La compagnie qui obtient la meilleure moyenne est Singapore Airlines avec 8.6/10.
La durée moyenne des vols est de 5 heures et 21 minutes.More information
As a deviation from my normal chronological order, I would like to first publish trip reports for a set of four recent flights that I took a few weeks ago (March–April 2023) since these are fresh in my memory, and I will fondly remember them for the right reasons for a long time, before continuing with my six flights for the Christmas/New Year break in December 2022 and January 2023. Also, for the next few trip reports, I will try to publish two a month instead of one, which will speed up the process. Therefore I will first start with my recent flight on Vistara’s brand-new A321neo — with a ’50 Aircraft Strong’ sticker at that — from Singapore to Mumbai at the end of March.
I intend to publish the reports for this and the subsequent Air India A319 flight in April 2023, followed by two on SriLankan Airlines (both on the same A330-200, one of UL’s oldest, but still a very pleasant surprise) in May. These marked my first times ever on the A321(neo), A319 and A330-200, though I did fly the A330-300 on another Oneworld member — Malaysia Airlines — last October. After this I hope to publish my two December flights via Bangkok in June 2023, two on the outgoing Tata Group airlines (AirAsia India and Vistara) in July, and a couple on AirAsia Malaysia in August — by which time I will have knocked off a very short jaunt to Denpasar/Bali in early June. This will be my first time flying with the SkyTeam alliance and to Indonesia — on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines on the outbound from Singapore, and Garuda Indonesia (via Jakarta) on the return — and I am super excited to be making my début on KL’s 777 and GA’s A330-300.
WARNING: This report and the next will be picture-heavy. While the generous use of collages (thanks to imgonline.com.ua) has helped me steer clear of the 150-picture limit, there are still 123 this time — far more pictures than my last couple of reports — as there was so much to capture, from Changi T3 to the take-off traffic to the flight (especially the entertainment) to the arrival. The next one, too, has a lot to pack in with coverage of my three hours (longer than expected) in Mumbai’s T2, which I easily rank as among the best that I’ve ever visited (even considering Changi), and the surprisingly good food and service on Air India’s smallest aircraft, a no-frills one at that. I request your pardon if you struggle to keep up with the scrolling; you can use the table of contents to navigate through the sections. If pictures (especially collages) are too small, you can open them in a new tab. They have been compressed to some extent but retain their quality even at a large size.
When Vistara dies, how will Air India incorporate the best of its experience?
With all the big plans being made by the Tata Group for Air India — from the largest aircraft order in aviation history, to a mass refurbishment of widebody aircraft, to a new livery and brand identity developed by the famous design consultants Futurebrand (who had rebranded American Airlines, Fiji Airways and Air Malta a decade ago) — one wonders what will happen when the Vistara brand ceases to exist, after the merger with Air India is completed by around March 2024 as per schedule. Even before the 2019 collapse of Jet Airways — which was thus far regarded as the best Indian airline — Vistara has long been regarded a premium and high-quality airline, and among the best in South Asia (which is no surprise given its ownership by the Tata Group and Singapore Airlines), but its brand recognition is largely confined to the Indian domestic market. Even though Vistara will be no more, the Tata Group has promised to drastically elevate the Air India experience by incorporating elements of Vistara’s service, but how it goes about it remains to be seen.
Vistara’s brand-new A321neos and 787-9s have set a new standard for Indian onboard products, especially as they have a proper seatback IFE system, while the A320neo and the soon-to-be-retired 737-800 fleet are all equipped with at least streaming IFE. (Even the Tata Group’s low-cost carrier AirAsia India has a streaming IFE system on its A320s!) This is a stark contrast to Air India’s current narrowbody product: not a single one of its A320-family aircraft has IFE of any kind, not even the four brand-new A321neos (VT-RTB–RTE) that it recently took delivery of. While AI has committed to fixing its dated, falling-apart-at-the-seams longhaul product — aside from taking delivery of some 777-200LRs previously operated by Delta Air Lines, having the latter’s far superior cabin including premium economy — it has no plans to introduce even streaming IFE for any of its narrowbodies, let along a seatback system, despite having ordered hundreds of A320neo and 737 MAX aircraft in February, including the A321XLR. This makes me concerned about what will happen to the combined airline’s narrowbody product, and whether Vistara’s A321neos and spanking-new A321LRs with their lie-flat business class and seatback IFE will be an aberration in the future Air India fleet.
Having never flown Vistara before, I managed to score an evening flight on them from Bengaluru to Hyderabad — two of the largest South Indian cities — at the fag end of 2022. Though it was on their all-economy A320neo (VT-TNN, coming from the defunct Icelandic carrier WOW air), I was nevertheless impressed by their branding and service, even on a short 50-minute hop, with the catering being the only area of improvement. It didn’t hurt that I’d bought access to the premium 080 Lounge in Bengaluru before the flight, it being easily one of the most luxurious lounges in South Asia — but for that, you will have to wait for the review of that flight, which I hope to publish around the end of July 2023. Combined with a delightful previous AirAsia India flight (also my first time on them, and probably the only time) from Chennai to Bengaluru, I was left with the impression that Vistara and AirAsia India have a far superior offering than Air India (Express), and that Indian aviation will stand to lose a lot when these two are swallowed whole by the Air India-branded airlines.
