First Class on a Private Jet; 9H-UEC in the Sky with Diamonds
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To many people, a private jet is a private jet. It doesn’t matter how big the aircraft is, how far it can fly, or how many people it can hold. Often it doesn’t even matter if it is a jet or a turboprop, it is still just a private jet.
But in reality, different types of private jets closely mirror the booking classes used by airlines. Think about it like this: economy class will be anything below a Super-Midsize — these are the functional aircraft that fly multiple hops each day, ferrying time-limited businessmen from cities to small towns and from small airports back to their homes in time for dinner. Then you have the large and long-range jets, which effectively fall under business class. These aircraft offer a more spacious cabin for long-range flights.
But first class, with far more space than business class private jets, are the Corporate Airliners. These aircraft are in a class by themselves, and their crew section alone will have more space than an average-sized Hong Kong apartment.
It is a Corporate Airliner that I will get to fly on today, from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Clark in the Philippines. This flight will be a first for me in several ways. Not only will it be the first time I’ve flown on a Corporate Airliner, but it will also be the first time that I have flown on an Airbus A318, which the ACJ318 I will be flying on is based. As an aviation geek, I’ve gone out of my way to ensure that I’d flown on every major aircraft type in production since my birth, but the A318 had always escaped me, mostly due to last-minute equipment swaps. It seemed like Emirates wanted to help me celebrate this flight, as the flight number that took me from Dubai to Tokyo the day before was 318 – EK318.
The time of the flight was set for 16:00 local time, however, a phone call during lunch let us know that we could leave whenever we wanted, so as we had already been on the road for a week, we finished off our food as quickly as possible, ran back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and then jumped in the nearest cab.
Finding the entrance to the private jet terminal at Tokyo’s Haneda airport is not an easy task. There are private entrances, and then there’s impossible to find entrances.
The entrance to Haneda’s private jet terminal falls under the latter. Having made the mistake of just hopping in a city taxi rather than having transportation arranged for us, we were eventually dropped off at the private jet terminal after several frantic phone calls between the taxi driver and our hosts.
We were treated as soon as the car pulled into the terminal by the wonderfully cheery Universal Aviation staff, who swiftly took our baggage and whisked us inside. Walking through the main entrance I looked behind me and saw the only signs that we are in a private exclusive terminal. The gate to the complex, which was wide open has a small sign reading “Tokyo International Airport Business Aviation Gate.” It is the only sign, inside or outside of the terminal, alluding to what’s inside, and with the gate open, the sign is invisible from the outside adding to the sense of utmost privacy.
Sitting on the ramp glistening in the fading early evening sun having arrived the night before from Seoul, was my ride for the day — Universal Entertainment’s beautiful Airbus ACJ318 Elite 9H-UEC. Built in 2013, 9H-UEC was registered as N777UE before being transferred to the Maltese aircraft register in October 2018. It is based at Clark in the Philippines, where we will fly today.
Boarding an aircraft of this size via stairs from the tarmac is a rare treat these days, and as the sun is beginning to fade, I savour the views across the busy Haneda ramp. Next to us is a BBJ1, but parked further away is a row of All Nippon aircraft, a gaggle of 767s with a couple of 787s thrown in for good measure.
You might have thought that I was immediately offered a glass of champagne as soon as I stepped onboard the aircraft. However, and maybe it’s just me showing my age, the first thing I was offered was even better – a pair of soft comfortable slippers. I was however offered a glass of champagne as soon as I sat down.
9H-UEC can carry up to 18 passengers and a maximum of three flight attendants. Today’s flight had a full complement of Comlux flight attendants and just a few passengers, but even if we were carrying the full load of 18 passengers, the aircraft would still have felt almost empty.
The aircraft itself is laid out in several different zones, with dividers separating the galley and flight attendants’ rest area, from the main cabin, along with another separating the main cabin with the really, really private section towards the rear of the cabin. The forward cabin, along with the flight attendant’s rest area also holds the galley, as well as various storage areas used to store plates and cutlery when they are not in use. The second, or main cabin, is in two different sections, with the forward part housing a full-sized dining table that can seat four, along with a three-seat divan. The next section includes a two-seat table, as well as a divan. It is this area that my fellow passengers choose to spend the first part of the flight, however, I choose the really, really private section at the rear of the aircraft to spend most of my time.
This zone can be completely closed off from the rest of the aircraft thanks to a wide divider. As well as a three-seat divan, this zone also includes a two-seat table. Behind this zone is the aft master lavatory and bathroom. However, a second, smaller lavatory is located before the entrance to this zone, which ensures that anybody choosing to travel in this zone can remain undisturbed during the flight.
