Thursday, February 09, 2006

China Trip II - Outbound Travel

I was traveling to China for the second time for another business trip. I would be heading to the port city of Tianjin, where we have one of our factories that mass produces cell phones. The purpose of this trip was similar to that of the first trip, making sure that everything correlates between the lead site and the proto type factory in Chicago. My product is getting closer to launch and with newer parts and software, another build at the lead site was called for. The next time I go might be in April when we launch the product.

My outbound travel itinerary was:
American Airlines 777, Chicago to Tokyo
Japan Airlines 747, Tokyo to Beijing

Then, I'd be staying the night in Beijing and driving in the morning to Tianjin for a day's worth of work, before driving back to Beijing for the weekend for fun with some colleagues who I was traveling with, then back to Tianjin for the week. The second weekend, we wanted to visit the city of Tianjin itself, as our factory is actually located about 30 minutes south of Tianjin, in a subdivision called Tangu.

Blue dot marks the spot of our factory in China, near Tangu (mind the old map). It's about 200 km to Beijing.

Outbound travel pictures:

American Airlines Terminal at Chicago O'hare Airport. Much better picture than the first trip. Looks like they changed the flags as well.

The Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo, that would be following us, half an hour behind. Too bad I had to take AA because of a corporate agreement instead of the better equipped and serviced JAL flight. There's nothing terribly wrong with the service on American carriers' international flights, it's just that you get so much more attentive service and better equiped seats and entertainment on Asian carriers and other international carriers. Plus, better looking flight attendants...

An Israeli El Al 747-400 departing to Tel Aviv. EL AL is considered the safest plane to travel on due to it stringent security measures. Each of their planes travels with their own security detail from the Mossad (Israeli Secret Service) to prevent attacks from the usual terrorists. And one of their 747s has just been outfitted with it's own missle defense system, something similiar to what's on Air Force One. The plane has the ability to shoot flares to deflect on-coming missiles. A bit extreme, you might say, but better safe than sorry.

Business Class on the American 777. There is so much space to the seat in front of you that you can get up and walk around the person in the next seat to get to the aisle, no hoping over them like in cattle class. But when the seats are reclined back, it gets a bit cramped, just a bit.

Pre-departure Champagne

Crossing the airport road (I-190) while taxiing to our departure runway

Onboard: Japanese Lunch. I dont really like all the boiled vegetables, but the tempura shrimp and salmon were great, along with my favorite - Miso soup.

A little cheesecake and port wine for dessert. Note the plastic cutlery. Most flights have returned to metal cutlery, but not AA.

Midnight snack for those that were awake with some Baileys. I stayed awake the entire journey this time as well and then slept like a baby upon arrival in Beijing. But then again, it's easier to fly west than it is to fly east.

The ancient Rockwell Collins tape system for the inflight movies. Most other international carriers have advanced systems where you can start, stop and even fast forward any movie you want (it's called AVOD, Audio Video On Demand). What to do...

Cold lunch: grilled chicken breast with a salad and a brownie

The big honking GE90 engine that powers the Boeing 777. It's the biggest engine next to the ones on the new Airbus A380.

Land Ahoy! The Japanese coast.

A protest sign saying "Down with Narita Airport." There's a small resistance movement in the town of Narita against the airport expanding. Isnt there always one? The farmers around the airport are not willing to give up their land to the airport and are against the noise pollution. There's a similar situation at the Hamburg airport in Germany, threatening the production of the A380.

6 United Airlines long haul aircraft (777 and 747) at Narita, with 1 more out of sight and 2 more that landed shortly thereafter. United has a huge hub in Narita (13 daily departures) for all it's Asian flights, flying to Singapore, Hongkong, Bangkok, Seoul and Taipei, accounting for 16% of its worldwide revenue. Besides Continental Airlines, United is my favorite carrier in the states, due to its history, image and other facets of the company. Plus, I flew extensively (20,000 miles) on United during my student conference trip to Asia in 2004.

Northwest Airlines is the other big US carrier hubbed in Narita. I've never really like them that much, but I've repsected their extensive Asia network. They have 63 weekly flights to the US from Tokyo, with United having about 56.

A Korean Airlines 777 taking off to Seoul over the wing of my AA777

A United Airlines 747 touching down

The Connections Board in Narita. Once again, why is this handwritten and not displayed on a flat plane TV screen or something...

Note all the places that Northwest flies to from Tokyo

The view from the Sakura Business Class Lounge. I spent quite a bit of time just staring out the window. The bun in the plastic bag is filled with red bean paste, which I love.

The AA flight from San Jose landing on Runway 34R (see below).

