Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Highlights of MU1544

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Mention Northeast China, and the first impression that pops into the minds of most would be colourfully lit ice sculptures in Harbin in a winter fairytale setting. Thus, it was not hard to imagine the surprised reactions from my friends when they had learnt of my intention to visit the region in summer instead.

Also commonly known as Manchuria to the west, this region is actually made up of 3 provinces (Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning) in the northeastern part of China. The proximity of this region to neighbouring Russia, Japan and North Korea has a huge influence on the culture, architecture and cuisine in the different northeast cities. Jilin province is also home to one of China's greatest mountains, Changbaishan which is a sacred mountain to the Manchu people (which had ruled China as the Qing dynasty), as well as being a natural treasure trove of flora and fauna. However, Changbaishan is only open for tourists to visit for just over 5 months a year from end April to September due to heavy snowfall, thus my decision to visit in the summer season instead.

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PhotobucketMU1544 Singapore to Shanghai-Pudong
Operated as MU544
Date: Wednesday, 23 Jun 10
Aircraft: B-2330, Airbus A300-605R
Seat: 21A
Departure Gate: A11

Scheduled Departure Time: 0055 LT
Actual Departure Time: 0058 LT

Scheduled Arrival Time: 0550 LT
Actual Arrival Time: 0622 LT
Arrival Gate: 25

Check In

China Eastern Airlines is one of the first airlines to utilise the new Terminal 3 for all their flights, and has a dedicated check-in row at row 5. The group check-in was carried out quickly as there were only 2 tour groups travelling on this flight today, as the baggage only need to be tagged to the boarding passes which had been issued earlier. This was also one of the rare occassions where the group check-in queue was far shorter as compared to the long and snaking common check-in queue for the other passengers besides us.

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We were issued boarding passes for both sectors, which includes the onward domestic sector from Shanghai-Pudong to Harbin. Our baggage were also tagged with an additional special pink 'TransChina Service' bagagge tag, and a red marker was also used to draw across the barcode on the printed baggage label. Passengers were also given a red sticker to paste on their clothing for easy identification by the airport staff at both the transit and destination airport.

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About the 'TransChina Service'

The 'TransChina Service' is an initiative by some of the major Chinese carriers such as China Eastern and China Southern to help reduce the hassle when transiting en route to another destination in China. This means that passengers need not reclaim their luggage when arriving at the transiting airport as it would be automatically forwarded to their connecting flight, thus saving the need to check-in again during transit. Such flights are sold as similar flight codes for the same flight. The confusing relationship between the different flights is clarified in the list below (using my flight as an example).

MU 544 -> Singapore to Shanghai-Pudong
MU1544 -> Singapore to Harbin via Shanghai-Pudong
MU3544 -> Singapore to Shenyang via Shanghai-Pudong
MU9544 -> Singapore to Dalian via Shanghai-Pudong


Thus, passengers travelling to Harbin, Shenyang and Dalian will take the same flight to Shanghai-Pudong before transferring to another aircraft to their final destination.

After breezing through Singapore immigration by using the automated channels, I headed to Terminal 1 to check out the ongoing renovations to Changi Airport's first terminal. Costing S$500 million and expected to be completed by 2011, the most extensive facelift yet will see the aged 1980s era facade being remodelled under the theme of a 'Tropical City'. The departure area will also feature open, airy spaces such as those in Terminal 3.

