Pros: Between the US and Thailand, new airbus long range jets. Outstanding service.
This review is written based on one round-trip itinerary between NYC (JFK) and Phuket (HKT) via Bangkok (BKK) and return from Krabi (KBV) to JFK via BKK during August of 05. This review is written for American travelers on the East Coast who are thinking of taking Thai Airs new non-stop flights between New York and Bangkok in business class (Royal Orchid) with optional connecting service to other South East Asia destinations.
I booked the flights using Star Alliance award miles through USAirways. You can also book directly through Thai on their website, thaiair.com or via any of the other traditional ticket sellers orbitz, expedia, etc.
I called Thai (TG) a week before the flight to request seats and was able to do so for 3 out of the 4 flights. When I checked in, none of the requested seats were honored (why bother?). I found this to be surprising as a business class customer.
Also, literally no more than 2 hours after hanging up with Thai Air did I get a call from USAirways telling me my Thai flights had schedule changes, which was going to cause us to misconnect in BKK. Why didnt the TG agent tell me this when I was on the phone with her? Theres obviously some alliance issues between Star Alliance carriers, so be aware of this if you plan on booking indirectly on TG.
Ill save my rants and raves about JFK for another time, but, for the most part I found Thais facilities at JFK to be nice. Thai Air operates out of JFKs Terminal 1, which along with Terminal 4 is the international airline smorgasbord. The advantage to having lots of different international carriers in one terminal is the facilities are designed to accommodate a lot of passengers but everything is fairly well spread out amongst all the different airlines. Ive never had to wait for more than 5 minutes to get through security and checking in is usually pretty fast.
Thai Air operates check-in desks in the right center pier (as of August 05) and is one of the only airlines to have departing flights at noon from T1. There are three separate check-ins, one for Royal Orchid (Business), Premium Economy, and standard Economy/Tourist Class. We arrived at around 9:30 for our noon departure and there were only a few people in line in front of us.
If youre connecting from another airline domestically in the US youll most likely have to change terminals. This is easily done via the Air Train or busses which continually loop JFK. You could hoof it if you wanted to, but I wouldnt. Theres plenty of better options.
Because Thai Air is a member of the Star Alliance if youre connecting from a United flight Im 99% sure theyll check your luggage all the way through. And, now that USAirways and AmWest have merged you should be able to do the same if you fly into JFK on a AmWest flight. However, if youre checked into LaGuardia and have to arrange ground transportation to JFK Id be very surprised to hear if theyd check your bags through. Consult with your airline when you buy the tickets.
Ground services at JFK are operated by SwissPort, which usually means highly apathetic and rude employees that deliver substandard service. For the life of me I cant figure out why the worlds best airlines use SwissPort for their ground ops because it degrades the airlines service. In any case, we experienced the usual go f* yourself attitude from the SwissPort employee checking us in. I asked about transferring flights in BKK and he gave me a blank look and told me Id find out when I got to BKK. I didnt appreciate that, seeing as I would have liked an answer from someone fluent in English before we left. No such luck.
The business class lounge and Star Gold lounge are one in the same and you use the Swiss facilities. This certainly isnt the nicest airport lounge in JFK but its comfortable and well stocked and relaxing before the flight.
Clearing security was fast, as it usually is in JFK. We had priority passes to use a special security lane, but there was no one in any of them, so it didnt matter.
Boarding started 45 minutes before scheduled departure and started with business class first and then economy plus and finally economy. And that brings me to:
TG 791 JFK BKK non-stop. 17.5 hours
Boarding the brand new a340-500 (airbus, 4 engines under wing, widebody) was via one jetway positioned between business and economy +. There were newspapers and magazines available before you boarded. Upon stepping on the jet youre greated with a Thai hello (sorry, Im not going to attempt to spell it) and they escort you to your seat.
In business class the seats are in a 2 2 2 configuration in 2 separate cabins. Premium Economy is 2 3 2 and standard Economy is 2 4 2. In every seat you have personal in-flight entertainment (IFE) which you control from your seat. On older Thai planes many complain about the antiquated IFE with the large central screens and scratchy audio.
The seats in business class were set-up with a personal blanket, pillow, menu and amenity kit. There were 2 bottles of water in the water holders, which were constantly replenished throughout the flight as needed.
