Friday, January 30, 2015

Air India A319 Bengaluru to Hyderabad!

The annual gathering of pharmacists was happening in Hyderabad this year. I am not a regular participant to this gathering, but decided to make it this year. A large group of my students were presenting papers at this conference, and I had a presentation too. The initial plan was to travel with my students by train to Hyderabad. As the travel date came closer, things went awry and I had to postpone my journey. An exam I had to officiate got postponed and got right into my plans. I had to let go my train ticket - and decided to look for alternatives. I preferred reaching the previous evening, so that I can be at the conference a bit fresh after catching up a bit of sleep. I got down to hunting tickets for my trip - being the beginning of a long weekend, trains were mostly sold out. The only one that had a ticket wasn't suitable for my timing.

Buses were overpriced - thanks to a long weekend. The buses would drop me quite late in the city, and I wasn't very happy at that as well. I kept an STU bus leaving early in the evening as an option, and continued hunting for options. I checked flights too, which were priced at high rates. A day before my journey, I got to hunting tickets on various ticket portals and noticed that Air India was giving great last moment fares. The same fare reflected on most sites and even on the official website - I had a discount coupon for a travel portal, and applied the portal and booked the ticket through that site. The payment went through, but no ticket! After waiting about an hour, I called up the call centre of the portal, who confirmed my details and said they'd call back - they did call back in less than 30 minutes and confirmed my booking. So, I had a confirmed ticket for an evening Air India flight to Hyderabad - my second A319 ride!

January 22, 2015:
I had to hurry a bit with the examinations and had to leave office shortly past 2pm. The clerical work associated with the examinations took quite a lot of time, and I could leave office only towards 1430hrs. There are no direct connections from our main campus to the airport - I had to change some buses to reach the airport. With time running out fast, I decided to hire a cab for a part of the journey, which dropped me at Hebbal. From there, it was a bus to the airport. I was finally at the airport shortly past 1650hrs. The entry gates at the terminal were crowded like never before - the long weekend ahead meant most of Bengaluru was heading out of town. It did not take much time though. Check-in was again a breeze (I had checked in online, but hadn't taken a printout) - the agent at the counter was well behaved - he spoke softly and had a nice smiling face. I had baggage to check in - which was handled quite well. Armed with the boarding pass, I headed the security check.
AI Check-in counters..
Queue at Security Check
I saw the worst ever queue at the security check - the place resembled a peak hour railway ticket booking counter in Mumbai! Long queues at every counter, and the airport guys had a tough time keeping the queue in bay. It took almost 20 minutes to pass security (the longest ever I've experienced) - there were lots of first time fliers this time, and the CISF cops had a tough time clearing them. I was finally in the security hold by 1725hrs. I was quite hungry by now, and wanted to have some light food. I thought of trying a new food outlet - Taste of India in the domestic terminal - but the items on offer did not look very inviting. I was back to the trusted Malgudi Express. I had lots of time to spend - my flight was still close to an hour away. As usual, I sat down checking FR24 and browsing the net. FR24 said my aircraft was VT-SCK, and it was flying close to an hour late! I was a bit upset with the delay.

Date of Journey: January 22, 2015
Flight No: AI-516 || Seat: 10F
Aircraft type: Airbus 319 || Regn: VT-SCK
Sector: BLR-HYD
STD: 1850hrs, ATD: 1915hrs
STA: 1955hrs, ATA: 2019hrs

