New Delhi, Sep. 25; ‘Are you sure you want me to book you on a return ticket on Air India?’ Anurag, my ever-so-helpful and slightly-alarmed travel agent asked. I said yes. ‘It’s not all as bad as you make it out to be.’ I’d been on Air India flights before, that too economy, how bad could business class be? It is our national carrier, they fly 777s and 787s – business class promises fully flat seats where you could expect to be relatively comfortable and even get in a night’s sleep.
My tech editor who does take an international flight 3-4 times every year probed me on my need to take that 16- hour direct flight from San Francisco to New Delhi. ‘Layovers aren’t for me’ I said. Nash pensively said, ‘Change your tickets to Etihad if possible, Emirates is also good. I’ve flown United a few times.’ On hindsight, I should have heeded that warning. But hindsight is 20-20, normal vision, sharp thought it may be, is 6-6. But more on that in a bit.
My outbound from Delhi to San Francisco via Hong Kong went swimmingly well. Cathay Pacific on their 777-300 ERs has a herringbone configuration in the business class with a lie-flat bed with just 4 passengers in each row. And right from the welcome drink to the warm towel before we got off, I felt as if paying all that bit extra had really made a difference to the quality of flight and service. Adding to the experience was the wonderful lounge in Hong Kong that offered splendid views of the airstrip. I landed in San Francisco all chuffed at my decision to pay for the return leg. That too was a 777, albeit a 200LR but how bad could it be. All the horror stories were far from my mind as I went about business.
Clearly Anurag, Nash and everyone knew what they were talking about and I got a sense of that at the San Francisco airport. I’d reached way too early and the counters hadn’t yet opened. But with four hours to go when they should have ideally been open, people were still dithering and setting up. That 20-minute wait was a harbinger of more ill-fortune that awaited but not immediately. Air India passengers have access to United’s Polaris Lounge in San Francisco, thanks to the One Alliance, and this new lounge is pretty nifty. So that’s bullet one dodged.
The nightmare was evident as soon as I boarded. Gone were the nice little enclaves that I had in the Cathay Pacific’s business class. This was a 777 but one that came out of a museum (or at least that’s what it felt like). The seats were not at an angle but forward- facing as in economy- the only solace was that they were wider, looked fancied and instead of nine in the economy class, I had seven to a row in a 2-3-2 configuration. I was fine with it but then it started to go all down south.
There was no welcome drink, no hot or cold towel or anything one expects after paying top dollar for services. There wasn’t even a courtesy announcement from the flight deck. They did bring out small vanity kits later and rolled out pajamas on a cart – but I didn’t see anyone accepting the PJs. (Perhaps they should drop that and offer a welcome drink instead).
Not entirely sure of whether we’d have a breakfast service or a full- meal service, I pushed back my seats and decided to catch 40- winks as soon as the plane took off. 4 hours later, despite my better efforts, Eight Alpha refused to budge. It had reclined and showed no signs of wanting to move. Gallant efforts of my cabin stewards notwithstanding, I forlornly agreed to be seated on 9K – swapping my window for an aisle. The seat-belt sign had come on and security mandated I cooperated. As it later turned out, 9K wasn’t very good at reclining – So as the trip went, I had two seats, one for sleeping and the other for seating. The sitting seat’s entertainment system didn’t work – as the crew explained, since everyone was watching, the system was ‘slow’. I would have said it’s broken – but then whatever!
Besides these mechanical glitches, of course, this is the one business class that doesn’t give out menus, doesn’t provide a selection from entree to desserts and is unable to serve two hot meals on a 16-hour flight. The cold breakfast looked and tasted poor and the lunch – the lesser said the better. I’ve seen meals on domestic flights look better. Let’s say budget carriers have fed me better.And yes, they could not put my food down since a bit fell out of the table – and it started careening precariously.
The cabin crew lead by Mr. Rana Mukherji was most apologetic. He insisted I eat, I refused to move a third time and that was that. He got my fish out of a foil packet and put it on a plate — so I somehow managed to eat it without spilling it all on myself.
‘What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger’ – one of the things that look good as an inspirational quote on a coffee cup or a tweet that’s hashtagged #MondayMotivation. As I land in Delhi, I’m alive and well. A tad tired for having jumped between 8A and 9K – bemused that I survived one seat – 8A- for sleeping and another for sitting- 9K. That’s how perhaps life is – you either get to sleep or sit. Uh oh! It hasn’t killed me but made me ‘philosophical ‘ and this that’s no better. The one phrase to summarise my Air India experience- Chalta Hai attitude.
I hear this on Delhi streets very often: ‘thoda adjust kar lijiye’ a euphemism for making do with the sub-par and not expecting quality standards. Till today I’ve always felt that Air India is the country’s ambassador in the sky. There was a time when the airline was so famed for its service that when other countries set up theirs, Air India was the airline they’d turn to for training their crew or indeed setting quality benchmarks.
After today I’m not so sure we should run this airline on public money anymore. It is a double whammy. Run by taxpayers money it is giving Indian hospitality a poor name.
Service cannot be about ‘please adjust’ – and for Air India’s management and maintenance, it’s certainly not ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’. Besides if they can’t fix something as basic as seats, what of other mechanical issues? I’m not entirely sure I want to fly in that plane because seats are the least of my worries on a 16-hr flight. Up there this isn’t a proverbial ‘jumbo jet’, it’s a jumbo circus run by a company that’s funded by the government of India.