It's Got Potential: Flying Garuda Indonesia in Business Class on the 777-300ER
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="79" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="19" amens-ife="11" food-bev="22" service="20" pros="Delicious food, (mostly) warm and friendly service" cons="Somewhat dated hard product, sluggish Wi-Fi" /]
Garuda Indonesia has a rich history. During its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, the airline launched Indonesia onto the global stage, connecting its Jakarta hub to a network cities all of the world, in addition to an expansive intra-Asian network.
Years of subsequent financial hardships and political turmoil in the late '90s and early 2000s forced the airline to drastically reduce its service and stabilize its operation. In 2009, near rock bottom, the airline emerged with an ambitious turnaround strategy that promised revamped boutique branding, a modernized fleet and world-class onboard service.
That same year, Garuda officially joined the SkyTeam alliance, enabling it to garner more international acclaim and expand its destinations through partner codeshares. While its route network is still but a fraction of what it once was, the airline has been able to achieve steady growth and develop a solid reputation over the last five years.
I'd been eager to fly this unicorn of an airline for quite some time, but they still haven't restarted service to the US, so I wasn't sure when the opportunity would present itself. When piecing together the marathon trip that would have me landing in Seoul, South Korea (ICN), and needing to position to Southeast Asia (either Thailand or Indonesia), I was beyond thrilled to find a wonderful mileage redemption pop up between Seoul and Jakarta (CGK).
Here's what my Garuda experience was like.
One of the best ways to redeem miles on Garuda Indonesia is through its SkyTeam partners. While Delta notoriously charges astronomical rates when booking premium seats on its own metal, the SkyMiles program has a few sweet spots, especially when it comes to redeeming on partner airlines.
I started my search using Delta’s award search tool, where I was pleased to find award availability in the business-class cabin for 45,000 miles one-way (plus roughly $23 in taxes). As long as you’re not traveling on a particularly busy holiday, availability for these flights is quite widespread, even at the last minute.
Before I booked, I quickly searched other options to ensure I was getting the best deal. AirFrance-KLM’s Flying Blue often presents another great way to book award flights on SkyTeam partners. However, they were charging 57,500 miles for the same flight, so booking through Delta was really a no-brainer.
With SkyMiles valued at 1.2 cents a pop, forking over 45,000 miles (worth about $540) for a seven-hour business-class flight was really a bargain. Booking just a few days in advance, I was surprised to find that the paid fares were also fairly reasonable. Garuda was the most expensive of the three carriers flying between Seoul and Jakarta, charging $1,335 for a one-way business-class ticket. This means we redeemed 45,000 SkyMiles at a value of 3 cents each, which is a pretty great use of SkyMiles.
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Until recently, Seoul’s Incheon Airport had just a single, massive terminal. As the 16th busiest airport in the world, with continued growth on the horizon, it was quickly running out of space, so in 2013, the airport announced a major project that involved raising a new, world-class terminal facility on the north side of the airfield. This new Terminal 2 was to house the country’s largest airline and flag carrier, Korean Air, along with its fellow SkyTeam partners.
In January of 2018, after nearly five years of construction, the 1.2-million-square-foot terminal officially opened its doors with Korean, Delta, Air France and KLM relocating their operations across the field. The rest of the SkyTeam carriers trickled in throughout the course of the year, with Garuda Indonesia eventually making the switch in October 2018.
I arrived at Terminal 2 about two hours before my 10:35am departure to Jakarta. Garuda has a fairly small presence at Incheon with just two daily flights, one to its primary Jakarta hub and one to Denpasar, the leisure gateway to Bali. Both departures are scheduled in the late morning within 30 minutes of each other, so check-ins are handled roughly simultaneously.
That being said, the counters were quite empty when I arrived. As a business-class passenger, I was invited to use the SkyPriority lane, which was also open to SkyTeam Elite and GarudaMiles Platinum members. There was absolutely no queue for the check-in counter, and I was attended to immediately after arriving.
Economy, on the other hand, had a short queue of five to 10 minutes. The airline staffed six check-in counters for economy passengers, which kept the line moving steadily.
