(Flown on January 31, 2015)
Throughout its history, Skymark Airlines operated a fleet of narrow-body 737s and wide-body 767s and A330s at various points in time. While I managed to get a couple of photos of the 767s, they were retired before I really became involved in spotting heavily. However, when the A330s were acquired, I got really excited. As such, I was really shocked to read the news of them retiring due to economic reasons. With only a couple day to spare, I booked a flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo to experience the Skymark A330 for the first and the last time!
Restructuring = All 737 Fleet
Skymark Airlines was established in 1996, and two years later it operated its first revenue flight from Tokyo Haneda to Fukuoka. Starting with a fleet of Boeing 767s, the airline started receiving Boeing 737-800s in 2005. By the end of 2009, Skymark retired its 767 fleet, and switched to an all narrow-body, all 737-800 fleet.
The airline show its intentions of returning to a mixed wide and narrow-body fleet in 2010 when it ordered, to the shock of many people, four A380s with option for another two. Then, in 2012, Skymark commenced leasing of seven A330 aircraft in all premium-economy configuration to be used on domestic services.
Soon, it was known that Skymark was facing financial difficulties, and that delivery of the A380s is highly unlikely. However, it was rather shocking when on January 29, 2015, Skymark announced that it had entered bankruptcy protection, and as part of restructuring it would be cancelling a number of routes and withdrawing the A330s from operations… effective from February 1, 2015!
Planning and Booking the Trip
As I had never flown on Skymark’s A330 before, the announcement left me with exactly 2 days to execute. Immediately after seeing the announcement, I started looking at the possibilities of a day trip. After looking at a number of options, I finally settled with Tokyo Narita to Fukuoka on Jetstar and back to Tokyo Haneda with Skymark.
The final itinerary looked as follows: A night in Gateway Hotel Narita, followed by a 6:05AM flight to Fukuoka on Jetstar (GK501), finishing with the 3:15PM Skymark A330 flight back to Tokyo Haneda (BC016).
Off to Narita
On the evening of January 30th, I got on the train to Narita Airport. After grabbing a quick bite to eat in the terminal, I took the shuttle bus to the Gateway Hotel. There was a number of U.S. military personnel who could only travel 2 or 3 at a time, and the rest had to wait for the next bus. The two that got on the shuttle with me took up the whole baggage space of the bus, and so when the bus driver stopped at Terminal 2 to pick up more passenger, the bus seats got completely full not only with people, but also suitcases. Anyways, somehow we all managed to survive the short ride to the hotel, and it was time to sleep for a few hours.
Sunrise Express to Fukuoka
4:00AM, and the alarm rings… Normally, I’d hit the snooze button, but not that day. Out of the bed in a minute to get ready for the 4:40AM shuttle bus to the airport. Once again, the shuttle arrives from the previous hotel already full of U.S. military personnel, and once again, the inside of the bus is full of people and luggage.
As I had checked in online the day before, I headed straight to the security, ate breakfast, and waited for the boarding for my flight to start.
At 5:40AM, the boarding for GK401 to Matsuyama and GK501 to Fukuoka was announced simultaneously. After a drive past a row of Jetstar and Vanilla Air A320s, we reached our aircraft – JA15JJ – an A320-200 with Sharklets delivered in 2013.
Due to the random assignment of seats, after getting on board, I headed to my middle seat, 08B. Luckily, after the doors were closed at 6:00AM, there were still some rows of seats empty, so I could not wait for the seatbelt sign to switch off to change my seat.
Soon after sitting down, the safety demonstration started, and we were pushed back and begun our taxi to runway 34R. We passed by a Qantas 747 taxiing to terminal after arriving from Sydney, and at 7:10AM we started our take off run.
At 6:21AM, the seatbelt signs were switched off, and so the cabin attendants and I sprang into action. While they began the in-flight sales, I switched my seat to 06A with the hope of being able to see Mt. Fuji.
And surely, soon enough there it was – highest mountain in Japan looking splendid in the early morning during sunrise.
With the skies below us turning cloudy, the rest of the flight at 38,000 feet was rather uneventful until we started our descent at 7:34.
Since Fukuoka airport is located just two subway stops from the city center, the approach into the airport is amazing. We overflown the city before commencing a 360 degree turn to line up with the single runway in Fukuoka.
Exciting approach – entering Fukuoka City over Hakata Bay, overflying the city with the airport on the left, and finally making a 360 degree turn to line up with the runway before touching down.
We touched down on runway 34 at 8:06AM, and by 8:08AM we were already at our arrival gate. Just a few short minutes later, due to the compact size of the airport, I was in the arrivals hall pondering what to do until the departure of my flight back.
How to Spend a Couple of Hours in Fukuoka?
After arriving in Fukuoka shortly after 8AM, I had a couple of hours to spend before checking in for the main flight of the day back to Tokyo Haneda.
