When the opportunity came up to go to Nepal for my mother's birthday last February, we looked at our options. Since there were no direct flights to Nepal from the Philippines, we chose to transit via Bangkok. We looked at Thai Airways and Nepal Airlines, and found that the latter was more economical. The opportunity also presented itself to fly their last 757 as well. Booking on their website was straightforward just like any established airline, except since the flight left from Bangkok, the payment was processed through a Thai bank. Another thing that was noteworthy was that when booking on their website, it was required to specify if you were a Nepali citizen or a foreign national before searching for flights. There was a seat selector, but it didn't work, and no equipment information.
A day before we were supposed to leave the Philippines for Bangkok, the airline emailed us that our flight to Kathmandu was cancelled. After a phone call with the Nepal Airlines country manager for Thailand, we were told to go to a certain counter for tickets on Thai Airways. Thankfully, there were open seats for the Thai flight to KTM and we got there ahead of schedule. Before exiting the check-in area after getting our tickets, we were able to meet Mr. Sharma, the manager, and I was able to ask him what equipment would operate on our return leg. He said that it would be a 757, and I was excited and hoping for no aircraft changes.
- Nepal Airlines Flight 401
- Origin: Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal (KTM)
- Destination: Suvarnabhumi Interational Airport, Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
- Date: February 12-13, 2018
- STD/ATD: 1130H/2218H
- STA/ATA: 1605H/0227H (+1)
Nepal Airlines and the 757
To outline why Nepal Airlines' last 757 is a rarity, we will a look back at its history.
In the late 1980s, Royal Nepal Airlines was looking for replacements for their Boeing 727-100 fleet. The replacement aircraft would have to carry a sizeable payload, good range and performance in and out of their home base of Kathmandu, 4300 feet above sea level. On top of that, it had to be quieter than the 727s that were becoming too noisy for the stricter noise regulations of Hong Kong and Singapore that were coming into force. By 1986, the airline had made a decision, and placed a US$167 million order for two Boeing 757-200s.
In September of 1988, Royal Nepal Airlines took delivery of 9N-ACB, completing the deal signed two years before. This was a special 757, a Combi model, capable of seating 148 passengers, as well as two pallets of cargo. While there are other third-party modifications, this particular frame was the only pure 757 Combi built by Boeing. This Throughout their career, Nepal’s 757s formed the backbone of their international network, flying from Kathmandu to Bangkok, Singapore, Dubai, Frankfurt, London-Gatwick, Hong Kong, Osaka and Shanghai.
However, as a result of mismanagement and changing economic conditions, the 757’s ports of call slowly diminished. The European links, Osaka, Singapore and Shanghai were terminated over the early 2000s. By the 2010s, the writing on the wall for the 757. Nepal Airlines placed orders for two Airbus A320s, as well as two A330-200s. In 2015, 9N-ACA, the only pure passenger 757 in the RA fleet was retired, leaving the combi as Nepal Airlines only 757.
Before the Flight
Since the flight was scheduled to leave at 11:30AM, we were dropped off at the airport at 8:00AM. Nepal Airlines had three counters, two of which were dedicated to their daily service to Delhi, with one dedicated to the Bangkok flight. The queue for the flight to Bangkok short and soon it was our turn to check-in. A friendly agent manned the counter and collected our passports and tickets, and was very accomodating when we asked for a forward window seat. I asked him whether it would be a 757 operating the flight, and he confirmed what Mr. Sharma told us a few days before. Before handing our boarding passes, they advised that the flight would be delayed for one hour. It wasn’t such a big deal, except for the fact that there would be a tighter connection time with our Philippine Airlines flight to Manila at 6:50PM and we'd prebooked a transfer service which would speed up our transit in BKK. Boarding passes in hand, we proceeded to the pre-departure area.
