2021 in Review: Looking Back at My Highlights of Last Year

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my room in APA Hotel & Resort Ryogoku where I’ve been put into quarantine after arriving back in Japan from Slovakia.

While last year has still been far from normal, personally, I am more than happy with how it turned out. I got married, I visited my family in Slovakia a couple of times, and – most importantly for this article – I managed to take some flights worth talking about and photos that make for a nice addition to my archive.

With January 2022 here, it’s time for another installment of my annual review. While I mainly do this to have a place that I can go back to remember some of the flights I took and aircraft I saw, I also hope you enjoy reading through it and through some of the articles that I link out to.

You can check my previous annual reviews here: 201620172018, 2019, and 2020.

Before continuing with the review itself, I’d like to wish you all the best in 2022 and thank you for reading this blog. I’d also like to thank my family and friends for supporting me (not only) in this hobby and working on KN Aviation.

JAL 777-200
Happy New Year!

Miles, Types, Airlines

In 2021, I took 26 flights covering just under 41,000 miles. While that’s considerably less than the 100,000+ miles I flew in the last couple of years before the pandemic started, it is also almost double the 22,000 miles I flew in 2020. Even though the situation is still far from ideal, I am happy to see people getting used to the way travel works now and airports getting busier and busier.

With nine flights (and two additional ones operated by Hokkaido Air System), JAL was the airline that I flew on the most times in 2021. I didn’t log any new airline. As for aircraft types, Boeing 767-300 was the one that I flew on the most. I flew the 767-300ER eight times and the non-ER 767-300 once. Five of those flights were with JAL, two with ANA, and two with Air Do.

International Flights in 2021
International flights I took in 2021. (Generated using The Great Circle Mapper)
2021 Domestic Flights
Domestic flights I took in 2021. (Generated using The Great Circle Mapper)

A Year of Special Liveries

Due to a two-week self-isolation after returning back to Japan, I am still limiting my international travel to visiting my family in Slovakia. Luckily, there is enough to keep an aviation enthusiast busy even within Japan. One of the things that the country is known for is special liveries, and in 2021, I purposefully flew on a few of those.

First, in September, I did a day trip to Sapporo, flying on JAL’s Disney Fantasia 80 aircraft on the way there and on its “Golden Crane” Olympic-themed A350-900 back. While the former is set to last until March 2022, the latter has already been repainted into JAL’s regular livery.

JAL Disney Fantasia 80
JAL’s Disney Fantasia 80 aircraft arriving at Fukuoka.
JAL Golden Crane A350
JAL’s Olympic-themed A350-900 departing Tokyo Haneda.

In addition to both of the aircraft wearing a special livery, the service onboard was non-standard as well. On the Disney aircraft, headrest covers and paper cups featured Mickey Mouse. On the Olympic aircraft, drinks were served in special cups and very nice flight certificates were handed out.

I wrote in more detail about my flight on the Disney Fantasia 80 aircraft as well as about JAL’s Disney jets in general here.

JAL Disney Fantasia 80
Mickey Mouse-themed cup.
JAL Olympic Jet
Olympic-themed cups and flight certificate.

Then, in December, I took another two flights in special livery aircraft, both with Air Do. Unlike the first two, the latter two were special in another regard too. While the first one of those was the inaugural flight of Air Do’s new Pokemon-themed Rokon Jet, the second one was the last flight of the Bear Do Hokkaido Jet. Unfortunately, the latter was the last time that I saw one of my friends who passed away tragically a couple of weeks after the flight.

The Rokon Jet inaugural flight started with an event joined by a few VIPs as well as Vulpix and Alolan Vulpix – the two Pokemon featured on the livery. The Bear Do Hokkaido Jet last flight was a bit more low-key. That is not to say that it was not a lot of fun.

Air Do Rokon Jet Inaugural Ceremony
Rokon Jet inaugural event.
Bear Do Hokkaido Jet Last Flight
Bear Do Hokkaido Jet seen after disembarking from its last flight.

Lastly, while it was not intentional and not domestic within Japan, I got lucky twice at the end of the year. My Emirates flight from Dubai to Vienna was operated by the airline’s EXPO 2020-themed Airbus A380-800 and my Finnair flight from Helsinki to Tokyo on December 31 was operated by an A350-900 in the Oneworld livery.

Emirates EXPO A380
Second in line for take-off, after another EXPO A380.

Chasing Hokkaido Air System’s Last Saab 340

After Japan Air Commuter retired its last Saab 340 at the end of 2019, Hokkaido Air System became the type’s last operator in Japan. As such, when a friend asked me late last year whether I was interested in joining a trip to fly on the aircraft in early 2021, I didn’t think for too long before booking the flights.

With that, in February, I flew to Hakodate from where I took a quick flight to Okushiri island on the Saab 340. I didn’t stay on the island for long as I took the same airplane back to Hakodate.

While it wasn’t my first Hokkaido Air System flight, it was my first (and last) time to fly on its Saab 340. My previous flight with the airline, from Sapporo to Hakodate back in 2016 was operated by a Japan Air Commuter Saab 340 since one of Hokkaido Air System’s ones was undergoing maintenance. At the time, I wasn’t too happy about the change, but thinking back, it allowed me to fly both of the airlines’ Saabs.

HAC Saab 340
Boarding the Hakodate – Okushiri flight.
HAC Saab 340
Flying on the Saab 340.

In addition to flying on the Saab, in December, I also went to Sapporo for a day to photograph the aircraft. Originally, I wanted to get a night photo of the aircraft earlier when visiting Sapporo to fly on the Rokon Jet inaugural flight, however, on that day, its evening flights were canceled.

