Trip Report: Lufthansa Premium Economy

This is the first of two reports about premium economy experiences. For longer-haul flying, I am reaching a point where being crammed into economy is painful but business class is unaffordable. The compromise is to pay a bit extra for premium economy which is sometimes quite a good value. In this report, I cover a round trip between Bangkok and Lisbon (returning from Barcelona) on Lufthansa made in October 2016.

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The plane

Lufthansa adjusts the capacity on the Bangkok-Frankfurt route throughout the year to match demand, everything from a 509-seat Airbus A380 to a 251-seat Airbus A340-300, which was used both directions on my trip.

The Airbus A340 is a comfortable widebody plane but the type was introduced in 1991 so it is not the latest technology. The normal economy class configuration is 2-4-2.

The cabin

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The premium economy cabin, which is located between the business class and economy cabins, has only 28 seats, arranged 2-3-2.  These seats are 18″ wide and have between 38-39″ of pitch, the distance from one point on the seat to the same point on the next row.

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Leg room is quite reasonable although when the person in front of you reclines, you will still find it difficult to get out unless the person in the aisle seat gets up. There are plenty of storage spaces for items and there is a foot rest on the seat in front of you. Bulkhead seats instead have a leg rest that extends from the seat cushion.

One feature of these seats is that there are two armrests for each passenger so no fighting for personal space. This is a huge advantage over regular economy.

Large touch-screen monitors are available at each seat. The image is bright and the responsiveness of the system is good.

The seats are comfortable although a bit firm. After a few hours, I ended up sitting on my pillow to provide extra padding. Recline is quite deep but I still find it difficult to get any meaningful sleep. On the outbound flight, I probably slept about four hours total. On the return flight, less than two.

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As a comparison, here is a view of economy class mid-flight. You can see the premium economy cabins in the distance, separated only by fabric dividers hanging from the overhead bins. You will notice the monitors in economy are smaller and there is an extra seat in each row resulting in only 17″ width and narrower armrests.

The service

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Before departure, water or juice is served and menus are distributed. There is no advance meal booking beyond the usual dietary and religious meals. The selection consisted of two main courses. For these flights, each approximately 12 hours, there is a main meal and then a breakfast closer to arrival.

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After reaching cruising altitude, a drink service commenced. There was a wide selection of beverages and premium economy includes sparkling wine and a premium beer.

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The outbound dinner was a choice of pork Panaeng curry or pan-seared veal sausages with onion sauce, sauerkraut and mashed potato. I chose the latter. It came with an appetizer of coleslaw with smoked chicken breast and a dessert of apple strudel with vanilla sauce.

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Before landing in Frankfurt, a breakfast of cheddar cheese omelette with Lyonnaise potato, ratatouille and tomato with fresh fruit was served. There was no other choice.

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For the flight from Frankfurt back to Bangkok, we had a choice of beef goulash with carrot zucchini stew and potato leek mash (which I chose) or tomato mozzarella fiorelli with basil cream sauce and tomato concasse. The appetizer was a seasonal salad with pumpkin slices and Italian dressing. The dessert was mango pie with creme fraiche.

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Breakfast before landing in Bangkok was scrambled egg with cheddar cheese accompanied by diced chicken breast, Chinese vegetables (which seemed to be missing) and potato wedges with a dessert of vanilla curd cream with blueberries.

Overall, the food quality was good and the quantity was sufficient. The food is served on ceramic dishes with metal cutlery and glass stemware, which creates a nicer impression.

During the flight, light refreshments (sandwiches, fruits, pretzels, candy bars) were available for snacking.

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Shortly before landing, small chocolates were distributed throughout the cabin. Service from the flight attendants was friendly but efficient. It was notable that effort was made to complete the first meal service quickly, presumably so passengers could go to sleep as both flights are overnight.

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The inflight entertainment system worked well and has many options. By the return flight, I did feel like I was running out of things that piqued my interest. Thankfully, the seats have USB and power ports, so I was able to pull out my laptop and work and use my iPad to read and watch shows.

The system does have a nice maps feature that shows computer-generated views from the tail and the cockpit of the plane. This gives a perspective of what the outside world looks like although it is misleading because the above pictures of our final approach into Frankfurt shows daylight but it was in fact before sunrise.

The lounges

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Premium economy does not come with lounge access but as I have “gold” status with one of the Star Alliance carriers, I was eligible to use the lounge. In Bangkok, I was able to use the main THAI Airways lounge. Other lounges closed too early to use as the Lufthansa flight departs after midnight.

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In Frankfurt, I was able to use the Senator lounges, which are very modern, have a huge selection of food and drink, and offer showers for transiting passengers.

Overall

I particularly liked the 2-3-2 layout in the plane. The middle seat next to me with empty both ways, giving me even more space. The food was tasty and good quality. And the lounge in Frankfurt was truly refreshing. Connecting through Frankfurt is convenient and results in efficient travel times to Europe from Bangkok.

The seat cushions were a bit firm for my tastes (although I find this on a lot of planes), the selection of inflight entertainment was a bit uninspired and Frankfurt is not the most pleasant airport to connect through as it is drab and not particularly intuitive to navigate.

I managed to get an attractive price for this flight, only about US$ 1,400 round-trip. The usual premium economy price is closer to US$ 1,800. The extra space and increased comfort made the trip much less taxing and, for the money, was a good value. Lufthansa’s premium economy would be worth taking for future trips.

