Sunday, May 25, 2014

CoachFlyer JH366: AOJ – NKM on Fuji Dream Airlines' Embraer E175.

Travel date: March 2014
Flight: JH366
Route: Aomori (AOJ/RJSA) – Nagoya/Komaki (NKM/RJNA)
Carrier: Fuji Dream Airlines (JH/FDA)
Aircraft: Embraer ERJ170-200/STD (E175) JA05FJ 'Orange'
Class: Economy
Direct distance: 692 km (430 miles)
Flight time: 1 hour 6 minutes

Blizzard was the weather when I had to take Fuji Dream Airlines (JH/FDA) from Aomori to Nagoya. It was around -6 degrees Celsius and the winds were very strong, with snow gusts often obstructing our front view while driving my car to the airport, prompting all drivers to travel at a much slower speed than usual. And with Aomori Airport (AOJ/RJSA) literally located on top of a mountain where snow and wind is worse, I was obviously worried if my airplane would be able to land.
Our Embraer ERJ170-200/STD (E175) JA05FJ 'Orange' landing in snowy Aomori, with its thrust reversers deployed to good effect. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

I managed to arrive at the airport at 1530, briefly ahead of my flight JH366's scheduled departure time of 1610. FDA's flights at Aomori are handled by partner JAL, though they don't code-share on the Aomori route for complicated reasons. Upon checking in, I was notified that the airplane was still scheduled in to arrive, albeit a few minutes late. Baggage allowance is generous at three pieces per person and up to 15 kilograms per piece, though 600 JPY is charged for every one kilogram overweight. I went up to the observation deck only to see the strong blizzard, and made me worried even more hearing the announcement that JAL's flight from Osaka/Itami (ITM/RJOO), operated by commuter subsidiary J-Air (XM/JLJ), couldn't arrive and would be diverting to Sendai (SDJ/RJSS). But no announcement about FDA. 
A gallery showing how Aomori's 'White Impulse' snow plowers work. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Visibility was around 500 meters. I watched the threshold of Runway 24 closely, and as I was hoping it could arrive, an orange E-Jet suddenly appeared from the white sky and came in for a touchdown at 1553, throwing runway snow up in the air. Plagued with thick fog in the spring and blizzards in the winter, Aomori Airport was upgraded to ILS Category IIIa in 2007 and IIIb in 2012, one of only seven airports in Japan equipped so. I went down to the second floor and passed through security, where a huge crowd was waiting. The airport announced its decision to mobilize their 'White Impulse' airport snow-plowing team, and the plowing process would take 40 minutes. So our flight was given a new departure time of 1700, while JAL's flights to Itami and Tokyo/Haneda (HND/RJTT) were also delayed. Their flight to New Chitose was unfortunately canceled, as the aircraft from Itami could not arrive into the airport.
Our aircraft 'Orange' taxiing slowly to the gate. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Boarding started for our flight at 1645 starting with priority passengers; handicapped persons, pregnant mothers, and groups with small children. FDA doesn't offer a premium product, so soon after, all others were boarding. At 1651, the doors were closed, but were told that we had to wait for de-icing. While we were waiting, the cabin crew performed a manual safety demonstration, as there are no screens equipped on this aircraft, along with a recorded explanation in Japanese and English. After that, they handed out blankets. At 1705, Captain Tatsunami-san told us that we were in line for de-icing; JAL's flight to Haneda was first, then us, followed by J-Air's Itami flight. Everyone seemed to be reading a book or newspaper, or sleeping, and as we were waiting the two cabin attendants handed out handmade Baba-Seika candies from Shizuoka. Our turn for de-icing finally came at 1715, and finished in about 15 minutes. We were pushed back at 1731, and turning our engines on, we were moving on our own six minutes later heading for the threshold of Runway 24.
JAL is responsible for de-icing FDA's aircraft. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Thrust of the two General Electric CF34-8E engines were brought up, then the brakes were released, and 'Orange' took off at 1744 only using about 1,000 meters of the runway! After a bumpy climb we reached 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in four minutes, and within minutes the seat-belt signs were turned off. In-flight service began around 1755. The two smiling flight attendants pushed their carts through the aircraft serving beverages from a choice of Shizuoka green tea, coffee, apple juice, and water, accompanied by a Chateraise one-bite snack. On morning flights, FDA serves croissants. With JAL only offering beverages, which are free, and ANA serving selected drinks for free but everything else at an additional cost, FDA reminds you of the days when flying was a little more enjoyable. 
Flying over Yamagata, viewing the sunset. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

