Air Deccan is India’s first low-cost, no-frills airline which launched its operations last month (Inagurated on August 25th 2003, by Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes). Currently it operates daily flights from Bangalore (BLR) to Mangalore (IXE) and Bangalore to Hubli (HBX). Air Deccan has leased two ATR-42-320 from ATR Corporation and plans to lease four more ATRs by this year end with route network extending to many more small cities in Southern India which are not connected by air network now. They are planning about 70 flights a day. Their airfuel cost is low since they are a regional airline and they also avail Airports Authority of India’s discounts to aircraft below 21 tons.
An unexpected opportunity to fly them came during my recent trip to India.
I usually fly from US to Bangalore and next day take the daily Jet Airways flight to Mangalore on the way to my parents home at Udupi. This time I flew SQ1 (SFO
) and after spending two days at Singapore visiting my brother and cousins, took the inaugural SQ
flight (SQ429/AI6429) to Bangalore (separate trip report on this first day of operations is in the offing). After landing at Bangalore around 10:30PM, dad told me that we will be flying a "new airline" to Mangalore next morning. I had heard about Air Deccan but did not know they have already started operations, that too to Mangalore which was not in their list of destinations.
Dad had purchased the ticket over the phone by calling directly the Air Deccan reservation center and giving his credit card number. A printout of which was collected by someone the earlier day. They have a number where someone will always answer 24 hours a day - something new for any Indian company. Number is not toll-free but someone actually answering it at anytime sure is a novelty in India - kind of ironic considering India has call centers for every big international company from British Airways to Citibank to AOL to Netgear to Cisco to HP
! Later I read that Air Deccan has outsourced their call center operations to a company called Customer First.
We soon got an opportunity to test if their 24 hours response center actually works. After learning that we are flying on new "low cost" airline, my immediate worry was about the luggage allowance based on my bitter experience with Southwest and Ryanair. The printout stated that 15kgs per passenger - bummer, considering I had two big bags loaded with goodies from US weighing 28kg and 30kg respectively. Dad promptly called the 24 hr number (at 11:55PM) to seek clarification. Sure enough he was told we will have to pay for the extra luggage at the rate of 20 Rupees (45 cents) per kg. Dad told him that I am an International passenger but the agent told us to come to airport early in morning and they will see what they can do. Jet Airways handles this in a different manner. During check-in if you show proof that you arrived on an International flight (ticket, boarding pass) they will check-in the bags free without any extra fee. Usually they don't even ask for any proof as they can easily make out the bags which have traveled from far with all the stickers indicating international traveler.
Since the flight to Mangalore was scheduled at 8:45AM
we had to be at airport atleast by 8AM. The guest house we were staying was atleast 30 mins from airport, so that meant we had to leave by 7:30AM
BANGALORE (BLR) TO MANGALORE (IXE)
Plane registration: VT-ADA
Scheduled takeoff: 8:45AM
Actual takeoff: 9:55AM
Duration of the flight: 55 minutes
Ride to airport was smooth. Airport road was surprisingly clear and traffic well disciplined. Bangalore looked more cleaner than my pervious visits. We reached airport around 8:15AM
. Outside the airport Air Deccan has a brightly lit counter to sell tickets. As in all Indian airports, only ticketed passengers are allowed inside the airport. If someone wants to come inside they will have to purchase a separate entrance ticket. After checking our "printout" gun wielding cops allowed us inside. All Indian airports are now manned by CISF (Central Industrial Security Force - paramilitary force) Immediately someone from Air Deccan recognized my dad and took him to their counter, leaving me with the bags. Another Air Deccan employee asked me to put the bags into the scanning machine. After it came out on the other side, I was asked to open it. I had not opened it since I left Singapore and even the SQ
tag was intact. Peeved at this I asked why I need to open the bags which will be checked-in anyway. One of the three Air Deccan employees (wearing a navy blue shirt with Air Deccan logo on left pocket) apologized profusely and said that since they are new airline they are required by law to hand search all checked-in bags. Hmmm. I opened the bag and they ran through the stuff and within 30-45 seconds told "Ok sir, thank you" and put a sticker on both the bags. From there I walked to Air Deccan counter which is situated leftmost, adjacent to the Sahara Airlines counter. Dad was waiting for me there. I checked-in the bags, they were weighed. One elder looking gentleman observed that they are almost double the allowed allowance, but the smart lady at the counter brushed him aside by saying something. She immediately put the tag with a serial number on the bag and stapled the other part to our boarding passes. One thing I noticed was that everything was handwritten on boarding pass (not printed) and infront of the seat, she wrote “Free Seating”. We were told flight is on-time. One smart chap escorted dad and me to the security queue. It was morning rush hour at Bangalore Airport with Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Sahara Airlines flights to Delhi, Bombay, Chennai etc - so line at the security was long with at least 20 people in front of us.
