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Thai Airways B747-400 economy class

Originally published on 06/11/2009   RSS

Check-in Online check-in is not yet available for passengers flying with Thai from London to Bangkok, so I allowed plenty of time to get to London Heathrow as there would no doubt be long queues as it was a Saturday morning. At King’s Cross, I was told to get the Heathrow Express from Paddington as the Piccadilly line was down, which I did, after spending £16.50 on a one-way ticket.

It was only when I got to Heathrow that I overheard that I could have simply used my Oyster card and paid what I would have to use the underground line. I complained and asked for a refund, and was given a form to fill in and post to the Heathrow Express customer relations team, but was warned that I probably wouldn’t get my money back as “it is not our responsibility to bring this to your attention”.

I arrived at Terminal 3 at 0930 for the 1230 Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. There were five economy class desks (D15-19) in departure Zone D, as well as one for Royal First passengers and two for Royal Silk (D20-22). I stood in line for about 15 minutes before checking in my suitcase and collecting my boarding pass.

I then headed up the nearby escalators to security – fast-track lanes for premium travellers are on the left, with lines for economy passengers to the right. There was a ten- to 15-minute wait, and when I got to the X-ray system, it was belts and coats off, laptops out, and lots of people getting a pat down. Before entering the shopping area in departures, there was a passport check.

I bought some Thai baht at Travelex and was annoyed to find I was not asked if I wanted to have the £3.50 currency buy-back service, instead I was just quoted a price for the amount of money I wanted to exchange and told that this was part of the service they offered. Fortunately, I knew that Travelex charge for this and queried it, and as a result they deducted the charge.

Boarding Boarding was set to start at 1130, so I had breakfast at Chez Gerrard and did a bit of shopping before heading to Gate 7 (next to the Emirates lounge), a short walk away. When I got there, there was a very long line stretching from the waiting area all the way down the corridor. Once my passport and boarding pass had been checked, I was into a pleasant, spacious area with lots of seats. Within a couple of minutes rows 60-70 were called for boarding via an airbridge.

There was a range of newspapers and magazines (including The Economist) for all passengers, and cabin crew in traditional Thai dress greeted passengers with a formal bow. Immediate impressions were of how colourful the cabins were, with seats alternating in pink, purple and orange upholstery, and once in my seat noticed the cabin was uncomfortably warm. I put on a pair of flight socks that are supposed to help prevent “economy class syndrome” (deep vein thrombosis) caused by sitting still for long amounts of time. I also heard they ease “jumpy legs”, which I sometimes suffer from in cramped spaces, so thought I would give them a try.  

The seat I had been assigned window seat 61A – one that I was quite pleased with as it was not over the wing and was by a window (to see the seat plan click here). Although Thai Airways is in the process of refitting its fleet of B747s, the version that serves the London-Bangkok route still has the old products in economy, as well as in first and business. The new economy class product is available on selected B777-300, B777-200ER, A340-600, A340-500 and A330-300 aircraft.

Once the refit is complete it will hopefully be vastly improved, as when I flew, the seat fabric was worn and the seat belt frayed around the edges, and there were no individual seat-back screens. The shared screens nearest me were a large one on the bulkhead wall in front of row 56, and one above the aisle by row 53. Passengers are provided with a small pillow, a purple blanket and disposable in-ear headphones.

Which seat to choose? Given that online check-in and therefore pre-flight seat selection is unavailable, it will be a question of checking in early at the airport and keeping your fingers crossed for the seat you want. There are three economy class cabins on the B747, with ten seats configured 3-4-3 (A-B-C, D-E-F-G, H-J-K) between rows 32 and 67, and 2-4-2 from row 68 to 70. There are three seats only (A-B-C) in row 31 and four seats (D-E-F-G) in row 71.

Exit row seats – those in rows 31, 43 and 53 – offer the most legroom (except for 43 and 53 A and K which have restricted legroom). Standard economy seats offer a 34-inch pitch, 15.5-18-inches of width and 22-32 degrees of recline. But be aware that you might not have a very good view of the video screens, there is no under-seat storage and may suffer from disturbance from the galleys/washrooms.

