Hello all! Welcome to a many part series featuring a trip from Colombo Sri Lanka to Grand Forks North Dakota in the United States of America. Now not many of you might know why I'd go to Grand Forks. That's because of the aviation programs at the University of North Dakota, a place I'd call home for four years. Without further ado, let me jump in to the report!
Procrastination between October 2014 and January 2015 meant only one thing: the various combinations to the US! Straight to Grand Forks (GFK) on Air France and Delta? Or a slightly cheaper option to Fargo (FAR) on the British Airways B787 and American Airlines B767 and E145? Hmm, but the UA option looked good too: Lufthansa’s B744 and B748i, followed by a United E145.
Chicago is the only major airport closest to GFK (Minneapolis is not that big), so I looked at the number of airlines to get there on: Jet Airways (via London Heathrow or Abu Dhabi), Air India, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Austrian, Finnair, United, Cathay Pacific and British Airways, to name a few. This would be followed by the AMTRAK Empire Builder Superliner service from Chicago Union station straight to Grand Forks.
However the folks’ wanted to do an Alaska cruise with me. So I immediately ruled out an ORD arrival. And for the above flights, I assumed my parents’ would move straight back to India after my exams (so I looked at BOM, DEL, MAA, BLR, etc as origins). I didn’t take into account that I’d be staying in Colombo (CMB) itself prior to leaving to the US.
Options quickly narrowed down: and to be honest, surprisingly, I’d be making a return on the airline which I’ve thought as always expensive: Emirates! It was a bittersweet feeling for me as I’d be on a Boeing 777-300ER after nearly 3 years and a nice long 16 hour A380 flight, but sadness because this would've been a good chance to try out a new airline…
After taking note of return Colombo-San Francisco-Colombo fares, I looked at one way fares. And they were almost the same as the return fare! That’s when I said to myself: hang on, if I can find out a cheap fare out of India, meet my folks on the Dubai - San Francisco A380…. I can make the best of the situation!
Emirates flies to 10 destinations in India, and all served by wide body aircraft. A check on the fare - less than 2/3rds of a CMB-SFO one way fare! I also had enough JPMiles for a CMB-BOM Jet flight, and any LCC from there to the origin in question would do. Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi, Kolkata, Calicut, Trivandrum. All origins with similar prices. But only one had the cheapest fare. Kolkata. Kolkata it was. My former home. I would be flying from Kolkata to San Francisco, how about that for something sensational! I could've been on 2 A380s had I gone through Mumbai, but the prospect of an old A330-200 made me excited.
I got a very cheap fare on the Mumbai - Kolkata Jet Airways red eye (a very popular service with transfer passengers that started in 2012), and decided to try out SriLankan Airlines one last time. An A330 to Chennai was my best choice! Here are my flight details, up until San Francisco: SriLankan UL127 Colombo (dep: 1335) to Chennai (arr: 1505) 29th July 2015 Airbus A330-200 Jet Airways 9W470 Chennai (dep: 1940) to Mumbai (arr: 2140) 29th July 2015 Boeing 737-800W Jet Airways 9W484 Mumbai (dep: 0200) to Kolkata (arr: 0435) 30th July 2015 Boeing 737-800W (Finally) Emirates EK573 Kolkata (dep: 2030) to Dubai (arr: 0005) 30th July 2015 Airbus A330-200 Emirates EK225 Dubai (dep: 0820) to San Francisco (arr: 1330) 31st July 2015 Airbus A380-800.
….and my parents' flight: Emirates EK349 Colombo (dep: 0315) to Dubai (arr: 0600) 31st July 2015 Boeing 777-300ER Emirates EK225 Dubai (dep: 0820) to San Francisco (arr: 1330) 31st July 2015 Airbus A380-800
Without any more blabbering about the planning, on to the flight itself! The video trip can be found here:
So of course, I was down to my last 24 hours in Colombo. Four years on, it was time to move on to University, the most exciting stage of life. Regroup and rejuvenate, a clean slate. The last week, like I said in the last part, I no longer was a resident, but a tourist. As much I wanted to go on a train ride along the island, a last trip to Yala, the beaches, Nuwara Eliya… There simply was no time! What was done earlier, was done. I therefore stayed over at friends' places, ate my favourite Sri Lankan dish - Kotthu roti, went to my favourite restaurant Lagoon at the Cinnamon Grand, which ended up on an interesting note thanks to a Long Island Ice Tea.
29th of July 2015. A day I was not at all looking forward to. It started off as a royal mess: I was far from finishing packing. It was a mad rush back at home. In fact, it was so bad that I couldn't even take my dog for a last walk in Sri Lanka. At around 1030 hours, it was time to leave my house, one last time.
Rounding the final turns of the Airport Expressway, on to the approach road one last time, we passed by the many SriLankan Airlines planes parked, preparing for its afternoon bank of departures to various places.
