Travelling from Sydney to Jakarta, you have two choices: Qantas or Garuda Indonesia.
Qantas offers a three-times weekly service, while Garuda flies the same daily on brand new Airbus A330-200 planes -- with fully flat beds for the nearly 8-hour flight.
For many business travellers, Garuda's reputation precedes it (somewhat unfairly), so I was interested to experience the new Garuda, an airline that's been turned round in the last few years, with a remarkably new fleet and impressive-looking business class.
With no online check-in, Garuda's flights feel a bit 1980s retro, what with the check-in desks and all.
Garuda's desks can be found on the far side of the International Terminal, near the Virgin Australia end. There's a separate queue for Executive Class, and a friendly agent checked me in and sorted out my A$25 visa payment in no time at all.
Note that Garuda's Bali flight departs an hour or so before the Jakarta flight, and the Jakarta flight isn't open to accept luggage. So if you're coming to the airport early, you'll need to be hand luggage-only or be prepared to hang around until the flight opens.
You're also provided with Sydney Airport Express Path departure and arrival cards. Don't lose the arrival one for your return, because they're not always available in Jakarta.
Garuda uses the Qantas International Business Lounge in Sydney, which we reviewed a few months ago, and with which Australian business travellers are likely familiar.
The lounge was absolutely jam-packed when I arrived at around 0930, and it was hard to find a seat with a table, let alone one of the elusive power points. So this is not a flight for arriving early and working in the lounge.
For me, the main perk in the lounge is the barista coffee, which is very drinkable and can come in a paper cup to go if you want to grab some and run for your flight.
During the morning the lounge thinned out a little, but the Telstra wifi was absolutely glacial for the whole time, kept dropping out and was barely there when it did connect. I ended up turning wifi off on my phone and using 3G instead.
The flight was called from the lounge 30 minutes before departure, and I headed out for the short walk down to gate 30, just the other side of the duty free maze.
There were two lines for boarding at the gate, although no signage. I guessed -- correctly -- that the line with nobody in it was the business class one.
Shortly after boarding, a hot towel was presented with an amenity kit containing socks, eyeshades, toothbrush/toothpaste, a comb, and surprisingly upmarket L'Occitane lip balm.
The kit comes in a shiny polyester bag, which isn't especially reusable. Still, not bad for a day flight.
(In the lavatories, unscented and excellent L'Occitane moisturising lotion, plus aftershave and perfume sprays, are also provided.)
Takeoff -- and in fact the whole flight -- was very quiet indeed, even though my seat was right next to the engine. Modern A330s have a reputation for quiet cabins, and this was no exception.
The flight itself was a real visual treat from my window seat: hours of gazing out the window at puffy clouds over Australia while picking from the in-flight entertainment's music selection.
A very welcome -- and unique to Garuda -- service are the on-board immigrations inspectors, who come down the aisles with trolleys as if they're serving duty free. You pay the A$25 30-day visa fee at check-in and everything is sorted before you reach the airport.
So if you have no bags, you're rolling off the plane and into a cab without stopping. A good reason to pack carry-on only for the flight, especially since baggage claim in Jakarta airport is insanely chaotic.
Garuda offers a tiny office with a two-seater sofa for business class passengers to wait while staff pull Executive Class-tagged luggage off the belt. After a five-minute walk through the airport, it took 25 minutes for cases to come through. Definitely room for improvement on the baggage side.
On the plane, I noted a fresh, modern cabin, with sculpted overhead bins and window surrounds, widescreen LCD cabin monitors and comfortable-looking business class seats.
Garuda's new business class seat is very good indeed: a 180-degree fully flat bed (not a slanted angle-flat seat) that's fully adjustable from seat to bed.
Pitch -- the distance between your seat back and the one in front -- was a pleasing 74 inches, making for a comfortable sleep for just about everyone.
A decent table fit my 17" laptop comfortably, and there's both an overhead light and a separate dimmable reading light for night flights. A privacy panel slides forwards from the centre console, which is useful for claiming your elbow room on the shared armrest.
The seat controls are nearly infinitely adjustable, so you can lean back and put your feet up in exactly your favourite position for reading, eating, watching a movie or getting some work done.
Business class is split into two mini-cabins: rows 1-3 come before the small bar area and galley kitchen, with rows 4-6 following behind. That's a bonus because there are two sets of bulkhead rows, which give especially tall people a few extra inches of room.
