20 MARCH 2017
Published every Monday
PO Box 758
Edgware HA8 4QF
+44 (0)20 8952 8383
© 2016 Business Travel News Ltd
There’s nothing like the threat of a looming election to muzzle normally loquacious politicians faced with intractable problems. Even those not always forthcoming can become strangely even less so.
Did someone mention François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande, his seven years in charge of France now up? He is standing down, but the damage may already have been done.
In face of yet another strike last week against airlines and their passengers by French air traffic controllers, the président de la Republique “has let it be known” that he will resist union pressure to abandon labour reforms. His prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, equally says the reforms “must go ahead”.
And the result of this alleged heavyweight standing-up-to-the-unions bravado?
More strikes almost certainly!
For Hollande, read Merkel, who saw ITB Berlin disrupted this year by baggage handlers in her own capital city.
For these politicians, who at least were elected to their posts, read the EU. Where is the concerted action from on high that could call the unions to account?
A4E (the group representing the major European airlines) and Ryanair have started petitions in an attempt to bring pressure to bear. In the absence of anything else, BTN this week urges readers to sign via the respective websites so the powers-that-be can see for themselves the growing groundswell of opinion in the industry.
With more action confidently predicted as the year wears on and peak season approaching, Ryanair’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, said: “We call on the French government and European commission to take immediate action to prevent thousands of European consumers from having their travel plans disrupted by a tiny group of ATC unions going on strike.
“They cannot stand idly by and allow another summer of disruption and travel misery for European consumers to take place.”
BTN among many others, is tempted to say: “Oh yes, they can.”
Witness Carolyn McCall, CEO of easyJet: “We’re really disappointed with last week’s unnecessary air traffic control strike action which caused significant disruption to passengers and airlines across Europe.
“We’re working with other airlines, as a member of Airlines for Europe (A4E), to call on governments to minimise the disproportionate impact of ATC strikes on passengers.
“It is completely disproportionate and unacceptable that a small group of controllers can halt more than 1,500 flights between all airlines, affecting hundreds of thousands of passengers across Europe. We have suggested a range of measures that would lower the impact of strikes whilst fully respecting the right to industrial action.”
Action at control centres in Brest, Bordeaux and Marseille forced airlines to reduce their fight offerings in France by 25%, affecting not only flights serving Paris but also those overflying France, including links from the UK and Italy, Switzerland and Spain.
Airlines had to fly detours of hundreds of miles to avoid French airspace while adjacent airspaces had to be regulated, too, as a consequence of additional traffic refiling to avoid the high delays due to industrial action.
A4E and by association its airline members has been a persistent critic of the strikes. Managing director Thomas Reynaert said: “It is devastating to see that more than 1m passengers suffered from this year’s first ATC strike. We cannot wait any more – European and French policy-makers need to implement measures capable of minimising air traffic management disruption’s impact on travellers.
“Political, operational and technological solutions exist for a problem that affects the whole continent. These solutions would allow to limit the impact of such strikes on travellers and business, without questioning controllers’ fundamental right to strike.
“Travellers can unite and let out their frustration about the continuous travel disruptions supporting our petition, ‘Keep Europe’s Skies open’. We will present this petition in Brussels to urge the EU Commission and the EU Parliament to finally take action. Holidays and the summer break are ahead of us.”
The figures from A4E speak for themselves. During the 2010-16 period, there were 217 ATC strike days in the EU – one disrupted day every nine days. In total, there were 278 disrupted days if you take into account the days before and after an ATC strike as flights had to be cancelled in advance and accumulated delays spilt over to the next day.
Since 2010, the overall impact of ATC strikes has been a cost of €12bn to the EU economy, associated with more than 140,000 jobs.
Sign the petition on www.keepeuropesskiesopen.com
The latest of airport lounge specialist Plaza Premium Group’s Aerotel hotels has opened in the Departures area in Singapore Changi Airport’s Terminal One, the first in Singapore and also Asia’s only airport transit hotel with an outdoor swimming pool.
The opening brings the growing portfolio to three, with other Aerotels at Abu Dhabi and Rio de Janeiro. Heathrow and Hyderabad are scheduled to join the group later this year.
Plaza says Aerotels are designed as one-of-a-kind airside or landside transit facilities providing comfort and convenient booking hours to suit travellers’ needs and offering several types of affordable room options.