Security as usual was strict and efficient. My backpack which had Apple iBook and its cables attracted the security person. It was moved forward and backward in XRay machine at least twice and later I was asked to come near the monitor and asked to identify the cable. I told it is a USB cable, but I don't think he understood my English, so I acted by hands showing "Cable from camera to computer" with which he was satisfied and stamped the luggage tag. Till we reached this stage Air Deccan employee was with us all along, one of the reason may be because my dad is a state senator. Bangalore airport has a VIP lounge for senators, ministers. Since our flight was supposed to takeoff in 15 mins or so we did not go to that lounge which was quite faraway from our gate anyway.
So we waited in the gate while watching two Indian Airlines, two Jet Airways and one Sahara Airlines take off in quick succession destinations mentioned above. Atleast one Jet Airways was boarded by the air bridge and for remaining passengers were bussed in. It was 8:45AM
and still no sign of our plane which was to arrive from Hubli, in North Karnataka. Hubli has a very small airport and this is the only scheduled airline service it has.
they announced plane has been delayed and will take off at 9:15AM
. Dad went and got coffee from the Netscape coffee booth. Amazing even in an airport, it costs only 6 Rupees (8 cents) for a coffee – cup same size as "short" Starbucks.
the plane finally landed. I love the inbuilt ladder of ATRs – so disembarkation was immediate and I counted atleast 30+ passengers, among them dad identified a gentleman who is Opposition party leader in Karnataka State Assembly. Then an airport ambulance rushed to the plane and a wheelchair was sent up the plane and we saw a Moslem gentleman being rushed down the plane to the ambulance. Around 9:45 boarding process was started. Our boarding passes were checked and again our bags were searched by Air Deccan employees on an impoverished table. Smartly dressed staff, including three ladies staff quickly but efficiently went through our carryon and put one more blue stamp on the boarding pass as well as the airline tag on the bag. If one is wearing a white shirt and puts back the boarding pass into the pocket, it is sure to be messed up in Indian airports. Also interesting to note that in India, airline tag on the carry-on bag seemed to have a very critical function. Without the airline tag on your bag, you can’t go beyond initial security as they check the tag everywhere whether it has a relevant seal – from XRay machine to gate to steps of the plane.
So we walked over the red carpet over to the tarmac. Here our entire checked-in luggage was lined up on the tarmac and we were asked to identify the bag and the luggage tag number was tallied with the number which was attached to our boarding pass. A new process may be because they are a new airline? I don't recall ever identifying my bag while flying Jet Airways - may be it is a random thingy. From entering to the airport to entering the aircraft, I was impressed with the security everywhere. They were not intrusive or time consuming – very efficient and polite folks, but sticking to their jobs.
welcomed us to the plane. I and dad sat on the last seat on right side. Flight had two FAs – one guy and one gal. Guy was dressed in a white shirt and grayish pant and girl in old fashioned 60s type of FA
attire. (I have a scanned pic from the magazine and will try to upload).
They helped us put the bags and if the bags were big they put it at the back near the toilet. There were 12 rows in this plane and one crew seat at the back and two at the front facing passengers. On 12A I saw a gentleman with Pratt-Whitley Canada identification card hanging around his neck – one of the onsite engineers per the lease agreement? After everyone was seated the ladder was pulled up and safety demonstration began first in Hindi followed by English. The seat pockets contained nothing except the safety card which had instructions in English and Hindi and a barf bag which was nothing but a thick plain envelope – nothing printed on it.
I could hear the FA
on intercom talking to pilot saying 19 + 2 tech. So I guess that meant 19 passengers plus 2 engineers (I saw the other tech running to cockpit with some papers after landing at Mangalore) – not bad for third day of operations I guess.
