The Good the Bad & the Dangerous

Air asia XDuring my travels I have flown with quite a few airlines, from bone shakers and certain national carriers that shouldn’t have been allowed to fly, to airlines that have won awards year after year.

Some people have made negative comments about the low cost carriers, but one low cost carrier, for me, stands out as an airline that I am happy to fly with, as long as the cost and schedules fits my requirements.

My favourite low coast airline is Air Asia,

http://www.airasia.com/au/en/home.page

having flown with them from Cambodia to Malaysia, Singapore to Borneo, Malaysia to Sri Lanka three times and on each occasion I couldn’t fault the service. On certain sectors they do offer business class, but, as yet, I have not tried this service. I have read that Air Asia business class is not the normal business class of regular airlines – more like Premium Economy, than business class, but the price reflects the service level.

What I have tried is their relatively new option, if you are traveling as a couple, of ‘buy the centre seat’ in economy to have more room. They call it ‘Extra seat option’ – http://www.airasia.com/au/en/promotion/extra-seat-option.page?icid=iaf683hpsba

I bought two economy seats from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo in Sri Lanka in 2014, at a good price, for the three and a half hour flight. The price was cheaper than the two major carries on the same route.

I did consider business class, but for such a short flight I considered the price was a little too expensive. While booking the economy seats I was offered the middle seat of three for AUD $11, each way, as long as they did not sell the seat to someone for a standard fare. If they did sell the seat, my $11 would be refunded. A ‘no brainer! as far as I was concerned.

I bought the ‘extra seat option’ (Air Asia’s name for the service) for the round trip, and also prepaid our meals in both directions. All the planning worked like a dream – on boarding I realised that we had our centre seat, it hadn’t been sold.

We flew out of KLIA2 (Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal 2), which had not been open long and still smelled ‘new’, and we found the terminal easy to navigate. I checked us in on line, and all we had to do was drop our bags – along with hundreds of others who had checked in on line, and were trying to drop their bags. To be fair the line moved reasonably quickly – it took us thirty minutes from joining the queue to lodging our bags. They had a number of lodgement stations, which covered all Air Asia flights, but the staff was always friendly and helpful. One agent called the next in line and had 18 family members descend on his counter, with one person waving a wad of passports. Air Asia sent help to break the backlog at this counter and split the family over four counters. Everything was calm, quiet and efficient.

The flight was uneventful, and very pleasant. The cabin staff couldn’t do enough for the passengers. They were very friendly, smiled a lot, and seemed to enjoy their job, plus they found to time to hold a conversation with anyone who spoke to them. I couldn’t help but compare this cabin crew to the airline that we used the previous day.

Air Asia didn’t offer in-flight entertainment, but I noticed how the passengers created their own ‘buzz’, which reminded me of how it used to be when I flew in B 707 & VC 10s in the 1960s. Without entertainment people had to talk to each other or read. Perhaps this passenger interaction helped the cabin crew enjoy their job, because they didn’t have to constantly compete with headphones to gain the passenger’s attention.

Tea and water were included in the ticket price – wine, beer, spirits and soft drinks were extra at reasonable prices.

For the record – Air Asia is unaware of this blog, and I paid for all services with my own money.

Enjoy the journey – with a credit card

Asia has a number of major hubs to Europe – Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and recently with the growth of the Chinese airlines, various Chinese cities such as Shanghai & Guangzhou (old name being Canton).

When checking which transit hub to use to buy your business class ticket consider the economy of the country where the hub is located.

Singapore – an advanced economy, which means airline tickets are expensive.
Bangkok – a very good hub, because of the competition due to the large number airlines using Bangkok airport.
Hong Kong – again an advance economy and expensive to Europe, and the economy tickets from Australia to Hong Kong are more expensive than economy tickets to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.

