Vistara, the new full-service Indian carrier that is a joint venture between Tata Group of India and Singapore Airlines, took to the skies yesterday. I have been looking forward to this for a very long time, since Vistara has promised to keep differentiated service as a cornerstone of their strategy.
Like I said when Vistara made an initial product reveal, Vistara is hoping to be the Louis Vuitton of Indian Aviation. At the event, I wondered if they really were doing justice to their product with the reveal, because everything they said looked like just words then. Curious to find out if Vistara was all that it promised to be, I had to be on one of their planes. The sooner the better I say.
When Vistara opened up their inaugural flight as a commercial one, that was the one I really had to be on. Hey, you can get on a route inaugural every now and then, but the first commercial flight of an airline, hell yeah, I wanted in! So, I bought a very expensive INR 11,500 ticket to get from Delhi to Mumbai in Economy. Recently, they dropped prices for the same tickets, so I rebooked to a lower fare.
I got an email from Vistara 48 hours out, and I immediately proceeded to check-in online. I already had a seat assignment at the time of booking, but new seats get unblocked at the time of booking. I was sequence 4 for check-in. I managed to get an aisle seat, but later I realised I needed to get a window seat for the water cannon salute, so I switched to a new seat closer to departure. The website looks and feels rudimentary, but worked alright. One interesting thing, this is another airline which believes in the superstition of the number 13. So, no row number 13 for them.
Anyhow, I positioned myself to Delhi on a Jet Airways flight, and arrived into Delhi late Thursday night in the thick of fog with only about 300 meters visibility. Things that I do to get on an airplane sometimes! I went home for a night’s sleep and a little surprise for my folks. In the morning I was back at the airport, just in time for the inauguration ceremonies of the airline. The first thing I noticed at Terminal 3, was a new signage. Vistara was now getting real.
The whole of check-in aisle A at Terminal 3 was decorated with orchids, reflecting the brand colours of Vistara. There were 3 set of counters for check-in, one for Business & Club Vistara Gold elites, one for Premium Economy & Club Vistara Silver elites and a third one for the Economy passengers. I collected my boarding pass from the economy section, and was offered a chocolate and a namaskaar at check-in. Day 1, the staff made all the efforts to be courteous. I hope this is behaviour repeated over the years, and not just a 1-day courtesy.
A ceremonial lamp was lighted, and the bigshots of the airline and Tata / SIA were present and talking to passengers and amongst each other.
We went through security checks, and moved airside where most stuff was planned. The airline took over gate 37 for the inaugural ceremony, which is a gate I’ve only seen Jet Airways flights operate from at all times. The gate was well decorated, and there was going to be a ribbon cutting ceremony as well.
While the airline got Plaza Premium lounge to organise a light snack for all passengers and dignitaries, the lounge coming to you won’t be an everyday thing. Business Class passengers are going to be brought to the Delhi Plaza Premium Lounge as of now, but Vistara plans to have its own lounge up and running in Delhi soon.
I got the first glimpse of VT-TTB which was going to take us to Mumbai. Also, the first plane delivered to Vistara.
Like the airline committed, they will board by cabin class and row numbers, so adequate arrangements were made for this. Again, we as Indian passengers are usually an unruly bunch, so I hope Vistara can keep up their organisational skills in the pursuit of on-time performance.
After ribbon cuttings and speeches and photos, we started boarding. I managed to get ahead of the boarding sequence by taking a special requisition to be able to get some pictures of the plane before everyone came on board.
Delhi(DEL) – Mumbai(BOM)
Friday, January 9 2015
Distance flown: 708 miles
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200
Seat: 14F (Economy)
Meal Service: Lunch
Business Class: In the business class section, the seats had a small touch of differentiation. There was a personal seat space I haven’t seen in another carrier yet around India domestic flights.
There was a hard divider between the two cabins, and next up was Premium Economy.
Premium Economy: The Premium Economy section is a very smart use of space. 2 of the 6 rows of Premium Economy would anyways have had extra legroom because of the emergency exit rows, and they’ve extended the concept a bit further and raised fares for a whole section of seats, by branding them Premium Economy. Smart move and I hope it works for them.
Legroom is liberal at 36 inches, and with the use of slim seats, they are able to get more from less. Another point of differentiation is the magazines placed in seat-back pockets, along with the newspapers, which is another attempt to differentiate from Economy.
Moving into Economy, which was my part of the plane, the seat pitch was not as bad as I initially thought. Hey, there was tonnes of legroom for a bulky fellow like me and I did not feel discomfort even one moment on the plane, in spite of being stuck in a window seat. Like the old days of flying, the crew welcomed you on board with a smile.
The crew uniforms looked spectacular and this was going to be an all-female cabin crew. I’m not sure if they’re planning to hire male cabin crew or they already have any on board. The seats were all leather.