Not the best route-planning strategy, but all’s well that ends well
Regardless, I positively HAD to fly Vistara again before it disappeared, and especially the A321neo. The airline has a limited international network, served almost entirely out of Delhi (DEL) and Mumbai (BOM), with the exception of a 4x weekly Singapore flight from Pune (PNQ): the second-largest city in western Maharashtra state after Mumbai, but one always starved of international flights due to its being severely constrained as a military-run airport. All its European flights (LHR, FRA, CDG) are from DEL, as it had only three 787s so far, but with the arrival of a fourth (VT-TSP) it is trying to launch a Mumbai to London flight. Meanwhile all Middle Eastern flights are only from BOM, as well as Colombo, Malé and its new Mauritius route on the A321LR, while some South and Southeast Asian cities (Kathmandu, Dhaka, Bangkok, Singapore) are served from both BOM and DEL. Vistara has no international flights from other large cities like Bengaluru and Chennai, so I thought that it would be good to strike two birds with one stone for my birthday trip back to India in March by booking Vistara’s A321neo from Singapore to Mumbai followed by an Air India flight to Chennai, even though it meant a significant detour and a delay of several hours. But I am no stranger to taking detours and layovers just for the sake of flying a product that I want to. Moreover, I appreciate the longer, five-plus-hour flight to Mumbai — easily the longest I’d ever taken — which gave much more time to relax and unwind with the IFE than the standard four-hour hop to South India, or the even shorter ones via other airports like Bangkok.
The icing on the cake would be the spectacular Terminal 2 of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Airport, which I had never seen before. It along with Delhi T3 and the brand-new BLR T2 have redefined how airports in the region should aspire to look like, and I am only too glad I will no longer have to suffer Chennai’s inferior government-run facility, as my family is shifting to Bengaluru. Now that BOM is run by the Adani group — chaired by Gautam Adani, the richest man in Asia with strong government links — which has also acquired six smaller airports (like Ahmedabad and Guwahati) that were previously run by the government, I was interested to know how it had changed since the Hyderabad-based GVK group exited the airport business entirely. (GVK operated the Mumbai and Bengaluru airports before the former was acquired by Adani and the latter by a consortium led by Fairfax Holdings, led by Indian-Canadian businessman Prem Watsa. Another Hyderabad-based conglomerate, GMR, continues to operate the airport in its home city, as well as the one in Delhi and the new North Goa (GOX) airport — inaugurated at the start of 2023 — in addition to a few overseas like Mactan–Cebu.)
However, I had not foreseen that the incoming flight would be too late to check in for the next flight, as UK106 lands at around 1:40pm IST while AI572 takes off at 3:15pm. Since check-in counters close 60 minutes before departure, I would not have made it regardless of how fast I cleared immigration and baggage collection (which turned out to be very fast indeed), and Indian regulations require inbound passengers on an international flight to clear immigration and baggage collection before connecting to a domestic flight. Therefore this was a wasted endeavour, which might have been problematic if not for the fact that Air India and Vistara operate multiple daily flights between Mumbai and Chennai, two of the most important metro cities in the country. (Other airlines like IndiGo use the older Terminal 1 for most of their domestic flights, and, as any Mumbaikar will know, they are not connected landside — requiring a laborious taxi ride to get to.) Once it became clear that I would have to no-show for AI572, all that remained was to buy a new ticket on the spot at Mumbai T2, with the choice between Air India’s AI573, operated by the A319, and Vistara’s UK823, operated by the A320neo. They both departed and arrived at the same time, blocked from around 5:50pm to 7:40pm, though the actual flying time between BOM and MAA is much less.
It was an easy decision for me, and I went for AI573 for several reasons: (a) it was a much cheaper flight, at ₹4,000 INR (around US$50) — which really is dirt-cheap, especially for a last-minute ticket — as against ₹5,500 for UK823; (b) being an avgeek, I’d rather fly the ‘baby-bus’ A319 (which I had never flown before) than yet another A320neo, even though it meant sacrificing the Vistara product; and © having been originally booked for an Air India flight that I couldn’t turn up for, it made sense to continue with AI and understand how it compared to its more premium sibling. Also, it would be nice to have my first flight on two new aircraft types — the A321neo and the A319 — on the same day, and I decided to book the flight at the airport’s reservation counter instead of online, saving on a ₹300 convenience fee. While several hours later than planned, as I reached Chennai only in the late evening, I did get to thoroughly experience Mumbai’s T2, which is more of a glorified shopping mall with ultra-premium décor — and a much more accessible, Indian-wallet-friendly one at that, compared to Changi, where most items in those luxurious boutiques tend to have three- or four-figure dollar prices and are hence ignored by the populace. On top of which the service and catering on AI — and above all the all-female crew — were a very pleasant and delightful surprise, even on the bare-bones, showing-its-age A319. As I said, all’s well that ends well!
I had been hoping the previous day that I would get VT-TVE for this flight, as this last one of Vistara’s five non-LR A321neos had a ’50 Aircraft Strong’ sticker on the left side, though not on the right. It would be a nice addition to my log, after my October 2022 flight on 9V-SMF, Singapore Airlines’ A350 with a ’10,000th Airbus aircraft’ sticker. VT-TVE had completed rotations from Mumbai to Singapore (morning) and Dubai (evening) for two days straight, so the odds were good that it would continue for a third day — and it did. The other candidate was VT-TVA, which had positioned from Delhi to Mumbai after completing its rotations at DEL. (VT-TVB and TVD were at DEL, and VT-TVC was out of action, in scheduled maintenance, while the new A321LRs VT-TVF and TVG were stretching their legs elsewhere.) For some superstitious reason I don’t like to fly on aircraft whose registrations end with A, so it was just as well that it was indeed VT-TVE which would be turning up on a fresh and bright Saturday morning to Singapore.