One of the last original signs directing arriving passengers towards the immigration and baggage claim area. Apart from the 4 official languages, it also includes German, Japanese and French. I wonder if these signs would be preserved somewhere as part of the overall decor, but I think that it would probably be replaced by new and more modern looking signs instead.
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From the airside, the bright, airy open spaces which travellers love at Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 was a welcome change from the claustrophobic low ceilings at Terminal 1 prior to the current renovation. The space beneath the landside viewing mall housed additional retail shops as well as rest areas.
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With the current world cup fever gripping the world by storm, Changi Airport had also thoughtfully provided viewing areas at each of the 3 terminals with live matches on widescreen LCDs sponsored by Sony.
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Changi Airport Group is agressively advertising their current promotion "Be a Changi Millionaire" with huge billboards placed around the airport and full body bus advertisments.
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Singapore Airlines A380 9V-SKB after push back and about to taxi for departure to Tokyo Narita as SQ638.
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Gate A11 where my flight would be boarding from.
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I was disappointed to note that an Airbus A300-600R would be operating my flight after clearing security. It came as an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to note that China Eastern had swapped the equipment for all their flights to an AB6 a week before my departure as the original A343 and A330 were re-deployed to other routes. I had never heard any good comments about MU's AB6s, and was frequently told that it was worse than the AB6s which were operated by Thai Airways, of which I was not impressed on my flights on them.

To further rub salt into my wound, I noted that the flight was to be operated by B-2330, which is a very regular visitor to Singapore. The aircraft was photographed operating the afternoon flight MU567 from Shanghai-Pudong.
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The Flight

The standard sealed blanket and pillow was offered in each seat, and I have to give credit that the legroom is very generous with a 34" pitch, which came as a huge surprise as most Chinese carriers tend to fit in more seats at the expense of additional legroom. This meant that I was able to comfortably cross my legs and stretch out without accidentally hitting the seatback in front of me. A pair of headphones in a sealed bag, safety card, airsickness bag and their inflight magazine "Connections" completed the complement of items in the bulging seat pocket. Unfortunately, photography was terrible from most windows as the windows were full of deep scratches.
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Boarding was completed on time and we pushed back from the gate as the twin General Electric engines were started. The safety demonstration was performed manually by the cabin crew as the video and audio system was not functioning. We made a quick taxi out to runway 20C for an immediate takeoff.

Soon after the fasten seatbelt signs were switched off, the cabin crew started to serve drinks and a hot towel to the passengers. Following which, dinner was quickly and efficiently served to the passengers. Passengers were first handed a neat plastic tray with a foldable clear lid which contained the cold dishes, while a flight steward made several rounds to the galley to retrieve the hot meal trays for the more popular choice.

A choice of dim sum with noodle or fish with rice was offered, and the former choice did not disappoint as the 2 "siew mai" were succulent and tasty. The noodle was also well cooked and not overly salty. The fruit tray consists of 2 grapes, as well a slice of watermelon, pineapple and papaya. The grapes had seeds in them, which was surprising as most of the flights which I had been on served seedless grapes. The pineapple was a repeat of my United flight last December as it was unbelievably sour and left a sharp tangy aftertate. The apricot yoghurt provided a nice dessert to end off the meal and served to neutralise the damage caused by the slice of pineapple. The cabin crew also came around with a choice of buns or croissants from a basket, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had even bothered to warm them in the oven.
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The trays were quickly cleared so that passengers could catch some sleep on this overnight flight, and another round of drinks was offered. With no audio or video programming available, I turned to my MP3 player to provide some entertainment and had a fitful sleep as the cabin was extremely warm and stuffy even as the airconditioning vents were wide open.

According to the fleet description page in the inflight magazine, the airline boasts of their AB6 fleet having the widest cabin and lowest cabin noise among other aircraft in its class, as well as being the world's first aircraft to be operated by only 2 cockpit crew with digital instrumentation. It was also enthusing to note that the airline translates "Airbus" differently into Chinese as compared to the usual translation.
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View of the economy class cabin on China Eastern's A300-600R.
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The descent was a turbulent one as we went through thick layers of cloud. At 0550hrs, passengers were informed in both Chinese and English that the captain had decided to attempt an approach into Shanghai Hongqiao airport instead due to poor weather conditions at Pudong. There were audible groans throughout the cabin as many passengers were on transit to other flights, and the cabin crew were immediately swarmed with questions. We were told that an airline representative would be on hand to meet the flight at Hongqiao to help with our onward travel arrangements.

