Sunday, January 29, 2017

iFly 466: Bengaluru to Raipur #AaboBhilai

#AaboBhilai

An message on a WhatsApp group from a friend about his booking to Raipur set off the thinking process. He was flying there to attend the annual railfans gathering, the IRFCA Convention, behind hosted at Bhilai. I had been a member of IRFCA (Indian Railways Fans Club) since the early 2000s (2003, if I remember that correctly). Back in my school days, trains were an object of fantasy. I was always a bus fan, but trains were a different feeling. We rarely traveled by train those days, and my love for trains grew up as I made my longest ever train journey (then) in 1998, from Coimbatore (in Tamil Nadu) to Mumbai. Seeing my love for trains, one fine day, my brother introduced me to a website called IRFCA. He wasn't a train fan, but he came across the site searching for pictures of trains. I was an active member of IRFCA till 2009, where the changing environment around me, shifted me back to my childhood love, buses.

Back in 2009, I had been a part of the committee that organised an IRFCA Convention in Bengaluru (Bangalore, then). A few years later, I wanted to attend another convention and made an attempt to do that in 2012 - but the bereavement of a member in my family cut short the trip. Its been 8 years since I attended an IRFCA Convention, and quite impulsively, made a decision to make it to Bhilai 2017 - the 13th IRFCA Convention. The first thing I did was look for tickets. It was a new year, and I had to conserve my leaves. My priority was to travel by the fastest means - ruling out trains, effectively. I looked at flights, and bagged cheap fares for my outward and return journeys, and booked my tickets a good three months in advance. My outbound journey was by IndiGo 466, a one stop flight.

A few days before my flight, I started noticing that this particular flight was regularly irregular, and often flew as much as 120 minutes behind schedule. Then came a mailer from IndiGo, stating that my flight has been rescheduled due to flying restrictions in the national capital for Republic Day Celebrations. The flight was rescheduled from 1545 to 1600hrs. This threw in a spanner to my travel plans - but nevertheless, gave me enough time to be prepared for more delays.

January 26, 2017:
I did not want to take chances, since I knew the crowd at the airport, and the traffic on the road would be high, since it was an extended weekend for IT folks in town. I booked a cab for a 1230hrs pickup, and the cab turned up well before time. The ride to the airport was slow, it was traffic all the way. The driver was sane even after he entered the highway to the airport - he did not exceed the speed limit anytime, and took me to the airport by 1410hrs. I was quite surprised to see a rather deserted entrance to the terminal. I was shocked to find the IndiGo check-in counters deserted as well. I was done with check-in in less than 5 minutes since reaching the airport, and headed to the security check. Security check was deserted as well, but the security staff did their job quite slowly, and delayed the entire security check process.
The IndiGo check-in at BLR
Entry to IndiGo Check-in. 
I got my boarding pass stamped by 1429hrs. I was quite hungry and badly wanted to head to the lounge was have my food. I received an SMS from IndiGo, as seen below:
IndiGo :Dear IndiGo Customer, gate no. for your flight 6E-466 from BLR to RPR is changed to 14. Gate closes 25 mins prior to departure time. Have a pleasant flight.
So, we were moved from a Contact Stand (Gate #2) to a remote stand (Gate #14) - this gave me a doubt that we could be further delayed. There was nothing I could do, anyways, and just headed to Above Ground Lounge, I had a sumptuous meal from the lounge, and as I neared the tail end of my eating session, I noticed my phone showing an alert from Google, which read my flight was further delayed. In the meantime, I receive this, from IndiGo:
Dear MR Binai Sankar, your flt. 6E466,BLR-RPR on 26Jan is delayed. The revised departure time is 1705hrs. View flt status on your mobile at http://mobile.goindigo.in or call 01246613880
Another delay! I fired up FlightRadar24, and found that the aircraft was not even half its way to Bengaluru. I kept tracking my aircraft on FR24 to predict chances of any further delay. Since I had lots of time to go, I remained in the Lounge and caught up with some pending work I had, and composed part of this report as well. Sometime around 1600hrs, I had some snacks from the lounge and headed towards the gate. Gate 14 is located towards the farther end of the terminal building, and is located on the ground floor.
FIDS @ BLR. A Small arrow next to the gate number shows which direction is the gate situated at. 
The remote gate.. 10-14, 19 & 20
Crowd at the gate..
This was the gate..
As I reached the gate, I realised that they had silently rescheduled the flight further, and was now estimated to depart at 1730hrs. The gate area was crowded - a lot of flights seemed to be rescheduled, and almost every gate was crowded. I was constantly monitoring the movement of my aircraft on FR24, and understood that the aircraft had commenced its short finals. The aircraft I am talking about was VT-IDY - one of the six CFM56 powered A320s in an otherwise IAE dominated IndiGo fleet. IDY was first delivered to Go Air as VT-WAN in September 2010, who returned the aircraft to its lessor in August 2016. The aircraft was delivered to IndiGo in October 2016, in its present registration, VT-IDY. She touched down 1655hrs. Since some maintenance work was being done on the taxiway, the aircraft taxied through the apron towards its remote stand.
VT-IDY arriving in from DEL
Date of Journey: January 26, 2017
Airline: IndiGo
Flight No: 6E 466 || Seat: 21F
Aircraft type: Airbus A320-214 || MSN: 4438 || Regn: VT-IDY
Sector: BLR-HYD
STD: 1630hrs, ATD: 1728hrs
STA: 1735hrs, ATA: 1833hrs

