Sunday, 21 June 2009

Highlights of SJ33 and Hotel Borodudur

Flight: Sriwijaya Air SJ33
Date: Saturday, 06 Jun 09
Sector: Batam Hang Nadim (BTH) -> Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta (CGK)
Aircraft: PK-CJD ‘Emilio’, B737-204
Seat: 3F
Departure Gate: A6

Scheduled Departure Time: 1305 LT
Actual Departure Time: 1305 LT
Scheduled Arrival Time: 1435 LT
Actual Arrival Time: 1440 LT
Arrival Stand: B52

Trip Background

The entire idea of a quick weekend getaway to Indonesia did not originate with the idea of flying a B737-200 ironically. Instead, we were enthused with Lufthansa’s recent promotion, where one could fly their B747-400 between Singapore and Jakarta for only S$171 return, or S$100 one way. However, the notion soon evolved into flying the Lufthansa jumbo for only one sector and choosing a more interesting way to return to Singapore, such as through Batam with a B737-200 or MD90. We quickly realized that many Indonesian carriers are rapidly replacing the aged B737-200 with more modern variants such as with the -300 and -400 series, or with brand new Airbus A319 and A320s.

Booking

The booking process proved to be more frustrating than we had anticipated. The first reason was that the actual schedule differs significantly from online sources such as the airlines’ own websites and flightstats.com. The actual schedule could only be known by calling the booking hotline and attempting to get the required information from the operator. This unfortunate fact also meant that our prior research using online resources proved to be a fruitless exercise. It was a challenge to obtain the aircraft type and fares as the call centres are located in Indonesia and the operators are only conversant in Bahasa Indonesia and speak very limited English. In addition, different operators from the same airline provided differing information!

After nearly two weeks, we finally decided to reserve for a mid day Sriwijaya Air flight at Rp312,000 (S$45/MYR104) from Batam to Jakarta which was known to be reliably operated by a B737-200. Following which, we made reservation for the 0740hrs ferry to Batam as the reservation had to be ticketed by 0900hrs at the Batam Airport office the next day.

It was hard to sleep that night with the excitement of being able to fly a classic Boeing 737!

Getting to Batam Airport

We met at the Batam Fast reservation counter where we collected and paid for our return ferry tickets (S$40/MYR92 return). It came as a pleasant surprise that the Indonesian immigration card had been pre-printed with our personal details, and a re-usable contactless card printed with the individual passenger details was used as the ferry ‘ticket’ from Singapore. Immigration and security check was quick and we soon settled in for the hour long ferry ride to Batam Centre. We had chosen Batam Centre (pictured below) instead of the other ferry terminals in Batam as it is closest to the airport. I was quite surprised that the ferry was only half full for the first departure of the day to Batam.

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Upon arrival at Batam Centre Ferry Terminal, we used the official taxi counter located at the entrance to get a taxi to Batam Airport. The fixed price for the 10mins journey is Rp70,000 (S$10.26/MYR24).

Batam Airport

Batam Airport has a very simple layout as it consists only only one long terminal building. The various airline ticketing offices are clustered together at the northern end of the terminal which facilitates comparison of prices and schedule among the different airlines. We quickly found Sriwijaya Air’s office and had our tickets issued by a rather cute lady. To add on the experience, the ticket was individually handwritten, which is certainly a rarity these days where e-tickets are the norm.

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As with most Indonesian airports, only passengers holding a valid air ticket are allowed into the check-in area. In order to increase security in the terminal, one has to pass all baggage through an X-ray scanner at the entrance. In comparison to Macau, passengers are actually allowed into the check-in area before check-in has started for their respective flights at Batam. Check-in commenced 2hrs before the departure time and a single check-in staff handled the check-in for a flight, which resulted in a long queue behind the counter.

Batam Airport Concourse
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Authentic & truly mechanical flight information display. Check out Firefly!
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The check-in process was entirely manual where the check-in agent highlighted the passenger’s name on a manifest before manually writing the passenger details on the boarding pass. In order to speed up the process and facilitate the checking of boarding passes during boarding, only the passenger serial number on the manifest was written on the boarding pass. Moreover, seat allocation was done using a page of stickers where the corresponding sticker is pasted onto the boarding pass. I personally find it a simple and ingenious system of keeping track of the available seats, particularly when there is only one check-in agent handling the flight.

Our requests for window seats were promptly met by the friendly male check-in staff, and we were also able to get a confirmation from him that the B737-200 would be operating the flight. The airport departure tax of Rp30,000 (S$4.40/MYR10) is collected separately at a counter leading towards the boarding gate lounges located on the second storey.