If you are sitting in middle bulkhead seats, although they too offer a little more legroom, they feel more claustrophobic and also mean you are sitting too close to the screen to watch it properly. Middle seats B, E-F and J are all to be avoided, as do not have direct access to the aisle or views through the window.

The pairs of seats at the back of the plane in rows 68 to 70 are good options if you are travelling with someone as you have a bit more privacy. However, sitting at the back of the plane tends to be noisier and bumpier, and those sitting nearest the washrooms will find people queuing beside them for the whole journey. You will also probably be last to disembark. If you want a window seat, avoid those in rows 33 to 47 as the view is obstructed by the wing.

The flight Thai flies to Bangkok twice a day from London Heathrow – at 1150, arriving at 0605 the next day, and at 2135, arriving at 1555 the following day. Mine departed at 1230 on this occasion, and the captain announced that flight time would be just over ten hours.

We started taxiing at 1235 and after a short delay were airborne at 1255. Menus were given out at 1310 and at 1320 a drinks service started. I had a gin and tonic, and was given a hot towel to wipe my hands with. My vegetarian meal arrived soon after – before anyone else’s. I was presented with a tray with a white china dish of rice, over-cooked broccoli and carrots, and a tomato and pepper ragout. There was also a soft white roll, garlic and herb Boursin cheese, crackers, a tiny salad with lettuce and two slices of tomato and cucumber, and a fruit salad. I was grateful that I had eaten a good breakfast so wasn’t hungry enough to eat much of it.

During the meal a second drinks service came around, followed by tea and coffee, but no other alcoholic drinks were offered during the rest of the flight. I was also a little disappointed by the service – perhaps because I had high expectations. Given Thailand promotes itself as “the Land of Smiles” I would have expected crew to be a little friendlier, and my tray sat on my table for a long time before it was cleared away.

Departure cards were handed out at 1510, which needed to be completed on both sides and handed into immigration upon arrival. A pamphlet in the seat-back listed the films showing on this flight – there were three movies in English, but one of which had French subtitles, which I later discovered were too small to read from where I sat. The sound from the headphones was also inadequate over the noise of the engines.

I slept for bit with the intention of waking to watch the second film but missed the beginning so abandoned the idea. The cabin lights had be dimmed by this point and the people sitting next to me were asleep so I didn’t want to disturb them by putting the overhead light on and reading. So I unpacked my inflatable neck pillow (yes, I came prepared – and it really helped) and attempted to sleep for as long as possible. I was also glad I had bought a big bottle of mineral water with me as cups of it only came round a few times and the small quantities are never enough.

At about 1900 a small vegetable salad wrap was given out (pretty tasty) but no drink offered. At 2200 the cabin lights came on for the breakfast service, by which time I was pretty hungry. Wet wipes and juice/water were distributed, along with a vegetarian hot dish of soggy, greasy hash browns, spring rolls, two grey button mushrooms and a grilled tomato. Very unimpressed. I ate the strawberry yoghurt, the croissant and the fruit salad, which did the trick, and washed them down with a cup of tea in a pink plastic cup.

Arrival We began our descent at 0515 local time, and fresh purple orchids were given out as a thank you to the female passengers. We landed at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport on time and disembarkation took about 15 minutes. There was a two-minute walk to immigration, past a “Thermascan” camera, to one of six long immigration queues. After 20 minutes of waiting in line, I was through to baggage reclaim where my luggage was waiting for me. Taxis to the city centre cost about 200 baht (£4) and take 20-30 minutes.

Verdict A pretty poor economy class product with no individual seat-back screens and close to inedible cuisine. However, once the new seat has been installed on the B747 that serves this route, hopefully the experience will be greatly improved.

Price Internet rates for a return economy class flight in January started from £592 from London Heathrow to Bangkok.


Jenny Southan

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