Kochi to Chennai: SpiceJet Q400

Travel was the last thing in my mind as the pandemic continued unabated. I hadn't considered returning to my workplace unless my presence there was unavoidable. I kept pushing off any possible travel as much as I could. It was sometime in early October that I was told that I would have to travel to Chennai in December. I was hoping this journey gets pushed off - and I avoided booking a ticket for as long as I could. As November came, this journey confirmed, and I had to travel to Chennai on the last day of November, to be available there on the first and second of December 2020. 

Twenty-Twenty ravaged the travel industry - the year has been unpredictable, exactly how the Twenty-20 format of the game of Cricket is! I was reminded some-time during the middle of the year that I had a credit voucher with SpiceJet (against a flight that was cancelled in mid 2019) - they had extended the validity of the voucher, all thanks to the pandemic. I had to use this voucher - because the year was too unpredictable to see if I'd be flying before the end of the voucher validity. 

SpiceJet had only one non-stop flight from Cochin (Kochi) to Chennai - the second option was a one stop via Bengaluru. Both were priced similarly - but I wanted to finish off the journey quickly, and opted the non-stop option. I did add a seat - avoided adding food this time. The original plan was the return to my hometown after the work at Chennai - however, I did not book the return ticket for some reason. As days went by, a lot of changes happened to the entire travel plan, and I, now, had to head to Bengaluru from Chennai and join back at my workplace. I was originally supposed to travel out of my home - things changed there as well, and I was now starting from my in-law's place - close to about 120kms from the airport. 

November 30, 2020:

0410hrs: Teary eyed, heavy hearted, tired and fatigue - these words aptly describe my situation as I walked out of in-laws place, getting into the car that would drop me at the airport. I did not have the heart to turn back to TW and bid bye. The Schumacher at the wheel got to business soon after he hit the road. It was dark, and roads were desolate. We made very quick progress - passed Thrissur in less than 2 hours from start. We got to the highway, and then rushed towards the airport. This was my first visit to the airport after the new domestic terminal was commissioned. I reached the airport by 0630hrs - almost 4 hours before my flight! 

0635hrs: After sending back the car, I tried to indulge the new terminal. There was a garden at the entrance, and the entire terminal was designed in typical Kerala design. I checked the self-check-in kiosks outside the terminal to see if I could reprint my boarding pass or the luggage tag - but, this facility was not available for SpiceJet passengers. I had received a digital boarding pass soon after web check-in. I had noted down the details of my baggage tag (it had only my PNR and flight number) on a piece of paper, since I couldn't print it before travel. 

Cochin International Airport - Terminal 1

Terminal 3 and 2 at a distance

0720hrs: I decide to get into the terminal, after having spent quite a lot of time waiting outside. The first point of contact is a temperature screen - a contact less infrared scanner was used for the purpose. After this, I reached the security screen - this part was completely contactless. A barcode reader was employed to read my boarding pass, and visuals of my identity proof was captured on a camera. On entry into the terminal, an airport staff sanitized my baggage using a fumigator. SpiceJet was yet to open its check-in counter - I guess mine was the first flight of the day for SpiceJet. 

Entry in to the Terminal - contactless check procedures can be seen

Check-in area. 

Check-in counters for SpiceJet - yet to open for the day

0745hrs: The counter was yet to open - the display wasn't updated, and there was only 1 staff near the counter. I quickly checked if baggage drop was open - he said yes! I checked-in my bag - the agent quickly checked the gate number and updated me. I received my baggage tag details as an SMS. I loved this paperless part. There was no printed boarding pass, and baggage tag was sent as a message. Good going! I headed straight towards Security. The old terminal was small - this one is almost 5 times the size of the old terminal. Security check was a long walk from the check-in counter. 

0750hrs: First check-point of security check - this was again contactless. My boarding pass was scanned, and identity was verified on camera. Social distancing was enforced here. They split passengers into different queues at this point. This ensured that each queue had less people, and social distancing was ensured. The CISF officers at the scanning point ensured that electronic items were out of the bag before they entered x-ray. They used hand held metal detectors with long handles for body scanning - there was no pat-down. The officer verified my boarding pass before letting through. The "rubber stamp" happy cops do not want seals anywhere now! I am amazed at the way the entire boarding process went digital - really wonder what stopped them so long! 

0756hrs: I entered the security hold. The terminal now has 11 boarding gates - Gates 1 to 7 are contact (aerobridge) gates, while Gates 8 to 11 are remote boarding (bus boarding) gates. My flight, being a turboprop, was to board from Gate 8. I still had over 2 hours for boarding - and was terribly hungry by now. I headed straight to the Earth lounge, in the upper level of the terminal. A fairly large food court also existed at this level. 

Way to the Lounge/Food Court. This is located near Gate #6


Earth Lounge was located before security check in the old terminal - it is now located inside the security hold, alongside the food court. Earth Lounge overlooks the apron, and gives great view of the runway as well. In fact, the Rapid Exit Taxiway exits right near the lounge. For some reason, the credit card authentication devices weren't working - but the lounge manager let me in. The lounge doesn't have a large buffet spread now - all thanks to the pandemic. They serve food on an à la carte basis - the menu option was extremely limited. I got a hot Masala Dosa from the lounge, and washed it down with a black coffee from the dispenser kept nearby. Service was 'cold' - no refills or second serving was offered. The lounge was sparsely occupied, and there lounge was silent all the time - except for the Malayalam news channel playing loud on the television. 

My Masala Dosa!

The views from the lounge is outstanding!

