I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…Thai Airways have to be one of the most frustrating airlines to deal with. It’s not because their customer service is clunky, or it’s hard to get a hold of them (although these are arguably true). It’s because they are so close to having a perfect product, and they refuse to put in the tiny little extra effort that would push them over the top and lodge them firmly aside the likes of Singapore and Cathay. They are like the athlete with incredibly natural ability who wastes all of his free time getting high and never really achieves the level of stardom he was destined for.
Luckily, I had made local friends in BKK on my previous swings through. I finally heard from E when I was in Vang Vieng. After his family called me while I was on the road in the wilds of Laos asking where their son was (to which I replied…”sorry, no idea, haven’t seen him since Cambodia), he sent me a message saying he “guessed” he should have told me he was going to Siem Reap before bailing from Phnom Penh and that he was sorry. He then followed up with a message saying he was currently on a bus from Siem Reap and would be in to Vang Vieng that evening. I told him I was going to the river with friends and would see him later…didn’t hear from him again for weeks and as per status updates he never made it to Laos, went to Tokyo, then back to the U.S…like I said…strange things happen on the road.
After some fun with my Bangkok friends, it was time to head back to New York. Although I am a journalist now, I was once a corporate lawyer. It was not exactly the most fun period of my life. That being said…I went through the effort to finish law school and take & pass the bar, so it makes sense to keep my legal license valid…you never know. In the first two years after you are admitted to the bar, the NY State Bar Association requires that you attend CLE (continuing legal education) classes in person. After the first two years, you can attend the classes remotely via internet, and it’s no big deal.
My initial travel plan called for me to remain in Asia until mid-April, then return to Paris. When I learned in late February that I would have to go back to NYC at the end of March to knock out all of my CLE hours in one massive 2-day marathon of 8-hour lecture days, I was faced with a choice. The easy and perhaps sensible thing to do was to prune 10-14 days off my trip, come back to NY, attend the CLE classes, then eventually make my way back to Paris.
I am not always a sensible person, and things that the average person might consider insurmountable obstacles (aka 20,893 miles flown in order to spend seven days in NYC then return to Asia) sometimes sound like fun to me. Before I had even left Australia (much earlier in the trip), I had booked BKK-HND (TG F), NRT-SFO (Originally UA F, changed to NH F), SFO-JFK (UA p.s. F), JFK-ICN (OZ F), ICN-NRT (IRROPS would change this to ICN-KIX OZ J) and NRT-BKK (TG F). Instead of an inconvenience, I saw it as a chance to take care of my responsibilities (CLE), swap out my dirty clothes for some clean ones at my apartment in NYC and add a Northern Asian leg to my trip which would allow me to visit a friend in Seoul, spend additional time with another friend in Tokyo, as well as make my first stops in Hiroshima, Osaka and Kobe. From lemons, lemonade.
BKK-HND would be the first leg of this mini-detour, and my first time arriving or departing from Haneda Airport. In good traveler fashion, I figured if TG was going to extend me all the perks associated with first class travel, then I would arrive at the airport early, have a free lunch on them at the TG F lounge, then a nice hour long massage before boarding my six hour flight for dinner and a movie.
My taxi dropped me at door 1, and I turned left into the dedicated and private Thai Royal First check-in area. An attendant walked me to a seating area, brought me a cool towel and a bottle of water and then took my passport back to the desk to print up my boarding pass after verifying my seat selection. The aircraft for the BKK-HND flight was the same type of 77W leased from 9W that TG flies on the CDG-BKK flight. This means 8 suites with huge tv’s, buddy seats and closing doors for privacy. Since I had flown in 2A on my flight from CDG-BKK, I thought I would give 1A a try on the flight to Haneda.
With my boarding pass in hand, I made my way through Thai’s private security and immigration checks and was then whisked away in a golf cart to the F lounge. It’s really hard not to laugh at how ridiculous and superfluous the Thai ground handling experience is. Someone walks you through security and immigration before handing you off to another person who drives you to the First Class lounge…and I don’t mean they drive you near the lounge, they drive you through the door into the goddamn lounge where a lounge staffer takes over and walks you from the entrance to a seat, at which point that staffer s joined by a waiter who takes over your care from that point forwards.
I plugged my laptop in, made an appointment for a massage and ordered a club sandwich for lunch. I wasn’t expecting a whole heap from a lounge club sandwich, but both the club sandwich and the fries it came with were excellent.
When it was massage time, things started to get a little bit interesting. Business class passengers are entitled to 15 or 30 minute treatments in Thai’s Royal Orchid Spa, but first class passengers are eligible for a one hour full body massage. If there’s a better way to prepare yourself for/unwind after a 6+ hour flight, I haven’t found it.