Check-in counters for BKK
When passing through security, the security personnel denied us from entering until 10:00, presumably to reduce the amount of people inside the pre-departure area. Trying our luck, we went to the airportlounge nearby, operated by Radisson. Radisson's lounge serves all other airlines except Thai Airways, who have their own lounge. There was space available, but the price was very prohibitive (44 US$/pax). Instead, we waited at a comfortable seating area beside the security line. At 10:00, we passed through security and found some seats in the departure lounge. Compared to its peers in other countries, Kathmandu's terminal is a relatively simple structure. The pre-departure area was a single-floor brick structure, with no jetways and clear window panes offering a good view of the ramp and aircraft taxiing past the terminal. Air-conditioning wasn't necessarily a necessity, as Kathmandu can reach highs of just 22 degrees Celsius in February. While waiting, I was able to spot an Air India A321 boarding for Delhi and a Turkish A330 for Istanbul.
The entrance to the Radisson Lounge
One of the boarding counters
While I was taking a walk around, I noticed that the airport started to become a bit foggy, but there were still Yeti Air Jetstreams and Shree Airlines CRJs taking off. I was just hoping that was just some mist, and it wouldn’t shut the airport down. Unfortunately the announcements of delays began to spread, not just for Nepal Airlines flights. Curious for information, I proceeded to the counter where our boarding was supposed to be conducted from. There were no Nepal Airlines staff at the desk, and I tried looking for any staff from the airline. Through overhearing some conversations of some passengers with a wheelchair handler, I heard that our aircraft that was going to operate our flight got diverted to Calcutta. At that point, we already accepted that we were going to miss our connection with PAL.
The flight is cancelled. Or maybe not..
After an hour, they began to start serving complimentary refreshments at the Radisson lounge. My mother left me to hold our seats at the departure lounge, which were already becoming a valuable commodity, especially with the mounting delays. I was looking out, and suddenly my mother comes in telling me to go and get the bags, telling me that the flight is cancelled and we walked to a group of people from Nepal Airlines. They did a good job of explaining the situation to us.
“The flight is cancelled. We’ll take you to a hotel, you drop off your bags and after that we’ll go to the sales office and rebook your tickets.”
They left us for a while to gather a few other passengers who were in the same predicament. Around fifteen minutes later, they brought us to the immigration counter to have our exit stamps cancelled. Following that, we were brought to the check-in desk to reclaim our luggage, and we were put in a small van with our bags. A short drive later, we arrived at a decent-looking hotel, and they got our passports to photocopy them for formality's sake. After handing them back to us, we got on the van and proceeded to their austere-looking head office in downtown Kathmandu along with our fellow passengers, three Nepali nurses living in Australia. Upon entering the office, we were directed towards a back office which was more of an administrative office in my opinion. Old posters from the glory days of Nepal Airlines were hanging on the walls, as well as black and white pictures of Twin Otters. They then asked for our passports and tickets for Nepal Airlines and our onward tickets.
Entrance to the office
Posters on the wall of the office
A few phone calls were made, first to find out who was the general sales agent of Philippine Airlines in Kathmandu was. Next they called the PR GSA to rebook our tickets. After an hour of waiting, another phone call came in.
“There is a flight at 5:00, if you can get there before that, we can probably get you in.”
By now, it was four in the afternoon. Four o' clock in Kathmandu was rush hour, and congestion was guaranteed. The driver got us all in the car, and the driver started driving hurriedly, just like something out of a James Bond movie, nearly colliding with two cars and a pedestrian. Our companions tell the driver in Nepali to slow down a bit, and all I could do was just laugh because I couldn't believe the situation I was in. Once we got to the hotel, we got our bags, and thanks to the generosity of our companions (who needed different arrangements), they convinced an English-speaking manager to accompany us to the airport.
With 10 minutes, to spare, we finally got to the airport, where the Nepal Airlines duty manager was waiting for us. He whisked us through security, but we were held up by a security officer looking for a bottle of Nepali wine in our luggage. To compound it, he pointed to the wrong bag. Eventually, he saw no problem and we rechecked our bags and new boarding passes. The manager also rushed us through security and immigration.
