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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
“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.
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?”
“Really? No? Really?”
“OK, if you insist, I will have some!”
What a hospitality!
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.”
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.
At 18:25, we touched down on runway 34L of Tianjin airport, unexpectedly adding a new airport to my log book.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!