My masseuse greeted me and took me back to the room. The massage was lovely and relaxing…until it ended. As this is a full body massage, they do the whole spiel with the oils and everything. After the massage, you take a shower, wash the oil off, dry yourself then get dressed and head to your flight feeling relaxed. That’s what normally happens…when my massage was finished an attendant came it to tell me there was a problem and none of the water was working. I asked if I could take a shower in the F lounge as opposed to the spa to wash the oil off. She said I didn’t properly understand her, ALL of the water was off in the entire airport, so none of the showers in any lounge would be working. At this point I was starting to dread putting my clothes back on and sitting all oily and disgusting for the next 7 hours.
The attendant suggested that I try to wash off in the partially filled bathtub and she would bring me some towels that were already saturated with warm water. Left with no choice, I figured this was my only option.
At about the point that it became apparent that four hand towels and some sitting water were not going to rid me of the oils, the faucets, which had been left open when the water cut out started running furiously. I stepped out of the bath and tested the shower…it worked. I let it run for a few minutes, then hopped in, toweled off, then combed my hair and got dressed, ready to face the flight…disaster averted.
I exited the massage room and told the staff that the water was back on, they looked very relieved.
I spent the last 45 minutes in the lounge checking e-mails before it was time to board. Or at least until I thought it was time to board. Based on my boarding card, I thought I ought to head to the gate, but the woman in the front of the lounge kept telling me it was too early and she would get me when it was time.
I know some people like to be the last on the aircraft. Personally, I like to settle into my seat, make some phone calls and have a drink before we push back. I don’t mind getting onboard early. After being rebuffed for the third time or so, I decided I was going to the gate no matter what the woman said. I arrived to see a “final call” sign flashing above my flight…she had told me repeatedly boarding had not yet begun.
The flight was rather full in F, I think it was 7/8 or perhaps even a full house.
One of my best friends from college, a Navy JAG Officer has recently been posted in Yokohama after doing a year in Afghanistan. As Yokohama is just outside of Tokyo, I had synched up this “connection” (into HND at night, out to the U.S. the next afternoon…sub-24 hour international award ticket rules make it a connection, not a stop), so that we could spend the night partying together in Tokyo, before he went back to his base, and I went back to NYC. I would see him again in about 10 days anyway.
Since I was getting into Japan so late, I was dressed for the evening, and ready to go as soon as we were wheels down in Tokyo. Once on board I took a glass of water and a glass of Dom Perignon 2000 to kick off the meal service. I watched Lawrence of Arabia on the way north, and the flight went by pretty quickly and uneventfully. I only have one major gripe, which in the grand scheme of things is actually a ridiculous thing to complain about. This is a First Class flight on TG and the flight time is usually over 6 hours. As such, most frequent fliers (including those redeeming hard earned miles) expect that they will get the full Thai First Class experience. For those of you who don’t know, when you think of F on Thai you expect: First Class lounge access ex-BKK, premium champagne & wine (in this case Dom, etc…), Caviar service with the meal, F amenity kit (this was during the switch from Rimowa to Tumi kits) and Pajamas. When you fly TG F from BKK to Tokyo, you will get the F lounge access, the premium champagne and the F amenity kit (While the Rimowa kits looked better, I found the Tumi kit much more functional, and I currently use it as my travel toiletry kit). However, no caviar and no pajamas. I specifically asked for PJ’s and was told they don’t even load them on this route. Just a heads up to all you redeemers out there…
Anyway…on to the meal service!
It really doesn’t get more comfortable than the First Class suite on these Boeing 77W’s that TG has leased from 9W. The flight was an absolute pleasure and there wasn’t even much in the way of turbulence. The only issues I have are that Thai’s service and catering in the sky don’t come anywhere close to matching their transcendent ground services. Having experienced most of the top “premium” first class products, I can say that Thai’s ground operation at BKK is without a doubt a top-3 product. Thai also has a top notch hard product (at least on the 77W), but their airborne catering is very inconsistent and at times it can be downright bad. Also, chintzy moves like cutting out caviar and PJ’s on a 6+ hour international flight just feel cheap. All of that being said, TG is the only Star Alliance airline to offer First Class direct between Bangkok and Tokyo, and it’s still a pleasure to fly.
You can see Tokyo sprawl out below you on the approach into Haneda, and the blinking red lights topping the great buildings of Tokyo have always been the iconic image of the city for me. It was after 10pm when we set down, so HND was fairly empty. We pulled up to a jet bridge alongside a KE Boeing 747-400, and I was one of the first people off the plane. There were no lines for immigration and I was quickly into Japan and on my way to the hotel to meet up with my buddy and enjoy Saturday night in Tokyo.