EY 211 DEL-AUH Y A340-600 seat 43A

On my last day, the trip from Noida to the airport was (much to my surprise) over in barely an hour, leaving me with a rather too-generous four hours to kill at DEL. The Departures floor is under such heavy construction that I could barely recognize it, one of the check-in desk rows (Row 1) already reworked into the 21st century, the others still falling apart. I’d arrived so early that Etihad hadn’t even started checking in, but after I’d completed one circuit of the terminal looking for them, I spotted a bunch of unlabeled checkin desks with their monitors turned off… and a stack of Etihad luggage tags. Bingo. They’d just opened, and I got sequence number 002 for DEL-AUH, with sequence number 270 for AUH-RUH. How does that work?

Construction prevailed at the immigration desks (over in a jiffy) and the airside had been transformed to such an extent that I could only gape. Gone were the plastic bucket chairs, gone was the Flamingo duty free shop where I used to buy my Indian wines (better than you’d think), gone was the ITC lounge downstairs, even the security queue had transmogrified into something new. In their place were lots of construction hoardings and drilling noises, and I shuddered at the thought of having to spend four hours here. But there was a sign pointing to the Clipper lounge upstairs, and having done my research on FlyerTalk’s India forum I headed up with my Mastercard in hand. Now, in America gold Mastercards are included in boxes of cereal, and even in Singapore the income requirements for one aren’t too lofty, but in India they’re apparently still beyond the means of the hoi polloi — which is why Mastercard graciously offers free use of the Clipper Lounge for every holder of a Gold, Platinum, Titanium or World mastercard. It was still before the evening rush, and aside from a few JAL pax I had the blessedly peaceful lounge (and its fridge full of Kingfisher beer) to myself.

An hour before departure I headed out, and back in the less rarified realms of the terminal the security lines were as bad as ever, with powertripping jawans doing their best to harass the poor bunch of workers heading to the Gulf, barking at them for not waiting at the yellow line (as if they could read the signs) and emptying out every last slip of paper from their pockets. Once they were finally done with them, white sahibs like me were promptly passed through and I headed to Gate 3 to board my first Etihad plane.

The good news was that it was, indeed, the promised Airbus 340-600; why they’re operating a smallish long-haul plane on a low-yield short-haul route like DEL-AUH, though, is beyond me. The plane looked nice, all muted tones of desert tan (shades of Emirates), but the seat pitch was surprisingly cramped, with sharp bits of the seatback poking into my knees no matter how I moved my legs. Fine for this three hour flight, but I’d definitely steer clear of this plane for a real long-haul. The IFE screen was big and the headphones were unusually high-quality, but the interface was kinda slow and clunky, although there was a largeish (if dull) movie selection and an immense library of music — minus, alas, any ghazals. And no sign of the rumored in-seat power plug.

The bad news was that the plane was packed to hilt and 95% of the passengers in economy were workers headed to the Gulf, who aren’t exactly a frequent-flying bunch. Sitting as I was in the back, there was a constant jingle of “bong! bong! bong!” tones as people fiddling with remote controls unwittingly punched at the stewardess call buttons and little lights blinked on and off above the seats. Etihad also certainly didn’t bend over to serve this constituency of its passengers: all announcements and printed matter were in Arabic and English alone, with not a word of Hindi, and only one harried flight attendant appeared to speak the language. At least remarkably creepy safety video, which turned those 70s-style safety card cartoons into 3D computer animations of corpselike ghostly figures stoically enduring oxygen loss, crashes and evacuations, was probably equally incomprehensible in any language…

Meal service started soon after takeoff, and at least this was Indian style: Goan fish curry, curried peas and carrot, pulao, parantha and two balls of rasgulla. Reasonably tasty if unremarkable, and the carrots were red, so you could tell it was made in India. Drink service was a little odd: we received cups of water before takeoff, nothing immediately with the meal, a juice run after it was served, and then tea, coffee and hard liquors on demand while clearing the trays. Alas, the carbonation in the beer I’d drunk earlier has started disagreeing with the reduced air pressure and my stomach by this point, and while eating dinner helped — oddly, it usually does — I wasn’t quite in a position to appreciate the meal, or the flight, to its fullest. The workers, on the other hand, were enjoying the novel experience, with the jolly fellow in the row in front happily popping powdered coffee creamer into his mouth, like a Western version of paan masala, and chomping away.

The lights stayed on, but I pulled on my shades and attempted to rest a bit. Three hours into the flight we crossed over the coast at Oman and started coasting down to a descent in Abu Dhabi.