Over the years I have bought airline tickets over the internet to fly with Thai Airways in Baht, Malaysian Airlines in Ringgits, Qatar Airlines in Sri Lankan rupees, Air Asia in Singapore dollars, Laos Air in USD, KLM & Iberia in Euros and they were all cheaper than travel agents or the Australian office of the airline that I wanted to use. To purchase the tickets I used a Visa card and they charge a 3% currency conversion fee, but the overall cost has always been cheaper.

A number of times we used Kuala Lumpur as a ‘hub’ to another Asian port i.e Colombo, in Sri Lanka. After doing dummy bookings from various origins such as Seam Reap, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Rangoon, Manila etc I found Colombo to be the cheapest place to purchase business class tickets to Europe, using a quality airline.

Flying from Sydney via Kuala Lumpur to Colombo can be completed in one go, but it would be tiring and take about twelve to thirteen hours. We normally stop over for one night in a hotel near KL airport. The following day, after breakfast, we fly late morning, arriving in Colombo in time for lunch (you fly back in time from KL to Colombo). All very civilised.
Place that my wife and I have stayed during transit stops.

http://www.rumahputih.com/ -a bed and breakfast, run and owned by a Brit married to a Malaysian lady.

http://www.samasamahotels.com/ – right on the airport.
This hotel has two entrances, one is from the transit lounge, you do not enter Malaysia, and the other entrance after you have cleared customs & immigration.

http://www.theyouniqhotel.com/ – free transport to / from airport about ten minutes drive. Not to the same level as the other hotels, but clean and convenient.

http://pullmankualalumpur.com/ – we arrived in KL around 2.00 pm so had time to go in to town via the Express train system ($12 one way). Airline schedule from Sydney has changed and the arrival time is now 8.30 pm, too late to make it worth while to sleep in the city for an overnight transit stop.

We stayed a single night in Colombo after clearing customs and immigration – no visa fee to worry about because we were still in transit, and staying less than 36 hours.
http://www.paradisebeachsrilanka.com/ – about twenty minutes from the airport – hotel will arrange transport. Stayed here twice.
http://www.camelot.lk/ – not far from the Paradise Beach, same arrangements for airport transport.

Our favourite hotel in Sri Lanka is the Mount Lavinia Hotel
http://www.mountlaviniahotel.com/ but this hotel is too far for a single overnight, but a great place to stay for a few nights. The main picture at the top of this blog shows the hotel’s beach at Mount Lavinia.

The following day we leave the hotel at 6.30 am for a light breakfast in the business class lounge. Our flight departs at 9.15 am to the sound of corks popping for our Champagne breakfast.

The cost from Sydney to Europe can be anything from $5000 (via Manila) to $8000 with Qantas (via Dubai or Singapore) – for a combi ticket from Sydney, it would cost around $4000 to $4500 via an Asian port, and you do not get a break at the transit stop, but just keep on flying and this sector is usually a night flight, which means you sleep most of the way and miss out on the business class experience.

DIY – including all airfares and hotel costs, just under $3000 for a combi ticket. We do not like flying at night so we build our trips around daylight flights, and sleep in hotels, all prices are Australian dollars.

For my wife and I, the journey is part of the holiday, so flying business class part of the way is a holiday.

The journey, not the destination,

Flying to Europe from Australia is not as simple as getting on a plane for 24 cramped hours in economy. As one grows older economy class becomes less and less attractive, even though one might not be able to fly business class all the way, perhaps a combination can be arranged. In the past ten years of planning holidays for my wife and I, it has been a happy learning experience.

A combination flight consists of a nine hour economy flight from Sydney to Asia and and business class from Asia to Europe. Where in Europe you might ask – London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or?

Considering your European gateway port is a mixture of airline pricing, schedules and your over all plans.

Let’s consider pricing from an Australian origin city. The price offered to London is often more expensive than the price to Paris or Frankfurt, but you might ask, you have to get from Paris to London at a cost, if London is your final destination.

