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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Air-India: The Maharajah experience?

As a frequent traveler, I’ve flown several airlines to several places. However, the one airline I’ve categorically avoided in the past is India’s own Air-India (AI) for international travel. I guess it’s because pretty much all my life,

I've only heard bad things about its service, quality of airlines etc from my parents , their friends and friends of friends. But this was 15 years ago. Times change. However, I was still not willing to try AI due to its (in)glorious past track record that was handed down to me by word of mouth and from generation to generation.

A week ago, I had to travel to India for work. This was January 2010 and the fog conditions in Delhi were particularly bad. As I sit in my hotel in India and look out of the window and write this article, the fog is really bad – hardly any visibility. With this much of fog,  most flights that arrive in Delhi late at night get rerouted to other cities and make it into Delhi only during daytime the next day. My colleagues who arrived in India earlier warned me of the condition, so I looked around for flights that landed in the day in delhi. Pretty soon I realized there was only one option for me to try: Air India. Drat. All the other flights like Lufthansa, United etc all arrived late at night and the only other daytime options were ridiculously expensive. I had read that Air-India had recently re-done its entire international fleets and there were new planes and newly re-designed business class and first class seats which according to their marketing was “comparable to other international flights”. Furthermore, the fact that it flew directly from IAD to Delhi with a short stop at JFK was a very attractive option for me, so I decided to take the plunge and try out this carrier for the first time in my life. What follows next is my experience.

How was it in summary?

Lots of my friends asked me how the experience was. As briefly as I could, I answered, much to their amusement “If you are of Indian origin, or understand the Indian sense of humor,  it is probably one of the better business class flights you can take. If you have no idea of the Indian way of life, you’re better off trying something else”.

If I were to summarize it: "Air-India is consistently inconsistent". When its good, its great. Depending on the day you travel, you may face a completely different experience,  as was experienced by my other colleagues who also traveled this airline.

Let me put it another way.  Hospitality in the western world is often effective , clinical and cold. Hospitality in much of South Asia, including India is a cocktail of blunder and effectiveness mixed with an immense amount of warmth and good intent. The latter is how I’d describe my AI experience. When I got off the flight, there was a smile on my face and I promised myself to fly Air India much more often.

The check-in

My first encounter with the “AI way” was at the checkin. I was greeted by a motherly lady from Bangladesh.  She surmised from my passport that I was a Bengali (which I am) and immediately switched to speaking with me in Bengali. While her dialect was different, having spent 28 years of my life in India, I could easily pick up her dialect and have a two way conversation. We talked about our fathers, grand-fathers and their fathers as she quickly scanned through my passport and itinerary. I was dressed rather boyishly – loose jeans, a shoulder pack and a light rust jacket and sported a late evening stubble. She quickly told me to go stand in the last line as the queue there was shorter. However, I opted to stand instead in the shorter business line. Noticing that she quietly whispered in my ear “Sir, that is only for business passengers”. I smiled and said I was one too.  She immediately turned crimson red and profusely apologized. “I am so sorry sir, I did not see your ticket class”. I chuckled in my mind, I guess she never expected that a guy dressed like I was would be traveling business.  This is a very typical Indian assumption and a classic example of where you would be offended if you did not know the average Indian mindset. But what followed next was this lady going out of her way to correct her blunder – she ushered me through, making sure I was immediately checked in. She picked up the tags and placed them on my carryon bag all with motherly advice of flying safe, hearty and healthy capped off with her waving her hand to me as a I walked to security like a concerned mother seeing her son walk off. I smiled a genuine smile, even though I had earlier not made it to her cut of who can travel business.

The Lounge

AI, along with some other airlines rent the Virgin Atlantic lounge in IAD. When I walked into the lounge, I noticed a Korean hostess and an Indian hostess. The Korean was there just to look after the Korean air passengers and the Indian was there to look after us.  It was funny – there were only 2 passengers in the lounge. Us (me and a colleague) and one more Korean couple.  As I walked up to the food bar looking for something interesting, a gentleman with an English accent asked me if he could help. I courteously said I’d help myself and started ruffling through some pieces of cheese and biscuits figuring out what I wanted. But he persisted. “Sir, would you like some samosas?”.  Obviously that piqued my interest, but I did not see any. He explained that this lounge was new, and they wanted to ensure that they have good cuisine that satisfies all their travelers.  In two minutes they had some hot samosas ready for me. As he handed it to me he said “The next time you come, you will also get Parathas. Have a wonderful flight, Sir”. I smiled again. After a while we were informed that checkin has begun so we went to the gate. However, it seems due to the failed Christmas bombing episode, TSA now double checks all flights before they take off. Apparently AI did not know this and started boarding their passengers. With half their passengers boarded, TSA intervened and started checking the flight with the other half waiting at the gate. It took us 40 minutes more to board. I don’t know whose fault it was, AI for not knowing the procedure or TSA for not communicating clearly. I suspect it was a mix of both.

