Friday, April 22, 2011

Trip Of The Year: Royal Wedding 2011

My big trip this year is to London for the royal wedding of HRH Prince William to Kate Middleton. My plans are now finalised and I leave in two days time. I'm flying to Europe with Thai Airways from Melbourne in business class, with connections to the UK on Lufthansa.  I'll be visiting Edinburgh and London in the UK and Berlin in Germany. Stay tuned for my upcoming reports from this trip with a ROYAL theme!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bangkok Airways PG215 - Bangkok to Chiang Mai on the A319

As most of my regular readers know I spend a lot of time in Bangkok. Despite this I had never flown on Bangkok Airways before. I spend more time flying on Thai (due to being a Star Alliance partner) and Air Asia (due to their cheap prices). With a need to travel to Chiang Mai at short notice I checked out the airline web sites and found the best deal was with Bangkok Airways, so I booked online with my credit card and had my itinerary confirmed within minutes for a flight the following morning.

I arrived at the airport bright and early and found the Bangkok Air check-in counters. There was a bit of promotional material around for new services to Mumbai and Dhaka:

Celebrating 2 new destinations: Mumbai and Dhaka
The check-in queue for economy had about 20 people in it but it moved along pretty swiftly. It wasn't long before I was handed my boarding pass and made my way through to the domestic flights security and on to the lounge.

Bangkok Airways Check-in located at BKK Row F

Directions to the gates!

One of the interesting things about Bangkok Airways (PG) is that they offer a lounge for ALL passengers, regardless of class of travel or status. The lounge is pretty basic but it still provides basic non alcoholic drinks, snacks and free Wi-Fi. There is a seperate lounge for business class and top tier frequent flyers.

I headed for the domestic lounge and presented my boarding pass and was granted entry. For Wi-Fi access you have to show your boarding pass and the lounge staff give you a unique log in code to use with your device.

Once in the lounge I helped myself to a coffee and various pastries that were on offer. It's not much but it beats sitting around in the terminal. Each PG flight is called by the lounge staff so you don't have to worry about checking your watch. There are no toilets or showers in the lounge, you must go back into the terminal if you want to use the bathroom.

Bangkok Airways Domestic Lounge

Domestic Lounge with computers and flight information display
An announcement was made in the lounge that PG215 was to be delayed about 20 minutes due to a technical problem with the aircraft. After a while we were finally told to head to the gate for boarding. The aircraft was parked at a remote stand so we had to get on a bus at the gate.

Boarding Sign
Walking downstairs to the bus

Nice wide bus
Passing a Thai Airbus A300-600R

2 x company ATR72's

The bus pulled up next to an Airbus A320-200 and our rather right load of about 40 passengers climbed on board. The crew welcomes us warmly and I made my way to my window seat on the left hand side. Boarding was over pretty quickly and doors were closed. The safety video commenced and we pushed back... this is where things started going wrong!

The engines were started during push back but something didn't feel quite right. I'm not sure if it was the sound of the engines or what, but having experienced probably more than 100 A320 engine starts in my life this one just didn't sound right to me. Also, the hydraulic PTU sound kept going continuously during the engine start when normally it stops fairly quickly... those familiar with the A320 will know very well the PTU 'barking' type sound during a startup. It is something to do with hydraulic power and I am no engineer but it normally sounds a few times and stops... this time it kept going, and after a few minutes of sitting on the tarmac stationary we slowly taxi'ed back into an adjacent remote stand under the aircrafts own power, but very very slowly. At this point we realised there was an engine problem, and one of the flight attendants announced that due to 'engine failure' we would be returning. We made it back to a parking position and the engines were shut down, 5 or 10 minutes later the ground crew arrived back at the aircraft and connected the stairs. We were told to leave the aircraft with all our belongings and we were bussed back to the terminal and advised to remain in the lounge area while a solution was found.

Boarding the A320

On board

Pushback - something went wrong about here!

Disembarking again!

Is this the engine that caused us grief?

On the bus leaving our broken A320!
We waited in the lounge about 45 mintues before we were told that an alternate aircraft would be operating the service and we should head to gate A3. As we approached the gate for our second attempt at getting to Chiang Mai I saw HS-PGX, an Airbus A319 at the end of the airbridge. I was pretty happy with this because I had never flown on an A319! Sure it is just a shortened A320, but it's still a new aircraft for the log.