Interestingly, this was the last time in a long time that UK103 would be the inbound flight; the next day it was changed to UK105, with the start of the northern summer schedule.
And so it was that at 8:30am SGT (6am IST) I set out for what has historically been ranked as the best airport in the world — Doha Hamad’s incessant drum-beating aside — which was a mere twenty-minute taxi ride away, since I live near the eastern end of the city-state.
As I approached, I was amused by the sight of a United 787-9 (N27959), which had arrived as UA1 from San Francisco.
I pulled up to Gate 2 of Terminal 3, and the ecletic diversity of the carriers there impressed me: besides Vistara there were South Korean hybrid carrier Air Premia, which has 787-9s in a premium configuration that it flies to Los Angeles (and soon Newark); Drukair Royal Bhutan Airlines, whose Singapore flights are served via the northeast Indian city of Guwahati (one of its only international flights); LOT Polish Airlines, which served Singapore before the pandemic, but not any more; and SriLankan Airlines, the Oneworld carrier on which I would make my return to Singapore the following weekend, setting the stage for a ‘UK vs. UL’ comparison between South Asia’s two best airlines.
Poland’s Star Alliance member sadly has no intention to return to Singapore in the post-pandemic era, all while it continues its Asian expansion with Delhi and Mumbai. But alliance partner Ethiopian Airlines did resume Singapore recently after a long hiatus, and the flight from Addis Ababa also continues to Kuala Lumpur. It is even a fifth-freedom flight, so one can fly on Africa’s largest airline exclusively between the two most advanced cities in Southeast Asia, much like the Bahraini Gulf Air’s flight from Bangkok to Singapore.
Terminal 3, as always, is right up there among the best of the best on the planet.
Among the intriguing departures was Indonesia’s Batik Air to the left. While not having much of the international brand recognition that Garuda Indonesia (seen a bit further down) has, the Lion Group’s full-service operation does a decent job with its product, but has a long way to go — though its Malaysian namesake has been putting its 737 MAX 8s to excellent use, stretching them as far south as Melbourne.
There was not much of a line for check-in, and, as with so many airlines, Vistara makes generous use of its female (sometimes male) cabin crew in its advertising. (The statement ‘Daily to Delhi and Mumbai on India’s Best Airline’ is now slightly inaccurate, as it also flies between Pune and Singapore.) Yes, this the elegant airline that uses the same colour as that epitome of luxury and excellence, Qatar Airways!
It wasn’t too long before check-in was completed, with the gate being B1, one of the four large gates used for A380 operations. I must say that Vistara has quite a pretty boarding pass with its aubergine band on top, and especially the rear, with all the awards Vistara has received from Skytrax and a large number of cabin crew. (Shame on you, Singapore Airlines, Emirates and so many others, you who get away with a plain unadorned slip, an apology of a boarding pass.) And who’s to fault them, seeing as there is not much competition from South Asia in the full-service department other than SriLankan Airlines (who I’d fly the next week, making for a good contrast between ‘UK and UL’)? These standards are what Air India will have to aspire for when it kills off the Vistara brand.
After this was the expansive gateway to Departures, filled with billboards of the most aspirational Dior- and Armani-powered advertising.
I bet the awe of Changi caused her mouth to fall open as well!
Some way off to the right were check-in counters for Garuda Indonesia, the only Skytrax five-star airline from Southeast Asia other than Singapore Airlines. (All the others are from Northeast Asia, with the exception of Qatar Airways.) While GA continues to bleed trillions of rupiah and juggle its Amsterdam and London services, no amount of mismanagement and corruption can hide the splendid cabin crew and service of this underrated carrier, which remains leagues ahead of Batik Air within its country. I’m keenly waiting to fly their A330 in early June, from Denpasar to Singapore via their hub of Jakarta, which will be only my second time on SkyTeam after the inbound KLM 777 flight to Denpasar.
Changi has a global reputation as a playground of paradise, and Terminal 3 most accurately fits that bill. All around was an oasis of serenity and luxury, filled with expensive shops that most, myself included, can only stare at from the outside.
The departures were a diverse mix of long- and short-haul destinations, indicating how much post-pandemic travel has bounced back.
And there she was: VT-TVE had arrived as the final UK103 flight for the next several months, as the inbound flight number changed to UK105 the next day. She looked lovely with those elegant sweeping sharklets, though there was no ’50 Aircraft Strong’ sticker on her right side. I would only see the sticker near her belly when disembarking at Mumbai.
Behind her, an SQ A380 (9V-SKM) was ready to take off for Heathrow as SQ308.
The passengers continued to lounge about, and those on my flight were expectedly all Indian.
Turns out I’d never departed from Changi T3 before, and these artifacts, installations and plants made for serene surrounds.
Plenty of planespotting
Nearby 9V-SMG, an SQ A350, was showing off her sexy rear and tail end.
On the other side was B-208X, a 787-9 of Shanghai Airlines (operating for parent company China Eastern Airlines) that would soon be returning to PVG.
I decided to grab a small breakfast snack from Hudsons Coffee, having been put off by the high prices of the nearby Pret a Manger bakery, which originates from London.
In other runway action, a colourful Indonesia AirAsia A320 (PK-AZN) had landed as QZ262 from Jakarta, with two more (PK-AZF and AZQ) en route as QZ502/504 from Denpasar.
Also among the recent arrivees was 9M-LRH, a Batik Air Malaysia 737 MAX having arrived as OD801 from Kuala Lumpur.
