Workhorse 737s can strut, too.
Workhorse 737s can strut, too.
Fans of the business of flying should take a look at Jason Rabinowitz’s Twitter feed. His coverage of how the storm affected east coast flight operations is fascinating. He’s @AirlineFlyer. Also, see the article Why Did New York’s JFK Airport Struggle to Cope With Its Flight Backlog After the Bomb Cyclone? from The Points Guy.
On this US Thanksgiving holiday, here is a reprise of a story I filed after a flight out of Bangkok a few years back, destination, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. We traveled in august company.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
Thimpu, capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan
“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.
Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.
We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.
The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.
HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3, there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.
HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.
HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle.
In Bhutanese culture it is customary to cover the mouth and say meshu meshu, demurring once or twice before accepting when offered food. It appears to be protocol, or at least respectful, to cover ones mouth when addressing HRH, too. The crew does so while serving the food and does a little kowtow.
HRH goes vegetarian this morning so I decide to eat like a queen and have the same: We start with standard plastic-wrapped assorted fruit on a banana leaf, coffee & cream, a wrapped Matterhorn Suisse cheese, bread from a basket with a pat of “Allowrie” butter. The main dish HRH and I enjoy is a fiery hot tofu, fungus, rice and Chinese cabbage. She gets extra chilli sauce from a silver cup, we get it in a tiny plastic pre-dispensed tub. The service concludes with four Imperial brand “Rosy” crackers, panna cotta and two chocolates.
After the food service HRH dives into the duty free magazine, first and not surprisingly stopping in the perfume section, then checking out the sunglasses. HRE continues sleeping as we fly up over Burmese ridges, or Bangladeshi, I don’t know, all of them barren of human development.
This Airbus A 319 must be old. The seat back pockets snap on and off. Not a modern look. One side of the seat back pocket behind HRH and in front of me just hangs there, unsnapped.
Coffee and tea are served in Drukair china and the napkins are linen, with the Drukair logo.
HRH buys a duty free bottle of Lancome perfume and a Bulgari perfume suspected to be Omnia Amethyste EDT from the Burgari Women Collection, and pays in cash in crisp, new Thai Baht. HRE has to wake up for all this reaching across, which is complicated by the crew having to fold their hands over their mouths while bagging up and delivering the goods.
During this period we learn HRH has a deep, raspy, smoker’s voice. In all the commotion HRE makes for the air vent above his head and apparently thinks he might have a go at some duty free himself, opening up the magazine. Finally he declines but now that he’s awake, he elects to have breakfast, making straight for the panna cotta. As time goes on HRE presents as an engaged and expressive fellow in a tight mustache.
Alas, and after all this, I learn that HRH is not a queen, or queen mother (or, in the case of Bhutan, where four sisters were married to the previous king, a queen mother’s sister). I inquire up in the galley.
Is HRH a wife of the fourth king?
No, the cabin crew tell me, she’s an Auntie of the 4th king.
(The reigning, fifth king, is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His father, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son in 2006.)
Auntie has a big black handbag with two gold handles and tons of rings on her fingers. HRE still sleeps as after the breakfast service HRH’s little standard issue airline pillow falls between her armrest and the wall and onto my camera bag. Unsure of the protocol surrounding Royal Pillows, I decide I’d better not shove it back up there, so I keep the royal pillow next to my own.
After a time HRH starts rooting around looking for it so I gingerly offer it up and get a smile, nod and Royal Thank You.
I’ve done all I can here. My day is done.
Assuming this is legit, and it appears to be – the Hotel of Doom seems to be out there in the distance – it’s most interesting. Pyongyang appears to have all the modern amenities … and almost no traffic.
Ascension Island, South Atlantic Ocean
Eight hundred residents on the British-run Ascension Island will not be able to get a regular flight off the island until at least 2019 because of potholes on the only runway, a travel agency has said.
Ascension is governed as part of the St. Helena British overseas territory. Under the headlines Airport Tale Turns Embarrassing for British Government and St Helena Airport Opening Postponed – Again I told you last year about problems with the possibility of wind shear at the newly built but never used £285 million – and counting – St. Helena airport. That potential for wind shear was apparently never anticipated until the airport was built, but only discovered in pre-opening testing. See the test landing – which came only on the third try, in this video.
When we traveled the Namibia – St. Helena – Ascension circuit we did so aboard the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which sailed that circuit most of the year. There had been plans to retire the RMS St. Helena after the opening of the airport. No prospect of that now. And now, with the closure of the Ascension airport making shutting down travel to either Ascension or St. Helena by air, there’s one other problem. This month,
the ship (the RMS St. Helena) was declared out of order, twice ending up in dry dock in Cape Town, most recently due to the left propeller becoming locked in a forward position.
The British Royal Air Force had operated its “South Atlantic Airbridge” between Brize Norton Air Base near Oxford, England, Ascension Island, where there are US Air Force, UK government and BBC installations, and Stanley in the Falkland Islands. It seems that the A330s for those flights are too heavy to use the Ascension airfield, pending repairs, and so they have been rerouted via Dakar, Senegal.
For now, and by “now” I mean the foreseeable future, if you happen to be a tourist stranded on St. Helena or Ascension, it might be a good time to bear down on finishing up that novel. Ascension is the more austere, but I believe if I had to choose, I’d choose to be stuck there. The military there have planes. They can fly in more beer.
The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena is under repairs in Capetown, South Africa. For a normal ship that wouldn’t generate any headlines. But the RMS St. Helena serves as a literal lifeline and the only means of transportation for the inhabitants of St. Helena Island, a speck of land way out in the South Atlantic ocean. This document, attempting to address questions from stranded and potential passengers and businesses, shows the RMS St. Helena’s importance to St. Helena Island and also to Ascension Island, where the RMS usually calls on it’s regular itinerary. It’s interesting to follow this link and read about the trouble caused by the possible dry-docking of the Royal Mail Ship.
You can feel the remoteness of these places when you take the three day journey out from the African mainland to St. Helena and the overnight journey onward to Ascension. But that just became way more immediate for the unfortunate subject of an article headlined British woman mauled by shark near Ascension Island saved after husband punched it. The only way off Ascension Island is the RMS St. Helena or via the British Ministry of Defense’s “airbridge,” used to shuttle troops between the Falkland Islands, the military base at Ascension and the Brize Norton base near Oxford, England. The airbridge, it turns out to the ill fortune of our shark attack victim, is temporarily not calling at Ascension either, as you can see from the question and answer sheet.
As a result,
the family found themselves “pretty stuck” by travel chaos across the South Atlantic.
St Helena’s airport, built with the help of £285 million from the Department of International Development, was due to open last May but flights have been postponed indefinitely as it is too windy for commercial aircraft to land safely.
As a result, people normally get the island’s ageing supply ship, the RMS St Helena, to Ascension Island, but it broke down near South Africa in late March and it remains there having repairs to its propellor.
Furthermore, flights have stopped touching down on the military runway on Ascension for safety reasons, reportedly because of cracks in the runway.