Just like old times: Garuda's new Aussie pitch

It’s almost unbelievable that, more than a decade and a half since the Asian financial crisis, there are still no non-stop air services from the big cities of Europe and North America to the capital of south-east Asia’s biggest economy, Jakarta.

Though the city’s traffic is still chaotic, Jakarta is almost unrecognisable compared with the Third World hovel it was when the dictator Suharto was still in power.

There’s still corruption, which Australian expatriates doing business in the archipelago know all about, but, in terms of economic activity, it is booming and dwarfs the countries that surround it, overshadowed in Asia only by Japan, Korea, China and India.

In fact, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, caused by debt and currency problems, decimated the Indonesian national carrier, which had until then been a truly global airline with a mixture of McDonnell-Douglas MD11 jets (an updated version of the DC10) and Boeing 747 jumbos flying to Los Angeles, London, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that Garuda was responsible for Indonesia’s worst aviation disaster in September 1997, when an Airbus A300 crashed near Medan in Sumatra, killing all 234 people aboard -- partly caused by the smoke haze that has resulted from the destruction of the country's forests, a problem that still exists and angers neighboring countries like Singapore.

It was one shock after another for Indonesia with the effects of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But things actually got worse for Garuda in 2007 with the crash of a Boeing 737-400 in Jogjakarta, which killed 22 people, including a number of Australians and triggered a black ban of the airline by the European Union (even though Garuda was no longer flying to Europe).

To cut a long story short, the airline has cleaned up its act and appointed an energetic young banker, Emirsyah Satar, to re-invent itself as a business airline and win back the patronage of international travellers.

In the Suharto era, a trip to Bali was the first stage of a cheap ticket to Europe, which Garuda served frequently as its planes snaked towards the Continent via stops in south-east Asia and the Middle East.

With the Dutch airline KLM as a mentor (Indonesia was a Dutch colony until independence after World War II), Garuda always had the foundations of a reliable carrier with its own vast engineering facilities at what is now Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.

And, after the decade from hell, it is growing again.The EU ban was lifted in 2009 and the airline has begun acquiring a new fleet of 737s,  Airbus A330s and 777s.

Garuda relaunched services to Amsterdam in 2010 using A330-200s and will return to London with 777-300ERs in November with non-stops five days a week from Jakarta to Gatwick airport.

Best of all the whole exercise is targeted directly at travellers from Australia. New daylight services to Melbourne, Sydney and Perth from Jakarta will mean there’s be just a brief stop in both directions in the Indonesian capital between Australia and London.

The connection is more onerous for Queenslanders as Garuda’s new flights to Bali aren’t timed for a quick transfer in Jakarta.

The new schedules will start at the beginning of November. Fares haven’t been released, but they will be pitched to fill the planes with Australians from end to end, so look for bargains, at least initially.

Because the schedules are so streamlined to the Australian market, the total travel time from Melbourne and Sydney to London is roughly the same as on Qantas.

Garuda last year won the Skytrax Best Regional Airline award and this year won Best Economy and Best Economy Seat, even though the seat space at 32 inches (81 centimetres) per seat row is only marginally roomier than Qantas’s.

Have you used Garuda since it began introducing its new planes? Is it up to scratch and do you trust it? Did you ever fly Garuda to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s? Does the airline’s new pitch for your business interest you?