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The A350 that wasn’t: when TG overrode the hand of Fate
Did I mention at the end of the last report that ‘before everything else to wrap up 2023 would come a deep violet Thai Airways A350 from Bengaluru’? Thai Airways would have none of it: it laughed in my face and sent none other than my old arch-nemesis, the 777-200ER — that too HS-TJR, the oldest plane in the entire fleet — on what was supposed to be an A350 destination, with A350s operating almost every day. (I did fly the TG A350 to BLR before.) It seems there’s no escaping the prospect of having to face this oldest, least refurbished and most overused plane in the TG fleet on any flight to Bengaluru or Chennai. It also besmirched my streak of having all fifth-freedom flights in 2023 on Boeings — including the very next one, Gulf Air’s GF166 to Singapore on 787-9 A9C-FC — and all non-fifth-freedom flights on Airbuses! (Last year, too, HS-TJW was the only aircraft out of the 15 flown in 2022 whose registration ended with an odd letter instead of an even one. Trust the Thai Airways 777-200ER to always be the exception every year.)
schaden Thai-denfreude not only ‘TGed’ me by swapping the A350 for the 777-200ER at the last minute, but also, I believe — colour me superstitious — jinxed the entire Indian men’s cricket team (as I also mentioned last time) by denying them the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup trophy in a tournament where they had had an unparallelled purple (ha!) patch, and whose broadcast graphics package used the same violet and pink as the airline. A tournament where India had dominated so vehemently throughout, winning thumpingly by huge margins, only to be laid bare by Australia (who won their record sixth title!!!) in the final, the stadium in Ahmedabad — the biggest in the world — stunned into silence.
But that’s how life rolls: for every memorable A350 or A330-300 there will be a rickety old 777-200ER, and I have no choice but to accept the TG 777-200ER in my destiny, since no matter how old or horrible it is, it’s an integral and — dare I say — utterly essential part of the airline’s short-haul route network and its post-COVID recovery strategy. One may wish that TG retired it like SQ and MH did, but at least the seats are colourful, so…
Now I must return to an airline which ensures that a widebody you book from the search engine is the same modern, all-singing-all-dancing widebody that you get, and will not be swapped for something much older. We’re talking about the lovely Garuda Indonesia, which does not play Russian roulette with its fleet, and has barely anything built before 2010 — even though, sadly (and unlike TG!), it will never operate the A350 or 787. Neither is it looking to order any more aircraft in the short term. But whatever it has looks splendid from inside out, and that even extends to the 737-800 fleet, every single one of which has seatback IFE.
Where were we? Ah, yes, Jakarta — where the arrivals hall may not be as fragrant as Denpasar’s, but it’s as picturesque as Bangkok’s is steely and dull. If I’d left Singapore on flight 835, I’d return to it on flight 836, and from WIII to WSSS (the respective ICAO codes of Soekarno–Hatta and Changi) at that. CGK is by all means grand and imposing in terms of architecture — its T3 is even bigger than Changi’s! — with a number of glamorous-looking cafés, but I feel it lacks that little bit of charm and personality that DPS has, or for that matter India’s outstanding private airports like Mumbai and my home of Bengaluru. Still, by all means a modern airport with all manner of destinations within Asia-Pacific, but not much to Europe — let alone transpacific, where Changi is unparallelled, or to Russia, Central Asia, the Levant and Africa, where Bangkok is unbeatable.
All that aside, having already taken one of the more modern A330-300s in the Garuda Indonesia fleet — with a special nose decal at that — it was time to see how one of the slightly (and by slightly I mean by only a year and a half) older sister-ships compared. I must say: whatever this A330-300 (PK-GPU, which also had a small sticker for Bank BRI’s BRImo app) may not have had in terms of the crispest, highest-resolution IFE, it more than made up for it in terms of its louder speaker system: all the better to listen to that absolutely phenomenal boarding and landing music. Regardless, I’m a happy camper, and it couldn’t be a better end to my 36-hour Bali trip.
TL;DR: Garuda Indonesia will always have my heart. Lovely livery, country, aircraft, IFE, people and — yes — SkyTeam alliance logo. Very much like SriLankan Airlines (as I also flew in November 2023), which is also from a tropical island country, and also as charming and delightful — except I’m not at all fond of the logo of Oneworld!
