Recently I had the opportunity to take Air India’s (AI) non-stop San Francisco to New Delhi flight (AI-173, AI-174). I was little prejudiced against AI and it wasn’t my first choice. Still I took it, as it was a last minute trip and I didn’t have many options left. Here is my unprejudiced review for the same.
AI website is not the best airline website out there. There is still a lot of scope of improvement, but it gets the work done. I eventually made the booking through Expedia as cheaper tickets for the AI flight were available there. Confirmation email was received within minutes. I later headed to AI website and selected seats and meal options. I wasn’t able to provide my frequent flyer number (United Mileage Program). Their mobile app sucks big time, and you are better off using the browser version. Overall experience 3/5.
There was no option to check-in online. So one has to stand in queue at the airport to get the boarding passes. It is better to keep some buffer time, as the lines at check-in counters at SFO can get pretty long. I was carrying just one 26kg bag and the agent didn’t bother about it. However, they were enforcing the 23 kg per bag and 7 kg per hand bag rules for others. I was lucky as I had just 1 bag instead of 2. The agent also updated my United mileage number in the reservation, and the miles showed up within 2-3 days. Overall experience 4/5.
Boarding at SFO was smooth, and the airline was successful in boarding passengers according to seat numbers. Passengers respected the same and waited for families with kids and passengers with special needs to board first. However boarding at Delhi was chaotic. No one respected what the agent was announcing, and soon the agent gave up. There were multiple queues merging into one. Total chaos. Most people seemed to be honoring the allowed hand baggage limit, and so everyone settled down pretty quickly. Overall experience 3/5.
In Flight Meals
Although one can provide their meal choices when making the reservation, it didn’t matter as they had ample veg packages. There were no kids meal served and I am not sure if they had any vegan or gluten free options (or may be no one opted for that). 2 meals were served while going to Delhi, while 3 were served on the way back. The crew kept few sandwich, water, juice and cold drink bottles in the common areas, where one could go and help oneself. The food was average+. Also, there was no alcohol served – I didn’t ask so not sure if they would have served on request. Knowing that most of the passengers would be India, I expected them to serve more tea and coffee in b/w, but that was not the case. Once the main meal was done, nothing was served.Overall experience 2/5.
In Flight Entertainment
Although there were lot of Hindi movie choices, there weren’t many regional films. The Hollywood collection also looked pretty week. In addition their catalog is valid for 2 months so there is a good chance that you will have the same movies during your return journey. Lastly, the entertainment software was couple of generations old, and not very receptive to finger touches. Overall experience 2/5.
A lot needs to be desired here. They were smiling but were firm. There were lot of older generation passengers and as expected, some of them had very naive questions. I would expect the crew to be more understanding and patient, but it wasn’t the case. I could sense sarcasm, unfriendliness and impatience in their responses. The AI management needs to train their crew on how to handle such passengers, who may be traveling internationally for the first time. Overall experience 1/5.
Air India flights are good place to earn Karma points. One should be open to swap seats (so that families can sit together), put or take down baggage from overhead bins (so that senior folks don’t have to lift then), complete immigration forms for others (so that folks who are traveling to US for the first time are helped) and explain in-flight entertainment system (so that non-tech savvy passengers can watch something). Some passengers would revert back and say Thanks and/or smile; others will just move on as if it was your duty to help them. Overall experience 4/5.
I boarded the flights remembering the horrifying news articles about blocked toilets and overflowing pots. Well, it wasn’t so. Yes, there were passengers who didn’t flush after them or lavatories where paper wasn’t restocked, but nothing as horrifying as what I read in the paper. Overall experience 3/5.
I knew exactly what to expect here. As soon as the plane would reach the destination airport gate, folks would stand up, open the overhead bins and rush to the door. No surprises there and it holds true whenever there are Indians on board. I may sound as prejudicial here, but I am yet to witness a different Indian passenger crowd. Still things moved along smoothly. Overall experience 3/5.
The Baggage Claim
Usual stuff. No lost baggage and it was there on the conveyor belt within my expected time. Overall experience 4/5.
In the end, AI would still not be first choice of travel when traveling with my toddler son. There are lot of things that go in this flights favor – comparatively cheap tickets, direct flight and short duration of 16-17 hours; but there are others that go against it – average customer experience, bad in-flight entertainment selection, and limited days when one could fly.
If you want to reach from point A to point B by spending least money and in shortest time, this is the best flight out there. However, if you like to have a nice+ experience, then there are other options available like Etihad. Etihad airlines has an added advantage that immigration is done in Abu Dhabi and so it saves you long immigration queues at US airports.
It is time Air India pulls up their socks and tries to match the facilities provided by other major airlines. They still need to do a lot especially with adapting new technology and training personnel. Overall experience 2/5.
Image Credit : http://www.holidaymood.com/images/airlines/air-india.png