Saturday, February 15, 2014

Coming Home from India - Flight Review

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, we flew to India via Qatar Airways.  On the way home, though, for a number of reasons, we flew via British Airways.  One of the primary factors was that we were flying home on Thursday, and I really needed to try and get to work for a little while on Friday, so I needed something with more space than regular coach class to rest.  BA offers a premium economy class with more space that I thought might do the trick.  Ultimately, we ended up with a little surprise that gave me all the rest I needed.  Find out more after the jump.

Flights back in premium economy were considerably cheaper from Delhi than Chennai, which meant the need for a short domestic flight to Delhi first.  For which we booked a flight on...

IndiGo Airways (6E) Flight 282
January 8, 2014
Depart Chennai (MAA) 20:05, 15 min late
Arrive Delhi - Indira Gandhi Int'l Airport (DEL) 22:42, 7 min late
Trip time:  2 hrs 27 min
Economy Class, Seats 2E/2F
Airbus A320

For those unfamiliar with Indigo, it is a low-cost carrier (LCC) that focuses mostly on domestic flying within India, but has also recently launched some international routes.  It is similar to Ryanair or Spirit Airlines, in that you get a super low fare, but have to pay extra for everything, including soft drinks and advance seat assignments.  Most of the charges are bearable (1,000 rupees/$16 for an extra 10kg of baggage, for instance), but what really gets under my skin is the Rs. 200 "convenience fee" that you must pay for every online transaction - not just buying your ticket, but any changes as well.  Sorry, but since the "convenience fee" can't be avoided unless you buy a ticket at the airport counter, it should be included in the fare.  Anyway, I did decide to try out "Fast Forward", which for 200 rupees per person gives you priority check-in and priority baggage delivery at your destination.  While it worked, frankly, it proved to be unnecessary.  At the domestic terminal in Chennai, there was no wait in the regular line, and bags are pretty quick to come out at Terminal 1D in Delhi anyway.

Chennai Airport has finally undergone some long overdue renovations, including a new domestic terminal.  It's night-and-day better than the old terminal.  As you can see from the photos below, it is pretty much in the same style as Terminal 1D in Delhi, and the new airport terminals in Bangalore and Hyderabad.  Which shouldn't be a surprise I suppose, considering all three were built by the same consortium, GMR.  While far from the most fabulous airport terminal in the world - the terminal is particularly lacking in food options - it is at least clean and functional, and doesn't present the foreign traveler with such a negative first impression of India like the old dumpy airport.

The biggest problem?  As with other GMR airports, that would be obscene prices at the concession stands.  70 rupees for a lousy cup of instant tea.  This in a place where you can get a lovely cup of chai on the street for 10 rupees.

The incoming flight was a little late, and we boarded about 20 minutes late.  The gate agent boarded by groups, and impressively, strictly enforced this so that people who tried to cut in line were told to wait.  IndiGo keeps its planes clean, though as you would expect from an LCC, space isn't all that great (though not horrible either).

Service onboard remains very friendly and efficient, as has been my experience on previous Indigo flights.  The flight attendant even addressed me by name when asking for food and drink orders, something you never see on American or even European carriers in coach.  Otherwise, there's just not much to say about a 2 hour domestic flight.  We didn't order anything, so I can't comment on the food & beverage, though prices are reasonable (I want to say Rs. 150 for a sandwich, Rs. 50 for a Coke).  No in-flight entertainment is offered, aside from a small in-flight sales magazine offering Indigo branded Sky Mall-type items.  I did find an ad highlight expanded service to Chennai amusing, as it urged readers to "IndiPo to Chennai" and to "Po today!" ("po" means "go" in Tamil).  The seats were noticeably uncomfortable after about an hour, with poor back and thigh support. 

