Tuesday, June 24, 2014

CoachFlyer PG284: HKT – BKK on Bangkok Air's Airbus A320.

Travel date: March 2014
Flight: PG284
Route: Phuket (HKT/VTSP) – Bangkok/Suvarnabumi (BKK/VTBS)
Carrier: Bangkok Airways (PG/BKP)
Aircraft: Airbus A320-232 HS-PPH
Class: Economy 
Direct distance: 672 kilometers (417 miles)
Flight time: 1 hour 11 minutes
Sistership Airbus A320-232 HS-PPD Flying Bags lines up for departure at hazy Suvarnabhumi. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Knowing that we would be encountering traffic congestion around the airport, we arrived at 1000, about half an hour before departure time, to return our rental car. Inconveniently, some rental car offices are only located inside the arrivals hall just outside the baggage claim, so we needed to get ourselves checked before we literally back-tracked to that area.  
Bangkok Air's check-in counters in domestic Terminal 2. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Phuket International Airport (HKT/VTSP) is Thailand's third busiest airport, processing 11.3 million passengers in 2013. Terminal expansion has not been able to catch up with the growth; parking space is scarce and the relatively small and old Terminal 1 and 2, catering for international and domestic, respectively, is long overdue for a replacement. A new international terminal planned for 2015 is currently under construction, and the current two terminals will receive a renovation and serve domestic flights. 
The congested departures area beyond security check. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Check-in counters are located on the second floor and we were checked in at Bangkok Airways' (PG/BKP) (often shortened to simply Bangkok Air) counters by 1020. Since we had bought a promotion fare, our baggage allowance was limited to 20 kilograms per person, and with our suitcases weighing 25 kilograms each (bought lots of local packaged foods), we had to pay 80 THB per kilogram overweight. Bangkok Air and Japan Airlines (JL/JAL) recently started partnering with reciprocal mile accrual and redemption, but the staff at the counter was unaware and it took us some time for the counter agent to register our JAL Mileage Bank numbers. And even so, it later turned out that it wasn't logged, and we had to call JAL and send them our tickets after returning to Japan to have our miles accrued.
Bangkok Air's Boutique Lounge at Phuket. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

However, a nice thing was that since my wife was pregnant, they kindly placed us in the front section of the all-economy cabin and blocked off the middle seat for us. The departures hall was packed with people, so we decided to move on to security, located in the southern end of the building for domestic flights. We passed through at 1030. It wasn't busy, but there weren't any priority lanes available. We then headed to Bangkok Air's lounge located in the farthest corner of the domestic departures hall, adjacent to rival Thai Airways International's (TG/THA) (THAI) Royal Silk Lounge. Bangkok Air touts itself as Asia's Boutique Airline, and one of the noteworthy positives is that they offer a lounge to all passengers. It offers plenty of western snacks and drinks, as well as a descent selection of Thai and English newspapers.
Our Airbus A320-232 HS-PPH. Still mostly white and without a name. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Boarding started at 1100 at Gate 66B, and they split the load into two groups according to their seats to make the process less chaotic; Zone 2 (Rows 14-28) boarded first, followed by Zone 1 (Row 1-12). We climbed down the stairs, where a bus was waiting to carry us to Spot 2, near the eastern end of the apron, where Airbus A320-232 HS-PPH was parked. We boarded using the airstair. Our seats were in row two, and in row one was a buddhist monk dressed in a typical saffron robe. Doors were closed at 1121 and as the cockpit crew were making their final check-ups, the cabin crew went through the cabin to hand out refreshing towels. Push back started at 1125, five minutes ahead of schedule, and we were moving on our own in four minutes.
Climbing above the hills of Koh Phang Nga province. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Albeit the early departure, we had to wait at the threshold of Runway 9 to wait for two incoming aircraft; a Dragonair (KA/HDA) Airbus A321 from Hong Kong and a private jet. Phuket Airport is equipped with only one runway, and located in an isthmus-like area of the island between the hills to the north and south, there is no room for another. With our two IAE V2527-A5 engines roaring, we finally took off at 1139 and banked to the left heading north, flying over the rocky islands made of limestone of Phang Nga province. Four minutes after takeoff, the seat-belt lights were turned off and the flight attendants started their in-flight services just a few minutes later.
Our meal for the flight. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Although there is no warmed food, Bangkok Air serves a full meal pre-set on trays. Today's menu consisted of a salad, a plate of slices of ham, pickles, vegetables, a bun, raspberry cake, plus a cup of water, which is more than enough for a merely 70-minute flight. Rounds of coffee, tea, water, and orange juice were also offered. At 1205, Captain 'Khun' Manoon made his welcome announcement and informed us we were flying at 32,000 feet. Weather at Bangkok would be partly cloudy with temperatures at 33 degrees Celsius. Five minutes later, our meal trays were collected, and gradual descent into Suvarnabhumi started just a few minutes later.
Airbus A320-232 HS-PPH still retained the seats of former operator TAM. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Our aircraft for this day, HS-PPH, made its maiden flight on April 28th, 2006. The eight-year-old aircraft is one of a batch ordered by Singapore-based BOC Aviation, a subsidiary of Bank of China, and originally started out its career on lease to TAM Airlines (JJ/TAM) wearing the registration PR-MBC. From delivery on May 18, 2006, it spent flying in South American skies from Brazil until being returned to the lessor in August 2013. It was leased to Bangkok Air on December 7th, 2013. At the time we flew, the aircraft was still wearing a basic white scheme (Bangkok Air is famous for their colorful liveries) with only their logo on her tail and small titles in the front, and also still without a name. The A320 also retained 174 seats and its interior from the TAM era.
Flying north along the coast of Gulf of Thailand. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

The seat-belt signs were turned on at 1230. We passed over the skyscrapers of Bangkok, or Krung Thep Maha Nakhon in Thai, around 1240 heading north, then making a sharp turn to the right for a final approach to Runway 19L. Gears were lowered at 1246, and we touched down at Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK/VTBS) three minutes later. We taxied to Gate C5 and came to a stop at 1255, right on schedule. Since Councourse C is in the passport-controlled area, we deplaned to the jet-bridge, only to climb down the stairs to be bused to the domestic arrivals area. 
Inside Bangkok Air's seat pocket was their Fah Thai in-flight magazine as well as their in-flight shopping catalog. The flight attendants gave us notebooks, pens, and stickers. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Bangkok Air is led by President Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth, whose father Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth owns 92% of the airline as well as heads the Bangkok Hospital Group, one of Southeast Asia's largest private heath-care conglomerates. Founded in 1968 as air-taxi operator Sahakol Air, it became Thailand's first private airline when it launched scheduled passenger services in 1986. Since then, amid the significant growth of LCCs like Thai AirAsia (FD/AIQ) and Nok Air (DD/NOK) and a stronger THAI, the airline has managed to produce profits, thanks to its quasi-monopoly at popular beach destination Samui (USM/VTSM), where the airline privately owns the airport, and their opportunity to code-share with most non-Star Alliance carriers at Southeast Asia's biggest holiday destination.
Thanks to the very friendly cabin crew for a comfortable flight! (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

The crews were friendly and professional, and from my personal view, more polite than their counterparts at rival THAI, or Thai AirAsia and Nok Air, though the latter two are LCCs and may not be appropriate to compare with. The only negative I could think of was the counter agent unable to register our JAL Mileage Bank numbers. With a modest fleet of seven A320s, a dozen A319s, and eight ATR 72-500s, Bangkok Air is not a very big player, however, they have carved out a niche of their own in the increasingly competitive and crowded market, and certainly live up to their slogan Asia's Boutique Airline.

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