Have you ever seen a newly-opened office or store, with friendly staff in fresh uniforms, all the merchandise sitting in perfect order on the shelves, and everything else clean and sparkling? But at the same time, the building itself is weather-beaten and falling apart? You can probably see where I'm going with this. Hong Kong Airlines is kind of like that, in that it seems to try for excellence in terms of service, cleanliness and style, yet continues to use old, outdated airliners right alongside newer models. However, let's take this one step at a time.
The airline was established under the name CR Airways, as an operator of passenger helicopter flights. This is where it got its flight code, ICAO-CRK. In 2006, Hainan Airlines acquired nearly half of CR's stock, which resulted in the birth of Hong Kong Airlines with a new logo, brand and livery, as well as a “sister” company, Hong Kong Airways. Cooperation between them is so close that planes are leased back and forth all the time, they have codeshare agreements, and various items aboard planes may sport the logo of either company. The logo of both companies features a bauhinia, the national flower and symbol of Hong Kong.
Everything sounds great so far, so let's have a look at HKA in action, on round-trip flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo. Unfortunately, tickets to Japan with Japanese airlines are incredibly expensive (even their special discount for tourists doesn't offer much), hence my choice of a Chinese airline. Hong Kong can complain all it wants about its special status within the PRC, but when word reached the Chinese government about HKA's plan to buy several Airbus A380s, it stepped in and forced them to cancel the order. HKA also has the dubious track record of being involved in illicitly transporting poached dolphins from Japan (there's even been about this scandal). However, enough of that, you can always look this stuff up online if you wish.
Anyway, off we go to Tokyo. In Hong Kong, all of check-in area K belongs to HKA, although the airport is actually the home hub of Cathay Pacific. Check-in was a breeze, the staff was fluent in English, and everything went smoothly. After receiving the boarding pass I was also given a tag for my baggage to attach wherever I felt was best.
Next I went looking for the gate. My gate was located on the way to the monorail station, so after I found it, I kept walking until I got to an area with about five other exits. The flight which preceded mine at the gate belonged to Jetstar, bound for Singapore. I'm a bit jealous that no one from Southeast Asia needs a visa to go there, whereas we Russians do. It would've made a very convenient hub. While I was waiting for my plane, I charged my phone at a USB port in my seat. The Hong Kong airport has all sorts of conveniences. However, you can't charge your laptop unless you have an adapter for the Chinese outlets.
Boarding was delayed, and a staff member went around the waiting area, marking all the boarding passes with a pen. I don't understand why they needed to do this, considering that all the passes would be checked again at the gate. After the formalities were over with, we were herded onto some odd-looking buses. Unfortunately, my photo came out blurry, but you can still see that it has doors in the center as well as on either end. An interesting vehicle.
Boeing 737-84P. Tail number: B-KBK. © Sneeze Lam / www.airliners.net
Getting to the plane took awhile, as it was on the far end of the airport. We even had to go beneath the runway by way of a short tunnel. We were only let off our bus after the passengers from the first bus had boarded. The only way onto the plane was the forward ramp. While everyone was milling about, I took the opportunity to take a photo of the plane and a bored-looking staff member.
And now a bit about the plane. I think I'll skip talking about the hastily scrubbed paintwork (I guess the plane was just recently purchased? Forgive me, I was too lazy to look it up). I'm not sure how old the plane is, but from the inside it looks more than a little worn. The doors of the storage shelves sometimes had trouble locking, the upholstery was worn out, and I received a sound smack to the knees from the unfolding table when I removed the latch holding it up. If it's any consolation, the cabin was sparkling clean. Oh well. Furthermore, Boeings are notorious for their rough motion when they move in reverse, but this plane shook even while taxing to the runway and pre-flight checks (thankfully, though, not due to the APU). It was especially reassuring to watch the plane's wing bouncing up and down from the window. Before we had even taken off. In other words, HKA's airliners aren't exactly maintained in tip-top mechanical shape. But they are clean! Perhaps it's just cheaper to buy a new plane after the old one is retired. I thought nostalgically of the old Douglas SAS planes, which perform like new even after many years of service.
In the photos above you can see the business- and economy-class seats of the 737. Seats next to the emergency exits were marked with orange cloths, and were off limits to the passengers. Both rows remained vacant for the entire flight. One of the passengers next to me decided to try his luck and moved to one of the seats after takeoff, but was chased back by the flight attendants. The reserved seats were covered with a blanket
Takeoff and climb were very quick; the seatbelt lights went off literally after only a couple of minutes. We took off from runway 07R/25L, which is about 12,500 feet (3800 m) long.
The entertainment system was something akin to the one used by United Airlines; earphones on demand, with controls found in the armrest. I've never really been interested in those. The kit is minimal - a flight magazine, SkyShop, safety instructions, and an airsickness bag. After takeoff they distributed immigration cards for Japan, on which everything was in Japanese. The flight magazine didn't have any explanation on how to properly fill them out (Aeroflot, for example, does this for Russian immigration cards). Working together with my neighbors, we managed to fill out the cards between us. The flight attendants had no clue as to the procedure either, but did find us a sample card in English, so thanks, at least, for that. We used it as a reference to translate the Japanese text.
Later we were served meals: a choice of Japanese or Chinese foods. Figuring I'd get enough of the former in mainland Japan, I went with Chinese. The photos above show what I was served. Rice with chicken and greens, purple noodles with sauce and a side of tofu. Water was offered quite often, about 5 times over the 4-hour flight, which is good. I overhydrated.
