Airline: All Nippon Airways (NH)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
Departed: Houston Intercontinental (IAH)
Arrived: Tokyo Narita (NRT)
Class: First Class
Seats: 1D & 1G
Length: About 14 hours
It seemed to happen every day for two weeks – I’d glance out my office window in Denver at about noon, just in time to see the contrail of a high-altitude wide-body fly by. Being the diligent AvGeek I am, I would check out my flight tracker phone app to find out what I just saw. The answer was the same every time: ANA Flight 173 – from Houston to Tokyo. It felt like I was being teased — I had first class tickets booked on that very flight for our upcoming trip. Seeing that plane in the sky, day after day, was just rubbing it in — today’s not the day. But that day would soon come.
Flying this route was actually somewhat of a last-minute change to our itinerary, in which Bangkok was our final destination. We had initially been booked trans-Pacific on United’s Global First service from Chicago to Beijing; however, a very short layover in Beijing combined with United’s poor on-time performance on the 747-400 was making me nervous. I had been keeping an eye on alternate routing when I found first class award availability on ANA and Thai Airways via Houston and Tokyo about three weeks prior to the trip. Yes, please! The Houston-to-Tokyo route is a new addition to ANA’s North American offerings, having just kicked off service in June.
Although we live in Denver, my wife and I had stopped in Fort Worth to drop off our two-year-old son with his grandparents. This afforded us the rare luxury of a child-free vacation. The morning our ANA flight was to leave, we had a short connecting flight on United from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Airport to Houston Intercontinental (IAH). Easy, right? Famous last words.
Shortly after arriving at DFW airport, our United flight (a 737-800) was delayed an hour for maintenance. No problem, I thought, we’ve got a four-hour layover at Houston. Fortunately, we were paged by a gate agent who moved us to another flight which was now scheduled to depart earlier than our now-delayed original flight. We would lose our first class seats to Houston, but I didn’t really care about that for a 45-minute flight as long as it would get us to Houston in time to make the big flight.
We boarded the new flight, a 737-900, and quickly pushed back from the gate. After a long delay, the pilot informed us that we were still waiting on weight and balance information from operations, where there were some computer problems. Eventually we taxied to the end of the runway and continued to wait. Finally, the pilot informed us that the weight and balance had been manually computed and we were cleared for takeoff, about half-an-hour late. At least we were finally on our way to Houston. Now nothing was in our way. Again, famous last words.
The flight was quick, and we soon landed at Houston. We taxied for a bit, then stopped on a taxiway near the terminal, where seat the belt sign turned off. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “that can’t be a good sign”.
“Well,” said the pilot over the PA, “it turns out the computer problems we were having earlier are system-wide. All United flights are now grounded worldwide. Since there are no gates available, we’re going to be here awhile, so feel free to get up and stretch your legs.” Yes, today was indeed that day – July 8th – when all of United’s computer systems came to a screeching halt. I could see our generous layover quickly withering away.
While we were waiting on the taxiway, the ANA 777 – freshly arrived from Tokyo – taxied right in front of me as if to taunt me one last time. So close and yet so far. All I had to do was get off this plane.
After about an hour, United worked out their computer problems and we were soon off the plane, much to our relief. After a brief stop in the United Club (I really wish Houston had a proper first class lounge), we made our way to the new ANA gate in Terminal D.
As the only first class passengers at the gate, we were the first to board the aircraft. The moment we stepped on board we were greeted by name by the flight’s head purser and shown to our seats – 1D and 1G in the center section of the first class cabin. The flight attendants helped us stow our luggage and get situated.
We were soon offered a pre-departure drink of Orange Juice or Krug champagne.
Looking around the seat, the first thing I noticed was that there were so many little compartments. Even the headphones had their own place.
My only complaint about the seat layout was that it was clearly designed with solo travelers in mind. Although my wife and I had seats next to each other in the center section of the cabin, in order to talk we both had to lean forward several feet to see each other through a small ‘window’ between the seats. During the flight, this led to the somewhat-ridiculous practice of one of us waving a magazine through the window to get the other’s attention whenever we wanted to chat. I will admit, however, the seat was very private, almost like an enclosed suite.