HS-PGX Phnom Penh Airbus A319-132 at gate A3

AIRLINE: Bangkok Airways

AIRCRAFT: Airbus A319-132 'Phnom Penh' HS-PGX (formerly named Hiroshima, but they have stopped flying there now)

ACTUAL DEPARTURE: 09.35 (95 minutes delay)

ACTUAL ARRIVAL: 10.51 (96 minutes delay)

LOAD FACTOR: Economy - 35%

A few minutes after arriving at Gate A3, boarding commenced. Fortunately we would be using the airbridge and there was no need to take a bus to our aircraft. My original seat had been changed as it no longer existed on the A319, I was handed a new boarding pass for seat 12A.

A few moments later I was sitting abord my first A319 with registration HS-PGX. This IAE powered A319 was delivered new to Bangkok Airways 3 years earlier. After just coming off a much older A320 I immediately noticed the newer more modern looking overhead lights and airconditioning fittings.

View from 12A across the wing towards a Thai Boeing 737-400

The same crew were abord the new aircraft and they welcomes us on board once more. An announcement was made apologising for the delay. Considering we had to swap aircraft though, the delay was not too severe at just over an hour and a half.

The same safety video was played and we pushed back and this time all went according to plan with the engines starting successsfully! Chiang Mai here we come !
Leg Room
With quite a bit of cloud in the Bangkok area we had a pretty bumpy ascent but once we arrived at 36,000 ft things quickly smoothed out and a meal service commenced. Today's flight was offering a (very basic) breakfast. The crew came around offering glasses of orange drink and a tray containing a small yoghurt, muffin and croissant. Tea and coffee came around shortly after. It wasn't much but it was fine for a short flight like this. The overhead LCD screens were playing  a 'funniest video' type show, with no sound available but it's not necessary as the comedy is all visual.

Very light load on the A319

A319  Rear Galley

A319 Rear Galley and right hand exit door

Breakfast service commences

Meal Service
Flying time was approximately one hour so it wasn't long before we commenced our descent into a wet and cloudy Chiang Mai. The weather in March in Chiang Mai had been unseasonably cold with rain almost every day.

The crew came around and cleared our trays and we slowly descended over the mountains and through the clouds before making a smooth touchdown at Chiang Mai International airport. All in all a pleasant experience, despite the delay!

Descent into Chiang Mai

Arriving at the gate Chiang Mai
This was my first ever flight with Bangkok Airways and I would use them again. All aircraft have tech problems now and then so I won't hold it against them for the initial problems with our A320. The prices on Bangkok Airways are now very competitive and sometimes cheaper than Air Asia, expecially when booking at short notice. The free lounge access for all at BKK and on board complimentary snacks are both great selling points. Next time I hope to try out a ride on one of the ATR72's to Trat to check out Koh Chang.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Qantas QF1 Sydney to Bangkok in Economy - Boeing 747-400 (featuring the First Class Lounge)

For the past few years I have spent most of my flying time on Star Alliance airlines, but in 2010 I decided I would move some of my travel to Oneworld alliance, including my national carrier Qantas. As a recent convert to Qantas this is my first opportunity to review a Qantas international flight and what better flight number to start with than QF1, the daily service from Sydney to London via Bangkok operated by the Boeing 747-400.  I only flew as far as Bangkok so this post only covers that first sector, featuring the beautiful First Class lounge facilities in Sydney that Qantas have become quite famous for.

I arrived in Sydney from Melbourne on a Qantas Boeing 767 (scored an operational upgrade to Business on that sector). For those continuing on to international flights Qantas provide a cross-tarmac terminal transfer bus service. I enjoy the bus ride as you get to drive past lots of aircraft and see them up close. I took a few shot's on the way over:

Qantas Domestic Terminal Sydney is a Boeing Zone

Qantas 747-400 in Maintenance

B767-300F at the Cargo Terminal

Approaching International - the QF First Class lounge is the curved windowed structure perched on top

Passing another Qantas 747-400

Qantas A380 to Los Angeles
Qantas in Melbourne had already given me my boarding pass for QF1 and my bags were checked through so all I had to do was head through passport control and security, then on to the lounge. I had arrived nice and early with the intention to take advantage of the Payot spa before my flight.