Bali photo essay (part 2) at the end!
The first four collages were also posted at the end of the previous instalment.
Sunday, 4 June, continued. The first thing you see when landing at the domestic arrivals hall of Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta airport is all these intricate artworks that line up the corridor, which reflect the sheer bewildering colourfulness you come to expect from the country. In fact, all of them are for sale, and (while extremely unlikely) you have the option of contacting the artist for a purchase. I wonder if someone would ever do that, as that would mean a little less colour on the airport wall — though it would mean the world for the creator to receive such a large sum in their bank account!
The paintings slowly gave way to advertisements for Hyundai on big black panels.
There was also a big wall reading ‘T3 CGK’ that was decorated with plants and wood panels — which I thought was a very elegant touch indeed.
‘Those who love black live colourful lives’, said Hyundai. Counter-intuitive and even oxymoronic, but I bet all the colourful circular discs below wouldn’t look half as fetching and dashing if they adorned a non-black wall!
Beyond the Hyundai Ioniq/Creta/Stargazer ads lay a duty-free shop and the baggage-claim section, but I skipped past, since I wasn’t about to enter the traffic cauldron of Jakarta — infamous for being perhaps the worst in the world — any time soon (though I’d love to! Jakarta fascinates me precisely because its vast, luxurious malls and lively streets are so little known to tourists compared to Bangkok, KL and Singapore!).
At the Garuda Indonesia transfer desk with its SkyTeam and Skytrax 5-star plaques, I took the travellator up to the departure level. There, beside a food court, began the biggest, grandest terminal (opened in 2016) of what used to be the busiest airport in the Southern Hemisphere prepandemic.
I peered over the glass wall into the imposing pick-up area, with a number of installations showcasing Tangerang (the satellite city to the northwest of Jakarta, where CGK is located) as the ‘Gateway to Indonesia’. The endless procession of artworks continued, but these did not have pricetags on them.
Towards the check-in desks I turned, and on every side were fancy façades of shops, all bedecked with wood panellings and glamorous lighting. No, no Chanel/Dior/Lancôme/Vuitton — luxury brands that are as synonymous with Changi as with Champs-Elysées — but more affordable (if not down-to-earth) cafés, restaurants and boutiques as you’d find in private Indian airports like Bengaluru.
While the retail outlets occupied the distant stretch as far as the eye could see, most of the space was occupied by rows upon rows of check-in counters: both the local players, from Garuda to Citilink to Pelita Air, and international ones like Singapore, Etihad and SriLankan Airlines. Beside the Garuda counters was a big list of SkyTeam airlines — but, I’m afraid, the alliance has not bothered to include Virgin Atlantic Airways.
All-in-all, a far more elegant setup — pretty much on par with Changi (but not so much the domestic CGK T1/T2, where the Lion group lives) — than the equally high-ceilinged Suvarnabhumi (BKK) departures hall, which I think is really ugly for a major airport of its size.
Bottom row: Singapore Airlines’ reminder for passengers to board on time.
Two excellent airlines — but only one of them is expanding.
Here I got wistful and nostalgic: I’d had a very fondly memorable pair of flights on SriLankan Airlines’ A330-200 4R-ALB, then the oldest plane in the fleet (now retired), and as soon as I got back to Singapore I went ahead and published my trip report of the second flight from Colombo to Singapore. Indeed, UL308 in April and GA836 now were under very similar circumstances: two A330s of a new airline landing on a Sunday evening in Changi, accompanied by soulful music!
This, unlike Thai Airways, is an airline that knows how to maintain and properly refurbish its older aircraft — something I can attest to once again with a recent redeye flight on SriLankan’s sole A321ceo, 4R-ABQ, which is completely devoid of colours on the outside but more than impresses on the inside, with greige leather seats for everyone. (UL173, Colombo to Bengaluru, 1am departure, 2:30am arrival.) Sadly, SriLankan isn’t about to get any new aircraft in the near future, which is a shame.
Meanwhile at the opposite counter was Etihad Airways, which advertised its 787 service to Jakarta — and my word has Abu Dhabi’s airline bounced back nicely after the money-bleeding 2010s, with a sharp, lean but world-beating product, particularly on the A350-1000, not to mention the reintroduced A380 and its Residences and Apartments. I’d love to try EY some day, as I think Etihad has some of the finest typography and branding of any airline in the world, bested in the Middle East only by Gulf Air, whose 787 I flew the other day from Bangkok to Singapore.