Seats were, as with everything else on the plane, brand new and fully functional. In business the seats are shell seats and recline fully flat but at a 170 degree angle, aka the wedgie seat. Why the wedgie seat you ask? Because when you fall asleep on them youll slide down ever so slowly over the course of a couple of hours but your seatbelt keeps your pants in the same position, so, when you wake up, you have a wedgie. Im 6ֶ and found the seats to be comfortable and accommodating to my size. They werent extremely wide, but certainly met my needs at 200 pounds.
We took off on-time and our journey to Thailand over the North Atlantic, Scandinavia, Russia, down over the stans and then into Thailand. Literally, on the other side of the planet.
We were served 2 full meals and one snack although there were always sandwiches and drinks available upon request. Meal service was done professionally and executed flawlessly. Everything was delicious from the appetizers right down to the fruit and cheese tray at the end of the meals. There is an ample selection of food from traditional Thai to Japanese and American, seafood, beef, chicken, and pork.
The IFE featured dozens of movies, a music playlist you could generate to your personal taste and there were also games, short subject features, and city guides. The IFE took a little getting used to, but on the way over, it worked flawlessly. I found the selection of movies and music to be a little light compared to Singapore Airlines and Qantas library, but there was certainly enough to keep us occupied.
Thai Air claims that the bathrooms in business class were stocked with premium products, but I didnt notice anything exceptional about them. And yes, the rumors are true, there are windows in the bathrooms on the a340-500s. One of the nicest sunrises (or was it a sunset?) Ive ever seen was over what I think was St. Petersburg while I was taking a leak. Go figure.
There is a supply of toothbrushes and toothpaste kept in the lavatories and only once did I go in and find everything not stocked to capacity. You could tell they were very attentive in keeping everything very nice and clean.
Overall this was one of the all-around best flights Ive ever been on and Ive flown in business class on the supposed best Singapore, Qantas, Lufthansa, United, Air New Zealand, and others.
A quick note about premium economy and economy. If you can afford the extra couple hundred dollars, I would definitely recommend upgrading to premium economy. Where the business class cabin was about 90% full as was the economy cabin, the PE cabin was at about 50% so everyone could spread out. They give you an extra couple of inches (which can be clutch) and the seats have a larger pitch. Im not sure if the service is much different then economy but for 17+ hours that much more space, and fewer people sitting around me is well worth it.
The economy seats looked to have a slightly larger pitch then domestic economy seats. They also had the personal IFE and everyone seemed to be somewhat comfortable.
Arriving in BKK
Arriving in the Bangkok International Airport is somewhat confusing. There is no one to meet your flight and although there is signage it doesnt really answer your questions. Im used to clearing customs in my arrival airport before transiting on to a domestic flight (in our case, Phuket). We walked around in circles for a few minutes before we found a Star Alliance Gold lounge to park ourselves in and ask.
As it is now, you clear customs at your final destination. It should be noted that they are preparing to start commercial service out of Bangkoks new airport in June of 06. I can only imagine that this airport will be state of the art and with much better markings then the current airport. The facilities were all clean and well maintained, but you could tell it was a little out of date.
The Gold lounge we ended in (there were a few) was nothing special and I actually found the one in JFK to be nicer. Go figure. There was free internet, food and beverages and a concierge service although she was very timid with her English and my Thai is non-existent.
Transferring from the international terminal to the domestic terminal is via busses at the current airport that take you directly to your airplane. We were only 2 of 4 international transit passengers on the second flight and I was thoroughly confused as to what was happening. But, everyone kept smiling and so I went with the flow and sure enough in retrospect it all made sense.
Domestic flights on Thai
On every domestic flight within Thailand Thai Air serves food. I found it to be decent both times but my girlfriend had trouble stomaching the meal between Krabi and Bangkok. Thai generally operates 737s with a 2 2 configuration in first and 3 3 in economy. The planes were obviously old and the seats showed wear and tear but I felt safe (Ive been on worse) and the service was very good. There was no alcohol service on domestic flights.
Other then that there isnt much to say about flying domestically within Thailand.
Arriving in Phuket we were escorted to the immigration clearance which was staffed by 4 officers (one for each of us!) and we cleared in about a minute each. Our luggage came out on its own carousel and there was no one at customs. Thai style! Ground transportation is very easy to arrange in Phuket.
Flying home. BKK JFK TG790
Our flight to Krabi brought us to the domestic terminal in Bangkok around 730pm. We caught a bus to the international terminal (which runs every 10 minutes, if youre in a hurry youre SOL). I think this problem will be eliminated once the new terminal opens.