A few years ago the UK Government increased the landing charges for intercontinental flights, so when I decided on a ‘combi’ ticket in 2012, the difference in landing in Paris and staying the night, plus the cost of the Eurostar (economy) was cheaper than flying direct to London. I have since realised that Frankfurt is cheaper again.

We returned to Europe in 2014 using Frankfurt s our gateway. Our final destination being Norwich in Norfolk.

I decided that we would fly KLM from Frankfurt, to Norwich, the overall cost being cheaper than a direct flight to London, plus the train fare to Norwich.
I checked KLM and found that a one way ticket was more expensive than the round trip cost, even though I didn’t wish to fly back to Frankfurt.

I booked return tickets and when I completed our ‘return’ booking, even though we would not be using the return ticket, the ticket cost would be cheaper still if we agreed to fly via the 6.00 am flight from Norwich, because it was FREE!

We booked our flight from Frankfurt to Norwich, and we were ‘no shows’ for the return flight, because we had tickets on the Eurostar to Paris, because at the end of our holiday we would be flying home from Madrid.

KLM F70

I couldn’t fault the service or the aircraft, which was a Fokker 70.

So it does pay to investigate more than the direct service to save money.

 

Judy Judy Judy

From Shanghai we sailed for Hong Kong.

Chanda

On entering Hong Kong harbour we encountered thick fog or very heavy sea mist. It was so thick that we put our engines on ‘dead slow’, so as to enter harbour very carefully. We had lookouts at the masthead, as well as down aft in case another ship came at us from astern. Being one of the two cadets, I was posted forward to the forecastle, with a crew member, to listen for sounds. The crew member listened on the port side (left hand side), and I listened on the starboard side (right hand side). Regular blasts, from our foghorn rent the air to inform any other vessel of our position.

A ship’s bell was permanently located on the forecastle, for the lookout when at sea. If at night he saw a light on the starboard side he would strike the bell once, for a light on the port side it was two strikes, and dead ahead was three strikes. The number of rings told the officer on the bridge the direction of the light. The bell was used in the same way during fog. Instead of distant lights, striking the bell indicated sound or even a sighting.

Suddenly I heard a sound and rang the ship’s bell with a single stroke. The sound that I could hear was very close. There was also a phone link between the bow and the bridge, and now it rang.

The Captain asked me what I’d heard.

‘Judy, Judy, Judy, Sir!’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’

‘It’s the name of a pop song, Sir. I think we are close to a junk, and they have their radio on very high.’

Junk

As I finished my report a small junk came out of the mist, and when the junk’s crew realised how close they were to a 7,000-ton ship, they altered course to pass down our starboard side, shouting and cursing in Cantonese, and waving their arms in anger as Johnny Tillotson kept them company with ‘Judy, Judy, Judy’. The junk rocked back and forth due to our wake, even though we were hardly moving through the water.

Slowly the fog began to lift and we were able to enter harbour safely and anchor at the appropriate place.

Funafuti

After leaving Tarawa it was a short 805 mile flight to Funafuti, Tuvalu,

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but it still took about three hours in the HS 148. The aircraft carried more freight than it did passengers, because not many people visited Funafuti, other than returning residents, and the occasional businessman, i.e your truly.

As we made our approach to land I could see a long green field, which I realised was the landing strip for this ‘airport.’ Wheels down for landing and all of a sudden we banked and aborted the landing because the local children were using the landing field for a game of football! Round we went and this time the strip was clear of children and dogs.

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The aircraft came to a halt near a small concrete structure.
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Steps were pushed out to the aircraft, and we disembarked. One of the crew stood at the bottom of the stairs and waved towards the small concrete construction. At first glance I was reminded of a large garage come work shop, until I realised this was the immigration and customs post.

An officer, in traditional island dress of sandals, and lungi tied at the waist, and a uniform shirt stood waiting at one side of a concrete table with a stamp and an ink pad. I was welcomed to Tuvalu and my passport was stamped. Customs asked if I had anything to declare – I said No, and was waved through the concrete area to a grass patch outside the open walled government building.

