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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Thai to make 2 steps forward and 1 step backward with new products

Business Traveller reports that the Bangkok Post has published an article showing Thai Airways is planning a complete revamp of its aircraft cabins.  Thai has been notorious for inconsistency in products to the extent that it has used older 747 aircraft on some routes and selling old first class seats as business class and old business class seats as premium economy!  As passengers have often not had certainty about products or aircraft, premium travellers have not rated its First Class and Business Class highly as a result.   Even when there is some consistency (e.g. London Heathrow-Bangkok) some aspects of Thai's product remain lacklustre (e.g. no personal IFE screens in economy class).  

Thai claims it will address this inconsistency, which is in part because it has a very diverse fleet.  Beyond that the judgment is very mixed.  Thai seeks to be up with the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Cathay Pacific, and to be fair its soft product and on board service standards are good.  Its Bangkok hub has reasonable lounges (although the airport itself is an uninspiring concrete mass).  

The new products will include AVOD for every class with screens ranging from 10" in economy to 23" in first.  Thai also intends to offer internet connectivity and mobile phone access for premium customers (the latter being a reason to avoid the airline in my view - last thing i want in business class overnight from London are to hear ringtones, beeps and loud conversations).  

How about the seats?  My verdict is mixed.

Well the image from Bangkok Post appears to depict the new First Class, which looks identical to the new Korean Air product, with mini-suites and 23" inch wide fully lie flat seats.   This looks a winner, and also parallels the latest product from Swiss.  

Business Class (which is currently ranges from angled lie flat seats to recliners) is to be fully lie flat, minimum 20" wide with added privacy.   The new seat is shown below and described by Bangkok Post as a toned down version of the newest Emirates product, which would appear to be quite an improvement.  Regional aircraft will have recliners replaced with angled lie flat seats, which probably means the existing long haul product (which is competitive for flights of up to 6 hours given Singapore Airlines's new A330s which have such a product in Business).

Thai concept for new fully flat Business Class
There is no mention of premium economy, which admittedly is only available on certain routes at the moment (again variable product), but economy class is a major step backwards as Thai surrenders its best in class 34" seat pitch for 31-32".   In other words it is certainly joining Singapore, Cathay and Emirates with tight seat pitch, but is losing one of its competitive advantages - legroom!  I'd argue that it could sell itself as the roomiest economy class on almost all of the routes it services, so this is NOT a winner (although most economy travellers are driven by price).  

The other issue is how long it is going to take to do the retrofit.  The new products will be available on Thai's Airbus A380s (which will replace the old configuration Boeing 747s) and new A330-300s (which are replacing Airbus A300s).   The A380s will replace 747s on the London, Paris and Frankfurt routes so will mean some key premium routes will have new product.   Beyond that who knows? 

The Bangkok Post article indicates the retrofit programme could last to 2023, which is clearly absurd.  

Thai's A300 and A340 fleets' days are clearly numbered,  but it has 20 of its own 777s and another 11 on order (excluding those leased from Jet Airways and Air India).   They are the backbone of a significant number of lower density routes including routes to various Australian airports and New Zealand.   However, it is assumed the combination of A380s and 777-300ER aircraft spells the eventual end of the 747 fleet, although Business Standard indicated the 747 fleet will be refurbished.

Setting aside economy class (!), it is important that Thai makes it clear what its retrofit schedule is and it should not be longer than 2 years.  Anymore than that and any publicity about new products is heavily devalued every time a passenger finds him or herself on an aircraft with old (or even elderly) products. 

So good for Thai for acknowledging product consistency is an issue and for upgrading its first class product and going fully flat in business, but brickbats for making economy class tight and narrow and for not making it clear what is happening to the rest of its fleet.   This goes some way to raising Thai up to the standards of the best Asian hub airlines and its competitors from the Persian Gulf, Europe and Australasia, but what prospective passengers want is certainty and a relatively quick rollout of new products (with a priority given to replacing the products that last were seen elsewhere in the 1990s).


Rory Maxwell said...

That picture is just Etihad's existing business class cabin, no?

Rory Maxwell said...


libertyscott said...

Yes, this was used for publicity as to what the Thai cabin would look like.