By David Armstrong, Contributing Editor
As everyone who follows aviation knows, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was grounded worldwide in January by regulators pending resolution of safety problems with the type’s lithium-ion batteries. The planes are just now returning to the sky.
In line with this, All Nippon Airways (ANA), the launch customer and currently the largest operator of 787s, plans to reboot its long-haul international Dreamliner service on Saturday, June 1.
As it happens, I took my first 787 flight, from California’s Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (IATA code SJC) to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT), with ANA on January 12. On January 18, two days after all 50 of the world’s 787s then in service were grounded, I returned to California on a Boeing 777-300ER with ANA.
The return of the Boeing 787 is good news, especially for those flying in ANA’s business class, as I did.
ANA has a very good long-haul international business class. Staff are attentive and anticipatory. Service is delivered in a refined, friendly way in a cabin nicely lit with natural and artificial lighting.
The experience is further enhanced with fine food, drink and electronic entertainment. (Details anon.)
Back in January, when the Dreamliners were grounded, ANA quickly and efficiently rebooked me for my return flight, on my original return date. Since ANA has 787-only service to San Jose, I flew home to San Francisco International Airport (SFO), 50 miles north.
As the launch customer, ANA endured several years of production delays before flying the new-787 for the first time on November 1, 2011. These days, ANA operates 18 Dreamliners (with 48 more on order). ANA is one of the largest customers for the new Boeing widebody type.
Once the flying public regains confidence in the 787, ANA’s embrace of the new-generation aircraft may come to be seen as a smart move. It’s a very beautiful, comfortable plane.
Indeed, two months before the grounding, ANA’s customer surveys showed that 98 per cent who flew a 787 would take one again, while 40.4 per cent picked a particular flight just so they could fly on the 787.
Before leaving for Tokyo, I relaxed in The Club at SJC. It’s a lovely, 7,400-square-foot space, available all-day to anyone for a $35 day pass. Free Wi-Fi and two PCs are on-site, along with showers, light snacks and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
The lounge, which opened in January, has easy-on-the-eye carpeting and pleasing blond wood. It is located past security between terminals A and B.
I don’t check bags, but I was pleased to note that ANA’s business class passengers may check two 70lb (32kg) bags free. First class passengers get three free 70lb bags. Economy class fliers get two free 50lb (23kg) bags.
Upon boarding ANA flight NH1075 to Tokyo, I entered a receiving chamber just inside the 787-8, which ANA has configured with 158 seats. The first impression is one of space. That impression continues inside the 46-seat business class cabin.
Ceilings are high. Overhead bins, especially by the windows, are large. Windows are oval-shaped and 1.3 times the usual size, throughout the plane.
Their size is accentuated by the absence of plastic shades; windows can be color-tinted, lightened or darkened by pushing a button.
Other pleasing elements built into 787s: quieter-than-average turbofan engines, increased cabin pressure and moister air, to help ease the discomfort of dry cabin air.
We took off from San Jose on schedule at 11:45 a.m. for the 10 hour 33 minute flight to Tokyo Narita.
Judging from nearby conversations, many passengers were high-flying executives at high-tech Silicon Valley companies – exacting people who put great store by using the latest technology for doing anything from boiling water to flying around the world.
ANA has given its 787 business class service some distinctive touches.
There is one seat next to the windows on each side of the plane. Between the aircraft’s twin aisles are alternating rows of one and two seats: thus, 1-2-1, 1-1-1, 1-2-1 and so on. I had a coveted single seat in the middle section: 10F.
I was able to spread out in my airborne redoubt: newspapers, magazines, books, amenity kit – on the side-tables to my left and right. I slipped on blue ANA socks and cloth slippers and settled into a 19.4-inch-wide (49 centimeter) reclining seat with a 59-inch (150-centimeter) pitch, nestled inside a molded plastic shell.
Each seat has a USB port, power outlet and reading light. I turned on my 12.1-inch seatback LCD video touch-screen and sipped a glass of Champagne: Jacquart Brut 2005. All was right in my world.
During the long flight, I sampled J-Pop music, dipped into Western classical sounds and dabbled in rock ‘n roll. There are also movies, TV shows and games on offer.
I chose Japanese food over Western offerings. I asked a flight attendant to recommend a sake. Her suggestion, a crisp, chilled Hakkaisan sake, complemented my main meal, which included nearly a dozen small dishes: fish, including seared sea bream, pickled vegetables, miso soup and more. I finished with vanilla and dulce de leche ice cream.
I found myself wondering what it is like to sit by the window, my preferred spot. I requested a window seat on the return flight. I didn’t get it, as I flew back on a 777 packed with re-booked 787 passengers like me.
I’ve always liked the 777, but suddenly it seemed old-fashioned. Nonetheless, ANA’s 777 seat-types, row configuration, service and in-flight diversions are identical to those on its 787s.
Before leaving for California, I luxuriated in an enormous, gorgeous departures lounge for premium ANA and Star Alliance travelers at Tokyo Narita, located above check-in on the fourth floor by Gate 52. I snacked on soba noodles and sipped 10-year-old, single-malt Japanese whiskey.
Primed for the sky, I rolled to the gate for flight NH008 to San Francisco. My 9 hour 30 minute flight was cushy, not-too-bouncy and on-time, but I must admit I missed the 787. Good to have it back.
To find out more about ANA, visit www.fly-ana.com.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others.