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.

Ratings:
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..
Summary:
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. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Gulbarga to Bengaluru on SUR-YPR Super Fast Express!

I did not want to take a train to return from Gulbarga. I looked at all possible alternatives - there were hardly any AC options from Gulbarga - except the VRL Volvo, and an NEKRTC AC Sleeper. A friend suggesting traveling via Hyderabad - the run time appeared to be more or less similar, except the hurdle of having to change buses. I decided to book a train after I exhausted most options - I wanted a train that reached fairly early, so that I could head to office without much delay. After thinking and rethinking, I finally booked on the 22133 Solapur-Yeshwantpur Super Fast Express in AC 2-Tier. Luck didn't seem to approve my idea of keeping train the last option, and cursed me with a Side Upper berth - that too right next to the door! I kept pursuing the other options till a few days before the journey. It was on Sunday that I decided to stick to the train option itself.

December 13, 2016:
I was done with the examination work by afternoon, and my host treated me to great north karnataka meals - Jolada roti (unleavened bread made of jowar) with Lentil and Fenugreek soup accompanied with spicy Shengahindi (pounded groundnut chutney) and curd. The lunch was awesome, and I punctuated it with a short afternoon nap. I checked out of my hotel room sometime around 1930hrs for a 2105hrs departure. I was at the railway station some 10 minutes later. I headed straight to the platform to check if any delay was expected - but they informed an on-time arrival. I headed out of the station to have a light dinner. After a little bit of walking around, I opted a very small hotel - the hotel looked more like a tea stall or a local bakery. As I walked into Zeeshan Hotele, I was in for a shock - the hotel was quite crowded, and served only vegeterian food. The menu was small and simple - after a lot of thinking, I opted for a Zeeshan Special Vegetable Pulao.
The Zeeshan Special Vegetable Pulao 
The South Karnataka style of pulao is a spices ridden mashed up rice preparation, with an overpowering flavour of cinnamon and clove, usually brown or grey in colour with carrot and beans as a prime ingredient. I hate this preparation, which is locally called a Palav than a Pulao. I was expecting a similar product, although the images at the hotel showed something more delicious. It took them over 10 minutes to serve me - quite opposite to hotels in Bangalore where the palav is dumped on to the plate in under 2 minutes. What I got was a beautifully presented, yellow coloured preparation, with vegetables in large quantities to contrast the colour of the rice. It was accompanied by a very neutral soup. I enjoyed every bit of the rice - the flavours were subtle, it had a slight hit of sweetness, absolutely not spicy, but not bland. I shopped from some local sweets from there and headed back to the railway station.

I was a little sleepy, and the platform was a bit too crowded. I headed to the Upper class waiting room which was more or less full - but for a couple of empty chairs. I grabbed one. While seated there, the railway station had a RailWire wifi facility - which was free and didn't seem to have a limit. The signup was simple - and the connection was really fast. I remained in the waiting room till they announced the arrival of my train. There were announcements or indications about where my coach (A1) would arrive. After a bit of juggling around, I found where my coach would be, and walked in that direction. Even as the terrible speakers at the station blared out about the impending arrival of my train, a freighted hauled by twin WDG4s rushed past the station, in the same direction as my train - this meant we would have to wait for some more time for section clearance.
My train, the 22133 Solapur-Yeshwantpur Super Fast Express, pulled in at around 2116hrs, about 20 minutes behind schedule, with a WDM3D #11399 of Pune shed at the helm. My coach was again a run down coach, of 1998 vintage (WGACCW #98077), but recently overhauled. I settled at my seat, while leaving my phone to charge. I rearranged my bag a little, and stored it safely under the seat. We started moving from Gulbarga at around 2122hrs - some 17 minutes behind schedule. The Traveling Ticket Examiner aka TTE came around in a hurry, checked tickets and headed to his seat, which was right opposite mine. He was busy with some accounting, and I understood that his duty ends at the next stop. I wanted to sleep as early as possible - but waited till my phone had enough charge to survive that night. In the meantime, we pulled into Wadi station - the place where the train is handed over to South Central Railway, from Central Railway.

