What do a couple of airline old timers talk about when they get together? I found out when Eric Hallin, the General Manager of the Rembrandt Hotel on Sukumvit, phoned and asked if I would like to come to lunch at the hotel. He had invited three other guests, Chatrachai Bunya-Ananta, the past president of Thai Airways and Henrik Lau and Lennart Holmgren, two of the early staff of Thai International. Henrik and Lennart, both retired from THAI, were from Scandinavia, vacationing with their wives. I couldn’t turn down the lunch. It had been years since I had seen these guys and at one time many yeas ago we were all on the same team, when I too began working for THAI.Left, Lennart and Henrik, left, and Eric and Harold right for lunch at the Rembrandt
Eric has been a friend of THAI ever since the late 1970s when he was a tour operator for Viking Tours and began working with THAI’s Royal Orchid Holidays. He later became GM for the Dusit Inn, and the Westin in Chiang Mai for years before moving to Phuket and the Thavorn Beach Village. He then headed up the White Sands Resort the Maldives and the Six Senses Hideaway in Samui finally taking the helm at the Rembrandt in October 2008. In those years he worked closely with Henrik who was sales manager for THAI.
So what do a couple of airline old timers talk about when they get together. The good times, of course. Names forgotten. Important happenings. Sad moments. “Hey, remember that time––“ “Whatever happened to––“ “No, you don’t say––“
Names are the first thing that pops up. “Hey, remember Chitdee, she ran the first PR for the airline?” we remembered her well. When THAI first began, their offices were no more than cubbyholes in a building on New Road next to the Central Post Office. Chitdee had six girls working for her. There was Sunathee, she is still with the airlines but is now vice president of Special Activities. And there was Usnisa, she became a newspaper reporter and is now the Editor-in-Chief of Outlook at the Bangkok Post. And Chitdee, what about her? She retired years ago and is living on Long Island in New York with her son Mok, who was a steward for THAI after graduating from college.
We remembered that office on New Road. Chitdee always had someone interesting coming to visit her. There was one man, we thought he was a professional model, tall, handsome, back hair, with a lovely Thai lady hanging on his arm. He could have been a movies star but no, he wore a THAI pilot captain’s uniform, for an ad no doubt. Wrong, he was a pilot, a real pilot, Captain Jothin Pamon-Montri, and the Thai lady was his wife. He became vice president of training. And there was one other pilot who turned all the young ladies’ heads when he walked by, Chusak Bhachaiyud. He made it to the top, vice president of technical operations. He was a hard bargainer when it came to buying airplane engines. Mr. Noonan, the rep from G.E. claimed he could recite the specs from engines without looking at the books.
Right, Chitdee, Public Relations and President Chatrachai Bunya-Ananta
We all remembered Roy Howard, Robin Dannhorn and Dean Barrett. Roy was the first advertising manager of THAI and he started Sawasdee magazine. Roy assigned me to write some of the first stories. And there was Dean Barrett, married to one of the prettiest girls in Hong Kong. Dean, a gifted writer and playwright, became Roy’s editor of Sawasdee and made the magazine the best in-flight magazine in the business. Roy wrote a book about those early days––As Good as it Gets. Robin left THAI and turned travel writer. He still carries out many writing projects for THAI. He did well in investments and has an old stone chateau in southern France. He divides his time between France and Thailand.
Then there were the presidents to talk about. Chatrachai Bunya-Ananta was to meet us for lunch but couldn’t make it. He had a call from former Prim Minister Prem Tinsulanonda who wanted to see him. Chatrachai and Prem were old friends. There was a lot to say about Chatrachai. He was a turning point at THAI. He became the first civilian president of Thai Airways. And there were the other presidents who made their mark and couldn’t be forgotten. Who could forget Mr. Thamnoon Wanglee. He was the finance wizard who rose to become president. He was colorful, and we all had to admit that. When THAI opened Danang in Vietnam as a new destination, Thamnoon sent his staff ahead to research the place. I too was invited. But tragically, no sooner had we arrived and were in our hotel when a violent storm struck Vietnam. Floodwaters came rushing in and soon the hotel was flooded. We had to move to upper levers. But president Mr. Thamnoon Wanglee couldn’t abandon his staff. He arranged for military trucks with six-feet high wheels to come to the hotel to pick us up and take us to the airport which was on higher ground, and there we waited in a dense fog that blanketed the airfield. From out of the fog we could hear an airplane overhead, and then it landed, a white Thai military cargo plane. It appeared as a faint silhouette, parked at the edge of the field, and then out of the midst came a figure marching, in bold steps, followed by his team close at his heels. It could have been the setting for a new Casablanca movie film, but instead of Humphrey Bogart it was Thamnoon Wanglee who appeared. We all let out with a wild cheer. What a proud feeling that was.
Left, President Thamnoon enjoyed walking down the isles greeting passengers
Thamnoon urged us to hurry aboard, and there was only limited space. Stranded at the airport was an American lady, Francine Mathews, a mystery novelist. I asked Mr. Thamnoon if we could possibly take her along. He reminded me space was limited. I told him she was very pretty. He said to tell her to come aboard. Her husband. Okay, him too. Thamnoon Wanglee gave up his seat for Francis and he stood in the rear of the cargo plane. He was very unhappy. He brought bottles of champagne but the staff forgot to bring glasses. Never mind. He had a barrel filled with ice and tossed out cold beers to those of us seated in canvas bucket seats. That was President Mr. Thamnoon Wanglee,
There were the best of times, and happy times, and we brought up these moments too.
Every year THAI held a marketing activity plan conference (MAP) and every year to the amazement of other airlines, it invited the press. There was more to the invitations than complimentary visits to Thailand––the conferences were open to the press. “We had nothing to hide,” Henrik recalled.
Although MAP was a work conference, marketing activities, when THAI invited staff members from around the world and the international press for the three-day conference, it was a time of fun too. There were always dinners and fireworks, dance performances and even elephants coming on stage. They had speakers, of course, some boring and others enlightening. One year they had an expert on future air travel, and how we all remembered him. He was terrible. He showed slides, and some were upside down. I was sitting in the back of the hall, and so embarrassed that I tried to sneak out but Mrs. Chitdee instructed me that I had to stay put. About then our president Chatrachai Bunya-Ananta threw in a towel. The speaker was none other than Frank Abagnale Jr., the great imposter, the man who, before his 19th birthday, successfully conned millions of dollars by posing as a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor and Louisiana attorney, a prison warden and parish prosecutor. His primary crime was check forgery, becoming so skillful that the FBI eventually turned to him for help in catching other check forgers. He later kept us entertained off stage as well as on stage. He gave us each a copy of his book Catch Me If You Can. It had recently been turned into a movie.
And we remembered those anxious moment too like when on one inaugural flight public relations had an elephant hook up to a Caraville jet, and the elephant, seeing the monster tailing behind him, panicked and was about to take off pulling the plane into oblivion had not the mahout stopped him in time.
There were fun times and uncertain times, and some scary times too. The scary times was when THAI inaugurated the first international flights to Bali, and that was before the landing strip was extended. I had been sent ahead to report on that first landing––but would the Caraville have enough space to land safely. I stood at the edge of the field, waiting nervously, and then I heard the plane before I saw it. It came in low, tires screeching––but no one had briefed me about the landing. The Caraville was halfway down the landing strip when suddenly a parachuted popped out of the stern and the plane came to a halt.
That’ the way THAI was, as we remembered it. With a new president we are looking for those good old days to return. They just might do that.
Prepared by Harold Stephens, Correspondent for Thai Airways
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer, prepared by him, and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.