake the aircraft along the flight, as the Jetstar had left 10mins ahead of us. However, Jetstar uses a remote stand on the apron where passengers have to be bused to the terminal unlike other full service carriers which use a proper gate.
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The friendly cabin crew members had no problems with photos of the cabin, and a senior Asian crew member even helped my friend to locate his mobile phone which had slipped from his pocket during the flight.

N173UA being tended to for her onward trans-pacific sector at HKIA.
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Interesting sunshades on another UA B744 at HKIA.
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Since the aircraft was parked at the extreme end of the terminal building, we were able to take the internal train shuttle to the other end of the terminal where the immigration counters and baggage claim are located.
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The common queue at the immigration counters was very long, but we managed to clear after waiting in line for about 15mins. Baggage reclaim was swift as the baggage had already arrived on the carousel after we had cleared immigration, and we made our way out of the terminal to start on our 8 day sightseeing and bus spotting plan.

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Arrivals Board
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Getting to the Guesthouse

Although our guesthouse was located at Nathan Road, it would be a clear choice to take service A21 direct from the airport. Instead, we decided to take a joyride on A10 which plies the western end of Hong Kong Island through the hilly Mt Davis estate and backtracking back to Kowloon. Service A10 also holds the record of being the most expensive public bus service in Hong Kong currently at HKD48.
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1563, a MAN NL262R is being prepared for the next Cityflyer A10 departure from the Ground Transportation Centre.
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Along the ride on Tsing Ma bridge, we pass by Park Island / Ma Wan to our left. Park Island is a private residential estate where only authorised vehicles are allowed within the estate.
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Ting Kau bridge connects to the Tsing Ma Bridge and provides a quick link from New Territories West (Yuen Long etc.) to the Airport and Kowloon.
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We decided to cut short our joyride and transfer at Pok Fu Lam Road in order to save time instead of taking the service all the way to Aberdeen.
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Queen Mary Hospital. Thank goodness the overhead bridge had lifts, which saved us having to climb up and down the overhead bridge with our luggage! We transferred to service 970X to Nathan Road.
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PDF version with additional details of this trip report is available on request :)

Next Post: Guesthouse, Planning and Overview

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