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PR A340 & more
by Joe Wolf

ALL PHOTOS: JOE WOLF

 

I’ve always wanted to fly on an Airbus A340, but have never had the chance. This year, I realized that time is passing by quickly. As airlines take delivery of Boeing 747-8s, 777s, and 787s the less-economical four-engine A340 will be phased out.
    Unfortunately, my workload made a trip outside North America impractical. However, the article about Philippine Airlines in the April 2012 issue of Airways mentioned that PR flies A340s between Las Vegas and Manila via Vancouver, British Columbia, with local traffic rights on the LAS-YVR leg. When I read the article, I realized that I could log an A340 without going overseas.
    PR’s schedule between YVR and LAS consists of mid-afternoon flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, with evening returns on the same days. I chose to fly YVR‒LAS, rather than LAS‒YVR, so I could experience the A340 in daylight.
    It would have been possible for me to fly from Minneapolis to Vancouver, then take the PR A340 on the same afternoon. However, I like to include a lot of slack in my schedule when I travel, so I decided to fly to Vancouver a day in advance. Even if one of my flights was canceled, I would still have 24 hours to find an alternate route to Vancouver.
    The cheapest way from MSP to YVR was a United to Air Canada connection through O’Hare, but ORD is vulnerable to weather delays, so I decided to pay $100 more for an Air Canada Jazz to Air Canada mainline connection via Toronto.

 

 

 

 

An in-flight snack, PAL style

 


Flight: AC7952, MSP‒YYZ
Equipment: Bombardier CRJ100 (C-FSKM)
Seat: 3A

There were only six passengers on my flight, so boarding was completed very quickly. After the door closed, we taxied to Runway 12L, and were cleared for takeoff almost immediately. After rotation, we made a gentle left turn, and followed I-494 eastbound past Eagan and West St Paul, with a nice view of downtown and St Paul Airport in the early morning sun. It became hazy once we crossed into Wisconsin, but I was able to see Lake Winnebago, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron through the haze.
    Winds were out of the west in Toronto, so we passed south of the airport on our downwind leg. We continued eastward past downtown, Downsview, and Toronto’s eastern suburbs, before making a 180 degree turn to line up with Runway 24L. As we were on final approach, I could see the CN Tower and downtown’s high rises above a very low layer of haze. After landing, we had a brief taxi to our parking stand on the east concourse of Terminal 1. We arrived about 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled 0930.
    After deplaning, I took an escalator from the ground level concourse to customs on the second level. Our flight was the only international arrival, so inspectors actually outnumbered passengers.
    Once cleared I stopped at the Air Canada transfer desk to make sure the boarding pass United had issued in MSP for my YYZ‒YVR flight was compatible with YYZ’s scanners. The agent printed me a new pass; as soon as she handed it to me, I noticed that my flight’s departure time had slipped from noon to 1300, and my seat assignment had also changed. I had deliberately booked the noon flight because it was operated by an A321, a type that is uncommon in my logbook, and asked her if my flight would still be an A321. She replied, “No, it’s been down-gauged to an A320.” I asked her if there were any other A321 flights between YYZ and YVR; the agent said the 1100 flight was an A321, but she was unable to move me to it; she suggested I check with the gate agent.
    After a long walk to D37 at the end of the west pier, made more unpleasant because YYZ’s air conditioning was not able to cope with the 90°F (32°C) temperature, and a 40-minute wait for the gate agent to arrive, I was then told that she could not move me to the flight and advised to check with Air Canada’s customer service desk at the base of the west concourse. My luck improved; the agents working the desk could not have been friendlier, and were able to immediately move me to the earlier flight.

 



