Flight Review: Air India (777-300ER) Business Class From Delhi to New York
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Before I joined TPG more than two years ago, I had a career at various tech publications, where, as part of my job, I reviewed products ranging from batteries to briefcases to smartphones. While gadgets might seem dull in comparison to incredible first-class flights booked for pennies on the dollar — and oftentimes they were — I haven't come across a product that I truly despised until this Monday, when I flew Air India's 777-300ER from Delhi to New York-JFK. It was not a good experience.
I was moved — I mean, Air India's business class missed the mark on so many levels. So much so that I whipped up a post entitled 20 Things I Hated About My Air India Business-Class Flight to NYC, a counterpoint of sorts to an article that followed my second-most-recent United MileagePlus redemption: 6 Things I Loved About Thai Airways 747 First Class.
So, as you may have gathered, Air India's 777-300ER business class was really, really bad. Before I dig into this flight in the detailed review below, here's a quick look at the cabin and seats from my Instagram collage. I'm still disgusted by that towel. The seats were filthy.
So, given how crappy this plane looks inside, it's probably safe to assume that it's a few decades old, right? After reviewing pictures of the business-class cabin, TPG aviation enthusiast JT Genter guessed that this 777 had been manufactured back in 1995, making it 22 years old. Nope! Boeing delivered this aircraft, VT-ALP, in August 2009 — it's been flying for less than eight years and this poor plane has not aged well.
There are two airlines flying nonstop between New York City and Delhi (DEL): Air India from JFK and United from Newark (EWR). United's fares start at around $4,300 for a round-trip departing the US. Flights from other US cities connecting at Newark are more reasonable — Washington, D.C. is $3,500 round-trip in biz, for example, which isn't bad at all. Meanwhile, as of this writing, Air India flights can be had for less than $3,800 round-trip over the next two weeks, though most dates are priced above $4,500. And a one-way Air India flight from Delhi to JFK will run you more than $2,300, which isn't terrible, either, especially when you consider that you'll earn 5x points per dollar if you pay with the The Platinum Card from American Express, netting you 11,500 Membership Rewards points on the one-way, which is in turn worth $230 based on TPG's most recent valuations.
Note that Air India also operates two other flights from the New York area: a nonstop to Mumbai (BOM) on the 777 and a flight to Ahmadabad (AMD) via London (LHR) on the far superior Boeing 787.
I decided to redeem 80,000 United miles for flight, given that I have a pretty significant stockpile thanks to transferrable points I earn with the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve cards. In theory, I could also have redeemed 75,000 miles from Aeroplan, but there seems to be an issue related to booking partner awards on Air India's US nonstops, which complicated the situation a bit.
Booking this award wasn't as simple as transferring points and selecting Air India on United's site though. For whatever reason, I wasn’t able to see availability on this flight on United or Aeroplan’s websites, but a United supervisor was able to confirm space after working at it for 30 minutes or so. Some of Air India’s other flights show up online and seem easy for agents to track down, so there must be something wacky going on with the US nonstops specifically.
Airport and Check-In
I was hoping to score seats in the rear mini-cabin (more on that below), so I attempted to check in about 36 hours prior to departure — Air India web check-in opens up 48 hours out, so in theory, there was plenty of time to take care of formalities before we arrived at the airport.
Unfortunately, I kept getting an error message that our reservation could not be found, even though I was able to pull it up under the Manage Flights option using my five-character Air India record locator. I tried all of my browsers and got the same error, so I gave United a call to make sure the award had been ticketed correctly. The agent said everything looked good on her end, but when she got the same check-in error I was seeing, she called up Air India and added the rep to the call, who explained that the airline was simply experiencing some IT difficulties at the moment. He suggested I try Firefox (which didn't work as well), or just wait to check in at the airport (which is what we did).
Several locals I chatted with in the days leading up to the flight insisted that we arrive at least three hours ahead of departure, explaining that the immigration and security lines would be out of control, and would easily take us more than an hour or two to navigate. A couple of employees at our hotel, the Andaz Delhi, seemed to think two hours was more than enough, however, so we decided to depart at 11:30pm for our 1:45am flight. Since the hotel was just a few miles away, we were at the check-in desks roughly two hours before our scheduled departure time.
I noticed several gigantic window decals as we approached Terminal 3, declaring DEL the "World's Number One Airport." There's no way that award could have been the result of passenger feedback, though — and apparently this distinction applies specifically to Asia Pacific airports with between 25 and 40 million annual passengers.
In India, you need to prove that you're flying before you can enter the terminal. I pulled up our reservation in my United app, which seemed to do the trick, and we were through to the empty Air India check-in area a couple minutes later.
Initially, the airport seemed pretty quiet in general, even though Delhi has many late night/early morning departures.
