Is the wind of change sweeping Air India, which had been recently taken over by the Tata group? To know the pulse, I travelled by air from Kochi to Chicago and back. The purpose of the long-haul flight was also to learn about whether the airline, which the Keralites have been banking on for their travel needs for long, had waved ‘tata’ to its foibles.
Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates fly high
Though I have travelled to the US in economy and other classes, this is the first time I am using the services of Air India. This time around, I am flying in economy class, which was made popular by Shashi Tharoor through his ‘cattle class’ usage. Usually, I depend on leading airlines of the Gulf region such as Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates. Of the three airlines, Qatar Airways and Emirates score high when it comes to comfort in travelling. Though Etihad Airways has the facility to take the time-consuming immigration clearance in Abu Dhabi while travelling to the US, the other two airlines are miles ahead in terms of service and quality of flight fleet. Close to 80 percent of Keralites depend on these three airlines while travelling to Europe and the US. Kochi is a mini hub of the three airlines that operate two wide-body aircraft flight services daily from there.
Then why Air India
The billion dollar question is why Air India if there are other air carriers offering superlative services. The common thinking is that Air India might be starting to look up as it had been many months since the airline had been taken over by the Tata group. Though there isn’t much difference in airfare, you could get a cheap air ticket if you could grab the right opportunity. If you could get a cuisine that suits your palate and cabin crew that gel with you, you can’t ask for more, isn’t it?
Growth of Air India and Kerala connection
Air India had airplane service at a time when the ancestors of the owners of the present ‘Gulf’ airlines probably didn’t even have a car. When Air India hit the skies as Tata Airlines in 1932, it had the task of carrying mail from Karachi to Bombay (now Mumbai). Later, a six-seater aircraft, which was the first passenger flight, flew from Bombay to Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). Though later there were flights to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Delhi, Air India was always dear to Kerala.
The airline became a public limited company in 1946 and post-independence, the government had a stake in the airline in 1948. It was nationalized in 1953. Air India was the last word in opulence between 1940s and 1980s. Air India had a royal stature as its mascot was ‘Maharajah’.
Once, Air India was the most luxurious airline in the world. Royalty was stamped all over the airline with the Maharajah logo, which was designed after independence, the traditional bright-coloured sarees of air hostesses, the red windows that are reminiscent of the palaces and exquisite art work inside the aircraft.
All responsible for the turbulence
When new airlines emerged on the horizon, Air India worked like a typical government organization and conceded defeat without a fight. The indifference of employees and mismanagement of managers pushed the airline into an air pocket of mounting losses. Finally, Air India came under the wings of the Tata group, which is a salt-to-software conglomerate, in January 2022. No one should expect any miracles as it will take time to usher in changes. This Air India travel too reminded me of the same thing. I am documenting 10 good and bad practices that I noticed during my round trip between Kochi and Chicago from October 22 to October 30.
1. Got air ticket at a discounted rate
Air India’s app and website have improved tremendously and I had reserved the ticket through the app, which is indeed a user-friendly one. Though the air fare was listed as Rs one lakh, I got the ticket for Rs 79,000 under the web special economy offer rate. While taking this ticket you have to be careful as refund is miniscule in case of a cancellation. The ticket fare was cheaper than the prevailing rates of the Arab carriers by Rs 20,000. It may be noted that ticket fare in Qatar Airways’ luxurious Airbus 350 in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, was just Rs 64,000.
2. Not a great experience
Though you are travelling to the US, which is an epitome of great comfort and elegance, the Air India flight can be a dampener. Two main reasons are the journey starting from the Kochi domestic airport and the rather bitter experience at the Delhi airport. You definitely can’t draw parallels between flying to Dubai in an Emirates flight from the Kochi International airport and travelling to Delhi from Kochi in a domestic flight. That means there is a difference between the domestic and international terminals in Kochi. It is worth noting that the services provided by the international lounge and the domestic lounge are quite different. The domestic lounge doesn’t serve food and liquor for free. Moreover, the innate feeling that you are entering a foreign country while steeping into an international flight is sorely missed and also the grandiose Dubai airport with its out-of-the-world facilities and ‘Marhaba’ lounges.
3. High time for a revamp
Though there are flights leaving Kochi at 8.30am and 9am, I booked ticket for the first flight. I thought of leaving early, though both the services had connection flights. The journey to Chicago is comparatively pretty comfortable. Though the immigration facilities are in Delhi, you can directly check in the luggage. Don’t ever think that you can enter the aircraft through the aerobridge after security check. You will have to walk a lot, which can be exhausting, to enter the bus that will take you to the aircraft. Later, after climbing a flight of steep stairs you will reach your designated seat onboard puffing and panting. No wonder there are more wheelchairs than passengers in Air India flights!
The relatively new Dreamliner plane had adequate leg room space and pushback seats. The touch display screen was pretty big but there were no headphones. But the list of films that could be watched was not appealing at all. Two unknown Malayalam films and movies of other languages, which were also not popular, completed the list. But the collection of Malayalam films in air carriers of the Gulf region is very good, to say the least. The only way to kill time in the three-hour journey to Delhi, was to look at the map on the display and know the direction of the flight. The quality of food served was average. AI 834 took off from Kochi right on time and reached the destination before time.
