After nearly 500,000 miles of flying over the past few years, today I hit the jackpot – an upstairs business class seat on a newly refurbished Boeing 747. And it was doubly wonderful because I had the entire row to myself which allowed me to sit and stare out the window as Mt. Fuji drifted by, bedecked in snow and floating in a sea of puffy white clouds.
When I first began my tour of duty the 747 was the standard plane to China. And the fleet was showing its age. I can’t even count how many flights I had where the audio or the video didn’t work, not to mention the times we sat on the runway trying to decide if we could leave because something far more dire was acting up. There were broken seats and there were cold meals – the planes were in need of replacement. A couple of years ago 777’s started showing up on my standard routes and I was glad of it. In general they were in a far better state of repair and they offered some nice attributes like personal entertainment systems. I was happy to be using the newer gear and I never had another equipment delay or cancelation. I was happy.
On a trip last year to Ireland, My Lovely Wife and I happened to catch a ride on one of the newer 747’s with the forward and rearward facing “pods.” These seats promised to be an improvement over the traditional business seats that were little better than uncomfortable Lazy-Boys. These featured the new “lie-flat” concept that promised to make a business class seat almost as fancy as 1st class. There were some problems, like no carry-on bags at your feet while taking off, and the virtual impossibility of getting out of a window seat if the aisle passenger next to you had their seat fully extended, but these were small sacrifices compared to what you got – a great entertainment system that even allowed you to plug and play your iPod through the screen on the back of the chair in front of you. If you happened to have the proper cable, available only through Duty Free sales. And, the option of stretching out flat was very, very nice, even for people who don’t sleep on planes (like me.)
I’d heard from a friend that these planes were now flying the Beijing to San Francisco, so I was only mildly surprised when I walked up to Gate 28 and saw a 747 parked there. I was far more pleasantly shocked when the flight attendant at the front door said the magic words – “that seat is upstairs.” I’d only been up there on one previous trip, when the jackass next to me spilled his red wine on my leg and then asked “Is there anything I can do” to which I was dying to say – “Yea, tell the pilot to stop in Anchorage so you can buy me a clean pair of jeans.” Despite that relationship ending moment, being upstairs was wonderful – it was quiet, the service was fantastic and most importantly you never had to wait for a bathroom. I’ve flown dozens of times since that magical trip and never drew an Ace again. Until today.
Capping what could only be described as the happiest moment in my last two days of travel, I ended up in the very last seat right up by the pilots – no one in front of me and no one across the aisle. Surprisingly though my modest roll-around bag would not fit in the overhead bin, a somewhat odd thing considering the premium nature of these seats. I gave it to the flight attendant and she stowed it with the crew’s luggage.
As we flew out of Korean airspace and crossed the Sea of Japan the flight attendant had mentioned the possibility of see Fuji and the map on my screen suggested that we were coming close enough to Tokyo to make it possible. No sooner had she mentioned it and walked when it appeared out my side of the plane. I’ll admit to being genuinely startled by the sight of it and for a moment it was purely unbelievable - that iconic crest looming above an otherwise flat terrain slowly passing by and changing its perspective. Being so high in the sky, you could see well into the cone at the top of the peak, and the changing hue of the sky from puffy white cloud tops to bright blue to the deepest indigo made the view sublime. I rued the fact that I didn’t have a better lens having chosen to travel light on this day with only a 20mm prime, but it didn’t matter; I sat and took shot after shot until it disappeared behind the wing.
It turned out to be a nice ride between the Fuji sighting and a beautiful morning to land in San Francisco. Almost spoiling the spell was the incredibly long line at Immigration, something I’ve never before encountered here. Seems the current schedule has jumbos from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong landing about simultaneously. The serpentine was long and the passengers were unruly, particularly those in the non-citizen line. I got through in a reasonable amount of time only to get hung up in the newly implemented security scheme here that “rewards” frequent flyers with a private security line that is actually slower than the one used by the proletariat.
But after a couple of hours in the lounge listening to people yelling at their cell phone, a mildly delayed departure on the last leg and a interesting conversation with a woman about her daughter and the boyfriend who happened to be twice her age and was still trying to “find himself,” I found myself in the care of My Lovely Wife and sitting in my favorite restaurant chowing down on a Rancher’s Melt, brimming over with green chile and roast beef. Some days just have a way of coming together.