With a six-year flying ban to Europe finally lifted, national carrier Garuda Indonesia relaunched its Jakarta to Amsterdam direct service this week, inviting government officials, legislators, businesspeople and journalists on the voyage that marked the beginning of a new era for the airline.
For captain pilot Ari Sapari, who flow the GA088 Jakarta to Amsterdam flight on June 1, the event was a proud moment. “It brought back memories of when I flew Garuda before we stopped the operation six years ago,” he said.
When the Airbus A330-200 touched down at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, the passengers on board applauded the flight deck for a smooth landing. Excitement turned to outright delight when two fire trucks from the local fire brigade began showering the aircraft with water — a ritual at the airport when an airline makes its maiden arrival there.
Ari, an executive vice president for operations at Garuda and a presidential pilot, said he was very proud of having been given the opportunity to pilot the maiden flight marking Garuda’s return to Europe. Garuda stopped flying to Europe in late 2004 to cut costs.
The carrier was then banned three years later from flying to Europe after the European Union imposed a flight ban on Indonesian airlines following a string of air accidents and heightened security measures.
For Wiyati, an Indonesian living in the small town of Schellinkhout and the owner of Waq travel agency, Garuda’s return means she now has more options to offer clients.
“We usually fly our guests to Indonesia using Singapore Airlines and Emirates but now we have Garuda so we can offer them an alternative. The air fare [of Garuda] is cheaper,” Wiyati said.
Garuda prices a Jakarta-Amsterdam round trip ticket at US$1,450. Currently, as part of a promotion for new customers, Garuda is offering a buy-one-get-one free policy.
Garuda president and chief executive officer Emirsyah Satar said he was upbeat the new route would receive a warm welcome in Europe, adding that plans were already in place to add new routes to other cities, including Frankfurt, London, Paris and Rome.
After struggling with a $900 million debt five years ago, Garuda has gradually turned around its finances and returned to profit.
Part of its recent success can be contributed to its recently launched “Quantum Leap” strategy that will increase the number of its aircraft to 116 in 2014, and sets a target of 27.6 million passengers in 2014 from 10.3 million in 2008. The airline expects to increased operating revenue to Rp 57.9 trillion in 2014 from Rp 18.1 trillion in 2008.
Emirsyah promised that passengers would benefit from improved service on flights, thanks to an overhaul of its flight service under the slogan “Garuda Experience”.
“It is an experience that as soon as passengers board the aircraft they can feel that they are in Indonesia through our hospitality and services,” he said.
And Garuda has gone the extra mile to realize a superior service, he said. Upon entering the aircraft, passengers are welcomed by flight attendants wearing a new kebaya-inspired uniform consisting of a blouse and a batik long skirt designed by Josephine “Obin” Komara, brandishing colors orange, turquoise and blue.
However, Garuda has some work to do improve passenger comfort. The newly upholstered seats on the aircraft could not recline fully — a complaint voiced by several passengers. However, a 25-movie individual entertainment system displayed on mini screens embedded in the backs of the seats’ headrests goes some way to distract passengers from the frustratingly restrictive seats.
Luckily, Garuda food paints a favorable impression of Indonesian cuisine. In collaboration with culinary expert William Wongso, Garuda offers nasi kuning (yellow rice with side dishes) for dinner and nasi goreng (fried rice) for breakfast. There is also an international menu on flights leaving the country from Jakarta.
As part of an effort to lure passengers from Europe, the government collaborated with Garuda to allow passengers to receive on-arrival visas while in the air.
However, there are still many t’s to be crossed and i’s to be dotted before Garuda can truly claim to be able to compete with the world’s major carriers.
Since recently receiving a four-star rating from Skytrax, a United Kingdom-based research company that specializes in commercial airlines, Garuda has built a cooperation with KLM and is mulling joining the Skyteam airline alliance.
However, Emirsyah said, improvements should not only come from Garuda’s side. He said it was no less important for Indonesia’s international airports to improve their facilities and services.