Ayubowan, old friend! Your report will be up today! I wrote for the blue-circle alliance member; and as for the airline which tried to create its own alliance-of-sorts but failed miserably, I could not help but marvel at the phoenix-like resurgence it has gone through, under first Tony Douglas (who now heads the upcoming Riyadh Air) and now Antonoaldo Neves.
Bottom row, left: Elly Binte Sulaiman, EY’s longest-serving member of cabin crew, very likely from Indonesia or Malaysia. (Not much information on her is available online.)
Cathay Pacific, unfortunately, had no such ads or branding elements at its check-in counters. Meanwhile, the hometown flag carrier — whose journey I’d be continuing on now — had a big sign for First Class, with dedicated check-in desks for premium-cabin passengers and SkyTeam elites, and other passengers having theirs to the left.
On the other side were cafés like Tous Les Jours, a Korean-originated bakery you don’t see in Singapore — but Paris Baguette, another Korean bakery, is very much present there, including at the Jewel Changi. Also present was a Telkomsel booth, and while CGK had a bit of advertising for the country’s largest telco — which I was more than dependent on during this stay (and my weekend trip to Batam in September) — it was definitely less than at DPS’ international arrivals, where you could scarcely turn a corner without being confronted by Telkomsel or Mastercard.
Before long, I headed to Immigration, since I needed to do absolutely nothing at the counters: my baggage was checked all the way through to Singapore, and both boarding passes were issued in Denpasar.
A classic staffing mismatch: the passengers were overwhelmingly Indonesians, so queued up in droves, while I dashed all the way to the completely empty counters for foreigners. Before I knew it, I was stamped out of Indonesia — and I bet it won’t be the last time I visit this country that I firmly believe is as Wonderful as its tourism slogan goes. (Bottom row, right: Anara airport hotel.)
Destinations ranged from Colombo to Taipei to Muscat to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, about as much as you can get outside ASEAN. Oddly, in the first half of the screen, codeshare partners for a flight were listed first, and the airline actually operating the flight came later. So, for example, Ethiopian Airlines’ ET4257 came before SriLankan’s UL365 to CMB, and Garuda’s GA9505 preceded Oman Air’s WY850 to MCT. (Oman Air joins Oneworld in 2024, so will become SriLankan’s alliance partner.)
However, this was rectified in the second half, since SQ959, MH720, EY475 and EK357 came before all the codeshare flights — only to be upended by SQ963 at the very end.
As soon as I turned right after the immigration counters, I came face-to-face with China Airlines’ A350 B-18917, next to what would turn out to be my own A330-300, PK-GPU. Garuda’s fellow SkyTeam partner would operate CI762 to TPE at the very gate next to mine.
In the last row above, a Citilink A320neo (PK-GQC) took off as QG942 to Batam (BTH), where I visited over the weekend at the beginning of September (but no flights from Singapore — you can only take the one-hour ferry!).
Garuda’s low-cost subsidiary is the only noteworthy operator of the A320neo in Indonesia, since Batik Air’s PK-BDF is the only A320neo in the entire Lion group, and Indonesia AirAsia and Super Air Jet have none. Also, the country has no A321s at all — similar to Thailand and Malaysia, which have only two each from AirAsia (though it has ordered hundreds) — unlike Vietnam and the Philippines, which have loads of A321s and zero 737s.
Meanwhile PK-GPU with her BRImo Mobile Banking sticker stood beside the CI A350, but little did I know that this would be my aircraft. A Pelita Air A320 (PK-PWA), with a most striking livery, taxied past nearby.
As for the ‘Wi-Shock’ that touted blazingly fast speeds, I didn’t have to use it, as long as I had my Telkomsel SIM card with several times more data than I could use in 48 hours!
If the pre-immigration shops impressed me reasonably, after the stamp-out is where CGK T3 let me down. The duty-free shops were nowhere as impressive or imperious as the numerous King Power Duty Free outlets on the top floor of Suvarnabhumi.