The aircraft for my flight came in at 1840hrs. The incoming flight appeared full, going by the number of passengers who walked out. Passengers deplaned very quick, and quite unusually (for AI), the aircraft was ready for the return leg very soon. Boarding was called very soon, and they called passengers by rows. Passengers seated in rows 12 to 21 were the first to be called. The agents at the gate actually enforced zone-wise boarding - they held display boards mentioning the row number while calling out passengers - they infact asked a few passengers with seats on other rows to step aside as well. Soon after most passengers for these rows had finished boarding, they opened up free-for-all boarding. I joined the queue now, and I was inside the aircraft by 1900hrs. There were 4 levels of verification before I reached the aircraft - one at the gate by AI agents, then by CISF at the gate, then another one by AI agents (the counter-foil was torn here) and finally once again by an AI Security right before the aircraft door.
My boarding pass..
Security Hold.. waiting for boarding to be called..
Boarding about to begin from Gate #7
A middle aged flight attendant stood at the door welcoming passengers with the typical Namaskaar. Two more FAs were in the aisle welcoming passengers and helping them with baggage. My seat (#10F) was right on the wing. The interiors appeared very fresh and clean. The seat pockets for my seat was torn and needed some maintenance. The IFE screens were turned off - except the "Announcement in Progress" messages, nothing was displayed on the screen. Boarding was quite slow - doors were armed by 1913hrs. The aircraft was full - 100% loads. The aircraft was pushed back at 1915hrs. Just past push back, the purser came on the PA and welcomed all passengers to "Air India's Airbus 319 on AI516 to Hyderabad", followed by the announcement that AI is now a Star Alliance Member. She identified herself as Sunila (or Sunita) and added that the flight was commandeered by Capt NK Dutta. The safety demonstration followed. It was an actual demonstration, and not a video played on the IFE.
Shortly before push back..
We commenced Taxi at 1919hrs - it was a long run towards Rwy09. While taxiing, I spotted an Indigo A320 and an Air India A320 land. We had to hold for sometime, while a Jet Airways ATR72 landed. We were finally airborne at 1930hrs. The aircraft shook violently as we took off, and there was a lot of irritating clatter. The seatbelt sign was switched off at 1934hrs, and the in-flight service commenced immediately afterwards. Passengers were offered a snack, a water-bottle and a hot beverage. The snack contained a Cheese Sandwich and a piece of Chocolate brownie. The snack was served in an aluminum foil container, on a tray. The snack serving was followed by a round of hot beverages - I preferred Coffee as usual. The sandwich was soft, but had absolutely no vegetable in it - just a cheese spread plus a piece of lettuce. The brownie was a bit on the harder side, but tasted good.
The meal tray.. 
A while after the service was over, the FAs came around for clearing the trays. There were 5 attendants in the aircraft - an all female cabin crew. The attendant taking care of executive class (the purser) appeared quite rude - quite the typical Air India aunty style. (No offence intended). The first officer came on the PA, and gave a short description about the flight. He explained that the delay in departure was due to late arrival of the incoming aircraft, which was due to some delay in Pune. He added that we were at FL330, and had already commenced descent. Shortly after his detailing, the seatbelt sign came on, and the typical landing announcement was made (2003hrs). By now lights were visible below. After the landing announcement was made, the FAs came around to check if the cabin was prepared for landing. The guy sitting on the aisle seat of my row had his tray table open. The purser came to the seat with a rude angry face - I was really afraid if she would hit him. She made a stern request to close the tray table - did not feel that approach was right. As we closed into the airport, the aircraft performed a beautiful right banking to align to the landing path. We finally touched down on Rwy09R at 2013hrs. After exiting the runway, we had a very long taxi to the apron - an Indigo A320 and an Air Costa E-Jet were preparing to taxi out. After a longish taxi, we finally parked at Stand 59, at 2019hrs - the aircraft is parked overnight at this stand, and hence there is no jetway. Deplaning started soon later, and I got off the aircraft at 2023hrs - into a waiting tarmac bus of AI-SATS.
VT-SCK.. after deplaning. Pic taken from the tarmac bus.
This was the first time I was entering the terminal building of Hyderabad. In my past journey, I passed through the airport. The bus had a long run to the terminal building - we were dropped near an escalator, which takes passengers to the first level - the domestic arrivals. I made a quick visit to the washroom - which looked quite outdated for new airport. It took a long time for the baggage to arrive - my bags came only at 2040hrs. The baggage carousel was interesting - the luggage pops up from a lower level, and is dumped on to the conveyor belt - I felt this system could seriously damage fragile items in baggage. It was then a long walk to get out of the airport. It was a bit confusing layout - a long winding ramp to get to the the airport bus terminal. There were no officials at the bus terminal, and there was no sign of the bus I wanted. I had a very quick dinner for the food court there, and on coming back saw a bus on the route I wanted to travel on, thereby ending this part of my journey.
Waiting for my bag..
Ratings:
Check-in: 5/5 (Very quick, no nonsense)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the interiors were clean, windows were soiled though)
Punctuality: 4.25/5 (Left about 25 minutes late)
Crew: 3.5/5 (rudeness from a member, totally mixed experience)
On-Board Service: 4.5/5 (The sandwich could've been better)
Overall: 4.25/5 (A nice flight for the price)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On the 'new' Jet Airways: Kochi to Bengaluru

I wanted to make this journey an ATR special. My outbound was booked two months in advance on the Air India Regional ATR42 (Read here). I hadn't booked the return ticket in anticipation of a new regional airline coming up in the South - but as the date came closer, there was no sign of the new airline taking off, and I got on to hunt for my return ticket. I wasn't shocked or astonished to see that the sector leader, Jet Airways offered the cheapest rates on the route. Without much thoughts, I went ahead and booked a ticket on Jet Airways - after all, this would be an opportunity for me to try the new full-service offering from Jet. Jet Airways operates 5 services on the Bengaluru-Kochi-Bengaluru sector, all using ATR72s. I was taking a day off on Monday, and hence had the option of picking one of the three evening departures - I chose the one at 1910hrs - the other two are at 1605 and 2225hrs. I've been on the 2225hrs service twice earlier, while the 1605hrs would mean I'd have to leave home soon after lunch.

