The worst business class I ever flew: A review of Air India on the 777-300ER from Delhi to New York
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I have so many thoughts about Air India’s business class, I don’t know where to begin.
So instead, let’s travel back to 2017. On May 15 of that year, I joined the TPG team. The next day, Zach Honig published an article about 20 things he hated on an Air India flight back to New York. I remember that story going viral, and thinking, “Who is Zach Honig?” “What is this Air India everyone is talking about?” and most importantly, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”
I’m still searching for an answer to that last one, but my airline knowledge has definitely grown in three years. And now it’s time for my own review of Air India. The one Zach wrote back then predated our scoring system for flight reviews. How would India’s flag carrier fare today?
Well, long-haul business-class reviews have scored 79 points on average in the past year. And this flight on Air India was nowhere near that. So, fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a wild ride.
We used 75,000 American Express Membership Rewards points transferred to Aeroplan to book this flight, and paid about $67 in taxes and fees. That’s equivalent to $1,567 at our valuations, i.e., cheap for a very long flight in a good biz-class seat, which this one was not.
If you book on points and want to select your seat, you’ll have to go to the Air India website and call the number listed under Customer Support. I called them to select mine, and although I had a hard time understanding the agent, it didn’t take me more than a few minutes to get through to someone.
A word of advice: Stock up on Amex points with a card like the The Platinum Card® from American Express or the American Express® Gold Card. The former is offering a welcome bonus of 75,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first six months of account opening, and the latter is offering 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first six months. Then, if you’re looking to fly nonstop between Delhi and New York, use those points to book a seat on United’s service to Newark. It’s better than Air India.
But I digress.
My ground experience on Air India was glamorous and relaxing.
I kid, I kid. It was frazzled and stressful.
It started when my first flight from Male (MLE) to Delhi (DEL) with a stop in Thiruvananthapuram (TRV) was delayed. By the time we landed in Delhi, I only had 45 minutes to get to my flight to JFK. I was supposed to have three hours between the two flights, with the first landing at 10:35 p.m. and the one to JFK departing at 1:35 a.m.
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), our original departure time of 1:35 a.m. was delayed until 2:00 a.m., giving me a bit more time to make my connection. Thankfully, I did not have any checked luggage.
Once I got off the plane, an airport staffer escorted me to the international transfers desk. It appeared that he had a list of people with short connections and my name was on it. At the desk, an agent chatted on the phone for over five minutes, all while scanning my passport and printing my boarding pass. The dreaded “SSSS” (secondary screening) was printed in the corner. Great.
I hustled through security and into the departures terminal. Thanks to my SSSS designation, I had to get my hands swabbed and go through an additional screening, but it didn’t take much time and I didn’t have to go to another part of the airport.
While I was speedwalking through the terminal, I did notice a few shops open – even though it was the middle of the night —and how clean the airport was.
Delhi is a silent airport — there aren’t any loudspeaker announcements about boarding, delays or cancellations.
There is a business-class lounge, although as you might have guessed, I did not have even a second to take a peek. It’s an Air India lounge, and Zach was able to check it out during his flight three years ago. He noted that there’s a business-class section, as well as a hallway you can walk down to access the first-class lounge.
At the gate, all passengers were required to go through yet another security screening. There was a decent amount of seating at the gate, but not enough for all of the passengers on the Boeing 777-300ER, which seats 342 people in Air India’s configuration. There was one charging station, and people were huddled around it. Naturally.
Boarding was a mess, as people lined up before gate agents even started the boarding process.
I made it right on time for boarding, so I didn’t get to take a picture of the plane. We found in our archives a photo of the exact same jet, a 12-year old 777 registered VT-ALM, taking off from JFK in 2013.
Once we boarded the plane, at 2:15 a.m., we were told that we would be delayed by a mechanical issue but it would only take about 45 minutes or so. At this point, I was completely exhausted, so I sprawled on my lie-flat seat (more on that in a minute) and dozed off.
At 3 a.m., we were still on the ground and were told that it would be a while longer.
A lot longer, it turned out. We finally, finally, took off at 6:48 a.m. That was when the real fun started.
Cabin and Seat
Business class on Air India’s 777-300ER is arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration.
I had picked an aisle seat, 12C, avoiding the middle. Rows 12 and 14 — row numbers on Air India 777s aren’t consecutive, by the way — are located right behind the bathroom and kitchen. Usually, these mini-cabins are the place to be. Not in this case, even though there are no passengers in the two middle rows of the mini-cabin because the airline reserves them for crew rest. Coach class is right behind the mini cabin too, with no bulkhead, only a curtain betwen the two.
The woman sitting in the window seat behind me asked if I would switch with her so she could sit next to her husband. I politely declined, as I’m firmly on Team Aisle Seat. The passenger in the window seat behind me ended up switching, though, so it all worked out OK.
When I got to my seat, there were a few things waiting for me, including a pillow, blanket and headphones.
The seat was not exactly the cleanest I’d ever seen on a plane.
Upon boarding, flight attendants served water, juice or wine as a welcome drink. I opted for water. They did not offer Champagne until later.
The silk-covered pillow was decently sized, although not very supportive or comfortable. Maybe not pure silk, but it was definitely silky.
No, your eyes do not deceive you. This is a blanket wrapped in paper. At least the wrapping is recyclable.
It wasn’t the worst airplane blanket I’ve ever encountered, but it wasn’t plush or cozy by any stretch of the imagination.
There are overhead adjustable lights for reading.
