Joe at Mutantfrog wrote a post recently on the evolution of flight paths from Europe to Japan. Readers my age may be surprised to know there used to be an awfully large country called the USSR directly in the way, which wouldn’t allow Western airlines to fly through its airspace. The route to and from Japan was eventually whittled down from a monster Tokyo – Manila – Bangkok – Rangoon – Calcutta – New Delhi – Karachi – Bahrain – Cairo – Rome (- London) route in the 1950s, to nonstop flights between Japan and Helsinki, which involved going over the North Pole. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, airspace restrictions were lifted, and all flights to Japan I’ve been on the past four years take me over Russian airspace.
The first time I ever went on a long-distance flight was to Japan, way back in 2003. I had window seat, and spent a lot of the 12-hour flight marveling at the epic expanses of the Russian landscape spread out beneath me. Of course, it only took a couple more trips for the magic to wear off. Now, I go for an aisle seat every time, so I can get served drinks and go to the toilet easier.
Don’t think this marks me out as a seasoned traveller. For the most part, I buy all my tickets from student travel agency STA Travel, and rank them on how much money I can save. (Nota bene: for flights to the Far East “saving money” is a relative notion.) That’s fine – I’m not particularly fussed about gathering up air miles so I don’t have to kick it in economy class with the other peasants. In fact, going on a different airline every time gives me some insights about how the service varies across different airlines.
JAL is assumed by many to be the Holy Grail of air travel to Japan, and I certainly arrived for my year abroad in style; direct flight from Heathrow to KIX, delicious food and those lovely warm towelettes that precede meals in Japan. (You clean your hands with them, but on long-distance flights nobody minds if you sneakily freshen up and wipe your face as well.) Air France pleased me less, as its 20kg weight limit for luggage meant that I was charged loads for bringing a year’s worth of stuff back home. On the plus side, their food was good as well – at least by airline standards. On a short return trip last summer, I used KLM, which I have to say is the best of the bunch. You were fed almost non-stop, the in-flight entertainment was on demand – which meant you could start and stop the films whenever you wanted – and the selection was great. I watched De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Casino Royale (again), The Departed (again), and a rubbish action flick called Shooter – the less said about that the better.
As for the mystical quality known as “service” – namely, how well the staff treat you – I don’t see it as a huge factor. I got drinks and food whenever I wanted, and in the end that’s what counts – I don’t really need stewardesses smiling at me and patting my head to make me feel special. Or stewards, for that matter.