Los Angeles to Bangkok – non-stop on Thai Airways – seemed like a good idea at the time.Yes, the flight is blocked at just over 17 hours, making it one of the longest commercial flights in operation. But I’ve flown other very long flights previously, several times in coach, and I’ve survived all of them and even enjoyed some of them. Yes, I knew going in that the seats in use on the Airbus A340-500 are not the most comfortable. Still, business class for that long a journey should be pleasant enough, right? And, yes, it meant a 14 hour travel day just to get to the point where I could start the trip. But that was worth it for the joys of making the super long flight, putting the cool line on my flight history map, right?
Boarding for the flight was conducted via one of the bus gates at LAX’s TBIT terminal. This is the first time I’ve ever had a departure from the terminal and I was rather surprised just how awful the experience was. Not nearly enough seats for the number of passengers boarding, overlapping announcements that confused pretty much everyone and nothing resembling proper amenities once you got out to the bus area. Pretty pathetic for a major international gateway. Still, I got on the bus and made the long ride out to the far stands where our aircraft was waiting, hoping things would be better once on board. After all, as I joked to a woman I was crammed against on the bus, "We’re flying business class; this is the closest we have to be to anyone for the next 18 hours."
Pre-flight included a glass of bubbly which was nice for keeping me awake and getting ready for the dinner service. And the dinner was pretty good food, though not the best I’ve had in the air by any stretch. There were a couple interesting quirks to the dinner service that made me wonder just how deep the budget cuts in catering were. The warm nuts, for example, were quite the pathetic presentation. Yes, I took this photo before eating any from the bowl.
The starter was a scallop, with a mango chutney of some sort. Not bad, but certainly a small portion and not particularly amazing either. Of course, I often find scallops to be that way when served out so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
For the main course I chose a fish. Sure, I’ve seen Airplane about a few dozen times but it still seemed like the least offensive of the options available. Plus, I was asked to make my choices for all three meals before departure (not a fan of that at all) and it seemed like a decent way to approach the menu. It was not offensive but also not particularly amazing.
Cheese course, drinks, dessert, drinks and before I knew it 2am PDT had arrived and it was definitely time to stretch out the seat and see what I was in for as far as sleeping was concerned.
The seat was, as anticipated, mediocre. I knew going in that it would not be a fully flat bed. Still, it was supposed to be flat enough at an angle that I’d be able to get some sleep. Especially combined with the fact that I’d been up for so long once I finally got on board, sleeping should be easy. And it actually was, even though the seat didn’t even seem to be flat at an angle when fully extended. I slept pretty well for 7 or 8 hours after the dinner service. The problem was that there were still about 7 hours left in the flight and the seat was pretty bad for just sitting in. There is nothing quite so disappointing in flight as waking up after a long, restful sleep and realizing that there is still the equivalent of London to New York City or more left to fly.
And so, with about 7 hours to go in the trip I wandered back to the galley to find out when the next meal was. Only 90 minutes away. This is actually my largest gripe about the service on the flight: the timing and ordering of the meals was wacky. When I’m taking a long flight and adjusting to a new time zone I try to switch my body over as early in the trip as possible, making it so that I’m as close to the local time as I can be when I land. The schedule of meals on this flight worked quite a bit against that.
Sure, a dinner just after take-off makes sense. And having it as a three-meal flight is great. But the second meal, served approximately 11-12 hours into the flight and at approximately midnight local time in Bangkok was breakfast. It was a good breakfast, but having it at that time rather than having another lunch/dinner course a couple hours earlier makes no sense to me. I had the shrimp congee option:
The third meal, served only about 4 hours later and only an hour prior to the 6:30am local time arrival of the flight was another lunch course. Again, decent food (though the shrimps were not as good on this one as in the congee) but it was the wrong meal at that time of the flight.
The A345 does offer one of my favorite bits of airplane silliness: a window in the lav. I’m not quite sure why, but I crack up every time I see it.
Ultimately the flight got me there in relative comfort and without too much trouble along the way. But the timing of the meals meant that when I landed I had been up since midnight local time. This made it rather difficult to get through the day fully coherent (or as much as I ever am). Fortunately I had some good friends around on the ground who helped drive that and kept me entertained as we toured Bangkok. But it was one of those friends, over dinner, who shared the following observation of this incredibly long flight:
I’ve taken it several times in each of the three classes of service available. I’ve had incredibly mediocre flights in business, rather pleasant flights in premium economy and surprisingly enjoyable flights down the back. It isn’t that the economy service is better than business; it just does a better job of exceeding expectations.
At the end of the day I must agree. The flight in business class was fine but it certainly didn’t live up to any of the great expectations set by tales of great in-flight experiences from the Asian airlines. Not bad, really, but not up to the expectations. Should I need to get to Bangkok again from the east coast I’ll almost certainly favor the flights via Europe or the Middle East. Roughly the same travel time and arguably better timed in-flight services. Definitely better premium seats available.