A new month brought yet another overnight trip to Delhi. Alas, Air India had trimmed their daytime schedules to DEL (most of the daytime flights were HKG and BKK connections) significantly due to SARS, so my only viable options this time were Jet Airways or Indian Airlines. Since Jet Airways panders nicely to my KLM Platinum Elite status, they won my business this time round.
15 April 2003
Mumbai Chattrapati Shivaji to Delhi Indira Gandhi International
Jet Airways had a plethora of morning flights (7am, 730am, 8am, 920am) to pick from on this trunk route, but since my work in Delhi wasn't scheduled until 230pm I decided to pick the lunchtime flight at 11am instead. Accordingly, I left home around 945am for the quick drive over to the Domestic terminal I-B.
The airconditioning in the terminal was a welcome respite after the short walk in the heat from the car to the entrance, and I wiped my sweat away as my tote went through the X-ray machine. To my chagrin, the stem of my sunglasses (HK$50 from Shenzhen in October) had to pick this exact moment to separate themselves from the rest of the frame and I cursed softly as I made my way towards the checkin counters.
My KLM status entitled me to checkin at the Club Premiere desks and the sweet agent there offered to check my carry-on, promising me that it would be less hassle than to lug it around and that it would be at baggage claim before I was. I took her word for it and she festooned it with a plethora of Priority tags to ensure that her colleagues on the ramp paid it special attention. I was also handed an invitation to the lounge, but as boarding was due to commence in only 10 minutes, I decided to give it a pass. Security was its usual efficient and thorough self and I proceeded without any hassles. It never ceases to amaze me just how dependant the rubber stamp industry in India must be upon Airport Security. My boarding pass was affixed with two stamps saying "CISF SECURITY - BOM" and the tag on my laptop case with yet one as well, with more stamps to come later in the process.
Regular readers of my trip reports will recall that the main runway 09/27 at Mumbai is undergoing resurfacing between 9am to 5pm daily, so the secondary runway 14/32 is in use by day. This is all hunky dory except for the fact that there is no taxiway access to the threshold of runway 14. When the Air India Engineering hangar was expanded to take over the western taxiways a few years ago, the plan was to clear some of the illegal slums located just beyond the eastern boundary wall and create a new taxiway there. Unfortunately, various politicians and courts intervened to get a stay order placed on that plan, thus leaving aircraft in the unenviable position of having to backtrack all the way from the 09/27 intersection in order to access the active runway. From a passenger perspective it meant that movements were effectively restricted to 5 minute separation, causing delays all across the board.
Not surprisingly, the inbound flight from COK that was being operated by the aircraft due to take us to DEL was one of the casualties of this typically Indian situation. It had just landed arout 20 minutes late and was taxiing to its stand, with the result that our flight was now listed as "Delayed due to late arrival of incoming aircraft". This was especially annoying because had I known this before I came through security, I would have gone to the lounge instead of subjecting myself to the hellish atmosphere of the departure hall which reminds me a bit of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. It is crowded, bustles with the sound of a hundred different languages and has long queues of people lined up for no apparent reason. There are no jetways at this terminal either, so all passengers are bussed to the aircraft which we could see parked out on the tarmac in front of us.
Finally, just before our scheduled departure time of 11am, a boarding call was made for the Delhi flight. Our bags were X-rayed and rubber stamped again and all passengers were frisked again with two more rubber stamps affixed to my boarding pass, this time saying "9W SECURITY - BOM". We boarded the bus and set off on the short journey to stand 6 where VT-JAF awaited us in the blazing sun.
I was the first passenger aboard through the forward stairs and walked through the empty Club Premiere cabin on my way to seat 10F. Surprisingly, there was already a man seated in the aisle seat 10D who I strongly suspected was the skymarshal as his boarding pass (which had fallen on the floor in front of the empty 10E) simply said "PASSENGER/MR" instead of an actual name. He was dressed in a normal short sleeved shirt and slacks, but kept his feet on the floor at all times during the flight leading me to believe that his weapon was probably in an ankle holster. Nonetheless, he was very accomodating and courteous as a seat opponent.
Doors finally closed around 1130am and the captain came over the PA system to announce that the earliest slot available for us to take off would be at noon, so we would have to sweat it out on the tarmac until then. The crew did a fantastic job with the service though, coming around with a drink service, the trademark tray of candy and a cold towel service within the next 20 minutes. Our aircraft today was an ex-Malaysia Airlines plane and at a few weeks older than 10 years is the second oldest aircraft in a 41-strong fleet that has an average age of only 3. It is configured with 24 seats in Club Premiere (mainly empty today) and 112 seats in Economy (about 3/4 full). The Economy seat pitch is rather tight at just under 30", but its not unbearable as no flights are longer than three hours. The aircraft was staffed with 5 Flight Attendants with 2 assigned to the premium cabin and 3 to the main cabin.