There was no line to check in, which took five minutes or so, including checking my mom's bag through to JFK. The agent didn't proactively add a "Priority" tag to the bag (which we were entitled to as business-class/Star Alliance Gold passengers), but he stuck it on when I asked. And I'm glad he did — my mom's bag ended up being the first one out upon arrival in New York!
The check-in agent suggested that we use the dedicated business/first-class immigration line. It was more than a bit challenging to find — and airport employees weren't very helpful in helping us locate it — but once I found the proper line, we managed to get through both immigration and security in less than 25 minutes, an eternity when compared to the PreCheck line at some US airports, but more than reasonable for an international departure from India.
The Air India Lounge
I made it into the terminal around 12:15am, which was 30 minutes before our scheduled boarding time of 12:45am.
I didn't really want to spend any time in the Air India lounge, but I needed to stop by for the purposes of this review. The lounge sign after duty free listed out every lounge but Air India's, though I spotted it on the second floor just beyond the sign.
I was welcomed by a cardboard cutout of Air India's Maharaja mascot and handed over my lounge invitation at the desk. That wasn't enough, though — the agent needed my boarding pass as well.
I was directed to the left side of the lounge, which is for business-class passengers and Star Alliance Gold members (first-class passengers head to the right).
There was a variety of seating, including a few options that offered a bit more privacy (thanks to a partition wall).
The lounge seemed to be roughly 25% full, perhaps due in part to the fact that it isn't exactly easy to find.
There were light refreshments available, including some salad items...
... and four hot items, including two vegetarian and two "non-veg" options. A makeshift sign implied that you can ask lounge staff to microwave your meal — I'm sure they'd be just thrilled to get that request.
Drinks were very limited, however. Budweiser was the only beer available, and there were water bottles and juice boxes, along with a small selection of liquor at the nearby staffed bar.
I decided to find a seat so I could test out the Wi-Fi, which turned out to be so bad that webmail took a minute to load. I couldn't even get the speed test tool to work, so I'd plan to get any online work done before you arrive at the lounge. Oh, also, that food below isn't mine — it had been sitting on the table since I arrived perhaps 15 minutes earlier, and nobody stopped by to clean it up at any point during my visit. There was abandoned food/drink throughout the lounge as well.
With only a few minutes to go until my scheduled boarding time, I got up to check out the rest of the lounge, when I came across a hallway that seemed far longer than the biz lounge itself. So, naturally, I walked to the other end.
And what did I find? The Air India first class lounge... so, oddly, it seems you can enter the business-class lounge then walk down the bathroom hallway to the first-class lounge.
The highlight there was definitely much improved seating and privacy, since there were only two other guests.
The first-class buffet section was empty though, with the exception of a dancing Maharaja, who didn't seem bothered in the slightest that a biz passenger had snuck into the first-class section.
After 30 minutes of bliss in the lounge (oh hey, sarcasm!), I wandered back to the terminal and on to my gate. There are a few shops that might be worth checking out, including one with live music (at 12:45am — go figure).
The terminal itself was clean and modern, which was a nice surprise.
After passing through a second security checkpoint (specifically for US departures, it seemed) I made it to the gate. I discovered that first and business-class passengers actually had their own gate at the other end, so I hung around there for a few minutes until boarding began, since it was far quieter than the economy area and much closer to the plane.
We boarded about 20 minutes late (at 1:05am), but 40 minutes was still plenty of time to load up the 777.
Air India 777 Business Class Cabin
I boarded through the forward door, so I had to walk through the small one-row first-class cabin, which has just four seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. It's a huge step up from business class, but hardly a pinnacle of luxury. (First-class awards cost a whopping 140,000 United miles each way. No thank you!)
Our seats in the center section, 8DEF, were located just behind the first-class partition. Air India's 777-300ER product is hardly competitive — in theory it's not as tight as 2-4-2 on older United 777-200s, but United's seats are much more comfortable, even on that dated plane. Air India's seats are arranged in 2-3-2 configuration — each seat measures just under 20 inches across and has 76 inches of pitch, though we seemed to have a bit more than that in the bulkhead row.
With just three middle seats available to book (more on that in a bit), they're fairly easy to avoid.
There are three rows of 21 seats in the forward cabin, and two rows of 14 seats in a mini-cabin behind.
Interestingly, Air India blocks a whopping six business-class seats for a crew rest area, leaving just 29 seats for sale (or redemption). The curtain also makes paired seats in the rear cabin much more private than those up front, given that the center seats are blocked off entirely.
There are just two lavatories for business class, one on each side of the plane between the two cabins. They were clean when we boarded, but absolutely filthy when I went back to change out of my pajamas some 14 hours later. Clearly the flight attendants aren't tasked with maintaining lavatories during the flight.
The lavs are pretty bare bones, though there were a few (not particularly high-end) amenities mounted to the wall.
