Monday, April 28, 2014

CoachFlyer DL283: NRT - BKK on Delta Air Lines' Boeing 747.

Travel date: November 2013
Flight: DL283
Route: Tokyo/Narita (NRT/RJAA) - Bangkok/Suvarnabhumi (BKK/VTBS)
Carrier: Delta Air Lines (DL/DAL)
Aircraft: Boeing 747-451 N672US
Class: Economy
Direct distance: 4,649 km (2,890 miles)
Flight time: 6 hours 6 minutes

Being a weekday during a relatively off-peak travel period, no crowd was seen at Narita Airport (NRT/RJAA), the main international gateway serving Tokyo but situated in neighboring Chiba prefecture. From the train station underground, we strolled to Delta Air Lines' (DL/DAL) counters, located in the North Wing of Terminal 1 along with most other SkyTeam carriers. Having SkyTeam Elite Plus, we had access to the SkyPriority check-in lanes that are offered for Business Elite passengers, and with ample desks open, there was no wait. We had checked-in online on Delta's easy-to-use website the evening before and printed our tickets, but the staff reprinted our boarding passes anyway. Security was also a breeze with SkyPriority lanes, and we were quick through immigrations with just a handful of passengers.
Sistership Boeing 747-451 N674US taxies at Taipei's Taoyuan. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

We headed to the Delta SkyClub, the airline's lounge, located on the fourth floor of Satellite 1. Delta runs another lounge in Satellite 2, and these SkyClubs are shared with SkyTeam partners serving Narita except for Air France (AF/AFR) and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL/KLM), which use the AirFrance Lounge next door, Korean Air (KE/KAL), which has their own KAL Prestige Lounge, and China Airlines (CI/CAL), which still operates from Terminal 2 and runs a Dynasty Lounge there. Unlike the SkyClubs in Delta's homeland, complimentary food was available, ranging from finger bowls of noodles, small slices of sandwiches, sushi-style rolls, plastic cups of fresh vegetables, bite-size cakes as well as congee, western-style soup, and a variety of beverages. After a rest, we went down to the gates five minutes before boarding time.
Delta SkyClub at Narita is much better than those in the U.S.A. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Boarding at Gate 16 was not started until 1810, 20 minutes behind printed boarding time, but no explanation nor apology was given. Looking at the gate, there seemed to be a group of handicapped passengers being assisted for boarding. But the boarding that followed was disorganized. Gate agents called for Business Elite passengers, but when some SkyTeam Elite Plus passengers flying on economy tried to board, one staff rudely yelled "No! Wait! Step back!" Maybe she had a stressful day. So we waited, and they did call for other SkyPriority passengers in a few minutes, but with a huge crowd of economy passengers blocking the way, we weren't able to pass before staff quickly started calling for everyone else. And upon boarding, another dissatisfaction; an agent hurriedly took away our boarding passes and gave us new ones, with new seat assignments. We had reserved the seat three months before, but they changed, again without reason nor apology, and when I tried to ask, they simply forced me to go on as there was still a big crowd behind us.
The revamped economy cabin of our Boeing 747-400. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Sitting down in our new seats, doors were closed at 1859, and push-back started seven minutes later, more than 20 minutes behind our scheduled block-out time of 1845. The four Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines started to rumble, and we were moving at 1910, heading for the threshold of Runway 16R. However, this is one of the peak departure times of a day, and we had five aircraft waiting in front of us. At 1933, we finally took off from Runway 16R heading southeast, then banking right towards south. Our aircraft for today was Boeing 747-451 N672US, originally delivered to Northwest Airlines (NW/NWA) on July 19th, 1999, and inherited by Delta after completion of their merger in December 2009. Along with 15 other examples, the aircraft received an interior overhaul in 2012, refurbished with new seats equipped with Panasonic's Eco Series Smart Monitors throughout the cabin. It was also reconfigured with 48 Business Elite, 42 Economy Comfort, and 286 economy class seats (376 seats total). 
Originally delivered to Northwest, Delta's Boeing 747-400s are powered by Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

10 minutes later, Captain Ronald Henning made his cheerful welcome announcement, telling us that our flight would be 6 hours and 5 minutes. On board were 12 cabin crew; three San Francisco (SFO/KSFO)-based Americans, one Narita-based Japanese, and eight Bangkok/Suvarnabhumi (BKK/VTBS)-based Thais. About half an hour into the flight, the seat-belt signs were turned off and the flight attendants began preparing for in-flight service, starting with handing out disposable hot towels. Immigration cards necessary for entering Thailand were handed out at this time as well. 15 minutes later, peanuts and drinks were offered, and dinner followed about an hour and a half into the flight.
The Japanese menu was 'Oyako-don'. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Choice was either 'Oyako-don' (chicken and eggs) with rice or chicken and vegetables on noodles, both served with a salad and a bun. Quality was much better than Delta's (or most other American airlines') food originating from the U.S.A., but it wasn't as good to leave any particular impression. While some cabin attendants were smiling, many others were not and looked more like 'handing out' food rather than serving it. After the trays were collected, duty free started, and soon after, the cabin was dimmed and remained so until one hour prior to arrival. After a day's of travel and a bit of anger caused by the service (or the lack of) especially at the gate, I was tired enough and went off to sleep. Our 'Jumbo Jet' cruised east of Taiwan, flying over South China Sea off the coast near Hong Kong, then entering Vietnam.
Chicken and vegetables served on noodles were probably meant to be the western meal. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

As we traveled above Thailand near Ubon Ratchathani, the lights were turned on and the cabin crew started collecting anything we wished to discard, as well as handing out Thailand's immigration cards to those who hadn't received earlier. As we descended through a clear but sometimes hazy sky, we passed over Nakhon Ratchasima where we banked south, making our final approach. As the suburb lights of Bangkok became visible, we passed over a few motorways, before touching down on Runway 19L at 2339, local time. Suvarnabhumi is located 30 kilometers east of Bangkok in neighboring Samut Prakan province, and the cityscape was not visible at night with this day's hazy air. We taxied to Gate F6 and came to a stop right at 2400, 10 minutes behind schedule. Bangkok is two hours behind Tokyo, making total flight time six hours and six minutes.
The Boeing 747-400's wings. Always beautiful. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Delta is one of four carriers serving the market from Tokyo to Bangkok, with one daily service. All Nippon Airways (NH/ANA) and Japan Airlines (JL/JAL) both serve three times daily, once from Narita and twice from Haneda (HND/RJTT), while Thai Airways International (TG/THA), or simply THAI, serves five times daily, three from Narita and two from Haneda. United Airlines (UA/UAL) terminated their service this past March, while Thai AirAsia X (XJ) is expected to enter the market from Bangkok's older airport at Don Mueang (DMK/VTBD) to Narita in July, as well as NokScoot, a joint-venture between Nok Air (DD/NOK) and Scoot (TZ/SCO), shortly after. Delta's flight is timed to connect with their Narita flights to and from the U.S., and with no partner flying the route, they will probably remain in the market, even in these recent times when many U.S. airlines are choosing to overfly Japan. However, with ANA, JAL, and THAI offering an obviously superior product and AirAsia and Nok Air/Scoot groups soon offering lower prices, Delta needs to improve if they would like to continue to get some local traffic feed, and not find itself caught in between them.

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