Overall, for short domestic flights within India, IndiGo is a good choice.  I paid about Rs. 15,000 ($240) for two one-way tickets to Delhi, fees included.  You can't really complain about that for a flight that would be roughly equivalent to DFW to Denver in the U.S., even if the seats aren't the most comfortable.  Friendly and mostly on-time service is icing on the cake.

British Airways (BA) Flight 142
January 9, 2014
Depart DEL 03:37, 3 minutes early
Arrive London Heathrow (LHR) 07:56, 26 minutes late
Trip time:  9 hrs 49 min
World Traveler Plus (premium economy), Seats 12E/12F
Boeing 747-400

Once we collected our bags at the Delhi domestic terminal (1D), we had to make our way to the international terminal (new Terminal 3), for which a free bus shuttle is provided.  Previously, there was a very well-marked transfer desk where you showed your boarding passes, obtained passes, and then waited inside until the next shuttle showed up - a painless process overall.  Alas, I guess India couldn't stand to keep things easy for visitors.  Now, you are directed outside, where the transfer desk is poorly marked, the guy manning it doesn't speak English (or at least pretends not to for fellow Indians), and there are no signs at all telling you where to wait for the bus.  I finally figured out that you had to cross the parking lot and stand by the service road, where the bus showed up after a few minutes - along with a "porter" who took my bags without being asked, and then demanded a tip for his service.  Luckily it was a nice night when we were there, but I would hate having to wait outside by the road during monsoon season, or during the day in the summer when it can easily reach 110 degrees.

Once at the international terminal, we were actually there so early that the check-in counters hadn't opened yet.  They did about 10 minutes later, and while there was no separate line for World Traveler Plus, the line was short and we were through in probably 15 minutes.  Immigration and security were moving steadily on this day, but still, it took nearly an hour to get through.  Terminal 3 has been fairly recently opened; I believe it was completed in 2010 or 2011, and is now quite nice, especially compared to the horrid terminal that used to be here.

There's even a Starbucks Coffee here now (we didn't try it).
World Traveler Plus (WTP) is a kind of hybrid product, featuring a slightly (1") wider World Traveler (coach) seat with an additional 7 inches of pitch (38 inches vs. 31 for regular economy), and meals from the Club World (business class) menu, but served all at once with plastic cutlery like a regular coach meal.

As I mentioned, meals are supposed to be selections from the Club World menu, and things started off well, with a nice South African pinotage the featured red wine...
...and some tasty pretzels (though with an unfortunate name - I guess the British haven't gotten wind of the scandal yet).
The meal, on the other hand...let's just say I have to question whether these were really Club World meals.  Dinner was choice of pasta with chicken or vegetarian curry.  I had the pasta.
It wasn't very good.  I'm not a fan of spinach to begin with, but the spinach noodles were badly overcooked, and the cream sauce had no flavor (stereotypical British food in other words).  I was hungry, though, so I ate probably 2/3 of it.  My wife didn't like her curry, either.

It was already very late at this point, so after polishing off my wine, I watched about half of a documentary about Siberian tigers, then nodded off for about 5 hours.  The extra legroom made the experience far more comfortable than a regular coach seat, but unfortunately, the seat once again left me with a bad case of saddle sore.  As I would slide down the seat, it just didn't provide enough support to the upper thigh.  Sitting on the pillow helped a little, but not much.

I woke up just as breakfast service was starting.  This time, we both chose the "mixed grill" (I can't remember what the other choice was), though I regretted it pretty quickly.  It smelled awful, looked almost as bad, and didn't taste much better.  In fairness, the potatoes were good, and the scrambled eggs were alright, if a little dry, but the bacon and sausage were terrible.
Service was disappointing on this leg.  The crew, while not rude, were not particularly friendly, either, and weren't particularly helpful or inviting.  They got the job done, but clearly seemed tired.  Considering that WTP is a good $1,000-1,500 per ticket more expensive than coach, while you shouldn't expect business class service, I was hoping for something better than regular coach.