1000hrs: I left the lounge and headed towards the boarding gate. I had to come down from the upper level to the boarding level, then take another escalator to go down to the remote boarding level (aka ground floor). The area wasn't much crowded. There were 4 remote boarding gates - I doubt if the seating in that area would be sufficient if all four gates were to board at the same time. Crowd was very light for my flight, and all people were sitting quite far apart. Cochin Airport has wooden sofas in the waiting area - they ensured that all sofas were kept keeping social distancing in mind. While waiting, the airline staff distributed "safety kits" - containing a face shield, a non-woven fabric mask and small sachets of sanitizer. 

Safety kit given out by SpiceJet



Date of Journey: November 30, 2020
Airline:
SpiceJet
Flight No: SG3028 || Seat: 18D
Aircraft type: Bombardier DHC-8-402Q Dash 8 || MSN: 4356 || Regn: VT-SUT 'Amchur'
Sector: COK-MAA
STD: 1025hrs, ATD: 1032hrs
STA: 1205hrs, ATA: 1146hrs

1014hrs: First call for boarding was made. People all got up together and crowded the boarding gate in no time. All for the "precautions" taken until then. The ground staff kept announcing that wearing a mask and the face shield was mandatory. Since this aircraft didn't have "middle" seats - PPE jackets weren't distributed. The total load for the flight was only 32 pax - they sent about 16 people by the first bus, and continued boarding for remaining passengers. It took a while for the second bus - I was inside the tarmac coach by around 1020hrs. Although I was among the last of the passengers to board, the kept the bus waiting for a while more (probably to avoid crowding at aircraft door). 

VT-SUT - "Amchur" for me today!


We got to the aircraft by around 1025hrs, and was inside the bird by 1026hrs. Interestingly, boarding passes were checked using a hand-held device - stubs are gone! The bird working my flight that day was VT-SUT, a 2011 Bombardier DHC-8-400 (MSN 4356), delivered to SpiceJet in November 2016. The aircraft was named "Amchur" (Dry Mango powder - a condiment used in north Indian style of cooking). Boarding was declared complete by 1027hrs, and we were good to go. While we were preparing for pushback, water bottles were distributed. Safety announcements followed. Doors were armed by 1031 and we were pushed back at 1032hrs. Captain Jaffer Sherif and First officer Jincy Thomas were flying us to Chennai on the day. 

We commenced taxi by 1035hrs. I was expecting departure from Runway 27 - but we soon turned towards Runway 09. The airport had too little departure at the time, and I believe this was a reason for a shorter route. We didn't have to hold - directly entered the runway, paused for a while, and began the takeoff roll. We were airborne at 1038hrs. We flew straight to the East, and then set a north-east course to head to Chennai. We flew over the mighty western ghats - it was fun watching reservoirs between hillocks. There was thick cloud cover as we climbed - Cyclone Burevi had increased cloud formations and there was a bit of turbulence. 

Seatbelt sign didn't remain on for long. Soon after the seatbelt signs were turned off, the cabin crew announced that onboard sales wouldn't be available, and only passengers with prebooked meals would be served. Trolley came out, service was completed in about 10 minutes, and the trolley went back. All passengers were offered water - in water bottles, not the usual disposable glass serving. The rest of the flight was largely eventless. Seatbelt sign was turned on by 1120hrs, followed by landing preparations. The cabin crew came around to quickly clear trash and ensure things were in place. Cloud cover got thicker as we neared Chennai, and there was a bit of turbulence as we descended in to Chennai. 

We finally touched down on Runway 07 at 1142hrs - we burnt quite a bit of rubber as reverse thrust was deployed. It was a very quick taxi to the stand, and parked by 1146hrs. The most interesting part after landing was the discipline among flyers - its usual to hear the seatbelt clings as people remove their seatbelt even when the aircraft is still on the runway. This time, people still had their seatbelts on, and people waited till go ahead was given by the crew. Special words of appreciation for the crew who worked this sector - they ensured that people remained seated and row-wise deboarding was strictly enforced. It did take longer for people to vacate the plane as they did this - but there was very little chaos on board. It was easier for the ground staff to arrange buses as well - two buses were used, even though we had passengers to hold in a single bus. 

I was the last passenger to get off the bird - the ground staff gave the go ahead to the bus driver soon after I got in to the bus. It was a little long ride to the terminal - some advertisements were being played in the bus. After getting to the terminal, it was a smooth walk to the baggage belt. There were no checks - no temperature check or verification of e-passes. It took quite a while for bags to come out. I think it was around 1210hrs or so when I got my bag. I remained inside the terminal for a while more till I got a cab on my Uber app. I was at Chennai airport after a very long time - I had no clue of the pick-up point - blindly followed the application to located my cab - it was then a short ride to my hotel. 

Ratings:
Boarding: 5/5 (A little less cautious - but I'll still give full marks)
Cleanliness: 5/5 
Punctuality: 5/5 (Minimal delay)
Crew: 5/5 (Great crew)
Catering: Not rated - I didn't use!
Overall: 5/5 (A good flight!)
A video review of the ride!

Summary: 
This was my first flight post-COVID. The 14th flight on SpiceJet. The 5th flight in a Dash-8 turboprop. The second flight in 2020. I was very apprehensive about flying in the midst of the pandemic - however, I felt this was the safest option at the point of time. I wanted to keep my exposure at the least. I was generally very happy with the precautions taken at Kochi airport - the entire boarding experience was contactless and every public space had enforced social distancing as well. I found the boarding process a little chaotic - primarily because they did not enforce a row-wise boarding, and people rushed to the gate as soon as boarding was announced. The gate staff didn't try spacing out passengers either - infact, they continued boarding even after the first bus was dispatched, and the second bus hadn't yet docked - this meant people were left standing without any social distancing. Except this part, the rest of the experience was great. The aircraft maintenance was above average - the overall experience was good. Looking forward for more with SpiceJet!

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