As much as I think that most parts of BKK are downright ugly, after immigration is where Thailand’s capital airport spoils you with its Cartier and Coach boutiques, while Indonesia’s capital airport disappoints — which is not to take away from the splendour of CGK’s arrivals and pre-departure-immigration sections.
Where art thou, Monsieurs Prada and Saint Laurent? Changi this may not be, but I’m afraid CGK didn’t even try to up the luxury quotient — and I’m very much tempted to draw yet another comparison to a private Indian airport (I have BOM T2 in mind) here!
The Saphire Plaza Premium Lounge was about the most gorgeous-looking thing this side of the glass windows, and that’s not saying a whole lot.
An A321 (VN-A611) of another SkyTeam airline — whose A350 I’m looking to fly on the eve of New Year’s Eve, on the trunk route from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi — turned past, while a Batik A320 took off. Two Northeast Asian airlines (green ones both) from the other two alliances were all ready to go: BR238 and CX776. (Funny that the inbound, CX777, should be operated by an A350!)
I popped into a WHSmith, and unlike the one in Denpasar’s domestic departures which heavily leaned towards souvenirs and food items, this one was more like your typical WHSmith with books, stationeries, small electronics, snacks and drinks. I picked up a cheap but high-quality box of pink Sony earphones for IDR 320,000 (around S$28 or US$21) — but, as always tends to happen, ended up losing them in a couple of months!
Beside the pair from Taipei — A350 (CI) and 777 (BR) — was Etihad’s ‘Greenliner’ 787-10, A6-BMH, which I’ve seen before at BKK.
I peeped into another bookshop, Periplus, but not for long: boarding was announced for both CI762 to TPE and my GA836 to Changi. My gosh, the number of people who were lining up was insane. (And, at last, a true luxury brand: Montblanc.)
Some of the departure at CGK at this time, with VN-A611 having taken off as VN630 to Ho Chi Minh City. Mind you, Vietnam Airlines’ A321s are nowhere as nice as Garuda Indonesia’s 737s, since they do not have seatback IFE. Which is why I’m specifically choosing their A350 for my final flight of 2023, VN216 from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
Plaza Bali is no King Power or Dubai Duty Free, I tell you. I didn’t spend any rupiah beyond a bottle of alkaline water in a cardboard carton, and I sallied forth in the line that wended its way to…
…what indeed turned out to be PK-GPU, making it a hat-trick of consecutive SkyTeam aircraft with special liveries stickers — though none will match PH-BVD, KLM’s majestic SkyTeam-liveried 777, that flew me on my first flight on SkyTeam and to Indonesia. Couldn’t have been more memorable.
Onto the glassy-windowed jetbridge I stepped, and that would be my last footstep on Indonesian soil — for the next three months!
Flight: Garuda Indonesia GA836/GIA836
Date: Sunday, 4 June 2023
Route: Jakarta Soekarno–Hatta (WIII/CGK) to Singapore Changi (WSSS/SIN)
Aircraft: PK-GPU, Airbus A330-300 (BRImo Mobile Banking sticker near front)
Age: 8 years 9 months at the time (built: 4 September 2014, delivered: 22 September 2014)
Seat: 39H (starboard side, aisle)
Boarding: 2:25pm WIB, UTC +7 (3:25pm SGT, UTC +8)
Departure: 3:08pm WIB (4:08pm SGT)
Arrival: 5:33pm SGT (4:33pm WIB)
Duration: 1 hour 25 minutes
• Second flight on Garuda Indonesia and third on a SkyTeam airline, after the previous flight (GA407) on PK-GHC from Denpasar, and the preceding one (KL835) on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ SkyTeam-liveried 777-300ER, PH-BVD.
• Third flight on the A330-300, after GA407 on PK-GHC, and MH180 on Malaysia Airlines’ 9M-MTH in October 2022. In November 2023, SriLankan would give me my fourth: 4R-ALO, UL309 from Singapore to Colombo — something that I missed out on in April in the other direction, when I got the A330-200 from Chennai to Colombo to Singapore.
No matter how service standards may fall otherwise, you can always expect the (female) cabin crew to be at their warm best. Unlike on the flight from Denpasar, mask-wearing was very much optional. And no, I’m in no way impressed by the 2-2-2 recliner business-class seats — but, hey, at least it’s not the TG 777-200ER, right?
