Thai Airways International has begun making its old wide-body aircraft more passenger-friendly in a 5-billion-baht makeover aimed at arresting sagging customer appeal.
The flag carrier yesterday unveiled the first of the 20 high-capacity long-haul jetliners, a Boeing 747-400, fitted with improved economy-class seats equipped with individual TV screens and an upgraded in-flight entertainment system.
The lack of individual screens in economy class in most old aircraft - a standard feature on most other airlines for a long time - has caused THAI to lose economy passengers to rival airlines.
THAI flights to London and Frankfurt have featured more empty seats at the back as passengers opted for other airlines offering individual screens and better audio-video packages, president Piyasvasti Amranand pointed out yesterday.
On Bangkok-Paris flights, however, the load factor is a healthy 80% because the carrier's Boeing 777-300ERs leased from Jet Airways have all the cabin frills that top-tier airlines offer.
Retrofitting its twin-aisle jets, many of which have been in service for more than 15 years, with new seats and inflight entertainment, is a short-term enhancement exercise as THAI seeks to catch up with rivals such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines.
The existing fleet is thus being modernised before THAI starts to gradually phase in new aircraft that it is acquiring.
"Retrofitting aircraft is a good investment with relatively low cost and offering good returns," the chief executive said, noting that a brand-new wide-body medium- to long-haul jet such ass an Airbus A330 costs at least 3 billion baht
The retrofitting exercise has three parts. The first batch of six B747-400s with new seats equipped with individual screens in economy class will be phased in at the rate of one a month.
A second batch, involving six more B747-400s, will have more extensive changes with new seats in all classes and improved entertainment systems. The installation is due to complete between 2012-13.
The third batch, eight B777s, will also undergo retrofitting in economy class in phases starting in August.