As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I wanted to spend a day on the Tata-owned airlines, one for the books, and for benchmarking the services offered on board all three carriers in one go. Airlines have their off days, and I don’t hold them to it, and flying all three on the same day just sounded an excellent plan to remove any biases in many cases. And because most of us fly economy, that was where I was going to be for my first flight on Tata Air India.
For booking the ticket, I chose to book direct with Air India. The simple reason for that. Things change these days pretty quickly, and I wanted access to the fee waiver that Air India was offering. Another thing, in hindsight. Booking Air India directly via their website costs less because Air India does not charge a convenience fee for online ticketing.
However, the thing that no one told me about when booking on the Air India website is that you don’t get your ticket immediately. I had the payment deducted and no ticket. I wanted ten minutes, twenty and then got on the phone with Air India. After 30 minutes, I got an agent on the line who shrugged my concern as if it happened every day and said she was helpless. I asked for a supervisor, and I was told to complain on the website since it did not come under their ambit.
I was very edgy now since not getting the ticket on time meant I could not book the rest of my segments to fly out of Bengaluru without a price hike on the ticket prices. I lodged a complaint on the website, but of course, it was a Friday evening, and no human to look at it. I eventually got the ticket late into Friday evening, and I hurried to book my onward flight from Bengaluru without a price hike.
This was the scenario in mid-January 2022, of course.
Delhi is the home of Air India, and what would be a better place for them to start stitching up things than right under their nose, right? I arrived at the Delhi Airport at about 3:45 AM for a 6:10 AM flight, leaving me enough time to go through the entire Air India experience before I boarded my flight.
My first encounter was with Air India’s check-in agents at their check-in isle at the airport. While I had already completed my online check-in, and I could have just printed my boarding pass from the self-check-in kiosk, I did want to collect a printed boarding pass. However, there was a massive queue around the economy class check-in isle, so I decided to use my Star Gold membership and headed to the counters reserved for Business Class, First Class, and Star Gold tier members (including Air India’s own).
Air India had five counters open for their premium and elite passengers, which is a step up from the other partly Tata-owned full-service airline calling Delhi it’s home. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that Air India was not using the display boards to display who the counters were for. And then a counter opened up.
It took me a whole of six minutes to get a printed boarding pass. It would have taken lesser, but after I got the boarding pass on hand, I realised I wouldn’t get any miles on SQ for this trip, so I gave the check-in agent my United Mileage Plus number to add to the ticket instead. The agent, from AISATS (also now a 50% Tata-owned company), was professional and got it done quickly and handed me a new boarding pass. Though she was rationing her supplies of Economy class boarding cards and hence was a bit uneasy printing the second one up for me!
I arrived at the assigned gate at about 5:15 AM after a trip to the Air India Lounge in the Domestic Pier of Delhi Terminal 3. My boarding pass said a 5:10 AM boarding time, but no one was in a rush to start boarding even when I arrived. The plane, VT-ANE, was at the jetbridge, though, being prepared for our trip to Bengaluru.
The boarding for our flight was eventually announced 45 minutes before the scheduled departure. However, as is par for the course on Air India, everyone was invited to board simultaneously, and everyone woke up to go on the plane together. Fortunately, I was talking to the agent at the gate, so I was one of the first people to be boarded on the flight.
Air India AI803
Delhi (DEL) – Bengaluru (BLR)
Saturday, January 29, 2022
Departure: 06:04 AM
Duration: 2 Hours 37 minutes
Arrival: 08:41 AM
Aircraft Type: Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner
Seat: 33A (Economy)
Meal Service: Hot Breakfast
As I set foot on board, I was greeted by an enthusiastic cabin crew member, wearing the blue overalls for Covid-19 protection (which have long outlived their utility, I believe), and I headed over to my seat. When I was attempting to online check-in for the flight, I noticed the plane’s middle section was entirely blocked out, and I could only pick a seat at the back, which is where I went.
Closer to my seat, things looked like they were in good order. Each seat even had a disposable earphone waiting, which signalled that I could put on the IFE and watch something.
The seats looked comfortable, with a leather headrest and a cover on top, with the Maharajah showing up on the headrests.
But most seats had their headrests in much worse condition than my seat.
The aircraft had not been cleaned properly in a long, long time.
As soon as I was seated, I saw the error in choosing this Dreamliner over the next flight, which was being operated with an Airbus A320family aircraft. This 8-year old aircraft had not seen much love over time from the airline or the passengers, but it was flying worldwide, representing India.
Take a look at the seatback, with a new non-smoking sticker, slapped on for compliance with the rules, but which was not in line with the colours of the seat frames (the OEM provided stickers are).
Or take a look at this tray table, which clearly had a rough day.
The travesty was all over the aircraft. Here are the seatback pockets of 33A and 33B on VT-ANE.