January 19, 2015:
Given my obsession to use public transport as far as possible, I left home after my evening tea, just past 4pm. The nearest bus stop is hardly 300mts away, and headed there to catch the first of four buses that I have to take to reach the airport. The journey to the airport was usual - just that I missed the bus to the airport in the last leg and had to hire an auto-rickshaw. I reached the airport sometime past 1745hrs - with 85 minutes to go for my flight. Entry to the departure terminal was fairly crowded - looked mostly like people heading back after vacations. I noticed that there weren't any passenger carrying a Jet Airways ticket. I decided to click some pics inside the terminal, and use the washroom before checking in. The check-in desk was absolutely empty - just two agents talking to each other.
The Domestic Terminal. The baggage screening and check in counters can be seen. There is a layer of security between.
The absolutely deserted Jet Airways check-in counters..
They surely did not mind my intrusion - a quick good evening and a warm smile as the agent welcomed me, and checked me in. He reconfirmed if I had check-in baggage before printing the boarding pass for me. Armed with the boarding pass, I headed for security check. Of late, there is a pre-security screening - a cop stands on the way and checks the boarding pass before letting passengers to the scanning/frisking area. Security check was deserted - as is the norm on most of my journeys - I was past security check in no time. I was in the security hold by 1754hrs - just 9 minutes after reaching the airport!!
Security Hold : With the age old wooden Sofas.
There was no activity in the terminal at all. The waiting area was more or less empty. I was a bit hungry by now, and decided to try out the small eatery present in the security hold. I picked up a sandwich from there and headed to a seat with a view of the apron. An Air-India flight was expected then, and a gate agent was waiting there for the aircraft to come in. Jet Airways' B738 VT-JBP was resting on the international side of the apron. Sometime around 1805hrs, Air India Regional's VT-ABO (My incoming aircraft) taxi'd into the apron. The AI agent now sprang up from the chair she was resting on, and announced the arrival of the aircraft. They were taking forever to call for boarding - quite unlike what Jet or the LCCs do. While Air India commenced boarding, I saw my aircraft sneaking in behind (1823hrs) - I couldn't see the registration, but was hoping its a new one for me.

Sometime around 1827, another Jet Airways B738 came in (VT-JBN). This particular time slot sees a set of International departure for Jet Airways. The Air India ATR42 was pushed off at 1832hrs, and shortly afterwards, boarding for my flight was called. By now, I could see the registration of my aircraft - it was VT-JCV, a new registration for me! VT-JCV is a 2010 built ATR72-500 (72-212A), which has been flying with Jet Airways since December 2010.

Date of Journey: January 19, 2015
Flight No: 9W-2741 || Seat: 16F
Sector flown: Kochi - Bengaluru
Aircraft type: ATR 72-500 || Regn: VT-JCV
STD: 1910hrs, ATD: 1914hrs (Pushback)
STA: 2025hrs, ATA: 2030hrs
Right after the boarding call.
The boarding call was made at 1835hrs - and Jet usually calls for a zone wise boarding. It was the same this time as well - passengers on rows 1-9 were called first. But then, we Indians hardly respect such announcements. I decided to stay around till most of the crowd is gone. I joined the queue when the crowd thinned out, and got into the second bus, at 1844hrs. The apron at Kochi is very small, and it hardly takes any time for the bus to reach the aircraft. The first bus hadn't returned when my bus reached there - there was a small queue to get into the aircraft - I was inside by 1851hrs. Flight attendents Shahnaz and Vijayalakshmi were at the door welcoming each guest, and were happily helping passengers with their baggage. The ATR aircraft has a narrow stairway, and passengers with hand-baggage often struggle to get in with their baggage - the cabin crew did a great job helping them.
Just before boarding. That is VT-JCV for me..
One more bus came after my bus, and boarding was done by 1854hrs. I expected a before time departure and looked forward for the door to be armed. But that did not happen. There were no announcements on what was the delay either. Sometime around 1911hrs, another bus arrives at the aircraft - three passengers and two off-duty crew get in to our aircraft. We were actually waiting for these passengers connecting in from an international flight to come in. Door was finally armed at 1913hrs, and Shahnaz started off a long series of announcements. The routine Welcome to Jet Airways announcements in Hindi and English followed by announcements about Jet being a full service carrier now, and an introduction to JetPrivilege. While the announcements were in progress, the aircraft was pushed back (1914hrs).

Capt. Prashant Bhise and Capt. Karan Pratap Singh were at the flight deck. The safety demostrations began soon after push back. We started our long taxi to Rwy27 at 1917hrs. It is a very long taxi and it took us no less than 6 minutes to reach the runway threshold. We had two minutes of waiting before the take-off roll began. We were airborne at 1925hrs - taking off to the west, and then performing two beautiful right banks. The view of Kochi Airport from the air was just mindblowing - I'd have gone shutter happy had it been in the day. After the two turns, we were now headed to the North (northeast to be correct). This was perhaps the most beautiful take-off I've had - I spent most of the time trying to identify the areas I saw below.

