By Joe Ehrlich
There were about 25 of us; this was the full compliment of passengers flying with me to Phnom Penh.
Bangkok Airport gate #6 was where I was to depart from. I had checked in early to get the best possible seat. As I was first in line, I was given the choice of either an aisle or window seat. I chose a window.
And for my diligence, I was awarded a very prime seat: 7A.
President Airways flies daily from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. At the appointed time, we boarded a bus that took us from the gate to the farthest reaches of the tarmac where an airplane was waiting. I had chosen this flight for its price. $90 would get me an international ticket from Bangkok to Phnom Penh; the same flight on Thai Airways was $160. I had chosen price over safety or reliability. The plane was an elderly twin prop of Russian design and Chinese manufacture piloted by a Khmer. What could possibly go wrong?
The airplane was small enough that a ramp was not rolled up to the aircraft; instead a unusually tiny stairway at the rear of the airplane was lowered to the ground. Not at all sturdy, this stairway was constructed of thin aluminum tubing, as if a manufacturer of Italian baby prams had long ago decided to try their hand at aircraft accessory construction.
We climbed the stairway into the dark airplane.
Pitch-black dark in fact, because nobody had remembered to turn on any lights in the cabin.
We dutifully filed into the darkness and when we were mostly aboard, the lone flight attendant found the switch, which served primarily to bathe the cabin with a dim, yellowish light.
Knowing roughly where my seat would be, I paused to check seat numbers. I was having difficulty finding any. I started counting the rows from the front of the plane so that I could determine which row was number seven.
The flight attendant noticed my confusion and advised me to take any seat that I cared to. I could not; the first four rows of seats on both sides of the airplane were filled with freight. I knew this because the freight was plainly visible. Dozens of cardboard boxes were boxes were stacked neatly in the passenger seats. The boxes were filled with sewing trims from Korea. Colored bias tape and such. The boxes were not secured in any way, but at least were stacked neatly. As these boxes were directly in front of where I was sitting, I hoped for a smooth flight lest I find myself with freight in my lap.
The flight left on time and ascended to its cruising altitude with no trouble. I amused myself by reading the license plates of the vehicles below. About 30 minutes into the flight, the flight attendant came around with meal service. We were all handed a cardboard box that contained a paper-wrapped cheese sandwich served on white bread with mayonnaise only, cut diagonally, crusts removed. Flavor was not included. There was one other item sharing precious space in my in-flight meal carton: a cellophane-wrapped cake donut that had been rolled in crushed peanuts.
As I was ready to finish the snack, the flight attendant brought us each a small plastic cup of very flat Coca-Cola intended, I assume, for washing peanut fragments down our dry throats. Refills, sadly, were not available. After the in-flight meal, I dozed off and awoke only when we landed at Phnom Penh International Airport.
Thinking of flying with President Airways? Think again.