29 July 2015

Transpacific Pioneers: Thai Airways, April 1, 1983

While home-grown service from Thailand to North America (San Francisco) did sort of begin in 1947 with DC-4s by the company POAS, albeit not on a regular schedule, that company was gone by 1951.

But, in 1951, after some merger activity, the carrier we would know as Thai Airways would come to exist. They were able to maintain a link with Tokyo with DC-4 equipment but had trouble getting anything more sophisticated into their fleet. In the late 1950s they tried to form a management alliance with Northwest Airlines - but the US government didn't want NWA to expand past Hong Kong and compete with their favored airline Pan Am. But in 1959 Thai was able to find an able partner with SAS - Scandinavian Airlines, who was able to provide management assistance and most importantly engineering and sourcing help for newer, advanced aircraft. We can look back at this relationship now and see the seed of today's Star Alliance - both carriers were early members.

By 1962 Thai was operating jet equipment, and by the late 60s had established a respectable network across East Asia, hubbing at Bangkok. But while Thai extended its routes to Europe and Australia in the early 70s, Tokyo remained their eastern terminal.  A short lived-service to Los Angeles via Honolulu and Tokyo ran in the mid-70s by erstwhile competitor Air Siam, but that company was unstable and ended up causing a political crisis at home which ended up with the government owning a big chunk of Thai International and TG having all international traffic rights.

So by the late 1970s with stability at home and new DC-10s, Airbus A300s, and 747s joining the fleet, Thai began massive route expansion. In March 1980 they finally made the jump from Tokyo to Seattle. This flight, operated by 747s, originally continued on to Los Angeles, but was soon switched to end at Dallas/Ft. Worth - a significant and pioneering link as this was DFW's first Transpacific service.
Image via Wikimedia Commons, Alain Durand.  Link here to source.

In the attached schedule scans (courtesy of the collection of my good friend Arthur Na), effective April 1, 1983, we see flight TG741 leaving Dallas/Ft.Worth on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10:45 am, passing through Seattle/Tacoma 12:25 - 1:25 pm, Tokyo Narita the next day at 3:10 - 4:10 pm, and finally arriving Bangkok at 8:20 pm on Tuesday-Friday-Sunday. 

The reverse schedule leaves Bangkok at 10:30 am on Wednesday-Friday-Sunday and gets to DFW at 6:25 pm the same day (thanks to the International Date Line.)  The timings at Dallas and Seattle were superb for onward connections all over the United States.

While the arrival and departure times at Bangkok were certainly convenient for North American travelers wanting to get in or out of the Thai capital, TG had virtually nothing to offer for same-day flight connections to other Southeast Asian regional destinations - you would have to stay an extra night there when traveling to or from somewhere else.

Click to make bigger...

I love the stylized route map. 
By the late 1990s, Thai had left Seattle and DFW, making Los Angeles their North American terminal, served via Tokyo and also Osaka.

In the mid 2000s, Thai acquired ultra-long-range Airbus A340-500s and started nonstops from Bangkok to Los Angeles and New York JFK. While there was sound strategic network logic in the move, the 345 required too many payload compromises to perform the flights safely and the company could not fill enough seats at a high enough premium to justify the service.  (Singapore Airlines tried the same strategy and also failed at it.)

After pulling the A340-500 out of service, Thai resumed LAX flights via Seoul with Boeing 777 equipment.  However, just this past week we have learned that the carrier will be dropping Los Angeles and North America completely in October 2015. While Thai, like most of the legacy carriers in Southeast Asia, has struggled with intense local competition, the relentless pressure by the "Middle East 3" on traffic to Europe and Australia, and the uneven economies of East Asia, it is nevertheless sad to see a well-regarded and friendly carrier leave the skies over the Pacific.

15 July 2015

Transpacific Pioneers: Philippine Airlines, November 1971

The Philippines were amazingly quick to get into the sky after WWII, thanks to quick re-establishment of eager family businesses, ample supply of surplus Allied transport aircraft, and ready technical assistance from TWA. A dense national network and links to China sprang up in late 1945 and all of 1946.

On July 31, 1946, Philippine Air Lines (PAL) began Manila - Guam - Kwajalein - Honolulu - San Francisco service using leased DC-4 equipment - the very first Transpacific service by any Asian airline. The flight took 41 hours!

By May 1948, PAL had upgraded to the bigger and faster DC-6, and the Transpacific routing was switched from Kwajalein to Wake Island, bringing trip time down to 30 hours.

However, expansion to Europe, America, and Japan stressed PAL's finances, and numerous domestic mergers to gain dominance stripped its available capital. The Philippine government nationalized the carrier to ensure continued service; however, this meant that capital decisions became political, and the government simply did not have the money to invest in network expansion and airport improvements - or even to buy modern equipment.  By the end of March 1954, PAL had pulled out of all its long-range service, including the Transpacific run.