You might recall my mentioning a surprise at the beginning of this post.  As we presented our boarding passes at the transit counter at Heathrow's Terminal 5, the agent's eyes lit up a bit, and she said "that's nice!".  It turns out we had been upgraded to Club World, BA's business class!  SCORE!!!  You always secretly hope this will happen, and we just happened to get extraordinarily lucky.

Our new Club World tickets allowed us access to the British Airways "Galleries" lounge at T5.  We had a couple of hours before our flight to Houston would even board, so we stopped by for a little while.  It's certainly far more pleasant and relaxing than waiting in the terminal.  I took a few photos inside, but the picture quality was exceptionally poor, so I won't post them here.  However, I did get a nice shot of a BA 747, similar to the one we came in on (and the one we would be leaving on).

After enjoying coffee with a touch of Bailey's and a bowl of cereal, I checked up on e-mail and surfed the internet for a little while, until it was time to head to the gate for boarding.

BA Flight 195
January 9, 2014
Depart LHR 10:25, on-time
Arrive Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) 14:49, 19 min late
Trip time:  10 hr 34 min
Club World (business class), Seats 17E/17F
Boeing 747-400

Needless to say, these business class seats had far more room than anything else we'd experienced to this point on this trip.

Club World seats lie flat, and are very comfortable, but you want to be careful when selecting your seat.  The seats are in a staggered 2-4-2 configuration, and if you select one of the two adjacent middle seats in the center section, you have NO privacy at all from your neighbor, as there's no divider between the seats.  Great if you're traveling as a couple, not so great if you're traveling solo.

We settled in to our seats, the FAs brought a choice of champagne, orange juice, or water before take-off, and menus were distributed - regular paper menus this time, unlike the fancy electronic ones on Qatar Airways.

I had the crayfish, salad, and filet of beef.  The salad and crayfish pate weren't bad, though I don't care for pesto sauce.
The beef, though - this was quite possibly the best in-flight meal I've ever had.  The filet was a perfect medium well, the Bernaise sauce was rich and creamy, and the vegetables nicely cooked and tender.
As you can see, I didn't care for it too much...
Lunch was finished off with a cheese plate and a chocolate marble cheesecake, both delicious.

Belly full of food and a couple of glasses of wine, I stretched out on the seat and slept for about 4 hours.  Unlike the last 3 flights, no saddle sore this time.

I probably could have slept longer, but didn't want to overdo it, and then risk not being able to sleep at night.  I played the British version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" on the IFE for a while.  Some of the questions are a bit difficult unless you know British pop culture, but it is an addictive game, and kept me occupied for a couple of hours.  About an hour and a half before landing, sandwiches and scones were served.

The beef sandwich was pretty tasty, but I don't eat salmon, and the cheese sandwich was only OK (which should tell you something, because I normally devour cheese).  Shortly thereafter, it was time to land; no pictures this time, unfortunately, because we were in a middle seat, I couldn't take any pictures of the landing.

Service on this flight was night and day compared to the previous one in WTP.  Our flight attendant was wonderfully attentive,  and provided excellent in-flight service.  She was genuinely concerned when I accidentally spilled a glass of wine on my jeans and footstool, and quickly brought over an extra blanket and pillow from a nearby empty seat.  While you definitely expect better service in business class, this was a big change from the rather indifferent service we received from Delhi to London.  And honestly, I've experienced the same hit-or-miss service in Club World on previous British Airways flights, part of what makes flying BA a tad frustrating as a passenger, since you're never sure which version will show up.

Our experience on LCC Indigo was about what was expected - basic product, but good service.  For the price you pay, it's a good value.  Our British Airways experience was mixed.  Our Club World experience was fantastic, but I was a bit disappointed in World Traveler Plus.  The extra room was welcome, but the lackluster service was a downer.  I don't exactly have $6,000 lying around to purchase business class tickets, but I'll have to think about whether the extra fare for WTP is worth it next time.

1 comment:

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