Or look up to spot the horror. Paper napkins stuffed in the air conditioning vents, not removed since when…I don’t know.
I checked the flight tracking websites, and the plane had only operated the DEL-BLR-DEL sector the day before, so it was not like they did not have the time to clean up the aircraft. After operating the DEL-BLR-DEL sector on January 29, 2022, this aircraft went over to Paris.
Anyhow, there was more damage to the deplorable condition of the aircraft in plain sight. For instance, here are some shots of the overhead baggage bins from my camera phone.
Some higher force wanted me to witness how badly Air India aircraft are maintained. So, I opened the tray table in front of me, only to find more dust and grime.
And as much as Air India might claim to clean up their aircraft, clearly, no one even bothered to touch the plane over the days. (I’ve seen the process on Vistara and IndiGo, so I know when they do it, they do a wipe down on each seat). Please look at the food leftovers on the tray when I settled in.
The flight was more than 75% or so full, so there was no point complaining to anyone about this. However, thanks to the pandemic, I’ve loaded up on loads of alcowipes in my backpack, and I pulled out one to wipe down the tray table myself.
I am not privy to the fleet renewal plan of Air India under the Tatas, but if someone is reading this, please pull out VT-ANE and send it for an overhaul first, once you have your business and restructuring plan for the airline finalised. There are many broken planes on Air India’s fleet that need fixing.
At about 06:02 AM, we had doors close for our 06:10 AM flight, and then, the in-flight safety video was displayed on the seat back monitors and the overhead screens that popped out for this viewing. I could already see that my seatback IFE monitor and everyone in my row were lagging. Take a look in the snap below for the shot on the seatback versus the common monitor.
We pushed back ahead of time and were airborne in no time. The cabin was darkened for a while during the takeoff, but after takeoff, as soon as we levelled out, the lights were brought back on, and the cabin crew announced that meal service would be done.
Unlike the flights on the previous day, there were no special announcements about this being a historical day or anything, and the captain did not come back on the PA at all during the 2:30 hour-long flight, except for a prepare cabin for landing announcement.
Anyhow, about thirty minutes into the flight, the carts rolled through to commence breakfast service. One of the first changes made by Air India has been the re-introduction of meal options. Air India went proudly all-vegetarian back in 2017. And when the cabin crew came by, she enquired if I’d like a vegetarian meal or a non-vegetarian one. I asked about the contents, and as is usual across Indian carriers, the vegetarian breakfast option was some south Indian breakfast. The non-vegetarian option had eggs, which I went with this morning.
The breakfast included eggs with a side of potato, a bread roll with butter and jam, a muffin and flavoured yoghurt. The noticeable change, of course, was that there was real cutlery on board rather than a disposable one, and the plastic cups for coffee were reinstated. Some of you might remember those very flimsy white cups used on AI for the coffee and tea service for a while.
The service was responsive and with a smile under the mask. A lot needs to change, but as I mentioned here, the attitude was more patient as soon as the new owner walked through the door.
After the meal service, trays were collected, and the crew came around for a tea and coffee service. I can vouch for the fact that the kettle in which the coffee was brewed was ancient and had a broken lid, perhaps.
The coffee tasted fine, however, as mass-produced coffee could be. I took a bite of the muffin, which was very doughy.
The crew, fortunately, was not trying to keep control of the electric-dimmable windows, and I could bring up the window to the shade I wanted to keep my window at through the flight. It made for some good views outside.
The IFE was not working for the entire left column of the aft section of the plane, and since the Thales IFE provided access to all functions such as the flight attendant call button and the reading light, the non-responsiveness of the IFE remote meant I did not have access to my reading light nor the call button through the duration of the flight. All I saw through the flight was this screen.
This also meant the USB was not working. I requested the FA to reset the IFE to make it work, but she vanished after, and we never heard from her again. Fortunately, I had a book to keep me company through the flight. At some point of time during the flight, they started beaming the flight map on the overhead projection screens.
We arrived in Bengaluru ahead of time and pulled over to an aerobridge gate. Then, the silence began. It was just astounding that the people were seated and not fiddling on their phones or getting up to remove their stuff from the overhead bins.
After about 15 minutes, the captain came on the PA to announce that the aerobridge was jammed, so we would use buses to alight from the plane.
And eventually, we met a bus which took us to the airport terminal.
The widebody fleet of Air India is clearly in terrible shape, something I’ve been saying since 2016 and onwards. These are the prime assets of Air India, which represent the face of the airline across the globe, and they need maintenance. Each aircraft will need millions of dollars to be fixed. And before that, a plan of which equipment gets out of service and goes into maintenance.
For those who want to fly domestic, you are better off on the newer A320family aircraft of the airline, for the time being, especially the A320neos, which were inducted in the fleet only 3-4 years ago.
What has been your experience on Tata Air India over the past four days or so?
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