During boarding, the crew activated what I'm describing as a "kaleidoscope" light show, with the overhead and window lights changing color every few seconds. First we saw green...
Boy did it make taking pictures interesting!
As I mentioned above, business-class seats are arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration, compared to 1-2-1 in first class and 3-3-3 in coach. At less than 20 inches wide, they're especially narrow — less than two inches wider than the seats in economy.
At boarding, each seat had a light blanket, a small pillow and a second larger pillow. I imagine those items were clean, but given how filthy everything else was I wouldn't be surprised if the same pillows had been used for the previous flight. I tried not to think about it...
There's a fixed table mounted between each seat, so center seats have two tables and window-side seats have one. The seat controls are located at the end of the armrest. The labels seemed to have worn off mine and a few of the buttons were broken, including the main recline button. My only option to recline was to press the lie-flat button, which made it impossible to position the seat exactly as I would have wanted.
These are "flat-bed" seats, apparently, but I was never able to get mine to a full 180 degrees — so they're more angle-flat, in my opinion. There's a flip-out footrest, which is nice to have, in theory, except that it seems to be designed for especially short passengers — I'm 5-foot-9 and I was too tall to use the footrest comfortably. (I did find the comforter to be of decent quality though, which definitely helped when it came time to get some sleep.)
And then there's this... the filth. This is what my moist towel looked like after I spent about 20 seconds wiping down the seat. Disgusting.
There's also a flip-up partition between seats that was perhaps even dirtier than the seat itself.
(My theory is that Air India sourced these seat dividers from decommissioned folding fans, which, after decades of use, had spent another few years marinating in a cocktail of industrial waste. The airline then let them dry before attaching snaps and installing them between the seats on their brand-new flagship planes.)
I really didn't want to touch anything else at that point, but I had more exploring to do. Like the tray table that pops out from under one of the armrests.
There's a wired remote control under the other armrest (note that the in-flight entertainment does not include a touchscreen, so this remote is all you've got).
There's a USB port and a universal power outlet (mine didn't work, despite the green light).
And then headphone jacks (one for each seat) between the backrests.
The seats were in pretty bad shape. I find it hard to believe that they're less than a decade old — clearly they haven't been cared for well, as confirmed by the shoddy patch job below.
But what about storage? Well, there isn't any — not within the seats, at least. Yes, we were at a bulkhead row, but seats in other rows only had a water bottle holder and a small seat-back compartment. Our bulkhead pouch was the same size you'd expect to find in economy on a domestic flight, so I ended up storing all of my essential items in a plastic bag that I tucked in beside the in-flight magazine and safety card.
I was very happy to see dedicated air vents, though — many newer 777s don't have them, which means you're at the mercy of the flight attendants when it comes to climate control.
In addition to the pillows and light blanket, there were slippers at my seat when I boarded...
... along with socks and an eye mask (but not earplugs) in a paper bag.
I thought that was the extent of our amenity kit until a flight attendant appeared to offer pajamas (woohoo!) and a proper amenity kit just before departure.
The amenity kit was unique — it was decently constructed and had a mix of Indian-made items, including herbal toothpaste and a bar of soap (like, an actual bar).
The inside of the bag was pretty neat, too, with a soft fabric and Mr. Air India.
The provided headphones were garbage, though, so I just used my own.
Speaking of garbage, here's the in-flight entertainment screen. Since we were in a bulkhead row, our monitors were pretty far away from the seats. They were also on the smaller side (about 15 inches, it seemed) and very low-resolution. Content (when I managed to get any to load) only appeared on a portion of the display.
The system was far out of date. It wouldn't have been current in 2009 when the plane was manufactured, either, so I'm not really sure what Air India was thinking here. For movies, there was a modest selection of English-language films, along with Hindi, Regional and International sections.
There were just 10 new release films loaded, including the nine below...
... and a 10th on the next page.
The English section also included some older flicks — about 40 or so, though none that really interested me.
There were a few more options in the Hindi section.
Navigation was painful — it took an eternity to load each screen, and my system tended to freeze up from time to time.
Not impressed with the movies, I was hoping that I'd find something to watch in the TV section, but there wasn't much to speak of there either.
Like, here's the entire Comedy section — there are just seven episodes to choose from.
You can also keep yourself entertained with one of the two 777 external camera views. Oh wait, no you can't. They wouldn't load.
But at least there's a flight map available... nope, that didn't work either.
How about a magazine?
Since there isn't a touchscreen function, you'll need to select content using the wired remote.
Of course mine was broken — like, physically broken, as you can see on the screen below.
That wasn't the worst of it, though. My controller stopped working many times throughout the flight.