Meanwhile I was more intrigued by an Air Canada 777 (C-FIVR) parked in the distance for maintenance, with an Air New Zealand 787-9 (ZK-NZC) barely visible beside it.
Two other SQ A350s, 9V-SJA and 9V-SHV, stretched their wings as they were about to take off.
Meanwhile these were my ambience, food and drink for the morning as I watched all these planes and tracked them on Flightradar24.
Nearby was a koi pond, which I bet has made its way into travellers’ picture galleries all over the world.
Not far off was the famed Butterfly Garden of Changi T3, which serves as a worldwide attraction to travellers across the globe.
The A380-capable B-gates were not far off, and the main occupants at this time were my Vistara flight and the aforementioned China Eastern flight (MU546) operated by a Shanghai Airlines 787-9.
Fond memories of SQ’s Restaurant A380@Changi event in October 2020 came flooding back, and now that those 9V-SK-series planes are actually in the air again, I would dearly love to fly them soon.
Nearby was a donation box run by a non-profit. The graphic was striking for sure, though how many people actually parted with an offering was not quite certain.
These high-ceilinged B-gates are in contrast to most of the rest of Changi’s low-ceilinged gates, and also don’t have at-gate security unlike those, with a centralised security checkpoint instead.
Parked at gate B3 was 9V-SKQ, an A380 that had also returned from Mumbai that morning, as SQ423. Interestingly, a Garuda Indonesia boarding sign was placed at the gate.
And then there was B-208X, the Shanghai Airlines 787-9 which had already pulled out of the gate and was ready to roll. Interestingly this airline was originally in the Star Alliance along with Air China, but it defected to SkyTeam as an affiliate member in 2011 when its parent China Eastern joined. The following year Star recouped its loss by adding Shenzhen Airlines, while SkyTeam went one-up on them with the addition of Xiamen Air, though Star added Juneyao Air in 2017 as a Connecting Partner.
All this while, Oneworld has had zero members from Mainland China, Taiwan and South Korea. The situation might change if China Southern Airlines, which was previously part of SkyTeam, succeeds in joining that alliance — but I’m not holding my breath, especially when Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong, down the road from Guangzhou, holds veto rights. No airline has switched from SkyTeam to Oneworld (or vice-versa) before, as all such transfers have involved the Star Alliance!
It didn’t take long for boarding for UK106 to be completed, and soon most passengers were on their way on board.
HSBC ads are everywhere on Changi jetbridges, though I was surprised to see them in Chinese and Malay in addition to English. This comes as we are preparing for the shift to Bengaluru as my father caps off his decades-long career in Trade Finance with a final stint at HSBC.
And so it was that I was on board a special A321neo with a pretty sticker, though an asymmetric one given its absence from the other side of the plane. Meanwhile the Shanghai Airlines 787 prepared for liftoff.
Flight: Vistara UK106/VTI106
Date: Saturday, 25 March 2023
Route: Singapore Changi (WSSS/SIN) to Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (VABB/BOM)
Aircraft: VT-TVE, Airbus A321neo (’50 Aircraft Strong’ sticker on left side)
Age: 0 years 10 months at the time (built: 13 May 2022, delivered: 2 June 2022)
Boarding: 9:30am SGT (7:00am IST)
Departure: 11:00am SGT (8:30am IST)
Arrival: 1:45pm IST (4:15pm SGT)
Duration: 5 hours 15 minutes
* Second flight on Vistara after UK893 from Bengaluru to Hyderabad on 30 December 2022, whose report I hope to publish around July 2023.
* First flight ever on any Airbus A321, including the A321neo, not counting an undocumented Air India flight back in May 2009.
* First flight to Mumbai since a brief visit in summer 2019, and first inbound international flight to a non-South Indian city.
* First flight exceeding 4 hours and 15 minutes, and hence the longest flight ever taken so far.
The business-class cabin on this A321neo, with its lie-flat seats, is easily the best of any South Asian narrowbody. Even with widebodies in the mix, it is bested in the region only by Vistara’s 787-9 product. SriLankan is the only other South Asian airline to have such a premium product on the A321neo, though not a lie-flat one. I don’t expect too much from AI’s new A321neos, though: there are some things that only UK and UL seem to do well in this region, and that’s exactly why I wanted to fly them both in quick succession.
On board I was greeted with a ‘Vistara Girl’ holding a tablet with a number of icons floating over it. Odd that she should hold a tablet, for this is the only seatback entertainment you will find on an Indian narrowbody! Note that it is unbranded; the Vistara World name is used only for the streaming entertainment on the A320 and 737 fleet.
In the seat pocket was the typical safety card, along with the Vistara inflight magazine that showed Singapore’s magnificent Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands on the cover, matching purp-fectly with its colour scheme. Inflight magazines continue to be de rigueur on Indian airlines well into the post-COVID era, but almost all other airlines across Asia and the Middle East seem to have axed them permanently. Malaysia Airlines’ Going Places is the only exception I can think of.
One of the best things about the Vistara IFE is that it was the world’s first airline to have the exemplary ‘Arc’ inflight map system by Panasonic Avionics, which is available on its 787-9 and A321neo, in addition to the Singapore Airlines 737 MAX, the Etihad A350-1000 and a host of other airlines. It has by far the most detailed, interactive and cutting-edge map of any airline I’ve flown, and that includes Panasonic’s own Voyager 3D system on other SQ aircraft, which has to be among the most customisable out there. I think it would be no exaggeration to say that Arc is a peek into the future of inflight navigation in the passenger experience.