 

The Long Delay to Shanghai

After three busy days of meetings in Hong Kong, I made the over-optimistic travel plan to catch a 7:15 pm flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai in order to deliver a training at 9:00 am the following day. Given the air traffic congestion in China, especially into Shanghai, that proved a painful mistake.

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My flight was scheduled on Dragonair, a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific that operates more of the local and regional flights, especially to China. When I checked in at the airport about 90 minutes before departure, the agent said the flight was showing on time, even though all other flights to Shanghai were showing massive delays.

Sure enough, about five minutes before boarding time, the departure was rolled back two hours. Apologies were made and vouchers worth about US$10 were offered. (In fact, the agent told me I could just show my boarding pass at any restaurant in the airport to receive the discount; that turned out to not be the case.)

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At the revised departure time of about 9:30 pm, the delay was suddenly extended another two hours to 11:30 pm. While I understand that there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty about when the departure times will be (the captain later explained we initially had been given a 3:30 am departure slot) it seems clear that they knew the 9:30 pm departure was not realistic and it should have been revised earlier.

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Finally, we started boarding about 11:00 pm and pushed back not too much after 11:30. We were in the air quickly and on our way for the two-hour flight. When I checked in online, I was able to get a bulkhead row, albeit a middle seat, so enjoyed at least a bit of extra leg room. The flight was full.

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Dinner was served – they actually even handed out a simple menu. The started was a shrimp and angel-hair pasta salad. The main courses were steamed sole with bean curd and black bean sauce over rice, or a pork with apple cider stew and fusilli pasta, which I chose. The pork was okay for airplane food, nothing special. Dessert was Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which is always nice.

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When we landed in Shanghai, the only gates still available were the remote stands in the cargo area, which is quite on the opposite side of the airport from our normal terminal. While I didn’t complain too much – at least I was able to exit via stairs and get a nice picture of a UPS 747 freighter – the bus ride took more than 15 minutes, literally around the perimeter of the airport.

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The upside was that the immigration queue was short as we had arrived so late. It did take another ten minutes for our luggage to arrive and the taxi queue also took about fifteen minutes as there are few cars that late. I finally arrived at my hotel room at 3:30 am and was downstairs in the meeting room at 8:00 am.

It was a long day, but not too bad. I had a good group of students, staff level learning the basics of presentation skills. They all pushed themselves outside their comfort zone, delivering in English even though for many of them, it is a struggle. One girl was petrified and after her three-minute introduction presentation, was nearly in tears. Everyone gave her a lot of positive feedback about being brave enough to face her fears. Was very moving.

 

Flying Delta Economy from BKK to LAX

While normally a Star Alliance flyer, I had the opportunity to revisit Delta for the first time in five years on my recent flight to Los Angeles. I looked forward to the opportunity, because I have read and heard good things about Delta’s service, comments from friends that it is the carrier that has defied the reputation of US-based carriers for poor service.

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The first flight was an early-morning departure from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Now seven years old, Suvarnabhumi is settling into its own and is a decent airport to fly from. Delta’s check-in counter was not crowded when we arrived two hours before the flight and the security and immigration process was smooth and efficient.

We encountered a bit of a challenge, as Tawn and I were traveling on separate reservations. When I checked us in online 24 hours earlier, I chose adjacent seats. Between then and our arrival at the airport, one of those seats had been reassigned. Thankfully, the gate agent was able to rearrange seats for us so we were together for the flight.

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Our flight to Bangkok was a Boeing 767-300ER. After years of flying 747s to Bangkok (first as Northwest and then after the merger as Delta), it is nice to see the use of a smaller widebody plane. This capacity discipline helps the airlines focus on profitability over volume and I also think the smaller plane, with its 2-3-2 layout in economy class, is a better travel experience than the 9- or 10-abreast layout of larger planes.

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While we weren’t traveling in Business Class, I thought I would share a picture of the seat. The forward-facing seats are a bit utilitarian but look like a comfortable way to fly. The center section has two seats, so if you are traveling in a pair, you are not completely isolated from the other person.

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The economy class seats are clad in leather, a sea of dark blue that is visually dull but easy to clean. The cabin was clean and in good shape, despite the airplane being 15-20 years old.

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Delta’s entire long-haul fleet offers seatback monitors, with a ride range (hundreds) of TV shows, movies, music, and games. Monitors were bright, high-resolution, and responded quickly to your fingertip touch. Pairs of seats had universal power outlets and these monitors also featured USB plugs.

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One nice touch that Delta has added (or replaced) is distributing free headsets and amenity kits. There was a point post-9/11 where the US-based airlines had cut back every amenity item, which seemed so stingy. For this 5-hour flight to Tokyo, we had eye shades and ear plugs, plus the ear buds. Since the entertainment system uses a standard headphone jack, you can use your own jack or take the complementary ones with you to use again on your next flight.

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The economy class seats are arranged at a 31-32 inch pitch, typical for most airlines. The seats are reasonably comfortable, leg room and knee space is adequate but not impressive. As I mentioned, the narrower plane (only seven seats across instead of nine or ten) is more comfortable as nearly everyone is in a window or aisle seat.

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Once airborne, the cabin attendants began the inflight service: hot towels followed by a drink service, followed by breakfast. The staff was Bangkok and Tokyo based and was generally friendly. The taller flight attendant on the right had a particularly friendly manner to her, a typical “Midwestern Mom” top who was bright and outgoing. These are the type of cabin attendants who really improve the flying experience as they seem to enjoy what they do, which is infectious.