As I settled into 39H — all right-side window seats were taken at booking — I understood immediately that the views of the CI A350 and EY 787 ‘Greenliner’ would be much clearer than the dim seas and beaches on the IFE screen. Yes, this was the older glare-ridden IFE with chunky white bezels, as against the new, crisp, black-bezelled one on the preceding A330-300, PK-GHC. Not that I minded at all!
Before I hear you saying, ‘He’s now going to compare this older screen to how awful his recent flight on the TG 777-200ER was, especially the grainy 4:3 IFE, and compare that to his even worse TG 777-200ER flight from June 2022…’, let me straightaway dismiss those notions by mentioning that this was by all means a decent screen and UI. As long as it isn’t 4:3, it’s good enough — but I won’t be so kind on Malaysia Airlines’ A330s, whose IFE is downright unusable, between the hard jabs required to select anything and the never-ending ads!
As my parents, as always, prayed for a safe flight in English and Bengali, I told them about how this plane completed a hat-trick of special colours on SkyTeam airlines, and how China Airlines belongs to Taiwan!
Might I remind you once again that this is the airline with one of the most soulful boarding music pieces I’ve ever heard, and you’d do very well to make this your work or sleep soundtrack. I invite you to please discover for yourself this masterpiece below: first the shorter, not-so-clear version on the flight from Denpasar, and then the longer, crystal-sharp rendition on landing at Changi.
Now for the safety video itself: not the most unique in terms of content, nor the most accessible — since the audio was only in Bahasa Indonesia, with English confined to subtitles — but definitely one that showcased the cheery image of happy tourists in the world’s largest archipelago country.
Oh, and as for that trigger-happy selfie-taking girl: how about having some regard for privacy, and not disturbing the sanctity of the young yogini-in-the-making meditating by herself in the fields?
One last look at the Telkomsel app — which had served me well, if only for a few hours, by showing my data consumption — before I had to kick it out (oddly placed on a screen filled with mostly Indian apps, like Ola and Paytm) on leaving Indonesian shores.
As we rolled towards the runway, who should I see but my very previous aircraft — PK-GHC (A330-300, ‘Mask On’ decal) — taking off once again for Denpasar, this time as GA410. Meanwhile B-18917, the China Airlines A350, began a taxi towards takeoff.
At the airport building stood none other than the ‘retro-presidential’ 777-300ER, PK-GIG — one of only two GA planes left with first class — which nowadays flies more on presidential trips than to its typical destinations of Amsterdam all the way away in Europe (only once weekly in November 2023) and Denpasar close to home.
On my secondary phone I put on another melodious composition: the 2017-vintage station IDs (or idents) of Indosiar, one of the country’s largest TV channels, that more than succeed in showcasing the archipelago’s extraordinary sights as much as Garuda’s IFE welcome screens did.
As I looked up these two aircraft on Flightradar24, SriLankan’s A330-200 4R-ALS was drawing close for a landing as UL364…
…but, agonisingly, I would miss capturing the landing of the South Asian Oneworld carrier’s smaller widebody by a hair’s breadth. As compensation, I did manage to catch the tail during our takeoff. At least I did get manage to get PK-GPY, a sister A330-300 landing from Melbourne as GA717, but even this was woefully out of focus.
Meanwhile Emirates’ EK356 was on final descent, operated by 777-300ER A6-EPQ. Which makes me wonder: so many international airlines’ flights to Jakarta end with the digits 5 and 6 — SQ956, QR956, EK356, TK56…
Here we were on the ground as the SriLankan A330-200 made a touchdown, as did another ’56’ flight, this time on Qatar’s A350-900 A7-ALQ.
Well, I couldn’t catch UL364 and GA717 landing clearly, but I could catch a more mundane Citilink A320 landing — PK-GLY, QG481 from Banjarmasin (BDJ) — and the China Airlines A350 departure. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
There was plenty of action behind us, too: another Citilink A320neo — PK-GQA, QG968 to Batam (BTH) — taxied nearby, followed by an Oman Air 787-8: A4O-SB, WY850 to Muscat.
I tell you, CGK has no shortage of diversity of aircraft, and the sheer range befits the country’s capital airport — in fact, looking at a bunch of vivid Citilink and Batik A320s is quite the treat for sore eyes, eyes which are accustomed to seeing boring old blue-and-gold planes at Changi or white-and-IndiGo planes at Indian airports.
