Sunday, January 15, 2017

Coimbatore to Bengaluru: SRS Travels' Mercedes Benz SHD

It was time to head back home after the partially planned journey for Christmas. I wanted to make the return trip a little exciting. I had quite some untested options available. I had ruled out flying well before the trip started - so the options were among buses. I ruled out a direct bus for some personal reasons,and finally decided to do a break journey via Coimbatore. The options from Coimbatore weren't too exciting - I had two untested options - SRS Travels' Mercedes Benz Super High Deck 15M coach (which was introduced a few days before) and Madurai Radha Travels AC Seater. There was one option that I hadn't tried earlier - which was Conti Travels' Volvo 9100. After a bit of thinking, I zero'd in on SRS.

The bus was quite empty when I began my searching process. By the time I reached a decision, seats were filling fast. An advertisement on their website announced that they offered a 20% discount on ticket fares for the first booking on their app. Needless to say, I downloaded the app, and made a booking through the app - the final fare was quite cheap. Then begins the next confusion - reaching Coimbatore from my hometown. I briefly romanced the idea of taking the Kerala RTC Scania to Coimbatore - but it reaches quite late for comfort, and it could turn out to be a very tight connection given the fact that road works were fast progressing on the Thrissur-Palakkad stretch.

I finally dumped the plan to take the Scania, and opted for a normal bus. I decided to take the 0700hrs Thrissur Coimbatore Fast Passenger service - this bus has reservation facility, and this bus would also give me sufficient time to have a heavy brunch to make up for the fact that I'd miss my lunch. I reserved a ticket on the bus from a nearby KSRTC reservation counter (a counter booked ticket after a long time). The journey from Thrissur to Coimbatore wasn't very eventful - but I plan to write on this separately later.

December 28, 2016:
I reached Coimbatore sometime around 1030hrs - the journey was a little tiring, especially since I was seated in a congested seat for over 3 hours at a stretch. I headed straight to my favorite place for brunch - the one and only Annapoorna - this one is their sister concern Gowrishankar, on Oppanakkara street. Awesome Masala Dosa, washed down with awesomeness in a davara-tumbler, I mean typical Tamil Nadu Filter coffee made my heart and stomach content. A visit to Annapoorna-Gowrishankar is one thing I never miss during my visits to Coimbatore. As I was finishing my brunch, this message popped up on my phone:
Dear Customer, Due to Heavy Traffic Jam in city, we request you come to pappanayaken palayam srs luggage office at 1:30PM,HelpLine No.9840937925,Contact:
I was a bit confused with this message. I had selected my boarding point at Coimbatore Omni Bus Station. I received a call from SRS a little later confirming if I had received the message and the lady at the other end gave me a detailed explanation that the road towards the bus station was closed, and the bus wouldn't be able to reach there, and she informed that the revised pick-up point is well known among the local auto drivers. I was a little furious, but then realised there was no point being, and I appreciated the fact they called up and confirmed.

I walked down to Omni Bus Station a little later to click some pics, and later took a taxi to the SRS pick-up point. I was there quite early, and had to wait for long. My bus, KA-01-AG-4335 was being prepared for the journey, while a Scania 14.5m coach of SRS was parked next to it. A message containing details of the bus and the crew was received a little past 1310hrs. The scheduled departure of my bus was at 1345hrs. Boarding started a little past 1320hrs - I chose to remain outdoors till the AC was turned on. I got into the bus as soon as the AC was turned on. Passengers were slowly trickling in, and we had to wait a little past the scheduled departure time.
My bus, at the SRS Parking in Coimbatore
We finally rolled out of the parking place at 1357hrs - about 12 minutes late. The bus was a little more than 50% filled. The driver had a lot of work to steer this 15m whale out of the parking, and then negotiate the tight turns on the road that leads to Avinashi road. I was busy making my first impressions. The interiors were better than what I experienced in the KPN SHD (Read here). The AC vents were perfectly placed in this bus, and the overall finished looked good, but no where close to a Scania or a Volvo. The engine was noisy and very audible inside the cabin. The ride quality was fairly good, and body roll seemed quite controlled. We rolled into Hope College bus stop by the time I settled in the bus. We started from here at 1415hrs. Pick-ups were quite quick - we were already running late, and passengers were already waiting for the bus.
Inside the SRS Benz SHD..
Once on the highway, the driver picked up some pace - but remained in the range of 80s. We pulled into Karumathampatti for the next pick-up by 1439hrs - there was some confusion here, and pickup took longer. We got moving only by 1444hrs. The next pick-up was at Avinashi (1501hrs). We seemed to be running quite slow on the highway. I checked my gps repeatedly and found we were constantly in the 80s range. I assumed this could be because the bus was new, or because they wanted to extract more mileage. Since they did not play any movie on the AV system, I watched a movie on my phone to pass my time. We left the highway and entered Chithode town for the next pick-up at 1549hrs. We left Chitode after pick-up at 1552hrs. I was getting a little hungry by now, since it was close to 5 hours since my last meal.
The bus, when we stopped for a break
We pulled in for a break at a bakery past Vaigundam toll gate at 1630hrs - this happens to be a regular break point for most day buses operating on the route. I found this bakery to be quite normal priced - unlike the normal break points of buses. The break seemed to be quite long since the bus didn't get moving even after 15 minutes. I had a small chat with the attendant, and he was speaking about the pairing bus being stuck in traffic block - although unrelated to us, I got an indication that they were driving slow so that we meet the pairing bus somewhere en-route and they wanted to exchange the passengers. I casually asked him if an exchange was on cards - he just mumbled something and avoided answering the query. We finally start from the toll gate at 1650hrs.