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As it was the final day of a month of vegetarianism for Tawn, I pre-ordered vegetarian meals for both of us. This ensured we were served at the same time. Above is the “dairy okay” vegetarian meal for me, a very cheesy scrambled egg dish that was tasty.

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Tawn opted for the Asian vegetarian dish, which on both flights was more South Asian (Indian) in nature, except for the corn flakes!

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The food tasted fine, with strong flavors, and the overall quantity was appropriate to the length of the flight. Expectations are never too high for airline food and by placing the bar at a reasonable level, were were not disappointed!

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Near the end of the flight, warm sandwiches were served in an unappetizing-looking foil bag. The roasted zucchini and tomato sandwich we received was surprisingly tasty – the cornmeal crusted roll was very nice – and was sufficient to stave off any hunger before arriving in Tokyo.

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We arrived to find drizzly weather in Tokyo. Above, our plane from Bangkok with the Narita International Airport control tower standing against a grey sky. Our connection time was short – only scheduled for one hour but a bit longer as our flight was about 20 minutes early into Narita. This gave me time to take pictures of some of Delta’s other planes:

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The massive Boeing 777-200, the same type of plane we would fly into Los Angeles.

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The classic shape of the Boeing 747-400, which I love looking at but don’t really enjoy flying in economy class because of its dense, 10-abreast seating layout.

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Our plane parked at the gate, about to board. For the flight across the Pacific Ocean, I was unable to arrange for two seats together, so had upgrade both of us to the “Comfort Plus” cabin, which is the premium economy product. The only significant difference is about four additional inches of leg room plus the ability to board ahead of the other economy class passengers.

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The view from the jetway before we step aboard. The Boeing 777-200 is a large plane, impressive in its size.

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The business class and other premium economy passengers had already boarded, so we found the bins over our seats already full, and had to struggle a bit to rearrange space for our items. This was necessary as we were at a bulkhead row and could not store any personal items at our feet.

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The view out the raindrop-strewn window with a Boeing 747 in the background.

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For this longer flight (about 9 hours eastbound), Delta offers a bit more in their amenity kit: toothbrush and toothpaste in addition to the eye mask and ear plugs found in the flight out of Bangkok.

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A simple printed menu laid out meal and beverage choices and at the bottom, had a clever guide to activities during different phases of flight. Again, I think these relatively inexpensive investments (printed menus, amenity kits) make the overall experience more pleasant and improve the passengers’ impression of the airline.

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Here is a peek into the business class cabin ahead of our seats. This aircraft has business class arranged as individual pods in a “reverse Herringbone” layout, with all seats facing the aisle. I dislike this arrangement because facing the aisle means you make eye contact with anyone walking past. I also dislike this arrangement because if you are traveling with someone else, there is no way to communicate with them conveniently during the flight.

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This picture, taken later in the flight, shows one passenger in business class still stretched out in the lie-flat bed position. While I’m sure the seat is comfortable, the seat still looks a bit cubicle-like.

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Our view a bit after takeoff, as the storm clouds reflected the fading rays of the sun.

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The cabin crew was just as friendly as the previous flight’s and began their service not long after reaching our cruising altitude.

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Nuts and pretzels were served along with our choice of drinks. Alcoholic beverages are complimentary on the Asia flights, although it doesn’t appear that many people choose to drink. We did have a glass of wine with our dinner.

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My meal was tasty but nondescript: some sort of a slaw on the left with a Thai-like dressing, a hummus-like spread with asparagus, and a rice and curry dish that was tasty but difficult to identify.

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Tawn’s meal had some similar elements but with a regular lettuce salad and rice with roasted vegetables. Again, portion size was appropriate and the flavors were fine.

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The Delta blankets are comfortable but tissue-paper thin. The cabin crew passed our half-liter bottles of Evian water on both flights, making it easier to stay hydrated and reducing their workload since frequent trips with a pitcher of water and cups was not necessary. This also probably reduces the amount of plastic waste, as one bottle per person is much less plastic than five or six cups would require.

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The cabin was darkened although many passengers watched movies or shows during the flight. Unlike at some airlines, the Delta cabin attendants on this flight did not mandate that window shades be lowered, which was okay as the entire flight took place during the night.

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The sun only started rising about two hours before we landed, so having window shades opened actually allowed for a natural wakening to occur for those who were sleeping.

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Ice crystals formed at the base of the windows, a reminder of how bitterly cold the air is at 40,000 feet.

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About 90 minutes before landing, the flight attendants served sandwiches and a snack box with yoghurt and fruit inside.

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Our sandwiches were slightly different, although mine did not have any cheese despite being a “dairy okay” vegetarian option. Plenty of tasty Starbucks coffee was served.

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Overall, the Delta experience was a positive one. At a certain level, I would still choose an Asian-based carrier as I think the overall experience is better (especially in terms of toilet cleanliness – US-based crews don’t seem to like to keep toilets clean). Nonetheless, the Delta crew was friendly and the hard product (seat, food, inflight entertainment) is competitive.

Trip Report: BKK-NRT-ORD on All-Nippon Airways

Over the holidays we flew back to the United States to visit family. Comparing all the options, we chose All-Nippon Airways, a Japanese airline and member of the Star Alliance, because with their joint venture with United, it was easy to seamlessly book the entire trip through ANA’s website. Here is a look at the highlights of the flights.