I did not note the departure time from Wadi, since I was already on my berth by then. My coach was already full, and the vestibule shutters to the nearby non-ac coach was locked, so were the entry/exit doors. A proper bedroll kit was supplied - with two clean white crisp bedsheets, a hand towel (a rarity these days), a good pillow cover, a clean and fresh smelling blanket, and a small pillow. I did not waste a lot of time spreading the bed spread - just put it over the berth and hit the sack. The coach oscillated like crazy - I wasn't really able to adjust to the oscillations - may be I am too old to sleep in a cradle now. The coach had a flat wheel as well, to compound my misery. I slept for a while, before being woken up by the frequent switching on and off of the cabin lights. I couldn't keep the berth curtains closed, since it made me feel claustrophobic, and also cut off air circulation. I struggled a lot to sleep, and slept in bits and pieces - a very fragmented sleep.

I hadn't kept an alarm, since I had to get off at the last station anyway. But a lot of alarms in the coach went off in unison, around 6.30am. I was literally forced off my berth by the alarms. I finally got off the berth around 0700hrs, and headed to the washroom to get fresh. The toilets were quite clean, but the overall condition of the coach was terrible, especially when passengers paid quite high fares for comfort of a two-tier sleeper. I stood at the door for a while, and realised that we were quite behind schedule. We were yet to reach Yelahanka, and I would be terribly late to office if I continued to Yeshwantpur. I quickly checked for cab availability and found lots of them at Yelahanka. Finally booked a cab as the train crawled into the station. I got off the train at 0734hrs (an hour and a minute behind schedule!) and rushed towards the cab. Although I ended up late, but could make it to office. But the lack of sleep had a toll on me.

There ended another train ride that I would rate average. I couldn't adjust to the oscillations the last time as well, and it repeated again. Its high time the railways scrapped those outdated ICF coaches and replaced them with newer LHB coaches, considering the safety and comfort of passengers. Trains do not seem to be a great choice for me yet. Although I did not enjoy this one, trains do have that soft corner in me, still. The ticket for this one was pricier than the NEKRTC AC Sleeper bus, and didn't really get me to Bangalore early, as I required. May be it was just bad luck. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Bengaluru to Kalaburagi on Vijayanand Volvo B9R

I had to go to Gulbarga, aka Kalaburagi, for an exam duty. I had a duty at Gulbarga last year, and I had taken a train then. The train was not an option this time due to some time restrictions. I looked at option, and found only two AC options - one was a Volvo seater by Vijayanand and another was AC Sleeper from NEKRTC. I didn't want to take the sleeper, and without another thought, booked a seat on the Vijayanand Volvo B9R. They gave a "pickup" option from Jayanagar as well, which was very convenient for me.

December 12, 2016:
I left a little earlier from office - I had landed from Trivandrum just that morning, and hadn't gone home. I hurried with packing, and got ready by around 1830 or so. The pickup from Jayanagar 9th Block was at 1930hrs. After a quick dinner, I checked various cab operators, and finally got one on the Ola app. I received this message from VRL around the same time:
Binai K Sankar, Your Journey Bus No. is KA 25/C7745 Boarding From : JAYANAGAR 9TH BLOCK -PICK UP VECHICLE 8884443472 At : 12-12-2016 19:30:00, While Boarding Please Carry your Photo ID Proof, Tracking URL :: [Link]
It was 1900hrs when the cab left from my place. There was heavy traffic on the way as well - we ended up having to choose alternate routes to escape traffic. I was finally dropped outside the VRL office in Jayanagar 9th Block at 1929hrs - with just a minute to spare for my pick-up. It was drizzing, and office was in darkness owing to a power failure.

I rushed into the office, to see the office boy sitting in darkess, using a torch to read pick-up charts. As I showed my ticket, he appeared flummoxed - I had to clarify that I had a pick-up bus from here. He looked at the pick-up chart and asked me to get into 1319 (PY05-A-1319). As I walked out of the office, I saw 1319 departing, and the crew did not stop even after calling out to them. I returned to the office to inform the same. The office boy quickly asked me to get into the next bus and he gave out a number (which I didn't note, since the driver of that bus was standing there, and he asked me to accompany him), and he called up the driver of 1319 and asked him to wait at the next pickup point, which is Jayanagar 4th block.