I went to the observation deck for a few minutes; however, since the weather was cloudy, I decided to head over to the city center which is a short subway ride away. After getting to Hakata Station, I have noticed a Tokyu Hands store. That made me want to get a ladder there and go back to the airport with the hope of sun popping out for a few minutes to allow me to get some photos.
I waited at Starbucks for a few minutes before the store opened at 10AM. A few minutes later, I was back on the subway, heading back to where I came from. But this time, I had a small step ladder in my hand. After arriving at the airport, I took a bus to Tsukiguma which is located at the end of runway 34, and I spent a couple of hours watching planes (mostly without taking pictures due to the terrible weather).
As it was cloudy, and the few times the sun came out for few seconds at a time there was no aircraft taxiing by, I decided to catch the 01:22PM bus back to the airport, and so I left the photo location about 10 minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive.
It’s no surprise that as soon as I got to the bus stop, the sun started to come out a bit more, just to come out completely by the time I got on the bus. What can you do – I got back to the terminal, checked in for my next flight, and headed to the observation deck again. Still suny. A Skymark A330 flight scheduled to leave at 1:55PM was getting ready for its departure back to Tokyo with a slight delay. Still sunny.
While thinking about the possibilities of taking photo of the A330 departing, I contemplated staying on the deck, but about 2 minutes before its estimated departure time, I realized I could only get mediocre pictures from the deck due to obstructions and the sun position.
RUN! RUN! RUN! Down the stairs, and into a cab. “To the baseball field near the end of the runway, please.” “As fast as possible, please.” A couple of red lights later we were getting to the position I left just a few minutes before. Grab camera and ladder, leave the rest in the cab, and RUN to the spot.
A departure of Japanese Air Self Defense Force 767 in front of my eyes, and Skymark A330 approaching the end of the taxiway. What a relief – I made it!
Click, click, click… A couple of photos later, I was running back to the airport where I spent a couple of minutes on the observation deck again to see my aircraft arriving before heading through security to the gate area.
Back to Tokyo Onboard Skymark Airlines A330
With very few people waiting to pass security check, I was airside in a matter of a few minutes. I went to the area around Gate 2 – where my flight would depart from – right away, and sat down to relax for a bit.
At 03:17PM, boarding was announced – first priority passengers, followed passengers in row numbered 30 and higher, followed by passengers in row numbered 10 and higher, followed by the rest. As I was seated in 26A, within a short time of the announcement, I was walking down the jetbridge.
Onboard, there was a strange feeling in the air – the flight attendants, obviously, did not seem overly happy or excited. This was not an inaugural flight, this was not a typical farewell flight where the aircraft leaves service at the end of its life. This was one of the last flights of the aircraft and the last day of its operation, and likely the flight crew did not know it any sooner than the general public. Likely, just as I did, they learned it just two days prior.
The Skymark A330s are configured in an all premium economy configuration, seating a total of 271 passengers. Due to the relatively low load on our flight, the boarding was finished within minutes, and soon we were on our way to runway 34.
Just as we were reaching the runway end, a Fuji Dream Airlines Embraer landed, and then it was our turn. At 03:41PM we started our take-off run, and soon we were on flying towards Tokyo. There was a total of 8 cabin crew members serving this flight besides the non-Japanese captain Demetriades, and the first officer.
The seatbelt signs were turned off at 03:53PM, and so I took a short walk around the cabin. And I was not the only one – there was one more gentleman walking around the cabin, snapping photos. Just like me, he booked the flight after he learnt about the withdrawal of the A330s from service.
A few minutes into the light, in a typically Japanese fashion, the chief purser apologized about the current situation of the airline and for the worries caused to the passengers. Soon after, the in-flight sales begun. I asked if they have any model, and the flight attendant took out a flyer with two models on it. Unfortunately, she covered the A330 model saying they do not sell them anymore, and so I passed on the opportunity to buy the 737 model this time.
Other than that, I spent the rest of the flight time chatting with the other aviation enthusiast, and staring out of the window. And luckily enough, we passed around Mt. Fuji once again, and once again I was seated on the correct side of the airplane to see it.
At 16:39 the seatbelt signs were switched on once again, and we started our descent. Less than 10 minutes later, the gear went down, and we were ready to land in Tokyo Haneda airport, but not before being offered a magnificent view of Mt. Fuji once again, this time from a greater distance.
At 03:51PM, we touched down on runway 34L, and slowed down using spoilers and reversers. We reached our arrival gate, Gate 19 at 03:56PM. I waited for the passengers to disembark to get a clear cabin shot, and then sadly headed out of the aircraft.
After disembarking, I was in the departures area where another set of passengers was waiting to board the aircraft for its last flight to Fukuoka.
After taking a photo of our aircraft through the terminal window, it was time to bid the Skymark A330 a farewell, and go home, knowing that it will be a while before I will board another Japanese registered A330. Most likely never. Still, while sad, I was also happy to have been able to take one of the last flights of the aircraft.
I wish Skymark a fast recovery from the troubles, and I hope they will be flying in the Japanese skies for years to come!