Wednesday, January 29, 2014

BusinessFlyer TG041: KKC - BKK on Thai Airways International's Airbus A300.

Travel date: November 2013
Flight: TG041
Route: Khon Kaen (KKC/VTUK) - Bangkok/Suvarnabhumi (BKK/VTBS)
Carrier: Thai Airways International (TG/THA)
Aircraft: Airbus A300B4-622R HS-TAW 'Suranaree'
Class: Royal Silk Class (Business)
Direct distance: 377 km (234 miles)
Flight time: 56 minutes

We arrived at the airport, located approximately 10 kilometers northwest of the city of Khon Kaen, at around 0740. Home to 204,000 and a strategic transport hub of northeastern Thailand or 'Isan' (pronounced e-saan), Khon Kaen is a growing destination both in terms of business and tourism. Check-in with Thai Airways International (TG/THA), often referred to as simply THAI, was smooth with a dedicated counter for Royal Silk Class, their business class product, but there were also no waiting lines for economy with two lanes open. The departures hall housing the check-in counters as well as THAI and Thai AirAsia's (FD/AIQ) ticketing offices is located on the second floor, which also has Black Canyon Coffee and small souvenir shops, while the arrivals hall is located on the first floor along with two small shops, a foreign-exchange kiosk, and a handful of rental car counters. There is a restaurant with good Wi-Fi internet on the third floor.
Airbus A300B4-622R HS-TAW 'Suranaree' at Khon Kaen. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

No observation decks are there, but the adjacent parking lot provides an almost unobstructed view of the single 3,050-meter runway. Updated to accommodate international flights in 2005, Khon Kaen Airport is currently served by THAI four times daily from Bangkok/Suvarnabhumi (BKK/VTBS), including one flight operated under the THAI Smile brand, twice daily by Thai AirAsia from Bangkok/Don Mueang (DMK/VTBD), and twice weekly from Chiang Mai (CNX/VTCC) by Kannithi Aviation (dba Kan Air) (K8/KND). Lao Central Airlines (LF/LKA) runs seasonal international charters to and from Luang Prabang (LPQ/VLLB) in neighboring Laos, and rumors have it that Nok Air (DD/NOK) plans to launch a Phuket (HKT/VTSP) service.

Inside Khon Kaen Airport's terminal. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

There was only one lane for security check and no priority lane, but the line never seemed to get long. Tickets were checked and we were in the departures area within minutes. As Royal Silk Class passengers, we were invited to THAI's Royal Silk Lounge, which looked a bit dated with some furniture and the carpet worn out, but it provided free drinks and snacks, along with free Wi-Fi internet plus a variety of newspapers and magazines in both Thai and English. Staff at the entrance notified us when boarding started at 0820. Announcements were made first in Thai followed by English. Handicapped passengers were called first, followed by Royal Orchid Plus Gold and Star Alliance Gold holders. As we boarded our Airbus A300, we were greeted by THAI's cabin crew with a traditional 'wai' (Thai greeting), and a flight attendant guided us to our seats. They were handing out newspapers and blankets, along with a welcome drink, with a choice of apple juice, orange juice, or water, plus a hot towel.

THAI's Royal Silk Lounge at Khon Kaen. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

At 0843 the doors were closed and push-back started at 0845, on time. The two Pratt & Whitney PW4158 engines were started, and we taxied to the northern end of the runway. The aircraft rolled down and took off from Runway 21 at 0855, only using about two thirds or less of the total length. Only two minutes later, the seat-belt signs were turned off, and the cabin crew headed straight to the galleys to prepare for in-flight service for this 40-minute flight. For Royal Silk Class, they laid dining cloth on our tables, and we were served a pre-set tray with a meal served on real China and silverware. This was all done by 0905, when Mr. Dhanupath made the Captain's announcement welcoming passengers for what THAI calls Royal Orchid Service. The crew went through the aisle several times serving tamarind juice, orange juice, apple juice, hot tea, hot coffee, and water. Staff were smiling, but seemed to be more preoccupied with the list of tasks they had to do in such a short time.

The Royal Silk Class cabin on THAI's Airbus A300. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

THAI is one of the last few original Airbus A300 operators still flying the type on scheduled passenger services. Our aircraft for today was HS-TAW, an A300B4-622R delivered to THAI back on August 12th, 1998, and named 'Suranaree'. THAI's A300-600Rs seat 46 in Royal Silk Class and 201 in economy for a total of 247. First introduced in 1977, the airline acquired a total of 33 A300s (C4-203 x1, B4-103 x7, B4-203 x4, B4-601 x6, B4-605R x2, B4-622R x13) directly from the European manufacturer, forming the backbone of the regional fleet serving trunk intra-Asian routes. However, since the introduction of the Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s as well as the transferring of more regional routes to Nok Air and THAI Smile, their roles have gradually been relegated and the type currently serves just five domestic routes from Suvarnabhumi: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai (CEI/VTCT), Hat Yai (HDY/VTSS), Khon Kaen, and Phuket. It flies occasional international charters as well as substitutes for other aircraft when necessary. As of January 2014, THAI only had six of the example remaining: HS-TAO 'Chanthaburi', HS-TAT 'Srimuang', HS-TAW 'Suranaree', HS-TAX 'Thepsatri', HS-TAY 'Srisoonthorn', and HS-TAZ 'Srisubhan'.

Something close to a full meal for the 40-minute domestic flight. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Flight attendants started collecting dishes at 0920, and at that time descent had already been started. Seat-belt signs were turned on three minutes later. We passed over Samut Prakan province with our destination airport to the right of us, and made a sharp turn to the right above the Gulf of Thailand. Lining up for Runway 01R, gears were down at 0933. However, just a few kilometers before landing, the aircraft aborted landing and rapidly started to climb again. The Captain told us that there was a problem with the runway, but we later learned that an Oman Air (WY/OMA) Airbus A330 which was right before us was stuck on the runway after landing. So our aircraft made a final approach to Runway 01L, and with the gears down once again at 0949, we touched down at 0951 local time, for a total flight time of 56 minutes. Had we not had the go-around, it would have been exactly 40 minutes. We taxied to Suvarnabhumi's Gate B5 and blocked in at 0959, 19 minutes behind schedule. After an eight-minute walk to the domestic baggage claim hall, our suitcase was there by 1015.
Flying over Nakhon Ratchasima province. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

THAI provides efficient, relatively-consistent quality domestic services, but they have been feeling much more than pinches from the advent of LCCs, especially Thai AirAsia. June 2013 saw the government approving the spin-off of THAI's low-cost hybrid unit THAI Smile as a 100% subsidiary named Thai Smile Airways, and this should accelerate the transferring of additional domestic routes to the new child which operates only Airbus A320s, as well as the retirement of THAI's Airbus A300s and Boeing 737-400s. LCC Nok Air, 49% controlled by THAI, is also expanding and 'de facto' taking over some flights. Although no official retirement date has been set yet, the latest plan calls for the A300 to be retired in 2014 and the B737-400 in 2015. Hop on them while you can.

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