The Journey, part I: From IAD to NYC: Warm Greetings is all you get

I was pretty impressed with the innards. The business class was completely new. The first leg was from IAD to NYC –a  short 50 minute flight.  As I walked in a cheerful fellow by the name of Mr. Bhutia strode up to my seat and welcomed me with a big warm smile “Welcome Mr. Roychowdhury. Bhaalo Aachen? (Are you well?)”. He too surmised from my title that I am a Bengali and must speak Bengali. He did this for every passenger. It was a nice touch (this personal greeting is a hit or miss in other carriers, and I am rather tired of them not being able to pronounce my surname, when they do remember to greet their passengers). As I sat down, they offered me a hot towel. As the flight pushed back, I scanned their entertainment system waiting to have my first glass of wine. But there was none. There was no snack,  and no water as well.  I think they assume that this 50 minutes is a free ride, compared to the 18 hour flight that we will go through from NYC. No headsets either. Yes, hospitality blunder. As it turns out, you need to ask for water or a drink and they serve with a smile. I sighed and looked out of the window. Before I knew it, we were in JFK. As  I walked out, Mr Bhutia was there again strking up a conversation. As I left, he jocularly asked me if I could "speak to President Obama" about the new security regulations and see if I could help in getting things move along faster. Of course, since I have breakfast with the President every morning, I said "I'll see what I can do" and moved on.

The Air India JFK lounge:  Personalization

Air India has its own dedicated lounge in JFK. All passengers had to deplane. I noticed passengers had only two options – the lounge for those who had that option or a small deli by the side for the rest. As we walked into the lounge, we were greeted by a Guyanese lady. I sat in the lounge for a few minutes looking around. To my left was an old British gentleman with tired eyes. In front of me was an aged Indian gentleman with the legendary briefcase which he would keep opening and closing every 5 minutes (The earlier generation Indian corporate man always carried his briefcase and the briefcase was his life). As I looked around, a “Maharajah” walked in with two attendants carrying his bags for him (they were small little bags he could have well carried himself). They sat him in the lounge and went away. Later on, this was the only gentleman in first-class in the flight. My mind went back to the Indian upper-class and how they expected to be treated. Large wallets followed large egos.

We looked around for food and noticed a small oven with two plates of rice in them. Not good enough. As we walked out of the lounge, the lady asked us “Don’t you like Chicken and Shrimp?”.  “But where are they?” we asked.  “Oh!” she got up with a smile, “Please go into the kitchen - it is kept separately. With so many vegetarians, we have to keep them separate, you know”. I almost burst out laughing. It’s true.  Many of the vegetarians in India are very strict. They will not pick up food if it sat next to non vegetarian dishes. I was immediately transported back to several years ago during my brother's marriage, where we had to keep a separate room away from the main dining room to feed my sister in law's family who were strict vegetarians. I knew exactly what she meant and the Indian-ness of this arrangement in an international setting  really amused me.  Even so, we decided to eat in the deli. As I reached the deli, I looked around for hot sandwiches. I am not a cold sandwich guy. There you had it – a hotplate with tags reading “Pepperoni”, “Ham” and “Chicken” but as I closed in to pick up a pepperoni sandwich, I saw there was only one option – a silver foil wrapped “Veggie Combo”. As I picked up the sandwich and proceeded to eat, I realized it was not really intended to be a “Veggie Combo”. I am pretty sure the ingredients were intended to be of a non-vegetarian meal but without the meats. It was layered with cheese and two mushrooms. The sandwich begged for some meats in them. Obviously, the deli lady had it figured out – around that time AI would land and most people would want vegetarian, so make the same sandwich you make just don’t put in the meats.

Back to the lounge, and the ever helping Guyanese lady was at her best. While there were clear “self serve” labels all around, she made it her mission to talk to everyone and help them. As I walked to the coffee machine she asked “What can I make you?”.  I decided to test her. I said “Can you make me Indian tea?”. She smiled and said “Of course. I know exactly how to use these machines to make the tea you will love. And only I know how to do it. No one else can”. She proceeded to pickup up some “Chai” tea bags and started the tea machine, deftly stopping it half way through, inserting another tea bag and squeezing out the perfect cup of tea for me. “How is it?” she asked. “Fantastic” I replied. I smiled again. Personalization is what service is all about. Even if the tea was bad, I’d say I loved it, because of the effort she put in. And the tea was great.

