Highlights of CA4431

by - 23:11

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Date: Friday, 24 May 13
Aircraft: B-6038, Airbus A319-115
Seat: 20A
Departure Gate: 157

Scheduled Departure Time: 0740 LT
Boarding Time: 0843 LT
Pushback: 0905 LT
Takeoff: 0924 LT on runway 02L

Scheduled Arrival Time: 0925 LT
Touchdown: 1104 LT on runway 05
Actual Arrival Time: 1106 LT
Arrival Stand: 4

Introduction

Accessibility, or lack thereof, has always been one of the reasons behind the mystical charm that Tibet exudes. With much of the region being situated atop the Tibetan plateau or nestled in steep forested valleys, it had been an ongoing battle between mankind and nature to extend the modern conveniences of different forms of transportation to this once remote land. In particular, the thin atmosphere posed by the high altitude and lack of suitably unhindered topography had frustrated attempts to construct airports in Tibet. There are currently a total of five civilian airports in Tibet, with all being served by flights to Chengdu except Ngari Gunsa Airport which is only linked to Lhasa and Kashgar.

Although flying into Lhasa Gongga Airport is probably the easiest and most cost effective way of entering Tibet, we opted for the less common option of flying from Chengdu to Nyingchi Mainling Airport 林芝米林机场 located in south-eastern Tibet. Widely regarded as being the most challenging airport in China to fly into, the development of this airport was only made possible with the availability of RNP (Required Navigation Performance) approaches due to the challenging terrain and unstable weather conditions. With increased demand from both tourists and local residents, Air China now operates a total of 4 daily flights during the peak summer season while Tibet Airlines provide another daily rotation. However, all flights to Nyingchi are only conducted in the morning due to the increased risk of fog in the afternoon.

Check-In

The morning call was certainly the earliest I had encountered at 0400hrs in the morning, and we gathered at the hotel lobby to prepare to set off for the airport at 0445hrs. A simple packed breakfast had been prepared by the hotel in advance as each guest was handed a paper bag contained a packet of chilled milk, an apple and a hardboiled egg. The buns in the photo were bought the previous evening at a nearby Carrefour hypermart.
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The bulk of Air China's domestic flights depart from the new Terminal 2 which was opened less than year ago in August 2012. However, domestic legs which are part of an international flight still depart from the adjacent Terminal 1. Unfortunately, there was not an opportunity to take in the new, modern departure concourse as our tour guide charged through the terminal for Air China's domestic check-in desks at row Q.

Due to the additional security requirements, flights bound for Tibetan destinations open for check-in 2hrs ahead of the departure time instead of the usual 1hr. The overwhelming demand on flights bound for Tibet and the operational limitations imposed on the equipment type meant that they were routinely overbooked. Our tour guide related horror stories of entire tour groups being bumped off a flight as they simply did not check-in as early as the rest of the passengers on the same flight. Thus, the typical Singaporean 'kiasu' (afraid of losing) spirit of arriving at the check-in desks 2.5 hrs ahead of the scheduled departure time stood us in good stead and our tour group managed to check in successfully for our flight.
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Boarding pass for Tibet. Note the multitude of official stamps which were collected at the various security checkpoints.
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While Singaporeans do not require a visa to visit China, a Tibetan Entry Permit (often referred to as 入藏函 in Chinese) is required to visit Tibet. At the time of writing, foreigners are not allowed to travel independently in Tibet although certain loopholes in the rigid requirements could be exploited with the help of a willing travel agent and a facilitation fee.
This permit certifies that foreigners are visiting Tibet as part of a tour group and follow a fixed itinerary which is declared on it. It is also an important document which must be presented at the check-in desk and security checkpoint at the point of embarkation, and on demand at the numerous checkpoints scattered throughout Tibet.
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After sorting out our boarding passes, we were then directed to the security checkpoint which had been segregated into two zones - one zone for flights to Tibetan destinations and another zone for flights to other domestic destinations. The passport details were then closely scrutinized against that in the Tibetan Entry Permit, before being directed to the actual security screening. The security screening was noticeably stricter with belts and shoes having to be removed and passed through the X-ray scanner along with the rest of the hand-carry baggage.

Airside section of Terminal 2. Terminal 2 handles domestic flights operated by all airlines except Sichuan Airlines which continue to operate from Terminal 1. However, aircraft photography is challenging due to reflections as the glass panels are a distance away from the walkways.
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Layout plan of Terminal 2. The terminal building is divided into 3 distinct piers and one would have to walk up approximately 1km from the common security screening point to the furthest gate.
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Our flight is codeshared with other Air China's other subsidiaries as Shenzhen Airlines ZH4431 and Shandong Airlines SC4431. An announcement in Chinese and English was made an hour before departure to inform passengers of the flight delay. Although the reason given by the airline was due to poor weather conditions at Nyingchi, we noted that a Tibet Airlines A319 had departed for the same destination less than 10 minutes after the announcement! Similar announcements were made throughout the terminal for other Air China flights heading to the tourist destination of Jiuzhaigou in northern Sichuan province, while we noted that flights by other airlines also operated normally. Hence, it was perhaps more of an operator decision rather than purely due to weather conditions.
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A printed A4 notice about the delay was placed at the counter in front of the gate, and a kettle of hot Chinese tea was also made available to passengers. Delays and cancellations on flights to Nyingchi are apparently common from other online reports due to the unstable weather conditions at the destination airport. The gate agent also made a point to remind passengers not to stray too far from the gate as the announcements are only made at the gate area and not terminal wide to reduce the number of public announcements being made.
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The Flight