The first pick-up bus left with me from Jayanagar 9th block at 1933, and he dropped me at Jayanagar 4th block at 1944hrs. This bus was a Veera built non-ac Sleeper, with the Leymatic Automated Manual transmission system - my first experience in one. At Jayanagar 4th block, I changed to 1319, which was a Prakash built Ashok Leyland non-ac seater+sleeper. I was in one such bus for the first time as well - the low roof due the sleeper made the seats a bit claustrophobic. The bus dropped me at the VRL Bus Station in Anand Rao Circle at 2019hrs. My bus to Kalaburagi would depart at 2030hrs, and I saw it parked deep inside the bus station as well. I headed straight to the restrooms - hats off to VRL for maintaining such a facility for the passengers.
The bus, KA-25-C-7745, as it prepares to depart from Bengaluru
My bus, KA-25-C-7745, was all set for its long journey to Bidar, via Gulbarga. The crew were searching for the remaining passengers. I got into the bus and occupied my seat, #19, and got ready for the ride ahead. We started from the bus station at 2027hrs - three minutes ahead of schedule. The bus crawled out of the bus station and joined the long traffic queue outside. The bus was quite empty - maybe around 40% occupancy. We headed towards Sampige road, and then turned left at 5th cross, to head towards Rajaji Nagar. We had a pick-up at Rajaji Nagar (2052hrs) and then headed to Yeswantpur. We stopped at Govardhan (Yeshwantpur) at 2100hrs. There weren't too many pick-ups. We were about 45% full as we left Govardhan. The aisle seat next to me was empty throughout the journey. While passing Goreguntepalya, I noticed a new pick-up point for VRL on the left - a rather big property with a huge waiting area.

The last pick-up was at the VRL office in 8th mile (212hrs) - the wait here was a little long. VRL office staffers did a headcount, signed off their waybill and cleared for departure. Rain outside delayed the process a little. We finally departed from there at 2129hrs. I slowly drifted asleep as we picked pace on the highway. I woke up just at the bus exited the highway and entered a VRL maintenance facility near Dabbaspet (I presume)  - the time was 2215hrs. They refueled here, and it also served as a leak break for passengers. A set of clean toilets were available here, as well. We started off after refueling at 2222hrs. I continued to be at awe with the scale of VRL's infrastructure.

I dozed off after this break. It was raining quite heavily through the time, and the driver seemed to be really cautious with their driving. I slept for some more time. I was woken up by the lights coming on, and the crew calling out a Dinner break. The time was just past 2300hrs. I was flummoxed with a dinner break at this time. I was a little hungry, though. They switched off the engine (and the AC) soon after parking, forcing most passengers to get off the bus. The bus had stopped at another VRL facility! It had a hotel, a large parking area and a set of toilets. I headed to the hotel, and had light food - the food was good, but was relatively on the pricier side. I liked the quality of the food, but VRL shouldn't have resorted to higher pricing, like the wayside motels. We started off again at 2326hrs. It was still raining.

Once back on the highway, the driver picked pace - and maintained fairly good pace on the highway. The driving was stable, with zero usage of horn. I had a nice, long sleep after that. I vaguely remember feeling bad roads. I slept straight till 6am - as I woke up, I found that we were on a two lane road, with frequent speed breakers. I opened Google Maps and realised that we were approximately 100kms away from Gulbarga - the app suggested a run time of about 1:30hrs. I was quite disappointed - their website had suggested a 0715hrs arrival at Gulbarga aka Kalaburagi. I dozed off again - only to wake up as the driver missed a speedbreaker and the bus had a violent jump. We were in Gulbarga town already! I opened the map again, to realise that we were nearing Gulbarga bus station, or rather, the VRL drop off point. I got off the bus at 0739hrs - some 25 minutes late! A 25 minute delay for a 600kms ride, a fair part of that in heavy rain, with almost an hour lost to breaks, is acceptable, imo.

Remarks: The bus, KA-25-C-7745, had clocked over 10 Lakh kms. The bus was in great shape - not a single rattle or squeak from the body or from the mechanicals. Both the drivers were well behaved, in full uniform, and drove really well. Driving was just amazing - no hard brakes, no honking at night, no rash moves and no careless driving. The interiors were really clean and well kept. A run time of about 11 hours - averaging about 56kmph, for the 612kms journey. The time we lost in breaks was 32 minutes (excluding any breaks the bus might have taken when I was asleep). The route taken was Bangalore-Tumkur-Sira-Hiriyur-Challakere-Ballari-Sidhanur-Lingasugur-Gulbarga (based on the tracking recorded by my phone). This was my third trip with VRL, and I liked the experience this time as well.

Amenities:
Blanket: Yes
Water: No
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, Did not check if it worked.
Entertainment: Available - Not used.