About 25 minutes into the flight, Captain Tatsunami-san made his announcement apologizing for the delay and informing us that we were flying over Niigata at 34,000 feet (10,360 meters) at 760 kph (470 mph) and that expected time of arrival would be 1855. Weather at Nagoya would be 4 degrees Celsius with clear skies. It was a smooth flight, and passengers started to doze off, tired from a day's work and the weather disruption. I took the time to explore the seat pocket. Albeit a small airline, FDA publishes its own in-flight magazine, called 'Dream3776' (Mt. Fuji's altitude), which talks about sightseeing spots and local specialties at FDA's destinations, as well as gives information about the natural landmarks that can be seen from the aircraft window for all of its routes.
FDA's in-flight service and what's inside their seat pocket. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Our aircraft for today was Embraer ERJ170-200 (E175) JA05FJ, delivered new to FDA on October 24th, 2010. FDA's aircraft all wear a different color and are named after it; JA01FJ is Dream Red, JA02FJ is Light Blue, JA03FJ is Pink, JA04FJ is Green, JA05FJ is Orange, JA06FJ is Purple, JA07FJ is Yellow, and JA08FJ is Tea Green (Fuji Dream Airlines receives eighth E-Jet 'Tea Green'.). Whenever they introduce a new aircraft, the company runs a poll on their website to decide on the most popular color. Their eighth ERJ was only delivered in March 2014 and enabled them to add Yamagata (GAJ/RJSC) plus various charters.
The cabin of our 84-seat Embraer E175. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

At 1825, we were informed that descent would begin soon, and just five minutes later, gradual descent into Nagoya commenced. Seat-belt signs were turned on at 1840, and as we came below the clouds, the suburbs of Japan's third largest metropolitan area started to appear. Gears were lowered at 1847, and we made a sharp right turn above the houses and expressways, making a final approach to Nagoya/Komaki's (NKM/RJNA) Runway 34. We touched down at 1850 and taxied to Spot C, where we came to a stop at 1854. There are no more jet-bridges at Komaki, and passengers disembark via airstairs and walk to the terminal through a roofed passage. As we arrived at the baggage claim, suitcases were out in 10 minutes. I hopped on the 1920 bus to Nagoya Station in downtown and arrived at 1955, after being caught in some rush-hour traffic.
'Orange' seen after arriving at Nagoya's Komaki Airport. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Opened back in 1934, Komaki was Nagoya's gateway to the world until Chubu Centrair (NGO/RJGG) succeeded that role on February 17, 2005. On that day, JAL's regional arm J-Air (XM/JLJ) moved its hub to Komaki from Hiroshima-Nishi (HIW/RJBH), which later closed in November 2012, but did not last long and shifted to Osaka/Itami in March 2011, mostly due to the parent's financial difficulties. FDA launched services from Komaki on October 31, 2010 and has since expanded their network to include Aomori, Fukuoka (FUK/RJFF), Hanamaki (HNA/RJSI), Kochi (KCZ/RJOK), Kumamoto (KMJ/RJFT), Niigata (KIJ/RJSN), and now Yamagata, essentially filling the void left by not only J-Air, but also JAL, which closed down their Chubu Centrair hub as well. At Chubu, the JAL Group now only operates four routes each for domestic and international, while ANA is currently the dominant carrier with 17 domestic and two international routes. At Nagoya's convenient airport near downtown, FDA is the sole carrier. JAL now code-shares on many of FDA's routes.
FDA's departures and arrivals hall inside Komaki's compact terminal. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Founded by major Japanese distribution company Suzuyo as the hometown airline of Shizuoka when Mt. Fuji Shizuoka Airport (FSZ/RJNS) was opened in June 2009, Fuji Dream launched operations on July 23, 2009. After experimenting various routes from the airport, the airline has since shifted most of its operations to Nagoya's older airport at Komaki, or officially Nagoya Airfield, located 126km to the west. FDA is not a first-class airline nor is it willing to fly everywhere and compete with the mighty full-service carriers and the growing LCCs, but a humble carrier with a modest level of service constantly looking to carve out a niche in under-served regional markets, most of which can no longer be sustained with a high-cost ANA or JAL service.

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