For young travellers, Arc also has a dinosaur-themed kids’ mode where the plane takes the form of a Jurassic-era flying beast (no allusion to Indian YouTuber-cum-influencer and former pilot intended!), and the dry stats and data are presented with a picturesque prehistoric backdrop. However, whether all kids will take a shine to a National Geographic-themed moving map, rather than a Cartoon Network-inspired one, is not certain.
Also presented was a bottle of Aava mineral water, common on Indian airlines but nowhere as famous as other brands like Bisleri and Kinley. This time it was in a gold packaging instead of the typical one with verdant vegetation and mountain springs on the wrapper.
Soon enough the aircraft had turned away from the terminal and started pushback, steered by Capt. Parikshit Joshi and First Officer Jay Anikchandani. Let me also mention that there were five cabin crew on this aircraft: three female — Christina (the lead), Nishika and Riya — and two male, Clinton and Abhinav. Nishika was the one who served my section of the plane, and she did the job with poise and ease, though I feel she could have had a tiny bit more personality: the kind that I received that evening from the delightful women on AI573.
Another aspect through which Vistara differentiates itself from other airlines in the region is the amount of effort it has put into its peripheral branding elements, such as its yoga-themed safety video that is shot at picturesque locations across the country. Certified yoga instructor Sanchitha Poonacha shows her passengers how the combination of deep breathing and simple exercises, in true Indian tradition, go a long way in alleviating the stress and tension of flying.
Coupled with a senior member of airline cabin crew, along with a sign-language translator (a first for any Indian airline, also found on Singapore Airlines), the video is a breath of fresh mountain air, and miles above from the business-like, boring videos on Air India and for that matter Emirates Airline. (For comparison, though SriLankan’s video is also of the in-cabin kind instead of being shot in pretty locales, the fact that it is animated and the peacock unfurling its feathers at the end make a world of difference!)
More runway-ready models!
Meanwhile, there was a fair bit of interesting activity on the runway, such as TC-LJP, a Turkish Cargo 777 that had arrived from Istanbul as TK6224, and 9V-MBE, a Singapore 737 MAX that had arrived from Kolkata as SQ517. The following day, SQ restored A350 service to the largest city in eastern India three times a week — as was the case, daily, prepandemic — Kolkata having been served exclusively by 737s (first the -800 and then the MAX) since 2021, when SQ was allowed to serve India again after nearly two years of only ‘repatriation’ flights by Air India.
Hyderabad is another city to have mixed A350 and 737 MAX service during the week — SQ didn’t serve it prepandemic, leaving it to SilkAir and Scoot instead — while Bengaluru and now Chennai have their night flights operated by A350s (normally the 787-10 for Chennai but temporarily substituted) and their daytime flights by the narrowbody.
As always, I tried to look up every aircraft on Flightradar24, and those I couldn’t I noted down the registrations in the photos I took, as long as I remained in 9V-land. Among them was 9V-SWI, a 777-300ER in the white Star Alliance livery. Too bad SQ has never put 9V-MBL into service — this being its 737 MAX with the white Star Alliance livery — and goodness knows if it is out of some superstition, seeing as it remains the only member to never have adopted the standard black tail of the alliance.
The terminal, too, had a motley of interesting aircraft including A7-ANH, a QR A350-1000; VT-ILX, an IndiGo A321neo that had arrived as 6E51 from Chennai (a redeye I would like to avoid for the rest of my life); N347UP, a UPS 767 that was parked after landing as 5X167 from Shenzhen; and a bunch of bright yellow Scoot aircraft. Which other low-cost airline with a yellow livery (and no white, unlike Scoot) has its name begin with S and end with T?
As we were on the runway ourselves, I managed to catch a Malaysia Airlines 737 with its distinctive Negaraku livery taking off. Turns out this was 9M-MXC with the Oneworld titles, as I was able to glean from Flightradar24 after switching off flight mode for a few seconds.
After several minutes of taxiing and turning, we were finally ready to lift off, with the last plane I caught being a landing SQ 777.
At 11am (8:30am IST) VT-TVE was done with her swivelling on the runway and took off into the clouds, leaving the iconic Singapore seascape behind.
This prediction that we would land in 5 hours 10 minutes turned out to be Arc-solutely on the money.
Arc had further delights in store, among them a handy feature that provided a list of major attractions in any city that you happened to click on. I have also used, and thoroughly enjoyed, this on Thai Airways and its ‘Travelport’ app, though that is independent of the moving map while this is completely baked into it. Below you can see, if you squint really hard, the top attractions of Mumbai and Singapore — particularly the now-closed Jurong Bird Park (soon to be replaced by Bird Paradise), which I visited for the first and only time in December, on the night Argentina lifted the FIFA World Cup.
Yet another innovation hitherto unheard of on an Indian carrier is inflight Wi-Fi, as that huge radome on the top of the A321neo’s fuselage is a giveaway sign of. The pricing is reasonable enough — about ₹1,000 INR (some US$12) for a basic surf package, which I took — but it is severely drawn back by its data-based system: my 50MB was finished in a flash, and I did not bother to shell out more cash. A time-based pricing system (typically 1 hour, 3 hours or full flight) would have been far superior. Still, it is a huge leap forward for a country that banned inflight Wi-Fi for a long time, and still refuses to grant access to the SITA OnAir system that is used on Singapore Airlines’ A350 Regional and A380.