The seats are laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration, with A & B on the left, D and G in the middle, then H and K on the right hand side.
Since I was sitting in the bulkhead seat at the front of the second cabin, the entertainment screens popped up from a console at arm's length rather than being fixed to the seatback in front.
That also meant an extra bit of separation between my feet and my seatmate's, which felt more private than non-bulkhead seats, but it did make for a slightly tricker clamber out from the window seat.
The only downside to the cabin was a used tissue in the seat-side pocket that had obviously been missed by the cleaning crew.
Juices, champagne (a good drop from Maurice Leger) or water were offered before takeoff.
The food service started with some slightly odd mini-canapés and a bowl of roasted nuts and pulses, plus a choice of drinks.
The wine list needs a fair bit of proofreading and is a little pedestrian in choice.
It contained two reds, two whites and the champagne. The advertised Riesling wasn't loaded, and was replaced by an unremarkable Australian Chardonnay to go with the French Chablis on the list.
(For those of you playing along with the wine game at home, that's two wines made from the Chardonnay grape included at once, meaning non-Chardonnay fans were a little underserved.)
Impressively, the red wine -- a choice of a French Minervois or Australian Cabernet Merlot -- wasn't refrigerated. As something of a wine fan, I give top marks to airlines that serve their red wine at room (well, technically cabin) temperature. Numerous airlines more renowned for their service than Garuda fail to do so -- and chilled red doesn't taste right.
The setting for the service was elegant, with a tablecloth and a tray-based service. The tasty starter plate of smoked salmon, chicken and capsicum was tasty, with the salad dressed in front of you with a choice of balsamic or creamy mayonnaise.
Also on the tray were a set of actual salt and pepper shakers -- no little packets here -- a full set of metal cutlery, and a pat of soft butter. (Again: top marks for butter that's not rock hard.)
The crew passed through twice with several choices of warm bread: white, brown, seeded, and garlic.
I was also impressed with the main course -- I chose the beef over fish or chicken -- which was cooked to about medium-well, and came with delicious sweet potato mash, carrots and crunchy green beans. The presentation could have been improved a little, though.
The cheese course was disappointing by contrast: a single package of shrinkwrapped supermarket Edam cheese with water crackers and dried apricots.
By that stage, I skipped the little dessert trolley -- a choice of cakes or an attractive fruit plate that my seatmate said was excellent.
Tea (Twinings) and coffee came with a Ferrero Rocher chocolate to finish the meal.
During the afternoon the crew offered a snack basket, and kept little bottles of water coming throughout the flight.
Instead of a teatime meal, the crew passed through ninety minutes before landing with delicious pots of Maggie Beer ice cream from the Barossa Valley. Top marks again for the food preparation here too: the ice cream was just the right temperature, neither rock hard nor melted.
After a bit of brunch in the lounge, a good lunch, and with a pre-4pm arrival in Jakarta, I think this was a good meal plan, better than my recent British Airways business class flight to Singapore, but not up to the standard of Emirates' A380 across the Tasman.
Entertainment & Service
I was really impressed with the in-flight entertainment system, which is controlled by a widescreen touch-sensitive monitor running one of the better systems I've encountered.
Dozens of new-release movies are the headline offering, with TV shows (including, for example, the excellent BBC Sherlock from last year), games and audio tracks also available. While the audio lacked a decent classical selection, I enjoyed exploring the world music and Indonesian selections.
It's not quite up to the world-leading Emirates or Cathay Pacific offerings, but there was more than enough to keep me diverted for the eight hour flight. Plus, with Australia outside the window for a good part of the flight, the view's pretty good if you want to sit down with headphones on and gaze out the window.
And if you prefer to BYO entertainment, there's the chance to plug a USB stick in to watch a movie, plus a full universal AC power point to keep your laptop charged.
In terms of in-flight service, Garuda's crew were attentive, cheerful and had their routines down pat, offering the option of tasting wine before pouring a full glass and passing through the cabin to check whether passengers needed anything.
I was really impressed by the new Garuda: a best-on-route fully flat bed, great service, new quiet planes, and a well thought-through meal.
There are still a few gaps to fill -- the clumsy English on the menu and especially the wine list; the wine selection itself; the cheese course; on-board cleaning; baggage in Jakarta; a useful frequent flyer program.
But overall, I'd have no hesitation in flying Garuda again.
Our reporter was a guest of the airline.