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The departure from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport is quite early – about 7:00 – but we arrived early enough beforehand so we could enjoy some time in the THAI Airways Royal Orchid Lounge. The lounge was decorated for the holidays in shades of their signature purple hue.

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Now that United has exited the Bangkok to Tokyo route, leaving the flying to All-Nippon, ANA has up-gauged their equipment from a Boeing 767 to a Boeing 777.

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The flight still departs too early for my tastes, but at least you begin the day with a pretty sunrise. As Tawn explained it, since he used to work for United and the flights out of Bangkok (to Tokyo and Hong Kong at the time) both departed very early, he still associated early flights with the excitement of working.

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We were assigned a aisle and window seat but another traveler was assigned the middle seat, so we gave him the aisle so Tawn and I could sit together. There was a nice view as we climbed into the humid and hazy morning sky above Bangkok.

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The flight began with a beverage and snack service, a selection of tasty rice crackers.

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The flight attendants at ANA are very friendly. Sometimes their English isn’t perfect, but they are very sincere and quick to respond to requests.

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I opted for a western-style breakfast, which if I recall was chicken croquettes served with mashed potatoes. When I say “breakfast”, I mean “meal”.

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Tawn chose the Japanese style meal, which was a piece of mackerel served with a variety of pickles and other sides. Both meals were tasty and satisfying.

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The planes used intra-Asia have an older interior, with narrower leg room and smaller, more difficult to view monitors. The entertainment system still offers dozens of movies and a hundred or more TV shows, all on-demand. However, the screens are not touchscreen and you have to use the remote controller.

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The flight to Tokyo took about six hours and we arrived on a sunny and clear afternoon.

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A nice view of an ANA Boeing 767 with the new drag-reducing wingtips. The 767 remains one of my favorite planes, mostly due to the 2-3-2 layout in economy class, where everyone is either on an aisle or no more than one seat away from an aisle.

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Narita is an efficient, modern airport through which to connect. We spent some time at the All-Nippon Lounge, which has a good selection of food and beverage, shower facilities, and a nap area.

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A meeting of Boeing 787 Dreamliners, the one in the foreground flown by All-Nippon and the one in the background flown by United Airlines. The two airlines have an immunized joint venture for trans-Pacific and connecting flights, meaning that they operate these flights as if they were a single carrier, sharing revenues and expenses.

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The sun had already set when we boarded our Boeing 777-300 ER bound for Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

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All-Nippon is one of the few carriers to do a 2-4-3 layout in economy class, which provides a range of options for different size groups traveling together. Unfortunately, we ended up with two of the seats in the middle four. However, the good thing is that these are actually two pairs of seats, so the people in the middle each have their own armrest and about two inches between them. That means the seats do not feel cramped.

Also, All-Nippon offers 34″ of pitch (the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in the next row) – this is 3″ more than most US carriers offer. On top of it, these planes us a “shell back” seat that never reclines into your space. Instead, as you recline your seat, your seat bottom slides forward, reducing your own leg room. I prefer this because I rarely sleep on planes, but dislike having someone recline into my space.

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As you can see, the monitors are much larger and brighter, and they feature touch-screen technology. There is also a USB port in case you want to charge your electronic devices. There is also a standard power outlet in between the seats.

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Tawn and I both chose the same meal, a Japanese style grilled pork dish with cold soba noodles, tofu, and rice. Very tasty. One of the things I like about Japanese meals is that they are served with many small side dishes. The variety of tastes and textures makes the meal very fulfilling.

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After dinner, the crew dimmed the cabin lights and everyone was asked to close their window shades.

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IMG_1658Also in the galley was a basket of snacks and beverages with a sign inviting you to help yourself. Flight attendants were also available to take care of any requests, such as brewing a cup of tea for me.

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With strong east-bound tail winds, our flight to Chicago was only 10:30 minutes. The return flight from San Jose to Tokyo, a much shorter route, was actually fifteen minutes longer!

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Our second sunrise of the day, the first viewed while we were on the ground in Bangkok and the second viewed off the coast of Washington.

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About 90 minutes before landing, a second meal was served. This is the minced chicken with noodles (I think!) that Tawn had.

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IMG_1677The cabin with the lights on. It is actually a comfortable enough cabin to fly in, even for the long haul flight. Sure, business class would be better, but for the price, All-Nippon economy class was fine.

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About five seconds before landing, a view across the plane and out the window, where you can see planes at the international terminal where we would disembark.

My First Flight on the 787 Dreamliner

This is the story of my first flight aboard the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, traveling on All-Nippon Airways (ANA) flight 1075 from San Jose, California to Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan. An 11-minute video version of this trip report is embedded here if you would prefer to watch instead of read.

The Dreamliner is a revolutionary wide-body aircraft. Made largely with composite materials, it is about 20% more fuel efficient than the older 767 aircraft it is designed to replace. Despite a four-month grounding earlier this year because of electrical problems, the aircraft has performed very well for its initial customers and is opening new “long and thin” routes like San Jose to Tokyo that could not previously have been served profitably.

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I arrived at the airport plenty early to watch the inbound aircraft land, which arrived about twenty minutes late. Having grown up in the San Jose area and able to remember the days when the airport was a much smaller operation, it is exciting to see this cutting-edge plane regularly scheduled to fly here.