Batam Airport Check-in Area
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Following the departure of a Kartika Airlines B737-200 PK-KAD to Palembang, our aircraft, PK-CJD ‘Emilio’ arrived and taxied to the gate. However, much to our disappointment, our flight used the aerobridge instead of the airstairs as it would mean that there would not be an opportunity to walk on the ramp at Batam. After the passengers from the previous flight had disembarked, boarding was called for our flight and passengers seated at the rear rows.

Our aircraft. Her first flight was on 21 Nov 1979, and flew for Britannia Airways as G-BGYJ until 1994 before joining Ryanair as EI-CJH. After being placed in storage from 2003-2005, she was delivered to Sriwijaya Air as PK-CJD
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Spotting at Batam Airport (Airside)

There are very limited spotting opportunities at the boarding gates as there are 2 layers of heavily tinted glass. Thus, the only way a decent photograph could be taken of the various aircraft movements is by sitting or squatting down in front of the glass in the respective boarding lounges, where the view is not obstructed by any stickers. However, the full height glass windows offer a good view of the apron and the runway.

Before spotting, we each had a glass of Alpucat at one of the cafes in the restricted area. Its basically avocado juice topped with shaved ice and the brown stuff in the photo is actually chocolate sauce. It was my first time having it and it was absolutely heavenly! Damage: Rp18,700 (S$2.75/MYR6.35)
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Kartika Airlines all white B737-200, PK-KAD departing to Palembang
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Kartika Airlines flight stewardess sticking her head out and wondering where are the 2 passengers who are delaying the aircraft's departure
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Mandala Airlines A319 PK-RMF
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Mandala Airlines A319 PK-RMI turning into gate
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Batavia Air B737-300 PK-YVY
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Lion Air B737-900ER PK-LFJ
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It is also possible to obtain photos of aircraft parked at the cargo apron through the aerobridge windows. These included regular visitors to Seletar Airport such as Deraya Air Shorts 360 and Batam Logistics An-26.

Deraya Air Shorts 360 PK-DSB undergoing maintenance
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The Flight

The first impression which I had of the aircraft was not a positive one, as one could notice significant dents and kinks along the edges of the front door when boarding.We also discovered that our window seats had been taken by other passengers who had wanted to seat together as a family, and had to firmly ask them to return to their allocated seats.

The seat pitch is rather tight, and was a struggle to place my bag under the seat in front of me and remove my camera and notebook from the various pockets. The cabin seemed to be generally very well maintained, with most light fittings in working condition and the airconditioning system was working very well to keep the cabin comfortably cool. Moreover, the seat covers and wall panels were noted to be clean, with the exception of the occasional rubbish conveniently stuffed in between the seat gaps or between the seat and the wall panel. The seat pocket of each seat was also stocked with the essential safety cards, a plastic airsickness bag, and inflight magazines and duty free catalogues.

Mandala A319 disembarking passengers via airstairs
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Soon, the front door was closed and pushback commenced exactly on time. It was highly unusual that the crew drew the front curtain closed while they were closing the door before fastening it back in position before the safety demonstration. The flight was crewed by 3 female stewardesses and 1 male steward. Interestingly, the flight stewardesses walked down the aisle to offer sweets to passengers from a small basket during pushback.

The Pratt & Withney JT8D engines were then started and the cabin was filled with a high pitch whine which was immediately followed by the unmistakable deep turbine roar of low bypass turbofan engines. It was definitely a sound which had to be experienced, for no recording or description could do it justice. The closest approximation would be the sound one would hear when a ‘zi char’ (a popular Singaporean hawker fare) stall switches on the gas to preheat the wok before cooking.

Individualised Passenger Service Unit on the B737-200. The wall panels are aluminium, instead of plastic on later B737 variants. Also note the individual wall panel lights (later replaced by strip lighting).
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The manual safety demonstration was done with commentary in both Bahasa Indonesia and English. It was obvious that the safety demonstration kit had been used for a very long time as the hose for the oxygen mask had turned a deep yellow! It was also very entertaining to watch the flight stewardess pointing out the emergency exits as her movements mimicked that of the military precision drill squad or a traffic police directing traffic!

The engine was powered up smoothly and the crew did a fast taxi towards runway 22 for immediate takeoff. We were also informed that the flight would be cruising at an altitude of 31,000ft and the flight is expected to take one and a half hours. As the parallel taxiway does not stretch all the way to the threshold of the runway, we turned onto the runway to proceed to the end before doing a U-turn to line up for take-off.