We continued crawling past Vaigundam as well. The body roll was quite pronounced as we took the slip road off the Salem flyover. We passed Salem town by 1725hrs - we did not have a pick-up at Salem. I was engrossed in watching a movie on my phone, and did not really notice what was going on, outside. Traffic at toll gates seemed to be really high. The first toll after Salem was a big mess. The mess got real bad at Thoppur toll - the queue was over a kilometre long. We entered the queue around 1827hrs, and we were hardly half the way at 1839hrs. The driver took a U turn just as we neared the toll gate and parked on the road side in the opposite direction. My gut feel was getting true - they were planning an exchange. The pair bus arrived a little past 1840hrs. Passengers questioned the crew about why they are exchanging, and the questioning blew up into an argument and later reached levels where a few blows were about to be exchanged.
During the exchange.. the bus at the front is the one in which I came from Coimbatore
Cute ring light around the projector lamps..
Finally, people understood its of no use quarreling with the crew, who were just obeying instructions given to them from their headquarters. All passengers had to undergo the difficult process of shifting their baggage from one bus to the other - the crew didn't bother to help passengers with that. There were quite a few aged people, who were really finding it difficult to shift their baggage. So, finally, I was on board KA-01-AG-4336, the bus which just came in from Bangalore. The crews did a quick headcount, and verified if passengers were on their intended bus itself. We finally start moving at 1855hrs. The bus ran a kilometre or so, towards Salem, then took a U Turn and returned towards the toll gate. We joined the queue again at 1859hrs, and we finally passed the toll gate at 1924hrs. The driver pulled aside after the toll gate to let some passengers use the washroom.
KA-01-AG-4336, which finally brought me to Bengaluru.. (Pic from Archives)
We finally start from the toll gate at 1931hrs. We were at the same place for over an hour! This driver was ripping, and we were maintaining speeds in the range of 90~95kmph. I was hoping they would make up time and hoped to be in Bangalore by about 2200. We had a drop at Krishnagiri (2021hrs). The driver was ballistic for most of the time. I was getting more hopeful of being in Bangalore 'not so late'. My hopes were shortlasting - we pulled into Hotel Mangalam, past Krishnagiri toll, for a 'dinner' break - at 2053hrs. The crew requested passengers to return soon, since the bus was "already late". We were joined by another SRS Benz SHD, a Hebron Scania and a NWKRTC Airavat Club Class. We started off at 2104hrs. The driver stepped on the pedal after the break, again. We stopped near Hosur Flyover to drop a few passengers (2139hrs). Traffic at Attibele toll was terrible - but we still managed to pass by 2156hrs. I finally got off at Electronic City Toll gate by 2210hrs.

Closing Notes: Both the buses had clocked a little over 19000kms. They seemed to be maintained fairly well. The drivers didn't seem to be very happy with the bus - they were complaining about frequent breakdowns due to sensor complaints and poor quality of the body. The ride quality was good, but body roll was pronounced. The interior quality was better than my previous experience on the SHD - the finish was better. The engine was noisy - the engine could be clearly heard inside the bus. The leg room was awesome - the bus had 53 seats laid in a lavish layout. The drivers were good - they weren't rash. The bus was clean, inside out. Except the bus change incident, the experience was good. They could've avoided the bus exchange, or atleast minimized the inconvenience by helping with the baggage. They drove really slow to minimise the time lost at the exchange - that was also a stupid idea. All said, an average experience. And it looks like I have a jinx with the Mercedes Benz SHD. The last time I took it, there was a delay due to a puncture - this time for an 'exchange'.

Blanket: Yes
Water: No
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, Worked.
Entertainment: Available - Not Used.

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5 (First driver drove slow, second driver was fast. Both were good)
Crew behaviour: 3.5/5 (Cutting points for not helping during the 'exchange')
Punctuality: 3/5 (Arrived over 2 hours late)

Overall: 3.5/5

Pros: Cost, New bus, Leg Room
Cons: Delays, Noisy bus (Not a deal breaker)

Will I take this service again? Will surely try them again, the next time.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Bangalore to Thrissur: KSRTC Garuda Maharaja!