Flight: AC181, YYZ–YVR
Equipment: A321-211 (C-GIUE)
Seat: 29F

Pushback was a few minutes later than the scheduled 1100. Winds had since shifted, so we had a long taxi to Runway 6R. We had to wait for two other aircraft to depart before it was our turn. As we were taxiing into position, I saw the infamous ravine where an Air France A340 ran off the end of the runway in 2005 (with no fatalities) and an Air Canada DC-9 overran in 1978 (with two fatalities). After rotation, there was the same hazy view of downtown Toronto I’d seen on approach, before we turned northwest for Vancouver.
    After leaving Toronto’s sprawl behind, we passed over the rich agricultural lands of southwest Ontario. We crossed the Lake Huron shoreline a few miles beyond Owen Sound. Through the haze, I was able to see the rugged Bruce Peninsula and Georgian Bay beyond. We skirted just south of Manitoulin Island, crossing into US airspace over Drummond Island. We passed just south of Sault Sainte Marie, offering a nice view of the Sault Locks. It clouded up after Whitefish Point, as we were about to begin our crossing of Lake Superior, and it stayed that way past Winnipeg. The A321 was equipped with PTVs, and the map showed we passed directly over Isle Royale. I’d visited the 72km (45mi)-long island twice as a Boy Scout, and disappointed that the clouds precluded me from seeing it.
    We turned from a northwesterly course to due west near Winnipeg, flying across the continent a few miles north of the 49th parallel. After the clouds broke up, I was able to see Lake Manitoba, Regina, Moose Jaw, and Swift Current Saskatchewan, and Medicine Hat, Alberta. The flight across the prairie was peaceful, but as we neared the Alberta/British Columbia border, the scenery became more dramatic. We had a spectacular view of the Canadian Rockies as we passed Kimberly, Kelowna, and Merritt. As we neared Hope, we began our descent, following the Fraser River Valley to avoid terrain conflicts. As we were on final approach, we had a stunning view of downtown Vancouver. After landing on Runway 26R, we had only a brief taxi to gate 42, on the north pier of the domestic concourse. We arrived within a minute or two of the scheduled 1303.
    YVR is linked to downtown via light rail. Vancouver charges airport originating passengers a $5.00 surcharge, on top of an inflated one-way fare, probably so out of town (non-voting) travellers can subsidize local (voting) commuters using the other light rail stations. On weekdays, the one-way fare from the airport to downtown is actually higher than a day pass for Vancouver’s transit system—but day passes are not sold at the airport station, to ensure as much money as possible is extracted from air travellers. However, I’d discovered on the Internet that day transit passes are sold at a convenience store located in an isolated corner of the domestic terminal. I stopped there to buy my pass, before heading for the light rail station and my hotel. 
    The next day, I returned to the airport by light rail for my flight on Philippine Airlines. Fortunately, the surcharge does not apply to passengers headed to the airport, and weekend fares were in effect, so I had to pay only $2.50 for the ride.
    I reached YVR around noon, three hours before the scheduled departure time of my flight. PAL’s counter was already open, and the agent was able to quickly check me in. After clearing security, I headed to the food court. Unfortunately, the choices were very limited, and I wound up with a burger, fries, and root beer from A&W only because all of the other 'restaurants' were unappealing. The hold room my flight would board from was locked up, so I went to the one next door, where a Korean Air 777 would be departing for Seoul. Philippines arrived from Manila around 1315, but the hold room remained closed off to Vancouver originating passengers until 1430; in the interim, it was used for through passengers who wished to stretch their legs.

 


 
Flight: PR106, YVR–LAS
Equipment: A340-313X (RP-C3432)
Seat: 66A

 

 
PR boarding pass

 

I had expected there would be only a few Vancouver originating passengers on my flight, and I was surprised to see about 75 people would be boarding with me. The aircraft was pushed back around ten minutes later than the scheduled 1500. After pushback, we had to taxi all the way around the terminal to take off on 26L. The A340 is notorious for a slow climb-out, but I didn’t notice anything unusual about departure, perhaps because this flight needed minimal fuel.
    We turned quickly to the south, and flew along Puget Sound a few miles offshore from Bellingham and Everett; I was able to get a great view of Boeing’s massive complex at Paine Field. Over downtown Seattle, we turned inland and flew a few miles west of Mt Rainier and Mt St Helens. Past Mt St Helens, we turned a little more easterly, crossing the Columbia River near The Dalles.
    Because this flight was not at a meal time, I was not expecting any food, but the flight attendants distributed a nice snack tray of apple slices and a turkey panini. Although the food was tasty, I would have expected to be served Filipino mango rather than Canadian apples. The only disappointment was that no alcohol was available; I had been looking forward to enjoying an in-flight San Miguel beer.
    This A340 did not have PTVs, the programs on the main screen were almost unwatchable due to an aging projector, and there really isn’t a lot to see south of the Columbia River other than Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada, so I spent most of the rest of the flight chatting with my seat-mate.
    We entered the Las Vegas area well south of the airport, to avoid conflicts with 11,800ft (3,595m)-high Charleston Peak and 8,800ft (2,680m)-high Potosi Mountain (site of the TWA DC-3 crash that killed 22 passengers and crew in 1942, including actress Carole Lombard), before turning north, then east. After landing on Runway 7R, we had a brief taxi to the new international terminal, arriving about ten minutes ahead of the scheduled 1720.
    I was able to clear US immigration very quickly. The corridor between customs and baggage claim is lined with many historic pictures of Las Vegas, including several nice pictures of airliners at LAS. I had only carry on, so I walked past the baggage belts and through customs to the ground transport center. A bus was waiting curbside for the rental car lots, and I was able to pick up my vehicle without delay.
    After a day and a half in Las Vegas, it was time to return home. I could have taken a nonstop to Minneapolis on Sun Country or Delta, but I chose to fly via Houston on United to add LAS–IAH to my personal route map. This proved to be a mistake.
    My flight from LAS left at 1115. Knowing how congested security at LAS can be, I checked out of The Mirage around 0815. After checking in for my flight, I spent a few minutes looking at the large display case of model aircraft near security, which I’ve admired on past trips through LAS. My favorite is a rare Air Jet Advance Braniff 747, the second airplane which was never delivered. This 747 would have been painted green, and was dubbed 'the Big Watermelon'. Lines at security were unusually short, and I was at gate D50 about two hours before my flight was due to depart.

