BANGKOK — Idle for months now due to coronavirus impacts on international flights and in the middle of a bitter bankruptcy rehabilitation, Thai Airways switches to landing gear and opens a restaurant instead.
The “cafe,” which comes with actual furniture and equipment taken from airplanes, formally opened at the airline’s headquarters on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. The food is inspired by in-flight meals, and prepared by Thai Airways’ famed catering department.
To be honest, I had mixed feelings about it when I was assigned to give it a try and write a review. Who would want to eat airline food, here on the ground?
But to my surprise, the food is good, and perhaps even better than the meals you had 36,000 feet above the sea level (does it have to do with altitude and taste buds?). It’s also an nostalgic experience; those who flew with the airline would recognize the savory stars immediately, like chicken in black pepper sauce with rice (65 baht), seafood yakisoba (165 baht), and Caesar salad with seared tuna (99 baht).
Just like in a business class flight, meals at the cafe are served on Thai Airways’ very own porcelain, with stainless steel cutlery. Flight attendants clad in their uniforms greet diners and pose for photos with them. Fans of Thai Airways (also known as TG, its airline code) and aviation enthusiasts in general would be delighted.
Also, there’s live music from TG crews! I swear that one beautiful air hostess who took the microphone could go pro as a singer if she ended up losing her job on the plane.
TG is Still TG
Now is the appropriate time to mention the painful experience the once-mighty airline is going through. The 60-year-old Thai Airways has been flying at a growing stack of debt for years now, plagued by a culture of unbridled corruption and mismanagement. Its operations were prevented from crashing only by a series of expensive bailouts funded by the taxpayers.
And then the coronavirus struck, grounding most of the flights.
The debt grew to 244 billion baht. Faced with outcry from the public, the government decided not to entertain the rescues any further, forcing the airline to declare bankruptcy and seek a business restructuring mandated by the court. It also lost its status as a state enterprise.
Most staff now have their salary cut, ranging from 25 to 50 percent, at least for the next three months, I was told.
Even here at the cafe, there is a sense of uncertainty and anxiety in the air, from the beautiful air hostesses in their resplendent silk uniforms taking singer jobs, to the TG souvenirs sold at reduced prices. When they sing and smile, I feel as if they’re trying to convince themselves that they are still relevant as an airline.
Although the food was a very good deal for money, as I already mentioned, any semblance of good service was muddled by mind-boggling bureaucracy, much like TG’s management itself.
On a Wednesday morning, I waited to be seated for 30 minutes after getting a queue ticket, before ushered upstairs on an airstair to the cafe, or the imaginary flight TG8922.
One has to walk up to a counter to order food, pick up a food ticket, bring the receipt to pick up the food after 10 minutes or so, and then bring the food to a canteen table yourself.
That’s right – you eat at a regular canteen table, not in the economy flight seats installed at the restaurant as seen in multiple advertisements. To sit in those, one has to pay for a 699 baht set meal.
To sit in first-class seats, the cost goes up to 1,990 baht. There’s also a confusion whether the price is inclusive of wine and champagne; different staff members give a different answer.
And here’s the kicker – diners must call to book at least three days in advance. The cafe also opens for lunch on weekdays, when most people in the city are – you know – at work.
This is Your Captain Speaking, Buckle Up.
A Thai Airways pilot, whom I would not name due to the obvious reason, had a penchant for frank talk and served me some food for thought for free.
He slammed the airline’s misconducts in his diagnosis, from bribery and corruption to baffling incompetence, like that time the staff bought fabrics for covering airline seats only to realize they couldn’t be used on newer types of planes.
Cans of unused caviar had to be sold off 500 baht apiece. The company also bought unnecessary planes and opened profitless routes based on non-existent bookings from overseas, he said.
“This is like a house without an owner,” the captain said.
He also said the cafe project is mostly initiated and run by flight attendants, pilots, and catering staff, without much help from the rest of the company. Even gift shop staff on the ground floor wouldn’t bother moving their merchandise to be sold at the restaurant, despite an obvious opportunity to make money.
And why is the place not open everyday? It’s because the current number of staff cannot handle the operations more than 3 days a week.
“I will have to mop the floor after this,” the pilot said. He wasn’t joking.
Royal Orchid Restaurant and Canteen is open from Wednesday to Friday, from 9am until 2pm. Call 02-356-1666 for reservation and details. Takeaway food menu is also available including delivery.
This is an unsponsored review.