The excellent service just about makes up for a disappointing meal on Julian Gregory's flight with Thai.
First impressions: I arrived at Bangkok International Airport at 11.30pm for my 01.35am flight. Premium check-in at terminal one was well signposted, and after a quick screening of my bags I headed to one of the many vacant check-in counters. It was then off to the machine to pay airport tax (500 Baht) and then through the fast track immigration, which lived up to its name.
Thai has two Royal Executive Class Lounges at Bangkok and I headed for the largest one, which was nearest to my gate. While not being the smartest lounge it had almost everything you could need, with plenty of seating ? although no sofas to collapse on ? and a reasonable range of hot and cold snacks and drinks. Unfortunately, the food was being cleared away as I arrived, presumably because we were one of the last flights of the day.
(Thai has 13 direct flights to London weekly.) There are work desks and computers with internet access, and I liked the fact that you need to ask for a password to use a terminal for a limited period, so that nobody can occupy a computer for hours on end.
Boarding: The flight was called 40 minutes before it was due to leave and as I arrived at the gate they started boarding. It was not the smoothest of procedures, even for premium passengers, and I wished I had waited another 15 minutes in the lounge. But, once on the 747-400, the famous Thai hospitality kicked in and I was quickly seated with a glass of water reading the Daily Telegraph.
The seat: The Royal Executive seat has a seat pitch of 127cm, width of 53.3cm, a reasonable amount of recline (134 degrees) and a footrest. However, it has no lumbar adjustment and I found myself wanting another pillow to put into the small of my back. Each seat had a personal video screen with a decent selection of movies. You could also request a personal video player, which gave access to a wider selection of films. I was seated on the lower deck, which has a 2-2 configuration, with the right-hand side of the plane being a joint galley that serves both business and first class passengers.
The flight: Thai Airways is known for its service and the staff did everything they could to make me feel welcome. If I had accepted every offer of the lovely wine they kept offering me, I would have been the worse for wear before I had made any impression on my meal. Unfortunately, the food was disappointing. The "Quick Supper Service" was described as a mixture of fruit, fish, meat, cheese and chocolate ? all presented in one serving ? which sounded ideal as I wanted to eat quickly and then sleep. But I was told that this was not available because of a menu change for August due to the Thai Queen's birthday, and I wasn't given an answer when I asked why it was still listed on the menu. The special Queen's menu had no choice of starter (seafood being the only option), but there was a good selection of main courses, breads, cheese and fresh fruit, followed by dessert.
The flight time to London is just over 12 hours, allowing plenty of time to sleep. I went to sleep after the meal and was woken for breakfast about five or six hours later, some two hours and 26 minutes before touchdown. In the event, this figure was incorrect because of a computer glitch, but even allowing for landing early, it was still two hours before we arrived at London, and I felt I had been woken unnecessarily early to have breakfast (although this was the best meal of the flight).
Arrival: Heathrow Terminal 3 can often be busy in the morning, but the immigration hall was the worst I had seen in almost any country. The EU Nationals queue was so
long it spilled out of its allocated area. At this point I was hugely grateful for the fast-track pass given to me by Thai and I joined the non-EU passengers in fast-track and got through within five minutes. It took about ten minutes for the baggage carousel to be allocated but my tagged ?priority' bag was one of the first to come out.
Verdict: Thai hospitality is what makes the difference on this service. With flat beds expected to be rolled out from about March 2005, Thai Airways should then have much improved seat comfort. That just leaves the food in need of a little improvement.
Prices: Although Thai doesn't offer the latest lie-flat seats (offered by BA/Qantas), its fares do reflect this fact. Thai markets business class rates through the travel trade:
For example, Airline Network (www.airline-network.co.uk) charges from £1,893 return, while Travelocity (www.travelocity.co.uk) offers £2,053.