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ANA operates from terminal A. Now nearly a quarter-century old, I still recall terminal A as the “new” terminal compared to the 1960s era terminal C that was only recently demolished. As a child, I relished the opportunity to walk across the tarmac and climb a set of stairs to board the airplane. To me, that made air travel much more exciting. These days, the two terminals at San Jose are modern and entirely enclosed. Certainly the facilities are nicer but the travel experience is also more sterile.

ANA has a small counter space but lots of employees working check-in. As a Star Alliance gold level member, there was no wait and I was efficiently checked in by a friendly agent. While the agent did not appear to be of Japanese heritage – several of the staff members were – she displayed all the appropriate cultural training such as receiving and handing documents with both hands. This was a nice touch and leads me to believe that instead of relying on contract employees, ANA is using its own staff.

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Boarding pass in hand – a window seat in the second row of economy class – I headed up the escalator to the security screening area. The terminal has a single consolidated screening point and while there weren’t that many people in line, the process took a bit of time. In particular, the crew of Mexican budget airline Volaris seemed to be holding up the line, unfamiliar with the TSA’s screening procedures. It took several of the flight attendants multiple trips through the metal detector before they finally removed all of their metal items.

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Today’s flight operated from gate 15, one of two gates connected to the International Arrivals Area. This section of the terminal is essentially the connector between terminals A and B. There are few amenities but the windows offer a good view of the tarmac. Unfortunately, the sterile corridor leading to the customs and immigration area means you look out through two sets of windows.

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I spent plenty of time taking pictures of the Dreamliner. It is a unique-looking airplane, with an asymmetrical nose. The plane’s proportions make it looks smaller than it actually is, perhaps because it looks unusually low to the ground for so large an aircraft.

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After taking plenty of pictures – something lots of other waiting passengers were also doing – I headed to The Club at SJC, a private lounge that ANA uses for its premium customers. The Club is the only lounge at SJC, where the only dominant airline is Southwest.

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Located upstairs from the departure gate, the lounge offers limited views of the tarmac but has two large seating areas, workspaces, and a decent selection of food and beverage. They also have a single shower room, so I freshened up before the flight.

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It was nearing time to board. ANA operates the San Jose service with a 787 in a very low density configuration, only 158 passengers in a plane that can easily seat more than 220. Because of this, the gate area was not crowded.

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After the highest level members of ANA’s frequent flyer program were boarded, Star Alliance Gold members were invited. A single jetway is used at this gate but with so few passengers boarding, it isn’t a problem. I was welcomed aboard warmly and directed towards my seat.

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Business class, divided into two cabins, seats 46 people in alternating rows of 1-1-1 and 1-2-1 seating. All seats have direct aisle access and a lot of privacy. The problem with this arrangement is that it isn’t very friendly for couples traveling together. I know that privacy is something that a lot of premium customers value highly, but I prefer arrangements that are a little less cubicle-like.

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A small economy class cabin of just three rows sits behind business class and the mid-cabin lavatories. In another configuration, this area has premium economy seating with 38” legroom and only seven seats across. I can understand why they made that choice: there is nearly a foot of empty floor behind the last row in this cabin. Even without installing premium economy, they could have added a few more inches to each of these three rows.

The design of the overhead bins offers plenty of room to store roll-aboard bags placed on their side. The bins also pivot into the ceiling, making for a very open cabin when they are closed. This being a low-density seating configuration, lots of storage space remained even after everyone had boarded.

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ANA uses fixed-shell seats in economy, where instead of reclining back into the row behind you, your seat slides forward. I like this arrangement because my personal space remains fixed. With 33 to 34 inches of seat pitch, ANA’s Dreamliner offers several more inches of legroom than most competitors including joint-venture partner United Airlines. My one complaint with these seats is that the headrest doesn’t move up and down and, perhaps because it is designed for Japanese customers, it manages to fall at my neck rather than the back of my head.

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The inflight entertainment system is an “on-demand” system with touch screen controls. The selection of movies, TV shows, games, and music is extensive – plenty to keep you occupied on your flight. The system was also one of the more responsive that I have used. When you touch the screen, it reacts promptly. The overhead passenger service unit features a new design and it was nice to be on a wide-body airplane with personal air vents.

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Boarding was complete in about fifteen minutes and soon enough we had pushed back and the safety demo was finished. As the engines spooled up – a higher pitch whine than I’ve heard before – the ANA ground staff lined up to send us off with a wave. Being a small airport, we reached the departure end of runway 30 R in just a few minutes. Number one for takeoff, we pulled onto the runway and launched into our roll without a stop.

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Our departure followed an interesting path, indicated in green on the map. We leveled off at 5,000 feet and maintained that altitude across the south end of the bay, towards Woodside.

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Meanwhile, aircraft were circling wide on our left (yellow on the map), cutting behind us to line up for arrival on runways 28 L and R at San Francisco. While I am confident the air traffic controllers were keeping a close watch on us, the other aircraft came a lot closer than you usually see from your window. It was nice to have such a good view! As we approached Half Moon Bay, we resumed our climb, joining the westbound route across the Pacific.

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About forty minutes after departure, inflight service began with hot towels – real cloth towels – followed by a beverage service with snacks.

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The snacks were simple – rice crackers – and the selection of beverages included complimentary wine, beer, and spirits. The crew was friendly and helpful and there were no difficulties in communicating with them in English.

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An in-seat menu card described the general service while the specific meal choices for today’s flight could be read on the inflight entertainment system and also on laminated cards the flight attendants had on their carts.