1137 hours. I was greeted by the many people who came to see off their loved ones: it was going to be a long time before they returned back home after working hard in the middle east. For me, it was time to say goodbye to Sri Lanka, and move on. Moving on is a simple thing, but what it leaves behind is hard. I hugged my friends one last time, it was time to head in for another flight. Not one that I was looking forward to, at all.
I walked in very slowly, taking in whatever I could. Passed the new shops that have opened: Dialog, Dilmah, you name it, the brands there pretty much defined Sri Lanka within those two hundred meters.
Unlike the majority of my departures out of Sri Lanka, rather than turning to the left in the main terminal (other airlines check in), I headed straight on: the SriLankan Airlines check in area. I was in the online check in baggage drop line at 1144 hours. There were some very very long lines, of course, with this being the afternoon bank of departures in full swing. Despite this, I didn't have to wait very long. I was called to a mobile check in desk (where in there was a computer and the printers, in a small space), and I was checked in pretty quickly. Props to the SriLankan ground staff for a good start! However, my minor gripe is that I had to walk about a few meters to the baggage belt and drop it off there. No issues for me, luggage was only 16kgs. I asked for a fragile tag for the bag, simply because I wanted it. I was told that the flight would depart from Gate B1. A remote boarding for a wide body flight!
Immigration took a while. No problem for someone who was just soaking in whatever was around. What I did find surprising was the fact that there were many passengers with Emirates boarding passes! The fifth freedom Colombo - Singapore flight looked full!
A pretty standard immigration, which was done without any fuss. I barely had around forty-five minutes, but I still went up to the Palm Strips Restaurant, one last time. All planes around were mostly of SriLankan Airlines, obviously. And they were showing off ALL they had! From the new A330-300, to the old A340-300, to the small A320, they were all there! My slim hope of recording a new registration fell to zero when I saw 4R-ALG and 4R-ALC parked side by side, the A330s that took me from Colombo to Paris and back in June/July 2014.
There's my A330-200, 4R-ALG!
I looked away from the tarmac. I put my dark glasses on as a precaution to any awkward moment that could've happened (cue - crying). I received no less than eight phone calls as people bid goodbye to me. I was becoming very very unhappy because reality was striking me hard. The school I went to really made a huge difference, and people from my grade and a few grades below called up, or even people who had left school…. I ordered a high flyer club sandwich, one last time.
Emirates' EK348 from Dubai had come in, and would later head to Singapore with the same flight number. The following day's EK348 DXB-CMB-SIN would return as EK349 SIN-CMB, and take Mum and Dad to Dubai.
I headed downstairs for the gate B1 departure - my first time from these gates. UL866 to Shanghai was from gate B2, presumably 4R-ALC. Security did involve removing of shoes as usual, however, with the new equipment I had on (shoes :P ), it got a bit tricky.
Towards B1 I went, I got my boarding pass torn off, receiving only the stub. 'Have a great flight Mr. Basu' said the nice lady. I waited in the gate area.
Organized and strictly enforced boarding began at 1255 hours. Not very long lines had formed, suggesting a light flight. First the Business class pax, then the priority members, and then zone wise boarding. Zone C for me. I boarded the bus as I was wished yet another great flight by the ground staff.
I was fortunate to be right up against the windshield of the bus, and it was a special feel. I found a plane which was in lockdown, that happened to be a Antonov An-8.
The two SriLankan Airlines A330s that I've been on stood side by side. They looked beautiful in the sunny day. The doors opened, and I set my foot on Sri Lankan soil one last time. 1308 hours, my left foot hit the stairs, that was it. I was now off Sri Lanka, waiting for a plane to take me out of this wonderful island, one last time. I had kept my passport and boarding pass away, so I couldn't show it to the flight attendant, who gave me a very warm welcome! She directed me towards my seat. ALG had not been refurbished, and its no surprise because these birds were expected to be phased out pretty soon, after the Airbus A340s.
I sat down on my seat 34A. There was a pillow placed on my seat. The cabin filled up, but only very slowly. The usual clicker-count the passengers count was done, seat 34B was empty. Yes! The flight wasn't too full, just about 70% odd. The cabin crew were very cheerful, something I have found to be of common occurrence on SriLankan Airlines.
The Captain came over the PA system to brief us on the flight details - it would be a quick one hour flight to Chennai, and a very smooth flight at 35000 feet. Welcome announcements followed in Sinhala, and then English. This was the last time I'd hear Sinhala, and it brought a smile on my face. Stairs pulled out at 1332 hours, pushback began almost instantly as the two Rolls Royce Trent 772B-60 were brought into life.
he lovely animated safety video was shown, with the addicting song playing in the background. You know you're flying on SriLankan while that song plays!
SpiceJet Bombardier Q400 operating the flight to Madurai
4R-ALC operating to Beijing
A rather sedate taxi followed, while refreshing towellets were handed out. Its things like this (and menu cards on the longer flights) that take SriLankan ahead of airlines like Jet Airways and Air India from the same part of the world.