At a few minutes past three, we were up and away, bringing to an end my nearly-48-hour journey in Indonesia, with the SriLankan A330’s tail a surprise parting present — in addition to PK-GMU, a Garuda 737-800 with a sticker for PPA (Putra Perkasa Abadi), a construction and heavy-machinery company.
As we soared above the Etihad ‘Greenliner’ 787, above CGK and Tangerang and the sprawl of Jakarta as a whole, I played and played the enchanting Indosiar idents that left me wanting more and more of this most exotic yet underrated of island countries.
Caption: Terima kasih to Garuda and SriLankan too!
The main spectacle of this flight would naturally be the views of the Java Sea out the window, never mind whatever the IFE had to offer, since I’d seen it all on the previous flight. (Flight attendant Rara served me on this flight and Ryry on the previous one, hence the section name.)
For most people, that is. As far as I was concerned, my inflight entertainment during the initial part of the cruise was — no prizes for guessing — Indosiar’s idents.
That worked for quite some time, and within a few minutes I’d switched back to my playlist of selected songs, the star attractions being Clean Bandit’s Solo and Rita Ora’s Anywhere. By this time the cabin crew — purple and orange in the other aisle, aquamarine in mine — had started to roll out the drinks.
I took a moment to feel the chunky, clunky white IFE remote, a relic of the 2010s, with the QWERTY keypad on the back a remnant of the decade before that — as I once again had the unfortunate experience of having on yet another Thai Airways 777-200ER the other day. My god, will that airline ever retire its 777-200ERs and bring back more A330-300s?
If the FA serving me on the previous flight was Ryry, here she was called Rara, and she placed the food and drinks on the table: this meal was more standard-issue and less remarkable than the previous one, with the chicken-and-vegetables curry being accompanied by a bread roll, cut fruits and a chocolate cake. Hardly the wow factor of the chocolate-coated waffles on GA407, but you don’t go wrong with Indonesian food!
My journal was filled up in due course, and other passengers had only an hour to get as comfortable as they could before descent. What I loved the most about the meal’s presentation, though, was the pretty paper cup with that exquisite outline of a wing — there’s no doubt as to which airline that is.
A zoomed-up and much more colourful version of that paper cup’s wing was on the winglet. I wrote in the caption, quoting from Anywhere by Rita Ora:
Over the hills and far away, a million miles from LA, just take me anywhere, PK-GPU.
Well, not quite anywhere — certainly not beyond East Asia and the Pacific, or the odd Jeddah flight — but who cares when you’re being poetic?
At a quarter past five another island country came into view, the one I now call home, a city, country and island all rolled into one. I did not catch the name of this flight attendant who was manning the aisle at the time of descent, but I did spot another one wearing a purple uniform, and her name was Pungky.
At half-past five, the sun shone golden and liquid over the ships of Singapore as PK-GPU skimmed over the soft surface of what is generally regarded as the world’s best airport.
Hi, fellow Indonesian 737s — the Garuda one and the Batik one! (Oh wait, that’s Batik Malaysia… but who cares?)
For all of CGK’s colourful planes, it will never get the Air New Zealand 787 (ZK-NZH) that you see here. We turned ever-so-slowly to the signature Crowne Plaza, while a blue-and-gold A350 (9V-SHA) breezed past, on the way to Ho Chi Minh City as SQ186.
Here was as fitting an end as possible to a trip that had started with a SkyTeam-liveried 777-300ER. Another 777 (PH-BVK) of that airline, but this time in the usual blue colours, got ready to roar to Denpasar.
The trip had indeed come full circle: what started with a KLM 777 on flight 835 ended with a view of another KLM 777 on returning on flight 836!
This is when I recorded that majestic, melodious musical masterpiece, as it rang loud and clear from the PA system — I’ll take this instrumental compostion any day over the tinny Muzak I hear on some other airlines. Heck, it even beats Singapore Airlines’ soft symphony of serene sounds, which you can also find on YouTube and Spotify.
Two A321neos landed in quick succession: China Southern’s B-1091 as CZ3039 from its home of Guangzhou, and Cebu Pacific’s RP-C4118 as 5J805 from Manila.