The Garuda Maharaja brand was born early in 2016 with the introduction of Scania Metrolink HD 13.7m intercity coaches in the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation fleet. A total of Eighteen buses were inducted in the fleet, all of which are presently homed at Trivandrum central depot. The buses were procured with the intention of expanding KSRTC services to more states - a misplaced intention, which seems to have been put on the back burner with the change of guard at the corporation. Out of the 18 buses, two were based at Alappuzha until a few days back. And, these buses operated the sole Garuda Maharaja service to Bangalore. Although the services have been operating since mid-April, I never had the chance to try them. I had booked a ticket once, but had to cancel it later.

The opportunity to try them came in the form of Christmas. I had no intention of going home for Christmas - solely due to the fact that I had just one day off. As the year drew to a close, a check at my leave balance showed that I could afford to have a Christmas vacation this year! Although I was not very sure of being able to make it home for Christmas, I decided to make a one way booking. I booked the first row window seat (#48) on the day the reservation opened, in November 2016. I had originally planned to book the ticket at the reservation counter - but the Prime Minister of India had other plans. On the fateful night of November 08, 2016 - the notes I had in my wallet were declared worthless. Since I did not want to spend the precious worthy notes I had with me, I booked the ticket online.

December 24, 2016:
It was a very busy day at work. I had to lug around a heavy bag between our campuses. I finally became free around 1710hrs, at the main campus. Getting a cab was very difficult - drivers refusing the ride the moment they hear the destination is getting very common off late. After bookings and rebookings, I finally got a Uber cab. The driver sounded a little hesitant, but took the booking. Since the cab was still a little away, I used the time to have some refreshments. The cab turned up sometime around 1736hrs. Traffic seemed to be light since it was a Saturday evening - it still took about 57 minutes to travel the 28.5kms from office to Mysore road satellite bus station. As I walked into the bus station, the bus that would take me home that night (RP652) was being prepared to the journey - the crew were getting ready as well.

I headed to the reservation counter to meet people I knew there and spent the rest of the time speaking to them. I received a message with the details of the bus at the crew 30 minutes before departure. I headed to the bus, left my luggage inside and headed out to buy some snacks. In the meantime, I confirmed with the crew that we'd be stopping for dinner on the way, and also confirmed the location of the break. The conductor was busy calling up passengers who were yet to report and confirming their location. There were a couple of No-Shows and the crew managed to find a few last minute passengers. We finally departed from Mysore Road Satellite Bus station at 2011hrs - eleven minutes behind schedule.

RP652 is one of two buses homed at Alappuzha (then). The bus had clocked a little over 1.47lakh kms. The driver was from Sulthan Bathery depot, and the conductor from Alappuzha depot. The driver seemed quite efficient about attracting more passengers - he slowed down near the Mysore platform and called out for more passengers - and he was successful at that. The driver maintained steady pace - absolutely no honking, and no rash cuts. Soon after we started, the conductor got busy issuing tickets to unreserved passengers, and collecting Service tax amount from reserved passengers. KSRTC had began realizing service tax from passengers only in the beginning of December, and all passengers who reserved before that hadn't paid the tax. The conductor had a tough time verifying when the tickets were booked and then recovering the tax amout. My tax amount came to Rs. 47, and I was issued manual tickets for the same. There was a little bit of traffic as we headed towards Kengeri - it took us 33 minutes to get to Kengeri, a little under 8 kms. We picked up a couple of passengers at Kengeri and started off at 2044hrs.
Tickets issued for Service tax - 9 tickets of Rs. 5 (printed as Rs 5.50) and one ticket of Rs. 2 (200ps). 
Soon after we started from Kengeri, a movie was played on the AV System. I was enjoying the driving style - he kept pace, overtook with care, and did not honk at all. The AC was set at a very comfortable temperature. Being in the first row, I did not have to worry about leg room at all. Blankets were folded and kept on the seats - they smelled fresh. Waterbottles were not given to passengers - but the arrogant egoistic conductor just pointed to a carton kept next to the driver seat when people asked for water bottles, with a "take it if you want" expression. Soft product is something KSRTC badly lacks in - and this conductor just strengthened my belief. The conductor was hell bent on refusing passengers from keeping their bags inside the bus, and ordered passengers to leave it in the baggage hold - but he never helped passengers with keeping the bag inside, or retrieving them.
My bus when we stopped for dinner..
We stopped for dinner at Hotel Dreams, a little past Channapatna - this is a regular break point for KSRTC buses that depart from Bangalore irrespective of time, at 2140hrs. There weren't much options for dinner - I opted for Kerala Porotta (layered flat bread made from Maida aka Refined flour) and a green peas masala. The food was quite good - unusual for places where buses stop, and it wasn't very expensive either. I quickly finished my food and had a short stroll outside the hotel. A special bus to Ernakulam had also stopped for dinner. A couple of KSRTC buses skipped this hotel and rushed ahead (I spotted them stopped at a different hotel a little ahead). We started after dinner at 2200hrs.