Ratings:
Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5

Overall: 5/5

Pros: Reliable, Punctual, Sole Option, Infrastructure support
Cons: Too many checkpoints, time lost in breaks

Will I take this service again? Sure. They seem to be a monopoly on the route, as well. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

TRV to BLR on Air India 584

Getting back to Bangalore after the busfans meet at Pamba was getting hectic. The meet was on a Sunday and I had to be back in office on Monday, since I was traveling through the week, and I couldn't afford to miss a day's work. I looked at options to fly out of Kochi, but were prohibitively expensive. I decided to try flying out of Trivandrum, and was quite shocked to find flights at less than half the price of those flying out of Kochi. I initially thought of taking the red-eye Indigo out of Trivandrum, but the prospect of losing sleep, and the fact that I had more journeys that week made me rethink on that option. I kept procrastinating the booking for quite a few days, until I found that Air India offered me the cheapest rates for a Trivandrum - Bengaluru flight.

December 12, 2016:
I had reached Trivandrum the previous evening, and was put up at a state tourism run hotel near the Central Railway Station. Sadly, the property was in tatters, but luckily was undergoing a refit, giving me some hope if I were to consider this property the next time. The property is centrally located, and had plenty of eating options around. I was a little confused as I checked out of the hotel - I was confused if I should have my breakfast and head to the airport, or try my luck on the flight. Since I was flying Air India, I had great hopes on the catering.

The lure of those Beetroot rich Masala Dosas from Indian Coffee House nearby was too strong to resist. I am a fan of those Masala Dosas of Indian Coffee House - they are just enough crisp, contain a very mushy filling that is rich with Beetroot and Potatos, accompanied by coconut chutney and typical Kerala styled Sambhar. I washed them down with hot Coffee, and walked out of the bus station. I was hooked to apps of the two leading cab aggregators during the time, and was quite shocked to find no Olas around, and the Ubers were at quite high surge rates. After the surges came down a little, I booked an Uber, and headed to the airport.
Trivandrum Terminal-2
I got to the airport a little past 0800hrs, for a 0915 departure. I spent a little time clicking some pics outside the terminal, and finally walked into the terminal around 0805 or so. All Air-India flights departed from the newer Terminal-2 at Trivandrum, while other domestic flights were mostly from the old Domestic Terminal. My earlier flight from Terminal-2 was in the dark, and I utilised this opportunity to have a better look at the terminal in day light. It was the typical AAI terminal - a metal structure with glass cladding all over. Check-in counters for AI was located straight across the entrance itself - I walked over to the counters since I had no baggage to check-in. Seperate counters were open for Air India's Trivandrum and Male flights, which were departing around the same time.

I got my boarding pass by 0808hrs and walked upstairs for security check. Since the terminal was primarily an International airport, all passengers had to go through immigration. A separate walk-through lane was earmarked for domestic passengers, but the passengers had to first go to an officer, get the boarding pass verified and receive a green "Domestic Passenger" Seal on the boarding pass. Security check was a breeze - although a couple of international flights were boarding around the same time, there was hardly anyone at security check. I was in the security hold area by 0817hrs. The security hold area gave great views of the apron, and gave some good spotting opportunities. I spent some time spotting planes from there, till the aircraft for my flight came.
VT-ESE with reversers deployed, soon after landing at TRV
It was quite a busy time. My aircraft at the stand, an Etihad heading out, and an AI A319 (to Male) arriving..
Etihad meets her "partner".. 
The aircraft that would work my flight was the highlight of the trip - this particular flight regularly got ancient A320s - the rare double bogie A320s! Barring one instance, when they substituted with an A319, it was A320s all the time. I was hooked up to FR24 all the time, and I was quite excited to spot VT-ESE coming in for me. Sierra Echo was originally delivered to Indian Airlines in June 1993, and was transfered to Air India in August 2007. I was getting excited to fly a 23.5 year old aircraft! The double bogies are a rarity, and very few of them survive now. Sierra Echo touched down at Trivandrum by 0833hrs. Trivandrum airport doesn't have a full length taxiway, and aircrafts backtrack after landing on the primary runway. A pre-boarding call was made by 0842hrs.
VT-ESE after entering the Apron.. heading to the gate..
The lounge at TRV
Date of Journey: December 12, 2016
Airline: Air India
Flight No: AI-584 || Seat: 2A
Aircraft type: Airbus A320-231 || MSN: 431 || Regn: VT-ESE
Sector: TRV-BLR
STD: 0915hrs, ATD: 0910hrs
STA: 1020hrs, ATA: 1022hrs