Later, I walked upto her and asked her why she was serving everyone when the signs clearly said “self serve”. Her answer was simple “Well, if I were about to go for a long flight, I’d like to be treated well. And if I expect that for myself, why shouldn’t I give that to others?”. I was touched. I smiled again, waved her good bye and boarded my flight

The long-haul flight: Chak De

We boarded the same flight from NYC. As I settled into my seat, I noticed that AI has really put money into their flights. Good seats and great facilities. There was nothing missing from the flight that I saw available in business class flights from other carriers. In fact, they had more! Plush slippers to walk around, in addition to the usual kits. A few minutes down the flight, the air hostesses  wheeled in a table. I thought it was duty free shopping. As it turned out, these were pajamas for the night. Very nice. I picked the maharajah red. As we settled in, the lady came by again and gave us Bose headphones and added a “we will pick it up from you later” to all the passengers. I thought that was obvious, but suddenly I laughed. I remembered why she said it.  Sadly, lots of passengers in the past, it seems opted to take them home. So it was a gentle warning to all that this is not to take home. Yet another instance where an average traveler not used to the Indian way may get offended.

The security video

The other hilarious part was the security video. Quite different from the others. First, the animated lady in the video probably had the most buxom bosom a pen could draw. If the intent was to draw attention to the video, it worked! But what was really amusing was that the video went on to strictly warn the passengers not to throw trash and paper in the toilet and had a graphical illustration showing the same in addition to reminding passengers to please flush after use, again with due animation.  While this is often skimmed through in other flights with a brief mention, it was a focal point of the AI security video.

The remaining flight

I loved it! Excellent food, superb movie selections (English, Hindi and local languages) and I must say, AI has better wines than any other flight. They were serving an excellent 2004 cabernet which was simply fabulous.  But I did notice that while the Indian government had spent good money embellishing the flight, maintenance was not always 100%. For example, my seat had 10 buttons to adjust the seat but only 3 worked. I figured out how to use those three buttons to achieve the functionality of the 10 however. The usb port chargers did not work in business class. The air hostess felt very embarrassed and told us “Sir, please give me your phones and I will personally try every available seat”. We knew it would not work, as likely all the seats in that section have a common power source and there was likely a failure there, but we let her try. Eventually, our phones enjoyed the first class lounge as the ports there were working for  USB charging.

After watching a few movies, eating some great food and drinking fabulous wine I drifted into a comfortable sleep only to wake up a half hour before arrival to New delhi.

As I landed, the pilot said “The fog is really getting thick. In two hours, the airport will start rerouting all incoming flights to Bombay”

I sighed a sigh of relief that I opted for the AI timing and walked out with a smile. Irrespective of the mis-steps here and there, this airline had genuine warmth and a personalization that went beyond the call of duty. AI just got a new customer.

(Added, Jan 19 2009)

The return flight

As I said earlier, if there is one thing about AI, it's consistently inconsistent. This time, there were no personal 'by-your-name' greetings and no pajamas either. But the company was great. Since a lot of indian diplomats (IAS, IFS etc) travel the same flight, striking up a conversation is always fun. The wine was great too: 2004 cabernet. And hey, my seat controls worked as well.  My colleagues however were not that lucky. Some of their anecdotes:

  • For one, the entire entertainment system malfunctioned (across First and Business class). So he had to make do with staring out of the window for 16 hours. When he asked if it can be fixed, the AI staff shuffled around apologetically but did nothing. On pressing further, they admitted they had no clue how to make it work. Of course, they could have called a ground technician (the plane had not yet taken off) but if they did, it wouldn't be AI would it ?

  • For the other, who dared to ask for a 'noise cancellation headphone' the steward confidently told him that "Oh that was many years in the past. AI no longer carriers noise cancellation headphones". When my colleague reminded him that "many years past" was just last week, the AI guy seemed genuinely surprised and surmised "Gee, they may have loaded some old stock" and shuffled away.

As a side note, the New York transit on the return path was horrible. We had to wait for almost 2 hours before the AI staff ensured all the first/business passengers had their luggage identified and then escorted us to the lounge. As it turns out it is a mandatory TSA rule to get your luggage out and go into checkin again. AI informed us theirs is the only airline that offered the extra service to ensure we made our connection (same flight, incidentally) instead of leaving us on our own. I don't know whose fault it was, but the transit was operationally horrible.

As an European diplomat summarized it "This is my first and last time. If this is the level of US-India cooperation, we Europeans can do better"


  1. Great story. Still not sure I'll fly AI any time soon though.

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