Reported from Denver by Seth Miller, “The Wandering Aramean”. Follow him on Twitter @WanderngAramean
I was staring out the window, watching the curved wing bend up as we rolled down the runway. We lifted off and something I’d never previously experienced happened: everyone on board started clapping. Sure, I’ve heard applause upon landing plenty of times, but never at departure. It was clear that this flight – the inaugural trip from Denver to Tokyo Narita on United Airlines – was a big deal, way more than just a new line on a route map.
Denver has been pushing for more than a decade to get better long-haul international service. There is service from Icelandair, British Airways and Lufthansa. United has also had long-haul service from time to time, most recently seasonal London flights. But this new route is the first from Denver to Asia and, listening to the comments from the Mayor and Governor, there are a lot of high hopes for the city and region based on the new flight.
Even after United announced plans to operate the route there were delays. The flight was originally scheduled for 31 March 2013, only to be postponed by the grounding of the entire 787 Dreamliner fleet worldwide. With the new date set the Denver community, airport and United worked together to produce an impressive celebration in the terminal.
The event was typical in some ways; there was the usual lineup of local business leaders and politicians speaking, for example. But there were also several Tokyo-specific additions to the agenda. A Buddhist priest presided over the ceremony. He offered blessings for the partnership and the route, reminding the assembled that it was only 130 years ago that we entered the era of flight with a trip shorter than the wingspan of the 787 Dreamliner we were all about to board. There was a ceremonial tapping of a sake keg, after which the sake was flowing freely in the gate area, along with snacks and cake. And there was a performance by the Denver Taiko group, a local drum troupe who practice the Japanese art. They were spectacular.
From there it was on to the plane and off to Tokyo. I got to experience the outbound flight in economy class and the return in business class. Obviously business class was better – more space and more food – but the economy product was reasonable, at least in EconomyPlus. My window seat gave me great views throughout the trip, though also presented some challenges.
The seats are not especially wide – ANA and JAL went 2-4-2 in their coach cabin while most other carriers, including United, went 3-3-3 – which presented an interesting challenge when we three settled in to our row. My neighbor was a big guy. Not disproportionally so, but he was both tall and broad. It was not possible for both of us to sit back in our seats without brushing shoulders unless I leaned away into the side wall. That makes for a less than stellar experience over a 12 hour flight.
Lunch was served (it was airline food, in coach; not really much to speak of), after which most passengers moved to nap mode. For me and a few other passengers that meant time to conduct some interviews of the official delegation and to socialize. Between talking with Denver’s Mayor about the potential for the city to become an Aerotropolis, making friends with other passengers while discussing tourist sites in Tokyo and speaking with the crew about crazy travel schedules the 12 hour flight passed rather quickly.
There was a mid-flight snack (a turkey puck and slightly melted ice cream – blah) as well as breakfast which is really lunch time in Tokyo, shortly before landing. I had the noodles and they were actually pretty good.
After spending an overnight in Tokyo I was back at the airport and back on board for the return trip, this time in United’s BusinessFirst cabin. Not surprisingly the service was more attentive in the premium cabin.
By this point I had made friends with most of the crew so there was a bit more flexibility in what access I had during the trip. With their permission I even got to briefly explore the rest bunks.
After nearly 15,000 miles flown in 72 hours – for the second time in two weeks – I can easily say that the in-flight experience the 787 offers has some very noticeable benefits. I’m not sure that I was any less tired for having been on the 787 Dreamliner but the higher humidity on board was noticeable, particularly after landing. I wasn’t nearly as dried out as the prior trips.
I have no idea if the Denver-Narita route will be a success or not. I hope it is, both for the company and the city. They’ve certainly worked hard to make a go of it and the party they launched the route with was pretty spectacular.