For months, we have talked about IndiGo’s maiden flight to Europe on the A321neo. IndiGo is currently working on making the A321neo the workhorse for their international operations, given the economics of operation and the range this aircraft offers. IndiGo has just launched this flight earlier this week, and we had Vishal Mehra, a friend of LFAL and an avid aviation buff on the flight to review it. Over to him…
IndiGo opened bookings for its maiden medium-haul route to Istanbul on January 25, 2019, and by the time evening rolled around, I had already booked my ticket to be on the inaugural flight.
Few things went through my mind while booking:
- The proposition of sitting in slimline seats for the 7 hours direct and nonstop journey was scary
- The thought of cramped leg rooms gave me some more concerns
- But the price tag of INR 24,000, less than half of the other non-stop and direct flight, was too much of a sweet deal. Turkish Airlines was charging INR 51,000 for the same itinerary.
And the fact that I had never been on an inaugural flight pushed me to go ahead with this booking. It took me 15 minutes to comprehend and decide on the above. I whipped out my HDFC Diners Club Black Credit Card and ticketed it on HDFC Bank’s Smart Buy website, in the process, getting myself 10X Diners Club Black points.
As the countdown to March 20 began, the last couple of weeks were slightly nerve-wracking for me as I feared IndiGo would pull out of the route due to Pakistani airspace closure. But then IndiGo announced they would operate a double daily to Istanbul, beginning March 25, and those fears receded.
A couple of days before the flight, a technical stop at Doha was confirmed by the airline, and the 7-hour flight on those seats suddenly became almost 10 hours. Not IndiGo’s fault, but not what passengers like me signed up for either.
That also meant that the original time of departure of 1:40 pm, became 10:15 am so that they could maintain the sanctity of the slot allotted to them at IST. I wasn’t too thrilled about IndiGo trying to weasel their way out of that by advertising that the timing was rescheduled from 10:45 am to 10:15 am. When I called them out on Twitter about it, I got typical PR speak which meant nothing.
Now that we have a fair amount of background let’s move on to my thoughts about the flight itself.
I reached the airport around 8 am roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes before the scheduled time of departure. There were plenty of excited Indigo management folks buzzing about their check-in counters. There was Kaju Burfi (which was heavenly), Chandan Teeka ceremony for all passengers and tons of balloons to celebrate the route opening.
As I had bought the 6E Prime package while booking the ticket, I had the opportunity of checking in at the Fast Forward gate. The mismanagement of queues, along with some “connected” folks jumping the queue to get themselves ahead meant I had to wait 20 minutes. The people in the regular queue would have been served faster. Also, just one FF gate seems insufficient for such medium/long haul routes where pax are more likely to opt for such facilities. It took me further 10 minutes to clear immigration and another 15 minutes at the security.
I hopped over to Plaza Premium Lounge (thanks, ICICI Jet Airways Sapphiro Credit Card) for a quick bite and then reached the gate by 9:35 am. Boarding was ongoing, and IndiGo even had some decoration at the entrance.
There was also a cake cutting ceremony at the entrance, which I missed but I saw plenty of passengers standing around the entrance and enjoying their bite before boarding the A321neo.
I boarded the aircraft by 9:40 am and took my seat, 4A, for the journey. The leg room looked much better than the usual IndiGo A320 aircraft, and that helped in calming me about the comfort of this trip. Although I was in the front rows, my leg room had nothing extra compared to other rows of the aircraft, except the IndiGo XL seats.
Soon the front galley had Captain Ashim Mitra (also IndiGo’s director of flight operations) give a rousing speech on the importance of this route for IndiGo. If anybody had any doubts about that still, those were cleared then and there. He also jestfully told pax about the secret of Indigo’s ‘Talk Turkey’ campaign 🙂
— Vishal Mehra (@vishal1mehra) March 20, 2019
Barring a few rows, the flight load for the debut looked healthy. The first three rows had IndiGo folks, social media influencers and some members of the media too. Doors closed at 10:08 am, and we started our taxi to the runway. Twenty-five minutes later, we were airborne over Delhi skies, and 6 minutes later, the seat belts signs were turned off.
The first flight meant that all passengers got a complimentary Chicken or Paneer Tikka sandwich. Perhaps that was the surprise that IndiGo’s Willy Boulter would refer to at the CAPA Indian Aviation Summit. Service started around 11:10 am, but the cart reached my row only 25 minutes later. I’ll call that slow, especially by IndiGo standards.
