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Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Sun Jun 01, 2003 8:55 am

Air India Flight 145
May 15, 2003
Boeing 747-400, VT-EVA, "Agra"


Checkin: A
Lounge: A
First Class Seats: A
Cabin Service: A for cabin staff, B+ for overall style
Amenity Kit: A
Beverages: A- (Points off for no Beverage menu)
Meals: B for taste, C for presentation, A+ for the desserts, F for the awful coffee.
Inflight entertainment: F
On-time performance: A+

Air India called me the evening before my flight to confirm I was travelling the next morning. I figured that they were either being nice or that the flight was full. In any case, they asked me if I wanted a particular seat and I asked for the Exit row in Business Class on the Upper deck. They also said that I could show up as late as 6:00 AM for a 7:20 AM flight. Not too bad, because I roll out of bed at 5:30 AM anyways.

This was the first time I was departing from the Air India Terminal at Bombay's Sahar Airport. As others have stated before, it is a big improvement over the disgraceful main international terminal. When I arrived AI were checking in 2 Boeing 747-400s - my flight and one to Kuwait. The terminal looked empty, but then it could be that the nearly 700 Economy Class passengers had checked in already. Checkin was easy. The line at Immigration was slow, but then what does one expect from the usual collection of Govt of India officials. More multiple stamps from more bored officials in Khaki. Has anyone figured out what they do? In any case, off to the Air India Maharajah Lounge. It took me around 20 minutes from arriving at the airport to stepping into the Air India lounge. A big difference from the 2.5 hours it took me last September when I flew BA, and for this reason alone I think that I will stick with Air India on any future flights to India - that is until they build a new international terminal (Since I am 36 now, I doubt if this will happen in my lifetime).

The lounge is well furnished, is comfortable and plush, with about 5 computer terminals, music listening areas, TVs, and a good collection of newspapers. No buffet, but waiters came around offering a choice of sandwiches and cheese puffs. Sandwiches at 6:30 AM? And what are cheese puffs? In any case, I declined and surfed the internet instead. Others around me were devouring the food.

The best thing about the AI lounge is the view of the tarmac. Lots of activity this AM. The usual posse of IC A320s and Jet Airways 737NGs departing, several widebodies arriving and departing (Lufthansa MD-11F, Polar Air 744, Royal Jordanian A310, Kuwait Airways 777, etc) etc. Of course, you also get a direct view of the slums that have encroached on the Airport land. Strangely enough, the Air India lounge must be the only one in the world where the mens room also has a fantastic view of the runaways and the tarmac.

Call for departure, off to the security check on the departure mezzanine level. AI staff cherry picked First and Business Class passengers from the line and put us at the front where at least 15 armed security personnel were lollygagging around while one ruffled security guard was doing all the work. A hapless woman was being interrogated by half a dozen guards for checking in several jars of Gujarati sweet pickles in her carry on. She appeared to be a rotund housewife and seemed perplexed by the interrogation. What a complete waste of time for her and the idiots who were treating her like the unabomber.

The 744 today was VT-EVA, "Agra," and from what I gathered on the Air India website, it is of around 1995 vintage. Unfortunately, Agra - like its urban namesake - looked like it had seen better days. The premium Economy cabin in Zone B looked shabby and those hideous green walls JUST HAVE TO GO !!! Also, as on VT-ESO, the Economy cabin had no carpets. I remember reading awhile back that Air India was involved in some airplane carpet procurring scandal and lost nearly $ 1 million in the bargain. Well, it looks like they've given up on the carpet concept in Economy. Of course, this makes the Economy cabin look like a big exotic, honky-tonk Greyhound bus.

Arriving on the upperdeck, I was told that I was to proceed to First Class. I was handed a new printed Red First Class boarding pass and so I proceeded to Zone A. It turns out that the plane was full, and full Fare paying passengers were being upgraded. Even so, as I entered Zone A, I saw 2 rather disgruntled non-revs being escorted out. Oh well. So thats what $ 3500 buys you. Not too bad.