HAC Saab 340
Hokkaido Air System Saab 340 arriving at Okadama airport.
HAC Saab 340
My last photo of Hokkaido Air System Saab 340.

Squeezing in Some New International Products

To make up for the lack of pure review trips, I tried to choose some products I haven’t flown before for my flights to and from Slovakia. The two-and-a-half trips that I did allowed me to fly the following:

  • Air France A319 and 787-8 Economy Class: I didn’t review either flight and won’t be writing about them as the service might have changed (returned to/closer to normal) since then. In the past, I wrote about one of the airline’s 787 inaugural flights, a short-haul A320 flight, and a long-haul 777-300ER flight (all in economy class), though.
  • Qatar Airways A350-1000 Business and 787-8 Economy Class: With the airline sending me an irresistible upgrade offer, I had a chance to fly in an A350-1000 QSuite from Tokyo to Doha. Also, while I flew Qatar Airways’ 787-8 economy class before, I reviewed it for the first time this year.
  • Lufthansa E190 and A340-300 Business Class: While I flew in Lufthansa’s economy class in the past, last year was my first time to fly the airline’s business class. I flew the E190 from Vienna to Frankfurt and the A340-300 onward to Tokyo. Without a doubt (and while expected), Lufthansa’s long-haul business class was the most disappointing product I’ve flown in 2022.
  • Emirates 777-300ER and A380 Economy Class: I flew with Emirates quite a few times in the past. Last year was my first time to fly in its new 777-300ER cabin. I also haven’t reviewed the airline on this blog yet. As such, I’ll be writing about both flights in detail here. Sneak preview: other than (obviously) the seat being much tighter, I’d rank Emirates economy above Lufthansa business class.
  • Finnair E190 and A350-900 Business Class: The former was my first time flying Finnair’s E190 and the latter my first flight departing in one year and arriving in another. While I reviewed Finnair’s A350-900 a couple years back, I will be reviewing both of the 2021 Finnair flights. I will also write about the airline’s relatively new lounge in Helsinki.
Qatar Airways A350-1000 QSuites Bed
Qatar Airways A350-1000 QSuite.
Lufthansa A340-300 Business Class Cabin
Lufthansa A340-300 business class.

Plane Spotting Around Japan

In addition to flying, I also spent quite some time doing plane spotting.

I visited Tokyo Haneda airport several times, among other things to photograph Lufthansa’s A340-300s while they’re operating the Frankfurt – Tokyo route and the special liveries introduced in 2021. Those included JAL’s Golden Crane Jet (now gone), Skymark’s Pikachu Jet, and Air Do’s Rokon Jet.

While international traffic remains extremely limited at Haneda due to COVID-19, I still enjoy visiting the airport and spending a few hours on its excellent observation decks.

Lufthansa A340-300 in Tokyo
Lufthansa A340-300 taxiing after arrival at Haneda airport.
JAL A350-900
JAL’s Olympic A350-900 taking a day off.
Air Do Rokon Jet
Air Do Rokon Jet taxiing for departure.

As for other airports around Tokyo, I visited Narita twice (once while picking up my dad at the airport and another time to catch ANA’s A380) and Iruma airbase once. I visited the latter to see Japan Air Self Defense Force’s NAMC YS-11 one last time.

ANA A380
ANA A380 approaching Narita airport.

In addition to that, I took some photos at three airports on the island of Hokkaido: Sapporo New Chitose, Sapporo Okadama, and Asahikawa.

While I only spotted at Sapporo New Chitose between the two JAL special livery flights mentioned earlier, I was still glad to get some sunny shots. The highlight of that spotting session was a Hong Kong Airlines A330 – while nothing special overall, it is not usual to see foreign airlines in Sapporo these days.

As for Okadama, I visited the airport mainly to catch the Saab 340. Doing so, however, I also had a chance to get a few photos of Hokkaido Air System’s ATRs.

Lastly, the mission in Asahikawa was simple – photograph Bear Do Hokkaido Jet’s last flight into and out of the airport. Sunny weather combined with an amazing backdrop made sure that I could complete that mission successfully.

Hong Kong Airlines A330
Hong Kong Airlines A330 at New Chitose airport.
Hokkaido Air System ATR
Hokkaido Air System ATR.
Bear Do Hokkaido Jet
Bear Do Hokkaido Jet’s last approach into Asahikawa.

The one last noteworthy spotting session of 2021 is an evening I spent at Fukuoka airport in November. Just like in 2020, I had a blast taking night photos there and cannot wait to return there again this year!

ANA 787
ANA 787 ready to depart Fukuoka.

What Are the Plans for 2022?

With Japan still requiring a two-week quarantine/self-isolation after return from abroad, planning international trips remains difficult. That said, I plan to visit my family in Europe at least two or three times. One of those trips – a month-long stay in Slovakia with my wife – is scheduled to start in just three weeks. In other words, just one week after my current quarantine/self-isolation period ends.

If circumstances improve, I’d love to do an international review and/or plane spotting trip or two.

To make up for the lack of international trips, I am planning to do some domestic trips within Japan instead. In addition to non-aviation focused ones, I also plan to fly on Skymark’s Pokemon Jet (the one special livery in Japan that I want to but haven’t flown on yet) and also on one or two Japanese airlines that I haven’t flown on before.

Current candidates for the latter are First Flying (a small airline operating a DHC-6 Twin Otter between Naha and Aguni in Okinawa) and New Central Air Service (a small airline operating Dornier 228s between Chofu airport and Tokyo’s outlying islands).

Additionally, I also plan to spend some time at Haneda and Narita airports and to do at least a couple of plane spotting trips to Fukuoka and other airports.

New Central Airservice Dornier 228
New Central Airservice Dornier 228.

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