At around 1155am we began to taxi and the safety demo was performed manually with both English and Hindi commentary. We waited at the 09/27 intersection as Air Sahara's VT-SIG took off for Pune before turning onto the active runway and speeding our way down to the southeast corner of the field. There we turned around and the captain opened up the throttles without delay. As we lifted off, I caught a glimpse of the Indian Airlines hangars where the shells of the 5 scrapped A300s were parked. A sad sight indeed.
We climbed swiftly over the northern suburbs, banked right and set course for Delhi. As we levelled out at 33000 feet, the crew began the lunch service. Jet Airways uses real cloth napkins for their meal services even in coach, albeit with plastic silverware. The food itself is served in elegant "proper" dishes rather than the impersonal foil casseroles that tend to be the norm in the rest of the industry. The meal itself consisted of a salad (without dressing), an entree of Chicken Curry with rice and a side of potatoes, and a desert of a single rosgolla in a bowl. There was no drink service offered with the meal, but a bottle of water was included on the tray. Surprisingly, there was also no bread of any type offered. The food was very tasty, but the quantity was somewhat of a disappointment compared to my previous meals with them. Ironically, after setting the standard for inflight catering in the Indian domestic market when it first started operations, Jet is now firmly in third place out of the three main domestic competitors (Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Air Sahara).
Our flight time was just under 2 hours today and it passed uneventfully until we were on short finals. Those familiar with Delhi will know that runway 10/28 runs from the domestic terminals at the extreme eastern end of the field to the international terminal at the extreme west. As a result, there tends to be a lengthy taxi time for domestic arrivals or international departures when the usual runway 28 is in use. To my surprise we came in very steep to runway 28, touched down just past the numbers and immediately hit both the reversers and the brakes. I sat in shock as we came to a screeching halt before turning around in the middle of the runway and backtracking to the first turnoff where we exited directly to the domestic ramp. All this while another aircraft was visible on approach to the same active runway. I can honestly state that this is the first time I have ever experienced something quite this irresponsible on the part of any commerical pilot anywhere in the world.
We taxied to our stand and chocked on at 2pm sharp as two sets of stairs rolled up to the aircraft. The co-pilot was standing by the forward door as I was exiting, so I made it a point to ask if he "pulls that kind of stunt on an active runway often"? He turned red and gave me a nervous laugh as I walked away into the 41 Celcius (106 Fahrenheit) heat. Needless to say, I was less than impressed.
Inside the terminal, I arrived at the appropriate carousel to find that the Priority tags had actually worked and my luggage had indeed made it there before me as promised! I grabbed the bag and was in a cab en route to my meeting by 206pm, a scant six minutes after the doors opened. Extremely impressive baggage handling.
15/16 April 2003
New Delhi, India
The delay had forced me to shuffle my schedule a little with the result that I finished off my work for the day before heading to the Maurya Sheraton around 430pm. I was extremely impressed that the front desk staff there recognized me (my third visit in a month) and welcomed me by name. I had even been preassigned to a nice corner room on the Corporate Floor which I accepted with thanks. A quick signature on the checkin folio and I was on my way to the room within a minute of walking through the doors. Yet another reason why Starwood continues to win my business.
Up in the room, I showered quickly before heading down to pick up some snacks from the excellent pastry shop in the lobby. The Chicken and Mushroom quiche was exceptional and a bargain at only Rs.35 (US$0.75). Back upstairs, housekeeping had delivered turndown service in the brief interval that I was away and I kicked back with CNN as I devoured the quiche.
Around 7pm, I decided to head out to Connaught Place to grab some dinner. To those unfamiliar with Delhi, this is the heart of the downtown shopping district with a whole range of both designer and local stores and restaurants. I wandered for a while before settling on a small dhaba for dinner. A dhaba is a traditional Punjabi eating house, usually frequented by truckers, serving excellent food in a cafeteria style atmosphere for a very reasonable cost. I tucked in and ate my fill for the relatively expensive (by dhaba standards) cost of Rs.98 (US$2), but I guess the prime location accounted for the "high" prices.
After dinner, I happened to walk by the McDonalds nearby. To my surprise, there are sandbags and armed guards with submachine guns outside. Everyone entering the restaurant is frisked for weapons and packages are checked. McDonalds is allegedly a beacon of Americana around the world, symbolizing freedom and capitalism. Are armed guards and sandbags the right way to portray this image? And if they have become so neccessary, isn't someone somewhere doing something wrong? Some food for thought on a warm Delhi evening as I headed back to the hotel before turning in for the night.
The next day had a similar schedule that allowed me to sleep in before a full afternoon schedule. The front desk was very accomodating and granted me a 6pm late checkout, giving me a nice cushion for my 730pm flight. With the mercury climbing up above 40 Celcius (104 Fahrenheit) again today, I decided to grab an early lunch in the hotel coffee shop instead of braving the elements. In retrospect this was a very wise move. The restaurant was having a "Spicy Crab Festival" featuring (as the name suggests) crabmeat cooked using spicy recipes from around the world. I picked a Sri Lankan crab curry and was very impressed by both the food and service.