The first boarding call was made right after the aircraft taxied past the gate. A long queue of restless passengers had already formed, and people seemed quite relieved to get on to the tarmac coach. I remained till only a few of us remained to board. I got past the gate by 1704. Quite surprisingly, there was really poor co-ordination among the ground staff - while the check-in gate cleared passengers, there were no coaches to take them to the aircraft! After a minute of wait, a coach turned up - the driver asked passengers for the flight number, and later asked the ground staff for bay details. We got to the aircraft by 1710hrs - but boarding hadn't commenced yet. The two buses that went before mine were still waiting. We were permitted to alight from the bus by 1713hrs. There was a long queue to board, already! I was inside the aircraft by 1718hrs.
The tarmac coach..
Boarding in progress.. 
Boarding through the aft door.. the IndiGo Ramp in full flow..
One last shot before I get in..
Boarding seemed to be happening really slow, and we completed boarding only by 1724hrs - this meant, we wouldn't be able to depart even at 1730hrs. Doors were armed by 1728hrs, and the barrage of announcements commenced. Captain Mukesh Sharan and First Officer Akarshitha Roy were in charge. Anubhuti and her team looked after the cabin. We were pushed back at 1729hrs, but had a long wait before we could commence taxi, due to other aircraft on the apron. We commenced taxi at 1734hrs, and had a long run to Taxiway A6, the holding point of Runway 09. We finally took off at 1742hrs. We took off to the east before setting course to the North East. The seat belt sign was turned off by 1753hrs. An announcement was made that they would be serving only passengers with a prebooked meal, and others could use the call button if they wished to buy something.
My boarding pass, with Hello 6E
I had prebooked a meal, and I opted to have it in the second leg - the FA handling my row, Ms Ishita, made a remark about that in her chart and she moved on. It seemed like most passengers opted to buy something on board - could be that the delay made more people hungry. Oh yes! My flight, 6E466 has a stopover at Hyderabad. The flight was largely uneventful. There was a bit of turbulence as we neared Hyderabad, and the seatbelt signs were turned on at 1813hrs. A landing call was made at 1819hrs. We touched down on Runway 09R, at 1829hrs, and taxied to a remote stand. We docked at stand #11 by 1833hrs. Deplaning started quickly, and completed by 1840hrs.
En-route Hyderabad
The IndiGo interiors. Clean, well kept and spacious
Soon as all passengers to Hyderabad got off, an army of housekeeping personnel barged in. They had a clear split in what they do - one person cleans the seat pockets, one person sets the seatbelts in order, another person clears the thrash. In the meantime, ground personnel came in with passenger manifest and cross-checked boarding passes, and confirmed that there were claimants for all the hand baggage on board. I really liked the way their housekeeping personnel went about keeping the aircraft clean - and I really appreciate IndiGo for the way they handle quick turnarounds. As we were doing this, the first bus with passengers for the next sector had already arrived. There were fairly good loads to Raipur - there were atleast about 60 passengers carrying on to Raipur.