There also is one USB outlet plus an international power outlet on the side of the seat.
My seat had a decent amount of legroom, but virtually no storage space. You see this little pocket right here? That’s it. That’s the storage.
Over the course of the flight, things started to pile up pretty quickly.
To adjust the seat, you had to press one of these cute little buttons. Hard. Seriously, you had to press it with the exact amount of pressure and the right angle for it to work.
The seat didn’t even recline fully flat, and it was very narrow and very uncomfortable.
The comforters were stored in one of the overhead bins, and once we were in the air, flight attendants plopped one on my lap.
I call this one DIY turndown service.
This little divider separated me from my seatmate. Kind of.
The two bathrooms available to the 35 business-class passengers were not kept very clean by the flight attendants. I used both at various points in the flight and neither was clean.
The one redeeming factor was the mood lighting that changed from blue to green to red. If you didn’t know any better, you might look at this picture and think this plane was a super luxe, chill experience. You’d be wrong.
Amenities and IFE
Flight attendants passed out magazines shortly after boarding, which is really something you don’t see every day.
Air India has an IFE system. And that’s all you can say for it.
I was in the bulkhead seat, so the screen was on the wall. The rest of the TVs were behind the seats.
You had to scroll, like a computer, with a cursor. And it wasn’t a touchscreen. Not that there were any great movies to watch, but you get the point. I watched “The Lake House,” a movie from 2006 that I’ve seen a handful of times. That was literally the only thing that sounded appealing to me. They did have a decent selection of Bollywood movies, though.
In addition, they advertised a map, but every time I clicked on it, it said “No flight data available.” Same goes for the external cameras.
(Photo by Samantha Rosen/The Points Guy)
The remote would have been high-tech when Clinton was president. Worse yet, because the armrest was so thin, resting your arm on it would sometimes trigger some of the functionalities.
The headphones were flimsy and uncomfortable, and the initial pair I was given didn’t work.
They plugged into the jack between the two seats.
The eye mask, like the headphones, was wrapped in paper.
In addition to the eye mask, the bag included a pair of socks.
Slippers, on the other hand, were wrapped in plastic.
“Flimsy” is the first word that comes to mind. They barely had any cushion.
We did get a decent amenity kit.
It contained a bunch of products, including some natural toothpaste, lip balm, soap, a toothbrush and lotion.
As you might have guessed, there was not a Wi-Fi network in sight. Air India doesn’t have it. It might, in the future. Maybe.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Oh boy, was I excited to write this section!
For starters, there wasn’t a menu to be found. I literally had to track down flight attendants to ask them what the options to eat were. I slept through whatever the formal first meal service was, and they failed to wake me up. When I woke up on my own and asked, their response was “Vegetarian or meat?”
I’m sorry, what? Could you please be more vague?
I didn’t want to take my chances with meat, so I ended up getting the vegetarian meal. It was ravioli, which was actually pretty decent, as well as some bread and a side salad. Though the food wasn’t bad, per se, the entire thng felt more like an economy experience.
For example, when the flight attendant came over to bring the food, she held the tablecloth while I assembled the tray table which came out of the left side of the seat.
Unlike virtually every other long-haul business class, the entire meal was served at once. Hey, at least they’re efficient.
When I asked for a drink menu, I was told they didn’t have one and she could just tell me what the options were. I had Chardonnay, which was seemingly the only white wine.
Breakfast was a similar affair: no menu, I slept through whatever formal service there was, and got served when I woke. It’s almost like dine-on-demand, right?
I ordered a veggie scramble. There was no menu to be found and the flight attendants didn’t go into detail about what each option included. The other choice was more of a traditional Indian breakfast.
Mine came with a croissant, muffin, sausages and beans. It wasn’t mouth-watering by any stretch of the imagination, but it did hit the spot.
My favorite thing, though, was the drink cart at the end of the flight. About two hours before landing (18 hours after we got aboard, and after breakfast), flight attendants walked through the cabin with a cart full of alcohol. Party time!
Just kidding. I didn’t feel like having alcohol after eating breakfast only a few hours earlier.
The Champagne, for the record, was Lanson Black Label, which gets 90 points from Wine Enthusiast, i.e. an “excellent” grade.
Service can be summed up in four phrases: Horrible, terrible, no good, very bad.
Flight attendants never smiled, said thank you, or just seemed happy to be there. I get it — no matter what your job is, you’re going to have good days and bad. But they made it seem like passengers were an inconvenience. I tried to interact with them as little as possible since they made it seem like I was unwelcome.
They did make sure I had food, water and a blanket. And they did provide me with meals when I woke up after meal times. They also got to my seat in about 30 seconds when I pressed the call button to test response time. But their attitude just was not OK.
I’m incredibly lucky that I get to do what I do and have flown some of the most incredible cabins in the sky, most of which I never would have dreamed I could spend time in.
But it’s my job to show you what’s good, what’s bad and what falls somewhere in between so that you don’t waste your hard-earned points, miles or cash on experiences that just aren’t worth it.
Air India’s business class on the 777-300ER is undoubtedly just not worth it.
The seat felt like cardboard, the flight attendants were incredibly rude and the IFE system was comically outdated. There was nothing premium about this experience, except for the fact that the seat was (almost) lie-flat, a godsend when spending about 20 hours on the plane, including the time we spent on the ground as well as in the air. It must be said that the price was not premium, either, which is a small consolation.
Have things improved since that fateful review in 2017? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Featured photo by the author.
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