Aerotels provide a host of facilities that provide passengers with everything they need to have a comfortable stay without having to leave the airport or clearing customs and immigration, a spokesman said.
The Changi facility has 70 premium rooms as well as the rooftop pool, a poolside bar, library, fitness corner plus a pillow menu. It is accessible to passengers in transit from all three terminals via automated walkways or the airport skytrain.
Rooms, budget single or twin or standard twin, are rented in 6hr blocks, with 24hr check-in. Guests making room reservations are required to provide arrival and departure flight details.
Non-stop service in three new markets was inaugurated last week by Alaska Airlines as the company continued its growth surge following its takeover last year of Virgin America to become the fifth largest US carrier.
The new routes are between San Jose (California) and Newark, which began on 12 March; and San Jose and Burbank (California), and Portland (Oregon) and Orlando, which launched on Thursday.
Flights between San Jose and Newark and Portland and Orlando are being operated with the Boeing B737 once a day. Flights between San Jose and Burbank are three times daily, using the Embraer E175.
Vice president of capacity planning John Kirby said the new non-stops to Newark and Burbank from San Jose were designed to maintain Alaska Airlines’ position as a prime carrier for Silicon Valley passengers.
“We’re also pleased to add Orlando to our list of non-stop destinations served from our Portland hub, now at 55 destinations and counting,” he added.
The flights between Portland and Orlando provide the only non-stop service on that route, while the importance of Orlando was as a popular destination for business and convention travel, as well as a family favourite for its tourist attractions.
A €1bn cut in costs, a big fleet reduction by 20 narrow-body aircraft and profitability by 2019 are elements in the next phase of Alitalia’s business plan, covering the next four years. The plan was heralded earlier this year (BTN 9 January).
Approved by the airline’s board on Wednesday, the turnaround document was described as including “a range of radical and necessary measures across the whole of the company to stabilise it and secure its long-term sustainability”.
Funding by the company’s shareholders is subject to unions agreeing a new collective works agreement and related measures. Management is due to hold talks after presenting the plan to the Italian government.
Alitalia said it aims to reduce operating and manpower costs by €1bn in the first three years of the plan and to increase revenues, also by 2019, by 30% – from €2.9bn to €3.7bn.
“These financial performance indicators are judged to be realistic and achievable by independent advisers and the projected figures would turn Alitalia into a profitable business by 2019,” a statement said.
CEO Cramer Ball said: “The aviation industry is ferociously competitive and never stands still. Only through radical change will Alitalia’s fortunes be turned around.”
An opening date planned for this year for Berlin’s troubled Brandenburg Airport project has been put back again after it was found extra work on technical building facilities and alterations to the sprinkler system could not be completed in time.
Following criticism of the handling of the project, which has now dragged on for years, relevant documents have now been published online in what CEO Engelbert Daldrup said last week was “an important first step towards increased transparency”.
Business and airport consultants were commissioned in mid-2016 to undertake an independent risk assessment and feasibility study of the framework schedule and planned opening date for the airport.
Further steps were found to be necessary affecting planning and construction deadlines. “Due to this additional risk of delay, it was realised an opening in the second half of 2017 would have to be foregone,” a statement said last week.
“Effective immediately, documents provided … have been made publicly available on the website of the airport company.
“With this, [the company] hopes to put to rest speculation surrounding BER’s opening date, which has been circulating in various media outlets due to the patchy publication of the documents.”
Isle of Man-based Citywing has been forced to close after aircraft supplier Van Air Europe’s licence for UK flights was suspended by the CAA. Citywing said it had been unable to source more aircraft to operate its services.
The company sold seats on scheduled flights flown under charter and had been serving the Isle of Man, Jersey, Anglesey, Belfast, Blackpool, Cardiff, Cheltenham/Gloucester, Glasgow and Newcastle.
Aviation consultant Terry Liddiard of Isle of Man TravelWatch said: “The news of the termination of CityWing services comes as a real blow to the Island, to the dedicated staff and hundreds of passengers.
“These passengers had been travelling with Citywing every month on services which, until the company’s recent difficulties, had proved to be reliable and punctual.”