Mount Rainer

 




Flight: UA1723, LAS–IAH
Equipment: 737-900ER (N77430)
Seat: 32A

My flight pushed back from the gate a few minutes later than scheduled. We had a brief taxi to Runway 7L, and had to wait only for a US Airways A321 before it was our turn. After takeoff, we made a gentle turn to the right, passing north of Hoover Dam. I was on the wrong side of the aircraft to see the dam, but had a great view of Lake Mead. Past Lake Mead, we flew a few miles south of the Grand Canyon. I’ve seen the canyon many times, but never tire of its splendor. Beyond the Grand Canyon, it clouded up much of the way, although I was able to see Las Cruces and Austin through large breaks in the clouds. We began our descent near Austin.
    Winds were out of the west in Houston, so after flying south of the airport, we were sent on a long downwind leg well east of Lake Houston, before being turned around for a landing on Runway 27. We parked at gate C35 about 20 minutes later than the scheduled 1624.
    I had a guest pass for the United Club but, knowing it has only minimal food, I stopped first for dinner at La Salsa. Strong storms had gone through the Houston area while our 737 was en route, and many flights were delayed. My onward flight to Minneapolis was not even showing on the monitors, but one of the club’s agents said it was still due to depart on time at 1910. The United Club overlooks the E terminal, so I spent a very relaxing hour drinking chardonnay and watching the activity below. As I was preparing to leave,  I checked the monitors one more time and saw that my flight had been delayed until 2000. I immediately headed to the club bar for another glass of wine, then went back to my seat for another 45 minutes of airplane watching.

 

 
 Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
 

Flight: UA1504, IAH–MSP
Equipment: 737-500 (N62631)
Seat: 29F

When I reached gate E5 around 1930, the podium displayed 'Guadalajara', not 'Minneapolis'. The agent said that was incorrect, but they were waiting for crewmembers before the flight could board. Many UA flights were forced to sit in the 'penalty box' waiting for gates to become available, and the inbound aircraft our crew was on did not park until 2015. The door was closed at 2100, but we had to wait another 15 minutes for pushback because a 777 was parked on the taxiway behind us. We then had a long taxi to Runway 15R; we were in low clouds relatively quickly after rotation. The flight itself was routine, and I spent most of it napping and listening to my IPod. Initially, I thought we would be landing on Runway 35, but we were turned eastward for a landing on  30R instead. We pulled into the gate at 0005, two hours behind schedule.

 

Downwind for Houston Intercontinental

 

 Ramp watching from the IAH United Club


Impressions

The cover of the October 1991 issue of Air Transport World had a picture of the A340 prototype rolling out. When my copy of the magazine arrived, I realized how good the A340 looked, and I’ve wanted to fly on one ever since. Even though on the inside the A340 is no different than any other wide-body, I was happy to look out of the window at the A340’s distinctive cone-shaped nacelles of the CFM International CFM56-5C4 turbofans, knowing that my dream had come true.
    Also I’m glad I had a chance to fly on Philippine Airlines. Although the flight attendants seemed somewhat snippy, and the interior of my aircraft seemed a little worn, PR’s reservations staff, and the agents in Vancouver, were very plesant. I was also impressed that they offered a full meal at 1500. Now, if only they could offer a cold Filipino beer to go with the food...
    I came away with mixed impressions of Air Canada as well. The flight attendants on both flights were friendly and attentive, but I was unimpressed with their much-vaunted Terminal 1 at Toronto, which seemed poorly signed and laid out. It was particularly frustrating to have to wait for AC  ground staff to unlock several doors as we walked in and out of sterile areas en route from the inbound aircraft to Canadian immigration. Also, the agent working the transit desk outside immigration should have been able to immediately rebook me on an earlier flight to Vancouver once it became known that the flight I was confirmed on was late, rather than making me go first to the gate, then to a distant customer service desk.
    By flying through Houston on a summer afternoon I knew I was taking a risk, but I felt United’s ramp staff handled the storm poorly; for example, by allowing a 777 to sit directly behind our aircraft instead of moving it a few feet so we could push back. In the air, the flight attendants were as friendly as always, and the staff at the United Club (especially the bartenders) did a good job of cheering me up when my trip home began to fall apart.

 

The PR A340's faded seat coverings

 

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