Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Planes, Trains, and...Mopeds

Getting There...and Back

As I mentioned in a previous post, we nonrevved to Thailand and back. For the uninitiated, nonrevving is the process by which airline employees can travel on their own airline and others for free or on a reduced fare. Because you are a non-revenue passenger (ie nonrev), you travel on a standby basis. Getting where you want to go depends on the flights not being full, which is an increasingly common occurrence. Dawn and I had good luck on this trip, though, and got on every flight we tried, even getting seats together.

Getting across the Pacific presented the biggest challenge. It's spring break in many west coast states, and a lot of people are traveling. When nonrevving overseas, we try to take Northwest because it's the cheapest - $120 roundtrip + tax for Dawn, free for me by jumpseating. Unfortunately, all of Northwest's flights to Tokyo from the west coast were severely oversold, so I looked at other options. Thai Airways direct to Bangkok was full, and so was Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong. One China Airlines flight from LA to Taipei was oversold by 68! I finally found an Eva Airways B747 from Seattle to Taipei that still had a few seats left. This connected nicely with a B777 to Bangkok that was half empty.

Eva is known as one of the cheaper airlines from the US to Asia, but I found their service quite good. The seats on the 747 weren't horribly plush in economy class, but they were comfortable enough to get some good sleep on the 13 hour flight. The food was quite decent, I thought. In Taipei, they gave us our boarding passes for the next flight right away; they didn't make us wait on the standby list. It was my first time flying on a B777, actually; I found it to be quite comfortable even in economy, a lot like Northwest's A330 product.

We departed Seattle at 2am on Saturday and arrived in Bangkok at 11am on Sunday, thanks to the international date line. After clearing customs, we changed into cooler clothes (we dress up when nonrevving) and took a taxi to Hualomphong, Bangkok's main train station.

It might've been faster to take a bus south, but I really enjoy traveling by train. Second class was sold out on the train we needed to take to make the night boat to Koh Tao, so we bit the bullet and bought first class tickets. At 1100B/$33, they're quite expensive compared to most things in Thailand - but still far less than you'd pay in a western nation for a private, air conditioned compartment with berths for a 500km journey.

The first portion of the trip went north out of Bangkok, then skirted the city to its west. This route went right through an area of pretty bad slums. Shacks made of bits of wood and tin were built almost on top of the train tracks; families ate at tables and children played mere feet away from the tracks, paying the train no heed. Sewage emptied directly into open ditches. Many of these people are immigrants from the northeast part of Thailand, where they had even less.

The train broke down for a while, so we didn't get until Chumphon until 11 pm. The night boat leaves at midnight, and the pier is a ways out of town. The sôngthâew were no longer operating, so we each jumped on a motorbike taxi. In Bangkok, these drivers are well known for their suicidal driving habits, but the sleepy town of Chumphon didn't provide them with much opportunity to scare us. I'd been rather cold in the air conditioned train, so the ride through the warm night air felt exhilaratingly refreshing.

The night boat is primarily a cargo run. The lower deck of the boat was stacked with coolers for fish and meat, nets full of pineapples and durian, a big water tank, and other miscellaneous goods. The upper deck, however, has about 40 mats laid down for passengers. The overnight crossing costs a mere 200B/$6.

I've been mentioning sôngthâew without really explaining what they are. A sôngthâew is a shared, unmetered taxi. They're mainly used in rural areas and on the islands - places unserved by regular taxis. It's usually a pickup truck with two benches down the sides of the bed. You throw your belongings in the middle and take a seat on the bench, and hold on. There are no restraining devices and, as I've mentioned, sôngthâew drivers are crazy. Each person negotiates what they'll pay the driver beforehand; less popular destinations are more expensive because the driver won't be able to cram a dozen passengers in.

Taking a sôngthâew to Ao Chalok Ban Kao

Taking sôngthâews everywhere gets expensive, so while we were on the island we rented a motorbike. I should clarify what I mean by motorbike in Thailand, since you're probably thinking of a full-sized bike like you'd take on the highway in the States. Most of the motorbikes in Thailand, including taxis or motorbikes you rent, are what we'd call minibikes or dirtbikes or mopeds. Most of them make a Vespa look like a hot rod. The "standard" bike, what we rented, is the Honda Dream, a 125cc machine that's hard-pressed to get up to 30 mph. You really don't need anything more for the island unless you're tackling the steep, rutted dirt roads in the interior. These bikes typically cost 150B/$5 per day.

I'm pretty sure taking a self-portrait while riding on the back of a minibike is dangerous. What can I say, Dawn's a wild one.