Coming to the aircraft - JCV was probably the cleanest ATR that I've been in. The interiors looked very young and fresh. The seats were fresh, and interiors spotless. The windows were a bit dirty though. I felt the seats in this particular aircraft from the ones I've been on earlier (all of Jet Airways). The clean aircraft added to the warm service by the cabin crew made this a trip I'd cherish for the days to come. Soon after the seatbelt sign was switched off, the Shahnaz came on the PA and announced that the inflight service would begin shortly. The trolleys appeared soon. Passengers with special meal requests were served first, and then the regular service began. There were two choices - a Veg and a Chicken. Snacks were served in boxes.
The Snack box, and the water bottle
The contents.. a Veg Bread Roll, and a Choco-Chip muffin
I opened my snack box, and found a bread roll and a choco-chip muffin inside. This was accompanied by a 250ml bottle of water, served chilled. The bread roll was soft and had a paneer filling inside. The roll was medium spicy, and the paneer was a bit rubbery - not very bad though. I am not sure if it was only a thought, but the Muffin did not taste eggless. I'd have loved if they served eggless muffins in the Veg snack boxes (not that I mind having egg - but a general thought). A second serving of water was given on request - infact, the FAs came around with trays containing water bottles and asked all passengers. Sometime around 2000hrs, the FO came on the PA, and detailed about the route we were taking, and said that we were flying at FL170 and we had another 160kms to go to Bangalore. He also introduced the Captain and the cabin crew during his address.

Seatbelt signs came on, and the landing announcement was made at 2013hrs. Soon after the announcements, the cabin crew did another round to check for trash and ensured the cabin was prepared for landing. We touched down on Rwy09 of Bengaluru International Airport at 2024hrs. We had another long taxi after landing - we were to park at Stand #37, a fairly remote stand closer to the western end of the apron. We parked at 2030hrs - it took a couple of minutes before deplaning began. Interestingly, all the passengers remained seated till the aircraft parked and the seatbelt signs went off - quite a rarity in India, I must say. Soon after landing, announcements were made that passengers to Hyderabad should remain seated (The aircraft continues to Hyderabad), while passengers connecting to Pune should contact the ground staff immediately on deplaning. I remained seated for a while, and when the mad queue to get off the aircraft broke, I got off my seat. I was out at 2035hrs. An old rickety tarmac bus took us to the terminal, and I was out of the airport by 2049hrs.
Right after getting off..
Tried getting a full pic, but the gentleman walked in at the last moment..
I must say this - Jet is surely gunning the top spot. I did not find a single reason to whine about (maybe I could whine about the paneer being rubbery or the muffin tasting of egg - but they surely aren't deal breakers). The aircraft was clean, the cabin crew did a great job, were very responsive and I am sure nobody on that flight had reasons to complain. The passengers continuing to Pune were allowed to get off first, and they were immediately ushered into a separate bus. Jet Airways did a great job, right from check-in at Kochi till the time I came out of  Bengaluru airport.

Ratings:
Check-in: 5/5 (Absolutely no-nonsense)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the interiors were spotlessly clean)
Punctuality: 4.95/5 (Left a little late, due to the late incoming connection)
Crew: 5/5 (Absolutely Great service)
On-Board Service: 5/5 (Great food)
Overall: 4.99/5

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A short hop on Maharaja's ATR42: BLR to COK

Air India, the national carrier of India, is always an airline of fantasy for me. Also known the Maharaja, Air India flies a puny ATR-42 to Kochi from Bengaluru (this is Air India's only ATR route in South India). The flight is operated by their subsidiary, Air India Regional, and operates only on 6 days of the week (except Sunday). The Aircraft operates Bengaluru-Kochi-Agati (Lakshadweep Islands) and back. Since they don't fly on Sundays, and their Bengaluru-Kochi flight is in the morning, I never had an opportunity to fly them. Sometime in November, Air India came up with a sale, and sold tickets at very cheap rates. I decided to grab the opportunity and booked a ticket on the morning flight for a Saturday departure in mid January - a whole 2 months in advance. This was perhaps the first booking done without the routine hunt for cheap tickets. It was a long wait for the D-Day! In the meantime, Air India received their first ATR 72-600 - I was a bit worried if they would replace the ATR-42 with the newer ATR72. Either ways, it would be a new type for me.

The day before my journey was a long tiring day - I had to travel to Mysore for an official work, and was back home quite late in the night. I had hardly 4 hours to sleep, and I remained confused about how to go to the airport the next morning. I kept shifting between taking a bus or hiring a cab through to the airport. I decided to book a cab, using an offer by a major airport taxi operator. I booked my cab and caught up with some sleep.

