A Honeymoon Disaster: Flying Air India's 787 From Milan to Delhi
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Sweaty, disorganized and crowded... no, I’m not describing the streets of Mumbai, but the eight hours I spent in Air India’s economy section on its 787-8 from Milan (MXP) to New Delhi (DEL).
Though TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig had a decent experience in the carrier's below-average-but-still-OK business class on the 787-8 (after a terrible one on a 777 also in business), I spent a whole third of a day stuffed like a sausage on board what felt like the fiery depths of hell, otherwise known as Air India's economy class.
But let’s start at the beginning: Who decides to fly Air India economy on their honeymoon? Only total crazies who've recently burned through their stash of points, apparently. The $745 multi-city fare from Milan (MXP) to Colombo (CMB) via Delhi (DEL) and back to Madrid (MAD) via Delhi was too good to pass up, especially since my new husband and I had to attend a wedding in Italy before we could fly off into the sunset.
Other carriers were charging well over $1,300, and having just blown our large stash of miles to help family members fly to Madrid to attend our wedding, we wanted to snap up a cheap fare and splurge on lodging and activities in Sri Lanka. Plus, I, a glass-half-full kind of person, didn’t think Air India could be so bad. I was wrong.
I put that cheap $745 fare on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card. I not only wanted to earn the 3x UR points for my purchase, but if anything went wrong on the trip, I was banking on Chase's trip and baggage insurance policies to bail me out. TAP Air Portugal had recently lost my bags for three days somewhere between Madrid and Ghana, and I was frustrated not to have that $100-a-day lost-baggage coverage that comes with Reserve because I'd used my Platinum Card® from American Express instead.
When I booked back in January 2018, I reserved aisle seats close to the front of the plane. But when I went to manage my booking in July before the departure, I realized they had changed my seats to the back of the aircraft. Rude.
Although my husband and I were still sitting together, I wanted to get better seats closer to the front. I kept trying to change them online, but the system just wouldn't work right. I knew I'd have to call.
After being transferred and put on hold numerous times and chatting with a number of completely useless phone reps (almost a full hour on the phone), I was able to book exit-row seats for all my flights — at a cost.
In total, I paid $116 per person to select seats on our round-trip flights. This exit-row addition upped the cost of my ticket to $861, but I figured if I was stuck flying economy, at least I could make it a little less unpleasant with some extra legroom in the exit row — this was my honeymoon, after all! Since I purchased this ticket, I was eligible to earn miles. In this case, I credited my flights to United's MileagePlus program and earned a total of 3,030 redeemable miles, worth about $42 according to TPG's latest valuations. Once I make the return from CMB to MAD, I'll earn more, but the above earnings reflect the MXP-DEL-CMB segments.
If you're looking to book Air India flights with miles, your best bet is to book either through United MileagePlus (a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards) or Aeroplan (a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards).
Check-in and Airport
After living in Madrid for 10 years, I'm well aware that European airports in August are a crowded nightmare, but for some reason, I didn't think to arrive earlier than two and a half hours before my flight.
Turns out, the Air India check-in line in Milan was very long, as each person was checking a ridiculous amount of baggage. Air India's baggage allowance is two bags per person in economy, and it seemed like just about everyone in line was taking advantage of this. After spending almost 15 minutes at the counter myself for a standard check-in for two, each of us with only one checked bag, I realized the desk staff was about as competent as the phone reps were.
I rushed through immigration and to my gate to arrive just as boarding had started, disappointed I didn't have time for a cold drink in the Priority Pass lounge before the flight.
The craziness continued with the boarding process, which felt more like a circus than anything else.
Hordes mobbed the door, and no one paid any attention to the calls for priority and business. The airline didn't announce that families could board first, so many families with several children demanded to cut in front of other passengers once general boarding had already started, making everything much slower and more disorganized. The whole process was a complete mess. I somehow got shoved toward the front of the line and managed to board quickly, despite the chaos.
Cabin and Seat
I was hit with a number of contradictions upon boarding. At first glance, the aircraft looked much newer and brighter than I expected.
But like an Impressionist painting, the seats, which looked slim and newer from afar, revealed unexpected textures and details upon closer inspection, in this case drab fabric and worn cushions. The carpet looked as if it had been repeatedly run over by trucks, and the in-flight entertainment was dated.
The economy section of the plane is laid out in a 3-3-3 configuration, which is standard for a Dreamliner. Each of the 238 economy seats has a width of 17 inches and relatively good legroom, with a pitch of 33 inches.
I had a middle seat, 11H, in an exit row, which meant nothing blocked my legroom. I was able to stretch my limbs out fully, which turned out to be the only saving grace of the entire flight. The 2-2-2 business-class cabin, while not state of the art, looked a whole lot nicer than economy, unsurprisingly. The seats seemed rather new, but I only got a quick glimpse from the economy section.
I wasn't the first to arrive at my row, however. I was greeted by the sight of a man in the window seat of my row who looked like he’d been living there for days. Was he part of the aircraft? His bare feet were lightly resting on the exit door as if the plane were his own personal recliner.
