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TO THE POINT: Air India’s business-class product is a solid option for traveling between New Delhi and Hong Kong. The pros: a personal on-the-ground helper at check-in and lie-flat seats that allow for a good night’s sleep. The cons: terrible pajamas and outdated seats that had seen better days.
On a recent trip to India, I had to find a way to get from New Delhi (DEL) to Changsha (CSX) in China in order to catch my Hainan Airlines flight back to Los Angeles. I had a few days to kill, and rather than heading straight to Changsha, I figured I would spend a couple of nights in Hong Kong. From there, I could catch a morning flight on Dragonair to Changsha and connect to my transpacific flight that afternoon.
The two best choices for me were either to take one of Air India or Jet Airways’ single daily nonstop flights, or opt for one of Cathay Pacific’s two nonstop options on the day I was traveling. All of them left late at night and got into Hong Kong early the following morning.
The Cathay Pacific flights would be aboard the carrier’s A330 and ran about $1,100 for economy or $1,800 for business class, which was way too much for my budget. I’d been hoping to use 40,000 American AAdvantage miles to book an award since the aircraft had Cathay’s latest lie-flat business-class seats, but a search on British Airways turned up no business-class award availability on any of the days I was looking to travel.
The Jet Airways option cost nearly $400 for economy and $1,100 for business class (also lie-flat aboard an A330), which was still too high for me.
Meanwhile, the Air India flight was going for about $345 in economy and $740 in business class. While that was still pretty pricey, I figured I’d be saving money on a hotel room for the night by taking a red-eye. Plus, I could get a good night’s sleep in business class, especially since it would also be aboard a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner with fully lie-flat seats.
Out of curiosity, I decided to check availability with United and Aeroplan just in case — it turns out United would have charged me 60,000 MileagePlus miles (Aeroplan would have been 50,000), neither of which seemed like a good redemption.
I ended up buying my ticket directly from Air India using my Citi Premier Card, earning a total of 2,220 ThankYou points for the purchase.
The flight was 2,328 miles. I credited it to my Singapore KrisFlyer account since my ticket was booked in the Z fare class and would earn me a 25% class-of-service bonus for a total of 2,910 miles. The same ticket would have earned me just 2,328 miles with United because it only credits Air India Z-class tickets at 100%.
Airport and Check-In
On the day of this flight, I was actually transiting through New Delhi — I’d flown in from another Indian airport to the domestic terminal at DEL and caught the shuttle bus over to the international terminal. The shuttle arrives every 20 minutes, was free with proof of both my incoming and onward travel and took about 15 minutes to get from one terminal to the other.
When I arrived at the international terminal, I went upstairs to the check-in hall, located the business-class counters and had my bags taken by one of the airline’s ground staff — his name was Karanvir and he stayed with me until I got to the lounge.
Taking me up to a free counter, Karanvir lifted my checked suitcase onto the scale and handed my passport over to the agent, who checked me in in about a minute, handing me my boarding pass and an invitation to the Air India lounge.
From there, Karanvir took my backpack and the small tote bag I had and led me to the immigration department, where he put me in an expedited line and met me on the other side once I’d spoken with an agent.
We continued through security, and once we’d made it through, Karanvir brought me (and my bags) to the lounge and waited until I was checked in before thanking me and taking his leave. I would have tipped him for all his help, but his work vest very clearly said “No tips accepted.”
The lounge was nice but not too over-the-top. To the right of the check-in desk was a small first-class lounge area with some sofas and armchairs dotted here and there. The main business-class lounge was to the left.
Along one wall was a row of low couches and tables, while an area with tables and chairs ran down the middle section. Beyond this were a news rack and some more table-chair combos, along with a few standalone tufted leather armchairs.
The buffet and bar were toward the back of the lounge. There were hot dishes available, including chicken curry, vegetable curry and dhal, as well as cold cuts, vegetables and soup.
There were two refrigerators, one with soda and juice, the other with beer and water. If you wanted wine or spirits, there were two bartenders to serve you from a selection that included Beefeater, Absolut and J&B.
At the time, I was a bit under the weather and I’d been traveling all day, so I rented one of the shower rooms for 200 INR (about $3) and cleaned up before settling in to read and relax a bit before my flight. If I’d been in better shape, I would have done some work using the free Wi-Fi provided, but I just couldn’t force myself to open up my computer.
My flight was supposed to board around 10:35pm, so around 10:30pm I exited the lounge and walked through the terminal to the gate (it took about five or six minutes to get there) only to see that they were nowhere near ready to begin the boarding process.
Boarding ended up being delayed by about 30 minutes — an announcement was made five minutes after the original boarding time, so I went on a little walk around the terminal before coming back to the gate.
Cabin and Seat
Because of the boarding delay, it seemed like the entire business-class cabin was lined up to get on the plane before I was. I still hustled down the jet bridge in order to get some non-crowded shots of the cabin, though.
Air India’s Dreamliner business-class cabin was an interesting contrast to the one I’d flown a couple months earlier on Hainan Airlines. Both have the same type of seats laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration, however Air India’s version has a small cabin with just three rows of business class with a total of 18 seats. Hainan Airlines, by comparison, has two three-row cabins with six rows total, so twice as many seats.