The First Class cabin had the new Flat Bed Seats and I must say that they are very comfortable. I was in Seat 3K (moving to Seat IK on the CDG-EWR leg). The cabin was full today and featured 3 Flight attendants including a senior plump FA with a head of bright Orange hair that matched her toe nails and red saree, and a handsome guy who was a dead ringer for a young Omar Sharif. A very good collection of Indian and International newspapers and magazines were laid out on a trolley in the center aisle. Orange Juice and Water were offered. OK. Its 7:00 AM and it REALLY is a bit too early for champagne. The guy seated next to me was an Air India Engineer who was flying to CDG to certify the aircraft for its next leg because there wasn't one at CDG (and apparently because Air France staff were doing a shabby job). He was a delightful fellow to talk to, and his take on Airbus vs Boeing was very interesting. The crew then handed out the same excellent amenity kit that was handed out in Business Class. These are superb and rival what BA offer.

Quick take-off followed and soon thereafter a breakfast service began. Very disappointing presentation for First Class I must add. The basics were laid out on a tray (the standard AI Economy tray) without much attention to style or presentation, featuring a rather awful croissant and the usual rockhard roll. An Alphonso mango cut to look like a porcupine and decorated with assorted fruits was an interesting touch though, and it was the only thing I ate. Soon thereafter, a huge trolley rolled out with what looked like at least 12 dishes. A huge selection of breakfast foods, but none of them looked particularly appealing. Perhaps, its not Air India's fault. I have NEVER had a good breakfast on a flight out of Bombay in the last 15 years. The catering there have no idea how to conjure up a decent croissant or scramble a decent egg and this time was no better. Also, whats with the overall presentation? The food was obviously delivered on board in those disposable collapsible aluminium rectangular containers and the cabin crew basically snap them into these fancy silver containers on the trolley. Of course, the aluminium containers dont all fit into the serving trays properly and it all looks VERY VERY sloppy. Someone needs to change this.

Post breakfast, window shades were pulled down, duvets brought out and the flat beds flattened without exception. I stayed up and read. Very comfortable indeed, although I predict that the mechanics of the foot rest will give Air India grief in the future. The plus points of the seats are the width, the cushion comfort and the wonderful duvets. Negatives are the lack of privacy dividers both between seats or behind the seats. This gives the cabin the feel of a big slumberfest.

I couldnt sleep - after all it was 9:30 am, Indian Standard Time, and so I got myself some water and chatted with the crew in the galley. They appeared to be in a quandary about the table linens on board - many were tatty and the senior FA laughed as she said that the linens were as old as she was ! I must say that she was a hoot, interesting hairdo and all. Took a walk down the Economy cabin, and I noticed that ALL of the female FAs on board looked paunchy which is not a very professional look in a saree. Hon, if you have a big paunch then the salwar kameez suit (an Indian pantsuit featuring a tunic, pants and scarf) is a better bet. No one wants to see a big belly in a saree. Sarees are best left for Bollywood beauties or as worn by the slim FAs on my EWR-Bom flight.

The inflight entertainment on Air India is useless. No PTVs even in First, and the DVDS that the now demoted ex-Aviation minister was talking about were nowhere in sight. The main screen in the First Class cabin was showing some ridiculous Hollywood film and it looked like a blur. Also, the audio was terrible. Only about 4 of the 12 or so choices were audible. I think I will forego my usual rant about how antiquated and useless inflight entertainment is on Air India.