9W 017 SIN-DEL Y A330-200 seat 19A

I’ve flown this sector umpteen times, but to date always on SQ. However, this week they were booked full for days on end (the second daily flight starting this summer is not a moment too soon), so it was time to try out my first longer flight on Jet. My previous experience with the carrier has been limited to a single one-way Amritsar-Delhi hop, but I’ll confess not to paying my usual obsessive attention to the minutiae of the flight, as my intestines were in the rather unpleasant process of being roiled by amoebic dysentery at the time and I’d only narrowly avoided messy disaster in the check-in line.

This time, I was in harmony with my intestinal flora and looking forward to the trip. The plane looked new and very good, with lie-flat pods in business and modern burgundy-and-cream seating in economy in a 2-4-2 configuration. On the rather interminable taxi out from T1 to the runway, I spotted Etihad’s 777ER taking off — the very same thrice-weekly flight I was originally supposed to be on.

Take off, a towel run, and then straight into dinner with no menu, just a choice of “chicken, fish or veg”. The dinner selection looked impressive, with a miniature tablecloth on a tray, metal cutlery and a cloth napkin that looked almost good enough to steal, but the food was a bit of a disappointment: the chicken’s sauce was a pale Western approximation of a curry, just a sauce with turmeric really, and the raita tasted like it was made with sweetened low-fat yogurt. The salad was watery and the chapattiesque thing was thick and greasy, and only the finishing notes lifted the average a bit: a Magnum ice cream bar and a bag of Indian after-dinner mint spice mix. SQ wins this round.

Jet’s inflight entertainment system is really good, probably the best I’ve used interfacewise and far better than SQ’s Wiseman. It’s fast, responsive, easy to navigate and intuitive, as important settings like volume, brightness and screen on/off have their own buttons on the bottom of the screen, which can easily be manipulated by touch alone. The screen is nice and big, and there’s a pretty decent selection of programs, if with an understandable Indian slant. Today’s selections: episodes of Rome, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, The Office (US) and then a lengthy trawl through the dedicated Ghazals section of the music selection, where I drifted off to Lotus-land listening to Ghulam Ali. I was introduced to this amazing singer by trash novelist Shobhaa De‘s works, where the mango-breasted heroines rave about the aphrodisiac properties of his songs, and while they took a while to grow on me I’m starting to agree: a few bars, and I feel like I’m smoking opium and crushed pearls from a jewel-encrusted hookah while watching Hyderabad’s finest nautch girls dance. Score one for Jet.

Service was quite good also: Jet’s crew aren’t quite as dolled up as the SQ girls, nor are their faces contorted into a permanent rictus of a smile, but everything does work quite well. There was no water/drink service during the “night” while the lights are off, but I snagged a miniature water bottle from the galley and they did do a juice run before descent. Tie with SQ on this one.

The one big downside to Jet from SIN, though, is the terrible flight timing. Arrival into DEL is after 2 AM (meaning you’ll be lucky to get to your hotel by 4 AM), and the return flight wastes a full day by leaving DEL at 8 AM and arriving in SIN around 5 PM. And the smaller downside is the lack of alliance mileage, although I did manage to park the miles in my comatose Northwest account. Now to figure out a way to do something useful with the ~7500 miles I have in there…

SQ 943 DPS-SIN C B777-200 seat 15D

We left for the airport two hours before our flight, figuring we’d get there in half an hour, but due to a Galungan parade one of the main roads was closed and the alternate routes were thus jammed bumper to bumper. It took us one hour just to get near Kuta, usually a 10-15 minute trip, but then the traffic miraculously cleared up and we got to the airport a little under an hour before our flight.

Check-in was unproblematic, although I realized only later that we’d been unceremoniously shifted from my prebooked A/C seats across to D/E. Some last-minute duty-free shopping (bottle of Hatten rose wine, check) and a 5-minute breather in the lounge, which is a little tired, but has a reasonable selection of eats, a ridiculous amount of staff and has a noisy little outdoor patio in the “nice idea, poor execution” category… and then to the gate, past the economy class boarding scrum via the business class line. Rank hath its privileges.

There wasn’t much difference to the flight in, except that this time the plane did have AVOD, and (as all ex-DPS flights) there was no Book the Cook service. I neglected to snag the menu, but I had a rather blah baked snowfish dish, while Z tried out a rather reasonable lamb. The meal service was even more abbreviated than last time, with the ice cream replaced by such a generic dessert that I can’t even recall it afterwards. Z noted that the flight attendents addressed her by name, but not me, which may not be unrelated to the fact that my name is twice as long as hers…

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully and, to my mild disappointment, the flight landed at T2. Back in Singapore — but not for very long.