January 17, 2015:
The cab driver called me at 5AM sharp (right after the SMS came from the taxi operator) - but my phone acted up, and did not let me answer calls. I called him back and explained the way to reach my home - a Toyota Etios landed at my home around 0520, and we headed to the airport. The cab driver wasn't very slow - he jumped a few speed-breakers and potholes, and the car wasn't in great shape either (lots of rattles). The gps unit in the car kept shouting at the driver for going fast and kept asking him to slow down - but no response by the driver. I was dropped at the airport a while past 0600hrs. The airport was quite crowded - heavy crowd for the time. There were lots of people mobbing the entry points of the terminal building. After clicking some pics, I headed to the last entry point - since the Air India counters were towards the end. The herd mentality was quite evident here - each entry point has three doors - but all the people mobbed one door. I headed to the empty one nearby and got into the terminal. The time was just past 0625hrs - I had close to two hours to go.
Departures entry
The Departures information display
I was using Air India out of Bangalore for the first time, and hence was clueless about where their Check-in counters are. The departure display systems showed that the check-in for Air-India was at counters #79-86. These were the last check-in counters in the terminal building. The counters were absolutely empty - there was just one person ahead of me for check-in. Check-in was progressing quite slow, and it took some time for my turn. The agent at the check-in counter smiled and gave a warm good morning as I handed over my ticket for check-in. She keyed in the details (AI e-Tickets do not contain a bar-code for some reason), and asked if I wanted to change my pre-selected seats. I chose to move a row forward (don't know if that was a wrong decision) - she quickly got me my new seat number and printed out the boarding card. She clearly told the gate is at a lower level, but I had to go to the first level for security check. That was nice.
The Air India Check-in counters. #79-84. The elevators next to the counter leads to Security Check area.
My boarding pass..
I took the elevators next to the check-in counters. The elevator leaves you outside the MS Ramaiah Hospital at the airport. Then a short walk towards Security Check. Security check was crowded - really crowded. It took close to 10 minutes to only leave my bag for screening. Frisking was real quick - just a couple of minutes, because all the crowd was held up at baggage screening itself. As usual, my bag was scanned twice - this time an Umbrella being the culprit. I cleared Security, and got into the waiting area by around 0650hrs. I was quite hungry by now, and headed straight to Malgudi Express for a quick breakfast. I liked the food there last time, and tried a different dish this time. Podi Idli and a degree coffee was my breakfast for the day. Food at BIAL is never too expensive - and thats a fact I love of BIAL. There are plenty of options too. Coming to the food - soft idlis coated in podi (a coarse powder mixture of ground dry spices that typically contains dried chilis, urad (bean), chickpea, and sesame seeds) accompanied by Coconut Chutney. The coffee was good as well.
Yummy Podi Idli from Malgudi Express..
That is Malgudi Express...
Below lies Gate #19.
After my breakfast, I headed towards my gate. This the first time I was boarding from Gate #19. The terminal has departure gates on both the lower level as well as the first level. The lower level gates are typical Bus Gates, where the passengers are bus'd to the aircraft, while the gates on the upper level have Jetways aka aerobridges. The first level has gates 1-2, 7-9 and 15 (6 gates and two sub gates - we can count them as 8 gates), while the lower level has gates 3-6, 10-14, 19 and 20 (11 gates). There are three gates on the upper level exclusively for international flights as well. My boarding was from Gate #19, a lower level gate located at the eastern most end of the building. Soon after reaching the terminal, I realised this place was a brilliant place for Aviation geeks to spot some incoming aircrafts. Gate 20 was empty, while Gate 19 was more or less empty - people were just coming in. The runway was quite active with a lot of takeoffs happening - the runway was too far for me to read registrations, and it was slightly foggy as well.
That is Gate #19. Pic taken just before boarding commenced.
VT-SCR taxiing to its stand. In the background is VT-ABO, which would fly me to COK
As I settled down, I spotted an Oman Air B737 (A4O-BA) heading out of the terminal on its long journey to Muscat. In the meantime, Indigo A320 (VT-IAS) too headed out to Dubai. An unknown Indigo A320 too came in (could not notice the registration). Then came an Air India A319 (VT-SCR) from Mumbai. Unusually, a boarding announcement was made. Bangalore is otherwise a silent airport, and there are boards at many points saying there would be no announcements. I was quite suprised by the announcement - it was a proper announcement on the PA system - probably a practice in these extremely remote gates. They announced the flight as AI9505 (the boarding pass says (9I505, MKT: AI 9505). Soon after the announcement was made, queue formed. The boarding process was quite fast - we are talking of just 48 passengers anyway! A Volvo of AI-SATS was taking us to the aircraft. While sitting in the bus, Go Air's VT-GOQ came in from Mumbai, followed by Jet Airways' ATR72-500 VT-JDD (in JetKonnect livery). The bus started its long run at 0801hrs. We passed by a Jet Airways B737, Go Air's VT-GOQ, AI A319 (VT-SCR), and JetKonnect VT-SIZ as we reached the end of the terminal building. The bus then crosses the apron to reach the northern end of the apron, and then runs towards the aircraft (which was incidentally parked right opposite to the gate where we took the bus). While we were heading to the aircraft, Air India's A319 VT-SCH was pushed back, and was preparing to taxi. Soon after we reached the aircraft, SpiceJet's Q400 VT-SUD landed. We weren't permitted to get off the bus immediately on reaching the aircraft (at Stand 86) since the aircraft wasn't still ready.