Coming to the movie selection on the Vistara A321neo, the airline has catered plenty of Bollywood and other regional movies to keep its domestic clientele happy, while also packing in a large number of Hollywood and international movies for the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated global traveller.
Below is a selection of recent Hindi movies from the past year or so, along with some more from the previous decade and a half…
…plus a few more in regional languages: Qismat 2 (Punjabi), Belashuru (Bengali) and Pawankhind (Marathi).
Patriotism, athleticisim and feminism: my perfect inflight movie
Pardon me for the brief diversion on cinema. I picked Chak De! India (2007), a rousing, feminist sports drama where Kabir Khan, a disgraced former Indian men’s hockey coach, takes it upon himself to lead a ragtag bunch of girls from across states and socio-economic backgrounds to the Women’s World Hockey Championship in Australia. To this day, its title song is used as an inspirational and patriotic ballad, used on momentous occasions such as our winning the 2011 Cricket World Cup on home soil, or javelin-thrower Neeraj Chopra winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Being produced by the illustrious production house Yash Raj Films (YRF), it featured in the recent Netflix documentary The Romantics about the company’s most iconic films over the course of half a century and how they have shaped the country and its generations.
Few could have played the coach with as much aplomb as Shah Rukh Khan, one of the country’s finest and most down-to-earth thespians, who already has so many iconic films to his credit, including many by YRF. His latest collaboration with the iconic producer (and his first film since 2018) is Pathaan — part of the ‘YRF Spy Universe’ — which grossed a thousand crore rupees (some US$130 million) and scathingly silenced the critics of the Hindi movie industry, who felt that South Indian films like RRR coming out of Hyderabad and elsewhere had all but sent Bollywood to its grave.
Indeed, the movie was significantly ahead of its time, a decade before the #MeToo movement and wokeness started to take over the world. Its unbiased representation of marginalised and backward Indian communities — coupled with its on-the-nose anti-male-chauvinist stance, which slammed those who thought girls were only fit for household chores and as manufacturers of babies — was, and remains, one of the best depictions of women in mainstream Indian film. There was also a thread of communalism weaved in, since Muslims like our villain-turned-hero coach have long been stigmatised in the country, especially in the last decade.
Enough with the cinema, and back to aviation, as this isn’t a film-review site. Some 50 minutes into the flight, Nishika rolled out drinks and peanut bags for the passengers, who had already settled into their five-hour-long stay at their personal movie theatre at 35,000 feet — albeit one with the jostle of fellow passengers, unlike those in their flat beds at the pointy end.
While peanuts are, well, peanuts — in the sense of a meagre offering that should have been more — the drink selection was above par, and a bare minimum of Coke and juices, even if no mocktails, is better than being parched apart from water. (While I feared that Air India later that evening would let me down, seeing as only substandard coffee and tea were on offer, colour me surprised when one of the cabin crew turned up with a cup of cold juice that may well have been divine elixir!)
The Wi-Fi portal also showed the vital statistics of the flight, though, of course, Arc offered a far more detailed and feature-rich presentation of the same.
And those who didn’t want their dose of digital downtime could always detox and enjoy Nature’s edition of inflight entertainment out the window on this lovely daytime sector, with the aubergine winglet only adding to the beauty.
It would be another 50 minutes (times visible below) before the remainder of the meal would be served, but it was well worth it. I should add here that Nishika — though pretty, professional and all — may have been ‘going through the motions’, as it were, but Clinton, one of the young men serving the opposite side of the aircraft, was proactively courteous and even helped a passenger to decide between multiple choices. I do wish he were serving my side of the plane, as such above-and-beyond service should be the norm for an airline with the parentage and pedigree of Singapore Airlines.
Now I have to say that my expectations from India’s best full-service airline (at least, the best one whose name didn’t begin with J or K) were not completely met. While the main course was a delectable Indian dish of butter chicken, biryani rice and yellow dal — one that transports me back to my mother’s kitchen wit every bite — the rest of the meal was rather underwhelming, be it the unnecessary bread roll with Amul butter or the vile, repugnant chocolate pudding that smelt and tasted like some chemical fertiliser. The meal would have been the only aspect marring an otherwise stellar Vistara experience were it not to be redeemed by the delicious main course, but the airline ought to learn a thing or two from the sinful crumble cake on SQ or the decadent purple cakes on Thai.
By now half the flight had been completed and the meal service had been wrapped up, many passengers preferring to down the windows and snooze into a slumber with only the purple mood lighting above for company.
Many others continued to watch the movie or map of their choice, and the one in front of me was interestingly Chhapaak, which stars superstar Deepika Padukone in a more gritty, low-key role as an acid-attack victim, based on a real story. Three years on, she has probably reached the heights of fame and stardom, unattainable even for the most seasoned and established Indian film stars: presenting the Academy Awards; walking on the FIFA World Cup final pitch; being a global brand ambassador for Qatar Airways; basking in the phenomenal success of Pathaan along with ‘King Khan’. If 2022 was dominated by Alia Bhatt, who has just turned 30 — what with her RRR, Brahmastra, marriage and eventually baby daughter — 2023 seems to be the year of Padukone, 37, who many fans call the Queen of Bollywood in this century.
Meanwhile the unsung hockey-playing heroines — most of whom are nowhere close to Padukone’s fame today — had made it to Sydney, to prove to the world that they were not a trifle and a pushover. Interestingly, Padukone’s debut was in the same year (2007) and with the same male co-star (Shah Rukh Khan), in the reincarnation masala drama-comedy Om Shanti Om that turned out to be the year’s biggest blockbuster.