The amenity kit offered with the flight was a very nice Samsonite kit (very similar in style and quality to the popular Rimowa kits) stocked with a nice assortment of high-end lotions, hand creams, and toiletries, as well as pajamas.
Throughout the pre-boarding process, the cabin crew was extremely attentive, offering drinks, magazines, and newspapers, knitwear (separate from the pajamas) and many other amenities. At one point the head purser came to my seat and informed me in person that the flight would be leaving late due to some late connecting passengers (thanks United). I consoled myself with another glass of Krug.
Just before the cabin door was shut, another passenger arrived in the first class cabin. Up until that point, my wife and I had been alone in the cabin, and we had been hoping to have the entire cabin to ourselves. Still, we left the gate with only three of us in the eight-seat cabin, so it was still quite private. After pushing back, it was a short taxi to the runway. I guess I’ve never sat that far forward in a 777 before, because it was the smoothest takeoff I’ve ever experienced.
Shortly after arriving at cruising altitude, we were served another round of drinks as well as being presented with the main menu options. The menu is generally split between a Japanese menu and an international (western style) menu with several different main course options. I went for the international menu, while my wife chose the Japanese menu.
The first course was a delicious Amuse course featuring Pâté, Eryngii mushrooms with Parmesan cheese and zucchini agrodolce, and smoked salmon with goat cheese, which was all beautifully presented.
The next course was an appetizer course of roasted duck and foie-gras terrine with mango dressing (there were also caviar, seafood, and salad options).
For the main course, I had chosen the fillet of beef steak. It came out a perfect medium-rare.
My wife’s seafood-centered Japanese main course was beautifully presented and, based on the few bites I stole, delicious.
After a desert of ice cream and petits fours, I was stuffed. I have to say, this meal was as good as any I have ever had at any fine dining restaurant, and it was impeccably presented. The meal definitely exceeded my (already high) expectations. I had also sampled several different wines during the meal and was blown away by the quality of each of them. After dinner, I decided to settle down over a warm sake and watch a few films. Adjusting the seat into its reclined position was easy with the touch-screen control.
The AVOD system included a good selection of newly released English-language movies, as well as some classic favorites (when was the last time you watched The Usual Suspects?).
After watching a few of them on the massive 23-inch screen, I was feeling tired and ready for sleep. I paged a flight attendant, and she was there in less than five seconds. I asked if she could make the bed while I changed into pajamas. When I returned, the bed had been made with a comfortable pad atop the spacious flat-bed seat. I managed to get a few hours of sleep, although the cabin temperature was very warm for my preference, which made it somewhat difficult to get to sleep.
After I awoke from my nap, a flight attendant offered me a snack from the “light dishes” menu. Although I was still somewhat full, I couldn’t refuse the offer, as each of the seven dishes on the menu sounded amazing. I chose a prawn and vegetable dish which was, unsurprisingly, delicious.
It seemed like no time at all before we were landing in Tokyo. I never imagined that a 14-hour flight could go by so quickly. I’m so used to sitting in economy, where the hours seem to slowly crawl by.
After landing in Tokyo, we made our way to the beautiful first suites lounge to await our Thai Airways A380 flight to Bangkok.
As this was my first time in an international first class, I really was not too sure what to expect. Given ANA’s reputation, I’d had very high expectations going into the flight. I was not disappointed; I found the food to be better than expected, the in-flight service to be wanting nothing, and the seat itself extraordinarily comfortable. My one complaint is that the cabin temperature was a bit too hot for me to sleep well. This was true for both this flight and our return flight (which we flew in business class).
My one regret is that I did not order the Suntory Hibiki 21-year old whisky that ANA pours in first class. Although I consider myself a scotch lover, I had never had the opportunity to experience Japanese whiskey. Indeed, I had been somewhat blind to the whisky revolution happening in Japan and did not even consider ordering it given all the other beverage selections. After accidentally ordering the 18-year old Hibiki in ANA’s business class on the flight home, I really wish that I had taken the opportunity to sample its older sibling when I’d had the chance.
Ever since returning home, I still occasionally glance up and see that 777 fly over. Now that I actually know what I’m missing, I’m not sure it’s better than when I didn’t know. It’s okay though; I’ll find my way back onboard eventually.