I made my way through the terminal stopping at an ATM to pick up some currency on the way.

Sydney International Terminal

The Qantas lounges are located upstairs and there is both a business class lounge and a first class lounge. The business lounge is open to Qantas Club members, Qantas Gold frequent flyers, business class passengers and oneworld sapphire card holders. First class is open to Platinum frequent flyers, first class passengers and oneworld emerald card holders. The first class lounge has become quite well known as one of the finest on the planet! I was looking forward to my visit.

As you approach you are greeted by the live plant wall before going upstairs...

Coming up the escalator into the lounge - classic style departure board

As you enter the lounge you are greeted with amazing views of the Sydney city skyline with plenty of Qantas tails poking up in between. The lounge has an absolutely fantastic position, and plane spotters will love the views towards runway 16R!

Great views towards Sydney

View towards the main runway and domestic terminal
One of the most exciting features about this lounge is the Payot Spa which is found inside. The entrance is through a sliding door at the far end of the lounge. Appointments are available in advance for those passengers actually flying First Class... for those of us who are not, you may go in and see if an appointment is available. I tried this out and was told I could have a hot towel facial and head neck and shoulder massage right away. After filling out a customer card I was introduced to my massage therapist and taken into a beautiful treatment room featuring another live plant wall. With soothing tunes in the background and beautiful surroundings like this you soon forget you are in the middle of an airport terminal!

Payot Spa treament room
After about 45 minutes in the spa my treatment was over and I was feeling totally relaxed and prepared for the flight ahead. My next stop was a shower in one of the beautiful marble lined individual shower suites. They give a really luxurious feel and have first class amenities for use in the shower and a drawer full of toiletry items should you need them.

Shower Amenities

Shower Suite

Toiletry items in the shower suite

After a long hot shower it was time to relax in the lounge and have a few drinks. You will NOT be disappointed by what is available, for example there are several different french champagnes including Taittinger, Bollinger and Moet. There are several very good red and white wines as well as a large amount of spirits and beers.

Along the walls you can find self serve snacks along with beer and soft drink fridges, with the other drinks being available at the bar... or by waiter service from the comfort of your seat.

Self Serve Area

I settled down with a glass of Taittinger in one of the fabulous leather armchairs looking over the airport and towards the Sydney CBD. The view was amazing.

In front of me was VH-OJG, the Boeing 747-400 which was operating my flight to Bangkok tonight. As I sat there having a few glasses of champagne and enjoying the view, the lounge slowly filled up. There was a few long haul flights preparing to leave, and the restaurant area was completely full.

VH-OJG Boeing 747-400 'City of Hobart' preparing for QF1 to London via Bangkok

After a few drinks it was time to consider an early dinner before the flight, and the Qantas first lounge does not disappoint when it comes to food! Take a look at the menu below (click on them to view them in a larger size):

I decided to go with a steak and chips with a side of wild rocket and parmesan salad followed by the pavlova special. With the restaurant tables completely full I decided to sit in one of the lounge chairs and have my meal there. There are waiters throughout the lounge available to place your order with. It only took about 15 to 20 minutes to receive my meal.

Dinner in the First Class lounge

Pavlova and a Sauvignon Blanc

The meal was fabulous, although the steak was quite small it was really tasty and by the time I had completed the fabulous pavlova dessert I was quite full. The lounge by this stage was starting to empty out with several Qantas departures already in the air. Soon after I had finished eating boarding for QF1 to London was announced. Time to head to the gate and leave the luxurious surrounds of the Qantas International First Class Lounge behind. My stay had been most enjoyable and I was already looking forward to my next visit!!



AIRLINE: Qantas Airways
AIRCRAFT: Boeing 747-400 (VH-OJG)

ACTUAL DEPARTURE: 18.10 (5 minutes delay)

ACTUAL ARRIVAL: 23.10 (on time)

LOAD FACTOR: Economy - 65%, Premium Economy - 90%, Business - 90%, First - 100%

Boarding was already well under way as I approached the gate area. The flight today was being operated with the usual Boeing 747-400 equipment, just as it has been for a couple of decades now I believe. The aircraft for today was VH-OJG named City of Hobart. This aircraft was delivered new to Qantas way back in 1990, making it 20 years old. That's the same year I had my first ever flight in an aircraft, so OJG and I have both been flying for a similar length of time, although I suspect the Boeing has accumulated quite a few more flying hours than I have!