As the flaps were fully extended in preparation for a final approach into Shanghai Hongqiao, the cockpit crew applied power and executed an aborted approach. The cabin crew later informed passengers that the captain decided to try for an approach into Pudong instead due to improving weather conditions.

It was obvious that the airport was shrouded in fog as we made our final approach onto runway 17L, and I steeled myself for the signature hard landing which the AB6 is notorious for. The aircraft shot past the piano keys and crew firmly put down the aircraft onto the runway and applied very hard braking with thrust reversers and spoilers deployed. When the aircraft finally stopped and the crew gingerly taxiied the aircraft forward, the piano keys on the opposite end of the runway could be seen, which showed how close the aircraft was to the overrun zone. We stayed motionless for the next 5mins, with the fog being so dense that much of the aircraft wing was obscured from the windows. I later found out from weatherunderground that the visibility was only between 0.1-0.6km at the time of landing, which would be just within the limits for a CAT IIA approach.

We made a very slow taxi out of the runway as visibility improved to our gate at Terminal 1. The airport control tower was barely visible (apologies for the scratched window pane).

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After disembarking the aircraft, we went to the transit counter to obtain the gate for our onward domestic flight and cleared immigration quickly as our flight was the only arrival at the time.
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Various transport options from Shanghai Pudong. This includes the Maglev train, normal subway line and the airport express bus to Shanghai Hongqiao.

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PhotobucketMU1544 Shanghai-Pudong to Harbin
Operated as MU5613


Date: Wednesday, 23 Jun 10
Sector: Shanghai-Pudong (PVG) -> Harbin Taiping (HRB)
Aircraft: B-6601, A320-200
Seat: 25F
Departure Gate: 15

Scheduled Departure Time: 0910 LT
Actual Departure Time: 0900 LT

Scheduled Arrival Time: 1150 LT
Actual Arrival Time: 1152 LT

With our pre-issued boarding passes for the onward domestic sector as part of the 'TransChina Service', we were able to bypass the long queues at the common check-in counter for China Eastern's domestic flight on the departure level. The architecture of the terminal building with the exposed supporting structures is rather unique.

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Spotting at Shanghai-Pudong

Shanghai-Pudong has an interesting layout where the waiting areas for the gates are on the upper level, and passengers have to descend via escalator to board to the aircraft on the lower level. This also meant that the outer pane of glass is of some distance away from the waiting area, and thus prone to reflection from the terminal lighting fixtures. Fortunately, it was possible to obtain some passable shots by sitting down on the floor and choosing the appropriate window to elimate the reflections.

Apart from essential amenities such as clean toilets, there was little variety for duty free shopping and very few food choices as well. There is an automatic drinking water dispenser for cold and warm water which the authorities claimed to be 'sterilised on a regular basis'. However, there is a distinct weird taste to the water. Free Wi-Fi was available throughout the terminal, but I could not get past the home page of the airport on my Nokia E66.
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Slightly tinted glass, fog and smog had posed significant challenges in getting decent photos of the movements during my 2 hour transit in the terminal. Nevertheless, some subjects were too interesting to resist for a record shot, such as this Yangtze River Express B747-400BCF B-2435.
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The morning movements were dominated by Spring Airlines and Juneyao Airlines A320 series aircraft as their extensive operations are centered at Pudong. Juneyao Airlines A320 B-6338 taxiies out for departure and sports a severely blackened tail cone.
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A familiar sight at a foreign airport. Singapore Airlines B772 9V-SQK returning home as SQ827.
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Great Wall Airlines B747-400F B-2428 being towed from the remote stand to the cargo apron for her flight. B-2428 was leased from Singapore Airlines Cargo and was formerly 9V-SFE.
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For the bus enthusiast in me, Shanghai-Pudong airport also kept me occupied with a constant stream of apron buses from the different airlines. These buses ferried passengers from the main terminal building to their aircraft parked at the remote stands.
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The Flight
Boarding commenced at about half an hour before the scheduled departure time. Our onward domestic sector would be operated as MU5613. In addition to our flight MU1544 as a 'TransChina Service' from Singapore, the flight is also sold as MU1548 from Bangkok under a similar arrangement.
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Our flight would be operated by B-6601, which is one of the newer A320s operated by the airline. Delivered to the airline on 20 Oct 2009, this aircraft is fitted with IAE V2500 engines instead of CFM56-5 engines which power most of the other A320s in the fleet. China Eastern operates an impressive fleet of 88 A320 aircraft at the time of writing.
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The well maintained interior features China Eastern's standard blue fabric economy seats in addition to two rows of business class seats.
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The flight was about 80% full and our tour group were able to spread ourselves out comfortably in the last few rows of the cabin. The seat pitch was also adequate with the space saving slimline fabric seats. The flight stewardess stationed at the rear during the boarding was also exceptionally friendly and talked about her own travel experiences in northeast China when she learnt about our trip.
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View from my seat at 25F with another company A332 parked besides us with the distinctive profile of the terminal building in the background.
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We pushed back from the gate 10mins ahead of schedule and the safety video was played through the drop down LCD screens. Our aircraft took its place in the take-off queue and slowly taxiied past the busy cargo apron, allowing one to appreciate the variety of cargo operators which serve Shanghai-Pudong.