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Local people milled around on both sides of the ‘security area’, some helping to unload the cargo from the plane, others had just come to see what was happening as part of the day’s entertainment. The sun was hot and nobody moved at any great pace – I was on island time, and I should relax.

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I anticipated that my business would not take more than a day, but due to flight schedules I was going to be ‘island bound’ over the weekend. I’d arrived on Friday, and booked my onward ticket to Fiji for Monday. I looked around for an airline employee to confirm my onward flight and found a young lady in a island skirt and an airline type blouse. I asked her if I could confirm my flight for Monday – she looked at me and asked if I was the business man from Sydney?
I confirmed that I was, and she then told me that as I was the only person who wished to go to Fiji on Monday, they were not going to bring a plane in just for me – I was told to come back the following Wednesday!

Eventually I found my way to the local hotel (Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, government run and the only hotel on the island) and checked-in. I was given a room over looking the lagoon; it was air-conditioned. Later I found out that most of the rooms didn’t have air-conditioning, which would be a problem for Europeans. The only other guest was a Japanese merchant seaman waiting for his ship to return. He’d been put ashore for medical treatment. He couldn’t speak English, and most of my Japanese, picked up during my time on the Japanese coast, had faded in to history. He did teach me how to play Othello and I liked it so much that I bought the game for my children on my return to Sydney.

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This is a picture of Vaiaku Lagi Hotel taken recently.

View_from_Hotel_room

I doubt that this view would have changed much – the view is across the lagoon from the hotel guest rooms.

After unpacking my few things I made my way to the bar and asked the  barman, who was also the  check-in / doorman / waiter and I am not sure what else, what type of cold beer did the hotel stock. ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply – ‘What other kind of beer?’ I asked not being a great fan of Fosters beer.jpg – ‘We have Fosters’ was his reply at which point he opened the door of a very large walk-in fridge behind the counter, allowing me to see that the fridge was stacked high with cartons of Fosters beer and nothing else. ‘I’ll have a Fosters !’ I said with a smile on my face.
‘Supply ship just unloaded, the other day, plenty of Fosters’ was his comment while pouring the glass of cold beer. At times like this Foster’s was the nectar of the Gods.

In the evening I decided to stay in the hotel for my evening meal. The hotel didn’t have a menu, the Japanese and myself were asked what we would like to eat.

I asked what was the choice and was told fish or meat. I asked if the fish was fresh and was told that it had arrived in the morning, so I chose the fish. The meat was a mixture of chicken (locally grown) and meat from Australia, which was expensive.

I asked for salad with the fish and was told that they didn’t have any, just vegetables – so I ordered the vegetables, which when they arrived turned out to be from a tin – I was hoping in such a lush climate to have really fresh vegetables. Let’s say it was a disappointment.
I asked if they had any cold white wine to go with the fish – ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply.

Later in the evening while listening to the radio in the bar, I heard the news, and included in the news was the fact that a business man from Sydney had arrived that afternoon. Was this my fifteen minutes of fame, or was the radio station really hard up to fill broadcasting time?

I completed my business the following morning and decided after lunch to have a look around Funafuti.

Knowing that there wouldn’t be any aircraft landing between that Saturday afternoon and Wednesday, and noticing that the immigration and customs posted had been abandoned, I walked across the football pitch, come runway, to the other side of the island. I passed huts inside a fenced area and wondered what this area was because the gate was wide open.

Prison

On reaching the water’s edge (the opposite side of the island from the lagoon) I watched Pacific ocean rollers charging towards the little island and smashing their way on to huge man made blocks, which dissipated their energy. I was grateful for the blocks, because the highest point on the island was only fifteen feet (4.5 meters) above sea level.

It was later that I found out about the gated area was the local prison. The above picture is a recent photograph. I did ask why the gate was open and was told – ‘Where are the prisoners going to escape to?’.

The population of all the atolls making up Tuvalu was around 8,500 people, but the limited usable land created a high density of population at 340 people per square kilometer in 1987, which was during my visit.