In flight experience
Pre-flight, the Business & PE passengers got hot towel service. In Business class, while drinks service was juices and water in glasses, in Premium Economy, they handed out packaged juices. In economy, there was water offered, but every passenger was handed out water before take off. What I mean to say is, they were proactive about doing a water service, not like the other Indian carriers who will get you water only when you ask for it.
The flight took off in good time, leaving the gate at about the right time. A lot of vendors were putting out congratulatory messages for Vistara, such as this one from Taj-SATS, the catering company.
There was a long taxi to the far end of the runway, and after a long roll, presumably to take care of the fog layer above Delhi and for the benefit of the plane spotters, it took to the air, with a lot of clapping inside the plane.
Once we reached cruising altitude, the people ahead of the curtain came by to click pictures and shake hands with a few passengers. The first dining cart that rolled out from the galley at the back was the one for Premium Economy passengers. They got beverages, along with meal trays, just like other airlines such as AI and 9W do for their economy passengers. There were two crew members assigned to service this class. From what I heard from other passengers, there was a lot of personalised attention, and each passenger was addressed by name from the manifest, and offered 3 meal options (2 common with Economy). Some other passengers did not like the fact that cutlery was still plastic in Premium Economy.
A little later, about 30 minutes into the flight, came the carts for economy. A flight attendant really bent down to come to the eye level of the seated passengers, addressed them by name, and offered a meal. And yes, this was no veg or non-veg question. They explained each meal, took questions and then provided a meal, which was smartly packaged in a box. That is an innovation to get the plane to turn around quickly, but it signified original thinking to me.
The best part, they smiled. The widest smile on an Indian airplane I’d say. This was day one so I hope the smiles are intact on day 365 and year 36 and so on as well.
What caused concern was the frequent bending for the flight attendants. I’m assuming at some point of time this would be a health issue, and I hope Vistara has thought it through.
There were two options, a vegetarian meal which was a Cannelloni and a non-vegetarian option which was Leek & Prawn Pie. Choice of meals indicated more the premium options they wanted to offer, and also breaking away from the Indian mould of serving Rice/Paranthas/Omelettes/Dosas on the plane. The box was full with salad, bread roll, a dessert and yes, a hot meal with some broccoli.
The meal boxes were labelled 1st Choice, because I got the first option I’d asked for. Interestingly, Vistara will change meals every 6-7 days to ensure fatigue does not set in for frequent travellers. A passenger sitting on the aisle seat of my row, requested a Jain meal, and was provided a box of Indian food marked as a Special Meal.
Here is what was inside my meal box.
Also, prawn meals in economy… I have not heard of that in a while now. Like I observed above, it only says premium all over the place. Full marks also to Shilpi, who was the cabin attendant in my row to have read my name and pronounced it correctly in the first go!
If you are interested in having a look for the Business class meals, here is the menu. Slightly different options from Premium Economy, but with an option of soups and smoothies added, and of course served in bone-china and with silverware.
Later in the flight, there was a drinks service, offering us coffee or tea. Not just that, there was another round of desserts for every one… some premium ice cream! I don’t know if Vistara felt rich on Day 1, or is this an everyday service standard.
The meal service, however, was pretty long due to the focus on these details. It did take them over an hour to wrap up the meal service, which on a 1.35 hour flight take-off-to-touchdown keeps you occupied the whole time. Also, I am myself interested in finding out what are they planning for short sectors such as Mumbai – Ahmedabad.
Arriving into Mumbai
After all the congratulatory messages, the captain broke the news to us, that there was a hold up in arriving to Mumbai due to a runway shut down. So we were assigned the other runway, and we started descent from over the seas. Got me a nice shot in the air.
On arrival into Mumbai, the plane proceeded to the Terminal 2, which is the newer of the two terminals in Mumbai. Vistara will be the first domestic carrier to operate from Terminal 2, and other carriers will move here later.
We got the water cannon salute, something I was very excited about since this was my first inaugural flight.
There was a small ceremony for arriving guests, who were handed out flowers and a small memento by the airport operator. Everyone was visibly excited about the new airline. The airline also handed out small goodie bags to each passenger and first flight certificates as well.
After this, I arrived at the belt, where the bags were already on the belt for the passengers who had checked them in. Lets just say, it was very quick!
Full marks to Vistara from me for their first flight. Of course, this flight was special for everyone, but I seriously wish this is the attention to detail every day of the year.
When I sat down to write about my experience for Conde Nast Traveller, I’d like to use the same summary for all of you here as well:
For me, the key differentiator with Vistara, was the service with a smile. Oh yes, the crew members seemed happy coming to work and making passengers happy about flying with them. So yes, I’d definitely fly Vistara again, even if it were at a small premium.
To add to that, I think there is a clear differentiation for the 3-cabin product, and I only hope they improvise from here on.
What do you feel about Vistara and my experience?
P.S. The ticket was paid for by myself for this review.