To get back to Bangkok, we booked a ferry/bus combo ticket on Lomprayah. Their high speed catamarans cover the distance to Chumphon in a mere 90 minutes, compared to six hours for the night boat. Even in calm seas, it's quite a ride - I can only imagine what a rough crossing would be like. The bus is an air conditioned coach, and takes seven hours between Chumphon and Bangkok. The combo ticket costs 650B/$19 or 850B/$25, depending on when you go.

Coming back, we took Thai Airways to Tokyo. I wasn't horribly impressed with their economy product - the seats are small and cramped and I couldn't quite get comfortable, making for a restless night. Strange, since it's a brand new B777-300. The service was impeccible, though - as you get on, the flight attendants actually wai (traditional Thai shallow bow) to you!

After an eight hour layover in Tokyo we were able to catch Northwest Airlines direct to Portland. Previously it had looked like we'd have to go through Seattle, but the Portland flight opened up. I really enjoy Northwest's A330. It's about the nicest economy class out there, with relatively spacious, comfortable seats. The seatback entertainment system is great, too, if only to set it to map mode to watch your progress. The service, on the other hand....

I want to be careful how I say this. I've very grateful to Northwest for the many times Dawn and I have nonrevved on them, and they've always treated us very well. Really, this applies to most US carriers these days, not just Northwest. After riding around on Asian carriers, the difference in service on NWA was jarring and appalling. The flight attendants on Eva and Thai were impeccibly polite, friendly, and calm. The NWA flight attendants, or at least some of them, were grouchy, snappy, and harried. The attitude they exuded was "I don't care, not my problem."

Look, I'm not a stranger to this industry. I know that NWA management has thoroughly beat up on their flight attendants, slashing their pay and benefits, and I know the pressures of the job and life on the road. There's plenty to be grouchy about. That said, open skies are coming. We will all soon find ourselves competing directly against foreign carriers in many more markets than we do now, and we are going to get absolutely trounced if we don't make changes. We can either get cheaper, or we can outdo them on service. Given how many hits labor has taken to slash costs already, and how much more we'd have to take to get cheaper, I don't think any of us want to go that route. The altenative is to improve service. Really, the biggest difference right now is attitude. There are small things like the quality of the food, being offered blankets and hot towels, etc, but simply taking a more service-minded attitude would greatly improve US carriers' ability to complete in the global market.


Garrett said...

Fascinating post Sam.

Very interesting thoughts about NWA. As regular old SLF, I decided a while ago to avoid most of the domestic legacy carriers whenever possible. There are a million reasons, but most of them boil down to attitude.

kitkatknit said...

Ah yes, the days of flying as a nonrev!! My Dad retired about 15 yrs ago after 40 yrs with United. I hated dressing up back in my rebelious teen years. Miss the flying for near free. Almost miss sleeping in airports waiting for our names to be called! Also miss wandering around in the airports non puplic areas before they put all the security stuff in place.

Guess I got real used to it because if I don't have to be at my destination at a specific time, I always put my self on the bump list.

Ron said...

Your thoughts on the domestic airline industry were well (and very diplomatically) stated. I hope the global competition pushes our airlines to become better about customer service... or at least to put those that cannot compete out of their misery quickly so the survivors can step up.

For myself, I avoid the airlines where service is poor, even if the cost is lower to fly those companies. I have great respect and compassion for air crews, but travel is hard enough without being dumped on by the flight attendants for having the temerity to expect treatment as a human being rather than a piece of "self loading cargo".

the other sam said...

Very interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to detail all that, it is much appreciated.

Soaring Student said...

OK, this just begs the joke (btw, my most recent trip was Air Canada to Heathrow and back... had a fabulous time and the cabin crew was pretty decent):

A guy sitting at an airport bar in Atlanta noticed a beautiful woman sitting next to him. He thought to himself, "Wow,she's so gorgeous she must be a flight attendant. But which airline does she work for?"

Hoping to gain her attention, he leaned towards her and uttered the Delta Slogan, "Love to fly and it shows?"

She gave him a blank, confused stare and he immediately thought to himself, "Nope, not Delta."

He leaned towards her again, "Something special in the air?"

She gave him the same confused look. He mentally kicked himself, and scratched American Airlines off the list.

Next he tried the United slogan, "I would really love to fly your friendly skies?"

This time the woman savagely turned on him, "What the $#@@%&( do you want?"

The man smiled, then slumped back in his chair,and said.... "Ah hah, [insert legacy airline name here]!"