Everything shut down late Saturday and the only entertainment for me was sitting in the hotel bar with a book and the occasional game of Othello. Trying to get through to Sydney by phone, to keep them informed of my movements, helped pass the time. The fact that they had no idea that I was not lying on a beach in a fancy beach side resort somewhere in the tropics, didn’t help matters.

Sunday was a drag, but Monday was far more exciting after the post office opened at 10.00 am, because I was interested in stamps, and at that time I collected stamps from certain Pacific Islands. It turned out that philatelists are one of the best contributors to the Tuvaluan economy, along with cash sent home by Tuvaluan seaman working on foreign ships.

The enforced rest can be a strain knowing that all your plans have been shot to pieces and communication with the outside world was difficult. E-mailing was still in the future, as was the mobile phone.

Overall I enjoyed my enforced rest in Tuvalu, because it was completely different place than anywhere else that I had visited.

Eventually I was back at the airport waiting for the plane to Suva in Fiji. Large international airlines use Nadi but as we would be a propeller job it would be Suva, which is the capital.

The airline that was supposed to fly us ( fourteen passengers) failed to show and a substitute had to be found – Sunflower Airlines from Fiji. Sunflower Our aircraft, was built in 1956! It was over thirty years old when I boarded.

The aircraft sat seven a side, and operated with a pilot and co-pilot. Forget any cabin crew, and the rear toilet was blocked in with cargo and passenger bags. The picture above shows the aircraft at Nadi airport in Fiji, not the grass strip in Funafuti.

The aircraft turned up and we  fourteen brave souls boarded. Once all on board we taxied out to the end of the grass runway. The door between the two pilots on the ‘flight deck’ and the passengers wouldn’t close and banged and banged as we trundled along the runway in the hope of gaining enough speed to lift off the ground. At last I felt the plane rise in to the clear blue sky.

The distance to Suva was 915 miles and our top speed was around 183 mph according the to the manufacturer in 1956 . . . so we had four hours to hope that nothing would go wrong.

The noise of the engines killed all hope of conversation across the aisle, so I watched the pilots manhandling the joystick to keep the aircraft level in a slow climb. We never did get too high and I found it fascinating to watch the ocean waves break below. This view was something one didn’t normally see, unless you were coming in to land over water. The breaking waves accompanied us all the way to Fiji.

Two hours in to the flight the co-pilot comes out and shouts that it is lunch time, and bends down to grab a cardboard box from under the seat of the first passenger. He then walks slowly down the aisle and hands to each passenger either a coca cola or a lemonade. None of the passengers were offered a choice. I was handed a lemonade and was about to open it when the passenger across the aisle spoke to the co-pilot stating that he didn’t like coca cola. Immediately my lemonade was whisked from my grasp and replaced with a coca cola – the guy across aisle received my lemonade.

The co-pilot returned to the front of the plane and pulled another box from under the first seat on the other side of the aircraft. This was our lunch – plastic wrapped sandwiches – and he was not going to get in to a conversation about likes or dislikes, because the sandwiches came through the air and the passenger was expected to catch his lunch.

It was fortunate that we were only given one small drink because there was no way we could have climbed over the cargo to get to the lavatory.

Although I am not a Catholic, I can sympathies with the Pope when he steps off an aircraft and kisses the ground, because most of us wanted to do that in Suva!

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The picture shows what is left of this aircraft at  Bankstown Airport in Sydney. Picture was taken in 2004.

 

 

Pacific Islands

In the late 1980’s I used to visit various Pacific Islands on business (someone had to do it!).

On one trip I flew Sydney, Nauru, Tarawa (in Kiribati), Funafuti (Tuvalu), Suva (Fiji).
Kiribati – pronounced Kir-i-bahss – which is the Gilbertese for Gilbert Island, and Tuvalu is the new name of the Ellis Islands, as in Gilbert and Ellis Islands, which used to be a British protectorate until 1974 when they became the independent countries, Kiribati and Tuvalu, after they held a referendum.