After sighting our luggage being ferried out to the aircraft to be loaded, the boarding call was made for our flight at 0840hrs. B-6038 would be operating our flight today and was delivered to the airline in September 2004. The other Air China A319 in the background, B-6227, was scheduled to be operating the earlier 0650hrs departure to Nyingchi as CA4251 and was similarly delayed as well. (Apologies for the reflections).
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We were directed to our seats at the rear of the cabin by the cheerful cabin crew and it was perhaps not surprising that it was to be a full flight. There were also a number of large Hong Kong tour groups on this flight. Some of us had chatted with the Hong Kong tour group members earlier at the gate holding area and discovered that many are actually making a repeat visit to Tibet to tour the Nyingchi region.

View of Terminal 2 from seat 20A. With the bulk of the aircraft departed during the morning wave of departures, a sole Shenzhen Airlines B737-800 was left along the pier waiting for her next load of passengers. The architecture of Terminal 2 also reminds one of Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport with its curved glass and steel facade.
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A quick physical check was done to ensure that all passengers that had checked-in for the flight were accounted for and our flight was pushed back from the gate for departure 1hr 25mins behind schedule. The safety demonstration was screened from the drop down LCD monitors with the video being narrated in Chinese with English subtitles.
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Air China's A319 aircraft are configured with 8 business class seats (which is sold as first class on domestic routes) and 120 economy class seats at 30" seat pitch. The limited legroom is tolerable for a short flight but quickly becomes unbearable on longer overnight flights if the seat in front is reclined.
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As we taxiied out of the apron, we noticed that the earlier scheduled flight to Nyingchi was still stuck at her gate. It was also apparent that the newer Airbus narrowbodies had largely taken over the duty of operating Air China's domestic routes from Chengdu. Once operated by the venerable Boeing 757-200, these aircraft which were synonymous with China Southwest Airlines are now relegated to a handful of routes to Urumqi, Nanjing and Guangzhou for the 2013 summer schedule.
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A diverse mix of aircraft types and airlines parked at the remote stands at the southern end of the airport. Some notable subjects include SF Cargo B757-200F, China Postal Airlines B737-400F and Air China A321 B-6361 decked out in the striking 'Beautiful Sichuan' special livery.
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Yangtze River Express B747-400BDSF B-2435 being pushed back for departure. The aircraft had formerly operated for ANA as JA401A before being converted into freighter by IAI in 2009 (hence the BDSF designation instead of BCF for Boeing supplied conversion kits).
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China Eastern Airlines (Yunnan Airlines) B737-700 B-5293 taxiing to the terminal building after landing on runway 02R from Kunming. The peacock based special livery makes reference to the history of Yunnan Airlines which had used to feature a stylised peacock feather as its tail marking.
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Holding short of runway 02L for another Air China departure on the active departure runway on a typical smoggy morning.
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After a final functional check of the spoilers, we turned onto runway 02L and took off after a relatively late rotation.


