Let’s start with the bare facts: India’s flag carrier Air India doesn’t have a great reputation. Whenever I’ve asked people about their experience on the airline, they cite inexplicable delays, poorly maintained aircraft, a non-negligible risk of food poisoning, or rude staff. Or, sometimes, all of the above. As a friend of mine put it, “If my only choice for a flight was Air India, I would just skip the trip and stay at home.”
As an American of Indian descent, I’ve always been a bit disappointed that my ancestral homeland’s flag carrier apparently doesn’t seem to have its act together. As someone who has never flown with the “maharaja,” part of me also wondered whether the airline is actually better than the reputation suggests. I decided to find out for myself.
Although its home base is on the other side of the globe, Air India is increasingly relevant to travelers in the U.S. Its recent entry into the Star Alliance opened up possibilities for codeshares with United for passengers traveling to South Asia from the U.S. As an addition to existing service into New York and Chicago, the airline recently added a route direct from New Delhi to San Francisco. The 15-hour monster of a flight is the only direct route from the Bay Area to India. Given the growth of the Indian diaspora in North America, India’s economic rise, and a newly Dreamliner-heavy fleet that could sustain long and thin routes, it’s possible that Air India could launch more routes to the US in the coming years.
During a period of economy cabin travel across South and Southeast Asia, I finally got to compare the reality of the Air India experience with the airline’s infamous reputation.
I flew two itineraries on Air India: one from Chennai to Singapore, and one from Bangkok to Newark via Mumbai. Both Chennai to Singapore and Bangkok to Mumbai would be on Air India’s relatively new 787-8s, while the longer Mumbai-to-Newark leg would be on a 777-300ER.
AIR INDIA: The Ground Experience
Airport facilities in India used to be old, jumbled, and overcrowded without exception, but the past ten years have yielded some improvement. Many cities simply scrapped their old airports, which were penned in by urban sprawl, and built larger and more modern facilities in the outskirts. The new-and-improved Indian airports I’ve passed through recently (including Chennai, Hyderabad, and Mumbai) look nicer than many U.S. airports.
I had a pretty good ground experience with Air India. When leaving Bangkok, the check-in desk attendants offered buy-ups to business class for around $230. While I declined, I thought it was solid value for a four-hour international flight.
In the second part of my itinerary, when my inbound flight for my connection in Mumbai was late, I prepared myself for a solo sprint to my connecting gate. But as we pulled up to the jetway in Mumbai, a flight attendant got on the intercom and asked me to identify myself to the crew. Waiting at the boarding door was not one, but two ground staffers who accompanied me all the way to my Newark-bound flight, even ushering me through an expedited security line. It was more attention than I’ve ever received while flying in economy (though, of course, it was the airline’s own fault that my connection was so tight in the first place). But, I digress.
On the other leg, I got to try out Air India’s lounge in Chennai. The place was completely empty for most of the time I was there. The friendly, borderline over-eager lounge attendant took my boarding pass on entry and brought a bottle of water and a cup of chai to my seat. He kept prompting me to try out the buffet, sounding more like an overeager uncle than a professional airline staff member.
The buffet table display wasn’t showy, but there were plenty of options across both Indian and Western fare.
The main downsides were the bathrooms, which didn’t feel very premier, and the stubbornly slow WiFi.
Now that Air India is part of the Star Alliance, travelers with Gold status have access to partner lounges while flying international itineraries. With no Air India lounge to try in Bangkok, I tried one of the four Thai lounges at Suvarnabhumi Airport. It was great, and in most cases I’d imagine that Air India passengers with Star Alliance Gold status might opt for a partner lounge where one exists.
AIR INDIA: Flight Operations
Here’s where things start to get crazy.
Before confirming my bookings on Air India, I took a look at the on-time stats for the flight from Mumbai to Newark. They were bad. I’m talking jaw-droppingly bad. I almost balked at booking Air India at that point, but always a glutton for punishment, I ended up clicking “purchase” with my fingers crossed.
My first flight from Chennai to Singapore was surprisingly smooth. Boarding was a breeze, and the flight left and arrived perfectly on time. But the plane was only about one-quarter full, so it wasn’t much of a test.