Towards the end of the flight I visited the restrooms. All in all, quite clean, no smells. Due to thick cloud cover, landing was delayed for awhile, which, together with the earlier delay at the airport, resulted in the flight being 30 minutes late. After taxiing up to the terminal we docked, and the lively Japanese staff began unloading the luggage. We disembarked fairly soon afterward. Tokyo International Airport boasts many travelators and a monorail transport.
Once you get to passport control, you realize that Japan is like a whole other world. I had to submit my passport, my migration card, fingerprints and have my photo taken. After getting through passport control and getting your luggage, you'd also have to go through customs if you had any declared items. There was a list of things they asked for on the migration card that I don't remember anymore. Afterwards, you're free to roam around the airport and go up to the tourist information booths to get a free map of Tokyo's railroads and get travel advice if you bought a JR Rail Pass, which you can get at the railroad station on the floor below. You can also exchange foreign currency there. Trains come by quite often. Aside from the limited express service Narita Express (N'EX), you can also get on the Keisei line going into the city, and transfer to other lines once you get into Tokyo proper. In Japan, there are a multitude of private railroad companies coexisting side-by-side, which results in stations on every street corner.
For my return flight, I arrived at the airport well ahead of the scheduled departure time, so I had the chance to wander around. I couldn't really make the most of the time because I was laden with luggage. The first floor of the building houses all the infrastructure, including the check-in and gates. The second floor is the shopping and dining area. The Japanese are very punctual: everything is neat, tidy and conveniently placed.
Check in for HKA flights is in block B, at the northern end of the northernmost terminal. Check in started around 3 hours before departure time. When I was there, there wasn't much of a line. Economy class passengers could check in anywhere, whether it was at the business class booths or the booths for premium pass holders. Great service for us commoners, really.
I was questioned for quite a while about my destination and purpose of the trip, then asked to present my ticket, after which I was told that they couldn't check my luggage for the entire 3-leg journey (I could've told them that myself), but by and by I convinced them to let my on board the plane. I even asked them to put a "Fragile" sticker on it, just in case.
Boarding reminded me of the Hong Kong airport, the layout was pretty similar with a north and south exit. After going through passport control and security, I got to the gate. The scoundrels at security confiscated a pricey jar of jam I'd bought in a store by the Tokyo Skytree. I wonder what they do with all the stuff they take away? I don't believe for a second that they throw all of it away, especially if it's still sealed. Oh well, enjoy the jam. Sorry I couldn't offer you any bread to go with it.
I got to the gate by monorail, along the way to which there were a few Japanese JAL and ANA Duty Free shops. These companies are arch-nemeses, and position their shops on exactly opposite ends of the monorail station. Finally, boarding began. This time around, they didn't bother putting any check marks on the boarding passes and everything went smoothly. HKA must've read my mind about the pile of junk we flew on last time and this time offered us a brand new A320 with fresh, new livery.
Airbus A320-214. Tail number: B-LPB. © KSK / www.airliners.net
Everything about it was lovely, from the cleanliness to the upholstery. Everything looked fresh, with no wear, tear or yellowing to be found. The tables and seats were attached nice and firmly. Although, the armrests were made out of the same plastic as that used in the dashboards of old Ladas, which made my elbows ache something awful by the end of the flight. My first seat was just fore of the turbine, by the window. There's nothing more to really say about the A320, considering it's one of the most common airliners out there. On the photos below you can see the business- and economy-class cabins.
Before takeoff, the staff distributed wet wipes, immigration cards to Hong Kong, and demonstrated safety procedures. The cabin crew didn't use the PA at all during the flight. Our plane was the first in a very long line of other airliners queuing up to take off. When we were leaving the gate, the polite Japanese staff waved and bowed goodbye, it was very gracious! Takeoff was fast, aside from the fact that we had to turn around through a cloud. After we were airborne, I got the chance to take a quick peek at the surroundings of Narita International Airport.
During the flight we were again offered a lot of refreshments. Once before lunch, then again with the meal, then we were offered hot drinks after the food, and then again before landing. Of course, you could also get drinks at any time on demand. The lunch menu had the options of pork and chicken. I went with pork and liked it. The flight was just a little over 4 hours long. It was difficult to get any sleep in the A320, the seats were just uncomfortable, but blankets were still available upon request. It's interesting that the lights weren't dimmed at any point during the flight, but were turned off completely during landing. I didn't notice if the seats by the emergency exits were occupied this time around. Oh yes, and here are the flight magazine and restrooms. I think the safety instructions have the best illustrations of any I have ever seen.
We landed in complete darkness, but quickly. My seat was almost directly above the landing gear, so I got the brunt of the impact when we landed. After that we taxied to the gate and got off the plane by ramp, then took a bus to the terminal. All this took about 10 minutes, no more, though our luggage was a lot slower in getting there, perhaps about half an hour. Not sure why.
All in all I've got mixed feelings about this airline. On one hand, the English-speaking staff seemed quite friendly and kind, and even offered a guestbook to sign. On the other hand, something's just a little bit off. Though I've taken their flight, I still can't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps I'm just nitpicking. Also, I honestly don't understand why they essentially have two different airlines trying to pass off as one. Maybe they're low on funding?