Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bliss is Being Bumped up and Bibimbap

This is a post written from an airliner seat I can plug my netbook into, which seasoned travellers will immediately recognise as a Good Sign. A very good sign that the Gods of Seat Assignment finally smiled at me and bumped me up to Business Class. Bumped us up to business class actually since I have the pleasure of travelling with my wife.

This post is low on the usual aviation technicalities, although as we might see later the subtelties of flight level assignment in Mongolian and Russian airspace can be sensed from a passenger seat for passengers with an inquisitive or bored mind.

For a change, this transcontinental trip was not a business trip, which is why we didn't fly Qantas or Singapore Airlines as usual. When the time came to book our tickets for our (Northern Hemisphere) summer holidays, we decided to go with Korean Airlines, who offered the cheapest fares among all the acceptable airlines. We flew Sydney to Seoul in the half-empty A330-300 in the photo above. Note the Emirates A380 in the background. Maybe next time.

As Nina sat in her seat she couldn't suppress a cry of surprise. Her finger was pointing at the back of the seat in front of her, and at the obvious absence of any personal in-flight entertainment system. There was a screen at the other end of our section, but it all looked like a scene out of the movie Airplane.

Our in-flight entertainment came under the guise of the making of Bibimbap. The choice for food was beef or Bibimbap, which the flight attendant explained was a traditional Korean dish. Being the curious and culturally sensitive couple that we are, we both went for Bibimbap, to the obvious delight of the flight attendant.

That's the only in-flight meal I have ever been served that comes with a five-step instruction sheet. Thinking about it, that's the only meal I ever had that comes with printed instructions. On completing step 5 I recognized the dish as something I ordered a couple of times in the past in a small Korean eatery in the Elizabeth Street Arcade in Brisbane.

Bibimbap is a very healthy mix of vegetables, beef, mushrooms and steamed rice. Sesame oil and hot pepper sauce come as separate ingredients. I enjoyed the dish and washed everything down with a big bowl of seaweed soup, not too bad either, just like a Miso soup, but without the evil tofu.

The cabin crew insisted on having all passengers pull the window shades down even though we were right in the middle of the day. This is all the less understandable since there is only one hour time difference between Sydney and Seoul, so it's not like fake night will help us shift our circadian rhythm to our destination. When asked, the flight attendant said it was "rest time". I felt like I was in Kindergarten again, when they forced us to stop playing and take a nap. Anyway, sticking to our theme of cultural sensitiveness, we accepted the Korean Siesta.

Maybe because the cabin was in the dark, a flight attendant carrying a tray full of glasses down the aisle stumbled as she walked by us and spilled some water over Nina's blanket. No drama at all, the spillage was quickly removed using a single napkin, and no garment got stained in the process. The ensuing display of apologies by the flight attendant, and later by the cabin chief was just amazing. I joked to Nina that she should have played the offended customer and ask for a business class upgrade on our next flight.

After a night in Seoul we resumed our journey with a long 12-hour flight to Frankfurt in a 747-400. I had seat 19B. I entered the airplane, turned right and started looking for my row number on the overhead baggage compartment. Suddenly the most bizarre thing happened. The numbers jumped from 12 to 39. I was so surprised that I asked the flight attendant who directed me upstairs. I climbed up the stairs, turned left and found my wife who had followed instructions and arrived there before me. We looked at the wide seat and exchange a very big smile. Business class. And not any business class seats. Exit row business class seats. To paraphrase Flight of the Conchords, It's Business Time.

After that stupid smile left my face and I had finished playing with the controls of the eight different ways in which I could adjust my seat, I looked through the window and saw lots of convective activity down below in the steppes. We were north-west of Beijing, approaching the border with Mongolia.

Then of course came time for our Korean siesta, even though flight KE905 left at 1:15 PM and arrived in Frankfurt at 5:35 PM. I started exploring the options of the in-flight entertainment system. The flight information gave our cruising altitude over Mongolia as 31494ft. Not a round number? How comes? Cruising altitudes obey the rule of flight levels, which typically work in increments of 1000ft.

Then I clicked on the "Metric" box and it said 9600m. Ah ah... Maybe just like the Russians, Mongolia uses the metric system in aviation. That wouldn't be terribly surprising given Mongolia's history of close alignment with the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

The mystery got thicker later when over Russia we cruised at 38094ft / 11611m for over an hour. Maybe the aiplane was assigned a block level and chose the most efficient altitude. Or maybe something else.

The rest of the flight was absolutely uneventful, which is good. I had a Tuna and Kimchi Onigiri sandwich which wasn't bad at all, very filling and quite likely very healthy too. The good thing with flying Seoul to Frankfurt is that it makes one realise how freaking huge Russia is. You could fit a couple of Australias in there. Which to my European appreciation of distances is simply mind-boggling.


Head in the Clouds said...

Oh- I love it when those unexpected upgrades happen! I too, get a big grin out of that. My biggest score, though, was the time I got upgraded to a first class seat from a business class ticket on a flight from New York to Brazil because I offered my home grown vegetables to the gate agent (pre-9/11, of course). I had been supposed to connect through Newark but my flight canceled and I instead went through JFK-- so I was not able to give the veggies to friends I was meeting in Newark. I just couldn't bear to see them go to waste! The captain even tried to radio my husband's plane, which was 30 minutes ahead of us!

Chris said...

Could it be a GPS derived true height, as opposed to a standard atmosphere pressure altitude?

Also - sorry about the confusion the other week - we'll try again soon.

Julien said...

@HitC: How civilized the world of flying was before 9/11... I love the story with the homegrown veggies.

@Chris: no worries at all about the other week. I don't think it's GPS height since when we flew over countries that use the Imperial system the altitude displayed was definitely a round number of feet, which indicates a flight level. Many mysteries the world of flying has :-)