Flight Review: PIA A310 Economy Class from Tokyo to Beijing with a Diversion to Tianjin

Diverted: PK853 from NRT to PEK via TSN on an A310

Fifth freedom flights are popular among enthusiasts as they offer them a chance to taste something exotic without having to go far away. This report covers Pakistan International Airlines flight 853 from Tokyo Narita to Beijing operated by an Airbus A310-300 that I took at the end of April 2016.

Pakistan International Airlines Flight 853

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the national airline of Pakistan based in Karachi, operates a flight from Lahore to Tokyo Narita airport with an Airbus A310-300 twice a week – on Mondays and Fridays.

AP-BEQ
A Pakistan International Airlines Airbus A310-300 taxiing after arrival at Narita airport during one of my previous visits to the airport.

Rather than operating directly from Lahore, the flight is operated with two stops – in Islamabad and Beijing. What is more interesting from an enthusiast’s point of view is that PIA has 5th freedom rights on the Beijing to Tokyo Narita sector.

Flight Routing
The complete route of the multi-stop flight. (Generated by Great Circle Mapper)

The flight is not bookable on the official Pakistan International Airlines website, however, it can be booked on Ctrip where I did my booking as well as on several other online booking websites.

Long Lines: Golden Week Is Here

I arrived at check-in zone “I” of Narita airport Terminal 2 at 11:20AM and I joined the end of the economy class check-in line. The check-in itself opened at 11:30AM after JAL ground staff that was handling it was briefed by the Pakistan International Airlines station manager.

FIDS
The flight information display at Narita.
Check-In
Check-in zone “I” with a line already formed 10 minutes before the check-in started.

Throughout the check-in, the weight of carry-on bags was being measured with few unfortunate people having to repack their bags. Luckily, my camera bag was not measured, and so at 12:10PM after 50 minutes in the line, I had my boarding pass in my hand and was ready to go.

Boxes
As is fairly common with flights to the Middle East, India, Pakistan, etc., quite a few people had large amount of luggage.

Before heading through the security, I had a quick sushi and udon lunch at one of the airport restaurants, and I stopped by at the observation deck and at a book store to buy the latest edition of AIRLINE – a Japanese magazine about aviation – in which an article about the Iranian Skies & Cities tour was featured.

Lunch
Quick and very tasty lunch before the flight.
OneWorld
One of the aircraft I managed to catch during my very short stay at the Terminal 2 observation deck was this JAL 767 in OneWorld colors.

Since it was the first day of Golden Week which is perhaps the busiest holiday season in Japan, there was a rather long line at the security check. While waiting, the staff was asked via radio whether another check-in point could send some people to our line, but that request was rejected since our line had more than enough people waiting in it as well.

Security
A long line at the “South” security check point of Narita Terminal 2.

Twenty minutes in the check-in line later, I was airside heading towards gate 98 where the flight would depart from. Since the inbound flight was delayed by almost an hour, the estimated departure time was 2:30PM – a 30 minute delay.

While at the gate, one of the Japanese ground staff was going around the gate checking boarding passes. When he approached one Pakistani man saying “Salaam Alaykum, boarding pass please.” The Pakistani man responded: “(hahaha) Salaam Alaykum? Wakaruyo [I understand Japanese].”

Gate
Boarding in progress.

At 2:20PM, ten minutes before the estimated departure time, boarding was started. A couple of minutes later, I handed my boarding pass to the gate agent, and was heading down the airbridge into AP-BGP – an Airbus A310-300 that was originally delivered to Delta Air Lines in 1993.

A310
Heading down the jetway towards the A310.
Almost There
…almost there…

Departure with a 40+ Minute Delay

After getting onboard, I settled in my seat 51L next to a Japanese man. When the door closed at 2:39PM, there was no one in the two seats in front of me, and so I switched to 50L giving me access to both a window and an aisle.

Boarding in Progress
Boarding in progress.

We started our push-back at 2:44PM and five minutes later we were taxiing towards runway 34L with a typical Japanese send-off from the three JAL ground staff that was handling our push-back.

We reached the queue for take-off at 3PM, being number 7 for take-off. With 6 aircraft having to take-off before us, and another couple of aircraft including a Thai Airways A380 landing before our take-off, it took more than 30 minutes for us to reach the runway end.

A380
Thai Airways A380 landing as we await our departure.
Queue
Aircraft queuing up for departure.

At 3:33PM, it was finally our turn to thunder down the runway and after 45 seconds, we lifted off into the Narita skies. A very steep climb caused by strong headwinds was followed by a 270 degrees turn towards Beijing.

Lift Off
Lift off with part of terminal 1 visible.
Delta
Little Atlanta – Delta Air Lines has a strong presence at Tokyo Narita.
Terminal 2
Terminal 2 – the home of Japan Airlines at Narita.
RWY34R/16L
Overflying runway 34R/16L.

Cruising Towards Beijing: Cabin, Meals, Crew

Less than 10 minutes after take-off, the seat belt signs were switched off and shortly after that the crew sprung into action.

Above the Clouds
Cruising towards Beijing.

In the meantime, I walked around the cabin for a bit. You could definitely tell the age of the aircraft by looking at the cabin. You could tell so especially judging from the lavatories. Two of the three lavatories in the rear sections were INOP, and the third one was in a very poor condition.

Toilet
The beaten-up and dirty toilet. (Sorry for the dirty photo.)
Toilet Flush
An old-school toilet flush button.

Soon after I was back from my “walk around,” the crew reached my row with the meal service. There was no choice of meal – I was handed a tray with beef curry and rice, a simple salad, a piece of bread and a jelly for dessert.