Sector: HYD-RPR
STD: 1805hrs, ATD: 1859hrs
STA: 1905hrs, ATA: 2015hrs

Boarding for the Hyderabad-Raipur sector commenced at 1846hrs. Boarding was quick this time, and we were done by 1855hrs. Doors were armed by 1859hrs and we were pushed back at 1906hrs. There was a delay in push-back due to congestion in the apron, as informed by the captain. While Captain Mukesh Sharan continued to be in command, First Officer Alex George had now taken over. The cabin crew hadn't changed. We commenced taxi at 1911hrs. We entered Runway 09R at 1917 via A8, and we had a rolling take off. We were airborne by 1918hrs. The climb out was very quick, and seatbelt sign was turned off by 1922hrs. This time, again, it was announced that only passengers with prebooked meals would be served. Ms Ishita remembered my request, and she came down to my seat as soon as service began and took my order.
The stub on the boarding pass, and my options!
The IndiGo Tiffin menu seems to be becoming smaller and smaller every month - my favorite item, the Sub was gone, and there were just options - the mundane Tomato Cucumber Cheese and Lettuce Sandwich and a Paneer Khurchan in Whole Wheat Tortilla Wrap. I opted for the latter. Ishita literally surprised (or shocked) me when she asked what would be my alternative choice if the wrap wasn't available on board - come on! There are just two choices! I opted for a Paper Boat Anar drink to go along my roll. I did get the roll, and not the dreaded sandwich.
The meal..
The roll was cold - infact, the FA mentioned that it was cold, and not hot, as she served it. The roll was made of a whole wheat tortilla, with a filling rich in Paneer (Cottage cheese). I really liked the roll - the quantity of Paneer was the real highlight. The Paneer was soft and properly cooked, while the filling in itself was neutral on spices, and the flavour was neutral. The roll had impressed me last time as well. This time the roll was prepared by LSG SkyChefs at their Bengaluru kitchen. The drink, Paper Boat's Anar (Pomegranate) juice, was good as well.
The roll..
Weather appeared to have worsened - the seatbelt sign was back between 1926hrs and 1930hrs, and then again at 1946hrs. The second time, the turbulence was quite bad, and the captain asked cabin crew to be seated. A quite cabin clearance was done, and the cabin was prepared for landing as well. We touched down at Runway 24 of Raipur's Swami Vivekananda International Airport at 2010hrs. Reversers were in full application, along with heavy braking. The sole runway (06-24) doesn't have taxiways, and we carried on with the turnpad at the 06 end of the runway, and backtracked to the apron. We reached a stand by 2015hrs. Its a small airport, with two jetways - we did not use a jetway, though. Deplaning commenced quickly, and I was out of the aircraft by 2019hrs. It took a long time to get my checked-in bag. I got my bag only at 2034hrs. The airport had poor public transport options, and I had no option but to hire an expensive taxi - thankfully, there were two more people traveling to the same convention, and we shared the expense.

Ratings:
Check-in: 5/5 (Received an Advance Pass. Counter was quick and no-nonsense)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (Awesome)
Punctuality: 2.5/5 (An hour delayed beyond the rescheduled time - two hours behind original schedule)
Crew: 5/5 (Great crew)
Catering: 4.5/5 (The food served by great! There no options, though)
Overall: 4/5 (Good flight - enjoyed this one)
Map generated from GCMapper
Summary:
My 10th flight with Indigo. Another clean flight with great, well maintained interiors. The crew continue to be largely mechanical, especially the seniors who come in as cabin crew incharges. I continue to have a grouse on the terrible inflight catering menu - there is hardly anything to choose from. Hot meals aren't served on flights with less than an hour of flying, and one ends up having to choose between a Sandwich or a roll! If only they gave more choices. This was another good flight with IndiGo. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The 'regional maharaja': Kochi to Bengaluru on the AI's ATR 72-600