I was quite tired from the long day that I had. I slowly slipped asleep soon after we started from dinner break. We had stopped to drop a passenger at Srirangapatna (2250hrs) and then headed to Mysore. I woke up just as the bus was entering the bus station - the clock read 2309hrs. We had a party booking from there - some 9 passengers joining us there. Half of them hadn't come yet, and we had to wait for them to turn up. We finally departed from Mysore at 2320hrs. I slept off even before the bus entered the highway. I had a nice long sleep and woke up just as the bus stopped at the forest entry check-post. The conductor got off the bus to sign in their entry register. This is one of the two buses of KSRTC that has permit to enter the forest during the closure time (2100-0600hrs). We entered the forest at 0026hrs.

The roads were empty, and silent - there were lots of deers and stags on and along the highway. The driver did not honk, and drove really slow. There were a couple of elephant herds on the way, but they seemed calm and remained off the road. Fog descended as we neared the state border. We crossed over to Kerala at 0056hrs - the conductor had to go to the check post and sign in the register at Moolehole (the exit checkpost) as well. Fog got thicker as we entered Kerala - visibility dropped at some places, forcing the driver to crawl. At one point we had to brake hard as the driver spotted a herd of deer on the highway. As we neared the exit point of the forest, at Ponkuzhy, elephant spottings became more common. At one point, we spotted a single elephant standing a little beside the road. Since traffic restriction on the kerala side was less strict as compared to Karnataka, a lot of trucks were parked on the highway - one such truck made us stop on the road, in order to give way to another bus that came on the opposite direction. The bus driver went at a fairly good speed angering the elephant - as soon as the bus passed, the elephant turned around, and it looked quite angry - it charged at our bus - the driver had very good presence of mind and he stepped on the gas pedal - the 360horses we had the disposal helped us get out of the scene in no time.

We finally exited the forest at 0108hrs. The driver had to struggle a bit to take a U turn at Chungam to enter the road towards the KSRTC bus station - the main entry was too steep for the bus (the bus would scrape its rear portion) and the driver had no choice by to take a U turn. We finally entered the bus station at 0124hrs, and headed straight to the fuel station. The driver changed here - a driver from Alappuzha depot took charge from the guy who brought in the bus from Bengaluru. Fueling took a lot of time. A few passengers got down here, and the crew were able to get some walk-in passengers to replace them. We finally started from there at 0140hrs. The new driver was a bit rash - he threw the bus around corners, brakes were quite hard and honked quite a bit. I slept soon after we were back on the highway. I vaguely remember passing Kalpetta (0210hrs) - I wanted to see the bus pass the Wayanad Pass - but I slept off really well. I guess the bus handled the ghats effortlessly, given the fact I slept quite well.

I woke up hearing the conductor calling out for passengers alighting at Kozhikode bus station - the bus was entering the bus station then, and the time was 0401hrs. I dozed off even before the bus started from Kozhikode - a straight undisturbed sleep. I woke up just as the bus took the turn at Poonkunnam. An elderly gentleman, who was traveling with his family, requested the crew to stop at Poonkunnam - the conductor refused, saying the next stop is only at Thrissur. I seriously hate this kind of attitude from a premium service crew. I am sure stopping to help that gentleman will not cause a great delay for the bus - its the attitude and friendliness that really matters in a premium service. We finally pulled into Thrissur bus station at 0625hrs - the conductor just called out for Thrissur passengers and walked out of the bus - he neither helped passengers retrieve their baggage, nor monitor if anybody stole bags from the baggage hold.
The bus after dropping me at Thrissur.
Closing remarks: The bus, KL-15-A-1415 (RP652) of Alappuzha depot, had clocked about 1.47lakh kms. The bus appeared fairly well kept - there were some rattles here and there. The 482kms ride from Bangalore to Thrissur took 10 hours and 14 minutes to complete - good timing considering the fact that the bus runs on a two lane highway for over 75% of its distance, including a ghat section in between. The conductor was a terrible let down for a premium service - refusing to let any kind of bag inside is outright disgusting, and the fact that there was absolutely no monitoring of who takes bags from the baggage hold was even more disgusting. The conductor never bothered helping passengers with anything - not with handling bags, or even handing over water bottles. He stood there pointing his finger at the carton and asked people to take a bottle if they want. The drivers were a mixed bag - the first driver was very polite, drove really well and spoke low. The second guy was loud mouthed, driving style that bordered on being called rash, honked through the night and shared the refusals to help passengers. As I type this, this particular service ceased to exist - I reserve my points or suggestions on how to improve the service, but a general thought is that crew sent on such services should be trained on how to behave with passengers. I really doesn't hurt to be humble or to stop at places where there is no stop, to let passengers alight.

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, Worked.
Entertainment: Available - Movie played.

