Flying With a Cartoon Penguin, on EVA Air's Badtz-Maru Airbus A330
Anyone who knows me even just a little knows that I love three things: cats, travel and a Sanrio character named Badtz-Maru. Sometimes this can be awkward, for example when a man in his 40s finds himself milling about gift shops among 8-year-old girls looking for Hello Kitty items. Other times, this leads me to fly to Asia so I can catch a plane offering a travel experience revolving around a fictional angry six-year-old penguin. Which is what I did a few weeks ago, and that turned out to be one of the most memorable flights I've ever taken.
I fulfilled one of my dreams by flying between Taipei (TPE) and Fukuoka, Japan (FUK) on a special-livery airplane from Taiwan-based EVA Air: an Airbus A330-300 outfitted inside and out in the theme of Badtz-Maru. To get the full experience, I flew Economy to Fukuoka and Business, or Premium Laurel Class as EVA calls it, back to Taipei.EVA Air also operates the distinctive aircraft between Taipei and Seoul (ICN). And if you want more Japanese cartoon characters in the air, you can catch a Hello Kitty-themed Boeing 777 flying from the US to Taipei, or check out EVA Air's special site dedicated to its cartoon-liveried jets.
I had booked the flight from Los Angeles to Taipei in early December, but I hadn't thought about trying the Badtz-Maru flight until a few days before I left. There's a handy dedicated site telling you exactly where the Sanrio-themed planes are flying, so you can tailor your itinerary to catch them. Cash prices were relatively high, $431 in Economy and $590 in Business each way. Fortunately, miles once again came to the rescue.
My first check was the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, which showed the route in Economy only for a whopping 84,883 points. EVA Air is a Star Alliance carrier, and United, the alliance's US member, allowed me to book one itinerary combining Economy and Business for 45,000 MileagePlus miles + $25.50.
The best deal though was booking with fellow Star Alliance partner Lufthansa. Its Miles & More program quoted me 15,000 miles for Economy, like United, but only 27,000 miles for Business, for a total of 42,000 miles plus similar taxes. The downside was that I had to book each way as a separate one-way ticket and the itineraries did not auto-format when I imported the data into TripIt.
But I was still very pleased that less than a week before travel, I had gotten myself a free ticket — totally free, really, since I put the taxes on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which would reimburse me as part of my annual travel credit.
Check-In and Airport
Once in Taipei, I downloaded the EVA Air app, where I was able to enter my passport information and get mobile boarding passes. After going through security and passport control, I was ready for a lounge and between my Priority Pass membership (another perk of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, among other premium cards) and my Star Alliance Gold status, I had my choice of several. I opted for EVA Air's Star Lounge and I'm glad I did. It featured a terrific buffet of hot foods and a Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar. Like many gates at TPE, the gate for my flight was themed — this one with forest creatures — but those weren't the cute animals I was looking for. Out the window I could see what I'd come for: the Badtz-Maru aircraft. I was not the only one taking photos of the plane.
At 7:44am, with an 8:10 departure time, we got a Priority Boarding announcement. My boarding pass put me in Group 4, despite my Star Alliance Gold status, because that status is linked to United but it was my Lufthansa number that was on the booking. Still, when Group 1 was called, I went up to the gate anyway and I was the first in the Economy line to board. The gate personnel did not take exception to this.
Boarding and Seat
Peppy videogame music played all around as various Sanrio characters danced on the seatback screens. The interior lived up to my expectations; I was downright delighted.
With special Badtz-Maru pillows, headrest covers, safety instructions and even sickness bags, this plane delivered. Within minutes, I was strategizing: What I can get away with taking home with me? Exclusive items were also for sale in a catalog.
This aircraft, one of nine A330-300s in EVA's fleet, has 279 Economy seats in a 2-4-2 configuration. Each seat promises 31-32 inches of legroom, which seemed about right.