SQ 946 SIN-DPS C B777-200 seat 15A

As I’d expected, the plane turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models, without even on-demand video. I’d prebooked seats together for us and, as I kicked back and praised the joys of having some space in front of me for once, Z poured rain on my parade by noting that she’s small enough to sit in any seat and has a proven ability to sleep anywhere. Well, the back of the bus is that way, m’dear… but then a stewardess came to distract us with a glass of champagne and a terrible drink of the month involving apples, bitter lemon and 7-Up, and her fear of business class (a rather rare ailment about frequent flyers, I suspect) subsided into a mixture of relief and a wrinkled nose of disapproval when a passenger on the opposite site turned out to be wearing flip-flops and shorts revealing pale, hairy legs. So much for business class being all business.

I had one last surprise up my sleeve: I’d preordered Book the Cook for us and even gotten her selection for it by asking her to pick her favorites off an e-mailed menu without telling her what it was for. Reconstructed from memory, our “Light Lunch” menu was:

Appetizer
Scallops with avocado salsa

Main
Hers: Slipper lobster Thermidor, buttered asparagus, and slow-roasted
vine-ripened tomato, and saffron rice
His: Fish souffle and spicy minced chicken served with pineapple rice and
curried vegetables

Dessert
Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough or Strawberry Something ice cream

The scallops were sublime, big and juicy and a surprisingly good fit for the avocado, definitely one of the best things I’ve eaten on a plane. The lobster — originally my choice, but ever the gentleman, I bowed to her birthday veto — was also cooked to perfection, but my Thai-influenced entree was a bit of a disappointment: all of it (souffle, red curry chicken, green curry veggies) was furiously spicy and tasted like something I’d get in a Bangkok canteen for 30 baht, which isn’t to say it was bad, just not what I’d associate with “gourmet”. The Italian wine she opted for was quite tasty, while the German riesling (the only other white on the menu) was sickeningly sweet and singularly unsuitable for my dish.

It’s a short flight to Denpasar, so the meal service was abbreviated, with no dessert/cheese platter or liqueurs (although port was on the menu). But the ice cream was tasty, even though I had to ask for it twice, and by the time Z finished exploring her seat controls, it was already time to descend.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore, part 2

The plane touched down at 5:00 AM and rolled up to the gate at Terminal 3 at 5:05 AM. Changi was quiet, and I was through immigration and customs and inside a taxi by 5:15. By 5:30, I’d reached home and by 6 AM I was showered and in bed.

At 11 AM, my alarm clock rang, and I ran off for an hour of errands and came back just in time to see Z climbing out of a taxi with her rollaboard. Tomorrow was her birthday, and I’d booked award flights to Bali for us in economy… or so she thought.

– Let’s go to the airport a little early — they’ve got champagne in the lounge.
– Really? They didn’t have any last time.
– Ah, but this is a different lounge, in T3…
– Great, let’s go!

We hailed a cab to the airport and stepped inside the departures hall of T3, where I fiddled a bit with one of the self-service machines before realizing that its poor little brain couldn’t handle checking both of us in at the same time. Off to the desk then, where the clerk first told me we’d have to go to T2 but changed his mind after I glared at him, and then I passed Z her boarding card with a flourish.

– Ta-dah! Happy birthday.
– Huh? Err, gee, thanks.
– Um, look at it more carefully…
– Huh? What’s wrong?
– This. <points at “Business Class” text>
Kyaaaaaaa!

And into T3’s arrival hall, where I was impressed by the high ceiling and Z was impressed by the outlets of Brewerkz and the Fullerton Hotel’s Post Bar. Signage to the SilverKris lounge was a little lacking, but we eventually found it, turned left towards the Business side, and, well, damn. It was my first time here as well, and it’s posh, it’s huge, and it’s great: finally a SQ flagship lounge that can compete with the likes of BKK, NRT and ICN. Unlike the single row of food over at the KrisFlyer Gold lounge, the SilverKris lounge has an entire room (hall?) devoted to soups, salads, Western and Asian entrees and, of course, a bottle of Charles Heidsieck’s finest on ice. Z was so taken with the miniature bottles of balsamico and olive oil dressing that she borrowed one to take home, but as we had a full-fledged Business Class meal on the plane coming up, we limited our calorie intake to a healthy selection of rabbit food. The one little touch I missed from the T2 SilverKris lounge was the dedicated bar complete with bartender, but hey, pouring our own glasses of champagne wasn’t too big a deal.

