CHECK IN I made it to the Airport Express terminal Hongkong’s Central district at 1325 for flight KA902 departing for Beijing at 1500, ready to be told to head for Chek Lap Kok and check in there instead. But I wasn’t as the aircraft was delayed.The new departure time was set at 1540 and instructions on the boarding pass said to arrive at gate 66 no later than 1515 which, I presumed, was when they would request the passengers to queue up.
In total, Dragonair operates 15 flights daily between Hongkong and Beijing, seven of them code shared with Cathay Pacific and Air China. I wanted an aisle seat and was told that the only remaining one was at the rear of the aircraft in 52G, the last row, if not I would have to content myself with a middle seat. I chose the former.
I took the AEL (Airport Express Line), which I learned from the South China Morning Post article a few days later, is still under performing and carrying only 29,000 passengers daily – 25 percent below the level predicted for its first year of operation a decade ago. The facility, which cost the Hongkong government HK$35 billion (US$4.5 billion), opened in July 1998. The marked preference for cheaper and more convenient Airport buses (HK$40/US$5) compared with the AEL higher rate (HK$100/US$12.90) has been hard to beat, although when rushing, the train’s 23-minute journey is the one to choose over the bus’ 50-minute travel time.
After clearing security and immigration, I headed down to the duty-free shops to my errands and with time to spare, I wandered around the restaurants and shops to check out any new additions.
BOARDING At 1440, I was on the shuttle train to the satellite concourse area where gates 40 to 50 and 61 to 70 are located.
As happens often, gate numbers are changed at the last minute, and on my way to gate 66, my ears were sharp enough to pick up the (softly broadcasted) update about my flight being reassigned to gate 43. It was 1500 so there was still time to make the 1515 boarding deadline without rushing too much. Pre-boarding announcements were being made when I returned and I added myself to the already snake-like queue for Economy, where we were asked to show our passports and boarding passes. At 1540, the processing began in earnest. A trolley with newspapers in English and Chinese stood by the aircraft door.
I entered to utter chaos inside the cabin. There was a tour group that took up a large number of seats, and many of its members were frantically stuffing their Hongkong purchases in all the available spaces they could find, while hollering out to each other. Due to the scrum, it took a while for me to navigate my way to very back of the aircraft. The flight attendants all wore harassed expressions, and I could see they were trying to keep their cool.
THE SEAT: On the Hongkong-Beijing-Hongkong route, both the Airbus A321 and A330 are used. My flight was an Airbus A330. Dragonair has three different configurations of this aircraft. This A330 (Type 1) was a three-class version, being first (12 seats), business (42 seats) and economy (230 seats), on this aircraft occupying rows 22 to 52.To see a seatplan of this aircraft, click here
Seat configuration in this cabin is 2-4-2 from rows 22 to 46, with seats as AC-DEFG-HK, becoming just 2-3-2 from rows 47 to 50 with seats as AC-DEG-HK, then finally to just three seats from rows 51 to 52 with seats as DEG. Extra-legroom seats are 35C and 35H. The two-class Type 2 and Type 3 have 30 seats in Business Class and 270 seats in Economy Class in a 2-4-2 configuration, occupying rows 22 to 50 with seats as AC-DEFG-HK, becoming just 2-3-2 from rows 51 to 55 with seats as AC-DEG-HK, and ending with row 56 of three chairs with seats as DEG. Extra-legroom seats on these aircraft types are 40C and 40H.
I stored my laptop in the overhead compartment and my winter coat over it to prevent anyone else from placing their belongings on this delicate (and most precious) item. My sling bag went in under the seat in front of me, while the large plastic bag with gifts and magazines, I placed in the space allotted for my seatmate on my left – with her kind permission, of course, as she was a stranger.With no IFE boxes to obstruct, everything fitted easily. The seat hardly reclines with a wall behind it.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE Don’t choose towards the rear of the cabin. There are several good reasons: the queues that form for the washrooms behind you; the sound of the flushing WCs after ablutions; and the slamming of doors after use. And just because the galley is at your back as well doesn’t mean you’re going to get fed first – the attendants start serving several rows ahead of you and work their way back. It is also difficult to see the drop down IFE screen. From where I and the two Australian ladies sat, we had to crane our necks to catch anything that was being shown on the miniscule monitor. It may be better to sit on the aisle seats in rows 48 to 50 on either side, if you really wanted to view what was playing. In addition, on our flight was a Chinese feature which had no English subtitles.
THE FLIGHT Before take off, I heard the pilot crisply apologising for the delayed departure, saying the flight had already been tardy leaving Beijing earlier. An unexpected snowfall was continuing to mess up schedules. The journey, he said, would take two hours and 55 minutes and once we reached cruising level, the seatbelt sign would be switched off and we were free to move about the cabin. We took off at 1620, after which I promptly fell asleep.
The din of voices and movements around me later roused me. At first, I thought I seemed to be in a town hall gathering, then I realised it was that tour group, whose participants milling about and chatting at the top of their voices. The frequent vigorous flushing sounds from the toilet beside me banished any hope of resuming my nap. Only the commencement of the meal service forced the wanderers to return to their seats.
Choosing between seafood and rice or chicken and pasta, I went for the chicken, simmered in a pleasing tomato sauce, followed by the highlight of all Dragonair flights – the Haagen DazS ice-cream, which I see very few people refuse.
After the trays were collected, the queues to the washrooms resumed. By that time, I couldn’t wait for the landing announcement to be made. Thankfully, I got my wish shortly when the pilot came on to inform us we were going into descent mode and about the temperature on the ground being 2 degrees and not 3 degrees as earlier reported. As if it made a difference.
ARRIVAL They should allow the use of zap guns, which the cabin crew can use on eager beaver passengers, who jump up to retrieve their belongings overhead the minute the aircraft hits the ground. There were several who did so to the consternation of the flight attendants, who kept admonishing these impatient souls to take their seats and wait for the aircraft to come to a standstill. But there were still some hardheads who refused to follow instructions.
I thought the stress would cease once we were in the airport, I was wrong. We were on the escalator when a man decided to do an about face and ploughed into our group, causing shouts and yelps of pain. He seemed unperturbed by his actions. Go figure.
There was no further incident on the shuttle train to Terminal C where immigration, luggage carousels and customs are located.
VERDICT A stressful flight from start to finish, exacerbated by sitting at the very back with all the activity taking place in that area. The flight attendants did their heroic best at crowd control, I have to give it to them.
PRICE Round-trip Economy Class fare Hongkong-Beijing is HK$5,355 (US$690), including all taxes and surcharges.
Margie T Logarta