Date of Journey: January 17, 2015
Flight No: AI-9505 (9I-505) || Seat: 10D
Sector flown: Bengaluru - Kochi
Aircraft type: ATR 42-320 || Regn: VT-ABO
STD: 0815hrs, ATD: 0823hrs
STA: 0935hrs, ATA: 0951hrs

That is my VT-ABO...
One more look at VT-ABO.. lots of people were awestruck seeing this small a plane!
Boarding took some time. I was inside the aircraft by 0812. Oh! By the way, we were flying VT-ABO, one of the three active ATR 42-320s of Air India Regional. The aircraft was built in 1995, and was leased by AI-R in 2008. It worked earlier in India as VT-ADE for Air Deccan in the 2004-2007 period. At almost 20 years of age, the aircraft has surely seen better days. The aircraft looked resplendent in the flying swan livery of Air India. The interiors surely showed age - the plastics were all worn out, and the windows weren't very clean. The seats were in fairly good shape though. The overhead bins were very small - in fact, a few passengers with oversized luggage were asked to wait and their luggage were handled differently (not sure what exactly was done, since I had already got in). Boarding was completed by 0819, and the doors were armed.
One pic just before getting in..
The interiors... (taken during the flight)
Soon after the doors were armed, the safety demonstration began. The Purser (Mrs. Sharmishta) sounded very excited as she welcomed all passengers to Air India. Capt HB Singh and Capt Peter Hanks were in the deck. Push back commenced at 0823. By now the safety demo was over. The aircraft shook violently as the Pratt & Whitney 121s came to life. The interiors were all rattling as the aircraft powered up. We started taxi at 0827hrs. While we were taxiing, an Air India A319 took off. It was actually a long run from the stand to the runway - we had to actually run the entire length of the runway. We finally took off at 0834hrs. After take off, the aircraft did a couple of right banks and we took our South-Western direction. Soon after, the seatbelt signs went off, and the buy-on-board service was commenced. A bottle of water was given free to all passengers, and they had an assortment of sandwiches and packed snacks for sale. Capt Peter Hanks came on PA soon after, a made a very excited announcement that we had clear weather ahead and we should be landing on time in COK.
in flight...
The sandwich and water bottle..
The buy-on-board service was quite nice - the FA made sure she asked each passenger if they wanted to buy something - menu cards were available on request. I decided to try a Veg Sandwich - the soft sweet corn and cheese sandwich costed just Rs. 100! We were flying at FL180. It was fairly cloudy, and the western ghats looked beautiful as they were covered with clouds. There was a round of trash collection before landing was announced. Landing was announced at 0927. The aircraft headed south first, then banked right twice (completing a U-turn) and then flew North-west and finally aligned to the landing path. We finally touched down at 0948 on runway 27. The aircraft shivered and shook violently as it slowed down after touchdown, and turned to the taxiway. We finally parked at Stand 7 at 0951. Deboarding commenced in about a minute, and I was out of the aircraft at 0953. A bus took passengers to the terminal. Since I did not have any checked-in bags, I just walked out of the terminal, and got into a KSRTC Volvo waiting outside.
Banking.. as we align to the landing path..
Finals....
Landed on Rwy27...
On the ground...
The service on-board was great. Both the flight attendents were young and were very active. Passengers' calls were answered quickly and with a smile. They even ensured all passengers were welcomed with Good Morning, even as people mobbed into the aircraft, and ensured they said a Thank you and wished a good day as passengers got off the aircraft. I really liked the service. The aircraft was not in great shape - the interiors were really worn out. The aircraft rattled and made a lot of noise as it flew. The landing was smooth. One thing I did not like is that the service is a buy-on-board - despite being the most expensive option in the sector. The other FSC on the route, Jet Airways, which also flies an ATR, is often the cheapest in the sector. Almost all the passengers got off the aircraft at Kochi - I wonder what loads does the aircraft have on its Kochi-Agati sector.
The broken reading lamp...
Stenciled instructions.. resembling a government bus!

Ratings:
Check-in: 5/5 (Absolutely no-nonsense)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the interiors were clean, windows were soiled though)
Punctuality: 4.5/5 (Left late, arrived later)
Crew: 5/5 (Great service)
On-Board Service: 5/5 (Was inexpensive, the food was good as well)
Overall: 4.75/5

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Conquering the Nilgiris and the Silent Valley...KSRTC Fans Trip; Part-3

..Continued (Read Earlier parts here and here)

Warning: A very long post ahead.. proceed at your own risk !!

The second day of the KSRTC fans' ride covered two ghat sections - in fact, we were to go up and down one ghat section, then again go up and down the second - both belonged to the same Western Ghats. The route for the day was Sulthan Bathery - Pattavayal - Devarshola - Gudalur - Ooty - Coonoor - Mettupalam - Karamadai - Chinnathadagam - Anaikkatti - Agali - Attapadi - Mannarkkad (and further to Kozhikode and later to Thrissur).

That is the route we travelled in the day - we did the distance is about 13 hours!
July 27, 2014:
The day started quite early for four of us - Sankar, Jayadeep, Ashwin and Yours Truly. Me and Jayadeep started from the hotel, where we stayed overnight, sometime around 0630hrs, while Sankar and Ashwin followed us a while later. The two of us walked from the hotel to the bus station - a cool early morning walk, clicking all the buses which came our way in the morning. But, where did the rest of the gang go? We decided to split up that morning - the four of us were leaving earlier than the rest of the gang - so what were we upto? We were heading to Pattavayal, where we would click our ride for the day - the Sulthan Bathery-Coimbatore Super Fast.