Plane taxied and waited while we saw two MIG planes landing and an Indian Airforce transport plane (I could not idenfity – mostly Russian made) land with humongous amount of dirty smoke visible from miles. They were followed by an Indian Airlines A320 and Sahara Airlines Boeing 737-900. What was noteworthy was all the planes I saw at Bangalore, including IC
A320 appeared sparkling clean.
So all this landing meant we were delayed further. Finally plane started the take off role. I love the silent nature of these propeller driven ATRs with no vibration at all. Takeoff was very quick and it appeared pilot took off using only one fourth of the runway! I could hear horrible noises from the galley which sounded as if 10s of utensils crashed, it was really that steep and for a moment I thought my seat would break. The sound reminded me of the last earthquake we had in Bay Area in late 80s. I later read that one of the Fighter test pilots of Indian Airforce (who test flew India’s LCA – Light Combat Aircraft) has joined Air Deccan. Not sure if he was on the controls that day, because takeoff sure seemed like steep. On the sides as usual I saw a big building named “Lightning test facility” – a mystery since I have not received any answer from anyone on that mysterious "Lighting Test Facility"! Saw many fighter planes parked on HAL hangars. I guess one of the reasons they don’t allow taking photos in Indian Airports because so many of them are shared by military and civil aviation traffic.
Pilot never came on microphone till we reached cruising altitude. There was no apology for the delay either from FAs or pilots - only the gate agent seemed to be embarrassed about the delay. Pilot mentioned that we have now reached 12,000 feet and we will be flying at 250 km/hr and will reach Mangalore in 40 mins if there are no further ATC related delays. After this I guess the co-pliot came back to the restroom and all the while the cockpit door was open – I was bit surprised about this callous attitude. (Two FAs were now in the galley preparing the food trolley). Soon they arrived with the trolley and asked if we are interested in snacks or drinks. Snacks offered were nothing but some dry fruits in a transparent plastic pouch and some cookies. Drinks were the juice tetra pack. I asked for just water and FA
politely informed that even water will cost money. I paid 10 Rupees (25 cents) for a bottle of cold water. Dad and I discussed how this may not be a popular idea – to charge for water – as their role model Southwest atleast gives some juice and pretzels/peanuts free. I saw at least 8-9 folks buying either juice or snacks.
Profile of the passengers as I saw:
At least three young chaps in front looked like enjoying their first ride on the plane. They were visibly excited and were showing each other different landmarks. One good thing about this venture is even common folks can think of flying in India. Bangalore – Mangalore by a luxury bus involving 6-7 hours journey costs around 300 Rupees ($7) while this ride costs approx 1900 Rupees ($42). Then there were elderly folks mostly traveling on plane for health reasons I guess. In front of me were two engineers heading to the oil refinery MRPL – Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited. And then there were laptop wielding IT
types. Mangalore has a Software Technology Park and India’s flagship IT
company Infosys (NASDAQ:INFY) has a big office at Mangalore.
Plane looked clean, but everything seemed temporary – from the stickers behind the seats which was your normal computer printout sticked with a cello tape to the airsickness bag which was just a thick envelope (which one normally finds in stationery stores like Officemax/Staples). It was definitely not a new plane as Air Deccan had boasted – they are leasing these planes and interior was bit yellowish. I did not venture to restroom to do any napkin tests by the way
Everyone knows about Bangalore. Here is something about Mangalore: Mangalore is a coastal city and is also called Gateway to Karnataka – it has an all weather port and is a industrial city with beautiful beaches. Mangalore and surrounding areas including Udupi district have 96%+ literacy rate – something unusual for India.(apparently the adjacent Kerala state which borders Mangalore has 100% literacy rate). Mangalore and Udupi are also birthplaces of many national level banks, including Syndicate Bank, Canara Bank, Corporation Bank, Vijaya Bank, Karnataka Bank. Udupi/Manipal is known for higher educational institutions – several Medical, dental and engineering college attracting students from all over the world. People from this area have also historically migrated to all over the world and have made their name in variety of enterprises ranging from “Udupi hotels” – cheap and good vegetarian food to finance/IT professionals. Local language is called "Tulu" along with Kannada and Konkani - unique to this area but English is widely understood everywhere. So one can say bit developed area in terms of literacy, infrastructure (every village has OF
telecom connection etc) and general standard of living compared to other districts in the country.