The Welsh government said that it had selected Eastern Ailines to assume the Cardiff-Anglesey route. Similarly, the Manx government later chose Eastern to take over and run a daily operation from the Isle of Man to Belfast City and to Newcastle. Service is provided by Jetstream 41 equipment.
Citywing was last in the news in 2015 when it reinstated double-daily flights between the Island and Blackpool Airport, which had closed suddenly in October 2014 and then reopened (BTN 13 April 2015).
Norwegian has reshuffled its peak-season schedule to accommodate plans to introduce its new Boeing B737 MAX 8 on the Edinburgh – Oslo route. Originally planned to start in early 2018, it will now begin on 1 June.
The carrier says it will operate the route daily until 28 October with the schedule reducing to four a week from 29 October. The service will also change from evening to daytime flights.
Norwegian has also confirmed plans for three new direct routes between Edinburgh and the US east coast with flights to and from the greater New York, Boston and New England areas (see also BTN 27 February).
The routes will also be operated by the B737 serving smaller US airports with lower landing charges.
From 15 June, Norwegian will launch a daily service to Stewart International Airport in New York State, about 90min from New York City. On the following day, the airline will start operating four flights a week to Providence, Rhode Island. And on 17 June, it will run three flights a week to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.
Besides Oslo, Norwegian already flies from Edinburgh to five other destinations – Copenhagen, Stockholm, Barcelona, Tenerife and Malaga.
Almost everything you ever wanted to know about Europe’s airline sector can now be found in the 2017 ERA Yearbook, published by the European Regions Airline Association.
The publication is traditionally acknowledged as the leading guide. As well as a directory of all ERA members – which include airlines, airports, manufacturers and suppliers – it also includes details of the association’s latest achievements, activities and strategies.
Member performance statistics are also provided and supported by expert comment and analysis on the state of the market and the regulatory climate.
In a foreword to the 2017 edition, ERA president Boet Kreiken and director-general Simon McNamara say the year will “undoubtedly” bring its ups and downs as the airline business in Europe continues to change rapidly.
However, they note, ERA has great collective strength, representing a fleet of more than 750 aircraft and members flying 62m-plus passengers a year on 1.1m flights.
“One of ERA’s core activities in 2017 will be to ensure that Europe’s regulators continue to recognise the economic and social value that our members bring to the region,” they add.
Growing demand is bringing another long-haul destination into the Etihad Airways Airbus A380 network this summer with the airline introducing the award-winning double-decker on the Abu Dhabi – Paris route.
Part of seasonal adjustments to the airline’s fleet deployment plan, the move will see the aircraft operate on one of Etihad’s twice-daily services to the French capital between 1 July and 28 October.
Paris joins London, Sydney, New York and Melbourne as an Etihad long-haul A380 destination. With the aircraft upgrade from a 328-seat Boeing B777, the carrier will be able to offer an all-A380 daily service from Paris to both Melbourne and Sydney via the Abu Dhabi hub.
Etihad says the additional capacity will also support strong connecting traffic to and from many cities across Asia and Australia, including Brisbane, Perth, Bangkok, Chengdu, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila and Shanghai.
The A380 has 496 seats with up to two passengers in the three-room First Class apartment known as the Residence, nine First Apartments, 70 Business Studios and 415 Economy Smart seats.
Airline CEO Peter Baumgartner said: “Flying our flagship product to France with additional seat capacity helps to fulfil growing demand and meet our guests’ expectations for a greater travel experience.”
Ticket sales for the new high-speed train service between London and Bordeaux using a new rail line in France that reduces journey time by more than 1hr went on sale from Eurostar on Wednesday. The service begins on 2 July.
Passengers from the UK make a connection in Paris from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse, with services timed specially to ensure a fast transfer between the Eurostar and the local high-speed train into the heart of the French city.
Eurostar commercial director Nick Mercer said: “With the new high-speed line, passengers will benefit from a more civilised way to travel from city centre to city centre, a generous baggage allowance and superior comfort on board our new e320 trains.”
Bordeaux is tipped to be a popular destination with close proximity to the Atlantic coast and some of France’s favourite centres including Île de Ré, Cap Ferret and Arcachon and the vineyards of Saint-Émilion and Médoc within easy reach.
Passengers travelling on the new e320 train can sit back and unwind in more spacious surroundings with free wi-fi and more than 300 hours of entertainment all streamed straight to their phones, tablets or laptops.