This was a journey I planned at a very short notice. I hadn't booked any ticket, since I had no plan of going home that weekend, in fact, had no plan to go home anytime that month at all. Since I started looking for tickets quite late, most of the buses were sold out, and those that had tickets were priced quite high. Flights were not an option either. I was somehow not convinced about paying astronomical rates for a bus, and changed my plans to return on Monday. Out of curiosity, I casually checked if redemption tickets were available on Air India. Bingo! One last seat was available, and I grabbed it quickly.

Why did I look at Air India? Air India flies once daily from Bengaluru to Kochi and back, 6 times a week. The aircraft actually flies Bengaluru-Kochi-Agatti. This sector was flown using an ATR 42-320 earlier, and I had two flights on them earlier. Sometime in mid-December, the ATR42 was replaced with the new ATR 72-600. ATR76s are rare in India, and I did not want to miss an opportunity to fly them. To add to that, this would be my first time flying Air India from Kochi to Bengaluru as well.

January 16, 2017:
I left home after a heavy breakfast, walked down to the nearest bus stop, and took a bus towards the airport. Since there are no direct bus, I need to change 3 buses to get to the airport. For the last stretch, I briefly considered taking a cab, but the fare estimates were quite high for the short distance. A little after I began my wait, a bus to the airport arrived, and I took it to reach the airport. I was at the airport by 1200hrs. The entrance to the terminal was a little crowded - that was because there was a single cop checking tickets. Baggage scan was not yet switched on, and a there was a very short line there. The machine came live only at 1208hrs, and I got my bag scanned by 1209hrs.

Check-in was deserted, and I was done by 1211hrs. Web Check-in is not permitted for flights on Air India Regional, but I had pre-selected seat #2D during booking. I headed straight to security check, which seemed quite crowded. No less than three Indigo flights and two SpiceJet flights were to depart in the next hour or so. People thronged the first screening machine, and caused a long queue. I skipped the queue, and went to the machine inside, which was also working. Frisking booths were also crowded. I was done by 1217, and headed to the security hold, which was terribly crowded. But, my favorite seats near Gate #4 were empty, and I got my favorite seat, which has a power plug as well. I had some official work to do, and got busy with my work.

The incoming aircraft (coming in from Agati) was still outside FR24's coverage. The apron was quite busy - both international and domestic departures happened one after the other. I was quite preoccupied with work, and did not really notice the time. I picked up a sandwich from the nearby stall sometime around 1300hrs since I didn't want to have a heavy lunch. The incoming aircraft was yet to arrive, and we were sure to be delayed. The aircraft appeared on FR24 a little past 1310hrs - and it was still about 30 minutes away from Kochi. While I had no hopes of an on-time departure, I was a little worried if we'd be stuck in Kochi due to the runway closure, which starts at 1400hrs, and goes on till 1500hrs.

Date of Journey: January 16, 2017
Airline: Air India Regional
Flight No: 9I 506 (AI 9506) || Seat: 2D
Aircraft type: ATR 72-600 || MSN: 1246 || Regn: VT-AIU
Sector: COK-BLR
STD: 1340hrs, ATD: 1412hrs
STA: 1505hrs, ATA: 1521hrs

