As a passenger for commercial airliners since my first flight circa 1981 (thanks dad!) and then founding LiveFromALounge.com, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the nuances of commercial aviation slightly better than perhaps some of us. This has made me deeply appreciative of the passion which keeps the people who sign up to work for an airline going. That of flying, making sure things work clockwork and putting customers first (at least in FSCs, eh!).
Now, the same passion also shows in many a small things we may take as given. Making the trip to Airbus to take the delivery of a plane got me to appreciate a whole lot more what goes on behind the scenes. It also made me realize the word customer feedback was not just a marketing gimmick for Vistara, but a tool for improvement. Which is where the story of the first Vistara A320 Neo, nicknamed #notjustanotherneo by the airline begins.
I’ve had the opportunity to see this airline take its first flight back in 2015. As a relatively young airline, born about 2.5 years ago, Vistara has had the opportunity to do things differently, and perhaps better, than the other competitors in the market. Their approach to catering is one such example. But the process is continuous. Which is where, the airline moved to inducting the newer, better NEO versions of the A320 as soon as they could lay their hands on them, and also moved forward with making tons of small changes which we could have missed, but they didn’t. Some of these are for today, and some will show their true potential further down the road, when the carrier gets onto specific routes domestic or international. But the airline gets only one chance to implement them inexpensively, when the plane is being fitted for the first time at the factory. So, you make the choice accordingly.
The Airbus A320 Neo is the new-improved version of the A320, which amongst the both of them and other planes in the family (A319 and A321), have sold over 10000 of these across airlines since the introduction in 1998. With the NEO coming by, the airlines are assured at least a 15% lesser fuel burn from day one, which is important not just for the P&L of the airline but also for the environment.
Of course, a longer range for the plane, or the choice to carry more payload makes it an interesting choice for carriers because, hey, which airline does not want a fuller plane or wants to go to newer places, right? As an aside, Vistara’s VT-TNB, the newest plane for them, actually flew their ferry flight between Toulouse and Delhi non-stop in about 8 hours, covering a distance of about 6800 kilometers. Earlier, they’d always need to make a stop in the UAE to refuel, and perhaps then also take more crew along to bring the plane home. This opens new choices for the airline. For instance, if they put this plane on the Delhi – Leh segment, which is arriving at one of the highest altitude airports in the world, they don’t need to have payload restrictions anymore in my view.
A key reason for Vistara to go with the Airbus family was the comfort for passengers as well. Because Airbus planes offer an 18” broad seat as a standard option, which is a full 1” more than the standard option on other narrow bodied aircraft.
Introducing Mood Lighting
Mood lighting is a concept only few airlines have implemented on their airplanes yet, and now Vistara joins this league. I was initially of the belief that Vistara was the first airline to install it, but I was corrected to be reminded that Virgin America already had it many moons ago. But let that not take the shine away from Vistara’s initiative.
Mood-lighting, the first for an Indian airline, would perhaps remain there for the time being and stand out for Vistara. I don’t see the no-frill carriers go for it, Air India has its own problems before it can become customer focused again, and Jet Airways is busy charting an international growth plan.
On the Vistara A320Neo (s), a selection of colours modifies the cabin to suit the time of day and hence, provide passenger comfort. It is also a nice branding tool. On these planes, you’d see golden hues when the lights are dimmed in Business Class, Blue in Premium Economy and Aubergine in Economy, which is in line with the colours associated with the 3 cabins at the moment.
Not just that, you ease into or out of slumber rather than just wake up in an instant with a PA announcement. While I’m still looking for a nice light alarm to wake me up every morning, on these planes, if you’re on an early morning flight, you will be eased into the day ahead with a sunrise sort of lighting transition. That means you get over 3 minutes to wake up, and not just the 3 seconds which is the current setup. As of now, lights come on at the flick of the switch instantaneously.
Do we need Mood Lighting? I can’t answer that question for you. Vistara is trying to create a premium experience for the customer, which is in line with their motto of Fly the new feeling. You’ll feel the difference when you get used to it. And will perhaps find one more reason to fly Vistara over the others. Remember, right now the flights are 2-3 hours at best, but later, they will be longer once international operations are started in a year from now, and these planes are put to use to their true potential. As an aside, the management of the airline spent hours and days getting the colours right, so that should point to the eye for detail.
Vistara also took the opportunity to redesign some of the existing elements on the plane. On the outside, they painted the belly of the plane with a Vistara logo, complimented by the Airbus 320Neo logo. Most of the times, airlines opt to put their own logo under the plane. It is a luxury to do it, and usually only premium carriers would do so, such as Emirates, Virgin America and the likes. I couldn’t go on the runway to get a picture under the belly for the plane to take off, but be sure that is what the planespotting community in India is going after next.
On the inside, many a subtle changes but a few visible ones. First, the upholstery has changed on the new seats. Premium Economy now gets a business-class like look rather than a Economy class like look. In the earlier planes, you’d notice that the Premium Economy is a Gray and Aubergine cabin, just like Economy is, and differentiated by the headrest. Now, the color scheme moves to Aubergine and Gold, which is the color scheme also for the Business Class on their planes. That is a smart move I’d say, since by association now, you’re being counted with those who are paying for a J seat.
In Business class as well, the color scheme moves from Aubergine with Gray to Aubergine with Gold. It’s far brighter and moves to the reinforcement of the premium look and feel of the carrier. Additionally, the backrests are broader, making it more comfortable for the passenger to support their body weight. There is an additional inch of space there as well in your business class seat. I did not get too much time with the seat, but I liked what I saw.
In Business Class, the seat pockets were redesigned as well, basis customer feedback, to add a smaller pocket as well where you could stow articles such as pens and phones rather than having to fish through the entire gamut of the in-flight magazine, safety instructions et al to get them.
Premium Economy receives new head rests, which are more ergonomic and sort of merge into the seat rather than jutting out, making it easier for you to sleep without having them bother you.
However, on the other hand, in economy, those headrests are gone quietly. Instead, you get more padding on the shoulders of your seat to serve as a head support, which may just be the same thing. Lesser headrests means no moving parts to maintain, but also helps the weight of the plane. However, I need to test it out more thoroughly before I could comment on that one.
The seats as a whole also have better padded cushions which should make it more comfortable to fly. Not as easy as it sounds though. The whole process took months before they could get it right, and all this for only 7 planes at the moment. Customer Focus I say.
Slimline seats make for more legspace while not taking away the comfort.
Introducing Sanjiv Kapoor’s trademark music
In his earlier gig, the current CSCO of Vistara introduced soft rock for boarding and landing. Apparently he selected the music himself to put out on the planes, and it was a nice choice. Now, Vistara is adding soft rock instrumental music as well, along with some jazz and blues on takeoff and landing. See the connection? I’m hoping someday we can get that playlist up on iTunes as well. I’d have asked for CDs but that is a technology that is on its way to death.
I’m thoroughly impressed with what I see happening here, given that the airline could have just figured they could stick with the original plan for the next 7 planes as well. After all, they have the catering going for them, and a lot of other things. But this is the same airline which realized that they made a mistake with estimating the Business Class market, and immediately went for course correction adding more economy seats and pulling out some J class seats on the plane.
Of course, I’m planning to get on one of these planes shortly to be able to experience the entire package in one go, rather than the bits which were demonstrable on the ground only.
What are your thoughts about the improvements on the Vistara A320 neo? Love them or hate them?
(This writer was visiting Airbus’ Delivery Centre on the invitation of Vistara and Airbus)