Daily flights between London City Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport are to be operated by Flybe from next Sunday, 26 March, until 27 October in a boost for the service, which to date has operated only at weekends.
The airline is one of three on the LCY – AMS route. It will operate using a one-class Bombardier Q400 aircraft with 78 seats with the new flights departing from London early in the morning, and leaving Amsterdam in late afternoon.
A Flybe spokesman said: “The timings of the new weekday flights offer greater flexibility for both business and leisure travellers who want to tailor the length of their trip to suit their needs.”
Meanwhile, Flybe has suspended its Dundee – Amsterdam service following completion of a review into its operations at the Scottish airport. Flights to Amsterdam will operate via Edinburgh.
In another development, Flybe has reinstated its duty-free inflight shopping service on board 16 non-EU services to and from Jersey, Guernsey and Geneva.
Passengers aged 18 or over travelling in either direction on any of the Flybe-operated routes affected can now buy duty-free goods on board subject the relevant personal allowances.
A new low cost long-haul airline brand joins the International Airlines Group (IAG) portfolio this summer in a move to combat growing competition in the field from the likes of Norwegian and, potentially, Ryanair.
The carrier, called Level, equipped with two new Airbus A330s, will fly initially between Barcelona and Los Angeles from 1 June, San Francisco (Oakland) from 2 June, Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) from 10 June and Buenos Aires from 17 June.
The A330s will have 21 Premium Economy and 293 Economy seats and will be operated at first by IAG member airline Iberia flight and cabin crews. IAG says Barcelona has been chosen for the launch, but it will look to expand flights from other European cities.
The launch recalls BA’s three-class Open Skies operation between Paris Orly and New York JFK and Newark, similarly designed to match competitors such as La Compagnie.
IAG says Level will offer premium passengers checked luggage in addition to a free cabin bag, meals, seat selection and the latest film releases free while those in Economy can choose what they want to buy based on a menu of choices.
All passengers will have access to next generation inflight technology with a range of onboard entertainment options.
A new Business Lounge offering what is described as “a premium customer experience for all passengers at the reasonable price of £35 per person” opens officially today at London City Airport.
The fully-catered facility is housed in a newly transformed area of the airport’s Private Jet Centre, accessible from the main terminal via a private taxi shuttle and boasting a discreet and quiet atmosphere.
Clients can relax in surroundings which the airport says are designed with comfort and convenience in mind and with a free selection of cold food, snacks, refreshments and alcoholic beverages.
Features include hand-made furniture, a flat screen TV, charging points and free high-speed wi-fi so passengers can stay connected before they depart to one of the 45 destinations served by the airport.
Jet centre customer service manager Chris Clayton said: “The lounge is the perfect option for passengers who want first-class hospitality, comfort and privacy and a team that will always ensure they have what they need to keep their visit stress-free.”
The 50sq m lounge can accommodate up to 30 passengers and complements the airport’s existing First Class Lounge, which includes the added convenience of easy baggage drop and discreet security clearance with no queues.
The Unesco world heritage site of Warsaw became the latest destination in the Leonardo Hotels portfolio on Wednesday following the group’s takeover of the 4-star former JM Hotel Warsaw Centre.
The 178-room property occupies floors 18 – 27 in the JM Tower building, which as one of the tallest structures in the city offers wide-ranging views from its top floors.
The hotel itself specialises in events of all kinds, offering a total of more than 500sq m floor area in six function rooms.
The property will be included in the Leonardo Hotel brand and will operate under the name Leonardo Royal Hotel Warsaw with a décor masterminded by international interior designer Andreas Neudahm.
Leonardo managing director Europe Daniel Roger said: “Warsaw is an indispensable part of Eastern Europe, both as a centre of commerce and as a cultural attraction and we are very glad our hotel chain is now represented here and that we can offer our guests another attractive destination."
Leonardo Hotels, the European arm of the Fattal Hotels Group, opened its first UK property, at Heathrow, two years ago this month. The company also opened a property in Edinburgh city centre last October.
In spite of what was termed a damaging series of strikes, the Lufthansa Group made a net profit of €1.78bn (about £1.5bn, $1.91bn) for 2016, a 4.6% increase over the previous year.