Departing from Runway 22, the same way I flew in the first time I arrived back in 2011, at 1343 hours, full power was applied to the Rolls Royce engines as they made a beautiful whine, we were off the ground very very early! I take the terminal as a reference point, and we were in the skies much before that! 1343 hours, goodbye Sri Lanka. I saw a Saudia B747, which was great!
We started banking way too soon! I couldn't see the Negombo Lagoon properly, one last time….
A smooth climb to 35000 feet followed. In flight entertainment was not turned on for this short flight, which is fine, however, the center screens was showing the flight details, progress, UL adverts, etc, which is awesome. At 1355 hours, I had my meal in front of me.
It was a vegetable biriyani, similar to that I had on UL171 CMB-BLR a few years ago, a meal that made me dislike UL. However, this was different. This was simply so much better! The tastes were well balanced throughout, while it was served at the right temperature. Along with this, was a proper dessert, rather than a tacky yogurt. The dessert really was…amazing. It was a traditional Sri Lankan dessert made of kithul jaggery and tapioca sago, garnished with raisins. As I had that, I had some flashbacks. Flashbacks of my first trip to Kithulgala in 2012, the heart of Sri Lanka's supply of kithul jaggery…I had flashbacks of tasting so many kithul based desserts that my maid would make…. I was leaving behind all of this….
I kept looking out of the window. Despite the scratches, I could see the amazing island as I flew past it on an A330. A juice run was conducted, followed by hot beverages (tea and coffee), and what followed next was truly remarkable, which earned SriLankan Airlines more brownie points from me: a beer run! On such a short flight! And that too, three different brands! Carlsberg, Heineken and Lion Lager. While all three are brewed in Sri Lanka itself, I thought it would be fitting to have my first alcoholic drink on a plane that was my last flight out of Sri Lanka that has its genes based in Sri Lanka: Lion Lager it was for me!
As I sipped on my beer, I saw what clearly was the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait. It was 1407 hours. I was seeing the last of Sri Lanka. Four years of some beautiful memories flew by… It had come to an end much too soon.
What was also coming to an end, was the flight itself.
'Some of the seat pocket contents..
Descent started at 1413 hours and it was pretty rapid! Seatbelt signs came on as the cabin was secured. We came in for a standard Runway 25 arrival. 4R-ALG touched down at Chennai at 1440 hours, a whole 25 minutes before time. No Sinhala announcement was made :(
It was strange to see such a quiet Chennai Airport - Just an Air India A321, an Air India Express B737-800W and a Blue Dart B757-200F, that’s all. Engines out at 1445, doors were disarmed.
All passengers lined up to get off the plane. I waited, and embraced the last of Sri Lanka…which was on a plane. I was one of the last ones to get off.
The purser encouraged an old man to talk to the door by saying - ‘Just a few more steps, you can make it..come on!’ This was awesome. Like I said, the last of Sri Lanka on a plane…this was SriLankan Hospitality at its finest! The purser also asked the ground staff if we had come in from the St. Thomas’ Mount side - he knew Chennai rather well! I thanked the crew members for a wonderful flight, and stepped out of 4R-ALG.
Surprisingly, we were taken in to the new terminal! it was good, while it lasted…because immigration and baggage claim still happens only in the old terminal.
Transitioning back to the old terminal, back to the 1980s in 3.. 2… 1….
VT-EXA, the first Air India A320 with sharklets pulled in to the old international terminal. The crowd were dispersed around the terminal as most of the passengers were non-Indian, so forms had to be filled (those were handed out by the staff at the aerobridge on arrival at Chennai).
Immigration was quick due to the nonexistent line, which was awesome! I headed downstairs to the luggage claim, belt 3 for us. My bag took quite some time to arrive which got me a bit worried, but it was all good. I noticed the luggage tags - many bags had UL226 (Dubai - Colombo) and UL230 (Kuwait - Colombo) tags on them! Interesting that SriLankan Airlines is a popular choice for passengers from Dubai and Kuwait to Chennai, despite the long wait at Colombo! I saw SEQ numbers up to 176 (out of 254 seats), suggesting the flight was barely three quarters full.
Customs was pretty quick as well, as I exited into a rather empty Chennai Airport arrivals…of course, the old domestic terminal is closed.. but it was pretty quiet, and a depressing sight.
Colombo - CMB
Chennai - MAA
SriLankan Airlines, you’ve been a pleasure to fly with. You’re now certainly one of my top picks for airlines, despite starting off on the wrong foot. As the purser said right at the beginning - we will make sure you enjoy the best of Sri Lankan hospitality on board with us today. He was right. From a smiling crew, to a very helpful crew, to some amazing food, a commendable beverage selection, (and even the ground staff!) to the little things like a pillow on each seat and refreshing towels, I knew this flight was something special, and cheers to SriLankan Airlines for putting up a good show.
Colombo Airport was reasonable, although it was quite crowded. Chennai needs to sort itself out sooner than later because what I saw was pretty horrifying, despite the new terminal being in place.
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