Maintenance: 4.5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 3.5/5 (5/5 for the first driver, 2.5/5 for the second)
Crew behaviour: 2.5/5 (0/5 for the conductor, 5/5 for the first driver, 3/5 for the second driver)
Punctuality: 5/5 (left 11 minutes late, arrived 5 minutes late - acceptable)

Overall: 4/5

Pros: Cheap, State bus
Cons: Terrible crew, attitude thrown around

Will I take this service again? Would love to - but the service doesn't exist anymore. Will surely try the Scania service again 

Friday, January 06, 2017

iFly Six Four Seven: The City of Destiny to the Garden City!

After booking my outbound ticket to attend the annual Pharmacist's congress, I started off my search for my return ticket. My requirement was a late evening flight - IndiGo 647 fit my bill to the T. Without much thoughts, I headed to the IndiGo website, and booked a ticket. I applied a discount voucher I had, and pocketed a fairly good discount on my booking. I did an online seat selection, and the integrated travel document was delivered to my mailbox shortly afterwards.

December 18, 2016:
It was a tiring day at the congress. The day wrapped up with my students winning a prize for their dance performance at the cultural performance. We ended the campaign on a happy note - there was a little bit of disappointment since we expected some prizes in the scientific sessions as well - but that didn't happen. I left the venue a little early to complete some shopping that I had to do. I had checked out of my room earlier in the morning - so just headed to the hotel and picked up my luggage from the bell desk and moved it to the Ola cab that was waiting for me. The highway was a little chocked. I reached the airport around 1851 hours - more than two hours before my flight.
Waiting for baggage screening to open..
I entered the terminal building and found a place to rest. Baggage scanning was yet to begin - the check-in counters were yet to open as well. The waiting area seemed quite crowded - no less than 4 flights were opening in the next 30 minutes or so. The baggage screening counter came alive around 1915hrs, and I was the first in line. I got my bag screened by 1917, and headed to the check-in counters, which was just opening then. The agent quickly checked in my bag and issued a boarding card by 1919hr. Security check was deserted, and I was done by 1923hrs. The security hold was crowded - just a few seats vacant here and there.
Check-in counters..
The departures FIDS.. The one on top is my flight..
Crowded security hold
I spent the rest of my time doing two things - watching a movie on my phone, and tracking the incoming aircraft on FR24. VT-IFG, Airbus A320-232 with line number 5411, delivered to IndiGo in December 2012 was on its way from Bengaluru to take me back home. I missed a sharklet equipped aircraft by one registration. The inbound aircraft came in at 2046hrs. By now the security hold was a big mess - two flights to Bengaluru were delayed (one of them had just left), and another 3 flights were scheduled. The small security hold was packed with passengers departing by 5 different flights - 2 turboprops and 3 A320s - somewhere around 650, or so, passengers! And, to make matters worse, all the flights were boarding from the same gate!

Date of Journey: December 18, 2016
Airline: IndiGo
Flight No: 6E 647 || Seat: 21A
Aircraft type: Airbus A320-232 || MSN: 5411 || Regn: VT-IFG
Sector: VTZ-BLR
STD: 2110hrs, ATD: 2117hrs
STA: 2240hrs, ATA: 2242hrs

Soon after the aircraft landed, pre-boarding announcements were made. I was tired sitting, and decided to queue up, even before boarding was called, in true desi fashion. Gate 1 had two sub-gates - rather, two boarding desks, each of which could be used as a gate itself. Staffers from Indigo and SpiceJet were fighting, albeit in a friendly way, about who gets to use the gate. Both the airlines had flights departing in the next 30 minutes, and both were allotted the same gate. While the aircraft for my flight had already landed, the aircraft of SpiceJet was yet to land. Finally, a boarding call was made at 2056hrs. I was at the front end of the queue already, and was the first guest to board.
My boarding pass strikes a pose with Hello 6E, the inflight shopping catalogue..
A Casual chat with the check-in agent confirmed that were had good loads - 176 booked, 174 checked-in. Although the aircraft was parked at a bay quite close to the terminal building, bus boarding was used. Quite unusually, the did wait for the bus to be packed either - the bus started moving towards the aircraft as soon as the seats were filled and about 10 passengers were standing. We got to the aircraft by about 2101hrs. It was exactly 15 minutes since the bird landed at Visakhapatnam - as the bus stopped, IndiGo's housekeeping men were walking out of the bird - a very impressive turn-around. We had to wait for a couple of minutes before the crew confirmed that the cabin was ready for boarding. I walked into an uber clean aircraft by 2105hrs, warmly welcomed by the cabin crew at the entry.

