By Kevin Meyer
I apologize for posts being few and far between – my wife and I were wandering around and exploring Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong for the past three weeks. For me it was a time for datsuzoku and hansei leading to personal hoshin – a break from the routine to recenter, restore, restimulate, reflect and plan for the future. To top things off I just took the iPad and not a laptop so that I could stay in touch with necessary business issues but wouldn't get sucked into life as usual.
Today I'll start with the remarkable Bangkok Airways.
When I was planning this trip I decided I wanted to see a few different spots in Thailand, then pop over to Cambodia to visit the largest (past and present) religious complex in the world at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, before ending in Hong Kong with their incredible New Year's fireworks. The trick was to do this with the least amount of flying and obviously at the lowest cost – two components of value. I soon found the easiest approach would be to center most of the trip around the Bangkok airport, from which I had two primary options to pull off my requirements: Thai Airways or Bangkok Airways. Both had nearly identical convenient flight options.
Thai Airways is part of Star Alliance, which I am golden handcuffed to thanks to most of my flying being on United. I could earn more miles, play in their lounges, and probably be upgraded.
And then there was Bangkok Airways. Bangkok who? That's what I said too. Their advantage was that they were less than half the cost of Thai on each of every segment, and that added up. Big time. Each flight segment was less than an hour and I felt I could tolerate even really crummy service and equipment for a short time, so what the heck – I booked Bangkok Air and crossed my fingers.
For the first flight we arrived at the Bangkok airport and found the Bangkok Air counter. No lines. Uh oh – so people probably know something I don't know and avoid the airline, right? Can't be good. But then a smiling service agent processed our check-in in under 30 seconds, which included offering to change our seats to an exit row. The flight was full (really? where's the line?) but a cancellation had just opened up the exit row.
He then pointed out the lounge that every passenger could use. Yes you read that right – they have a nice dedicated lounge, perhaps not as plush as a Red Carpet Club, but still with free drinks, snacks, nice ambiance, and entertainment – for everyone. Keep in mind their prices are half of their competition.
About a half hour before the flight was to leave we went to the gate expecting to start the boarding process. No plane, quite a few people waiting. Here we go… the reason they're cheap. 25 minutes prior… 20, 15. Aha – the plane! Off come the previous passengers, then the doors open and we're ushered on. Not by section or row – a free for all. We'll be lucky to get out of there in an hour.
But no. In 10 minutes we were all boarded, settled in, and the plane left the gate 5 minutes early. Not just any plane – a fairly new, spotless, brightly-colored, A320.
It then happened the same way on each of the four other short hops we took with Bangkok Airways. No lines, nice lounge, last minute incoming arrival, rapid boarding, but leaving a couple minutes early.
Want to know something else? There was a full meal service to everyone on the A320 – not just on the 45 minute flights between Bangkok to Phuket, but also on the 35 minute flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap. Yes, an entire A320 served drinks and a meal, given time to eat, then cleaned up – in 35 minutes.
How do they do this? People. It took me a while to figure it out as I struggled to understand the differences between United and Bangkok Airways.
When you board on United it's by status and then section number, but it still results in a hoard of people trying to figure out where their seats are and stow unwieldy luggage. It takes nearly every bit of 30 minutes to complete the process, it feels rushed, and they are a lot of "please, please take your seat!" announcements. United will only serve a meal in economy if the flight's more than a couple hours long, and then it is basically a boxed lunch thrown at you while the two or three flight attendants walk down the aisle.
When you board on Bangkok Airways it's a free for all – but there are two or three or four extra flight attendants on board. They are focused on getting everyone to their seat – fast – and actually helping with luggage. Each flight attendant has a section of the plane, and in a daisy chain fashion they coordinate with each other to rapidly move passengers to the right section. Boarding of 100+ passengers was accomplished in under 10 minutes, and we did not feel the slightest bit rushed.
If you are in an emergency exit row they come by and with a very serious look on their faces point out the door mechanisms, instructional sheets, and ask you to be "their partner in case of of emergency." For the first time I took out the card and read it. They engaged me and encouraged me to own that partnership.
The number of flight attendants also helped with the meal service, which again was a highly-coordinated affair between drinks and meal trays. They even pulled off the special vegetarian meals for us. Within 30 seconds after takeoff they were already on the move so the instant we started to level out a tray was appearing in front of us. A tray with four separate dishes – not everything crammed into a box. Even rather tasty. Half an hour later, not feeling rushed, it was picked up and the plane landed a minute or two later.
This happened every time, exactly the same way. Standard work.
So yes I'm sure flight attendants "cost" less in southeast Asia than they do in the U.S., but what is the value? They turn their planes more often and the schedule appears very reliable, passengers get a decent meal on even 35 minute flights, planes are clean, there are no lengthy check-in lines, and there's a nice quiet lounge – for everyone. For half the price of Thai Airways, let alone comparable United flights.
That's why when I have a choice, which will unfortunately not be too often, I'll choose Bangkok Airways from now on.
That's value – to me, and also to Bangkok Airways.