After dropping my bag and grabbing my boarding passes, I was directed to the departures checkpoint just steps away from the counter.
I was pretty surprised to find that there were no expedited security or immigration lanes for business- or first-class passengers. Given that all SkyTeam partners were in this terminal, you'd've thought this would be a seamless addition to the SkyPriority experience. I had a solid cushion of time before my flight, so it didn't really affect me, but had I been running late, it could have been a drawback to expect the priority experience to be included with a premium-class ticket.
Security and immigration took about 20 minutes to clear. Upon making it airside, I followed the signs for the KAL lounge (the west location, which was closer to my gate, 246). It took just a few minutes of walking and a quick flight of escalators to reach the mezzanine, where the lounge was.
The KAL Prestige Lounge was accessible by all passengers holding a same-day business-class ticket on a SkyTeam carrier, as well as SkyTeam Elite Plus, regardless of their class of travel.
The lounge was about average in size but quite busy. The central seating areas and dining tables were almost entirely full, while some of the quieter sections, such as the theater room, still had seats to spare.
The food spread was solid -- perfect for a quick snack before hopping on a long flight. It was midmorning, so they had all sorts of breakfast cereals and pastries on offer.
For those looking to grab an early lunch, the lounge had hot buffet items like beef stir-fry, marinated shrimp and pork fried rice.
The lounge also had a noodle cup station, which seemed like a perfect to-go snack, but they weren’t allowed to leave the lounge.
There were a few beverages, including a juice bar, coffee machine and a standard soda fountain.
It was just barely 9am at this point, so I steered clear of the booze. They did have self-serve wine and whiskey stations, as well as the standard bar service over the counter.
Overall I enjoyed the quick visit to the lounge, as the food was simple but quite good. Finally, it was time to head out and to start making my way to my gate, about a 10-minute walk from the lounge entrance.
As I approached the gate, I marveled at the majestic 777 that I'd be flying to Indonesia that morning. It was decked out in Garuda's SkyTeam livery, which I find to be really elegant.
I reached the gate podium about 10 minutes before boarding was to begin. There were two boarding lanes, one for SkyPriority passengers and one for standard economy.
The massive Boeing would only be flying about half full that morning, so the gate wasn’t particularly crowded. There was plenty of seating, even as boarding time drew closer.
Exactly 40 minutes before departure, boarding commenced with SkyPriority passengers. There were only about 10 passengers booked in business, plus a handful of SkyTeam elites flying in economy, so boarding was extremely quick.
After taking a flight of escalators down to the aircraft level, I entered the jet bridge reserved for business class. (There was no first class on this aircraft.) This is always an exciting amenity to experience.
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According to Planespotters.net, eight of Garuda's 10 777-300ERs are outfitted in a two-cabin configuration, featuring 26 business- and 367 economy-class seats. The last two jets feature a premium-heavy configuration, with eight first-class suites in addition to 38 seats in business and 268 in economy. These two jets are typically deployed on higher-yielding business routes like Tokyo (NRT and HND).
This particular jet was configured in the former of the two layouts, without a first-class cabin. The 26 business-class seats were laid out in a staggered, 1-2-1 configuration between the first and second doors.
For an airline with such an exotic color palette (ranging from aqua to bright orange), the cabin felt somewhat dull, with patterned brown upholstery and beige finishes throughout.
The center section alternated between "honeymoon” pairs in the even rows and single aisle seats in the odd rows.
Similarly, along the windows, the even-numbered rows were flush against the aisle, while the odd-numbered rows were tucked away toward the window, offering more privacy.
I had selected Seat 9A, a "true" window seat.
Each seat had an adjustable headrest as well as a shoulder seatbelt strap used exclusively for takeoff and landing.
Above the shelf next to the seat was an adjustable reading lamp and a literature holder containing safety cards and Garuda's inflight magazine.
Next to the lower seat cushion were the IFE remote and seat controls, which were conveniently within easy reach while I was in a lie-flat position.
Just below these controls was a storage compartment, which contained a small water bottle. It wasn't really large enough to hold anything other than a few loose items.