His hands were leisurely tucked behind his head, sweaty armpits touching the middle seat. He was wearing a tank top. Do men travel in tank tops on long-haul flights? Is that a thing now?
He was also completely asleep, and I wondered if he was actually from the previous flight and slept through disembarking. No dice — I would be spending the next eight hours snuggled up next to his stinky, bare armpits. Luckily, my husband offered to take the middle seat (confirmed: I married the right man), subjecting himself to the unpleasant smells.
There's constant debate about whether or not people should wear shoes on board, but I think we can all agree that someone's nasty bare feet propped up on an aircraft door is appalling. I felt uncomfortable photographing his face (though I almost felt like he deserved to be passenger-shamed on social media), but I did snap his feet and pits for all TPG readers to see. It wasn't even on purpose — I couldn't get a decent photo of my row without some of his flesh showing.
I also photographed the exit row on the other side of the plane so you could get an idea of what the full, empty exit row looks like.
Like I said earlier, I had unlimited legroom — definitely the highlight of the flight.
Everything on the plane looked tired, though the overhead bins were nice and large — one of the features of the relatively new 787 aircraft.
I quickly checked out the other, non-exit rows. It looked like a tight squeeze, but they did come with foot rests, which I'm sure I would have appreciated had I not booked the exit row.
The lavatories were standard, though I noticed they came stocked with a bottle of mouthwash next to the hand cream and antibacterial gel, which I found really weird.
Were passengers actually putting their mouth on that? Who knows.
Food and Beverage
I was actually looking forward to the food, however crazy that may sound. I've flown fellow Indian carrier Jet Airways a few times and found their food to be a little more flavorful and spicy than regular, bland economy-airline eats. I hoped that Air India would prove to be the same.
That was 100% not the case. I chose the vegetarian option, and my husband selected the chicken so we could try both. We were equally disappointed.
Both looked unappetizing, and the vegetarian one had some unidentifiable, stinky substance on the left next to the dried-out, tasteless rice and mushy peas. It was spicier than normal, but had zero flavor and was actually pretty gross. My husband crunched down on a bone in his chicken, and there was a fair amount of gristle.
Dessert was something with pumpkin, but it had no flavor. The salad, which was basically just chopped peppers, was the only thing I could stomach. The only dressing was a lemon, which was fine for me, but others who like a lot of salad dressing would be unhappy.
The flight attendants took everyone's drinks away before they passed out the food, meaning people were getting up nonstop to ask for more drinks during their meal, annoying fellow passengers and FAs alike. If they had properly timed the drink and meal service, this wouldn't have been an issue.
Breakfast consisted of a dried-out croissant and stale muffin plus sugary fruits. In general, the food was disgusting. Air India's economy meal service wasn't just average airline food, it was actually inedible.
Economy passengers were only provided with thin blankets and no pillow.
The IFE screens are on the small side, and mine, which wouldn't even remain in a viewable position (it came out of the arm in the exit row), seemed to be even smaller.
The screens weren't touchscreen and instead came with remotes — it seems like the carrier should have equipped a new-ish aircraft like the Dreamliner with touchscreens, at the very least.
The remote worked fine, but I could only hear out of one side of the dual-prong headphones and just gave up.
Because only 11 new releases were available on my screen (which, again, constantly fell), I ended up just watching pre-downloaded Netflix shows on my phone the whole time.
Luckily, there were both USB ports and electrical outlets below the seat, so I was able to keep my phone juiced up during the flight.
I did take a moment to scroll through the entertainment first, though, and there were 42 older movies (like "La La Land," "Erin Brockovich" and "Blue Jasmine") as well as several new and classic Hindi films (did you know there's a Bollywood version of "When Harry Met Sally"?). There weren't any TV shows available, though.
At first, the FAs seemed friendly. But after so many passengers asked for drinks and reported broken headphones, they started getting cranky, and it was reflected in their treatment towards passengers as the flight went on. I know that passengers can be trying, but I went from being treated normally to rudely.
I did, however, find their sari-style uniforms to be bright and memorable. But then I noticed that they were all wearing plastic flip-flops, which surely wouldn't hold up in any kind of fire or emergency, and hoped for the best.
Throughout the entire flight, none of the flight announcements could be properly heard, so I had no idea what was going on, and the FAs didn't care to advise anyone. After meal services, the FAs spent most of the time in the galley, with the curtain pulled tightly shut, not offering water or snacks and never walking around to check on anyone.
While I wasn't about to let a crappy flight ruin my honeymoon, for a special occasion (or for any occasion), Air India's economy is not what you want to be flying. I experienced a long list of misses: rude FAs, no pillow, poor IFE system, broken headphones, inedible food and nasty passengers. Although passengers' unhygienic behavior isn't necessarily the fault of Air India, I was surprised no FAs asked him to get his bare feet off the exit-row door. Isn't that a security issue?
The one solid thing was the level of comfort the exit row offered me, even though I had to pay extra for it. If you absolutely have to fly Air India in economy, my recommendation is to shell out the extra cash for an exit-row seat. It's worth it, and will make what might be a terrible flight seem slightly more bearable.
All photos by Lori Zaino / The Points Guy