Boarding was real quick - people were brought in small batches and they managed to complete board by 2111hrs. Doors were armed by 2115hrs and we were pushed back by 2117hrs. Welcome announcements were made as we were being pushed back - in command of the flight was Capt Sanjay Rathore and First officer Vinod Nikam. The safety demonstration was rushed through as we prepared for taxi. The captain also announced that we would have a very short taxi, since the apron is located towards the end of Runway 10, which would be used for take off. We commenced taxi at 2124hrs. We were on the active runway a minute later, and we finally took off to the east, by around 2127hrs. We flew straight to the sea, before turning around to the land, and setting cruise to the South West. The flight path was right above the hotel I was put-up in Vizag for the past three days - and I did spot my hotel as we climbed out of Vizag.

The seatbelt sign was turned off at 2131hrs - four minutes after we took off. The food trolleys came out soon after the seatbelt sign was turned off. Since some time, Indigo has been using three trolleys to serve passengers - one for every ten rows. Since I was on 21A, there was one trolley starting from there - and needless to say, I was the first to be served, since I also had pre-reserved a meal.  I had selected my meal from the menu card well in advance. The menu card was a surprise for me - a lot of interesting stuff were missing from the card. Only Dal Chawal, Upma and the Cup Noodles were available in the hot meal option. I hadn't tried the ready in 3/5/8 minute hot meals on Indigo - they are available only on sectors longer than 60 minutes, and my regular BLR-COK flights don't have them. I wanted to use this as the opportunity to try them.
The "Meal"..
"Magic Dal Chawal" from the IndiMeal menu.. 
I opted for a Dal Chawal this time. I badly wanted something hot to drink, and opted for a Masala Chai instead of the usual juice options. The FA added water, closed the lid of the Dal Chawal and handed over with an instruction to open it after 8 minutes. The Chai was ready to drink as she handed over. Tea was served in a fluted paper cup, with a cap. IndiGo uses a Girnar Instant Premix Tea with Masala on board - this was also conveyed to me before the tea was prepared - that was a nice touch to keep the guest updated on what brand of tea was used. The Masala used in the tea had a very strong flavour, made of  Cloves, Nutmeg, Black Pepper, Ginger, Cinnamon & Cardamom (ingredients as mentioned on the Girnar website). I sipped on the hot tea while I counted the 8 minutes needed for my Dal Chawal to be ready. I opened the container with a little bit of hesitation - anxious of what is looks like, and what it tastes like. As I opened the container, I saw long grain basmati rice, with lentils and veggies (carrot and french beans). The entire contents remained below half the height of the container. The was well cooked, tasted quite nice - neither too spicy, nor bland. I enjoyed the meal completely, and washed down the meal with whatever tea remained.
My fluted paper cup with the Hottest Drink on the Coolest Airline - Girnar Masala Tea..
The Dal Chawal.. aka Rice in lentil soup with veggies..
I took my sweet time to complete the meal. There was a round of thrash clearance half way into the flight, and I disposed off my thrash during that round. I caught up with some sleep for a while. The seatbelt signs were back on at 2224hrs. I guessed that we'd be landing on Rwy09 going by the approach, and I was quite right at that. We touched down on Rwy09 at 2238hrs. We finally docked at stand #13 by 2242hrs. Deboarding was only through the front exit. I got off the aircraft by 2249hrs. I had actually thought the aircraft would be parked for the night, but the new found series of red-eyes from IndiGo meant the aircraft was heading out again, and she was headed to Goa! The crowd at the boarding gate seemed good - probably a fairly full flight at such an odd hour as well! It took a very long time to deliver the checked in baggage - which turned up only at 2302hrs. I was too tired to think of taking a bus, and headed straight to the App Taxi pick-up point, into a waiting Ola!

Check-in: 5/5 (Seat was preselected, was auto checked-in, counter was fuss free)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (Awesome as always on IndiGo)
Punctuality: 5/5 (No major delay)
Crew: 5/5 (Great crew)
Catering: 5/5 (Good Food)
Overall: 5/5 (Good flight - enjoyed this one)
Tracking from FR24..
This was my ninth flight with Indigo. I always loved the cleanliness on Indigo, and the way they maintain their aircrafts. The interiors are always standard - Recaro Slimline seats, that liberate a lot of leg room and standardised signages irrespective of age of aircraft. There are a few things that I often dislike on IndiGo - the number of hurried announcements they make, the limited range of onboard meals and the mechanical service put up by their crew. However, the last few flights with them have been generally nice - had a few flights with warm crew who put up a smile while serving. Although the menu was quite limited, I quite liked the meal I had this time. The Chai was surprise for me - it tasted really good, and will surely remain high on my choice during the next flight with Indigo. A great flight to wrap up 2016! 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The year that 2016 was...

2016 was a great year for me - I hope it was, for you as well.

Four years in to teaching and feels really good to see my students well placed, and my heart fills with joy when they call back to update their growth in life.

2016 was happening - over 6450 miles by air, over 10000kms by road, a few train journeys thrown in as well. Traveled a lot this year, to a lot of places. Revisited Shirdi this year as well. Had a lot of firsts this year, including trying the new Mercedes Benz Super High Deck coach.

