Thai Flight Delayed 2 Hours So Off Duty Pilots Could Sit In First Class!

Nobody likes flight delays. Sometimes it means missing a connection, or sometimes you just want to get home. Usually, however, passengers have just to grin and bear the delays. That being said, passengers on a Thai Airways flight from Zurich to Bangkok earlier this month faced a two-hour wait on the tarmac before departure. The reason? Two off-duty pilots demanded to sit in the fully booked first class cabin. The pilots refused to let the aircraft depart until both of the dead-legging pilots had been accommodated in the First Class cabin.

Thai Airways
The flight departed two hours behind schedule and arrived an hour and a half late. Image: FlightAware

Contractual Obligations

Thai Airways pilots are supposedly contractually obliged to receive seats in the first three rows of the aeroplane when off duty according to multiple sources. In this case, that meant the first class seats. However, the Bangkok Post reports that an unnamed Thai source claimed: “But for inactive pilots, there is no rule that first-class seats should be reserved for them or not”. This is fairly standard policy across airlines. However, the First class cabin was already full of fare paying passengers when the off-duty pilots boarded. Rather than accepting unoccupied seats in the business class cabin, the pilots elected to delay the flight for two hours. Thankfully, unlike a similar United Airlines incident in 2017, no passengers were forcibly removed from the aircraft.

BUsiness class Thai Airways
Typical business class layout on a B777.

Downgraded Passengers

The aircraft was eventually able to depart. After a while of waiting, two passengers in the first cabin of the B747-400 aircraft volunteered to be downgraded to business class for the sake of the other passengers. What is interesting in this case is the passengers’ complaint to the airline. Thai Airways only sells business and economy tickets on its route between Bangkok and Zurich. This is due to the route usually being operated by a two cabin B777-300 aircraft. Consequently, passengers booked in business were able to select a first-class seat subject to availability. This is similar to how Norwegian allowed passengers to pay extra to be assigned a suite on the HiFly A380.

Thai Airways
The B777-300 (left) is usually operated on the route. However, a B747 (right) was substituted, adding the first class. Images: SeatGuru

This means that although the passengers were sat in first class, they were travelling on a business class ticket. Generally, if a passenger is downgraded on a flight originating within the EU, they would be eligible for compensation of 75% of the ticket cost. In this case, however, it is likely that the claimants would only receive payment for the price of reserving a seat if they had paid for this.

Many Questions

The case raises many questions. Is it right that crew should demand free seats in a cabin that is full? Should the passengers be entitled to compensation, despite not holding first class tickets? Was the pilot right to delay the flight for over two hours?

I feel it was wrong of the crew to demand the seats given the commotion it caused. Had two passengers instantly volunteered, it would’ve been okay, but the business class seats wouldn’t have been intolerable for the pilots. Secondly, I feel as though the passengers should be due at least some compensation, as they volunteered to move, rather than being forced. If Thai Airways wanted to avoid the bad PR generated by this incident, that would certainly be sensible. Finally, I don’t believe the pilot was right to delay the flight for this length of time. Many passengers could have been connecting at Bangkok, as this is Thai’s central hub. As a result, the one and a half hour delay on landing could’ve missed a lot of connections.

Thai Airways
With only 8 B747 aircraft in the fleet, the plane isn’t seen on Thai Airways routes too often. 

This appears to be a view shared mainly by the president of Thai Airways who said: “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…”

Do you think the pilots were right to delay the flight for over two hours? Would you have volunteered for a downgrade? Let us know in the comments below!