VH-OJG as seen from the jetway
I had a seat allocation of 40G. I chose this seat when I booked the flight, it's a unique row to be in as it has a bulkhead in front of it, and a toilet wall behind it, meaning it is quite a private area to sit in. As far as I know this row is only selectable in advance by those with some sort of elite status in a oneworld frequent flyer program... not a problem for me with my Qantas platinum number attached to the booking.

What makes this row really great apart from the privacy, is the increased legroom! The bulkhead wall has a cutout where your feet go, meaning you can stretch right out. The disadvantage is the fixed arm rests which also hold the PTV screen, meaning the seats are a tiny bit narrower, and you can not raise the arm rests to stretch out should you have vacant seats beside you.
Row 40

Row 40 - looking across at the right hand side crew rest seats
Across the aisle from me were row 40 seats H/J/K  which are designated crew rest seats and would only be used when the flight load is 100%, there is a curtain around these seats that can give the crew privacy whilst resting.

The passenger load in economy was only about 65% full today, so many passengers had a middle seat free, but very few had an entire row of 3 or 4 to themselves. Boarding was soon completed and doors were closed. At 6.10 pm we pushed back, 5 minutes behind schedule. Just a quick taxi to runway 16R and we were soon powering down the runway, lifting off over Botany Bay and making a right hand turn tracking north west towards Richmond.

After climbing through quite a bit of heavy cloud and its associated turbulence we were in the clear blue late afternoon sky and I was getting comfortable. Amenity kits were non-existant in economy class, but at least they still had a menu which was passed out to the passengers.  I soon discovered that by placing my wheel aboard Samsonite bag in the cutout bulkhead i could get quite comfortable with my legs stretched fully out and my seat reclined, it was just about as good as a premium economy seat. I was most happy with this setup and very comfortable! I actually dozed off for a while until I was given a gentle tap on the shoulder and offered dinner.

Getting comfy in 40G - can't complain about the legroom!

I pulled out my personal screen from under the seat and decided to watch a few episodes of Australian comedy show 'The Librarians' over dinner. There was a pretty decent selection of new release movies and quite a few TV shows including quite a few Australian selections as I would expect for our national carrier!

I was still pretty full from the lounge but accepted dinner out of curiosity as to how it would taste. I had the beef pie with mashed potato. The main course itself was pretty good, but the boring salad was very ordinary and cheap looking when compared to a Singapore Airlines salad/appetiser which might include prawns or tuna or ham or something a bit more signicant than carrot and lettuce. There was also crackers and cheese on the board, and a Weis mango ice cream was offered to passengers after the dinner service was complete. A bar service was available with the meal, I just had a coke as I didn't feel like any more alcohol at this point.
Qantas Economy Dinner

After dinner, a quick visit to the loo was in order. It's not far to walk as the nearest one is directly behind row 40. I thought I might be disturbed by noise from the flushing, but it wasn't a problem. The loo was a very standard affair, with no amenities other than hand soap. No moisturisers or colognes like Singapore Airlines unfortunately.

I was pretty tired by this point so spent the next 6 hours napping and watching the odd TV show before the next meal service commenced.

Qantas serves two meals on QF1, Sydney to Bangkok. The first was dinner, the next is a light snack and todya it was a vegetarian hot sandwich with a small bowl of fruit. Compared to Thai Airways the second meal is a disappointment. Thai offer a much more significant meal service on these flights with two full meals, but I guess for those passengers continuing on to London it is perfectly acceptable as a full supper service will happen after departure from Bangkok on the next leg. The sandwich itself was pretty ordinary and I didn't finish it.
QF1 Second Meal Service
Soon after the second meal the cabin was prepared for landing and we made a routine arrival into Suvarnabhumi Airport,  touching down right on 11pm. By 11.10pm we were parked at the gate, right next to the British Airways 747 which had just flown the same sector one hour earlier. Those continuing on to London were told to be back in about 30 minutes for the next flight... for me it was off to passport control for yet another visit to the Kingdom of Thailand.

Qantas International Economy was a good experience and I was really happy with my seat, but in my opinion the Thai Airways flights on this route are superior in service as well as hard product. On the return route I flew British Airways so expect a review of that very soon!