Down by the footwell were a few power sources: a standard 110V universal power outlet and two USB ports for charging smaller devices.
The audio jack was a three-prong version, which made it necessary to use the provided headphones (unless you happened to carry a converter).
The tray table was stored flush against the seatback and easily swiveled out after you released the latch.
I particularly love it when trays slide forward, so you're not trapped in your seat during meals.
Each seat was equipped with a 15-inch touchscreen inflight entertainment. Although decent in size, it felt somewhat dated and wasn't too responsive. More on the IFE later, though.
All seats reclined into a lie-flat bed that measured 73 inches long and 21 inches wide.
Though the seat length was below average when stacked up against today's competition, the seat felt comfortably wide thanks to a 5-inch gap between the seat edge and the fuselage.
There was a single bathroom at the front of the plane and two in the galley area between business and economy (though these were not designated as business-class bathrooms). Since the flight was so empty, I was able to use the one up front throughout the entire flight without ever waiting in line. The bathroom was plenty spacious.
It featured two shelves stocked with Clarins amenities and a bottle of mouthwash.
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Upon boarding, I found a plastic-wrapped blanket, amenity kit and slippers on the footwell of my seat.
The aqua-colored amenity kit was stocked with Clarins lotions and lip balm, as well as toothbrush and toothpaste, a foldable comb, an eye mask and earplugs.
The noise-canceling headphones were pretty standard. Nothing spectacular but they got the job done.
The pillow and blanket were quite comfy. The blanket was thick and plush, which is usually a great thing, but since the seats lacked personal air vents, I slept only partially covered for most of the flight, since the cabin was kept fairly warm.
I was amazed once the lights were shut off and the beautiful starry ceiling came to life. Not many airlines have these (Emirates, EVA Air and Garuda just to name a few), so this was my first time experiencing it. I gotta say, it was pretty neat to see in person.
The IFE felt dated but did the trick. It offered 73 movies and 86 TV shows, as well as a handful of live TV channels and a static flight map.
What the physical display lacked in responsiveness, the IFE remote control made up for with more seamless navigation.
Garuda also offered onboard Wi-Fi, which came in packages from 30 minutes to the entire flight. They had no data cap, which was pretty generous.
I purchased the 1-hour plan for $11.95 USD, which seemed a bit pricey.
Connection speeds weren't good enough to make the expense worth it. Download speeds clocked at 3.67 Mbps, while upload speeds were practically nonexistent at 0.05 Mbps.
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Upon boarding, the flight attendant came through the aisles personally introducing herself to each passenger and distributing lunch menus.
She then shared the predeparture beverage options on offer. They weren’t serving alcohol on the ground, so she recommended Garuda’s specialty, kedondong juice, a popular drink in Indonesia made from the ambarella fruit. It was refreshingly tart and somewhat resembled the taste of a kiwi. I really loved it.
After takeoff, the lunch service began with a small salmon tartare pastry and a beverage.
About 10 minutes later, the lunch place settings were put out. They brought out an assortment of breads, butter, salt and a spice that I didn't catch the name of.
There were two selections for the starter course: pindang seafood soup with snapper, shrimp and enoki mushroom with pindang broth; and asparagus cream soup with garlic Parmesan croutons.
I opted for the more local flavor, despite widespread warnings against eating seafood on a plane. It was actually quite flavorful and delicious, and the small bites of fish were exceptionally fresh. The chili paste added a nice kick to the dish.
I decided on ordering a glass of wine to accompany the rest of the meal, but I couldn’t seem to find my drink menu. After asking the flight attendant, she said they didn’t have any menus, and curtly offered “red, white or Champagne.” I found this somewhat out of place for an airline like Garuda, especially since indulging in a wide beverage selection is always a highlight of the premium-cabin experience.
After landing and doing a bit more research, I realized this absolutely wasn’t the norm. Garuda typically provides both a food menu as well as an extensive beverage menu (which usually list three or four options each for red, white and sparkling wine). The flight attendant hadn’t indicated this was a onetime thing, instead simply saying, “We don't carry menus."