The incoming aircraft touched down at 1346hrs. It was Air India Regional's ATR72-600, VT-AIU, cn:1246, delivered in May 2015 taking me back to Bengaluru. The first boarding call was made even before the passengers from the incoming sector got off the aircraft. A long line formed in no time, and I got into the tarmac coach by 1350hrs. They got the bus, a fairly new Tata Marcopolo Low floor AC coach, was dispatched as soon as the bus was half full. We got to the aircraft by 1354hrs, but we weren't allowed to get off the bus, since the aircraft was still being cleaned. There were a couple of passengers who came in from Agatti and continued to Bengaluru - they were waiting outside the aircraft was cleaning happened inside. The baggage handlers were busy re-arranging baggage that came in from Agatti - new baggage tags were being added on them as well.
My first flight with an ATR 72-600..
..was on VT-AIU
Boarding my first ATR 72-600, VT-AIU
Boarding finally commenced at 1403hrs, and I was inside in another minute. From the way they hurried with sending towards the aircraft, I guess this was done to escape the runway closure. Boarding was completed by 1410hrs, and doors were armed by 1412hrs. In command was Captain Dinesh singh - who spoke in a very Hindi accented english - in fact, this was perhaps the first time I heard the captain of an Air India flight addressing passengers - he came on the PA system a little after reaching cruising altitude, and apologized for the delay and thanked passengers for choosing to fly Air India. In the cabin were Ms. Vandana (the purser) and Ms. Darshna.

We were pushed back at 1413hrs. The cabin crew hurried with the safety demo soon after pushback. We commenced taxi by 1415hrs. We were to take off from Runway 09, and we did not head out to the holding point - instead exited through C2 on to the active runway by 1417hrs, and did a rolling take off. We were airborne by 1418hrs. It is quite rare to have take off from Runway 09 - we took off straight to the east, then turned north east and set course to Bengaluru. The seatbelt sign remained on for unsually long time, and the flight attendant called up the deck, after which the seatbelt signs were turned off (1426hrs). The food trolley came out in no time, and service commenced immediately. Small boxes with "Air India" printed on them were handed out to all passengers.
The "snack"
The box contained a small, really small, sandwich, and a tetrapak serving of Juice. A bottle of water was handed out seperately. The sandwich, although tasty, was really small to be called even a snack. It had one slice of bread, cut into two and stuffed with one single piece of tomato and a piece of cucumber. A slice of cheese was also kept inside. The serving grace was the juice - unlike the normal mixed fruit or orange, it was Mango this time. I washed down the entire thing with water. Air India's in-flight magazine, Shubh Yathra, makes for a good read every time. It was no different this time either. I spent the rest of the time reading the magazine, and the flight was uneventful.
My boarding pass..
I felt the overally NVH quality was better on the -600 than the -500s that I've been on earlier. The interiors were quite different - the overhead baggage bins had sliding shutters, the AC vent console had a completely fresh feel to it, and interior lighting appeared to be much better. Air India had opted for Recaro slimline seats with leather upholstery - the seats were very comfortable and had lots of leg room. The seat belt sign was back on at 1511hrs. We approached over Bengaluru city, flew all the way till Yelahanka airbase, before turning left and heading towards the approach path. The works on the second runway at Bengaluru airport seemed to be progressing really fast - most of the levelling work seemed to be complete. We finally touched down on Runway 09 of Bengaluru at 1518hrs. Quite unusually, the touch down was really smooth - the smoothest I've experienced in an ATR ever. We docked at stand #25 by 1521hrs. I was among the last passengers to deplane. The crew gave a nice smile as they wished Thanks to each passenger. The tarmac coach dropped us at the terminal by 1532hrs. Quite interestingly, my baggage reached just as I reached the belt, and I got my bag by 1535hrs, and I was out of the terminal in another 2 minutes.
The Hamilton 568F propellor blades on the Pratt & Whitney PW127M engine.. somewhere in cruise..
Ratings:
Check-in: 5/5 (No web-check-in. Counter was quick and no-nonsense)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (Awesome)
Punctuality: 4.75/5 (15 Minutes delay at arrival, 32 minutes delay at departure)
Crew: 5/5 (Great crew)
Catering: 3.5/5 (It was inadequate. But the quality was great!)
Overall: 4.85/5 (Good flight - enjoyed this one)
Tracking from FR24
Summary:
This was the first flight of 2017, and I was quite excited to start the year with the national carrier itself! The fact that this was my first flight in an ATR 72-600 and 15th flight in an ATR added to the excitement. This was the third flight on Air India Regional, and 10th flight in an Air India group aircraft. I really liked this flight - the crew were good, it was fairly on time and they ensured that the overall experience was great. The catering was something that let me down - I wouldn't really blame them since the entire catering is handled out of Bangalore, and this was the fourth sector served by the aircraft that day. Perhaps, they could load out of Cochin and ensure a slightly better snack is served, since the flight flies around lunch time.  I enjoyed this one, and think it was a great way to kickstart 2017.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Bangalore to Thrissur: Garuda Maharaja, RP652 - Again, Again!