The first boarding call was made at 0849hrs - boarding happened strictly by seat numbers. I was seated up at the front, on #2A. Sierra Echo had a full economy seating layout, taking in 168 passengers, seated across 28 rows. The gate agent mentioned we had 163 passengers on board. The boarding gate is quite a confusion. Both Gate #3 and #4 use the same door, that opens to a long ramp - which is quite stuffy and lacks sufficient ventilation. The ramp reaches a level below the boarding gate - which is Gate#3 - this one is a jetway gate. The ramp continues further down to a bus gate, Gate #4. I found this arrangement quite unique, and haven't come across such a setup earlier. I was inside the aircraft by 0904hrs.
Boarding in progress
The aircraft showed its age - really. The overhead panels seem to have been painted upon to make it look fresh. The air vents, reading lamps, seat number indicators were all old school. Air India offers the best leg room - and this flight was no different. The seats were in fairly good shape - not much damages were seen. The windows were dirty and bore a lot of scratches. Boarding was completed by 0907hrs, and doors armed by 0908hrs. We were pushed back by 0910hrs. Soon after pushback, the routine welcome announcements were made, followed by the safety demonstration. The commander of the flight was Captain Niranjana Ashok, and the cabin incharge was Ms Konica. The safety demo appeared a little different - the crew were less mechanical, and appeared quite proactive in their demonstration.
My boarding pass, with the inflight magazine, Shubh Yatra
We commenced taxi at 0916hrs, and had to hold short of the active runway. Trivandrum has no taxiway, and all taxi happens on the active runway, christened 14-32, itself. A B738 of Jet Airways landed by around 0919hrs, and we were permitted on to the active runway. The aircraft taxied to the turnpad at the 32 end of the runway, where we reached by 0922. The commander increased power as we were turning, and did a rollling takeoff by 0923hrs. We flew north-west for a while, before turning north-east and setting off towards Bengaluru. The seatbelt sign by turned off by 0927hrs. The crew got to their work soon after the seatbelt off announcements were made, and the meal trolleys rolled out. I had expectations of a great meal on board, but was quite disappointed by seeing what was offered.
Soon after take off from TRV..
The contents of the snack box
All passengers were handed out a Snack Box. The snack box contained a small Spinach and Corn sandwich. with a tetrapak serving of juice and a 200ml bottle of water. The snack box was a terrible letdown. The sandwich way too small - had a good quantity of the filling, though. The serving was quite inadequate to be called a snack on a full-service airline. The rest of the flight was uneventful. We hit a bit of turbulence, leading to the seatbelt sign being turned on inflight. Landing was announced at 1006hrs. We approached from the east, and touched down on runway 27 at 1017hrs. We exited to the rapid exit taxiway, and had to hold short of the apron for a while. We entered the apron by 1019hrs, and docked at a jetway stand by 1022hrs. Deplaning was quite quick, and I was out of the aircraft by 1025hrs, and out of the airport a few minutes later.
The bulkhead partition. Notice the "A320" Stickers, and the old school overhead panels
The cabin.. 
Ratings:
Check-in: 5/5 (Online check-in was fuss free. Counter was no-nonsense)
Cleanliness: 4.5/5 (Aircraft was clean. Cutting points for the dirty windows)
Punctuality: 5/5 (No major delay)
Crew: 4.5/5 (Good crew)
Catering: 4/5 (Low on Quantity, fairly good quality)
Overall: 4.75/5 (I really enjoyed the flight. Good one from Air India)
Tracking from FR24. This being an old aircraft was not fully trackable. 
Summary:
I was looking forward for this one - for many reasons: another flight with the Maharaja, a flight on the soon to be obsolete double bogie A320, and a day flight out of TRV. The old lady, VT-ESE, was very well kept. The interiors were clean, but showed its age. I liked the service from Air India - I expected a delay, but we flew out on time. The crew were warm - they gave soul to the service. The chief of cabin crew seemed a little grumpy, but she was quite courteous to the passengers and gave out a smile while dealing with passengers. Air India offers unbeatable comfort on Indian skies with their generous leg room in economy. The catering was a big let down. While I would not complain about the quality of the snack served, I really did not appreciate the choice of snack, or the quantity served. I loved this flight with Air India, which happened to be my 5th flight with AI, and the first on an Air India A320. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

AirAsia to Kochi: RedKnight 1129

Any reason to travel is a good reason! The fact that I was traveling for a bus fans meet made me happier. This meet is an annual affair a group does - and I never managed to make it for it ever. It was a prestige issue for me this time, and I had to make it to it this time, no matter what. I had looked at various permutations and combinations to find a way of conveniently making it to the meet. The meet was being organised on a Sunday at Pamba - the base station of Sabarimala pilgrimage. The annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala happens every November-January - two full months of devotees, and hundreds of KSRTC buses to ferry them to various nearby railway stations to the base camp in Pamba, until where one can reach by motorways.