They were followed by 9V-DHA, a DHL Boeing 777F (SQ7411 from Honolulu) operating on behalf of Singapore Airlines, and it was my first time seeing one in the flesh — these are brand-new aircraft, built since 2022.
Then came another flight 836 like mine — A350 9V-SHM as SQ836 to Shanghai (PVG) — and then Qantas’ A380 VH-OQH landing as QF2 from London Heathrow, while a Scoot A320 (9V-TRV) readied for flying as TR418 to Miri (MYY) in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
As the red superjumbo drove past, we pulled into the gate, firmly an outlier in the blue-and-gold 9-Ville, the home of aircraft with 9V registrations.
These were some of the planes on the ground at the time. Among the airlines NOT flying to Jakarta are British Airways, Qantas Airways, Swiss International Air Lines and (as above) Air New Zealand. Of all Southeast Asian airports, only BKK comes close to Changi in terms of being a global hub — KUL and CGK have no European airlines other than KLM and Turkish — and in fact BKK does some things better than Changi, particularly airlines from lesser-known Central Asian, African and non-Gulf (Levant) Middle Eastern countries.
And why 9V-SMP here, you ask? This was the A350 parked at the gate (bottom row, above) as sister-ship 9V-SMO (SQ298 from Christchurch) swivelled and swirled around the runway.
As soon as I could, I sent my mother a recording of that blissful music via Telegram instead of the usual WhatsApp, as Telegram provides for sending larger attachments.
It was finally time to deboard and leave the last bit of Wonderful Indonesia behind. Much as Garuda says it’s ‘proud to take Indonesia to the world stage’, it’s been nine years since that ad was released — or, indeed, since this plane was built — in 2014, and I fear it has fallen behind (like TG and MH) while SQ rampages ahead, its position as one of the world’s finest luxury airlines unshakeable.
Still, as long as GA remains a Skytrax 5-star airline, its stellar reputation (particularly for cabin crew) will go along way in remaining intact despite fluctuations on the financial front.
Once again I was standing in the HSBC-branded jetbridges, waving a Terima Kasih to PK-GPU and to Garuda Indonesia as a whole, for completing my first trip to Indonesia and my first journey on SkyTeam airlines.
Another Batik 737 — Indonesian this time (PK-BGG) — headed to the runway as ID7150 to CGK, to be followed shortly by another Indonesian 737, Garuda’s PK-GNG, on another Flight 835!
As it struck six, a Jetstar 787-8 (VH-VKD) landed as JQ7 from Melbourne, while I took the travelator past the Crowne Plaza and departing passengers.
PK-GPU would head back to Jakarta as GA837, while company 737 PK-GNG would blast off any time now as GA835. Well! KL835, GA836, GA835, SQ836… those two consecutive numbers were as repetitive now as flight numbers ending with 56 were at CGK!
Moreover, gate B7 would be the exact gate from where I would board SriLankan UL309 to Colombo — also on an A330-300, 4R-ALO — five months later in November.
By that time a Turkish Airlines 777-300ER (TC-JJK) had landed as TK54 from Istanbul, and that would be the last aircraft I saw — I steered clear of the Skytrains, transfer lounge and A380-capable B-gates, and turned towards the mammoth Immigration hall.
Soon enough I was surrounded by the lush green of the Imigration hall, and the bank whose ad was displayed this time was Standard Chartered — something that has rotated between HSBC and local banks OCBC and UOB — but one thing’s for sure: it’s always a bank.
A most unadvisable thing to do: a family was taking selfies barely metres away from the immigration counters, in grave danger of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officals catching them red-handed! Not very unlike the selfie-addict girl in the Garuda safety video who thought nothing of trespassing on a quiet field where another young woman was practising yoga…
Anyway, other than the completely unnecessary filling-up of the ICA’s SG Arrival Card, it took barely any time at all to collect my one suitcase from Belt 48 and head out.
At Belt 48 serving GA836, a group of SQ crewmembers and pilots strode out with their bags, while further down were the taxi doors. For once, though, it wouldn’t be a Gojek or Grab for me today.