I got myself the free helping of the sandwich and paid $6 to pair it with a can of Carlsberg. The sandwich was alright, and I missed the option of ordering my usual favourite, ‘Chicken Junglee Sandwich’.
This also would be a good time to share that the service on this flight, led mainly by Sheetal, was exemplary. She had a smile on her face for the entire journey, both the legs of the flight and was warm and helpful with everything. It seemed that she enjoyed what she did and that’s so often a rarity in this industry.
There were a couple of more rounds of buy-on-board service during this first leg to Doha, and I also spotted a DGCA officer coming out of the cockpit a couple of times to use the restroom. He must be there as this was this aircraft type’s maiden international journey of such a length.
I spent the rest of the flight watching stuff on my iPad. Remember, there are no IFE or power ports on IndiGo’s aircraft, and there are indeed no plans to provide these, even though their ambitions of flying routes as far-flung as London remain in place. This might be a deal breaker for many passengers, as Indians so far, are used to such amenities on medium/long haul flying and I see inculcating the habit of self-owned and operated entertainment as one of the biggest challenges IndiGo will have to face, along with the absence of proper hot food options. Cold sandwiches will only get you so far.
Forty-five minutes before landing at Doha, the captain came on PA to update us and also informed us to keep a lookout for a beautiful view of The Palm in Dubai coming up on our left. Seventeen minutes later, our descent into Doha started, and after almost 5 hours of flying, we had a smooth landing at Doha’s Hamad International Airport.
We parked at a remote bay, and while the plane was getting refuelled for the next leg of our journey, Captain Mitra was kind enough to give a cockpit tour to all the kids in the flight. I thought that was a lovely gesture to keep the kids entertained under the hot Doha sun 🙂 Later, Captain Mitra also socialised with other passengers and media folks on the flight.
We had a change of flight crew and were informed that the next leg to Istanbul would be approximately 4 hours and 5 minutes of flying time. We took off at about 1:54 pm (Doha time)
Thirty minutes later, the first round of service of this leg was started, and the cart reached me 25 minutes later (again!). That is slow to me, but hopefully, those times, would improve as crews become increasingly familiar with the aircraft and service patterns?
This time I opted to have my paid meal served to me as a part of 6E Prime. Went with the combo of instant chicken noodles and Coke. Here are all the meal options on this flight.
Post the meal, I realised the third and probably the biggest challenge for IndiGo. The seats. Let me just sum this up in the simplest and clearest way possible: UNCOMFORTABLE. Those seats were not made for 10-hour journeys, and even though the flight time will be reduced to 7 hours once the Pakistani airspace opens – it will still be as uncomfortable as trying to understand Fauda without the subtitles. IndiGo had the choice of whether to get a different kind of seats, taking more space and giving more comfort – or – giving extra legroom to passengers, and they went with latter.
I must also note that there are just three lavatories in the aircraft, one in the front and two in the back. I used the front one, which was tight and was as bare bones like other IndiGo flights with no amenities. I got to know that one of the lavs in the back has more space, but three lavatories for 200+ people for a medium/long haul flight is not a great ratio in any way.
I tried to sleep multiple times during the flight, and even though I had an early start to the day, I just wasn’t able to. Those seats are not made for sleeping.
Our landing at Istanbul was smooth and 10 minutes late, as we hovered over Istanbul skies for a bit before lining up on our approach.
We were at our gate six minutes after landing and got a glorious water cannon salute as well. I definitely enjoyed that, and there was a smattering of applause from my fellow passengers also for the same.
— Vishal Mehra (@vishal1mehra) March 21, 2019
As soon as the doors opened, I rushed out only to be ambushed by photographers and Istanbul airport welcoming committee, giving out tasty treats. I had plenty of time to enjoy those, as I waited in Istanbul’s mismanaged passport control queues, and stayed on the edge for my self-connection to Antalya.
At INR 24,000 return, flying direct (and nonstop soon) to the tip of Europe is a steal which many passengers would appreciate, but the usual comforts of a padded seat, IFE and food will be missed. That trade-off needs to be decided by the passenger themselves. Would I do something similar again? Likely, only if rates on IndiGo are at least 50% off full-service carriers. That would be tough, as fares to other European destinations are competitive due to intense direct and indirect competition. Let’s see if this compels IndiGo to launch a slightly better version of their product for medium haul, as Vistara will enter the scene soon and Jet Airways’ troubles has created a vacuum.
What do you think of the IndiGo no-frills to Istanbul? Are you heading to Istanbul on this service anytime soon?