After walking around for 10 minutes we realized that we couldnt check in for the New York flight until 3 hours before the flight. So, we were stuck in the transit area with our luggage fro 2 hours. There are only a couple restaurant options and not much else on the outside of security control. Had I known about this I definitely would have stored our luggage and taken a taxi into Bangkok to at least see a little bit of it (if you do that be careful because the traffic is notoriously bad at all times of the day).
Once we were within 3 hours a giant que formed as they hand checked peoples luggage and checked their identification. There was no separate lane for business or premium economy. After waiting in line for about 30 minutes when we approached the security guards we were told to just proceed through, no x-raying of our bags or hand checks. I suppose the Thais figure they dont have to worry about the Americans flying to America. I should note that our luggage was definitely screened after we checked it in.
Checking in there was a sign above the desk saying that TG790 would operate via Osaka Japan on our non-stop flight.
I asked about this and the woman refused to tell me anything. I asked if we were on a 340-600 and she looked at me and said airbus. Fair enough.
Apparently Thai Air only owns two a340-500s which operate exclusively on the ultra long-haul BKK-JFK route. When one goes out of service they replace it with their brand new a340-600 which doesnt have the range of the 500 so they have to stop in Japan for fuel. So, our 17 hour flight home all the sudden got bumped to 22 hours.
After clearing immigration control and paying the departure tax we proceeded to the international business departure lounge. Wow. By far the nicest lounge Ive been in, in the world. Great food and drinks. It was large, had free internet, and offered free Thai massages (!).
Boarding wasnt nearly as organized as it was in JFK and we were greeted not by a Thai hello when we boarded the plane but a scurry of activity as they were trying to arrange everything. We found our seats and settled in. The a340-600 seats were actually a little more comfortable then the 500 and I thought the IFE screens were slightly larger. This plane was no more than a month old and I actually kind of liked it a bit better then the 500s from a comfort standpoint.
However, it has to be noted that the 600s do not offer premium economy and I would have been very angry if I had purchased an the extra legroom only to have to sit in a standard economy seat for an extra 5 hours. Im not sure if they refunded the money for these passengers for the difference or not.
Shortly after take off we were presented with pajamas (where were these on the way over?) that were very comfortable and are actually high quality.
Service between BKK and Osaka was completely opposite from the way over. The flight attendants to me seemed like they didnt want to be working the flight. They were half-heartedly going through the motions and were actually slightly rude.
In Osaka we were on the ground for 2 hours (they said no more than 30 minutes originally) and there was a crew change. These flight attendants were much nicer then the original crew, but they still seemed to half-arsed through things. There was only 1 full meal service between Osaka and NY and one light snack. Keep in mind its a 14 hour flight.
The meal (lunch/dinner/who knows) had a nice variety again but I found the quality to be much lower than coming out of JFK, which was very surprising.
My IFE locked up about 2 hours after taking off from Osaka and would not restart. So, I flew for 12 hours with no entertainment. I know I sound like a whiny ingrate for being so negative about this, but its a really long flight and theres a certain expectation for a minimum level and Thai didnt come close to hitting it. Granted I didnt pay anything for the seats, but 180,000 frequent flier miles isnt exactly free. The value of these tickets was over $10,000 USD (together).
I can accept that they had to switch equipment and we had to stop in Osaka. I can accept that maybe the crews werent prepared to be working the legs they did. But I dont accept the lack of information they provided us and the crews apathetic nature. Thai Airways is known around the world for outstanding service. It was definitely missing on the flight home.
Arrival in JFK
Arriving in JFK we were the only flight to land at the time in T1 so the line for immigration and customs clearance was relatively fast. Same thing with arriving, if youre continuing on domestically in the US you can take the Air Train to another terminal. Im not sure if you can recheck your luggage in T1 for connections to other Star Alliance flights (sorry). Again, check this with your airline.
In typical Swissport fashion they dont offload priority bags first.
From touchdown to clearing customs took no more than 30 minutes.
Im giving Thai Air 4 stars because the flight over was 5 stars and the flight back was around a 2.5 but had everything operated the way it was supposed to I have no doubt it would be 5 stars. I have notoriously bad luck when I travel so dont take what Ive said as the absolute about what will happen to you. As Thai gets more long range aircraft delivered (theyre updating their fleet) these problems should be all but eliminated. As far as the service goes, their bad service was still infinitely better than any domestic airline could even dream of providing. Thai Air is on the verge of being one of the best airlines in the world.
Ill definitely fly Thai again and if youre heading to Thailand theres no better way to go. If all goes well, its smooth as silk.