So, what was the plan?
We were originally booked by the Sulthan Bathery-Coimbatore Super Fast - this is a unique service which starts from Sulthan Bathery in Kerala, and goes to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, via Ooty. The bus climbs up the Nilgiris to reach Ooty, and then descends down to Coimbatore. A very unique service which began in the 90s. We were to take this bus from Sulthan Bathery to Mettupalayam. From Mettupalayam, we planned to take the Mettupalayam-Mannarkkad ordinary service of KSRTC - this bus travels via Anaikkatti, Attapadi, Agali, and descends down to Mannarkkad through the famed Silent Valley National Park. This means we would be travelling through some great ghat routes. Some of us wanted to take some photos of the Coimbatore superfast in the forest - with this in mind, the four of us split and took an earlier bus to take some pics of our bus in the forest.
RAC587 of Bathery heading to Gudalur.
 After a quick tea and some light snacks at Sulthan Bathery BS, the four of us got into RAC587 of Sulthan Bathery - which was heading to Gudalur, via Pattavayal, Devarsholai. We grabbed seats at the front and got set for the journey. The bus first went to the fuel station (on the Muthanga route), filled up diesel for the day, and then headed to the Municipal BS in Sulthan Bathery, from where the service officially starts. The loads for this trip was very light - it was a Sunday morning as well. The journey to Pattavayal took just under 30 minutes from Sulthan Bathery - the bus goes through some semi-forest areas. Its a narrow road, winding through thick forest-like areas. Pattavayal is in Tamil Nadu - the Kerala-TN border lies inside the forest. We got off the bus at Pattavayal - a small hamlet in the fringes of a forest. There were a couple of tea shops and a small "bus stand". We had initially planned to take photos standing in the town - but then our plan changed, and we decided to head to the forest checkpost. As if it was godsent, TS985 of Bathery was just about to start from Pattavayal to Bathery.
TS985 waiting for us at Pattavayal...
TS985 goes away after dropping us in the forest..
Before getting into the bus, I got some delicious Pazha Vadas (Banana Vada, a fried snack made of White flour and Banana dough) from a tea shop - countryside specialties like these taste really awesome. The ageing Leyland warhorse (TS985) dropped us at the forest checkpost at around 0820hrs. In the meantime, we called up the rest of the gang and we were informed that the bus had started from Sulthan Bathery. The guards at the checkpost did not permit us to take photos, or even stand there. They kept threatening us. Left with no options, we decided to walk to the Kerala side - which was under half a kilometre from there. It took us about 5 minutes to cover the distance, and we were back in Kerala by around 0830hrs. Our bus finally turned up at 0834hrs - our gang had pre-informed the crew that we'd be standing somewhere in the forest. The bus stopped to pick us. We had pre-reserved seats in the bus - so all we had to do was get in and occupy the seats.
Border inside the forest...
RSK645 coming to pick us...
Our bus! RSK645.. see our team-mates putting their heads outside...
Its a winding route from Pattavayal to Gudalur. The section from Devarsholai to Gudalur is dotted with tea estates and coffee plantations. It was somewhat cold as we kept ascending the ghats. The bus was crowded for most of the time. Our first major stop was at Gudalur. We reached there around 0930hrs. The crew announced a short break and got off the bus. We spent our time clicking other buses in Gudalur, stocked up some snacks and water for the rest of the run. We left Gudalur at 0935hrs - beginning our ascent to Ooty. The Gudalur-Ooty section is also winding, but there no hairpin bends through the route. Mist covered most of the hills visible. It was a beautiful ride. We stopped for breakfast somewhere before Pykara at around 1030hrs - the restaurant was overpriced (like every restaurant where buses stop) and the food was nothing great to talk about. The breakfast break lasted about 20 minutes - it was a small hotel, and it took lots of time to serve all the passengers. The bus continued its climb after the breakfast stop.
The route from Pattavayal to Devarsholai... lined with tea estates...
Misty hills herald us to the Nilgiris...
On the way to Ooty...
At our breakfast break...
We were in Ooty by around 1150hrs - the bus took a short 3-4 minute halt at the bus station and then continued towards Mettupalayam. Seats emptied out a bit as we started off from Ooty. It is somewhat plains till Ooty - the road is twisty, though. The real ghats begin after Coonoor. The section is known as Kallar Ghats and has 14 hairpin bends, lying between Coonoor and Kallar. Kallar is the base for this ghat road. The driver of this bus (Shri Unnikrishnan) has been driving this route regularly for about 3 years - and was quite skilled to handle the ghats with safe ease. Although the road connects one of the most frequented hill stations in South India, the roads are quite narrow and this results in slow moving traffic. Downhill traffic almost always would have to wait for uphill traffic to clear hairpin bends at most of the turns. I was sitting at the front of a downhill bus from Ooty after almost two decades - I remember sitting at the front of a Bharathiar Transport Corporation bus (the present day TNSTC - Nilgiris Division) as a kid holding my dad's hand..
We begin descending from Ooty...
The narrow ghat road between Ooty and Mettupalayam...
Approaching one of the 14 hairpin bends...
This driver rekindled my fond memories of that trip. The downhill trip was quite uneventful - traffic kept us moving slow. Kallar bridge signalled the ends of the ghats - our driver did a brake test soon after the ghats, and then continued towards Mettupalayam. By now it got hotter, and sultry. Some time after crossing Kallar, We stopped for lunch soon after Kallar - the lunch break left me a bit confused if we'd miss our onward connection. But the driver reassured us and confirmed he normally sees our bus only as he passes Karamadai. The lunch break was a routine Veg restaurant that serves hot Tamil Nadu style meals on a Banana Leaf. The lunch break was quite fast, and we got moving in under 25 minutes. We were finally dropped at Mettupalayam BS, at 1425hrs - our gang got off the bus, wished happy journey to Unnikrishnan, as he continued driving the beast to Coimbatore.
The beast goes away after dropping us...
Now what?