Such was the Indian hockey girls’ meteoric rise up the tournament rankings that a little Aussie girl even asked for an autograph from one of the players.
And if the revamped Air India’s new crew uniforms are anywhere close to these girls’ spectacular, glamorous version of the time-tested traditional saree (which you’ll also find on SriLankan), you can declare Mission Reinvention well and truly accomplished.
When the final scene with the studio’s logo comes on-screen, this man’s triumph over all odds — of religion, of casteism, of sexism, of the patriarchy — make Chak De! India one of the most memorable underdog sports dramas to be produced by the world’s biggest film industry.
The movie done, with an hour into the flight (12:30pm IST, 3pm SGT), it was time to write my journal entry for this flight, filling it as always with details including the special sticker and inflight service.
And now it was time to leaf through the Vistara inflight magazine, whose cover fittingly enough had all the purple and pink in the sky above the Gardens by the Bay as you would normally find on Thai Airways’ gorgeous IFE screen — my favourite colours, if it weren’t clear enough.
Among the highlights this month was the story of Shikha Mittal, an entrepreneur — plane-phobic by nature — who found herself seated next to veteran Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor. He went as far as holding her hand and calming her anxiety, and ended up having a two-hour-long-conversation with her where they chatted about his movies, her goals, their life principles and many other things under the sun. Such heartwarming social media stories are what set apart Indian inflight magazines from others, especially in a rarefied space with so many publications having gone for good.
For the more aviation-inclined, of course, were the fleet and destination pages, with those two 737-800s sticking out like a sore thumb (or, rather, a pointy nose) — though not as reviled as their 9V-MG* sisters at Singapore Airlines — and Vistara will have retired them well before it disappears into Air India. Of the nine 737-800s originally taken in after the collapse of Jet Airways, four were retired and three moved to Air India Express, with only VT-TGB (which I managed to spot at Mumbai, included at the end of this report) and VT-TGE left. Also, it seems UK does not distinguish between its five A321neos (including this one) and its newer A321LRs (VT-TVF onwards), clubbing them together.
Meanwhile a fourth 787-9, VT-TSP, has entered the fleet, which will enable a Mumbai to London flight that will complement the three routes from Delhi to London, Paris and Frankfurt that are operated by VT-TSD/TSE/TSQ, with the last originally intended for Hainan Airlines and delivered only after a years-long delay thanks to 787 delivery suspensions. Three more 787-9s (VT-TSH/TSN/TSO) are expected to join the fleet before the merger with Air India is completed.
As far as the routemap is concerned, UK’s heavy Delhi- and Mumbai-centricness (both domestically and overseas) is plain for all to see, with all international routes (except PNQ–SIN) and most domestic routes being to these two cities alone, except for a few to Bengaluru and a bunch of short hops in remote regions. Similar is the case with AI, a heavily Delhi-centric airline, where the capital accounts for the lion’s share of medium- and long-haul routes, though AI does have far more regional flights (to Dhaka, Kathmandu, Colombo, Malé, Southeast Asia and the Middle East) from other Indian cities than Vistara. Not to mention the all-737 Air India Express, which overwhelmingly operates routes from the Middle East and Southeast Asia from the southern state of Kerala, in addition to a handful of other Indian cities — but its merger with the domestic-only all-A320 AirAsia India will drastically change its routemap and fleet structure.
In addition to an airline and cinema nerd I am also a typography geek, and this is what I’d written about Vistara’s font usage, giving it an excellent rating for its near-exclusive Scene font (which is barely, if ever, used elsewhere in the world) but deducting a few marks for the generic-looking IFE and website in the quotidian Roboto and Open Sans. After the return trip I filled out the SriLankan page as well. (Spoiler alert: the exotic tropical custom font is pretty, but SriLankan falls behind most other Oneworld airlines by way of consistency, as that alliance has the highest standards of typography. Finnair, Qantas, Malaysia and Cathay are among the best of the best in the world, beaten only by a few like Etihad and Gulf Air.)
As VT-TVE was commencing final descent into Mumbai, my eye happened to catch an episode of Shark Tank India being played on the screen in front. Sony Entertainment Television’s Indian adaptation of the business reality show met with a thunderous reception, which should not be a surprise since Sony TV, unlike most other major Hindi entertainment channels, lays far greater emphasis on meaningful reality shows and fiction than melodramatic saas-bahu serials.
While there was not much time to go beyond the introduction of the pilot episode, I was only too familiar with the impact the show had made with entrepreneurs and viewers alike. Despite not having watched it, I do have a book entitled The Dolphin and the Shark that was written by Namita Thapar, one of the judges (clad in yellow below), who is chairman of Emcure Pharmaceuticals. She shares insights on not only running and sustaining a startup but also several other aspects of economy and society.
Now we were on short final, bringing an end to my longest flight, and starting my unexpected and somewhat rough but nevertheless fondly memorable journey in the financial, trade and entertainment capital of the country. Given Mumbai’s coastal location and non-circular shape, it is lucky to have a well-located airport in the middle of the bustling neighbourhoods of Andheri, Santacruz and Vile Parle, though a bit far from the downtown and historical centre at the southern tip of the city: Colaba, Fort, Gateway of India and Nariman Point. But this has severely constrained its expansion, much like Dubai International, which is wedged between constructions on all sides, and the new Navi Mumbai Airport could not come on board soon enough.