Rest of the flight was uneventful. It was raining badly and we could see dark clouds below. But no turbulence so far. Around 10:45 AM
pilot came to announce that we will be starting our descent to Mangalore shortly. FA
came over to check seatbelt. Descent was smooth. Mangalore Airport is one of those “table top” runways and is considered one of the most dangerous runways in India along with Agatti in Lakshwadweep Islands and Leh in Ladakh. Built in 1960s, the infrastructure has remained pretty much the same but has seen huge improvements as far as passenger facilities are concerned. Basically there is a single runway which is 5800 ft long at the top of the hill. So even when you feel you are quite at top, suddenly the runway appears and you land. Same with end of the runway which is a steep cliff. It is a small cute well maintained airport with daily one Alliance Air flight (737) from Bombay, two Jet Airways flights (737) from Bombay, one Jet Airways flight (ATR) from Bangalore (and seasonal daily flight to Chennai via Bangalore by Jet Airways using ATR) and now daily Air Deccan from Bangalore. Air Deccan plans to have one more daily flight to Mangalore from Bangalore in the noon by December. Airport has a small building with nice waiting area. For such a small airport it sure sees lot of traffic I think. There is a plan to build second runway to accommodate bigger planes (A320) but has run into usual problem with land acquisitions and some experts saying expanding the runway on the mountain top is waste of money since that will be the max they can expand and advocating building a totally new airport somewhere in the planes are sea level. There is also demand by local business to upgrade the airport to International Airport considering that thousands of natives work at Gulf Countries and also these districts export lot of flowers (to Gulf countries-now flown via Bombay) and cashew nuts to all over the world.
So as said above we suddenly could see runway and airport building. Touch down was smooth. Landing at Mangalore is always a scary and heady experience with the above mentioned factors. It was raining a bit and dad, who travels almost every week between Bangalore and Mangalore, felt pilot is unusually fast for landing. He was correct and pilot had to break hard, but still plane came to complete stop only when we were at the other end of the runway and we could see the cliff at the end! I also saw many people of neighboring homes watching the plane land behind the fence and also saw the three wheel autorickshaw going on a muddy road behind the fence. Surreal scenes only available in India. Pilot turned the plane and went back half the runway and turned left to the airport building.
There are no airbridges in Mangalore airport. After coming to a complete stop, FA
opened the door and sent the built in ladder down. We got down for a short walk to the terminal. There were couple of CISF folks with their automatic guns ready to welcome us. There was no warning cones etc near the propeller, instead folks in Air Deccan uniform stood and directed us to the building. We could see couple of ladders for bigger planes painted with “Indian Airlines”. Luckily there was no rain and we were in the carousel in one minute. A small jeep with luggage trailer went to the plane and we could see them unloading the bags to the trailer. Since there were not many bags, they arrived immediately to the carousel. AAI authorized helpers helped us lift our bags and take it outside. Sheraton Mangalore has a counter at carousel area and one of the reps, dressed nicely in a crisp suit gave his business card along with room rates. By this time my elder brother who had come to receive us came to the luggage area. As in other Indian airports, luggage area is a secure one but he managed to come in since he is a regular there to pickup my dad. We went out of the airport and could see at least couple of hundred people waiting – apparently waiting Jet Airways flight from Bombay. There is a prepaid taxi counter and I could see lot of the good old Ambassador car and also many SUVs waiting in the parking lot. My bro has got his truck so we left for Udupi in that.