My first flight of this year was on board Air Pegasus - a nice, cute, smiling airline, which doesn't fly anymore, while the last flight was with IndiGo - the market leader in India.

Attended the annual busfans meet in Pamba - the largest gathering of bus fans ever this time, as well.

While the year had a lot of happenings in my life, I am terribly upset by a lot of things thats been happening in this world. Terrorism, loss of innocent lives in the name of religion - something that always upsets me. Commercialization of hobbies - something a hobbyist in me cannot accept.

I love my buses, I love my trains - I do not intend to make money out of it, and have never made any.

My life is turning a definite turn this year - lesser travels the next year, lesser posts, perhaps, here as well. Let me turn the pages to 2017..

Wishing all my readers a very happy, prosperous and fun-filled year ahead!

Happy New Year 2017!!!

 With lots of wishes that all your wishes come true in life... but, remember that better things in life happen only with hardwork.

My India! My Pride!

Friday, December 30, 2016

To Vizag on RedKnight 1452: Flying 'The Pioneer'

To go or not. Let me see if my paper gets selected.

The annual gathering of Pharmacists in India was happening in Visakhapatnam, the City of Destiny, a very important port city in the newly formed state of Andhra pradesh. Located along the eastern coast of the Indian Peninsula, Vizag was always a city of interest for me. This annual gathering is a place for meeting a lot of people, a great opportunity to present research papers and a large gathering of pharmacists - a place where one feels proud of the profession. The gathering is usually very crowded, and I prefer going there only if I have a research paper presentation. My paper got selected for the presentation, and I decided to make it to the event.

Next came the time to book tickets. My colleagues were flying an early morning flight - I thought of taking a little later flight, and booked on RedKnight 1450 - AirAsia India, I5, 1450. This was also an early departure, but later than my colleagues' flight. This flight had a 0615hrs departure from Bengaluru, when I booked. A few days later, I happened to check tickets for another colleague of mine, and noticed an AirAsia Flight to Vizag, departing later in the day - at 0905hrs. This one had a different flight number, and I really did not notice. A few days before my trip, I took printouts of the itinerary (as is my usual practice) - this time I noticed that my flight number had changed to I51452, and had a 0905hrs departure. My jinx with AirAsia continues! Yet another reschedule, and I haven't even been notified of this change!

I receive this message a few days before my flight, and that was the first ever communication from AirAsia India about the change - notice the wordings:
                        Reminder-Dear Guest, your flight I5-1452 (BLR-VTZ) on 15-Dec-16 departs at 9:05 AM. Check-in counters open 2hrs prior and close 45mins prior to your flight. We recommend that you report early to avoid any inconvenience. Have a pleasant flight with us - AirAsia
They sent me a reminder about my flight - but they never informed me that my flight had changed from 0615hrs to 0905hrs! Although I did not regret this change - since this flight takes me to Vizag a little later, and helps me beat my hotel's check-in time restrictions, but I was terribly upset about AirAsia not even bothering to inform about the reschedule. A couple of days before the journey, I try to do an online check-in, and end up being allotted a middle seat towards the aft section of the aircraft! I try modifying my booking or altering the seat - the mobile app doesn't let me do any of these. I finally try though the website, and I am asked to pay for a forward seat - left with no options (the seat layout hinted that we were almost full), I opt for seat #8A, and pay for the seat selection.

December 15, 2016: Around 0600hrs:
I fire up various cab booking apps. I check ride estimates of each operator, and end up flummoxed finding the cheapest fare on Meru! Meru is otherwise the most expensive option. The cab turns up a few minutes later - a sane driver, with a fairly tired looking Maruti Swift Dzire with Airport Taxi decals. He dropped me at the airport by around 0715hrs. There was a fairly big queue at the terminal entry gate - quite unusual for the time of the day, consider it was a weekday. I was inside the terminal 5 minutes later. I was quite hungry by now, and badly wanted to have something. I rushed to the check-in counters, and was done with check-in by 0735hrs.
Crowded entry to the terminal..
The AirAsia Check-in counters..
Security was a little less messy - I was done with security check by 0745hrs. I headed straight to the Above Ground Lounge for a quick breakfast. Unlike my previous experience, the Ola access worked like breeze this time, and I was inside the lounge in no time. Being quite early on a weekday, the lounge was quite deserted. I headed straight to the buffet counters, and picked samples of most items on the menu.
The Above Ground Level Lounge - used by quite some airlines..
Abundant seating..
My breakfast plate..
I relished on the fresh cut fruits, Idlis, Pongal and Vermicelli Upma (thick porridge) with Sambhar, washed down with a hot cappuccino. I remained in the lounge till Flightradar24 showed my aircraft approaching the airport. It was VT-JRT, The Pioneer - AirAsia India's Airbus A320-216 delivered originally to AirAsia in 2008 as 9M-AHI. She received the special Tribute to JRD Tata livery in Jan 2015. Juliet Romeo Tango touched down at Runway 09 at 0829hrs. I headed to the gate by now.