I was emotionally overcharged. Badly wanted to travel somewhere away from Bangalore. It was another usual two-day weekend, but with a major festival. On a Wednesday, I decide to head out to my home town that Friday. All the travel options for that weekend seemed to be full. After a bit of searching around, I realise that Kerala KSRTC had rescheduled a very useful service to an absolutely idiotic timing - and seats for this bus was available as well. Wasting no time, I book a seat on the first row. Although I wanted a seat on the left side, I managed to get one on the right side. I didn't want to move backwards - a first row seat was compulsory. I had very little options for the return journey - finally ended up flying Air India on Monday (more on that later).

Kerala SRTC has a fleet of 18 Scania Metrolink 13.7m coaches, branded as Garuda Maharaja. Only 2 of them were held in a depot outside Trivandrum - and this bus operated on Alappuzha-Bengaluru route. I had taken this service in December 2016 (read here). Internal politics and incompetence has always been the bane of Kerala SRTC, and has been pushing the corporation from red to deeper red, even more deeper. Internal reasons forced KSRTC to cancel the useful and revenue generating service operated out of Alappuzha to Bengaluru. The service was extended to Trivandrum, and terribly rescheduled. A bus that used to depart at 2000hrs from Bengaluru was rescheduled to 1300hrs. But then, this was a blessing in disguise for me. The terrible timing kept this service on the last among priorities for passengers, and helped me get a ticket on this one.

January 13, 2017:
I was quite excited about the first bus journey in 2017 - the fact that it was a "new" service, a KSRTC bus and a Scania bus added to the excitement. I had a hurried lunch from the restaurant at Mysore Road Satellite bus station - this restaurant was recently renovated, was giving a fully new look - but the food had the same old terrible taste. I washed down the terrible tasting food with a lemon juice and rushed to the platform. My bus was already parked there. It was the same bus that took me home in December - RP652, now of Trivandrum depot. The conductor was busy checking tickets, while one of the two drivers remained near the baggage hold and helped passengers with luggage (quite an opposite experience to what it was a couple of weeks ago).

The bus was full - had over 100 reservations, with certain seats being reserved in 3 sectors! The conductor verified the passengers' name with the identity proof, and just checked if a physical ticket or the mTicket was with the passenger and let people inside. The afternoon peak traffic delayed our departure a little, as a lot of passengers were yet to turn up. We finally started off from the bus station at 1315hrs, 15 minutes behind schedule. Traffic had no mercy on us, and we crawled out of the bus station. One passenger had missed the bus, and requested the crew to stop outside a nearby metro station - but some information was misunderstood by either of the parties, and the passenger couldn't make it. We waded through traffic and made it to Kengeri by 1343hrs. We picked up pace once we passed Kengeri - but the traffic remained on the higher side.

There were two drivers on duty - both from Trivandrum depot. The guy at the wheels was quite fast, but did controlled overtakes and did not honk much. I dozed off for a while - but the sun was on my side was it was getting a little uncomfortable. To make matters worse, the guy on the aisle seat snored real loud. We passed Mandya by 1513hrs, and Srirangapatna by 1538hrs. I had anticipated a break at Channapatna - since the departure time was 1300hrs, and most people wouldn't have got an opportunity to have their lunch - but we didn't stop anywhere. We pulled into Mysore bus station at 1602hrs. The bus station was chocked entry to exit, and we barely managed some space to park and take in new passengers. A few passengers used the time to use the washroom and also to buy some eatables. We started from the parking by 1611hrs, but it was 1618hrs when we exited the bus station. Buses were parked haphazardly, and traffic controllers on the ground did absolutely nothing to ensure the exit was clear - however, they were very efficient at shooing off our bus, and forcing us to exit, while their own buses (buses operated by Mysore division of KSRTC) were allowed to block the exit and wait until eternity.