Instead I and my lightweight suitcase went down to the Changi Airport MRT station, the easternmost in Singapore, which does not have an ‘airport express’ facility to the city unlike other Southeast Asian airport metro stations — including Jakarta. You have to interchange at the next station, Expo, or the one after that, Tanah Merah, before proceeding to other stations.
Expo it was for me, and this remains one of my favourite MRT stations in Singapore, with its futuristic dome design and sprawling Changi Business Park and Changi City Point mall. You can only see so much from the train itself — the best thing would be to head straight to that mall and take in the wondrous evening. I, though, headed to the underground section of the station and proceeded homeward!
A final couple of things before signing off: some messages to my parents recounting the day’s and weekend’s adventures, with the Bengali message in the first and last picture being ‘Please listen to these songs (the Garuda boarding and landing music) before you sleep!’.
And lastly a bunch of Garuda Indonesia memorabilia, preserved safely in a transparent bag for hopefully generations to come — the perfect souvenirs from my first trip to Indonesia and on SkyTeam!
Perhaps this flight, aircraft and sector was the weakest of the three on my Indonesian journey in June. Perhaps the IFE screen was slightly older and glare-prone, the catering safe and unremarkable, the plane a bit more worn. Does that make this an ordinary, mediocre flight? Absolutely not! For as long as that soulful instrumental music lives on in my head, Garuda Indonesia will hold a special place in my heart. You can never go wrong with an A330-300 if you take care of the bare minimum of amenities and deliver that with authentic Indonesian warmth, and PK-GPU managed to do that, and more — even if she lacked the crisp black-bezelled IFE and mask decal of PK-GHC.
The stunning ascent over the teeming thousands of Tangerang and the cruise over pristine aquamarine blue waters was capped off by a simply spectacular ending at Changi, amid the liquid, golden evening light and a procession of planes from across the planet, set to the soundtrack of GA’s instrumental music. That this two-day trip had begun on a SkyTeam-liveried 777-300ER of KLM, and culminated in the sublime setting (!) of the setting sun, went a long way in making this ‘Indonesia × SkyTeam’ journey — short though it was — one of the most memorable of my life so far, on par with my Dubai trip the previous summer, in June of 2022.
Insofar as W-triple-I, a.k.a. SHIA, a.k.a. CGK is concerned, Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta Terminal 3 is by all means modern, spic and span, with all manner of shops that — unlike at Changi or Doha Hamad — are much more affordable than the Chanel and Louis Vuitton brigade. After arrival is where CGK T3 shines the most, with all its (for-sale) paintings and mosaics, which perfectly convey the impression of a leading ASEAN metropolis — and the capital of its largest and most populous country. The departure hall, too, is quite remarkable in all its towering, sprawling acreage: almost as much as Changi T2/T3 or the KLIA main terminal, and a world away from the ugliness that is Suvarnabhumi.
Where CGK fumbles is in its retail selection after the immigration counters, and no matter how many under-construction signs are placed that promise a hint of something better and more fancy, I felt let down by the somewhat meagre selection of retail shops — something where Suvarnabhumi shines. Still, Soekarno–Hatta T3 (while not my favourite like Changi and KLIA) is definitely a modern, premium terminal — though I can’t say the same for the domestic-focused T1/T2, which are little more than glorified sheds. However, my favourite Indonesian airport will always be DPS, filled as it is with fragrances, sculptures and a general overall loveliness.
Next up to wrap 2023: a brief four-hour journey to Kuala Lumpur on Ethiopian’s nice-looking but empty 787-9 and back on the cramped Jetstar Asia A320. I’ve written about my actual Christmastime flying plans across India and Vietnam before (SQ A380 to BOM, CX A350 and A321neo from BLR to HAN, VJ A330 and VN A350 between HAN and SGN) — details of which I will slowly share as 2024 draws close. As of now, while Thai Airways handed me yet another embarrassment of a 777-200ER, I’ve come to accept that old, unrefurbished aircraft as an inescapable part of my destiny — though there was a whole day of mall-hopping in Bangkok and a spanking-new Gulf Air 787-9, with an incredibly high-res IFE screen and slick décor, to make up for it.
But throughout all these flights, these two SkyTeam airlines — KLM and Garuda — will always stand tall as among the best of the best of the lot, in particular that SkyTeam 777-300ER, PH-BVD. On that note, terima kasih, dank viel and thank you!