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For dinner, I chose the Japanese option – a chicken teriyaki dish served with cold soba – buckwheat noodles. The portion was generous and the food was tasty. The dinner also included miso soup served from a pitcher.

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Afterwards, flight attendants distributed Häagen-Dazs ice cream – a simple and satisfying dessert. Since the meal was served with metal cutlery, I could use an actual spoon to scoop the rock-hard ice cream instead of the flimsy plastic one contained inside the ice cream container’s lid.

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After lunch, I walked around the mostly-full cabin. You can see the windows, which are about thirty percent larger than conventional airplane windows. Truthfully, this didn’t make as big an impression on me as I thought they would. Sure, the windows were large, but the biggest effect was that it made the cabin look narrower. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but because I am used to a standard-size window, as I looked across the width of the cabin and mentally estimated the width, the wall looked closer to me than it really was. Instead of shades, the windows use LCD controls for different levels of shading. Above, you can see two of the windows at the maximum-dark setting.

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The rear cabin has eleven additional rows of economy class seats. As you can see, the cabin has a spacious feel and the 2-4-2 arrangement is quite pleasant. Unfortunately, ANA is moving towards a 3-3-3 arrangement like most operators so the comfortably wide seats will be a thing of the past. I can understand the economics but will say that as a customer, I will go out of my way to fly an 8-abreast 787 instead of a 9-abreast configuration.

The other thing I noticed is that the screens on the entertainment system are coated in such a way that they are not visible unless viewed almost straight-on. For example, I couldn’t tell if the person seated next to me had his screen on until I leaned over to look. This would seem to be a good thing, minimizing extraneous light and also giving greater (although not complete) privacy in what you are viewing.

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The galley and entrance to the crew rest area are at the rear of the cabin. This arrangement is nice because it gives the crew plenty of space to work and minimizes the number of passengers congregating in this area. Instead, the congregate mid-cabin by the lavatories.

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Three lavatories are in the middle of the economy class cabin, located by doors 3 left and 3 right. I didn’t get a picture or video of them, but the doors are hinged in an interesting way. Instead of pivoting on a hinge at one side of the door or folding in half, the door slides and pivots into the toilet, lying flat against the side wall. This improves the accessibility of the lavatory although isn’t intuitive. I noticed several people pushing and pulling the door before they figured out how it moved.

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The lavatories are high-tech on ANA featuring lots of buttons, including for the automated bidet, in case you need to wash your bum afterwards. When you press the flush button, the toilet seat cover is automatically lowered. Oddly, though, the flush happens while the cover is still lowering. Lavatories were kept clean with flight attendants tidying them throughout the flight.

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The LCD shading for the windows is interesting. Instead of having physical shades that you pull shut, there are two buttons that allow you to increase the tinting along five settings from nearly transparent to nearly opaque. It seems that the most transparent setting still seems to have a light tint to it, or at least that was my impression.

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At its darkest, you can still see through the window although little light passes through. That may not make sense when I write it, but when you look at the windows from the side, they appear to be completely opaque. When you look at the windows straight-on, you can see through them as if they were very dark sunglasses. Mid-flight, which was still full daylight outside, the cabin was dark although not as dark as with physical window shades. If I’m not mistaken, I think the flight attendants were able to master set the windows to the darkest setting although individual passengers could modify the settings for their own windows, making them more transparent as they wished.

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Snacks and beverages were available in the galley throughout the flight. The selection was basic – some crisps and crackers along with bananas.

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About two and a half hours before landing – just a little early, in my estimation – a second meal service was offered. Unlike lunch/dinner, which had clear “Japanese” and “Western” options, the choices for the breakfast were less distinct.

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I had the chicken cacciatore, which was pretty tasty. The portion size was smaller than the previous meal, but considering that we had eaten just five hours ago, that was okay.

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One feature of the Dreamliner is that its cabin is pressurized to the equivalent of a 6000 foot elevation instead of at 8000 feet, as found in most airliners. Also, humidity levels are slightly higher, about 15% versus less than 5% normally. My impression was that the cabin was a bit more comfortable than normal. I travel frequently across the Pacific and find I get very dried out. The effect could just be psychological but on this flight, I felt less dehydrated.

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The rest of the flight was smooth as we descended into an overcast northern Japan and landed on-time in Narita. As we approached the airport, there was a lot of other traffic and on our turns there was always a good view of other planes. The rice paddies were also vibrant green and just starting to turn golden yellow.

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Again, thanks to the low-density configuration, it took just a few minutes to deplane. My nine hour, forty-five minute flight aboard the ANA Dreamliner left me with a positive impression of both the airplane and the airline.

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All things considered, I would go out of my way to fly ANA in general and the Dreamliner in particular on future trips. Additionally, flying out of San Jose was a very convenient option so I will keep that in mind for future trips to and from the Bay Area.

Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur on Lufthansa

Even though the trip was several weeks ago, I’m only now getting to posting my video trip report on YouTube for the trip to Kuala Lumpur. The flight was on Lufthansa, the German airline. They fly it as a tag-on segment to the Frankfurt-Bangkok flight and it is currently the only Boeing 747 being flow between Bangkok and KL.

Here is the nine-minute video trip report for your viewing pleasure. Pictures and brief highlights of the flight are provided below.