The odd timings of the bus forced a lot of passengers to reschedule their pick-up point - there were a lot of requests, and the crew had a really tough time finding out passengers and picking them up from different places. We had a pick-up at Nanjangud (1648hrs) as well. A little past Nanjangud, a passenger requested the crew to pull aside, since he wanted to puke - but by the time the crew could stop, he puked inside the cabin itself - on to the door and the step well. The crew had a tough time cleaning the area - bottles of water were poured to wash off the vomitus. The stale smell lingered inside the bus for a lot of time. Unlike a Volvo, the Scania cannot be driven with the door opened - which might have actually helped recycle the air. We pulled into the often dreaded Hotel Coffe Stoppe aka Thalassery Hotel a little before Gundlupet at 1721hrs. The crew requested the hotel staff to help us with cleaning the bus, which they obliged.

My previous experiences with the hotel isn't great. However, following a recent slew of complaints, the rates of food products seem to have reduced - I had a fairly heavy snack of two Kerala Parottas (Layered bread made of refined flour), a vegetable dish and a tea, and it cost me only around Rs. 60. The crew get good treatment there, and their food is free of cost - which is the driving force to select restaurants. We were joined by a couple of other buses at the joint. We started off from there at 1747hrs. By now, the conductor's phone was ringing relentlessly - our scheduled arrival time at Sulthan Bathery (about 60kms away) was 1745hrs! And quite interestingly, a bus that left 30 minutes behind us overtook us while we were at the hotel - the insult doesn't end there!
The bus, when we stopped for a break
We entered the forest section at 1809hrs. The conductor doubled up as a guide, and was calling out spottings - we spotted a few deers and a couple of elephants on the way. The driver was quite fast inside the forest - he missed quite a few speed breakers. Passengers at the rear would've surely had a bad time. We entered Kerala state by 1837hrs and left the forest by 1845hrs. It got dark by the time we left the forest. The bus had to go to Sulthan Bathery bus station to refuel - generally multi-axle buses do not go to the bus station, since the entry route is very poor, and these premium buses find it difficult to enter the road. In order to head to the bus station, the driver took the bus to the town centre at Chungam (1905hrs), created a mini traffic block as we turned around, and then traveled in the opposite direction to head to the bus station. We reached the bus station by 1912hrs. After dropping passengers, the bus headed straight to the fuel station.

The faulty fuel tank design meant they had to refuel both the diesel tanks seperately and ate into our time - we finally started off from Sulthan Bathery by 1929hrs. The second driver had taken over now - this was an aged guy, quite rash at the wheels. He was soft spoken, and behaved were politely to passengers, though. We were terribly behind schedule already - we had to be at Kozhikode by 1930hrs according to the schedule - a paltry 75 minutes to cover over 98kms, with a fair portion of ghats in between! I am sure the guy who wrote this schedule was smoking something real bad! Passengers waiting en route had no mercy on the conductor, and people released the choicest of their words at the crew - who expressed their helplessness, and replied politely that we are 100kms away, and would take no less than 2 hours to reach Kozhikode.

We had a pick-up at Kalpetta (2013hrs). I had dozed off for a while in between, and got up just as we were about to commence descending the Wayanad pass. The bus handled the 9 hairpin bends with ease - the rear steerable axle really helped. I felt the braking a little uncomfortable, and the driver was throwing the bus around at corners. Thankfully nobody puked - but it was surely nauseating. Maybe being on the first row helped me, since I was well prepared to handle the curves. There was no traffic on the ghats, which helped us not prolong the delay. A little past the ghats, a passenger came and requested the crew to stop the bus at a place between Adivaram and Thamarassery, where the bus wouldn't normally stop - although the crew expressed their displeasure about the delay it would cause, they obliged the request when the realised there was a female passenger as well. We dropped the passengers at West Kaithapoyil at 2109hrs.