4. The ‘Delhi marathon’
Delhi airport has an aerobridge. After disembarking at Terminal 3, you have to go to a remote corner of the same terminal to reach the international departure gate. The net effect is a one-hour morning walk. Ask directions to the gate concerned to make sure that you don’t lose your way. After security check and immigration clearance, I thought of taking a quick bite at the lounge but it was crowded. I shelved the idea of having food and thought of the royal services provided by the ‘Marhaba’ lounge at Dubai airport and started to board the aircraft. Most of the passengers were North Indians. I was quite depressed when I found out that AI 127 was an old plane.
5. Not so exciting journey of 16 hours
Years ago, one could get hot and cold towels along with candies while boarding a domestic flight. But now I didn’t get any such hospitality. Even for a long-haul flight, Air India didn’t provide toilet kits or blankets and the cabin crew had an indifferent attitude towards passengers.
AI 127 is part of the new generation Boeing 777-300 ER aeroplanes but the aircraft looked old. The 787 aircraft that flew from Kochi to Delhi was much better. The entertainment systems were outdated and some of them were not working. The cinema collection was below par and I got a disposable headphone.
The seats had enough leg room with pushback facility. But the overhead light couldn’t be controlled as the light was falling on some other spot forcing me to put off the idea of reading a book. Thankfully charging portals were there but if you have a ‘C’ type charger then you will be in a fix. After serving water just after the flight took off at 2am, the cabin crew came to the picture only at 8am. Breakfast and lunch were served at appropriate time and the food was good. Liquor was also served for those who needed it.
Though the duration of flight was 15hrs and 40 minutes, the plane landed 30 minutes early at 7am in Chicago.
6. Return journey: Nothing to write home about
AI 126 takes off from Chicago at 12 noon (Chicago time) and will reach New Delhi at 1.10am after a 14.35-hour flight. The return journey was also in a Boeing 777-300 aircraft. My seat 43 C had ample leg space and I could stretch my legs. The food was not exceptional and the onboard entertainment was not in any way up to the mark. It is high time for Air India to spruce up it bouquet of services and I remember reading a news saying that the air carrier was gearing up to buy new aircraft and introduce remarkable service to the passengers. Hope everything will be fine.
When some passengers onboard asked for whiskey, the cabin crew told them that the stock was exhausted. The crew offered beer and wine instead. These kinds of issues should be sorted out without any delay.
7. The same old story
The flight landed at Delhi at 12.10am, an hour before the scheduled time. It was a smooth landing as the Air India pilots are experts but sadly there was no ‘feel-good’ announcement from the captain. The pilots of modern airlines interact with passengers over audio system and make them feel at home. After coming out of the plane, another long and tiring walk awaited me. After walking such a long distance to reach the immigration counter, you can sweat even in an air-conditioned room. The walking doesn’t stop at the immigration as you have walk further to the luggage carousel. Most of the passengers from the US will have at least two bags and the baggage has to be taken to the customs and later to the scanning area. Fortunately, an officer came up to me and asked from where I was coming. When I said that I was travelling from the US, he said that there was no need to scan my luggage. That was a big relief to me as I didn’t had to walk and push the luggage trolley to the scanning area.
I had to wait for 90 minutes to clear security check for my onward journey from Delhi to Kochi. The officers were rude and even opened sealed duty-free shop bags. After this ordeal, I had to walk again to reach the departure gate. It was very trying, to say the least.
The Airbus 320 aircraft to Kochi was brand new and landed at Nedumbassery airport 15 minutes early. Indeed something to cheer about.
8. The port of entry hurdle
More than the shortcomings onboard, what worries passengers are the procedures one has to go through in New Delhi. Is there any alternative to the rule that the immigration and security clearance should be done at the port of entry itself? If the security and immigration clearance for travel to the US, which is considered as the last word in security, can be carried out in Abu Dhabi for other airlines, why can’t the those procedures be done in Kochi instead of Delhi?
9. Badly needs a change
The crew members mostly are youngsters who behave in an impeccable manner. But the cabin crew of Air India is a tad lethargic. During the New Delhi-Chicago flight, the crew didn’t care to check if anyone wanted water in the first six hours of the journey. Even if you ask for something, they ‘enjoy’ in delaying. Unfortunately, the crew members are more into sitting in a huddle and indulging in loose talk.
Even the railways provide toilet kits and blankets to passengers travelling during night time. Air India should at least provide these facilities to fliers on international routes. The airline should also learn to stock enough liquor and beverages for its passengers. It is sad that an air carrier that had been in business for the past 80 years doesn’t have the expertise to gauge the amount of beverages needed for a particular flight.
10. Now something good
There is a project aiming at developing Air India under the ownership of the Tata group and it will take some time to mend the ways of a white elephant like Air India. The Tata group has definitely ringed in changes that are quite evident. The credible changes include punctuality, robust booking, efforts to carry maximum passengers, new aircraft and revamping old planes. Without of an iota of doubt, the Maharaja is slowly and surely on the path of glory.