MANGALORE (IXE) to Bangalore (BLR)
Plane registration: VT-ADB
Scheduled takeoff: 9:55AM
Actual takeoff: 10:05AM
Duration of the flight: 55 minutes
I had a great time with parents for a week - which also had the Ganesha Festival - lot of good food - and now it was time to fly back. By this time I heard some anecdotes about Air Deccan and it was not very encouraging to say the least. I had a flight to catch to Singapore the same night on the way to SFO
so any delay or cancellation of flights by Deccan would be bad. I heard Air Deccan flights are consistently arriving very late at Mangalore varying from 10 minutes delay to 5-6 hours delay. Our backup plan in case Air Deccan does not arrive was to drive all the way to Bangalore.(other option was to fly Jet Airways which has a flight to Bangalore at noon). Anyway with all this mind we started to airport around 8AM and on the way dad called Air Deccan’s Mangalore airport office to check if flight is on time. He was told it is ontime. We arrived at the airport around 9:15AM
and went straight to the counter. Again the security gaurds at the entrance saw the printout and read it for couple of minutes and allowed us inside. Dad went straight to the counter while my big bag was passed through the X-Ray machine. Surprisingly they did not ask me to open the bag here. X-Ray was manned by two young kids who appeared are just out of college, but were dressed in Air Deccan uniform. Once that is done they applied an Air Deccan security tag over the bag. I went to the counter to check-in the bag. Bag weighed 36 kgs but no penalties were applied. I made a mental note to remove some stuff since I would have problem with BLR – SIN
flight that night if it weighs above 32KG.
We passed through the security since they told us plane would arrive any time. Again our boarding pass and the luggage tag on our carryon bags were stamped multiple times with inks varying from blue to red to violet. Riot of colors. We waited at the departure lounge. Surprisingly for such a small airport they really had luxurious chairs with headrest etc. I have not seen such nice chairs even in International airports. Small lounge with may be 100 chairs. Dad told chairs were recent addition. We were around 25 passengers waiting at the lounge – dad knew couple of them and we spent sometime talking. Around 9:55AM
we could see the plane landing and arriving at the gate. Saw around 30 passengers disembarking. Station manager of Mangalore seemed to be a nice person – tall and military looking person.
The plane registration was VT
-ADB – sister ship of the plane I flew on Bangalore-Mangalore leg. One thing immediately staring at us was the yellow patch on what appeared to be logo of Sun Microsystems! While walking to the aircraft I saw it was indeed a Sun Microsystems logo, but covered with some yellow material. Apparently on first week of operations when they introduced this plane, Air Traffic Control at Bangalore denied permission to take-off sighting some rule which prohibits advertisements on plane and that was the reason that day plane was delayed by more than 5 hours while they arranged to paint that part of the plane. It was unsightly to say the least. Sun Microsystems is apparently paying $150,000 per year to have that logo on the plane. (UPDATE:I saw VT
-ADB in news on 9/24 where its inaugural run from Hyderabad to Viyayawada was aborted following some smoke in the engine due to moisture which panicked the VIPs on board. In that newsclipping I saw the Sun Microsystems logo now visible clearly – they have hence removed the yellow cover they had painted over the logo – may be they received relevant permission from Indian authorities). Boarding started around 10:05AM
– there were two female FAs who welcomed us onboard. Again we saw a flight engineer sitting at the rearmost seat with lot of documents in a file. We sat at 11A and 11B. Since it was free seating it was funny to see all passengers running to the front – may be from the Indian practice of running for front seats in the bus to avoid jumps at the back due to bad roads
Doors were closed at 10:10AM
and we were all set to go.
The plane looked clean and unlike VT
-ADA there were permanent printed instructions at the back of the seat. But it appears the plane was in storage for quite sometime, in between the window panes I could see some dead ants and I think spider web. Not sure how they can get between those two panes? Through the window I could see the Station Manager giving a thumbs up and a nice salute to the pilot! Plane turned around and taxied to the beginning of the runway. Dad told me that flights always take off from East to West at this airport and there is a upward slope to help takeoff – not sure how correct it is but he has flown out of Mangalore for almost 30 years now on all sort of planes so may be he is correct.
Take off roll was smooth and take off was using may be 75% of the runway. Plane took a left turn once it reached Arabian Sea and we could see the National Highway, Mangalore Refinery and Petro Chemicals complex and beautiful view of Arabian sea. Now the plane was taking a U turn and at left I could see the runway clearly now in the midst of a lush green surrounding – was tempted to take photo but was put off by the regulations of Indian govt ban on taking photographs in Indian airspace and of the airports. (incidentally there was no announcement regarding taking photos, from my experience with Jet Airways on the same sector they make it a point to announce that while taking off as well as landing). We were now cruising at 12,000 feet and could see lush green paddy fields, lot of rivers below - very scenic. Once we reached cruising altitude FAs came with trolley selling juices and snacks. There were also two young ladies who appeared to have come from Bangalore and flying back and had some sort of identification badges around their neck. My guess was they were trainee FAs.