Meanwhile, the seats looked rather old at this point, both because of the type of seat they were as well as the wear and tear they already appeared to have.
These are fairly standard business seats — many other airlines including LAN, LOT, Aeromexico and Hainan offer them on their 787s. They’re 22-inches wide, have a pitch of 74 inches and recline to a fully flat bed. That said, the pitch means it’s only 6’2″ inches long, so if you’re taller than that, it’s going to be a bit of a tight squeeze.
There were universal power adapters and USB plugs, as well as reading lamps and armrest-stowed hand-held remotes for the IFE system.
Other than that, there was a little remote panel on the armrest, and a footrest at the end of the seat the became the end of the bed when the seat was in the reclined position.
As I mentioned, the seats themselves were already looking a bit scuffed and bedraggled, and it’s partly due to the bland color scheme. But some of the cushion coverings were also askew and there were scratch marks from suitcases and trolleys along the sides of the seats.
In flat mode, the seats were… fine. Because of the cushioning, they were more like vaguely bumpy lie-flat seats and they weren’t too wide.
I used the thin blanket that was rolled up under my footrest when I boarded as a seat cover, then asked a flight attendant for a duvet and full-size pillow in addition to the little throw pillow that had been sitting on my seat.
Although not the most impressive seat, it was pretty comfortable and I promptly fell asleep on my flight, only waking up about 20 minutes before landing.
Entertainment and Amenities
Like the rest of the seat, the in-flight entertainment system felt a bit out-of-date. The screen was just 15 inches wide and controlled by a hand held remote control. The movie choices were a mix of about a dozen Hollywood releases and quite a few more Indian films, with some Asian cinema options available as well.
The airline also provided headphones in one of the seat cubbies. I didn’t watch anything because I wanted to get some shut eye on this barely-five-hour flight, but at least there were some good options if I’d wanted to.
After boarding but before takeoff, the crew came through the cabin offering pajamas and other amenities, like a sleeping mask.
Not to be down on Air India — especially because I don’t usually choose to fly an airline simply because of its sleepwear — but, the pajamas were very underwhelming. Not only were they ugly, they were uncomfortable and made from itchy low-quality cotton. After trying them on, I decided just to sleep in my own t-shirt and shorts. I thought it was still a nice touch that they were offered in case you didn’t have anything else to sleep in and wanted to keep your clothes fresh.
The flight attendants also handed out eye masks and slippers, but no other amenities to speak of, like toothbrushes or toothpaste, though you could ask for those.
The two lavatories were the same as you’d see on other Dreamliners, and were stocked with generic products and air freshener. They were kept spotless during the flight, which was nice.
Food and Beverage
As we boarded, flight attendants came around with trays of water, lemonade and mango juice as well as that day’s newspapers. My flight was scheduled to leave at 11:05pm, but departed after 11:30pm, so I was surprised that the carrier even offered dinner. It hadn’t been indicated on my ticket or during the booking process, so I just figured we’d be having breakfast before landing in Hong Kong.
Shortly after takeoff, flight attendants came around asking passengers who hadn’t reclined their seats yet if they wanted dinner. I declined because I was not feeling well and wanted to get some sleep, but quickly snapped a photo of a composed tray in the galley, which you can see below.
There were no menus handed out and the only choices available were vegetarian or chicken biryani, accompanied by sliced vegetables, yogurt dip, a roll and chocolate ice cream. There were a few French wines on hand — two whites and two reds — as well as a selection of juices and soft drinks.
In the morning before landing, flight attendants came around offering tea (English breakfast, Earl Grey or green tea) and water very quickly, cleaning up about five minutes later, just moments before we landed.
The service on my flight was just fine, hospitable and polite without being overbearing. There were two male flight attendants and one female in the business-class cabin who patrolled the aisles checking on passengers at regular intervals, taking care of needs pretty efficiently. Anytime I asked for water, I had a new glass or bottle within moments.
As we were boarding, the captain came over the PA system to apologize again about the delay and to say he thought we would be able to make up the time in the air, which we did, landing just five minutes or so after our originally scheduled time.
The one thing I thought was interesting was that the crew only came through to prepare the cabin for landing about 10-15 minutes before we were on the ground. I’m not exaggerating. One minute, I was woken up and asked to adjust my seat back into the upright position, the next we were on the ground. It was kind of intense, with passengers and the crew all trying to get everything in the cabin in order before we landed. That said, I suppose it gave us extra time to sleep, so I’m not complaining!
While it’s not the newest or nicest business-class cabin out there, I have to say my overall experience on Air India was quite positive. The airport experience was just plain great thanks to my personal on-the-ground helper at check-in. The lounge was decent, and the plane itself was clean, if nothing too special. The crew were courteous and competent, and the ride itself was comfortable enough.
Though I don’t think it would have been worth using United or Aeroplan miles for the flight — especially since you can get from North America to Europe in business class for fewer miles in some cases! — the airfare was cheaper than its competitors’ and meant I could get a fair amount of sleep in a lie-flat seat.
Have you flown in Air India’s business class lately? What was your experience like?
Featured image and all other photos courtesy of the author.
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