Since I had a mid-afternoon departure and was traveling light, I decided to take the Airport Link train to the airport. Since it opened in the second half of 2010 (blog entry about it here), the service has been a money-loser. Ultimately, it isn’t very convenient and the main in-city terminal is located near a subway station but is not connected to it. (In fairness, they are a month or two away from finally opening an elevated walkway to connect the two.) The system has a notable lack of down-direction escalators, making for a lot of heavy lifting or waiting for the single elevator at each station is you have heavy bags. The State Railways promises to add escalators at key stations but no timetable has been provided.

The airport itself is a wonder of glass, steel, and concrete. In many ways, it is hard to distinguish from any other major international airport, although as you can see, some Thai touches have been snuck in. This is a Buddha image that ostensibly contains a relic from the Lord Buddha. It was set up with a large display of flowers right in the middle of the departures hall as a temporary display sponsored by some company.

Hidden upstairs, high above the ticketing counters, is an observation deck. The view is largely obstructed by roof and wall support structures and a scale model of the airport, which has seen better day, is displayed there. Looking closely, I noticed that it had suffered much damage while being moved. It seems a jumbo jet has crash landed on the entrance road to the airport connecting from the expressway!

Before the flight, I visited the Singapore Airlines Silver Kris lounge. One of the luxuries I allow myself is a Star Alliance Gold tier membership, which provides me with lounge access when flying Star Alliance carriers. Having a quiet space away from the bustle of the airport makes air travel a lot more enjoyable. This lounge, in particular, is very nice with views of a large garden area.

The beverage and food selection surprised me with its breadth. In addition to a variety of cold cuts, cheeses, and desserts, there were several different types of proper food including soups, a salad bar, Chinese steamed dumplings, and a few main courses.

I was especially impressed that they had set up a make-your-own “khao chae” bar. Khao Chae (I wrote about it here last year) is a Thai hot season treat, rice served in cool, fragrant jasmine water with a selection of condiments. Not the type of thing you would expect to find in an airline lounge and something that was not on offer over at the THAI Airways lounge! Kudos to Singapore Airlines for their attention to detail.

A small selection of desserts, including a traditional Thai dessert cooked in a pandan leaf box, served with a cappuccino. While the desserts were not breathtaking, they were tasty and a wide variety was offered.

Our bird as seen through the dirty windows of Suvarnabhumi International Airport. This Boeing 747-400 is nicknamed Duisburg after the famous steel-making city in Germany. It entered the Lufthansa fleet on June 5, 1991 but the interior was in remarkably good shape for a plane quickly approaching its 22nd birthday. 

Quick review of the safety demonstration card before departure. You can never be too careful, right?

If I had to sit in these tight economy class seats for ten or twelve hours, I would not be happy, but for the short flight to KL, it was fine. The seats have large touch-screen monitors playing an extensive selection of films and TV shows. One thing I like about these seats is that the magazines are moved to a pouch behind the tray table, freeing up a little more room for your knees. Still, seat pitch was just 31 or 32″, comparable to economy class on most US carriers. 

Our “meal service” was a snack box with a sandwich that contained the thinnest slice of chicken and the saddest looking leaf of lettuce I have ever seen. A muffin and a KitKat candy bar rounded out the meal. Beverage service was the small bottled water. I think you could go to the galley and request a juice or soft drink but no beverage cart was rolled through the aisles. While it is a short flight, this seems a pretty sad offering for an airline that claims to be full-service.

Beginning our descent into Kuala Lumpur on a beautiful late afternoon with high clouds. Closer to the ground, though, the skies were hazy and visibility was limited. Overall, the flight was smooth and reasonably comfortable. The crew, while being pretty senior, was friendly, professional, and seemed to genuinely enjoy working the flight.

 

THAI Airways Bangkok to Los Angeles

When I moved to Bangkok more than seven years ago, I flew THAI Airways’ nonstop flight from New York JFK Airport to Bangkok. In the years since, THAI has discontinued both the New York and Los Angeles to Bangkok nonstop flights. In their place is a one-stop flight via Seoul Incheon Airport to Los Angeles. When shopping for tickets for our recent flight to the United States, this Bangkok-Incheon-Los Angeles flight was the cheapest option offered by a Star Alliance carrier. 


Click here to view the HD version on youtube.

I’ve edited a nice video that overviews the flight, the cabin, the amenities, and meals served. If you would rather view the pictures and read the story, those follow here:

The flight departs Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport at 7:10 am, a bit earlier than ideal. Thankfully, we were packed the day before and made it to bed at a reasonable hour. Still, the 3:00 am alarm came much too early!  The queue at the airport was short and the wait was less than fifteen minutes to check in. There were no lines at either the security screening or immigration counters. 

Just past immigration is a large scale sculpture of one of the most famous episodes in Hindu mythology, the samudra manthan or “churning of the milk ocean”. It is an impressive sculpture that illustrates that this mostly Buddhist culture has strong Hindu and Vedic Brahminist roots.

We made our way to one of the many THAI Airways Royal Silk lounges. These lounges offer a nice respite from the stresses of air travel: a quiet ambience, comfortable seating, and a selection of reading materials, food, and beverage.

Since we had departed home so early, I helped myself to a latte, some small pastries, and (something I never eat!) a box of chocolate breakfast cereal. Maybe this is because my mother would never allow us to have so sugary a cereal in the house when I was a child, now I enjoy having a bit every now and then as a special treat.

