Thursday, September 14, 2006

The 8 Hour Round Trip Flight from Tokyo to Tokyo

On Thursday 8/24/06 I headed out to Narita airport for my second home leave. The trip from Tokyo to New York is never easy, it normally involves a 5 minute walk to the subway, 15 mins on the subway, a wait at the ANA hotel for the bus to the airport, a 2 hour plus bus ride (Narita is a long way from Tokyo), a few hours in the airport, a flight of just under 14 hours, an hour or so to clear customs at JFK and then an hour plus cab ride to my place in NJ.

That’s the normal trip, then there’s what happened on the 24th and 25th. My plane left Narita on time about 7PM Tokyo time and all seemed to be going well. But, about 4 to 4.5 hours into the flight I was enjoying a movie when we took a big left hand turn, which pointed us towards the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia. I have to admit while I would love to visit Siberia sometime, but I definitely think it should be a planned visit, so I wasn’t too sad when the plane continued to turn, but when it became clear that we had taken a 180 degree turn I was a bit confused.

The captain came on and as often happens on JAL flights made announcements in a lot of languages, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (the flight continues on to Brazil) and finally English. The announcements took a long time, so it was more than 15 mins before the English version came on.

One of the tires on the main landing gear was flat (there is a pressure gauge in each tire), not a really big issue because there are a number of tires on the gear but one that has to be dealt with, if I had been flying a US airline we would have either stopped in Alaska or continued on to JFK. There is a minor chance that in landing with a flat tire the landing gear could be damaged, or the tire could throw off debris and in the process damage the airframe or engine. JAL decided to bring us back to Tokyo because our plane was scheduled to continue on from New York to Brazil and they had no spare aircraft in New York in the unlikely event that our aircraft was damaged while landing.

As you can see from the photos we made it all the way to the date line before turning back:

So, we flew back to Tokyo and landed about 3:30 in the morning, JAL has two cameras mounted on all their planes one that looks down and one that looks forward. During take off and landing all the TV screens on the plane show the view looking forward. Interestingly they left the forward looking camera on for our emergency landing, so we had a great view of all the emergency and maintenance vehicles that were lined up on the side of the runway.

The captain made a very smooth landing, holding off on letting the main landing gear down as long as possible and nothing bad happened. We came to a stop on the runway and all the various vehicles descended on us, they continued to leave the camera on so we could see all the vehicles pull up and everyone walking around the front of the plane. We sat on the runway for about 20 to 30 minutes while they checked out the plane and eventually they brought out a tow rig and towed us to the terminal.

When we got to the terminal they unloaded everyone from the plane, handed us airline pillows and blankets and told us it would be 5-9 hours before we would depart again. Since I was in business class I was at least able to go to business class the lounge, where I joined about 200 fellow passengers in sleeping on the floor. JAL put all the families with kids in the lounge, which is very nice of them, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to go through this whole mess with young kids. Unfortunately it also meant that there were a ton of screaming kids all night long.

For those who think international business and the associated travel is glamorous lets just say spending a night sleeping on the floor of an airport with a few hundred people and an airline blanket and pillow isn’t very glamorous, which is the case all too often with the travel. The situation wasn’t helped by the current restrictions on carrying liquids on aircraft. Most of the passengers (myself included) had to check more luggage than normal (I would not normally have checked anything), so most people didn’t have clothes, toiletries, etc. I really felt for the parents with young kids, they were forced to check most of the kids stuff.

The fun continued when I woke up, it was sunny and the room was totally empty except for one other person. Everyone else was gone which left me more than a little worried that I had been left behind in Tokyo. I’m not sure why JAL left me asleep while waking everyone else up, but I jumped up grabbed my belongings and started running for the plane. As I ran they started to call final boarding, I got to the plane with less time to spare than was ideal. If I’d been left in Tokyo I would have been very unhappy. We finally left Tokyo and flew to New York, where the fun continued when we were told that customs wasn’t open so JAL wasn’t allowed to open the door of the plane and let us off. So, we spent an hour sitting on the plane in New York.

All told by the time I got out of JFK and took a cab to my place in New Jersey the travel door to door was a little over 40 hours. The really freaky thing was I saw the sunrise in Tokyo on Friday before boarding the plane the second time. Then we flew all day, had an entire night in the air and I watched the sun come up while we were north of Chicago, but it was Friday morning again, so I saw the sunrise twice on the same day.

1 comment:

John said...

That is a pretty bad travel story. Hilarious yet frightening to wake up in the empty lounge though. I would've flipped a gasket if I had missed that flight. I wonder why no one woke you.