Sitting in this zone, champagne in hand and watching Haneda departures against the backdrop of a rapidly sinking sun was the most blissful peace I’d felt since leaving my home in Hong Kong the week prior. It also suddenly strikes me how much space I have when compared to other private jets that I have been fortunate to fly on. It might sound like a cliche, but it really is a totally different experience.
Think of it like this: Next time you’re on a single-aisle aircraft; doesn’t matter if it’s built by Airbus or Boeing, nor if you’re in economy or business, take a look around you. The chances are that you’ll be quite closely surrounded by ‘things’. Maybe that thing is the seat next to you, or maybe it is the one in front of you. Maybe you are pushed against the window or have an aisle seat, but it is irrelevant as no matter where you are sitting, you can’t escape the ‘things’ surrounding you. And people. But here, in this really, really private part of the private jet, I am totally alone, and I can see from one side of the aircraft to the other. There is no clutter, no people and it almost feels like I am sat in the lounge at someone’s luxury home: peaceful, quiet, almost serene.
This feeling continues as we begin our taxi to the active runway. Today we will be using 05 which, in the Southeast corner of the airport, is about as far from general aviation parking as it can possibly be. I’m definitely not complaining though as we get great views of the Haneda traffic, including a close-up and personal view of a US-registered Japanese G650ER parked up for the day, alongside an Indonesian-registered Legacy 650 and a Thai Legacy 600. Crossing the active 16R/34L, we taxi past scores of Japan Air Lines 737-800s and 767s, interspersed with the occasional StarFlyer A320. In the distance, a solitary Japan Air Lines A350, configured for domestic trunk routes, sits alone on a ramp. All too soon we are at the threshold for 05, awaiting our turn to enter the runway. In front of us, a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER registered B-KQE, starts its take-off roll, quickly picking up speed before thundering off the runway on its way back to Hong Kong. And then it’s our turn.
As the captain releases the brakes and we start to edge forward faster and faster, I take another look around my really, really private cabin on this private jet. It is an unusual feeling being alone like this. Although I can hardly hear the nattering of the passengers in the forward sections, I am not completely cut off from the rest of the cabin, and regulations stipulate that the dividers between zones be open during take-off and landing. Despite this, I still feel like I am flying by myself, cut off from everybody else. It is almost like the zone I am in is the only ‘thing’ that’s flying. My own sanctuary.
I’m reminded that I am not alone shortly after our wheels leave the ground as the captain came on the PA to let us know that Mount Fuji, perhaps Japan’s most famous sight, is visible from the right-hand side of the aircraft. Fortunately, it is the side that I’m on, so I peer out of the window. And there, in the rapidly setting sun, standing out far but grand in the distance, is the majestic snow-covered summit of Mount Fuji.
Free of any potential Godzilla-related turbulence, I decide to join my colleagues again, so I exit my sanctuary and enter the main cabin zone of the aircraft. It is still peaceful; it is still calm and it is still quiet. Taking a seat at the dining table I’m quickly offered more champagne and asked if I’d like to eat soon. I knew we’d be out looking for food in Clark soon after we arrive, so I opt to eat as early as possible to make sure I have room for the various Filipino delicacies that I had been craving since my last visit.
Food on a private jet often mirrors airline booking classes as well. On smaller private jets there isn’t room for a galley, or a flight attendant. So often the captain, once safe to do so, will pop out of the cockpit and personally offer you a snack or a drink. Larger aircraft have full galleys, equipped with ovens, microwaves, rice cookers and more. On the ACJ 318 the galley is much bigger and has more equipment, so when I was asked several days before the flight what I wanted to eat, my mind immediately froze. My initial reaction was to ask what my choices were, to which the seemingly innocent reply was ‘You can have anything you want.’ Whilst in theory being able to choose from absolutely anything is wonderful, the reality is that choosing something from everything can be very very confusing. Did I want a Wagyu steak or the finest Japanese curry? Maybe I just wanted a plate of cheese and biscuits, or, as the flight was heading to the Philippines, maybe I wanted Adobo or Balut.
I guess that the person I was talking to realized that I was struggling, so suggested that they put together a menu for me so that I could choose whilst on-board. Satisfied with the suggestion, I was asked if there was anything that I didn’t like or was allergic to so that they knew what to avoid.
At the table, we are first given cheese and biscuits. There is more cheese choice on the plate than I can name, possibly more than I knew existed. Red Wine accompanies the cheese and biscuits, and whilst my colleagues rave over how nice the wine is, I take a glass of water instead. Soon the starters are served, although I just take some salad, while my colleagues enjoy Salmon Carpaccio and Tuna Tataki, both of which were fresh and crisp they tell me later.