Below we could now see lush green forests while we flew over the Western ghats into the plains of Deccan plateu.
35 minutes into the flight the ladies with the tags around their neck came to my dad and politely asked some questions about where did he buy the tickets, what was his experience with call center and how does it like it so far. Other lady was similarly interviewing a passenger at front of the plane. It appeared it was some sort of survey to gauge the passengers. One thing she asked repeatedly was is my dad comfortable giving credit card number over the phone. Considering people still treat credit cards with extreme precaution in India, I think they are just trying to figure out if they have to change strategy selling tickets. She asked if I am based in Bangalore, but when I said I am from California she asked me how did I like it so far. I told her that even in Southwest Airlines they give water or juice free so may be they should think about it. For which she replied that many people have given the same feedback and she will pass it along to management.
By this time we were nearing Bangalore and pilot came to announce that we will be starting our descent. Descent appeared to be quite long and we landed after 15 minutes at Bangalore airport. Landing was smooth and on the right we could see Lufthansa Cargo (MD-11?), three Indian Airlines A320s, couple of Jet Airways and one Sahara Airlines 737. We parked next to the Jet Airways ATR (which was heading to Mangalore!) and could see the Jet Airways folks watching disembarkation keenly! We were bussed into the terminal. While in the bus we saw a tall bearded chap inspecting engines, must be the onsite French engineer. The carousels were already flashing DA202 and within 4 minutes our bags arrived, again only 10 bags or so indicating that most of the passengers are either going to Bangalore for business or have base at Bangalore and were at Mangalore for a visit. Again, there was an Air Deccan employee to help us with the luggage.
Once out of the luggage area, we were as usual given a rose by a beautiful lady - courtesy “Kemp Fort” a big departmental store in Bangalore. Very nice gesture indeed – where else can you get a nice red rose by a beautiful lady. I don’t know about other Indian airports, but in Bangalore airport every arriving passenger gets a rose! (I received a rose on arrival from Singapore too)
We were out of the airport in 10 minutes and car was waiting for us.
COMMENTS AND CONCLUSION:
In general I was satisfied with Air Deccan’s performance and dad was also happy for the “value we received for what we paid”. Jet Airways operates identical aircraft on the same route with ticket price almost double – but they do manage to give nice lunch prepared by a five-star hotel for this 55 mins hop. But is lunch really required for a 55 minutes hop? Having flown 5 hours flights in US with just pretzels and Orange juice it does seem excessive for a 55 minutes hop. Anyway coming back to Air Deccan, I have no reason to complain except that I only wish they give at least some juice or water free like Southwest does.
I could see dramatic improvement from the flight on 29th August (3rd day of operations) to 6th September. They really are trying hard to be “people’s airline”. With the encouragement they are getting from Karnataka State govt (4% tax on ATFuel compared to 25% which others pay) and government order on government employees above certain level (Tahasildar
) eligible for air travel they do have some committed seats. The cheap fare is attractive enough to skip 8 hours of bus journey (in case of Mangalore) and train journey in case of Hubli. The folks from security to check-in to gate agents were young and enthusiastic and appeared that they really love what they do. My dad who travels at least once a week Mangalore – Bangalore – Mangalore has already switched to Deccan from Jet Airways. I just spoke with him today (9/24) before I submitted this report, on his recent experience with them and he said he has since flown three times and on-time performance has been good and the last time he traveled on 9/22, there were 42 passengers from Mangalore to Bangalore. So it appears that their strategy is working well.
Anyway it is a new experiment in India where people still consider air travel a luxury and expect nice food and royal treatment on board. So time will tell if Air Deccan's plan to be the "Udupi hotel" (Udupi Hotel = Good food for cheap at these hotels - run mostly incidentally by people from the region of Mangalore and Udupi all over the world) in Aviation will succeed. They have got their basics right so far with minimum employee per aircraft ratio and quick turnaround time (15 minutes). Once they reach their goal of 70 flights per day to all the destinations now not connected by air we will know if they will succeed.
I have tried to remember as much as I can. If you have any questions or comments please post and I will try my best to answer!