After I made the request several times, a flight attendant hit the reset button on my system in the hopes that that might fix the remote issue. Except she turned off my sister's as well, while she was in the middle of watching a movie. Sadly that didn't help — the remote issue seemed to be independent of the main IFE system.
Food and Beverage
Since my IFE system was busted, my power outlet didn't work and my laptop wasn't fully charged (I was planning to use the remaining battery power to edit photos), I decided to participate in all three meal services to help pass the time.
Just after boarding, a flight attendant came by with a tray of hot and cold towels. (The crew was mediocre at best — it was clear that nobody was thrilled to be working the flight, though I did finally manage to get a flight attendant to crack a smile at the end of the last meal service.)
The towels were followed by orange juice, water and a lime drink.
I selected the lime drink. I didn't care for it.
I wasn't sure if there would be a meal after takeoff, given that it was after 2:00am at that point and we hadn't received any menus. However, about 30 minutes after departure, flight attendants wheeled out a cart with aluminum buffet trays, with shrimp, two chicken options, sauces and "veg" options for the vegetarians on board. (Apologies for the photo quality here and below — I was dealing with some pretty nasty blue cabin light.)
I asked for a sampler of all three "non-veg" options. The shrimp were greasy and overcooked, as was the chicken at the bottom of the plate. The other chicken dish was pretty good, however — I just wish I had asked for more of that.
There was also no drink list available. I asked the flight attendant which white wines were on hand, and she said “an Indian white and… another white.” I went with the Indian white, which was from Sula.
I assumed that food above had been the appetizer, but a flight attendant came by to collect my tablecloth a few minutes later — that was it for the first meal of the flight.
There were some pretty unappealing packaged sandwiches available between meals, along with bags of peanuts and almonds.
About halfway through the flight, the crew started serving breakfast to anyone who happened to be awake. I decided to wait a couple hours to have mine — I ended up eating about four hours before landing. My tray appeared a couple minutes after making the request, and consisted of a mushroom omelette with chicken sausage and potatoes, fruit, mango yogurt (delicious!), a corn muffin and an absolutely terrible croissant.
Then my mom decided to ask for breakfast a minute after my tray arrived. Much to my surprise, she was offered a choice of entree, and went with the scrambled eggs (which were tastier than my omelette, but hardly fantastic).
Then another two hours passed before the main meal service began. First, we were offered menus (finally!) and a choice of peanuts or almonds.
This meal actually sounded pretty promising, especially the chicken dish, which I had once or twice during the trip.
Then, a few minutes later, the beverage cart made its very first appearance — more than 12 hours into the flight!
I asked for a glass of Champagne — judging by the bottle (and the bottle alone), Air India serves H.Blin, which I hadn't been familiar with. There was a half-bottle on the cart, which retails for about $20 on the ground. It wasn't remarkable.
I also ordered a glass of water, given that I was starting to feel very dehydrated at that point (with a middle seat and a broken remote — and therefore a broken flight attendant call button — it was pretty much impossible to get anyone's attention without disturbing my family during the flight).
My tray appeared a few minutes later, consisting of a pretty good salmon appetizer, terrible bread, my entree of chicken with spinach and rice (all very tasty!), a side of lentils, plain yogurt and Indian bread. (As much as I enjoyed the entree on the plane, I'm almost certain it made me sick — I was in pain throughout the rest of the day.)
I also got a small baggie of miniature papadums. They were a-okay as well.
Meanwhile, my mom ordered the vegetarian entree, which she seemed to enjoy.
And my sister got the salmon, which was edible (but hardly restaurant quality).
After the meal, flight attendants wheeled out a dessert cart with cheese, fresh fruit and two desserts: cheesecake and an Indian dish with gulab jamun (those super-sweet syrupy dumplings).
My mom requested the cheesecake, which was fine.
I asked for the jamun, which was flavorful, but the cheese seemed to offer nothing more than an opportunity for Air India to say it serves cheese. I also got a box of chocolates that, of course, I didn't have anywhere to store.
What can I say... Air India is the worst. I wasn't expecting a great product, but I was shocked by just how terrible of a flight this was. At the end of the day, the airline got us home safely from India to New York, and we even arrived 25 minutes early. But I was eager to get off the moment I stepped foot on this 777.
Will I fly Air India again? Certainly not voluntarily, and I'd actually be more likely to choose economy on a handful of airlines (such as JAL) than business class on Air India.
But my sister made a very good point — with fantastic food, a very comfortable seat, loads of entertainment and great service, she didn't get much sleep during our Qatar A350 journey from Philadelphia to Doha at the beginning of our trip. Considering how terrible Air India was, however, she decided to sleep most of the flight, and didn't feel like she missed out, despite skipping the movies and meals. Ultimately, my sister, and my mom, made it clear that they preferred to fly nonstop on Air India's crappy plane than on Qatar with a stop in Doha. Go figure.
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