Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Flight recap

All in all, I was quite satisfied with all the carriers I tried out on this trip.

Jet‘s international product blew me away, being probably the single best economy cabin I’ve tried anywhere, and I’d definitely like to try their J product someday. It’s a real shame that the hassles of Indian visas and airports mean that transiting via India to anywhere else is just not a sensible option…

I had high expectations for Etihad, and they were pretty much met, but I was a little disappointed in the ungenerous seat pitch (esp. on the A346) and the cumbersomeness of the IFE system. On the plus side, service was very good for economy, their hub AUH is not bad and is likely to soon get very much better, and their network is also growing furiously. The main downside really is the total lack of usable frequent-flyer miles usable anywhere other than EY.

Nas in Saudi was exactly what I expected from a low-cost carrier, perhaps even several degrees slicker than most. As miles aren’t a consideration for Saudi domestic flights, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

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EY 470 AUH-SIN Y B777-300 seat 54K

Another three-hour layover at a time when I’d really much prefer to be sleeping. I picked up a few bottles at the tax-free, noted to my surprise that Romeo & Julieta No.2’s are appreciably cheaper in EY’s in-flight sales than here (US$11.50 vs US$15 for box of 3), tried and failed to find a local souvenir that didn’t involve dates, and then hacked on my laptop for a few hours.

I’m starting to kind of like AUH though. The two-layered squashed-octopus shape means it’s really compact and easy to get around, and the bizarre blue-green tiles roof-fountain-structure pulls off the rare trick of making a terminal really stand out: there is no way you can possibly mistake AUH for any other terminal anywhere. It’ll be a real shame if the new Etihad terminal here is just another soulless box of glass and steel.

I’d picked my seat on this flight carefully. Conventional wisdom says seats at the back of the bus are bad, because it takes a long time to disembark and because the turbulence is worse, but I knew I’d be in no hurry in Singapore (my Access Card would get me past any immigration queues and I’d have to wait for my suitcase anyway, and turbulence doesn’t particularly bother me — I find it oddly relaxing in a “yay, I’m flying!” way. Etihad’s online seat map showed that the back of the plane has two rows with only two seats on the window sides, so I picked the second to last row: this way, I figured I’d guaranteed full recline, I’d have some useful extra space between my seat, and I’d have a fair shot at nobody sitting next to me.

Once in my seat, I realized that the extra space was virtually nonexistent: on eg LH 747s, it’s enough to stretch out both your legs, but here there wasn’t really appreciably more space than the other rows. And yes, the seat next to me stayed empty, but with a load of no more than 40% there were plenty to go around and a few lucky guys — including the guy in 53K — got a whole three-seat row to stretch out on.

Drink and cracker service rolled around soon after takeoff, but it took close to two hours until they got around to lunch. Here’s the menu:

Asian glass noodle mixed seafood salad

White fish masala, biryani and harissa vegetables
Saffron vegetable lasagna with basil tomato coulis
Singapore hawker’s chicken laksa yong tau foo

Ginger and kiwi fruit mousse
Strawberry coulis

Cheese

Tea and coffee
Hot chocolate

Note to the menu writer: if you’ve got two “coulis” in one meal, one of them atop lasagna at that, you’re trying too hard. Indeed, the crew did the right thing and reduced that down to “fish, vegetable or chicken?”, and I opted for the “chicken” as it just sounded so bizarre. I wasn’t disappointed: the entree turned out to be a collection of tofu, fishballs, shrimp and, yes, chicken on a bed of thick rice noodles with a sauce that was half laksa, half rendang, with coconut shreds, laksa leaf and plenty of spices. I suspect this might be a bit much for people unused to Southeast Asian cuisine, but for me the end result was delicious, and even the noodles had stayed firm instead of degenerating into sogginess. Full points to Etihad for ingenuity!

I watched No Country for Old Men, which isn’t very good in-flight fare because it demands your full attention, but it does certainly deserves its Oscars. I also realized that Etihad’s headphones, which are excellent for economy (solid, padded, cover the whole ear, comfy) also incorporate noise canceling — I’d just gotten a broken set on the DEL-AUH flight, and this time too the wiring was flaky enough that turning my head was enough to flip the canceling on and off.

And then to bed. Even us economy class plebs got socks, eyeshades and earplugs, and even the brown blanket seemed a little fluffier than what you’d usually get in Y. Two seats with a liftable divider ain’t too bad, and while they never turned the cabin lights off, I managed to contort myself into a semi-sleeping position and catch a few Z’s.

The menu had promised us a “refreshment” prior to arrive in Singapore, which I figured would be the same sandwich-and-juice deal as on the RUH flights. But nope: we were treated to cups of frozen-solid Haagen-Dazs instead.

Disembarkation, immigration and baggage claim went fast enough: the only problem was that the handle I used to pull along my diving gear-laden suitcase had been knocked cleanly off. On my previous trip, the same beaten-up old Samsonite had lost a wheel, but off it was to the baggage claim office. Sorting out the claim took a while, and I was told to expect a call sometime within a week — I was thus rather surprised to get a call on Saturday morning for pickup, and even more surprised to get the fixed bag on Monday. They’d even replaced the top handle as well!

EY 315 AUH-RUH Y B777-300W seat 19C

Again a short hop and an almost unnecessarily luxurious plane, but while similar to the A346 in appearance, the seat pitch was an inch or two more generous. This was a relief: I’ll be flying back to SIN in one of these (or at least am scheduled to), and that inch will make all the difference. Today the usual complement of Filipinas was joined by the lovely Kyeong-Soo from Korea, who pacified us with a tasty chicken or veg sandwich and a small bottle of juice before leaving us to giggle at the inane antics of Juste pour rire, Montreal’s ripoff of Candid Camera that seems to have a remarkable hold on transport operators the world around, ranging from business class on Garuda Indonesia to the buses of SBS Transit in Singapore.  The plane was equipped with the same IFE system as the A346; it was just turned off, and no headphones were passed out.

My stomach was still bubbling discontentedly, and it was approaching 6 AM Singapore time, so I did my best to zonk out — not entirely successfully, but soon enough the 80-minute flight was over and we landed at King Khalid International, quiet as ever in the middle of the night. Having purposely booked a seat towards the front of the plane, I reached Immigration well before the queues formed. My suitcase was out almost surprisingly fast, and the irritatingly persistent taxi tout waiting for me outside Customs turned out to be the first guy in line at the official taxi rank. I negotiated his ridiculous initial offer of SR160 to a somewhat more reasonable SR80 (still a good 25% premium on the official fare), and we zoomed off down the desert highway to Riyadh.

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.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi, Riyadh, Jeddah and Janadriyah

This trip report is a followup to the original Wahhabalinese Adventures, detailing my second sojourn to the Magic Kingdom. I’ll be traveling a bit longer this time, and hence my agenda includes a little sightseeing and scuba diving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city and commercial capital.


This was supposed to be a straight Singapore-Saudi round-trip with a local round-trp thrown in.  However, two days before my planned departure I got an early-morning phone call, and by the end of it I’d changed my plans to head to Delhi for a week first instead. Our corporate travel agent, who are good at everything except finding cheap fares, first suggested a ridiculous SIN-DEL-BAH-RUH-JED-AUH-SIN routing on 9W/GF/SV/SQ that would’ve cost nearly US$3000, but Etihad’s remarkably helpful Singapore office managed to rebook me on DEL-RUH-SIN for barely a third of that — it actually ended up costing substantially less than my previous SIN-RUH return!  Here’s the final route:

Index