The seat featured in-seat power and a USB outlet in the in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen frame. The IFE seemed a little outdated and small, with a pop-out remote and a touchscreen that was not very responsive. The "Star Gallery" offered a decent selection of recent-release movies, divided into Hollywood, Europe and Asia. There were well-marked controls for light and flight attendant call.Legroom and comfort were perfectly fine, but I should note that I had an entire four-seat center section to myself. The tray table made for a tight fit. The seat back returned yo the upright position without needing to press the button; it was probably broken.The highlight of the IFE was the safety video, bringing instructions via interpretive dance. (See the entire thing for yourself on YouTube; it's magnificent.) The lowlight was being forced to watch ads followed by ads for fancy watches, whiskeys and child safety seats. The Badtz-Maru theme was truly everywhere.
The cabin was chilly and I was glad to be handed a blanket, one with real heft (though I was a little disappointed it was not in the Badtz-Maru theme).
The lavatories were also not in theme but I did like the mini-Bonsai tree on display. Like everything else on the plane, they were very clean and tidy and even offered an "aroma mist" spray.
Wi-Fi was available for $16.95 for the flight duration, but I did not purchase it.
Food and Beverage
Service by the eight flight attendants was exceptional.At 8:31am, we pulled from the gate, with wheels up at 8:40. 20 minutes in, food was served: Fish with rice. There was no other option, which was a big disappointment since I don't eat fish, and therefore could not sample the dish. I did like that the meal was served on a Badtz-Maru placemat with very cute plastic Badtz-Maru cutlery, napkin and floss pick. The hot fish dish was accompanied by a lowfat strawberry yogurt, a fruit cup with one slice of apple and two slices of orange, a warm roll and an orange juice box.
About 10 minutes later came tea and coffee, and 45 minutes later came something even better. A flight attendant, who earlier had been surprised when I told her that I chose this flight to be in the Badtz-Maru world, brought me a stash of the character's items: a post card, playing cards and a pen. It made my day.
Wheels were down at 11:25am local time and we arrived at the gate at 11:30, 15 minutes after our original scheduled arrival.
Premium Laurel Class
My return was in Business/Premium Laurel two days later. It wasn't off to the best start when the "Lounge Fukuoka," which I accessed thanks to both my Star Alliance Gold and Premium Laurel ticket, turned out to be rather lackluster — but hey, free sake is free sake.
Boarding was a breeze. I already I could tell this was going to be a flight like no other from the welcome sign posted on the jet bridge.
I was the first passenger on the plane, and Royal Laurel class felt like my own jet for a moment.
Though the cabin was not as decorated with Badtz-Maru as Economy, the big seats in a 2-2-2 configuration were of course much more comfortable. There was no direct aisle access and the seats were angled-flat, not fully flat, but on an 800-mile flight this was pretty much a nonissue. The A330-300 is used on regional flights within Asia, and therefore operates in a pretty dense 303-seat configuration with six-abreast business class. On its long-haul Boeing 777s, EVA Air features a business class in 1-2-1 layout.The legroom was generous, as was the larger, themed pillow.
Again, the service was exceptional. A flight attendant welcomed me immediately, asked how I liked to be called, then offered me a choice of drinks. I chose a white sparkling wine.
Also at each seat were Badtz-Maru slippers, noise-cancelling headphones and a themed menu.
This time, a flight attendant noticed my luggage tag right away and was happy to know that I'd chosen this flight specifically. She quickly brought me bonus napkins, pen, cards/coasters and floss stick.
Later, even more bounty came: a big bag filled with other bags, extra slippers and cards. It was much appreciated. And even more bonus service items came later.
In Premium Laurel, I had a choice of several foods, with Japanese and Western seafood and Japanese non-seafood. I also had constant refills of sparkling wine and warm towels.
The lunch — Chinese stewed beef shank with noodle soup — was outstanding. Hot, perfectly cooked, and as good as any I've had on the ground in China.
The dessert was also good, a steamed red bean bun.
Other than the Badtz-Maru stuff, were these flights anything special? Not really. But they were easy, comfortable enough and free. They are definitely suitable options even for the passengers who couldn't understand why I would be taking selfies next to a cartoon penguin.
For me, though, these were easily two of my all-time favorite flights. Not only did the decor hold up, but the service did too.I have never been this excited to fly, and I hope you get to have a flight that does the same for you.All photos by the author.