Karim Raslan: My Experience onboard of Garuda Indonesia
Even though I fly a couple of times a week — and should be sick of traveling by now — I’ve never lost my childhood fascination with airplanes and airlines. (I can still remember long-departed carriers such as MSA, BOAC and Pan Am.) So when I read that Garuda was undergoing a transformation, I became curious. Of course, the changes were taking place on many levels: new routes, new planes and a new image as seen in the moody and evocative TV ads by Dentsu Start, not to mention the more prosaic but intriguing ads on print. (You know, the photo of the fully reclining seats and the list of international destinations being served by the new wide-bodied, Airbus 330-200 planes.) Given that Garuda has been underwhelming for years, I was intrigued by the idea of a rejuvenated national carrier. Frankly, was it possible? Since I had to make a quick trip to Hong Kong to speak at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, I decided to test the Indonesian flag carrier by booking a business class seat — just for good measure.
Since I had to make a quick trip to Hong Kong to speak at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, I decided to test the Indonesian flag carrier by booking a business class seat — just for good measure.
The past few months have witnessed a major shift in the way I travel, and I suspect I’m not alone in this respect. Trading down has become a fact of life for most of us. Before the financial crisis, I used to be a certified full-fare paying, business-class passenger. I would sit at the front of the plane, nibbling on roasted peanuts and sipping my orange juice. Nowadays, I’m a low-cost carrier man. I book online, select my seat then order my nasi lemak or sandwich (or pandesal when I’m on the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific Airlines) before I fly. It’s a very different experience, sitting alongside squalling kids, overseas-based workers and a photography club from Bogor going on its annual trip.
I’ve also started noticing minute differences among the carriers. The food on Jetstar sucks. Mandala’s planes are amazing. Cebu Pacific’s schedule is weird. (Its Jakarta-Manila flights depart after midnight, arrive at dawn and leave you jet-lagged.) And Air Asia’s flight attendants appear to wear the tightest of uniforms.
Even the terminals they use are different, reflecting their more plebeian market. Landing at Kuala Lumpur’s low-cost carrier terminal is not unlike stopping at a cheery, if crowded, suburban mall on a Saturday afternoon, except that there are a lot of people sleeping everywhere. (I haven’t tried Jakarta’s Terminal 3, but it looks sleek from the outside.)
While the flights aren’t so rarified, most of the crew are incredibly friendly. There’s a real buzz when you step onto the planes and the youthful zeal is infectious. By way of comparison, the legacy carriers — Malaysia Airlines, Philippine Airlines and Garuda — are more restrained and at times, plain boring and listless.
Having said that, my Jakarta-Hong Kong trip on the new Garuda A330-200 was a pleasant surprise. The attendants were more energized and enthusiastic. One of them even took the time to explain to me how my seat and the in-flight video system worked, while I was served countless espressos and hors d’oeurves. When I mumbled disparagingly about the meal service, she looked downcast but insisted that I fill out a form “so that we can learn and improve, Pak .” Huh? That was new.
The seat was far more comfortable than either the Malaysia Airlines or even Cathay Pacific’s claustrophobic cabin set-up. (And yes, it really was flat.) The Airbus’s internal design was understated and subdued. If anything, the elegance was overly international and insufficiently Indonesian. Sadly, the stewardesses’ uniforms have not been updated, as they should be wearing kebayas instead. As I settled in to watch the in-flight movies, I soon forgot about the minor hitches and enjoyed the flight.
Even in the age of Ryanair and easyJet, a national carrier still plays an important role. It is a country’s flagship, embodying and, in turn, expressing the social, cultural and historical attributes of a people. Given the Indonesian culture’s diversity and scale, the responsibilities of a national carrier aren’t easy. Nevertheless, as the republic emerges from a “lost” decade, it is important that Garuda captures the enthusiasm and the warmth of its people. The airline needs to project itself as the “face” of its nation.
Garuda’s new planes and its new livery are great. But for me, the change in attitude, as demonstrated by the flight attendants, is far more important. They exuded pride and were genuinely excited with what they were doing. This kind of enthusiasm is infectious. It’s also transformational.
Source: Jakarta Globe
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.