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As many of you have let me know, I’ve been pretty harsh on Air India. Following my 777-300ER flight to New York-JFK, it certainly seemed justified, but as disappointing as my experience was, it sounds like plenty of customers have actually enjoyed themselves, particularly onboard the airline’s 787.
So when I needed to get to London to kick off my latest round-the-world reviews adventure — and Air India offered by far the most competitive business-class fare — I decided to bite the bullet and give the carrier a second chance. It didn’t hurt that the 11:15pm departure worked quite nicely with my schedule.
My one-way business-class flight from Newark (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR) cost $1,226. Now, sure, that’s not exactly the steal of the century if you’re booking one leg of a round-trip, but one-way fares between these two cities are typically outrageous, and Air India’s was a fraction of those offered by American, Delta, United and UK-based airlines, too.
The flight from Newark to Heathrow is a fifth-freedom route, continuing to Ahmedabad, India.
While AA and Delta offer a superior product, with 1-2-1 seating on some flights, Air India’s small 2-2-2 business-class cabin seemed to be wide open at booking, so I was also hopeful that I’d have a semi-private experience, and a good night’s sleep.
Airport and Lounge
I was also happy to be flying out of Newark, instead of JFK — late at night, Newark’s a short 20-minute drive from my Manhattan apartment, while JFK is at least 45 minutes, and sometimes more than an hour. That said, Newark’s Terminal B is especially unexciting, and there isn’t much to do if you don’t have access to a lounge.
As a business-class passenger, I did have lounge access, though — and not to just any lounge!
Yup, Air India passengers get access to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, which is simply fantastic — hands-down the best lounge at Newark.
Since all of Virgin’s flights had boarded by the time of my visit around 9:30pm, the lounge was fairly empty — there were only a dozen or so passengers, and everyone was spread out.
The dedicated dining area was a small hub of activity, with a whopping four passengers dining on Virgin’s a-la-carte menu, but with a dozen or so tables that was hardly an issue.
Since I skipped a full dinner earlier in the evening, I decided to dig in to the menu, starting with an outstanding salad.
I rounded out the meal with a small Indian feast of chicken tikka masala — yum!
Cabin and Seat
After a martini or two, it was time to make my way to the gate and onboard our 787-8 Dreamliner.
Air India’s Dreamliner cabin is especially small, with just three rows of business class in a 2-2-2 configuration — that’s just 18 seats in total.
I’m not a huge fan of Air India’s color scheme, but these seats are a huge improvement over what you’ll find on the 777-300ER, and comparable to what’s on offer on the airline’s latest plane.
That said, there’s not a whole lot of privacy, or really any privacy at all. The generous 74-inch pitch actually works against the airline in this regard, since it makes the cabin feel even more open. With so much space, it’s possible to get in and out of the window seats without climbing over the aisle passenger, though, as long as they’re sitting up.
Given that it was late in the evening and I was eager to get to sleep, my first move was to check out the seat controls, and the lie-flat mode.
While the seat alignment might make the bed appear less than comfortable, I didn’t notice, and managed to get four hours of sleep on a six-hour flight.
Storage was scarce, unfortunately, but there were a few compartments available for cellphones, a purse and other smaller items.
Finally, I wanted to talk about the lavatories, since they were in terrible condition by the end of my 777 flight. Although this was a far shorter trip, I was pleased to see that the lavs still appeared to be fairly clean upon our arrival in London, and the Dreamliner design — while compact — is a big step up from what Air India has on the 777-300ERs.
Amenities and Entertainment
I ended up getting the same well-stocked, if not slightly bizarre, amenity kit as on my 777 flight from Delhi — along with a pair of slippers.
There was an assortment of lotions and creams, along with a dental kit and lip balm, and two more unusual items: a fold-out mirror and a bar of soap. Yes, a bar. I think it’s meant to be a souvenir of sorts, since the lavatory had some soap of its own, fortunately. Overall it’s a pretty nice kit, though.
There were also two pillows, along with a light throw blanket and a larger duvet under the ottoman.
The entertainment system is the most outdated I’ve seen on a Dreamliner, but it was still an improvement over the 777.
The selection was quite poor, though…
… if you fly Air India as much as the guy below you’re going to need to bring your own content after the first flight or two.
The headphones were super crappy, too. No thanks.
As was the wired remote, which wasn’t especially responsive either.
There wasn’t any Wi-Fi either, which makes sense given that India doesn’t permit any carriers to operate satellite internet in its airspace, though that regulation is expected to change soon.
Food and Beverage
I wasn’t hungry after that mini-feast in the lounge, but duty calls…
I started with a glass of water, which was presented alongside a warm towel. I used the towel to wipe down the seat a bit, as I had done on my 777 flight. This one wasn’t nearly as dirty, but it wasn’t sparkling clean, either.
After departure, I was offered my choice of beverage along with some nuts. I went for a single-malt Scotch — I’m not sure which one, since there weren’t any menus and I couldn’t understand the flight attendant’s explanation, but it did the trick.
As I mentioned, there weren’t any menus, so I requested the Indian option. It ended up being chicken tikka masala — a small portion of chicken, but the meal was quite large overall. It was filling, and entirely edible, but the presentation left an awful lot to be desired.
A flight attendant came through with a dessert and cheese cart shortly after that.
I passed on the cheese, but tried the gulab jamun, a milk-based sweet. It’s hard to screw those up, and these were fine, but a bit too sweet for my liking.
Like many of my recent flights with otherwise less-than-idea 2-2-2 configurations in biz class, there’s no question that this one was made far more pleasant by the fact that I got along swimmingly with my seatmate — in this case nothing more than an extra pillow and blanket. Sitting at the window, with an empty seat separating me from the aisle added significant privacy to an otherwise entirely open cabin.
I also really loved the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Newark Airport — without a nice meal (and drink or two) there, plus an empty seat next to me, I imagine the experience wouldn’t have been quite as positive.
Still, the flight attendants were friendly, the food was edible (and didn’t make me sick) and the seat and bedding were comfortable, especially for such a short flight. If the price is right, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly Air India’s Dreamliner again.
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