Drink Service
One of the flight attendants serving drinks in the other aisle.
Meal
The only “choice” of meal.
View
Wish I had a view like this every time I eat lunch!

I did not eat much of the meal as I was not hungry, however, the dessert was great. Once the meal service was over and the trays were collected, I headed to the rear galley to greet the crew and ask them to fill out my log book.

When I got there, the First Officer was hanging out with the crew, and so I handed him my log book and asked him to ask the Captain if a cockpit visit would be possible. A couple of photos later, he headed back to the cockpit and I headed back to my seat.

FO and CC
The first officer with two of the cabin crew members.
FO, CC and Me
…and together with me, taken by a very friendly passenger.

Cruising Towards Beijing: The Captain Is Calling You

Shortly after I settled back in my seat, one of the cabin crew members arrived with the great news…

“Mr. Keishi?”

“Yes.”

“The Captain is calling you.”

…and so I followed her through the rows of economy and business class seats into the best seat in the plane.

Cruising over Korea
First moments in the cockpit – cruising over South Korea.
Cockpit
…and an overview of the A310 cockpit.

I chatted with the pilots for a while talking about the “traffic jam” at Narita during our departure, the Chinese airspace where meters are still used and so planes fly at altitudes of 34,100 feet, about the past and the future of the Pakistan International Airlines fleet, and so on.

During my stay in the cockpit, the flight attendant came by asking me if I wanted green tea to which I agreed. Then she came back asking if I wanted some sweets.

“Do you want some sweets?”

“No, thanks.”

“Really? No? Really?”

“OK, if you insist, I will have some!”

What a hospitality!

Dessert Time
Same dessert as the one that came with the meal – it was delicious. Even more so when eaten in the cockpit!

As we were getting closer to Beijing, I asked the Captain whether I could stay in the cockpit for landing. He said the First Officer was flying and so he should make the decision. After a bit of talk, it was decided – I would be going to get my carry on to the cabin and then returning back to the cockpit right away to stay there all the way until landing.

To Divert or Not To Divert?

That was when the interesting part begun. We were holding for a while, and then the conversation with ATC turned interesting:

“Pakistan 853, we can hold for 15 to 40 minutes, should we hold? Otherwise we need to go to our alternate airport.”

Holding
A slightly different view of the cockpit while holding at 17,700 feet (5,400 meters).
Sharp Turn
While holding we did a series of sharp turns. …to the left…
Sharp Turn
…and to the right…

After a couple of minutes of back and forth, we hit 6 tons of fuel left, and we had to divert. The pilots did set up the navigation systems to lead us to Tianjin, and we started our descend.

Fuel
6.8 tons of fuel left – not much left until hitting 6 tons – the diversion point.
Descending
As we started our descend, it started to get dark resulting in a beautifully lit cockpit.

At 18:25, we touched down on runway 34L of Tianjin airport, unexpectedly adding a new airport to my log book.

Final Approach
100 feet – almost there.

After vacating the runway, we were told to turn right and follow the traffic. After a bit of taxiing, a follow me car came in front of us, and after confirming with the ATC that we should indeed follow it, we were led to our stand.

Follow the Traffic
Following the traffic…
Follow the Follow Me
…and following the Follow Me car…

Ten minutes later, we arrived at our stand next to some other aircraft diverted from Beijing to Tianjin, and since the pilots had a lot of work ahead of them, I left the cockpit and went back to my seat.

Approaching the Stand
Reaching our parking position.

Stuck In the Darkness of Tianjin

When I got to my seat, people were already wondering what was happening, and some people were trying to get their luggage so that they could leave the aircraft. Since the Pakistani crew only spoke English and Pakistani, they asked passengers for help with making announcements in Japanese and Chinese.

The situation soon calmed down and we started waiting in the lowly lit cabin of the aircraft. After some time in the aircraft, it started to get hot and most of the passengers were using safety cards as fans. After some more time, passengers started killing time by singing and by eating what they had left – some even started hanging out candies to their fellow passengers.

Cabin
Cabin of the aircraft during our never ending wait at Tianjin airport.

Almost three hours later, at half past nine, the APU went off and the cabin got completely dark. No announcement, nothing – perhaps we run out of fuel completely. Luckily, after thirty minutes of complete darkness and zero information, the fuel pump truck came and started refueling our plane.

Tianjin
Tianjin – so close to Beijing, yet so far!

Soon after, the lights went back on, and an announcement was made that passengers should keep their seat belts unfastened and that electronic devices should not be used due to refueling.

Refueling
A sign of hope – refueling in progress.

The refueling was finished in about 30 minutes, and the seat belt sign went on ten minutes before 11PM. Most of the passengers still kept their seat belts unfastened as there was no sign that we would be moving soon, and the crew had no problems with it. There must have even been some argument in one of the other cabins, since the crew announced that if the passengers did not stop arguing, security would be called.

From Tokyo to Beijing in 11+ Hours

After almost five hours on the ground in Tianjin, the doors were finally closed at 11:15PM and soon after we were pushed back and started taxiing towards runway 16R. By this time, I was in my third seat on this flight (fourth if we count jump seat) – 50J.

At 11:45PM, the engines finally started roaring again, and we took off into the dark and hazy Tianjin skies.

Tianjin to Beijing is less about two or three hours by car. By plane, it took us 30 minutes from take-off to landing – what a performance! Except for the five hours spent on the ground.

We landed on Beijing airport’s runway 36R fifteen minutes past midnight, and at 00:21AM we finally arrived at our gate, gate 208.

It took another ten minutes for the deboarding to start and then I was finally in the line waiting to get a taxi to my hotel for the (not so long) night.

On the other hand, the passengers that were continuing to Pakistan were asked to stay on board and keep their seat belts fastened. Poor guys!


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