Getting to Pamba in time for the meet wasn't easy, given that buses from Bangalore to Pathanamthitta reach there quite late. I had to look at other options. I worked around a lot of options, including going via Madurai, Kumily (a little circuitous) before I finally looked at flights from Bengaluru to Kochi. I was in for a surprise - tickets were cheap! I got a new confusion now - take the last flight, or go a little earlier! I chose between the two, and finally decided to fly RedKnight 1129 aka AirAsia India (I5) 1129. A day before my flight, I thought to do a web-check-in. I used the AirAsia App - which allotted me a window seat on the starboard side. the App did not give me a boarding pass, but only a QR code, that I had to use to print a boarding pass at a self-check-in kiosk.

December 10, 2016:
Things weren't rosy. A quick check at FR24 showed that this particular flight was regularly delayed, with delays as bad as 120 minutes! The first thing I did on reaching office was checking the status of the rotation. The aircraft that works I51129 does a BLR-GOI-BLR-IXC-BLR-VTZ-BLR-COK-BLR rotation. The aircraft was still on ground at the time when the aircraft should've been half way to IXC (Chandigarh, for the uninitiated). A delay for my flight was imminent. I kept tracking my flight till it actually took off from Bengaluru to Chandigarh.

Sometime past 1105hrs - A message pops up:
                        Dear Guest, the departure of flight i5- 1129(BLR-COK) on 10 December 2016 is revised to 2125hrs. Check-in counters will close 45 minutes prior to the departure. We regret the inconvenience caused. Wish you a pleasant flight with us - AirAsia.
The worst had happened. A one hour (55 minute) delay throws a spanner in my plans. I'd end up missing some precious sleep! I remained tracking the flight for the rest of its rotation to be aware of any further delays that could pop-up later. The aircraft that was working the rotation was VT-HYD (cn:2612) originally delivered as 9M-AFA to AirAsia in November 2005. She was transferred to AirAsia India in September 2016, and re-registered here as VT-HYD, commemorating the launch of AirAsia India's operations to Hyderabad. A 11 year old aircraft for me!
Just entering the airport.. loved the colours on the sky..
The AirAsia check-in counters..
I remained in office for a little longer than my working hours to avoid sitting doing nothing at the airport. I finally decided to get moving by about 1650hrs. I was to leave my car at the airport and hence set out of office by a route that GMaps thought was the fastest. However things weren't as rosy as GMaps predicted and I actually ended up losing a bit of time. I landed up at the airport by about 1740hrs, and took quite some time to find a vacant parking slot. I still had a lot of time to spend and headed out to Chai Point for a light snack and a hot beverage. I got inside the airport a little past 1800hrs and remained seated for some time. I checked in by around 1845hrs. The gate agent promised there wouldn't be any further delay. Security was a little slow partly due to disorganised queues. I was done with security by 1855, and headed straight to the Above Ground Lounge using my Ola Select access. Getting in was a little tiresome thanks to lack of proper methods from Ola's end. Their system never generated an OTP for me, and the lounge manager insisted on one.
Above Ground Lounge
The Buffet area..
I picked up Podi Idlis, Schezwan Noodles, a Pulav and some fried crispies
Thats a Mysore Dosa with Tomato Chutney and a serving of Buttermilk
The lounge was great. Well arranged seating. I had some food from their fairly good buffet menu. The lounge also offers live counters for Dosas, eggs and chaats. The food was fairly good - not too spicy either. I headed out of the lounge as the aircraft, VT-HYD, entered final approach. Boarding was from Gate #16, which is the last jetway stand for domestic departures, and is located towards the farther end of the airport. After a brisk walk, I found myself near Gate. Passengers from the inbound sector (the aircraft came from Vizag) were quick deplaning, passengers for Kochi didn't seem to hurry and queue up.