Date of Journey: December 15, 2016
Airline: AirAsia India
Flight No: I5-1452 || Seat: 8A
Aircraft type: Airbus A320-216 || MSN: 3448 || Regn: VT-JRT
Sector: BLR-VTZ
STD: 0905hrs, ATD: 0901hrs
STA: 1040hrs, ATA: 1032hrs

The first boarding call was made at 0843hrs - less than 14 minutes since the bird touched down at Bengaluru. Zone wise boarding was strictly implemented. Since I was in the forward section, I was in zone-3, and boarding for this zone was called last. By the time I reached the gate, the "Final Call" signs flashed, and the gate agents starting calling out for any remaining passengers.
Boarding from Gate 9.. 
I was inside the aircraft by 0855hrs. Boarding was completed by 0858hrs - we were almost full. Doors were armed by 0901hrs. The captain came on the PA system a little after the doors were armed - we were appraised of a delay in pushback due to other pushback activity behind us. Captain Jamshed Khan with First Officer Abhishek was flying us to Vizag. The captain gave out some #Avgeek information - planned flight level FL370, takeoff from Runway 09 of Bengaluru to the east, and then flying North East to Vizag, making an approach over the sea to land on Runway 28. That was a lot of technical stuff. We were finally pushed back at 0905hrs, as the cabin crew led by Ms Divya were busy doing the safety demo.
Soon after takeoff, as we rotate North-east..
We commenced Taxi at 0908hrs, and headed towards the holding point A6 of runway 09. We got there by 0916hrs, and had to hold for a while for an incoming flight. It was IndiGo's VT-IDD, coming in from Pune. We entered the active runway at 0917hrs, and held on for a minute before the takeoff roll commenced. We took off finally at 0919hrs. We climbed quite fast, and set direction towards North East before leveling off. The seatbelt sign was switched off by 0924hrs. The carts rolled out in no time, and meals for passengers with pre-reserved meals were delivered from the rear galley. My pre-reserved mean, South Indian Delight accompanied by a 200ml of Apple Juice and a bottle of water came soon after the service began.
The breakfast combo..
Breakfast combo unboxed..
The contained contained a fairly big Idli dipped in creamy Sambhar, Semolina Upma, and a Rava (Semolina) Masala Dosa. The Idli was good, but the sambhar was too creamy to be an accompaniment. The upma was awesome - well cooked, appropriately spicy, with a little overpowering flavour of turmeric. The dosa was nothing special - not a fan of dosas served in flights - the filling was bland. I did enjoy the meal - but not the best I've had on AirAsia. But special appreciation goes to TajSATS. I washed it down with the juice, and the juice with water. Cabin clearance happened a little late. I spent most of the flying time reading the Travel3Sixty magazine - which, unfortunately, was the Malaysian edition. The articles were all about destinations served out of Malaysia - but still worth spending time.
Short finals into Visakhapatnam
The seatbelt sign came back on at 1014hrs, followed by the routine cabin clearance call, and a round of clearance. We were flying over the Bay of Bengal already - the port of Visakhapatnam was visible. Marine traffic seemed to be quite high as well. We approached the shore quite fast, and touched down on Runway 28 of Visakhapatnam, at 1029hrs. Full reversers deployed, and we burnt quite a lot of rubber to come to a complete halt at the first taxiway to enter the apron. We docked at bay 03 by 1032 - an Air Costa was just being pushed back at that time. I was among the last people to get off the aircraft, by 1037hrs - the last set of passengers were made to wait in scorching sun on the apron for some time - until the tarmac coach turned up, after dropping the first lot of passengers at the terminal. Baggage took some more time to turn up - I got mine by 1046hrs, and walked out of the airport a minute later.

Check-in: 3/5 (The App doesn't let select a seat. Counter was fuss free)
Cleanliness: 3.5/5 (Aircraft was not cleared after the last flight. Scratched windows)
Punctuality: 5/5 (No major delay)
Crew: 4.5/5 (Good crew)
Catering: 5/5 (Good Food)
Overall: 4/5 (Good flight - enjoyed this one)
Tracking from FlightRadar24..
This was my eighth flight with AirAsia India, and second on board VT-JRT. As always, the crew were great - good service, with the warmth that is needed in the hospitality industry. The catering was good - but not the best item from AirAsia India. They, infact, took a lot of pride in introducing their Santan menu, and their wide food offering. The check-in on the mobile app was messy - no seat selection option, and automatic allotment of middle seats. The counter check-in was fuss free - was a breeze. The aircraft wasn't very clean - I am not a fan of clumped up seat belts and left over of previous sectors. The windows were bad - had plenty of scratches and scars. The maintenance isn't even a shade of the LCC market leader - who keeps their aircraft in great shape, irrespective of age. Another good flight with AirAsia India - looking out for the next with them.