We reached Thamarassery at 2123hrs. There was a request from a girl traveling along to stop at a place before Kozhikode - the crew ensured that there was someone to pick-up the passenger and that the bus stopped at a well-lit place. It felt really good about the crew when they took that extra care about females traveling alone. Traffic was messy once we entered Kozhikode town - although there were no blocks, people seemed to drive recklessly and the driver had to make sudden halts at two places - both the times when car drivers jumped into our lane without a signal or warning. We reached Kozhikode bus station at 2206hrs - over two and a half hours late.

There was a lot of confusion here. One, the bus was late, Two, the same bus number was informed to passengers waiting for another bus. A lot of passengers ganged around the bus - but none of their tickets featured in the reservation chart. The conductor had a tough time sorting out the passengers. After majority of the reserved passengers boarded, the conductor went to the station master's office to report absentees - the overcautious station master personally verified each  absentee by calling up the passengers and confirming that they weren't traveling. We finally started off from Kozhikode at 2232hrs - over three hours behind schedule. Quite unusually, the driver took the city route to get to the highway, instead of taking the Mavoor road and entering the bypass straightaway.

I was too tired and slowly drifted asleep. In the mean time, the driver and conductor were planning to have a dinner break. I slept for quite some time, and woke up only as the lights inside the coach were turned on, and the crew called a break (0004hrs). The restaurant guys also got into the bus and shouted loud - loud enough to wake up anybody who might have been sleeping. Although I was half asleep, I was quite hungry and got off to have dinner. It took me a while to understand where we were - we were a little past Kuttipuram, closer to Edappal then. The hotel was quite quick - it seemed more like a make shift facility than a regular hotel, though. The food was fairly good. We started from there by 0020hrs. I didn't want to sleep after that, and pulled up my back rest.

I had my eyes on the road ahead now. The driver was quite rash - he didn't quite bother about oncoming traffic as he overtook vehicles one after the other. The bus didn't seem to be quite well kept - there were too many rattles. At one point, we got into a competition with a Super Fast bus that was going towards my hometown - but I was too tired to get off this bus and get into that. The bus stopped to drop passengers at Perumbilavu (0040hrs) and Kunnamkulam (0048hrs) - unlike my immediate previous experience on the Garuda Maharaja, the crew on this bus didn't make too much of a fuss when people requested to be dropped at places where there was no stop. We finally entered Thrissur bus station at 0113hrs - a good three hours and 13 minutes behind scheduled time. And, the Ernakulam deluxe bus which left 30 minutes after us from Bangalore was already standing at the bus station! Although the bus was late according to the advertised schedule, a bus taking the Mysore-Kozhikode route would actually take this much time to reach Thrissur, from Bangalore.

Closing remarks: The bus had about 1.59lakh kms on the odo, and the maintenance seemed quite poor. There were quite some audible rattles this time. Although this particular service came to my rescue at this peak season, I am quite opposed to spoiling a good service to satisfy egos and internal politics. Terrible timings and unreliable advertised schedule would only add to the misery. The crew were quite good in their behaviour to passengers, and I appreciate the extra measures they took to ensure safety of women passengers. Driving was very so-so - the second driver was outright rash, while the first guy was kinda passable. The unbelievable schedule was a big dampener in the overall experience. I really wonder what stuff was the guy smoking when he prepared such a schedule. Overall a very mixed experience with this service.

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

Ratings:
Maintenance: 4/5 (rattles, torn magazine holders)
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 3.5/5 (First driver was okay, second driver was rash)
Crew behaviour: 4.75/5 (Overall - good behaviour)
Punctuality: 2/5 (Arrived over 3 hours late)

Overall: 3/5

Pros: State bus, Cheap
Cons: Impossible timings, driving

Will I take this service again? Hell no! Unless I am on some "time-wasting" journey. Might be a good option for Kozhikode passengers, though.

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:
--
www.srsbooking.com
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'.

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

Ratings:
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.

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

Ratings:
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!

Ratings:
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..
Summary:
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!