I flew from Nauru on Air Nauru to Tarawa.001

The parking of aircraft in Nauru was simple – leave them alongside the main road in a lay-by. The island is so isolated that security was ‘limited’ at that time. The traffic had to stop for the aircraft to cross the road to allow passengers to board.

Tarawa is the name of the main atoll of Kiribati and the capital on Tarawa is Betio. (pronounced ‘bay- she – oh’)

Tarawa is remember for some very heavy fighting by the Americans, against the Japanese during WW2, and the beach on which I walked still showed the remains of landing craft, small tanks or amtracs and pieces of aircraft, along with defensive pillboxes manned by the Japanese.

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As I looked out over the 800 to 1200 yard coral reef, (see picture below) across which the troops had to fight their way ashore under withering machine gun fire, I could feel the ghosts of those brave men who died that November day in 1943.

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The area of the Betio atoll, is three miles long by half a mile wide. 1,115 Americans were killed or listed as missing, and 2,234 were wounded. Of the 4700 Japanese troops defending the island only seventeen were captured, along with 129 Koreans. It was estimated that 4690 Japanese died defending this now forgotten part of the Pacific.

The Americans had to estimate how many troops were defending the atoll. The best guess was about 3100 men, which was reasonably accurate, considering that they were unable to send in reconnaissance units to obtain a more accurate number. The Americans realised from aerial photographs, that the Japanese built their latrines over water, in multi-holed wooden buildings. By counting the number of latrines they worked out the relationship between the number of backsides and to a latrine and estimated 3100 troops!

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Defending the beach I saw eight inch guns still point out to sea. When I visited Betio I was told (not by locals) that the guns had been removed from Singapore, after the fall of that island, and transported to the Pacific to defend Tarawa. Later I read that the Imperial War Museum in London stated that Singapore didn’t have any eight inch guns for the Japanese to capture, so they couldn’t have been transferred to Tarawa from Singapore. They were in fact manufactured in Britain for a 1905 contract to supply eight inch and twelve inch guns to the Japanese navy. The Tarawa defensive guns appear to have been part of the 1905 contract.

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The above pictures show the Japanese HQ building with shell a machine gun damage, which when I visited was being used a simple squash court.

004 Inside another Japanese bunker.

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 The above shows what is left of a captured Japanese bomber strip, which allowed the Americans to carry the war to other islands.
The modern airport is about a twenty minute drive from this area.

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The above picture is to show how shallow the soil is on Tarawa – this is a local grave yard. After the war the American causalities, from this battle, were laid to rest in the war cemetery in Hawaii.
The marking of the grave’s perimeter, in many cases, was often done by using empty glass bottles – beer bottles and soft drink bottles.

 On completion of my business in Kiribati I flew to Funafuti the capital of Tuvalu with  Airline of the Marshall Islands. Quite a noisy trip.001

Tea?

In the mid 1960’s I paid off a ship in Khorramshahr, (which is in Iran) and drove to Abadan (still in Iran) to fly Iran Air to Tehran to catch a BOAC (now called British Airways) flight to the UK. This was before the fall of the Shah of Persia, which didn’t happen until 1979.

Iran air

This trip from Abadan sticks in my mind due to the huge amount of hand baggage that the passengers were allowed to carry on board such a small aircraft (small for today’s aircraft), from memory it was a B727/100. At that time  Iran Air only had two jets, one B 707 & one B 727.

The hand baggage of one person included a small primus stove.

After we had taken off, and the seat belt sign had been switched off, the passenger with the stove squatted in the aisle and lit the primus to make his tea. The surrounding passengers didn’t react. I could see the tea maker a few rows ahead of me, and as I unfastened my safety belt to tell him to put the naked light out, there was a blared movement of a stewardess moving from the for’d part of the aircraft to the tea maker. I’ve never seen a cabin crew member move so fast before or since.