All too soon it was time to head out and across to Terminal 2 by Skytrain, and once paradisiacal T2 now looked small, cramped and scruffy in comparison. Poor Z was feeling distinctly nervous by now: it was her first time in Business Class, and while in the lounge everybody else was businesslike and serious, dressed in power suits or conservative dresses, I was in a T-shirt and she in a tank-top and sarong wraparound. To the gate, through security and the boarding scrum, and then the lovely feeling of turning left into Door A…

SQ 375 DXB-SIN Y B777-200 seat 59D

I hate airport transfer desks: they’re always full of people with bizarre problems flying on bizarre itineraries that made my half-paper, half-electronic SQ-SV mutant combo look normal. This time around, a Chinese guy with a dodgy ticket, a very lost-looking Somali housewife and a pair of Pakistani mullahs had to be disposed of before the frazzled Filipino agent got around to processing me, and even my ticket took a couple of phone calls to sort out.

But eventually I had a boarding pass in hand and I set off to check out the Star Alliance Lounge, which based on the amount of LH propaganda lying around probably used to be Lufthansa’s. For an airport the size of Dubai, it was rather ridiculously small, with seating for maybe 40 and most of all of those taken even on this offpeak weekday afternoon. The full bar looked pretty good and they had rather spotty free wifi, but food offerings were limited to a few miniature sandwich-type things, chips and peanuts and the selection of newspapers was heavily Germanic (LH again?).

Back on the bird, which was coming in from Moscow and hence full of Russians knocking back vodka like it was going out of style. Somewhat to my surprise this turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models with no AVOD, and I understood why the people stuck on this thing for 12 hours were intent on getting liquored up. I’d forgetten to online checkin back in Saudi, so I’d ended up with an inner aisle seat way in the back of the bus, but the middle seat was empty and I could stretch out a little.

We took off on schedule and within minutes were back inside that crazy tail wind: I could feel the plane jittering a little as it was pushed forward and the airshow speedometer showed an amazing ground speed of 1138 km/h! Alas, once out of the Gulf the wind slowed down and meal service started. As I honestly can’t remember what I ate, I’m pretty sure it was airplane food, but part of the blame has to lie on Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, an utterly brainless Hindi comedy of the type that makes three hours on a plane fly past. A bit of laptop hacking later a simple breakfast rolled around (choice of muffin or danish with tea or coffee), and before I knew the plane was starting its descent, with a good half hour shaved off the scheduled flight time of 7:15.

SV 554 RUH-DXB Y B777-200 seat 54L

Precisely the same flight as last time, only in the opposite direction, and the difference was night and day. Then, it was night and I sat in the aisle — now, it was day and I had a window seat, with amazing views out into the endless sand dunes below, a vast, endless expanse of reddish sand with occasional dunes and solitary roads. Dotted here and there, seemingly entirely at random, were perfect circles of lush green: farms in the middle of the desert, one of Saudi Arabia’s more harebrained attempts at diversification. (At one point, Saudi authorities had to issue a fatwa to declare the practice of feeding livestock with Saudi grain un-Islamic: at the time, all local production was bought by the government at around 8x the world price and sold for half it.)

The plane, too, seemed in slightly better shape, with a functional Airview program and two operational cameras. Lunch rolled around with much the same formula as last time, only this time with a rather tasty beef stew. Regrettably, I was foiled in my attempt to purchase two decks of Saudi Arabian Airlines playing cards, which would have been just the thing for a rousing game of strip poker on the weekend. Sigh.

The route from Riyadh to Dubai doesn’t follow the shortest route: instead, it heads a bit northeast, flying directly over Damman, before turning southeast and flying around Bahrain and Qatar, both visible in the distance, from the north. There was a fearsome tail wind of nearly 200 km/h pushing us along, but the time thus gained was lost at Dubai — we flew across the city and into the desert for a while before U-turning back and touching down on schedule.

SV 559 DXB-RUH Y B777-200 seat 40C

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I stepped inside the door of my first Saudi Arabian Airlines plane, and I’m not quite sure if it matched those fuzzy expectations. A B777 is still a B777, even though this one was a little faded and scruffy on the edges. One of the stewards was equipped with a closely-cropped head combined with the long, scraggly beard of a devout Muslim, but there were also stewardesses flitted about, with dark blue veils hiding the hair but not the faces.

We pushed back on schedule and, after a monotone male baritone read out an invocation starting with a dual Allahu Akbar (which passed the taxiing time nicely, I might add), we bounced off into the sky. Meal service followed, with a bit of confusion as there was a special meal for seat 40C despite me not requesting one; on declining, I was offered the usual “chicken or beef”, and picked chicken. This got me a rather dry pilaf-type rice dish with chicken chunks, a lettuce and tomato salad, an industry-standard warm bread bun (there must be a giant factory somewhere that makes these for every single airline on the planet) and a cube of strawberry cake (probably from the aforementioned factory as well).

