Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Losing my business class virginity (with a backpack!)

India 1: Journey to Ahmedabad

Less than a week ago, I was told that I’d be doing something a little different for the next two weeks. Rather than sitting at my desk in Hampshire writing code, I’d be flying to India with a colleague to help our Indian colleagues with an installation of our software for a major Indian telco as part of an outsourcing deal. It had been a possibility for two or three months but in the end it was confirmed on the Thursday and we flew out late on Monday – after a hectic Friday in the office booking overpriced last-minute flights and trying to find a hotel that met our criteria of being (a) close to the centre, (b) having a swimming pool and (c) being available. At the time we were only able to secure the first three nights in Le Meridien (which satisfied the first two and was the only hotel with any availability at all that wasn’t a long way out from the centre). All the hotels had been booked up in advance for Diwali, the Indian festival of light, as well as a major Indian Premier League cricket match in the city. We hoped that we’d be able to extend our stay or find an alternative once we were there in person.

The good news is that we were given permission to fly business class, something that is quite rare in my company, and something which I have never done before. So it was that I found myself sitting in the Flagship Lounge at Heathrow Airport enjoying the use of the fully stocked bar and the buffet of good old English sandwiches alongside Indian delicacies while sitting in big comfy armchairs and watching the news on a big flatscreen TV. It was nice to be out of the hustle and bustle of the Departure Lounge in a little oasis of calm. We even spotted a celebrity, Caron Pickering, who as it turned out would be travelling on the flight with us to Mumbai. After a relaxing couple of hours the lady from the reception desk announced that the 2125 Jet Airways flight 119 was ready for boarding. We wandered through and boarded the plane straight away.
First impressions of the business class section were excellent – each passenger gets a whole cubicle to themselves, with a seat which adjusts in three directions, all the way to the horizontal, making a completely flat bed in conjunction with the footrest. This is the most striking difference from economy class – this is what you pay your money for! The other differences were lots of little touches which all add together to make a very pleasant experience.

I made a list of what you get over economy (as well as the chair that converts into a bed):

  • Personal welcome (by name) from the very attentive stewardesses
  • Ordering your food from a menu
  • Your table is made with a tablecloth, napkin, salt & pepper cellars, butter dish, silver cutlery and elegant crockery
  • Your food comes hot on the plate, no peel off foil trays – looks and tastes like it’s been cooked in a restaurant kitchen (not sure of the reality!)
  • A choice of breads from a bread basket with your meal.
  • A designer convenience pouch by Bulgari including moisturisers, toothbrush & toothpaste (rather than a plastic pouch of aircraft own brand accessories)
  • High quality can-style headphones (although still airline-branded – apparently you get Bose headphones in First Class!). They still come with those airline-only two-part plugs to discourage people lifting them!
  • Your own set of airline pyjamas (or “sleep suit” as they called it) and hanger to hang your clothes on once changed. The stewardess even offered to take my clothes after I’d changed (I declined, finding this a little odd!)
  • Fold out flat screen television with around 50 movies and a similar number of programs available on demand – although most of them were Bollywood films – so the choice was pretty much the same as in economy.
  • Stewardess makes your bed up for you
  • Nachos & salsa brought to you while you watch the in-flight movies.
  • Top drawer wine or champagne which you choose from a wine list – and a 20 year old Graham’s Port after your meal.
  • Selection of newspapers and magazines brought to you on a trolley
  • Luxury mirror with dressing room type lighting, designer cosmetics and fresh flannels in the bathroom, and a bidet feature on the toilet.
  • 4 levels of brightness on the adjustable reading light.
  • Lots of pockets to store things, including a long thin one marked “literature only”

So there you go, that’s what the extra £3300 (yes you read that right) buys you on Jet Airways! How was the experience? Thoroughly pleasant – the only thing that bothered me was the dryness of the air which is true no matter where you sit – and the moisturisers helped. Was it worth the money? No, I don’t think so, not at £3,800. Maybe, if I was doing a long multi-part flight to Australia and it was just a few hundred pounds extra, and I could afford it, it would be worth it in order to be able to have some really solid sleep, and the convenience and comfort of the business class lounges at your departure and stop over airports. Those, and the fast-track through security and the priority tickets on your baggage, are the real selling points, I feel, the rest are just nice-to-haves.

We arrived in Mumbai at about 8.30am (4am according to our body clocks) and the business class experience ended abruptly as we wandered through very hot corridors to get our connection. We went through security (at the main desk rather than the “Unaccompanied Children & Ladies” desk next to it). As we checked in at the desk some electricians were installing ceiling lights overhead while standing on a rickety wooden platform that would have given British Health & Safety officials nightmares.
We walked outside into a wall of heat and were ushered to a run-down and cramped bus and transferred to the Domestic Terminal, which was very modern and much more impressive. We changed some pounds into rupees (74 to the pound) then headed through to the business class lounge, where we were treated to a breakfast of hot chilli chicken & vegetable rice – the first of many spicy meals to come. We read the Times of India, the Mumbai Mirror and the Hindustan Times while we waited. I read an interesting article about how Marashtra (an Indian state) is looking at legalizing live-in relationships. I went to the toilets and experienced my first taste of what I can only describe as Indian “over-attentive hospitality” as a toilet attendant jumped in to put his hand under the tap sensor for me when I failed to find the sweet spot immediately, and handed me hand towels to me before I could turn and reach for them myself.

We travelled on a small propeller plane up to Ahmedabad. The flight took less than two hours and gave us views of sun-baked farmland, dried-up river beds, and towns that were a mix of shanty towns and high rise white blocks of flats.

We were met at the airport by a smartly dressed driver from Le Meridien, who took us in his very clean but slightly run-down car (where the seatbelts didn’t work) to the hotel.
The ride through the town was a real eye opener. Motorbikes holding whole families and green and yellow auto rickshaws buzzed around the streets like over-excited insects. Dented cars, over-populated buses and men with painted carts jostled for space, honking their horns to make sure they were noticed and all the while avoiding cows, goats and wild dogs that would wander into the road every now and then. Somehow, the two lanes marked on the road managed to become five as the traffic bunched up as junctions. I’d seen traffic chaos something like this before in Yogyakarta and Bangkok (albeit without the cows!), but the thing that made this different, the thing that really struck me about this Indian traffic, is how organised & well disciplined it is. Nobody bumps into anyone else. Very rarely is there any sudden braking. You don’t hear horns beeped out of road rage as people cut each other up – just short pips as drivers announce their presence to one another.

We pulled up at Le Meridien gate and the gatekeeper ran a mirror around the underneath of the car to check for bombs (not surprising given recent terrorist attacks at Western hotels around India). The doorman, a portly looking gentleman in colonial army-style uniform, a sizable red turban and a particularly long moustache, held the door open for us.
The receptionists were equally welcome, taking our details then checked about extending our reservations for us. Meanwhile a porter came over with a tray of freshly squeezed orange juice, lifting the paper coasters off the top of the glasses with tongs as he served the glasses to us. The receptionist told us that our Indian colleague had already extended our hotel booking for us, and then the two receptionists personally showed us up to the rooms while other staff carried our bags.
At last, at 2.30pm on Tuesday (10am body clock time), we’d arrived. Fortunately we weren’t due at work until the next day, so it was time to unpack, settle in, go for a swim, then go outside and see what India had to offer!

Come back soon for my next instalment where I will write about my first impressions of Ahmedabad, the hotel and the delicious Gujarati food that can be enjoyed here. I hope to post some photos too.