Annual revenue fell by 1.2% to €31.66bn as traffic revenue dropped by 3.3%. Operating expenses were 5.3% lower at €31.75bn, with fuel costs down by 15.5% and staff costs by 8.9%.
Although staff numbers rose by 3.1% during the year, the group said costs were reduced partly by a change to retirement and transitional benefits for cabin crew at Lufthansa mainline. This led to a saving of €652m over the year.
The group carried 109.7m passengers in 2016, a year-on-year increase of 1.8%. Capacity, in available seat km (ASK), rose by 4.6% as larger aircraft were introduced on certain routes.
Lufthansa said capacity growth was particularly strong to the Americas, but shrank in the Middle East and Africa region. Europe and Asia capacity growth was in line with the average.
A cause for concern was the push by low-cost airlines into the higher-value business travel segment, such as Ryanair into Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub, which, Lufthansa said, “puts severe structural pressure on the airlines in the group”.
Two more carriers joined the battle over inflight catering last week with Cathay Pacific planning to test the dine-on-demand concept on London flights throughout May and American Airlines to offer free meals on some US coast-to-coast flights.
Cathay’s dine-on-demand idea allows Business Class passengers to select items from an enhanced menu and choose when they want to eat them. It will be offered on the Hong Kong – Gatwick route on Flights CX343/CX344 from 1-31 May.
The trial will then be moved on to the Hong Kong – Chicago route on flights CX806/CX807 from 1-30 June while the airline assesses it for possible introduction to more of the international network later in the year.
Singapore Airlines and Qantas are among airlines offering the service to premium passengers, with Qantas also offering it in international Economy Class.
At American, free meals are to be served from 1 May in the Main Cabin on the airline’s trans-continental Airbus A321T service on flights in both directions between Los Angeles and New York and between San Francisco and New York.
Depending on time of day, passengers will be offered continental breakfast or a boxed meal with a sandwich, crisps and dessert. The menu also includes a vegetarian option and a fruit and cheese plate.
Cathay profits tumble – see this issue.
Due to be launched on 23 April is the Propliner Annual, the definitive successor to Propliner Aviation magazine.
Propliner was first published in January 1979 as a quarterly journal devoted to piston-engined and turboprop aircraft. The periodical concentrated upon those classic airliners of a bygone age, the magnificent Britannia, Stratocruiser, Viscount and Douglas piston types that once dominated the world’s air routes. It was produced purely as a hobby by a group of enthusiasts until March 2015.
But like the aircraft it featured, it has refused to die.
In 2016 the first Propliner Annual was out, to great acclaim.
The editor, Tony Merton Jones, has been persuaded to produce another edition this year. At 108 pages, it features three ‘Prop News’ sections, major feature articles and a ‘Readers’ Response’ section.
The annual covers news and events from the past 12 months plus a wide range of both topical and historical articles. Features include Marcelo Magalhaes spotlighting the history of the Avro 748 with VARIG in Brazil, Tony Merton Jones himself taking a look at the aviation enterprises of John Gaul, ranging from Trans World Charter Vickers Vikings to the purchase of a fleet of Canadair North Stars, while Peter Mason reviews the operations of BOAC’s fleet of Lockheed L-049 Constellations.
The future of regional airports in the UK and priorities for connectivity, capacity and investment will be under discussion at a seminar organised by Westminster Forum Projects in central Birmingham on 6 April.
The event, against the background of the DfT draft airports national policy statement and Heathrow’s runway and capacity expansion, will include keynote addresses from Birmingham Airport CEO Paul Kehoe and his opposite number at Manchester, Ken O'Toole.
Also under consideration will be the government’s consultation on the use of UK airspace, the government-backed rollout of 11 new domestic routes under way and plans for major infrastructure investment in the Midlands, the North and London City Airport.
A key area of discussion is expected to be strategies for maximising the benefits of airport development for regions, devolved nations and businesses, as well as a focus on the effects of development on local traffic, air quality and carbon emissions.
Another agenda item is a look at the priorities for integrating airports into the transport network as the newly-established Transport for the North (TfN) begins its work on transport governance in the north of England.
The first of seven A330s to be retrofitted by TAP Portugal this year with new fully-flat Business Class seats has gone into service as part of the carrier’s £70m fleet renewal programme.
