India’s Flagship airline Air India has been in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons. A few days ago, an Indian movie star even tweeted about his great experience abroad the Maharaja. This reminded me of my flight with them sometime ago on their Dreamliner Business Class, one of their flagship products. Read my experience and see if their flight is still the Maharaja of the air.
India’s Flagship airline Air India has been in the news recently, for their upcoming Ahmedabad – London Heathrow – Newark flight, starting 15 August 2016 on their coveted Dreamliner Boeing 787’s. Flying a fifth freedom flight on one of the world’s most competitive routes, is a great way to be in the news for sure. So I thought this would be a good time to post my review of the business class product on Air India's Dreamliner.
AI's uses their Dreamliners on their most long haul routes like DEL-MEL-SYD, DEL-SIN, DEL-EWR and also on some domestic routes, which are more of a positioning flight. And a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fly DEL-DXB on AI Dreamliner Business Class, which is the subject of this post.
Air India offers a flat US$122 upgrade on its flight from UAE to India, pretty much all year round. On the day I was flying, business class on the DXB-DEL was quite open, and so I decided to upgrade, to experience their hospitality upfront this time.
At Dubai airport, AI uses Terminal 1 for their departures. The check-in and other services are managed by a third party provider (Dnata). AI uses one business class counter for all its flights and multiple counters for economy flights. Despite so many counters, the check in area was very crowded. I approached the business class check in counter and there was just one family ahead of me. The check in agent was polite and efficient.
At the check in counter, I enquired if business class seat is available for DXB-DEL and if I could upgrade. The check in staff directed me to the AI Manager on the floor.
The process works something like this: Walk up to the AI Manager, and tell them you are looking to do a paid upgrade. They then check the system, confirm availability and provide a handwritten note to take to a Dnata service centre in another part of the terminal, and make the payment. Overall not a great way to start a business upgrade. [Side note: The Dnata service centre charges a flat $27 as service charge. That just increased my upgrade charge by 22%. I was already starting to feel that I was getting a bad deal. Overall the process was unnecessarily lengthy.]
After taking the payment receipt back to the check in counter, I was promptly given a business class seat 1A and a lounge access card. There was no express card for security and customs for business class passengers. However, I had an egate (for UAE residents) so I breezed through customs and was in the main terminal soon enough.
AI uses the Marhaba Lounge in Dubai, which is used by atleast 24 others airlines, apart from the access allowed through credit cards, so it’s always crowded. When I visited, I counted 120 people in the lounge.
The Marhaba Lounge on concourse C (there are multiple Marahaba Lounges in the airport) are small for the number of airlines they serve, but the offering isn’t bad. However, seating availability is always a problem, more so during peak hours.
The food was fresh, the staff is always quite actively working to keep the buffet well stocked and the liquor offering isn’t bad either. The lounge is airside, so there is a view of the many aircraft coming and going.
When the time came, I was one of the first passengers to board. I was in seat 1A.
Air India uses an Orange and Cream color scheme for its aircraft, which is very soothing. The seats are complete 180 degree lie flat, which is great. But overall the seats are not very wide or long. I am 5’6”, so I could stretch easily on the seats. But I can’t imagine someone who is 6’ or bigger, having an easy time on these seats.
There is absolutely no storage space anywhere near the seat, except for a tiny bottle holder next to the IFE Controls. The side storage space that held the controls, also had a charging point, and a USB charging point, in case you wanted to charge your phone directly.
To top it, the flight crew warned me against keeping anything in that tiny area – apparently things fall off and get stuck in between the seats and are very hard to retrieve. The only storage was in the small alcove below the footrest. Primarily for your shoes and may be a small bag, if you don’t need it during the flight. Not at all convenient.
That is pretty much the length and breadth of storage space. While on the short haul flights, this is not an issues, but this might be an issue on long haul flights like DEL-LHR or LHR-JFK or DEL-SYD.
The privacy divider was basically the hand rest. So if you used the divider, you won’t have a hand rest. And the divider isn’t very effective. Also, when you are not using the divider, the hand rest is very narrow. You are practically in contact with the next passenger.
Seat controls had options to move your head rest, the leg rest and the back support. There was even a massage option, but I did not try it. There were buttons for M+ and MR and I have no idea what they meant. I was too tired to try them out either. The options were not very intuitive. There was a reading light on the seat.
Next came the amenity kit. Wait...what amenity kit? There was no mention of any amenity kit on the flight. The passengers were given socks and eye shades in a paper envelope. The eye shades are worse than how they look.
To say that the service was overall disappointing, will be understating it. To begin with, there was no menu, and no welcome drink.
Soon after we were airborne, the staff came around to ask for dinner choices. Absent a menu, the passengers were verbally asked if they want the vegetarian or the chicken biryani. The staff obviously did not receive the memo about smiling and being warm to the customers in general.
The drinks were served in a hurry with peanuts in a packet.
The whole thing was barely a notch above my experience in economy. Cabin crew couldn’t be bothered to as much as reply to thank you. Nothing told you that you were in Business Class, other than the wider than economy seats.
As I mentioned earlier, I am big fan or Air India food. The presentation of the food wasn't bad at all.
While this wasn't bad in terms of quantity and presentation, I was thinking back to my recent flight on Etihad, when I flew business class on BLR-AUH route. The food quantity was significantly more, the presentation immaculate, the biryani was served separate from the gravy. Even for a short route like BLR-AUH, EY had a business class presentation to go with it's business class offering. The crew on the Etihad flight even came out and asked me if they could change my wine offering, as the one I was drinking currently wouldn’t go very well with my food. Compare that against - no smile no thank you situation on Air India.
This being a relatively short flight of 3h10m, service was completed rather quickly, and descent was announced. In a few minutes, we were on the ground, and after a rather long taxi roll, reached our gate.
My baggage wasn’t tagged priority for some reason. Honestly I forget to ask also, but then I shouldn’t have to. At DEL, my baggage took forever to arrive. I understand it being a huge airport, but then again, typically several passengers on DXB-DEL segment have a connection to make.
The staff on the ground had the “couldn’t-care-less” attitude towards passengers asking about their luggage. If you miss your flight, you will be accommodated on the next one as a favour, so you have no reason to complain or be impatient about your luggage (as per AI staff). Obviously value of time is not a concept they understand. When you reach the connection counter, if you are late, the staff sometimes give you an earful about not being on time and missing your flight. I wish I were making this up, but trust me, I am not.
Other than the sleep that the flatbed affords, there is nothing commendable in the business class product and I wouldn’t be willing to pay a premium for this product, even if it is just $122 (about Rs 8,000), which is far lower than the fare difference between economy and business class paid fares.
What's your take ? Would you pay a premium for AI's business class product ?