Jade Cargo B747-400ERF B-2423. This aircraft was leased to Jett8 Cargo of Singapore for a short period in 2008 and wore a Jett8 sticker on her fuselage. She was also often referred to as 'Jade8' by the local spotters when she was plying the Singapore-Bangalore-Malmo and Singapore-Hong Kong routes for Jett8.
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Our aircraft trundled down the runway and made a late rotation with a heavy load of fuel carried for the 2hrs 40mins flight. The parallel runway 17R/35L could also be seen in the photo.
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We quickly lifted clear of the fog and passengers were promptly handed a snack box and a choice of drink by the crew.
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I had hoped for a hot meal on this sector,but the contents of the snack box was sufficient for a light breakfast. These included a bag of apple crisps, a bun which was coated with meat floss, a slice of cake and a packet of flavoured biscuits. A small container of mineral water was also provided in the box in addition to the drink offered by the cabin crew.
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Inflight entertainment was in the form of a series of documentaries screened from the drop down screens. A sealed pair of headphones was also available in each seat pocket for passengers who wish to listen to the audio feed.
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The documentaries proved to be of little interest to the bulk of the passengers and many dozed off for the remaining duration of the flight.
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Overflying mountainous Jilin province. Jilin's geography is unusual as much of the northeast provinces consists of flat plains instead.
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The fertile plains of the northeast are especially suitable for growing crops such as rice and wheat. In the past, the rice used in the imperial court are specially harvested from this province.
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Although the airport is surrounded by flat plains, Harbin Taiping airport is infamous for its strong crosswinds, clear air turbulence, and wind shears near the ground. Our aircraft is constantly buffeted by strong winds as the crew make the spectacular right hand turn to line up with the runway. As a reward for putting up with the rough approach, passengers were treated to views of the meandering Songhua River and her many distributaries across lush green fields.
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Neat farming plots adorn the landscape on the final approach to Harbin Taiping airport.
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We made a firm touchdown onto the concrete runway and quickly vacated the runway towards the airport terminal. China Southern A320 B-6275 taxiies past the Harbin control tower towards the end of runway 23 for takeoff.
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An Air China A319 B-6044 arrived shortly after our flight and was parked besides us at the terminal.
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Our aircraft, B-6601 parked at the gate at Harbin Taiping airport.
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We were directed by airport personnel to another corridor towards the baggage claim section for international arrivals to reclaim our luggage. This was to facilitate customs clearance as our check-in baggage had not been cleared during our transit at Pudong airport. We waited for 20 mins before our baggage appeared on the belt as the customs personnel searched for the key to unlock the doors at either end of the conveyor belt.
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Our tour guide was already waiting for us when we exited into the arrivals concourse and we headed to the city proper for lunch before we started our guided tour.

Next Post: Harbin - City Impressions

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