Reissued boarding pass for Bangkok
Out the window, our 757 was decelerating down the runway lit by the sunset. It would’ve made for a great shot, but sadly my position inside the terminal was very poor. Since the boarding passes issued were merely a reprint of the earlier boarding passes, the new departure time wasn’t placed and it was quite unclear when we would be departing. At around 4:40PM, I was asking for our new departure time. I was told that the flight would leave at 5:30.
It was already 5:30 and no announcements were made. Thirty minutes later, they announced that there was a technical issue with the aircraft. There was no definite estimated time of departure, and a large crowd of passengers began to form around the boarding gate. The large crowd eventually started chanting in Nepali with the fervor of a political rally. It was too risky to go near and ask for information, as we might inadvertently be thrown into any fight that may occur, especially in the charged atmosphere. Thankfully some of our fellow passengers understood Nepali and English and they were able to translate important snippets of info.
Taken during one of my failed attempts to get snippets of info.
We were already beginning to get hungry, and the prices of the food were quite prohibitive. Wi-fi access was very poor, and I was only able to use it at really brief moments, less than 10 minutes to check my messages. This posed some difficulties in contacting people abroad. Thankfully, we packed some toast from breakfast, and that served as our only meal until we got on the plane. The only silver lining was that the price of bottled water wasn't so bad.
At around 9:30PM, boarding finally commenced and we were put on the Cobus to the end of the international ramp. A feeling of anticipation rushed through me as it would be boarding my first 757, and to add to it, it was a Combi. Upon exiting the bus, the large cargo door that differentiated the -200M from others really caught my attention. I spent a minute to take photographs of the aircraft, as I wouldn't be able to get a good shot when we arrive in Bangkok.
Boarding was done through the L2 door and we took our seats in row 9A and B. My seat was just directly in front of the provision for the cargo door. Behind it was the L2 gallley and a single lavatory. The cargo capability of the Combi wasn't utilized, and the cargo space was used for the Shangri-La class cabin and five rows of economy class seating. The aircraft was equipped with the old-style Boeing overhead bins and PSUs, and it seemed that the configuration has not changed since delivery. All of the reading lights and attendant call buttons were still functional, and ashtrays were installed in every seat! A small touch that I noticed on the sidewalls were a depiction of the Himalayas. The seats were quite comfortable, but their age was already beginning to show. One could see the placards peeling off, and the futile attempts to maintain the tray tables. Legroom was quite decent for my 5’ 11” build.
Within the seat pockets were the safety card, and an October 2017 copy of Shangri-La, Nepal Airlines’ inflight magazine. If you did not bring your own personal devices, that would be your only in-flight entertainment as there were no monitors or even audio channels. Thankfully, my phone was fully charged, with enough songs to last me the entire trip. Further examination of the inflight literature proved to be quite interesting, especially with typos in the safety cards...
Well if an "emergency exists..."
Ten hours behind schedule, the aircraft was pushed back at 9:55 PM, and the whine of the Rolls-Royce RB211s began to fill the aircraft. A manual safety demonstration was performed in English and Nepali as there were no video monitors. The crew were quite strict when it came to the use of any electronic devices during takeoff and landing, and I had to put my phone away until after takeoff. I was able to sneak it out to record the engine sounds after the crew took their seats for takeoff. We then began a short taxi to Runway 20 and we held short for around 10 minutes while other traffic cleared the runway. While holding, the runway lights went off momentarily presumably due to a power interruption.
Finally, at 10:18PM, takeoff power was applied and we set course for Bangkok. Unfortunately, since I was seated on the left side, I couldn’t get a good view of downtown Kathmandu.
After takeoff, the cabin crew began the meal service. Two options were offered: chicken rice or chicken noodles. I picked the former, while my mother picked the latter. The tray consisted of the main dish, a salad, a dessert and a dinner roll. To begin, I first sampled the salad. It was quite average, and it wasn’t quite outstanding. The same could be said for the chicken rice, although it had some flavor. On the other hand, my mother’s chicken noodles was quite bland, and in fact undercooked. When I heard “chicken noodles,” the thing that popped into my head was something like an Asian-style noodle dish, but it turned out to be spaghetti mixed with some noodles. A good selection of complimentary drinks were offered, such as juices, sodas and beer.