My second itinerary was when things began to fall apart. My flight departing Bangkok was held at the gate for over an hour, apparently because they had to offload a bunch of lithium batteries from the cargo hold that were not supposed to be there for safety reasons.
After getting the rushed escort on my Mumbai connection because my inbound flight was late, my connecting flight was delayed for another hour just as we were about to push back.
Hour-long delays seem to be the rule rather than the exception with Air India.
AIR INDIA: The Fleet
To replace its increasingly decrepit 747s and other aging aircraft, Air India picked up a number of A321s and 787-8s. They also have some 777s for long-haul flights to Europe and the U.S. The 777s are in the comfy nine-abreast configuration with 18-inch seat width. Unfortunately, the Dreamliners were ordered in their more cramped configuration at 17” width per seat.
A younger fleet age doesn’t always translate to a fresher feel, and I was really disappointed with the upkeep of the planes I flew. The 777 cabin on the 15-hour Mumbai-to-Newark flight was in bad shape. A sharp piece of plastic from the bottom of the seat in front of me had come loose and was sticking out into my foot space. Someone had made a feeble attempt to zip-tie it into place, but the tie had slipped or broken so that it, too, was jabbing my feet. The seat itself was tall and wide, but the seat cushion was very thin and it felt like the seat structure underneath was uneven.
Even the relatively new 787s were showing some signs of wear, with rattling around on takeoff and landing that I would only really expect on planes that are decades older.
On the plus side, the inflight entertainment system had a good selection and a pretty large screen.
AIR INDIA: Inflight Service
Finally! Something that didn’t disappoint. I was reasonably happy with the food I was served on all three flights. The Indian-inspired dishes were flavorful without being too spicy, which is sometimes a hard balance to achieve.
On a side note, I always thought it was kind of cool, kind of crazy how Air India’s business class meal service involves a buffet-style cart with dishes presented in simple foil containers.
On my shorter 787 flights, the crew generously handed out double helpings of drinks. On the Mumbai-to-Newark flight, there was no drink service that I noticed other than water, with no explanation. It could have been a one-time stocking error, a weight limit factor, or the service may have come so long after the meal that I was already asleep.
The flight attendants that I interacted with were friendly towards me, though a few cases of misbehaving passengers tested their patience. I saw a guy get up and take his bags out of the overhead bin just right after touchdown – while we were still on the runway. A flight attendant who had been all smiles until then stood up and angrily shouted “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? SIT DOWN!”
… Safety first?
AIR INDIA: The Verdict
When I booked my first Air India flight I hoped to be pleasantly surprised, but prepared for the absolute worst. The reality was somewhere in between; a bit better than the cringe-worthy reputation, but still not that amazing.
As expected, Air India’s operations were frustratingly inconsistent and the quality of the aircraft was disappointing. On the plus side, the experience on the ground had more good points than bad, and the in-flight service and catering were pretty good.
I wouldn’t make a one-size-fits-all recommendation on whether to fly or avoid Air India. Instead, I’d personalize my take on the airline:
- If you are traveling on business or if you see timeliness as a make-or-break factor, you should probably steer clear.
- If you really need the extra seat width or pitch, I’d recommend the long-haul 777 flights. It seems like some of the inter-Asia routes don’t fly very full, so even though the 787 cabins are more cramped, you might have a good chance of getting a free middle seat next to you.
- For price-sensitive leisure travelers who can deal with an inconsistent experience and the likelihood of delays, I’d say that Air India is tolerable (though not ideal) if it’s an affordable option.
- Don’t forget that if you bank your miles on a Star Alliance airline, you can now rack up miles while flying Air India.
Of course, you can’t really evaluate an airline in a vacuum. One huge consideration is that the Middle Eastern airlines are an attractive option for getting between the Americas and South Asia. People I know routinely brag about flying Emirates, Qatar, or Etihad instead of Air India or the European carriers that previously were the only option.
I’m glad I was able to try Air India for this report. Does the airline have potential? Definitely yes. Will I be clamoring to fly it for my next trip? Probably not.
Do you have experience with Air India? Continue the conversation in the comments section below.