From Mettupalayam we were taking the KSRTC Ordinary bus to Mannarkad via Anaikketti. We were on the belief that this bus would leave by 1445hrs - but there was no sign of the bus even as the clock ticked past 1455hrs. Sometime around 1500hrs, RRE895 of Mannarkad depot turned up at Mettupalayam BS - the bus was empty when it came in - and we literally mobbed into the bus to reserve our seats. The crew gave a curious and surprised look as we jumped on to seats. The driver asked us not to hurry and told us we'd leave only by 1530hrs!
Our next bus.. RRE895 of Mannarkad depot, at Mettupalayam...
We were stunned to know the departure time, and we then decided to just settle down in the bus. The bus left at 1530hrs as scheduled. There were just a couple more passengers in the bus other than us - the conductor said the bus never gets so many passengers from Mettupalayam anytime. The bus ran through the highway towards Karamadai. After a brief halt at Karamadai bus station, we continued towards Thudiyallur. The bus took a fairly long break at Thudiyallur. There was a private TN bus to leave before us, and we were waiting for that bus to take off. The driver waited patiently for the bus to leave - such a patience can never be seen when they drive in Kerala! The road after Thudiyallur was very narrow, and often with broken tarmac. The bus was mostly empty till we passed Chinnathadagam. After Chinnathadagam, we stopped by a brick kiln - the bus just filled up here. Filled up would be an understatement. Every bit of space in the bus was occupied - and the conductor had a real tough time finishing ticket sales to all the passengers.
The road between Thudiyalur and Chinnathadagam...
Beginning of the ghat section after Chinnathadagam..
Crossing the TN-Kerala border at Anaikkatti..
During our evening tea break..
The bus slowly started ascending a ghat section afterwards. Major portion of the crowd got off very soon, but the seats remained occupied as the bus continued ascending the ghats. The roads passed through uninhabited regions - it was just barren land all around. As we climbed the ghats, some institutions - like a Salim Ali Research centre for Ornithology and a large residential schooling campus appeared in sight. We reached Anaikkatti at around 1730hrs. We dropped passengers and then passed across the border and entered in Kerala. We stopped for a tea break just after crossing the border. The tea break was about 10 minutes long. After the tea break, the bus got a bit emptier, and the driver opened his mind. He was talking about the service, the normal sightings, etc. It was a ghat route ahead - the road was winding, and not in great shape. We passed Agali (the next town after Anakkatty) at around 1820hrs.
One of the hairpin beds between Agali and Attappadi
There was another ghat section, with a couple of hair-pin bends after Agali. It got darker as we continued climbing up. Arrival at Attappady was informed by the presence of a lot of wind-mills (Windmills in Attappady are infamous for a land-grabbing scam, and had caused a lot of political turmoil in Kerala). Attappady is famous as a tribal area - and is often used as a colloquial equivalent of a no-man's land. Attappady is purely a tribal settlement, and there were lots of government institutions for the upliftment of tribals in the area. Sometime towards 1900hrs, we stopped for yet another break - this was for the conductor to break his ramadan fast and offer his evening prayers. The break was about 10 minutes long. It got really dark afterwards. We lost all hopes of seeing the silent valley ghats in all its glamour.
During the next break...
By now the bus emptied out. The crew were excitied having nuts liks us on board, and they infact got all the seats at the front reserved for us. Both the driver and the conductor were busy talking to us most of the time. It rained a bit through the journey. Soon as we reached Silent Valley, a very dense fog began ascending. As we entered the ghat section, the visibility dropped down to a few metres. We had a fog lamp - but it did not help matters even a bit. The driver displayed his exemplary skills driving through such difficult situations - with absolutely no visibility, traffic on the road had come to a standstill at some places. The route left me spellbound, and I vow to revisit the section once again. Fog disappeared once we finished descending, and then we picked up speed again.
This was all that we could see when descending the ghat...
The bus took a refuelling break and finally dropped us at Mannarkkad Municipal bus station sometime around 2030hrs. After bidding adieu to the crew, we headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner and the gang then parted ways. Some of us headed towards Kozhikode while the rest of the gang headed to Palakkad, ending my second group outing with KSRTC fans!