Flight: GA 843
Aircraft Type: Boeing 737-800
Class: Economy Class
Route: Singapore – Denpasar/Bali
Date: March 2014
Best for: Weekend trippers wanting all the luxury of full-service without paying a premium for it.
Most likely to sit next to: Singapore-based expatriates and their young families, yuppies psyched up for their 5-star holiday in Seminyak, and the odd Indonesian business man in a stereotypical batik shirt.
Routes: The Boeing 737-800 is the workhorse of the Garuda Indonesia fleet. It’s flown on domestic routes, as well as regional routes to and from Southeast Asia.
Frequent Flyer Programme: Garuda Miles is alright. The airline has many airline partners, which should make up for the generally poor international network. However, unless you fly a lot to Indonesia, you’re better off just paying for discounted economy or discounted business and using Indonesia’s pay-per-use lounges which are honestly, quite decent.
Best bits: Food and service.
Worse bits: Thales-based IFE on the 737s is very unresponsive.
From a questionable safety record, appalling service standards and rickety aircraft, Garuda Indonesia has since improved by leaps and bounds. In 2013, after winning a string of awards including Most Improved Airline and Best Regional Airline, it was voted the eighth best airline in the world. The Boeing 737-800 is the workhorse of the Garuda Indonesia fleet, being operated on domestic flights as well as regional flights to cities as far afield as Hong Kong and Taipei. The Singapore – Denpasar/Bali flight, at 2.5 hours, is the average flight time of Garuda’s Boeing 737 flights and perfect for us to gauge to Garuda Indonesia’s performance on such a route.
For a reasonable SGD 235, the price of the return flight to Denpasar/Bali was within reasonable standards. The midday departure from Singapore was far superior to options on Indonesia AirAsia, Tigerair and Jetstar which calls for dawn or near midnight departures.
On the Ground:
Garuda Indonesia operates out of Singapore Changi’s Terminal 3, which has won accolades for its spaciousness, garden city-inspired design and various amenities. It’s an easy terminal to navigate, with the farthest gates reached by shuttles.
Unlike Changi’s other more congested terminals, check-in at Terminal 3 is a breeze. Overall, the open concept exaggerates the emptiness of the departure hall. Instead of being cold and unfeeling, the earthen tones of the terminal, along with the dedication and politeness of the check-in agents and other airport staff, makes the passenger experience fuss-free, just as it should be.
Business Class passengers, as well as SkyTeam Elite and SkyTeam Elite Plus members traveling on Garuda Indonesia have the Dnata Lounge at their disposal. Be warned, though: it’s quite shit. As a SkyTeam member at Terminal 3, we’re not sure why Garuda Indonesia hasn’t joined its felow carriers China Eastern and Vietnam Airlines at the SATS Premier Lounge, which is a decent enough place to actually visit. Fortunately, Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 has enough amenities and affordable food options to make up for the inferior lounge.
Our flight departs from gate A17, which is located in one of the terminal’s three common-use gate holding rooms. Garuda Indonesia had just joined SkyTeam just days prior, so the staff seemed unused to the priority boarding for SkyTeam Elite and SkyTeam Elite Plus members. This is a far cry to our Air France departure from Singapore a year ago, where the airport ground staff were very proactive in assisting and guiding elite members.
Once aboard, we were greeted aboard by welcoming, and smiling, crew. There’s something genuine about the “wai” – an increasingly ubiquitous Southeast Asian greeting of bowing slightly with palms pressed together in prayer-like fashion. It was assumed that the wai was a Thai gesture, but it seems like ordinary Indonesians use it too.
The cabin is decked in a very warm, premium and culturally appropriate decor of fawn and cinnamon, inspired by the intricate work of court wood carving artisans. It’s juxtaposed by the teal headrest of the airline’s logo, which curiously, complements the ambers nicely. The crew, decked in their Javanese kebaya uniforms, looked elegant, stunning and upmarket.
And a first, the crew began serving welcome drinks in Economy Class, delicately offering each passenger the choice between apple and orange juice, and presenting it to each passenger. It’s not communal: it’s personal, and it’s a great start to the flight.
The Economy Class seat is comfortable, equipped with adjustable headrests. Seat pitch is reportedly at 32″, but in reality, it feels a lot more. Long-legged passengers can not only wriggle, they can stretch out and relax.
One of the strongest suits of Garuda Indonesia is the installation of inflight entertainment: you’ll find them on every flight, regardless of flight times. It might seem excessive, but the airline is eager to portray itself as premium carrier. Opulence and indulgence aren’t just ubiquitous, it’s to be expected. Passengers are confronted by a generous 9″ touchscreen systems equipped with the latest shows, movies and music not only from Europe, the States, East Asia, India and of course, Indonesia. The selection is admittedly, not as wide as Emirates or Singapore Airlines but for an aircraft that has average stage lengths less than the running time of Avatar, it’s more than enough.
Our biggest pet peeve however, is the system itself. Powered by Thales, it’s characterized by its touchscreen unresponsiveness so don’t be surprised to find little jabs at the back of your head from time to time. Fortunately, Garuda’s A330-300 and Boeing 777-300ER are equipped with the more superior Panasonic ex3 system.
Garuda Indonesia generally seems to offer an “Indonesian” option and an “Asian/Western/Anything Goes” option. On the Singapore – Denpasar/Bali flight, an Indonesian-style beef rendang was offered alongside a fish pasta one. On the return, Indonesian-style curry fish rice and Chicken with Potatoes were the option. On both occasions, my travel partners opted for the non-Indonesian options, and regretted it. I on the other hand, enjoyed the immaculate quality and tenderness of the beef rendang, and the intricacies of the curry.
These spice-laden dishes go well with a good beer or a decent wine, and fortunately, Garuda is not a “dry” airline. The wines selected, while nothing spectacular, paired with the dishes well enough.
Denpasar/Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport has been expanded and refurbished, and the terminal now incorporates the open concept and airiness of contemporary airports while keeping to the traditions of Balinese architecture.
As an ode to the upcoming ASEAN Single Economic Community, ASEAN citizens are exempted from visa applications, which makes things a little faster. Ngurah Rai is Indonesia’s third busiest airport, so do be prepared for long lines at immigration, and at customs (after baggage claim). However, the wait isn’t as long as say, Hong Kong or Beijing, so you’re in good company. Besides, the airport and most of touristy Bali is equipped with free wi-fi so surf away.
Garuda Indonesia’s transformation has been nothing short of impressive. The airline is, in our opinion, Southeast Asia’s second best airline after Singapore Airlines, leapfrogging perennial 4-star Thai Airways and even 5-star Malaysia Airlines. Great service, good food and decent inflight entertainment options make Garuda Indonesia a natural choice for flights between Singapore and Indonesia. With a budding network to Australia, we would definitely consider a one-stop option on Garuda Indonesia down under.