The lunch was an excellent precursor to a highly productive afternoon, with the only problem being that things ran late and it was just past 6pm by the time I got back to the hotel. Fortunately, the front desk was able to process my checkout while I dashed upstairs to grab my bags. There was an envelope waiting in my room inviting me to the manager's cocktail reception in the Dublin pub that evening if my schedule permitted, but alas I had a flight to catch. The doorman even had a cab summoned and waiting for me at the door when I came back down. Excellent service by the Sheraton yet again and I was on the road en route to the airport by 625pm.
16 April 2003
Delhi Indira Gandhi International to Mumbai Chattrapati Shivaji
I arrived at the airport just after 650pm, barely making the 7pm cutoff for checkin. Unfortunately, the only seats left were middles but the friendly agent at the desk offered to either switch me to the 830pm flight or to take my chances if an aisle or window opened up. As I had told my mom to hold dinner for me in Mumbai and she would slaughter me if I took a later flight, I chose the latter option. The agent promised to notify me if something opened up and handed me an invitation to the lounge.
The Jet Airways lounge in Delhi is actually a section of the airport restaurant set aside for Club Premiere passengers and elites (including KLM Elites like myself). There is a decent snack buffet and efficient waiters who bring you drinks on request. I relaxed with a Kingfisher beer as I caught up with some phonecalls. Not the most luxurious airport lounge, but a definite haven from the teeming masses in the departure lounge below.
Around 710pm, boarding was called for flight 354 to Mumbai. I headed downstairs and proceeded through security without any hassles, noting with interest that the rubber stamp industry was booming in Delhi as well. To my surprise, I was flagged down in line by the same agent who had checked me in at the counter and he presented me with a new boarding pass (pre-stamped by the security checkpoint that I had just passed) for aisle seat 29C. I thanked him and headed out to the bus on the tarmac where I was again frisked and my laptop inspected (with appropriate rubber stamps saying "9W SECURITY - DEL" affixed to confirm this of course).
The ride out to VT-JNX on the tarmac took a while as we threaded our way through a small armada of Indian Airlines A320s parked closer in. I boarded through the rear stairs and took my seat in the last row of the cabin. A few minutes later a group of 3 passengers came along and asked if I would be willing to switch to 29D across the aisle to enable them to sit together and I gladly consented. My new seat opponents in 29EF were a young couple flying back to Mumbai with a new baby who couldn't have been more than a month old. I groaned at the thought of a noisy child, but the baby was incredibly well behaved and scarcely made a sound throughout the flight.
Doors closed promptly at 730pm and the crew finished the safety demo and cold towel service during our short taxi out to runway 28. This aircraft was one of the babies of the fleet, having celebrated her first birthday last month. She was configured with 28 Club Premiere and 126 Economy class seats, all of which were filled today, and staffed by six flight attendants. Interestingly enough, the flight attendant for the rear cabin was Sheetal, the girl featured on the website and in all the Jet Airways promotional material.
We were airborne quickly but the captain kept the seatbelt sign on until we levelled out at 35000 feet due to mild turbulence at the lower altitudes. The meal service began immediately after this, strangely enough with no drink service having been offered either on ground or after takeoff. It featured a batata vada (potato ball) with chutney as an appetizer, chicken with cashewnuts served with rice and cauliflower as an entree and an excellent kheer (rice pudding) as desert. A hot paratha was served with the meal as well. The tray setting also featured the usual cloth napkin/plastic silverware packet and the bottle of water. Again, the quality was excellent and the quantity was significantly more substantial than the lunch had been.
After the meal service I dragged out the laptop and polished off some work before the seatbelt sign came on to indicate our descent into Mumbai after a brisk 90 minute flight. We made a normal approach into runway 27, but to my surprise we slowed our descent rate significantly towards the end and wound up floating halfway down the runway before touching down just short of the 14/32 intersection. As a result, we were again subjected to full reverse thrust and heavy braking in order to make the last turnoff by the domestic terminals. We taxied quickly to our stand and I disembarked from the rear airstairs to catch the first bus back to the terminal. On the way, we had to stop as the Swiss A330 just arrived from Zurich crossed our path on its way to the international terminal. For a brief moment, I felt like a character from Godzilla as this gigantic machine taxied past scant feet away.
We continued our journey to the terminal past the dormant ATR72s without any further excitement. With no checked bags today, I able to exit the tiny arrivals area within 30 seconds and made my way to the curb just as my dad was pulling in to pick me up. Another trip had ended. Overall the Jet Airways experience was a change from my usual Air India service on the route, not neccessarily for the better. Air India's seats are much more comfortable at 32" pitch and I find the inflight service a lot more consistent. Jet wins the ground handling battle by a long way, partly because it spares the annoying formalities of "domestic immigration" and "domestic customs". Perhaps comparisons are not really fair because AI and 9W cater to very different markets. Next time I'll try Indian Airlines for a more even comparison. Nonetheless, I was highly disappointed with the professionalism and skill of Jet's pilots. They are young for the most part with a reputation for being a little reckless, a stereotype that they did nothing to dispel during this trip. Hopefully experience will bring them maturity and improved flying skills.