FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I arrived at Hongkong’s Chek Lap Kok airport at 0615 for my QF29 flight to London at 0740. Had my hotel been close to either Central or Kowloon stations, I could have checked in at the Airport Express up to 24 hours in advance of my flight time and gone by train without my luggage to the airport. There were two Business Class desks open and I was checked in within a couple of minutes. Security was quiet and within five minutes I was in the lounge.
THE LOUNGE: Qantas shares the Hongkong lounge with British Airways (BA), which is situated immediately to the right as you clear security. It is spacious and is located right under the roof of the airport, with one wall a glass-sided balcony that overlooks the departure gates. I have used the lounge before but only in the evenings, and it is certainly quieter in the morning. The lounge has several seating areas, a good selection of newspapers and some magazines, a TV screen, showers, eight computer terminals and Wi-Fi access. For breakfast, sandwiches, toast, yoghurt and cereal were served.
BOARDING: Boarding was announced at 0700 and after a five-minute walk I was at the gate. Premium passengers queue separately, and within two minutes, I was in my seat. My jacket was taken and a drink offered almost immediately.
THE SEAT: The Skybed seat is angled lie flat, measuring 152.4cm in length. While not a fully flat bed (ie: horizontal) like those of BA or Virgin, the design has been well thought-out, with storage space for shoes (under the seat in front), magazines (built into the frame behind the passenger’s shoulder), a water bottle, A4 folio (shared between the seats) and the good-quality headphones plus a small glove box. As I was in a window seat on the upper deck of this Boeing B747-400, I also had the advantage of the pockets to my side so I had all my belongings close at hand. The seat has a reading lamp, adjustable controls, a massage facility and a small privacy screen for when sleeping. As it reclines, the armrest drops as well, allowing more space for the shoulders. The seat is enclosed inside a shell which stays still when you recline, giving extra privacy from passengers behind.
The in-flight entertainment system operates on a large personal screen on the seat-back in front. AVOD (audiovisual on demand) is in the process of being rolled out, and will not be on the entire B747-400 fleet until early 2007. The current system offers 18 movie and TV channels (12 in economy), 16 radio channels and 10 games. There is also a well-stocked magazine rack – one of the best I have seen. For working, the Skybed has 110v AC power that you can use with a European or US plug or adaptor. Sending or receiving an SMS to/from a mobile or email address costs US$1.90.
THE FLIGHT: Once we were seated, the Dermalogica amenity kits were distributed, containing, among others, small tubes of moisturiser (although the one for the body seemed too little for me). The crew then gave out the menus and explained them in detail.
The captain announced that the flight would be longer than usual due to head winds, but they would do what they could to make up time. He also mentioned that two passengers were missing and this was delaying our departure. Luckily, we pushed away from the gate only slightly late at 0745 and, after a long taxi, were airborne at 0800.
The in-flight service started about one hour into the flight. There was a choice of either sausages or Chinese but the meal began with a juice or smoothie, fruit salad, toast, pastries, Chinese steamed buns and muesli. I opted for fruit salad – which was tasty and, unusually, nice and ripe – and toast with Vegemite.
Later on, lunch started with soup and salad followed by three choices of main course (beef in oyster sauce, roast lamb or sea bass). For dessert, there was raspberry cheesecake, cheese and fruit. I skipped lunch as I was not hungry, but the food I saw looked very good (my lunch on the outbound journey was certainly tasty).
If you get hungry – even after all that food – you can help yourself to snacks from the galley upstairs. There is also a full bar downstairs. I opted for a cheese and pastrami ciabatta and it went down a treat. Attentive service continued throughout.
I managed to get some sleep despite the seat not being a fully flat bed. A thick blanket and comfortable pillow had been provided Within a minute or so of waking, I was offered a drink.
ARRIVAL: Just before landing, the crew gave out details of the arrivals lounge. Due to the late departure, head winds and the usual circling at Heathrow, the plane landed 35 minutes late at 1355. After a 10-minute taxi, we were deposited on a stand close to Terminal 4 but had to wait almost 25 minutes for a bus (ground services are provided by BA). Once inside the terminal, immigration was very quick and I was at the carousel by about 1440. I was still there 30 minutes later, listening to the first announcement apologising for the delay due to a lack of baggage carts at a very busy time (although chats with both BA and Qantas staff left me feeling this was not the real reason). I eventually left the terminal shortly after 1515, feeling grateful that my priority tagged bag had at least been one of the first to appear. On the outward journey, arriving in Hongkong I was in my hotel in Kowloon quicker than I got out of Heathrow. Welcome back to London!
VERDICT: A personal service I could not fault. It was only spoilt on arrival by factors outside Qantas’ control.
PRICE: US$6,450, www.qantas.com