Our Boeing 777-300 was waiting at the gate as the sun slowly climbed above the hazy horizon. The windows of the terminal were not very clean, making for this poor-quality image. Boarding commenced a few minutes late but the passenger load was only about 60% so boarding did not take long. 

The economy class product is comfortable and modern. The seat maps provided on THAI’s website indicated that certain rows of this plane had 34″ pitch. I brought a small tape measure and samples several rows and found a consistent 32″ pitch. Comfortable enough and an inch more than most US-based carriers, but nothing special. Asiana, Korean, and All-Nippon offer 34″ pitch and EVA offers 33″ pitch as the standard in their long-haul economy class.

The morning breakfast option was pancakes and sausage or (my choice) stir-fried pork with ginger, rice, and pumpkin and egg. The food was tasty enough, although nothing very special.

About four-and-a-half hours later, we arrived at an overcast Incheon and were soon at the gate and off the plane. The same aircraft would take us to Los Angeles but all passengers were required to disembark so the plane could be serviced and a new crew could board.

This is my first time transitting Incheon since they opened the new mid-field concourse. It is a bright, sun-lit place with modern architecture. Within a few minutes, we had cleared the security screening and returned to the departure level.

Despite only having about 80 minutes on the ground, we took the time to stop by the Asiana Airlines lounge. As a holder of the United Club card, I have access to Star Alliance member lounges. This is a nice perk for long-haul travel and this new lounge in Incheon is very nice, with a faux library and a baby grand piano. I wonder what would happen if a guest decided to begin playing it?

The selection of food wasn’t very interesting, but I did help myself to some salad and a glass of draft beer. Truth be told, the beef was very hoppy and as I’m not much of a beer drink, I had only a few sips. On our return trip from Los Angeles, we had a slightly longer layover in Incheon and I took the opportunity to use the individual shower rooms to freshen up. 

Returning to the gate area in preparation for boarding, I admired the nice combination of steel, wood, and glass. Despite being very modern, the terminal does not feel cold and impersonal, probably because of the wood floors and many plants.

One sore point about flying through Incheon is that there is a pre-boarding security inspection. All liquids must be disposed of, including any bottled water purchased in the terminal. The claim is that this is for US TSA security reasons, but that makes no sense because at Taipei and Tokyo, passengers can bring liquids from inside the terminal aboard US-bound planes. I hope this restriction is lifted soon because not bringing your own water aboard is an inconvenience that does nothing to improve security.

The flight out of Incheon was only about 50% full, leaving lots of space including an empty seat between Tawn and me. There was only one person in the row ahead of us and she sat in the middle seat, so her recline did not affect our leg room. Once airborne for our 10.5-hour flight to Los Angeles, service began with cocktails. Unlike some airlines that have miniature liquor bottles, THAI carries full-size bottles and mixes drinks to order. 

Drinks are served with a retro stir stick featuring THAI’s original 1960s logo. I managed to collect several of these between our four flight segments, figuring they will make a nice collection in the future.

Menus were distributed out of Incheon. Interestingly, the menus include information for both the Bangkok-Incheon and Incheon-Los Angeles segments. I am not sure why menus were not handed out as we departed Bangkok. You could argue that there is really no point of menus but I think it is a nice touch that makes the service appear more sophisticated. Certainly, it is nicer to think of your meal as having four courses rather than just being a single tray of food, even if all four courses are in fact delivered on a single tray!

I opted for the Korean style beef bulgogi, which wasn’t as interesting as I was hoping. It was tasty, though. Note that each tray comes with a package of kimchi! The dessert was a raspberry chocolate cream cake and the appetizer was smoked salmon.

The other selection, which Tawn chose, was a pork green curry served with Thai jasmine rice. Curry is an excellent choice for airplane food because at high, dry altitudes, your sense of taste is diminished. Curry has plenty of flavor and remains enjoyable. Notice, too, that the utensils are metal, even the knives. We can’t bring water aboard but are given an admittedly dull metal knife.

Slightly less than halfway through the flight, we crossed the international date line and jumped back to the start of our day. I dozed only a bit on this flight, instead watching several movies and television programs on the on-demand video service. Gone are the days of sheer boredom on a plane. There are plenty of ways to distract yourself as the hours go by.

Mid-flight, snacks were available in the form of instant noodles and sandwiches. About two hours before landing, a second full meal service was provided. I opted for the boiled glass noodles (made from mung beans) with sauteed beef tenderloin. Actually, I didn’t find any beef in my serving! 

The other option, which Tawn chose, was sauteed yakisoba with chicken teriyaki. Neither of these dishes were that interesting and while quality was fine, the meals weren’t as interesting on these flights as they have been on other recent THAI flights.

It was a beautiful day as we descended into Southern California. Because the passenger load was so light, I moved to a window seat to take in the view when we landed. Rain storms had passed through recently, so the sky was clear and visibility was better than normal.

After landing on runway 24-right on the north side of LAX airport, we taxied the long way around to our gate. This took us past the United Airlines hangar where one of their Boeing 787 aircraft sits, stranded by the FAA’s grounding of these new composite jets in late January. Hopefully, the fleet will be released to fly again soon.

Pulling into our gate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, we had neighbors from China and Japan. Had the price been right, I would have liked to fly All-Nippon on this trip.

All in all, the THAI flight was a pretty good experience. From departure in Bangkok to arrival in Los Angeles was less than 17 hours, one of the shortest routes between the two cities. Service was good and the flight was reasonably comfortable, given that we were traveling in economy class.