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It came as a complete surprise when the powerful engines were throttled up and the aircraft rocketed down the runway. The smoothness of such an old engine is testament to the excellent maintenance and it caught me totally unaware the amount of power which the 2 small engines could deliver. We made a quick rotation and proceeded to climb very steeply into the sky. It would be fair to mention that this was perhaps the most amazing takeoff which I had experienced thus far, as my MD11 flights on Finnair had only managed a very disappointing and sluggish takeoff. The effective soundproofing of the aircraft also meant that one could enjoy the sound of the JT8D engines without feeling any discomfort due to excessive noise. Moreover, the fact that the engines for our aircraft were not fitted with Stage 3 hushkits also contributed to a more authentic experience onboard such a classic aircraft.

View of Batam Island to the west. The aircraft was still within the airport grounds!
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After the aircraft had leveled off and the seat belt signs were switched off, the crew started to distribute pre-packed snack boxes.
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A cup of mineral water, a croissant and a small piece of cake and a serviette was included in the box. The cheese croissant was almost tasteless and required water to swallow it down. The only clue to its identity was the faint sour taste on the surface of the bun which is characteristic of baked cheese. The small piece of cake tasted very much of coffee and has a rather dry texture. It is rather thoughtful to package the croissant and the cake in plastic resealable flap packaging as it is very easy to open with minimal mess as compared to the usual heat sealed plastic packaging. Passengers were also given ample time to finish their snack before the crew proceeded down the aisle to collect the used packaging.

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The inflight sales catalogue is very extensive of a predominantly domestic airline and includes the usual duty free offerings such as perfumes. In addition, there was an interesting range of Sriwijaya Air Polo T-shirts featuring differing renderings of the company logo. Unfortunately, the model aircraft on sale was of very poor quality and detailing from the sample photo provided in the catalogue. It was observed that the crew had a brisk sale of the items, which might be due to their cheerful and friendly personality.

Window shade with Boeing 737 emblem
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Almost all too soon, we started to commence our descent into Jakarta as we made landfall over the northern coast of Java Island after a stunning turn over the Java Sea. We encountered some slight turbulence as the aircraft plowed through a series of heavy thunderstorm clouds. However, we enjoyed this section of the flight tremendously as the cockpit crew powered up the engine a number of times to compensate for the speed lost as a result. Therefore, we were treated to a series of melodious, smooth high pitch whines as the power was increased.

Making a turn over Java Sea
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Jakarta suburbs on approach to CGK
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The aircraft made a rather smooth landing onto runway 07R and the bucket thrust reversers were deployed to slow the aircraft down. The sole regret for this trip was not being able to see the thrust reverses in operation as we were seated at the front of the aircraft. As the aircraft exited the runway and taxied towards the domestic terminal, I noticed that the next landing was a Lion Air B737-900ER, PK-LFJ. It would also mean that the aircraft had always been following behind our aircraft from Batam Airport!

We came to a complete stop at berth B52 and were relieved to see that we would disembark using airstairs instead of using an aerobridge. The friendly crew had no problems with us taking interior photos of the cabin after all the passengers had disembarked the aircraft, but were unfortunately shy when we requested to take a photograph of them against the aircraft as a background. Thankfully,it was not a problem to take a photograph of the aircraft on the ramp as the ground staffs were busy preparing the aircraft for her next flight.

Cabin view of PK-CJD
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Ramp views of PK-CJD
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We were directed up a flight of stairs in the terminal building where we headed out to the arrival hall and to the open air viewing deck as we have no check-in luggage. It was however, a surreal experience walking through the terminal as it was open air and the generous usage of bricks made one felt like stepping back in time to the 1980s!

Arrivals Passageway
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Baggage Claim at CGK (Domestic)
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A Tree with a very established root system at CGK (Domestic)
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Conclusion

As both the local and international media portray the aged Boeing B737-200s operating in Indonesia as a potential death trap, one would had expected these aircraft to be in a run-down condition and ready to be destined for the scrapyard. Instead, the well maintained condition of the aircraft showed that it is maintenance, rather than age, which determines the serviceability of such aged workhorses. It would definitely be a pity when one would no longer be able to hear the deep throated roar by the Pratt & Withney JT8D engines when the last Boeing 737-200 is withdrawn permanently from service in Indonesia.

Hotel Borobudur, Jakarta

Some shots of the hotel where we stayed for a night in Jakarta before returning back to Batam. Hotel Borobudur is a 5 star hotel which used to be an iconic landmark back in the 1970s and 80s. We managed to get a very good rate for a room through our Indonesian friend (S$105 per night with complimentary buffet breakfast).

A replica of Borobudur in the hotel's expansive garden.
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Close-up view of some of the stupas of the replica.
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The light fittings in the garden are also styled to resemble stupas to add to the 'feel' of the entire property.
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A random shot of the interlocking fronds of a palm tree in the garden.
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Spotlit sandstone carvings are also placed at the lift lobby at each floor.
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Next and Final Post: Highlights of 7P577

PDF version with additional details of this trip report is available on request :)

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