We have seen this story play out several more times in the Philippines - cycles of privatization and public ownership, capital crisis and generous investment, political upheaval, and regional disasters both economic and natural. The Philippines had been restricted from operating service to the USA due to poor government safety oversight in the 2000s, with this injunction being lifted only recently.

PAL needed until June 1962 to get DC-8 equipment and the ability to re-open Transpacific service - this time only taking 15 hours.  Jumbo jet DC-10 service began in 1974. 747s would come and go - today 777-300s are used nonstop.

Today I'll bring you a scan of the PAL November 1, 1971 International Timetable, courtesy of my friend and fellow amateur airline historian Arthur Na. The tail of the DC-8 is shown on the cover - this was a high point in the airline's timeline, and the fresh fashion on the cabin crew reflected the company's optimism.

San Francisco - Hong Kong for $954 round-trip is a fare to be expected now in the mid-2010s, although sales get that figure much lower!

Transpacific service was daily with the medium-stretch DC-8-50, stopping only in Honolulu. Arrival at SFO allowed for red-eye eastbound connections, and the late-night departure was well-timed to capture all the possible North American traffic.  The 6 am arrival at Manila was ideal to connect to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. Likewise, flights from those three cities also were timed for easy transfer to the Honolulu-San Francisco service.

While PAL's mid-Pacific routing took longer than the Great Circle route via Tokyo, the carrier did not have the rights to fly  between Japan and North America, and DC-8s (or DC-10s, or early 747s) simply did not have the range to do nonstops to the West Coast.  PAL made the best of this with an excellent connecting bank which could have grown to many E and SE Asian destinations - had continuing conflicts both domestic and international not happened, as well as the disaster to the country of the Marcos family...

08 July 2015

Transpacific Pioneers: Japan Air Lines, July 1955

Postwar Japan had a five-year ban on aviation - no private or government flights, and the only airline service was by international carriers to just a handful of airports. (No wonder Japan put such effort into building aworld-leading passenger rail network!) In January 1951 the country was finally authorized to finance its own airline, and on October 25, 1951, Japan Air Lines finally took to the skies.

Aircraft were leased from Northwest and Transocean, and all pilots were initially American. Northwest provided the JAL team with technical training and management consulting for several years.  Services were concentrated domestically for the next two years - their first Transpacific flight did not happen until February 1954, and Hong Kong came onto the network in February 1955.

The timetable I'm showing today is from July 1955.  JAL is running three flights per week between Tokyo's Haneda Airport and San Francisco via Wake Island and Honolulu, using the DC-6 four-engine prop aircraft. The airplane would arrive SFO at 11:25 am, but not turn around and head back until 12:30 pm the next day.  Likewise, arrival at TYO was at 8:45 am, but the aircraft would sit until 9:30 pm the next day for the run to the U.S. Piston-engined aircraft needed intense maintenance and for oceanic service, there could be no skimping on safety.

Westbound connecting service to Okinawa and Hong Kong (as well as eastbound connections) required an overnight stay in Tokyo. Daily service on the SFO-TYO run would not happen until 1958, and jet service until 1960.  Overnight connections at Tokyo would remain commonplace well into the 1980s for both JAL and Northwest (both airlines also owned the hotels that passengers would need to stay at, rather conveniently...)
Japanese graphic design already charmingly at work!

The DC-6B was a workhorse and reliable to be sure - but it was slow and did not have super range.  DC-7C long-range equipment would come on-line in 1958... the ultimate in piston-engine airliner technology.  JAL did order DC-8 jets at the end of 1955, however, knowing that having the best technology was key to success.
No Korean service; not that the Koreans were in any mood at the time to allow a Japanese airline to land, but also the issue of the war going on and the utter destruction it would wreak.  China of course would be cut off for many decades.  Bangkok and Singapore would happen in 1956 and 1958.

Let's look at those airfares! US$878 round-trip from SFO to Tokyo; $990 round-trip SFO to HKG (not counting the hotel stay in between of course.)  That's about the going rate in 2015, and there have been fare sales well under that figure so far this year.
Three daily flights to Sapporo, five daily to Osaka, and one nonstop plus two one-stops to Fukuoka.  These routes would ultimately reach the top tier of Earth's busiest city pairs (the Osaka run being supplanted by Shinkansen "bullet-train" service) with dozens of jumbo-jet shuttle flights every day.
It took decades of work to create the nearly-seamless networked world of today, and it's easy to take a relatively quick 787 Dreamliner flight across the Pacific for granted - cocooned in Wi-Fi and inflight entertainment the whole way. But there are still people around who labored on those 20+ hour runs without our reliable engine technology, navigational systems, and comfortable pressurization. Spare a moment of thanks to them for making today possible!