For the main course we are served what I would have asked for originally if I hadn’t confused myself by trying to overthink it: Wagyu Tenderloin Steak, along with an Oroshi Sauce. Although nobody asked me if I’d like Wagyu Steak; and therefore, didn’t ask me how I’d like it cooked, it was cooked to perfection – medium rare, just the way I like it. To say it is just delicious would be doing the poor cow it came from an injustice, as every bite dissolves in my mouth like butter, leaving me wanting more. We are also served Japanese pork fillet cutlet and grilled salmon with spaghetti ali olio, but if I’m being honest, I will admit that I used the arrival of the rest of the food as the perfect cover to gobble up the rest of the Wagyu.
By the time we are finished with the main dishes and ready for dessert, we are all already stuffed and eying the resting areas in the spacious cabin. But if there’s one thing, I’ve learned over the years it is to never turn down cake, so when the flight attendant brings out a trolley full of various cakes, it is hard to resist. Spoilt for choice again, I let her decide for me, and soon enough I’m presented with a beautifully delicate lemon méringue cake, along with a plate stacked high with various fruits including an abundance of ‘Amaou’ strawberries. These are a very special type of Japanese strawberry, with the name Amaou being derived from amai (sweet), marui (round), okii (big) and umai (tasty). Later, as we were getting off the plane, I noticed one of the flight attendants packing away the food, so I asked her what was happening to it. Fortunately, she told me that the uneaten food, whenever possible, was donated to a charity so that it did not go to waste.
Following dinner, my colleagues decided to sleep, so various different parts of the cabin were converted into beds. Wanting to savor every moment of this flight I elected to work, or at least pretend to work, so with the cabin lights dimmed in all zones apart from the zone I was in, I set up my laptop and pretended to do just that. It was very quiet and aside from where I was sitting, it was dark. And so there, at 35,000 feet, I took my chance to do something I have always wanted to do on an aircraft…
Let’s go back to my flight from Dubai to Tokyo for a moment. Sitting in the back of an Emirates Airbus A380 on the 10-hour flight was about as much fun as it sounds, especially after a long hard-working week in Dubai. At 6 feet exactly, it is a struggle to get into a comfortable position to be able to sleep, especially as the flight is full, so I’m desperate to be able to stretch out fully. By the middle of the flight my legs and lower back ache, and I start to stare at the aisle. The aircraft is quiet, most people are asleep, nobody would mind if I just lay down in the aisle for a bit, would they?
Back on 9H-UEC I take my chance, get up from my seat, and lay down on the floor. There is no aisle, so I just lay anywhere. Peaceful, still, quiet, relaxed, I just lay there for a while, arms crossed over my chest, just pondering the world and mentally ticking off an item on a non-existent list of things I have always wanted to do. I’m not there for long before the lead flight attendant, who had apparently been periodically checking if I needed anything, came rushing into the cabin to ask if I was okay, telling me that she could make a bed up for me to rest in.
Trying to convince somebody that you were laying down on the floor of an aircraft because you’ve always wanted to lie down on the floor of an aircraft is not an easy task. However, after spending some time trying to explain, she eventually seemed to understand, and after telling me again with a puzzled look that she could make up a bed for me, returned to the flight attendants’ rest area.
By now we were rapidly approaching Clark, so the lights were turned up, and my colleagues were awoken. As I had sat in the really, really private zone for departure, I was debating if I should sit there again for arrival or choose somewhere else. The decision was taken for me by the lead flight attendant uttering nine simple words that I always want to hear: Do you want to sit in the jump seat?
I’d been lucky enough to sit in the jump seat on several different occasions, but never an aircraft of this size, nor at night. So the time between entering the cockpit and the actual landing was a blur of taking pictures, videos and smiling like an eight-year-old at Christmas that got everything that he ever wanted.
Unfortunately, with the landing it is time to say goodbye to this beautiful aircraft, and as quickly as we stop we are whisked to a waiting car to clear immigration. Looking back, with UEC lit up against the darkness, I see the flight attendants waving, and I immediately missed the confines of the aircraft.
The next day, in the madness of Manila traffic, rushing to catch my Cathay Pacific A321neo back to Hong Kong I’m reminded just how lucky I was. How often can we feel completely at home when we are flying? How often can we feel at total peace, like we are completely cut off not only from the rest of the world, but also from all of our traveling companions? And, not least, how often do we get the opportunity to stretch out completely on the floor of an aircraft whilst flying at 35,000 feet?
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