Date of Journey: December 10, 2016
Airline: AirAsia India
Flight No: I5-1129 || Seat: 17F
Aircraft type: Airbus A320-216 || MSN: 2612 || Regn: VT-HYD
Sector: BLR-COK
STD: 2030hrs (Rescheduled to 2125), ATD: 2127hrs
STA: 2130hrs (Rescheduled to 2225), ATA: 2220hrs

The first boarding call was made at 2054hrs. Zone-wise board was strictly implemented. The aircraft was divided into three zones - the rear seats (21 to 30) were Zone-1, while the forward seats (1 to 10) were zone-3. I was on 17 Foxtrot aka #17F (was auto-allocated by the system) - so Zone-2. I remained seated till they called boarding for Zone-2.
Gate 16 - the last domestic gate.
Boarding for Zone-2
I passed the boarding gate at 2107hrs. The agent at the gate said we had a load of 170pax. I was inside the aircraft by 2110hrs. The seat wasn't very clean - in typical AirAsia Style. Seatbelts were clumped up, food waste and used paper napkins were on the floor. Boarding was completed by 2120hrs and doors were armed by 2124hrs. Pushback was slightly delayed due to congestion on the apron. In the meantime, the welcome announcements and the safety demo commenced. In the deck were Captain Vikram with first officer Prakash. The welcome announcement was made by the captain himself, who regretted the delay due to delay in the previous sectors. We were finally pushed back at 2127hrs. Taxi commenced at 2130hrs. It was a fairly long taxi to the 27 end of Bangalore's sole runway. We didn't have to hold - directly entered the active runway by around 2134hrs. It was a very long take off roll. We were airborne by 2136hrs, amidst heavy vibrations and unusual rattles. We climbed quite fast, to the west before turning South-west, giving a marvellous view of the city of Bengaluru.
The boarding card..
Seatbelt sign went off by 2141hrs. The onboard service commenced real quick. I had prebooked a meal, and I was served first. This being a short sector, they concentrated on passengers with pre-booked meals first, and then the routine service commenced. I had prebooked a Palak Pulao with Subz Kadhai and Dal Bukhara. This was served with a 200ml serving of bottled apple juice and a similar sized serving of water. AirAsia picks its food from TajSATS, and needless to say, they serve the best food among the LCCs in India. The hot, red container, contained white rice with diced spinach leaves, flanked by Dal Bukhara on one side and Subz Kadhai on the other. Dal Bukhara is a Punjabi preparation made of Lentils and Beans in a tomato based thick gravy, while Subz Kadhai is a mixed vegetable curry spiced with different spices, cooked in a Kadhai (Indian version of a wok). The rice was appropriately cooked and had a very light flavour. The Subz Kadhai had an overpowering flavour of cardamom, while the Dal Bukhara was creamy, well cooked and had the perfect flavour. I loved every morsel of my meal.
This is how the meal was presented. 
On unboxing.. on the extreme left is Dal Bukhara, then the Palak Pulav and finally Subz Kadhai
Soon as I finished my meal, the seatbelt sign was back on (2204hrs). We were over the western ghats already, and all set to line up for the final approach to Kochi. The cabin crew were hurrying to prepare the cabin for landing. We finally touched down on Runway 27 of Kochi at 2216hrs. We docked at stand #6. Deplaning started immediately - I was the last to get off the aircraft, at 2227hrs. Since I didn't have any check-in baggage, I just walked out of the terminal, hired an Uber and headed to the city. I wasn't traveling home this time.
VT-HYD after reaching Kochi
Ratings:
Check-in: 5/5 (Online check-in was fuss free. Counter was no-nonsense)
Cleanliness: 3/5 (Aircraft was quite dirty)
Punctuality: 3.5/5 (Delayed - but was pre-informed)
Crew: 5/5 (Great crew)
Catering: 5/5 (Great food, if only the quantity was a little higher)
Overall: 3.75/5 (I really enjoyed the flight. Points cut for unclean aircraft, and the delay)
Tracking from FR24
Summary:
This was my seventh flight on AirAsia India, and the first on this particular aircraft (VT-HYD). I really like the service - the crew have the warmth and respond to passengers quite quickly. The music they play while the aircraft is on ground is great as well. Their catering is the best among the LCCs, and the offering this time was no different. The check-in option on the app is a bit confusing - it doesn't (atleast, didn't, in my case) let choose a seat - I was fortunate to have been allotted a window seat over the wing. The aircraft wasn't in great shape - the interiors felt worn out and really showed its age. Overall good service, and a great flight.