Obscured by the thick layer of smog, the city quickly faded from view as the aircraft made a left turn to head west towards Tibet. A brief cabin announcement was made shortly after the fasten seat belt signs were pinged off and passengers were informed that the estimated flight time would be 1hr 35mins for the 1100km journey.
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A simple refreshment service was provided and passengers were only offered a single choice of a beef hamburger with a packet of preserved mushrooms. A basic drink service similar to our inbound flight from Singapore was offered, and juices were once again served without ice. There were also no alcohol beverages being offered to economy class passengers.
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The mountainous terrain of north-western Sichuan province conceals some of the best natural scenery in China and is also a tourism hotspot. Clear turquoise lakes and other geological features juxtapose with snow capped mountain peaks in the Jiuzhai-Huanglong natural reserve while more adventurous visitors could venture to the more remote Mt Sigu'niang.
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Partially hidden by the partial cloud cover, snow capped mountain ranges stretched out towards the horizon. The lack of suitable in-flight entertainment is compensated with the natural scenery of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau out of the window.
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The aircraft passed through a rough patch of turbulence as we dived through a towering cumulonimbus storm cloud. The well defined pillar of ominous grey cloud provided for a stark contrast with the carpet of white clouds and the clear sky above.
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Apart from the magazines provided in the seat pocket, short documentaries were screened from the drop down screens but no headphones were issued for this relatively short domestic sector. The airshow channel was screened just before the aircraft commenced the descent into Nyingchi and provided useful details of the flight. As it is the norm among Chinese carriers, the information is alternated between English & Chinese in both metric and imperial units.
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The 95 mile long RNP approach into Nyinchi-Mainling Airport was developed by Naverus in 2006 and is regarded as one of the world's longest and most challenging RNP approaches. We commenced our descent at approximately 27,000ft and the aircraft banked towards the south to enter the approach.
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Jagged mountain peaks pierce through the dense cloud layer and hinted at the rugged terrain of the region. The approach path is flanked by 6000m to 7000m high mountain ranges.
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The aircraft plunged into the thick opaque layer of clouds and the view from the windows were reduced to a solid opaque white. Aviation technology had now progressed to a point where it is safe to rely solely on instruments to descend through such terrain in minimal visibility safely while keeping a respectable distance from the majestic snow capped peaks. A brief let-up in the cloud cover allowed us to take in fleeting views of the Himalayan mountain range as the aircraft continued to descend through 6,500m. There is certainly no doubt that one had now entered the roof of the world - Tibet.
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The widest point in the Yarlung-Tsangbo 雅鲁藏布 valley measures just 0.75 miles, which is far less than that recommended for a narrow body aircraft such as the B757 for a typical approach path.
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With a unique climate, luxuriant vegetation and complex geography, this particular section of the valley is shrouded in fog virtually every day of the year. Although scheduled flights occur only in the morning when visibility is at its best, it is estimated that there are only 100 days that allow aircraft movements at the airport each year.
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The final approach brought us through a series of slight turns through the valley to line up with runway 05 as passengers seated at the windows were treated to a view of lush farmlands and the occasional plot of yellow mustard flowers.


With reverse thrust, spoilers and brakes deployed, the aircraft coasted to the end of the 3,000m long runway and made a U-turn to backtrack towards the terminal building. The low cloud base and the interlocking headlands of the valley could be seen as the aircraft swung right away from the runway to the apron. The disputed border between India & China is situated just 30km from the mountains at the left and is a gazetted protected area by the military.
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Nyingchi Mainling Airport does not have any aerobridges and passengers thus have a chance to set foot on the tarmac after disembarking from the aircraft. The fresh, unpolluted air and the cool temperature of 10 degrees Celsius was a welcome change from the stifling polluted air at Chengdu.
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Many enthusiastic passengers started whipping out their cameras to photograph themselves setting foot in Tibet with the aircraft and the Himalayas in the background. The airport security staff were more than happy to assist passengers and only helped to ensure that excited passengers kept to the marked pathways on the apron.
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With fewer passengers passing through its halls and a generally more relaxed atmosphere, transiting through China's smaller airports is often a joy as compared to the larger hubs. The security personnel, while professional, are tolerant towards aircraft enthusiasts and it was certainly no different at this small Tibetan outpost. The thunderstorm which had passed through the airport earlier in the day had allowed the formation of dramatic clouds which hung low and close to the surrounding mountain range, and the resultant view of the aircraft framed against the Himalayas had certainly more than made up for the flight delay.
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Nyingchi Mainling Airport was built at an elevation of 2,949m and received its first flight in the form of a route proving flight by an Air China B757-200 on 12 July 2006. The architecture of the terminal building and the use of earthly tones is inspired by the luxuriant forests nested in the undulating terrain that characterize the Nyingchi region.
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I wished that I was able to stay on the ramp longer to photograph the other Air China A319 which was expected to land shortly after our flight, but we were herded into the arrival hall as the airport staff were eager to board the passengers for the similarly delayed flight back to Chengdu. The arrival hall was a bit of letdown after admiring the modern glass fronted facade of the terminal and comprised of a typical white tiled room with a single baggage conveyor belt. Due to the amount of time which we had earlier spent photographing on the ramp, we did not have to wait long for our check-in baggage to appear on the belt.
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We met with our Tibetan tour guide and Chinese tour leader just outside the baggage reclaim area and were taken to our coach in the parking lot outside the terminal building. Independent travellers could hop on the airport bus which operate to the nearest major town of Bayi 八一 using Toyota Coaster buses for the 70km journey.
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Landside view of Nyingchi Mainling Airport. The airport was designed to cope with an annual capacity of 120,000 passengers.
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Access to the airport is tightly controlled with a pair of manned watch-towers at either end of the bridge that connect the airport to the country road over the Yarlung Tsangpo River. We had our first glimpse at the dramatic scenery that Tibet is renowned for and threw the guide's warnings about photography to the wind as excited tour members seated beside the windows started to plaster our cameras to the glass.
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Looking back across the river and the remote landscape at the relatively flat expanse of Nyingchi Mainling Airport. The airport was built along one of the widest section of the valley in the region near the confluence of two major rivers.
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Next Post: Day 2 - Nyingchi, Serkhym-La & Lulang

Previous Post: Day 1 - Chengdu's Pandas and Ancient Streets

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