Grounded by Covid-19... but still dining in the clouds, sort of

Kenny Mah
·5-min read
Thai Airways have introduced the Royal Orchid Dining Experience in Bangkok, where diners can enjoy in-flight meals without flying. – Pictures by CK Lim
Thai Airways have introduced the Royal Orchid Dining Experience in Bangkok, where diners can enjoy in-flight meals without flying. – Pictures by CK Lim

BANGKOK, Dec 5 — Step by step, you begin your ascent up the boarding ramps. How could this be possible though: aren’t we all grounded nowadays with the pandemic still raging worldwide?

Remember what they say about necessity being the mother of invention? Given the unprecedented number of flights cancelled or grounded, airlines all over have had to rethink how they do business, at least in the short term.

Several airlines have already reimagined their revenue streams. Singapore Airlines transformed two of its planes into pop-up restaurants at Changi Airport; all seats sold out within 30 minutes of bookings opening.

In Hong Kong, low-cost carrier HK Express offers a “flight to nowhere” — basically a 90-minute flight circling the city. Again, tickets were similarly sold out. People would pay for a taste of the way things were, even if just a snippet.

Customers ascend the steps of a boarding ramp to enter the ‘aircraft’ (i.e. the restaurant).
Customers ascend the steps of a boarding ramp to enter the ‘aircraft’ (i.e. the restaurant).

It’s not a lot, certainly, but every bit goes towards the bottomline. More staff can be retained and die-hard customers are rewarded for their brand loyalty.

When you can’t fly, every small part of the travel experience we’ve come to take for granted now seems desirable. Even if that tiny bite is a reheated meal served on a plastic tray.

For grounded former globetrotters in Bangkok, the destination of choice is the Thai Airways headquarters where the airline has introduced the Royal Orchid Dining Experience. Here, diners can enjoy in-flight meals without flying.

Let’s face it: very few of us care for airline food. In-flight meals can be dull at best, disastrous at worst, tasting more like cardboard than carefully cooked cuisine. We don’t expect more, certainly; more often than not we treat it as mere sustenance especially on longer flights.

Courteous and helpful staff await the arrival of ‘passengers’.
Courteous and helpful staff await the arrival of ‘passengers’.

Bellies need to be filled. Except now it’s not our bellies but our vagabond souls that need the nourishment.

Even the cramped quarters (unless one is flying Business Class, no?), the passenger next to you elbowing you as you are trying to gingerly spoon some wobbly gruel into your maw, the tiny screens in front of you offering “in-flight entertainment” — all that sounds absolutely thrilling nowadays.

Why do we only crave for something when we can’t have it? It’s human nature, surely.

Still, cynicism aside, you can’t help but gasp with pleasure once you have ascended the aircraft steps. You are transported from the boarding ramp into what is essentially the old staff cafeteria retrofitted into a plane-themed restaurant.

Who says airline food has to be boring? Try some spicy pasta (left) or some Japanese ramen (right).
Who says airline food has to be boring? Try some spicy pasta (left) or some Japanese ramen (right).

Courteous Thai Airways staff await the arrival of “passengers”, ready with helpful advice and instructions. Cabin crew in full uniform will first scan boarding passes before leading diners to their tables, some of which are made from upcycled parts of old planes.

It can be surreal, sinking into familiar cabin seats — decked out in Thai Airways’ corporate colours of deep violet, magenta and gold — and knowing you are only one floor above street level rather than miles in the air.

You wouldn’t have time to ruminate too long on this though for soon it’s time to eat!

Various kitchen stations serving Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Western fare.
Various kitchen stations serving Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Western fare.

Offerings run the gamut of what you’d expect from Thai Airways’ in-flight meal service, with different cuisines represented. Beyond the obvious Thai classics, there are various kitchen stations serving Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Western fare.

So you could slurp on some ramen one minute, complete with unctuous soup and half an ajitama (seasoned egg), and chew on some spicy linguine al krapao (the requisite Thai twist to an Italian standard) the next.

For desserts, you could go hi-so (the very Bangkokian way of referring to the high society types) and order an entire high tea set, a three-tier construction of pastries and single-serve tiramisu. Or take a more local approach, albeit with a fusion twist: how about some patongko (the Thai name for deep-fried crullers or yau char kwai) with tiny tubs of Japanese sweet potato purée.

Thai Airways’ patongko is proving to be extremely popular. Outside of the Royal Orchid Dining Experience, the airlines is also selling the crullers at five food outlets in Bangkok and two outlets in Chiang Mai.

Sweet treats: a three-tier high tea set (left) and 'patongko' or Thai deep-fried crullers (right).
Sweet treats: a three-tier high tea set (left) and 'patongko' or Thai deep-fried crullers (right).

With long queues every morning to buy the fried dough sticks at the airline’s patongko stalls, there are already plans to franchise this unexpected side business which boasts monthly sales of about 10 million baht (RM1.35 million).

It’s heartening that even a large enterprise such as a national carrier can pivot and introduce new revenue streams. For the curious diners, they are here for the dining experience.

Social distancing is still vigilantly practised even as everyone enjoys their meals. It’s a sober reminder of the new normal even as some semblance of the way it used to be is celebrated.

It’s not the same thing as flying, of course. When the “passengers” finish their meals, they leave and return home. There are no exotic destinations awaiting them.

Social distancing is still vigilantly practised even as ‘passengers’ enjoy their meals.
Social distancing is still vigilantly practised even as ‘passengers’ enjoy their meals.

Perhaps here, more than ever before, it’s the journey, the process of dining on in-flight meals while never taking to the skies, that defines their travel experience. They are transported from the reality of being grounded to dreams of flying and escaping.

This is a helpful reminder, perhaps a promise, that one day, hopefully soon, we will all be flying again.

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