This is in stark contrast to circular cities in the country’s interior like Bengaluru and Hyderabad, whose airports have all the room in the world to expand, but only because they are miles from anywhere near the city centre. In this regard I feel that Delhi has the ideal mix of proximity and expandability, given its strategic location straddling the southwest of the main city of Delhi and the northeast of the high-tech suburb of Gurugram (Gurgaon), and its being the only one in the country with an Airport Express metro train system. The National Capital Region, too, is getting a new airport in the far east in the satellite city of Noida, though it does not need it as desperately as the bursting-at-the-seams CSMIA Mumbai does.
Well on time at 1:40pm IST, VT-TVE touched down at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, with the crisp, crystal-clear Arc graphics providing a nice accompaniment to the landing announcement and the parked Air India 747s outside.
An Emirates Airline 777-300ER (A6-ECE) passed by, having landed as EK506 from DXB.
It then struck me, looking at the Flightradar24 map, that most of Mumbai’s neighbourhoods seem to be divided into West and East! Mulund, Malad, Andheri, Goregaon, Bhandup, Ghatkopar, Kurla, Mahim, Dadar, even the posh beachside neighbourhood of Bandra — all the localities from the below picture, except for Powai, were suffixed by either West or East.
As we pulled into the gate, a Go First A320neo (in the previous GoAir livery) touched down. This low-cost carrier has not been able to become even a tenth as successful as IndiGo, that behemoth of Indian aviation, but it continues to solder on.
We parked next to VT-ANR, an Air India 787-8, with a few other aircraft including an Oman Air 737 on the other side.
In a text to my mother I had quoted the climactic ‘sattar minute‘ (70 minutes) dialogue that Kabir Khan makes in Chak De! India, referring to the duration of a hockey match and also to the amount of time I had for my next flight. But despite immigration and baggage collection going like clockwork, it would never be enough for my fundamentally flawed connection, which would result in a no-show, a new ticket and a longer time spent at the airport — not that I was complaining!
With typical Indian disorder, the passengers scrambled for the exit.
It was only now, from one of the aerobridges plastered with TotalEnergies ads, that I was finally able to catch the ’50 Aircraft Strong’ sticker to the rear of VT-TVE and near her belly. Had I been able to get a better shot of the left side of the aircraft, I would have made it the cover image of this report, though Vistara is to blame for not stickering the starboard side.
And now I was in the arrival hall, making a mad but ultimately futile dash for the immigration counters.
But not before snapping VT-TGB, one of only two Vistara 737s left, along with VT-TGE. Three have moved to AI Express and four others have been retired, so this will be a rarity — not that I care, the anti-737 person that I am!
One last thing before I leave for now: an ad for Vistara’s new service to the Indian Ocean island republic of Mauritius, which is only possible thanks to its new A321LRs. This was taken from a hotel in the southern part of Bengaluru, where my family had gone house-hunting for a few days, in addition to celebrating my birthday. That Vistara girl, too, seems about as happy as a clam on the beach!
At last I have been able to churn out an hour-long, detailed review, packed to the brim with pictures, instead of a brief and abrupt one. This is a testament to the quality of Vistara, which has stood firm and solid as India’s top premium airline, with its backing by Tata and Singapore Airlines, and it has done its best to fill the void left by Jet Airways’ collapse — which, incidentally, was exactly four years ago from the date of publishing this report. This flight, along with the previous BLR–HYD flight in December, made me both happy and sad after finally having flown Vistara: joyful at experiencing a premium narrowbody product on par with the best in the world, and sorrowful because the Vistara brand will cease to exist in a year’s time, joining not only Jet Airways but also Kingfisher Airlines in the graveyard of Indian luxury-focused airlines.
Should the reincarnation of Jet Airways not succeed in relaunching and taking again to the skies it once so proudly occupied — and I am deeply fearful for it, as weeks have passed with no news about its financing, fleet or corporate affairs — Air India will be left as the only full-service carrier in the country. However, with the multibillion-dollar transformation that the Tata Group has pledged behind the full-on merger of Air India with Vistara, and the integration of AirAsia India with Air India Express, I have every hope that the renewed Air India will bring back the glory and prestige that it used to have in the twentieth century, before decades of government mismanagement brought it to its knees and turned it into a laughing-stock. Not least because AI will finally introduce its new livery and brand, and refurbish its long-haul product, which has been long overdue — though there is no word as regards an entertainment offering on its narrowbodies.
As for this Vistara flight, it was phenomenal in almost every department (the livery, the special sticker, the main course, the IFE, the friendly cabin crew) except for the deplorable dessert. There is not another airline in the Indian subcontinent, except SriLankan (another ‘UK vs. UL’ comparison), which has a narrowbody as fully kitted out as this one — not to mention Panasonic’s superb Arc technology, of which Vistara was the global launch customer. Adding the icing to the cake (well, funny that I should talk about cakes given that abomination of a dessert) was the fact that the flight was between two world-class airports — which means that every single rating above is no less than 9 on 10 — and for once I will not have to diss the never-good-enough state-run Chennai airport. One, Changi, a global synonym of extravagance extraordinaire, and the other, CSMIA, whose T2 is regally opulent but also far more approachable, pocket-friendly and inviting than a row of cold, bright Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton boutiques that only serve to remind me of my lowly position in the global pecking order!
By the end of this month I hope to come out with the continuation of this report, detailing my longer-than-expected Mumbai T2 adventure and the surprisingly good Air India flight, which, what it lacked in modernity and upkeep, more than made up for with fantastic catering (that chaat is to die for) and serendipitiously heartfelt service. As we Indians like to say at the end of a flight: namaskar, Jai Hind!