Each of the 25 new seats transforms into a 1.93m bed, and features individual reading lights, tables with storage space, supports for bottles, USB slots and individual electrical sockets.
Economy Class seats have been reupholstered in green and grey covers, and a new Economy Plus section has been created that the airline says offers more space and seats that recline further than their predecessors.
The retrofitted A330 Business Class is already in service between Lisbon, Boston and New York JFK and a similar layout will be adopted when TAP receives its first A330neo later this year. The airline is also launch customer for the new Airbus Airspace cabin.
TAP announced plans for the refurbishment more than a year ago shortly after the Portuguese government sold a controlling stake in the carrier to a consortium led by Jet Blue founder David Neeleman.
As well as installing new cabin interiors, the programme also included rebranding the regional subsidiary carrier Portugalia as TAP Express and launching an hourly Porto – Lisbon shuttle service.
Exactly 111 years since opening on 17 March 1906, Great Western Railway (GWR) on Friday announced its renowned Old Oak Common (OOC) depot will be opened to the public for a special day on 2 September to celebrate its contribution to maintaining the Legends of the Great Western.
On display will be a special collection of old and new trains and locomotives that helped to earn GWR the nickname ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’. The full line-up will be announced soon.
During its 111-year history, the depot and its staff have maintained everything from the Kings and Castles of the steam era to the diesel-powered Westerns and Warships.
In 1976, the depot was the regional maintenance hub for the newly-introduced High Speed Train (HST), which changed the face of intercity travel in the UK.
While the HST fleet still operates, it is soon to be replaced after more than 40 years’ service by the new Hitachi Intercity Express Train, due to enter service later this year.
Tickets for the open day will go on sale shortly, with all profits going to the depot’s chosen charity Place2Be, which provides mental health support for children in schools.
The Cathay Pacific Group last week reported a loss of HK$575m (about £60m) for 2016, its first since the world financial crisis began in 1988. The figure compares to a profit of HK$6,000m (£626m) in 2015.
Cathay said the operating environment for the core airline business was “difficult” in 2016, with a number of factors adversely affecting performance, most important of which was “intense and increasing competition with other airlines”.
Rival carriers had increased capacity significantly, there were more direct flights between mainland China and international destinations and competition from low-cost carriers increased, Cathay said.
Along with overcapacity in the market, three economic factors were also important, the carrier added – reduced economic growth in mainland China, a reduction in the number of visitors to Hong Kong and the strength of the Hong Kong dollar.
However, Cathay added new routes during the year and said it would add Tel Aviv, Barcelona and Christchurch this year and would increase frequency on some other destinations.
Chairman John Slosar said: “We expect the operating environment to remain challenging. Strong competition from other airlines and the adverse effect of the strength of the Hong Kong dollar are expected to continue to put pressure on yield.”
Jane Stanbury goes messing about on the river – in this case Bangkok’s Chao Phraya.
Bangkok is on the move, in all senses. It is one of the most popular global city destinations, with visitor numbers regularly beating London and New York. It has traditionally been a destination for the global backpacker or adventurous western travellers, but in recent years Russian, Chinese and domestic visitors have been major contributors to the statistics.
This, along with developing industry, has resulted in economic growth and all that accompanies it. The east of the Chao Phraya river boasts a skyline any modern city would envy, with architects competing for superlatives. The awe-inspiring MahaNakhon – the Jenga Building, named after the wooden block game – is Bangkok’s tallest structure and has quickly become a city icon. Yet if you look closely, the original magical characteristics and culture that built Bangkok’s reputation can still be found, particularly on the banks of the Chang Phraya.
The river remains the artery. During the day, ferries connect the numerous piers that join the city together while traditional Thai longboats convey tourists between the main sights. Hotel shuttle boats nip between the Shangri-La, Hilton and Peninsula, the grand dames of accommodation. As twilight descends, the evening cruises with their popular disco beats journey back and forth, narrowly missing the hulking, shadowy barges towed by noisy tugs. Somehow the inevitable collisions are avoided.
A new company, X2 River Cruises, has added an original twist to the river’s fleet with the introduction of a 30ft Venetian-inspired taxi boat offering sunset champagne cruises, shuttle services, canal tours and private excursions, one of which is to the charming island of Koh Kret. During an effortless 50min cruise, passengers can shelter from the mid-day sun in the air-conditioned cabin or choose to slide back the roof and take in the myriad of sights along the banks. There are golden Buddhas, stilted houses raised precariously above the water, swathes of tropical vegetation broken only by temple roofs, and entries to the khlongs, home to vibrant floating markets.
