I had to travel to Cedar Rapids on business on October 1st and asked my office traveldesk to make reservations for me last week. I was offered a couple of choices, BMI-UA via LHR, BA via LHR or NW via AMS. However the routing of all flights got me into CID at 8:30 pm and I do have an aversion to reaching that late, when I have meetings at 8:00 am next morning. I asked my traveldesk to recheck and she came back with a better itenary using 9W and UA. This itenary got me into CID at 3:30 pm. Much better. Also I always wanted to sample 9W's long haul service, so this was quite fortunate.
Given the stringent requirements on carry-on baggage, I took care to make sure that I was carrying only my laptop on board. I checked everything else, including toothpaste, deo, hair gel into check-in baggage.
I reached at about 11:00 pm 30th night at BOM international terminal, which is just a short drive away from my home. The place was teeming as there were all the Europe bound flights leaving at around the same time. Small changes can be seen after the privatization of BOM. Name boards calling it "Chatrapati Shivaji Airport operated by Mumbai International Airport Private Limited", now abound. I was leaving from terminal 2C, and I noticed small changes like a new gate, with etched glass. However once I entered, I noticed that the lines for baggage scan was as long as it normally used to be at this time of the night. It took about 20 minutes to get my baggage scanned and I walked towards the 9W check-in area. The line for 9W wasn't too long, and I requested the check-in agent for a window seat (despite my height (6'2"), I prefer a window, as I can lean my head on the side of the plane and sleep). Unfortunately, all windows had been taken. I then requested an aisle, which also seemed to be taken. Then the check-in agent said that she had 76D which was just right for a tall guy like me. I didn't have a look at the A340-300's seatplan, so I had no idea what this seat would be like. I was a little cynical (76D is at the back of the plane regardless of the type of the plane), but since I seemed to be holding up a fairly large line behind me, I decided to take it anyway and proceed to emigration. Emigration completed, I took a right and walked towards gate 10. It was a long walk and then took the escalator down, and then walked all the way left to Gate 10. I realized that this gate was much closer, if one took a left from emigration.
I then proceeded to security check which was combined for gate 8,9 and 10. Austrian Airlines was leaving from Gate 8 and had already started boarding. Took a look out from the window. Due to the fact that a passageway separates the gate area, viewing of planes is a little difficult. I think the Austrian plane was a 767.
At about 12:25, 9W made an announcement for boarding. For once, boarding was not the typical madness that one sees at indian airports. 9W's gate agent's announcements were clear and lucid, and boarding for economy was row-wise from the back of the plane. Because the gate agent was announcing the row authoritatively, people were not thronging the gate. I entered the leased A340-300 (leased from SAA) and immediately liked the plane. Very modern looking, professional and clean. I took my long walk to the back of the plane, in dread of the kind of seat I would get. I got to the seat and was very very pleased to see that seat 75D and 75E was missing. Effectively, this meant that I had almost business class like leg space. I was really really happy. As I settled in, I looked out of the window to see the BD flight coming in from London. Other flights I saw at that time of the night were AZ, IC, EK and some AI planes. 9W serves their trademark welcome lime juice for economy passengers, and I was pleased to see that they were doing this on their international flights too.
The plane pushed back on time at 1:20 pm and was soon airborne. As I was at the back of the plane, it was a little shaky. We reached cruising altitude and the FA's started serving cold towels and distributing "comfort kits". Dissapointingly, they ran out of comfort kits by the time they reached row 65, the the folks at the back of the plane did not get any. Wasn't too chuffed about this, amenity kits are a rarity in economy anyway, and I suspect that 9W did not aniticipate a 95% load factor on this flight.
Dinner service started which was a little disappointing. I chose non-veg which was a chicken kathi roll, and a bowl of dessert and some fruit. I expected something a little more substantial a la AI, but I guess the quantities of food that one gets on AI economy is also becoming a rarity with other airlines. While 9W serves alcohol free in economy, they do not offer it to you nor do they display it conspiciously on their food carts. People who want alcoholic drinks need to specifically ask. I wasn't particularly feeling like consuming alcohol, so I didnt ask.
I played with the AVOD and enjoyed the freedom it gave me to watch movies when I wanted it. There were about 12 hollywood and 12 bollywood movies to choose from. I choose to see "Nacho Libre", as Jack Black is a favorite of mine. After the movie got over, I then tried to sleep a bit. This turned out to be a problem. It could have been because I was not in a window for once, but I distinctly felt that the width of the seats were smaller than on other airlines I have flown. I dozed for a few, and tried watching movies, repeating the cycle multiple times. About 2 hours before landing at LHR, breakfast was served. I chose the omelette and sausage option which was tasty, and was more sizeable than dinner.
The service overall was pleasant, and services was delivered with a smile. However, after watching seasoned FAs from LH, UA etc, I got a feeling that the FAs on 9W were still getting used to long haul. The distribution of items like Immigration forms, collection of garbage were not uniform. You can clearly distinguish that other airlines have this boiled down to a well defined process, while 9W is still learning.
6:30 am was the scheduled arrival time at LHR. However due to traffic at LHR, we were kept in the air around East London for about 30 minutes, and landed 30 minutes late. Landing was smooth. However since I now had just an hour to clear security and get to my UA flight to ORD, I was a little worried.
Rest of the Trip report in Part II