Seat pitch was pretty decent (36″?), although the layout was a weird 2-5-2 and, this being a two-hour flight, I had a little time to look around. Despite the claims of the inflight entertainment mag, there was no airshow flight route map, only a rather less exciting arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca (qiblah). The plane was supposed to be equipped with two cameras, but only the forward-pointing one worked, and it too was switched off. The first five channels were, predictably, “The Holy Quran”, “Islamic Programming” (Arabic and English versions) and “Your Guide to the Hajj” (Arabic/English), but the rest was devoted to Hollywood fare, including “Rush Hour 3”, which I’d watched on SQ. No on-demand options though, just looping videos, so I didn’t have the chance to check out how Saudi censors had treated the scene where the cop duo checks out the backstage of a Parisian burlesque show… so I stuck to the qiblah-o-rama, which allowed interesting mental gyrations as I tried to estimate the plane’s heading and direction in reference to not our destination, but a city some 500 km to the southeast. Fun for the whole Islamic family!

Try as I might, an aisle seat over the wing didn’t allow me to see much scenery as we descended. After a smooth touchdown into scraggly desert scenery, we rolled up to one of the gates of the still remarkably futuristic-looking King Khalid International Airport. What awaited me inside?

SQ494 SIN-DXB Y B777-300 seat 35H

The flight started off ominously: on all seat-back and cabin screens was a freeze frame from the SQ safety video, showing a little girl with an orange oxygen mask on her face and the caption: “Take care of yourself before attending to others.” Kiasu or what?

That aside, it was another day, another SQ 777 — SQ is the world’s biggest operator of the 777 and unsurprisingly it’s also by an overwhelming majority the most common plane I fly. Fortunately life is made marginally more interesting by the fact that SQ has no less than four variants of this. The pedestrian B777-200 is the workhorse of the regional fleet, with neither on-demand entertainment nor decent business seating. B777-300s like this are a step up, with decent entertainment but still no near-flat seats; it’s only the B777-200ER that introduces the Spacebed in biz, and the still rare B777-300ER (aka “77W” in SQ-ese), which I’ve yet to fly, was SQ’s star until the A380 crashed the party.

But today, something a little out of the ordinary happened. We taxied out from the gate and lined up for our turn to take off… and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually the captain came online: an indicator light for a punctured tire was lit. We taxied back to a safer position, waited for the mechanics to show up, and they eventually confirmed that, yes, a tire was indeed punctured. Nearly two hours after pushback, we arrived back the same gate we’d left from. They guessed 45 minutes to replace the tire, so I headed back to the lounge (T2 this time) for a quick bite and laptop recharge.

After barely 10 minutes in the lounge, it was time to try again, and this time we were off for real. I’d finished my first movie (an enjoyable if brainless Egyptian criminals-fall-in-love romp) by the time dinner rolled around. No Arabic catering here either, I’d had the same ayam rendang (chicken in dry curry) umpteen times before, but I’ve had worse.

And the flight continued. The lights went dark, I played with my laptop a bit, tried to sleep a bit, watched the barely entertaining Rush Hour 3, had a fairly bizarre “refreshment” of a croissant stuffed with salsa, tuna and yoghurt, had the lights go off again, and come back on only 30 minutes before landing. Soon we crossed over the northern tip of the UAE, flew past Dubai, executed a U-turn and came down for a landing, the Palm Jumeirah visible in the distance and the insane lit-up spike of Burj Dubai looking like a computer rendering error in the night-time sky.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore, Riyadh and Bali

At a squeak over 10,000 miles, this trip is no great shakes when it comes to distance, but there can’t be too many places on Earth with a greater level of contrast than its endpoints.

In the left corner, we have the virtually untouristed capital of a filthy rich, rigidly conservative, strictly Islamic absolute monarchy in one of the world’s most arid countries:


RUH DAFIF Riyadh [King Khalid Airport], SA

And in the right corner, we have the rather less wealthy yet famously liberal, only notionally Hindu and immensely tourism-friendly tropical paradise of Bali:


DPS DAFIF Denpasar [Ngurah Rai – Bali Intl], Bali, ID

I’m going to one of these for work, and the other for play, so my esteemed readers are invited to guess which one is which. Here’s the exact routing courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper:

SIN-DXB-RUH-DXB-SIN-DPS-SIN

That’s SIN-DXB on Singapore Airlines (SQ) Y, DXB-RUH on Saudi Arabian (SV) Y, and SIN-DPS on SQ C.

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