Next up was the main course, which had three selections: Indonesian chicken rendang with steamed rice and sautéed vegetables; pan-seared halibut with gribiche sauce, boiled potato chateau, asparagus and carrots; and spinach ricotta cannelloni with cream sauce.
I went for the chicken rendang. I’m a big fan of Malaysian beef rendang, so this was an easy choice for me. The presentation wasn’t the best, but the taste was absolutely top-notch. The chicken was tender, and the sauce was authentic and delicious, which paired perfectly with the rice and veggies.
Finally, it was time for dessert: molten lava cake with vanilla ice cream; white-chocolate-and-mango mousse cake; or a cheese board.
As a chocolate lover, I found the molten lava cake was another no-brainer. All I can say is "Wow!" Garuda really knocked it out of the park with this one. It was probably the best dessert I’ve ever had on a plane. The melted-chocolate core was exquisite.
A light snack was prepared about an hour and a half prior to touchdown in Jakarta, an Indonesian satay trio of chicken, seafood and beef. The dish was tasty, albeit quite small.
After the meal, I ordered a quick cup of coffee before arrival. I was excited to hear that they had an espresso machine on board and that it could prepare any of the standard handcrafted cafe beverages. Not many airplanes have this, so it’s always a treat to be able to enjoy a frothy latte 35,000 feet in the air.
Overall, I left very satisfied with Garuda’s onboard catering. I'd say the only minor drawback was the lack of drink menus, but that appeared to be a onetime mix-up with the ground catering in Seoul. On the flip side, all of the food was incredibly delicious, which is no doubt the most important component of any onboard dining experience.
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Well before getting on this flight, even with the little knowledge I had of Garuda, I had heard good things about the airline's service culture.
Nearly all of my interactions on board were limited to the two flight attendants serving my aisle. The first one was an absolute delight — as mentioned earlier, she warmly introduced herself upon boarding, going out of her way to provide excellent hospitality and ensuring each guest had everything he or she needed. Unfortunately, though, she only worked the aisles prior to departure, and was busy working the galleys for the entire inflight service.
Therefore, the rest of my interactions were with the second flight attendant, who seemed like she just didn’t want to be there that day. She wasn’t outwardly rude in any way, but definitely lacked the warmth and enthusiasm that I'd heard were hallmarks of the airline.
Since this was my first time flying with the airline, I didn't have a point of comparison, but after observing the attentiveness of flight attendants serving the adjacent aisle, it was pretty clear that this level of service was comparatively subpar. Had the first flight attendant been charged with aisle duty instead, I think my experience would have been significantly more enjoyable.
Prior to touchdown in Jakarta, the purser came through the aisles distributing Fast Track arrival slips. She explained that they could be used for expedited immigration into Indonesia, as well as premium luggage handling at the baggage claim.
The first benefit worked like a charm: The immigration lines were absolutely slammed upon arrival, but when I asked one of the staff about Garuda’s priority lane, he directed me to a line that had no queue whatsoever. I was through in less than a minute.
Once I got to the baggage claim, I followed a sign that read “Garuda Premium Arrival Service,” which ultimately led me to a small, lounge-like space at the corner of the hall.
After taking down my details, the desk agent invited me to relax in the lounge and said they’d notify me once my bag was ready. The small room had a few comfy couches and light refreshments.
I was only in there about five minutes before they brought me my checked bag and sent me on my way. While I wouldn’t have minded waiting at the baggage claim for such a short amount of time, this luxurious amenity didn't go unappreciated.
Going into this flight, the AvGeek in me was thrilled to be flying such a unique airline. Garuda impressed me with its hospitality and onboard experience.
That being said, the hard product felt a bit tired. Their interiors could hugely benefit from a refresh in the near future -- especially with the game-changing business-class products rolling out from the airline's top-tier competitors.
But overall, I’m definitely rooting for Garuda. Its magnificent strides ascending into a top global carrier have proven, if nothing else, that the airline packs serious potential. I have no doubt that a successful evolution of their onboard offerings could secure Garuda's position as a leading global carrier for many years to come.
All photos by the author.