The blue dot indicates the AA Terminal at Narita. Click for zoomable map.

There are two runways at Narita: 16R/34L and 16L/34R. The runways are numbered according to the magnetic direction the runway points to. So Runway 34 means that if you are facing that runway you are pointing approximately towards 340 degrees on the compass (360 is straight North, 90 is East). The other number is if you were pointed the opposite direction, so it's 180 degrees off. Now, if you have two parallel runways, they are designated Left and Right. So the longer runway towards the bottom is 16R/34L.

Due to the resistance from the local community, the top runway, 34R (2 km long) could not be extended as planned to 4 km as 34L and cant be used for take offs by big heavy jumbo jets that require a lost distance to build up speed. So the shorter runway is used for flights that are landing, which are much lighter, due to very little fuel onboard after a long flight. But, as you can see in the above map, the AA terminal is really far from 34R and takes about 20 minutes of taxiing around after landing to get to the terminal. This is because of slot restriction.

Busy airports of the world: Narita, London Heathrow, New York JFK, etc are limited to the number of take offs and landings that can happen in an hour (around 20) due to the clearance that has to be provided between each plane. Each chance for a take off and landing is called a slot into that airport. Airlines buy slots from the airports (price determined by demand and supply) and can later trade them with other airlines if needed. United recently sold a few of its slots into Heathrow to American, part of United's bankruptcy exit plan. There are dozens of airlines waiting to fly to Narita but either cant afford to buy any slots or none are available for sale. Narita Airport's deal with AA is that if they agreed to land on 34R and taxi for about 20 minutes, they would give them more slots. AA would have preferred to land at 34L which is very close to their terminal, but slots mean more to them for their 6 daily lucrative flights to the states. The airport did this deal so that their long runway, 34L would not be held up by empty planes landing and instead could be used for heavy fuel-laden planes taking off. I got this info from the captain of my flight after I asked why we taxiied so long.

Can you tell I'm an aviation junkie :p

Business Class on the JAL 747 in the nose of the plane.

This was my first time sitting in the nose of a 747, the Queen of the Skies. Usually this is configured for First Class, but JAL configures their 747s on heavy business routes to have only Business and Economy class, with more than the usual number of Business seats. Usually these intra-Asia flights dont sell that many First Class seats, which sell better on long haul routes, such as Tokyo to Paris or London.

I've never sat on the upper deck of a 747 and this flight's upper deck was configured for Economy, what a bummer. The plane was noticeably quieter than my previous flights on a 747 as I was sitting so far away from the engines. I could hardly hear them spool up during take off. But on the downside, we were right above the nose landing gear housing and when the nose wheel retracted after take off, it sounded like a massive drill was cutting through the plane - very loud metallic sound. Besides that, sitting up front made for a very comfortable flight and didnt require any noise cancelling headphones. Unlike on the AA flight, where I was right next to the engine. AA provides Bose noise cancelling headphones in Business and what a god send they are.

If I could fly Cathay Pacific from Los Anglese to Hong Kong and onwards to Beijing, I'd get Business Class on their upper deck. But that ticket costs around $5000 and the AA/JAL flight to Beijing costs about $3000. Luckily, I'm not paying for this. If I was paying, I'd be in cattle class. But hopefully, on my next trip to India, I'll be able to upgrade to Business with all the miles I'm accruing.

My hotel room at The Kerry Centre (A Shangri-La Hotel) in Beijing. Very comfy bed.

I ordered a taxi from the hotel to pick me up from the airport so that I wouldn't have to deal with the local cabbies after a long flight and plus I was going to take a luxury car if it was included in the travel expenses. What I was expecting was a driver to be holding a placard with my name on it in the arrivals lounge. What I didnt expect was a private VIP escort from the door of my plane all the way to my limo. The 5-star hotels have a special VIP deal with the Beijing airport, where they send an airport employee to escort you through security, immigration and customs to ensure that you have no problems. She was also quite pretty and flirty. Another reason I was thankful for this was that I was hand-carrying a few parts for work, which are supposed to be declared at customs and duty paid. This also requires extensive paper work to be prepared back at home. This was last minute, so I was basically smuggling in a few parts of a phone. It's not as bad as it sounds, I would just need to show who I worked for and would be able to breeze through, but I didn't want to risk anything with the communist state. If anything did go wrong, I wouldn't have a chance to communicate properly with the customs officers and that's where my escort would have been a great help.

And for those knowledgable about cars, my taxi was an Audi A8L, top of the line. Excellent ride. I just wish I could have driven it instead of sitting in the back. And my taxi to the airport in Chicago was a Mercedes Benz S500. Oh, how I love this corporate travel thing...

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