The chicken rice option
Following the dinner service, the crew went around the cabin offering coffee and drink refills. Once that was completed, the cabin lights were turned off as not to disturb those who wanted to sleep.
Later on into the flight, I went to the rear of the cabin to ask the flight attendants if I can have my enthusiast’s log signed by the pilots. I asked one of them, and some confusion ensued partly because of a language barrier. She said: “Okay, we’ll ask the Captain if we can have it signed, come with me to the front." Both of us went to the forward galley. For a moment I thought I was going to see a 757 cockpit mid-flight, something that was impossible in the post-9/11 world!
My hopes were dashed when I got to the forward galley. The attendant tried to explain to the matronly purser but she wasn't really able to understand what it was that I wanted. The purser then questioned me why I had that log, and what I wanted. At that point, I was actually a bit nervous, because this flight was the first entry on my new notebook, and I wouldn’t really be able to explain why I did this because of the language barrier. While this was going on, an engineer travelling along stepped out of the cockpit, and he was able to explain to them what I wanted. Eventually all was resolved, and I was able to ask the purser if I can take pictures of the galley. She let me snap a few pictures, but I didn't stay too long because I felt like I was unwelcome there. However, before leading, I used the Business lavatory. The lavatory was well maintained, with a few special toiletries for the premium passengers. The flight attendants then told me that they'll return it to my seat.
The forward galley
I then returned to my seat. A flight attendant returned my log, and I fell asleep for around two hours until we began our approach into BKK.
On final for BKK's 19L
We landed at 02:27 local time on Suvarnabhumi's Runway 19L. Upon exiting the runway, I felt the aircraft taxiing really fast to the terminal. It could've been the lack of decent sleep that I've had, or the pilot really wanted to get to the hotel. While taxiing to stand E2, we passed by some Thai 747-400s and parked beside a Hong Kong Airlines A350. Deplaning was conducted through the L1 door this time, and I got to take a proper look at the business cabin. The Business seats were simply larger 90s style business recliner seats in a 2-2 configuration.
Doesn't look too bad actually...
Thanks for the ride, 9N-ACB!
After disembarking the aircraft, an agent from Bangkok Flight Services was waiting for us at the gate. She explained that they were informed that the flight was cancelled and its status was very unclear, but her colleagues told her that such events do happen. Mr. Sharma was there as well, and after a bit of negotiation, we would then be taken to the Siam Villa hotel near the airport. Since we booked a meet and greet service, we were able to fast-track through the immigration queues and claim our bags in only 15 minutes. After clearing customs, we then waited for the van that would take us to the hotel. While waiting, I saw our flight and couldn't help but chuckle a bit as it was the only flight from that time on the board, showing how delayed we were.
The van to the hotel arrived at around 3, and I was already drifting in and out of consciousness out of exhaustion. Arriving at the hotel, it was well appointed, but I couldn't appreciate it as I immediately fell asleep once I got to the bed. Later on, I discovered that the passengers of the return flight to KTM were billeted there as well since the flight was massively delayed. Our room also had complimentary breakfast, and the buffet selection was alright. Now rested, we returned to the airport along with the other passengers from the delayed flight. With a bit of help, the domestic legs of our tickets with Philippine Airlines were confirmed, and we got on the 1:50PM flight to Manila (which happened to be another first for me, as this was my first PR 77W flight).
All in all, this was an experience to remember. I was finally able to log the rare 757 Combi and add a new airline to my list. The passenger experience with Nepal Airlines could use a lot of improvement, considering that they are the national carrier. While the ground staff were friendly, it was quite disorganized in KTM. It took forever for someone to man the counter and some of them weren't so fluent in English, creating a language barrier. The cabin crew could do better as well. There was a certain air of uneasiness around them that I haven't felt on other airlines. Their catering could also undergo some improvement, as the meals weren't very delectable. With the arrival of the new A330-200s impending, hopefully the aircraft reliability issues would be relieved.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my report, and I hope to write more in the future!