Air India: My experience flying the Pune-Delhi-San Francisco route

The Boeing 777-200LR that Air India uses for this leg primarily is past it's prime. Why just the 200s, the 300ERs or even their 787 Dreamliners are worn out and dead.

BHPian moralfibre recently shared this with other enthusiasts.

I have flown Air India's service from PNQ-DEL-SFO and back several times. The last one being in Sep'21 when I moved to the US for good during the pandemic. While this was before the acquisition, some things that I'd like to share are relevant even today.

1. Convenience:

Nothing beats the ease of a direct flight from your local airport to a local hub and onward to your final destination. A lot of time is lost if I were to fly a middle eastern or European carrier to the US from Pune. First, I need to leave really really early to beat unpredictable traffic on the expressway and then in the city of Mumbai. Then, after taking a flight that takes off anytime between midnight till the wee hours, I have to get off, run security again and board another aircraft in an unknown country. I was once stuck at LHR for over 24 hours in Feb'09 where all of us with a non-friendly passport spent close to 14 hours in a queue to get a ticket reissued.

For the AI flight, I spend a leisurly day with the family, we head out for lunch and then at ease pack and head to the airport for a late evening flight to Delhi. In Delhi, one can checkin early and choose to spend time reading or chilling in a credit card affiliated lounge for a quick snack. I prep my jet lag hours right here and avoid sleeping altogether. The flight from DEL takes off at around 2 ish in the morning. After that, I don't need to worry about any other transit connection.

A straight 16 hour flight takes me to SFO in the wee hours when arrivals are low and immigration is lightning fast! The airport had toyed around with a quick immigration system via a kiosk in several journeys which made exit time from the aircraft to the arrivals deck less than 45 mins end to end. This was infact a lifesaver but it seems to have been retracted ever since.

From door to door, this is undoubtedly the fastest way to get around the globe crossing a time difference of over 12 hours!

2. Cabin and customer experience:

For someone who doesn't give too much importance to the medium of travel, the aircraft interiors still stood out like an eyesore. The haldi kumkum laced interior colours are rather bright for my liking and extremely flashy. Something with a shade of earth colours or the Blue pallete would really make a big difference to the in-flight experience.

I have taken about 8-9 flights in total on this route in the last 5 years and one of them was during the Indo-Pak crisis when one was sure to miss their onward connection due to the longer loop down south and then north to avoid the closed airspace. Barring this, the connections have been always on-time or within a threshold of comfort to not miss my onward connection to PNQ on the return leg.

The seats are worn out and uncomfortable, the trays are not clean and I don't know when they last cleaned the carpets in these planes. The restrooms are faded and cramped. Cleanliness in-flight is as bad as any public toilet. Fellow travellers make it worse as time progresses. I have managed to hack my way around this to use them at their prime before mayhem sets in.

Food has always been great and I'm told it has gotten better after the acquisition / transfer to Tata group.

3. The Aircraft:

The Boeing 777-200LRs that Air India uses for this leg primarily is past it's prime. Why just the 200s, the 300ERs or even their 787 Dreamliners are worn out and dead. There is an urgent need to refurbish all of them and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

VT-ALF, VT-ALG and VT-ALH are the three 200s that Air India is left with. I have had the opportunity to fly on all three across my travels. The ALG has gone through several mishaps. They had a blown door in one flight. It also a fire in the Auxillary PU while parked at Delhi. These are no longer usable and offer a state transport bus grade comfort. The inflight entertainment systems are dead and not-usable. I have always pre-downloaded content from streaming websites in advance to cover my 16 hour journey.

Good part is that Air India has a clear plan to retire these. Two out of three replacements are already leased from Jettran and are ex-Delta 200 LRs that were parked in storage. As I type this, these two aircrafts are undergoing rebranding, paint and refurbishment for replacing AIs ageing fleet of 200s. These are three seating configs with Delta's premium suites in them. I cannot wait for these aircrafts to be operational and joining the leg from DEL-SFO-DEL sector.

4. Booking experience

I booked a flight for my wife to fly SFO-DEL-BOM and PNQ-DEL-SFO . I anticipated that I wouldn't be able to do this on Air India's portal but the multi-city option in the refreshed portal is a breeze. The pricing was cheaper than SIA and EK by a few 100 dollars for late 2023 travel. I am hoping that the newer 200s are operational by then.

The new website is a long leap from the previous sarkari website. It even ran on non-standard web ports (8443 IIRC). The seat booking is absolutely awesome with free options to cater to your needs as well. I was a sucker for the emergency exit rows in my previous travels. For some 7,500 bucks you could get ample leg room and a free to walk out seat configuration. The same seat on expensive airline is north of $150 to $200. I hope AI retains this option.

5.Ground staff and Crew

Air India would be my preferred carrier when my mom comes visiting. I don't want to stress her out with flight travels that involve transits in any country. The last time she flew BA via Heathrow in business class, she had to wait an hour and half for the wheelchairs to be made available at the gate. Which cut her time from the lounge access to refresh and rest for her flight connection. The staff was arrogant and non-helpful. My experience with Air India staff on the other hand has been fairly ok. If you talk to them nicely, you can get work done. They have a baggage to carry from their sarkari days and it is hard to navigate through that.

Some of my pilot friends have been with Air India for decades. Their experience is unmatched. The mighty Boeing 777-300 is a workhorse but even the best can experience failures. One such disaster was averted when an experienced crew onboard AI101 in 2018 managed to land safely in New York with just VNAV and experience on their shoulders. The aircraft experienced catastrophic failures in final approach. I would bet my life on such crews who can think and act fast to take you from A to B safely.


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