Sunday, July 15, 2007

The New York Express: Thailand to the States In One Day

New York, New York

Thai Airways International’s Premium Economy may be the best value in ultra-long haul.

When I flew to Asia a year ago, I enjoyed THAI’s Business Class product courtesy of an unsolicited upgrade caused by a change of aircraft. Returning to the States in June 2007, I flew in seat 33D in the Premium Economy cabin, a perch which cost me 5,330 Thai baht (US$1,210) one-way and was worth every satang (cent).

Premium Economy (P.E.) is a relatively new flying option, which combines the lower fares of a traditional Economy ticket with some – but certainly not all – of the features of Business Class travel. Generally, P.E. seats are at the front of the Economy cabin and provide more legroom than the seats in the back of the plane but with the same meal and entertainment options. Same lavatories, too. On international routes, Air New Zealand, ANA, bmi, British Air, EVA, SAS, Singapore, THAI and Virgin have P.E. sections; within the United States, United has a P.E. section, called “Economy Plus,” on many routes.

THAI’s Premium Economy passengers check in at the International Economy desks at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. About 13 THAI employees were on the counters when I arrived, so the line moved quickly. Clearing Immigration took about 15 minutes, longer than the usual five minutes because I entered Passport Control after several busloads of South Korean tourists.

We started boarding at 00:18 for a 00:40 departure, THAI Flight 790, the “New York Express” trans-polar non-stop to JFK. On the jetway, we had our choice of Thai-, English- or Chinese-language newspapers, a touch I always appreciate. I selected the International Herald Tribune.

The airplane was one of THAI’s four Airbus A340-500s, a beautiful four-engine jet that, alas, is incredibly fuel-inefficient. (Most of the fuel on an ultra-long-haul flight is used to carry the fuel, not the passengers and cargo.)

Premium Economy on THAI (booking code U) has its own separate cabin of 42 seats in a 2-3-2 configuration, although P.E. passengers are required to use the lavatories in the forward of Economy. As we planed, each P.E. seat had a bottle of water waiting on it, as well as a blanket and a pillow, both dyed in THAI’s trademark dark purple.

The P.E. seats had flaps on the sides of the headrests, important to me on an overnight flight. Adjoining seats shared a power port, with trays stowed in the armrests. Every seat in the plane, even back in steerage, had its own seat-back screen for personalized in-flight entertainment; as we buckled up, all the screens displayed a “great circle” route over Siberia and Canada, as well as “Time To Destination: 17:51.” P.E. did not receive hot towels, although Business did. No welcome champagne, either.

But Premium Economy isn’t about perks, it’s about space. The seat pitch – the distance between any point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front – is a capacious 42 inches. To compare, the seat pitch in the Economy section of an American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER (used for long flights) is ten inches less. In addition, the THAI P.E. seats are wider than average, at 18 inches, and have a stated recline of 135 degrees. Better still, the middle seat next to me was vacant.

The plane pushed back at 00:47 and started its takeoff roll at 01:03, a little late. The flight attendants distributed complimentary amenity kits, containing a pair of black socks, a black eyeshade, a light purple toothbrush and a metal clasp attached to a flat white ribbon that I could not identify for the life of me. No moisturizers, ointments or gooey stuff.

The flight attendants (FAs) distributed a P.E. menu printed on cardstock (in Thai and English), and I choose the Hokkien noodles with pork as the first of my three meals. The noodles were served on real plates with a menagerie of metal cutlery (two forks, three spoons and three knives (!)). Salad was served on the side with two small chocolates for dessert. The meal could have used one more component.

The captain announced at 01:50 that we had obtained a cruising altitude of 31,000 feet and that we would be crossing the airspace of Thailand, Laos, China, Mongolia, Russia and Canada before reaching the United States. We would land in 15 hours and 45 minutes, he announced. Shortly thereafter, the FAs turned off the cabin lights.

The FAs vanished for several hours, which I thought was strange, since the THAI FAs are usually attentive. As it happened, the FA assigned to my aisle was gruff and gave the air of someone who had better things to do. Luck of the draw, I guess.

The in-flight entertainment was excellent. Channels included music of most major genres, video games, wire service news and more than one hundred movies and television programs, including ten episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. I’m bored by the bed hopping at Seattle Grace, so I watched an episode of Doctor Who and an episode of House and fell asleep halfway through a Biography Channel hour on Samuel Goldwyn.

The FAs served breakfast about six hours after serving dinner. I selected the pancakes; the Asian breakfast looked more substantial, but shrimp is not my idea of a breakfast food. More sleep. The FAs served a third meal about two hours before landing, a standard choice of chicken or beef. The FAs did not collect the menu, which you could keep as a souvenir.

We landed at 6:38 a.m. New York time, and some of the Thais clapped upon touchdown, an Old School tradition that has sadly fallen into history as flying becomes mundane. When all was said and done, the flight and cabin crews had worked a twenty-hour day (in shifts) while we safely navigated one-third of the globe by flying over the Arctic Ocean; they’re entitled to a round of applause.

Members of THAI’s Royal Orchid Plus frequent flyer program received 9,522 miles for the trip in P.E.; since I accrue my miles to Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program, I only received 8,668 miles, because Singapore Airlines does not recognize THAI’s class-of-service bonus of 10% for a trip in P.E. Debarkation into the bowels – and that is the correct word -- of JFK’s Terminal 4 was swift.

The journey from Bangkok to New York used to take weeks by ship. Yet, on one day in June 2007, I was in Bangkok as the clock struck midnight and was walking around the United Nations building in New York City the same day.

The airlines have done everything they can to kill the romance of flying, but THAI’s “New York Express” is a holdout, and its Premium Economy seats allow a traveler to pay near-Economy Class prices for a quasi-Business Class experience on one of the longest flights over the top of the Earth.

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Anonymous gavinmac said...

When you went through US passport control, you probably had to fill out one of those cards saying what countries you had visited on your trip.

What was the officer's reaction to seeing "North Korea"?

12:25 PM  
Blogger Paul Karl Lukacs said...

None. I filled the line with countries I had visited (but not North Korea) and then wrote "others." He didn't ask me what "others" meant.

1:39 PM  

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