Koh Kret was settled by the Mon people 300 years ago, and not a lot has changed since. As peaceful as when it was first created, there are no cars, taxis or, thankfully, tuk tuks; the harmony is broken only by the odd moped, or temple chants. Wat Porami Yikawat is the dominating temple, housing a marble Buddha, pagoda and museum. It is famed for its leaning stupa that seems to reach out to the facing riverbank.
The X2 team invited us to seek out luck by striking a wooden chime in accordance with the time and date of our birth, and helped us to learn our fate from Buddhist fortune sticks by shaking a box of numbered bamboo slivers until one curiously leaps from the container. A selection of pre-printed fortunes, associated with the stick number, details what is to come. In this instance, it was an afternoon’s amble around the comparatively peaceful pathways of the island hamlets.
The network of trails is seemingly just a snaking market, with miles of walkways boarded by an incredible array of stalls selling almost everything imaginable at ridiculously low prices. Brilliantly coloured silk shirts, skirts and shawls sway in the breeze. Frogs, snakes, terrapins, and eels are sold to bring luck to those that liberate them back to the river. A delicious variety of food, all freshly prepared by local vendors, includes fish balls, leaf wrapped snacks, fermented, pickled and deep fried flowers and satay-sticks of all varieties. An array of Thai desserts, starring coconut as the main ingredient, finishes up lunch on the move.
The team also introduce us to “Aunty” at an open-air pottery hidden down a sleepy alley on the river banks. She is the fourth generation of her family to make “Kwan Arman”, the Mon-style pottery for which the island is famed, and is now training her children to become the fifth. Using clay harvested from paddy fields, a foot-powered wheel and the simplest of instruments, she creates intricately carved pots to be used for incense, candles or purely decoration. We are invited to try our hand, and she encouragingly laughs with pleasure at my clumsy attempts.
On the homeward journey, the crew make sure we have the best photo opportunities as the sun lowers. Banks (yes really), the guide from X2, points out varying points of interest. The new medical training facility, industry and construction, along with the Grand Palace, home to the kings of Siam for more than four centuries. The Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun sits on the west side of Chao Phraya. Strikingly different from other temples, it consists predominantly of intricately-carved spires with mosaic and glass adornments. The principal Prang is 70m high and for the energetic offers an impressive view after the steep climb. Currently under renovation, it normally provides a tranquil respite from the east side of the river. Ironically it is most stunning viewed at sunset.
One of the most inspiring temples east of the river is Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The magnificent 46m long, 15m high Mona-Lisa smiling Buddha is quite simply breathtaking. A constant chime of metal on metal is the soundtrack to the Buddha’s resting place as visitors are encouraged to throw coins into each of 108 bronze bowls that line the back side of the statue. The complex is a maze of beautiful stupa, temples, and golden Buddha. It is hypnotising and melts away the horrors of the modern world.
Despite its race towards urbanity, the enduring memory of Bangkok is still the omnipresent temples, shrines, and Buddha. There is always one around the next corner, down the next street or just around the curve of the river.
X2 River Cruises is part of the Bespoke Hospitality Management Asia group which features hotels, villas, yachts, private jets and residences across Thailand.
For a place to stay, the Amara Bangkok is convenient and stylish. The rooftop pool has one of the most enviable vistas in the city and is a great haven in the heat of the day.
As mere mortals contemplate ever more restrictive baggage rules imposed by our friendly neighbourhood airlines, spare a thought for King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, who arrived in Japan last week for an official visit.
Not only were the Japanese left in awe at the size of his delegation and his 500 tons (metric) of luggage, but the king made his entrance by descending from his aircraft on one of two golden escalators. A fleet of 500 limousines were allocated to the royal party.
The king’s ensemble arrived in Japan on ten aircraft with Japanese media reporting that the entourage was so large even Japanese government officials didn’t know exactly how many people to expect.
If you were in town and trying to find somewhere to stay, you probably know already that 1,200 rooms in Tokyo’s best hotels were booked for the accompanying officials.