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This past week on a flight from Zurich, Switzerland, to Bangkok, Thailand, two off-duty Thai Airways pilots allegedly delayed the plane for two hours over a seating dispute. A complaint filed by passengers who were “downgraded” from first class to business class claims that the two off-duty pilots were requesting first class seating even though the cabin was full.
It appears that the pilots in command of the flight to Bangkok would not depart Zurich until their fellow off-duty employees were given seats in first class. After being delayed for around two hours, two first class passengers agreed to downgrade to business class to accommodate the pilots. The flight departed Zurich at 3:30pm local time, nearly two and a half hours after the scheduled departure time and arriving roughly an hour and a half behind schedule.
On the surface, this looks like a blatant power-trip on the part of the pilots both on and off-duty. Additionally, it doesn’t make Thai Airways look that customer-centric even if their first class product is one of the top products in the world. However, that’s only on the surface. There is much more to the story than the complaint made by the passengers alleges.
Thai Airways operates a Boeing 777-300ER and Boeing 747-400 on its flights between Zurich and Bangkok. Though the Boeing 777-300ER is equipped with a first class cabin, Thai Airways does not sell first class tickets on its Zurich/Bangkok flights. This means that business class passengers can select seats in the first class cabin on a first come-first serve basis. This is similar to what American Airlines would do on domestic flights with the Boeing 777 configured with two premium cabins.
On this particular flight, all nine first class seats were selected by business class passengers. It is definitely somewhat of an upgrade in that passengers that select first class seats have access to the much larger and much more private seat. However, the service both in the air and on the ground is the same as the passenger is still booked in business class.
The off-duty pilots also appear to be contractually obligated to receive seats in the first three rows (first class) of the aircraft. Many airlines have agreements allowing pilots and other crew members access to upgraded seating on repositioning flights, however, the first class cabin was already full. Essentially, the on-duty pilots believed that it was acceptable to outright delay the flight for two hours to get their fellow pilots their contractually obligated seats.
After keeping the flight on the ground for a little more than two hours, two “first class” passengers agreed to downgrade to business class, relocating to a standard business class seat compared to one of Thai Airways’s first class open-door suites.
To clarify, the two downgraded passengers agreed to move back to standard business class seats to allow the off-duty pilots to sit in first class seats. While this isn’t a huge deal, the pilots delaying an international flight for more than two hours is a big deal. Bangkok is a major hub for Thai Airways which means a delay could lead to missed connections. Nonetheless, Thai Airways’ president took responsibility and issued the following statement: “I express sorrow and apologize to all passengers affected by the unprofessional action that caused the delay. And I apologize to the passengers who were directly affected by the seat change. I take responsibility …”
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