At about 4.5 hours into the flight, a cocktail service began. This was accompanied by a basket of snacks - almonds, cashews, chips, and Indian packaged munchies. No beverage menu was offered. I liked the choice of snacks, but I think that the presentation could be better in First Class. If Continental can conjure up a bowl of warmed nuts, then AI can do better ! A lunch service soon followed. It was a long drawn out 6 course affair. This time the presentation was a bit better although the linens looked cheap, there were no individual salt and pepper shakers (little sachets were laid out on the linen), and of course the dreadful plastic cutlery was provided. Hoers d'oevres were rolled out. It was the usual First Class fare of pate,etc. However, very little of it was any good (hard frozen pate, tasteless terrines, etc), although it all looked rather pretty. I was expecting Air India to offer an Indian selection, but there wasnt any to be seen. The first course was an inedible salad of nasty bean sprouts, described as a mixed salad, that virtually all on board left untouched. It was the nastiest thing I have eaten on an airplane or anywhere else for that matter. This was followed by a choice of soup. I took the very good mulligatawny. Multiple main courses were then trotted out on a trolley service. Interestingly, on all my flights we were served only Fowl or Fish - but then neither beef nor pork are offered on Air India for obvious reasons. Again, the presentation in those awful aluminium containers disguised quite poorly by the fancy silver ones. I nibbled a bit of a shrimp curry - not as good as the one I had out of Newark, but good nevertheless. Interestingly enough,the plates used by Air India to serve the main course are sized somewhere between side plates and those offered for a main course. This makes eating very difficult because the crew wants you to eat, eat, eat (and seemed rather dejected if you refuse) and thus they tend to fill your plate up with food which then tends to spill over onto the tray. Will someone please ask the Inflight services department to serve food on full sized plates? Also, the lunch service also featured the usual rock hard cold rolls. Whats up with that? The ho-hum lunch was compensated for by a good dessert service which was then followed by cheese (boring selection of emmenthal, camembert and Cheddar) and Indian mithai. Throughout the meal, the cabin crew kept my glass of Veuve Clicquot filled. A coffee/tea service followed featuring what tasted like dilute Nescafe. Air India should realize that a) not every passenger is a tea drinking North Indian or Brit, b) that the Non-resident Indian based in the US has a freshly brewed cup of Starbucks as the standard for coffee and that c) Nescafe just doesn't quite cut it.

I shifted to Seat 1K for the next leg of the flight because a few passengers disembarked in Paris and two passengers wanted to sit next to each other. Also, a few non-revs (family of AI personnel) were brought to First from the crew-rest area. Pre-departure drinks of orange juice and water again? Where is the champagne, guys? This is First Class. Once in flight, cocktail service began which was followed by a meal service (Lunch? Dinner? High tea? Who knows? Its a long flight and its First Class and who knows or cares what time it is, and, in any case, one must eat). I didn't partake of the salad or the soup, but I must add that the hoer d'oevres were excellent and looked and tasted a lot better than the fare out of Bombay. This time around the rolls were warmed and predictably the French delivered on the quality as well. The main courses were varied and endless and again didn't seem spectacular. The presentation was similar to all the other meals - not quite First Class. I nibbled on a bit of a roasted Guinea fowl and some Indian vegetables. It was pretty average, as was the rather tepid French Chardonnay I had with my meal. It was nowhere as good as what I was offered on my Newark-Paris leg. However, the high point of the meal was a fabulous dessert service featuring Ice cream, Mille Feuile, chocolate Tortes, cheesecake, Linzer tortes, etc. The trolley looked like it would keel over. In any case, the ice cream itself made up for any shortcomings of the meals overall. After this meal, I slept like a baby and asked the crew not to wake me up for any future meals. I must add that I never put the seat in a full 180 degree flat position - a 150 degree cradled position sufficed for me - although others on board were snoring in their flat bed position.

When I awoke, the cabin crew were serving high tea which included an elaborate presentation of sandwiches and desserts. Again, they insisted I eat something, but I settled for a cup of tea instead. Others around me were stuffing themselves with sandwiches and pastry and appeared to be quite happy. The conclusion of an Indian film was playing on the main screen. Aishwarya Rai was wailing at the edge of a cliff as the male lead was imploring her not to jump. In any case, it was all rather surreal. The tea was as good as the coffee was lousy. The rather attractive and pleasant female Flight attendant came around again and offered me some more tea and again asked if I would like to eat something. They all seemed so very nice.

Cabin was prepped for landing and we arrived at Newark 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Wonderful.

I must add that I was quite impressed with the Air India cabin crew (paunches on some of them notwithstanding) on all legs of my journey. They were very warm and caring and unlike some of the miserable cabin crew I've encountered on First Class on American carriers appeared to enjoy their jobs. The flat-bed First Class seats are good, but they need privacy dividers. Of course, they are not quite as good as what BA offer, and appear to be several years behind the competition. I was disappointed by the style of the meal presentation and think that it needs to be updated. Furthermore, Air India should allow FIrst Class passengers to eat any time they wish rather than go through a long elaborate multi-course meal. Of course, I may be alone on that one, because it appears that the majority of Indian passengers prefer the elaborate roll-out of meals. However, if an elaborate roll-out lacks style, or if the meals are not very good, then it all becomes rather humdrum. AI needs to update their meal service to ensure a true First Class experience - flatware, linens, serving trays, etc. The inflight entertainment was a bust. The on-time performance was great !

I think that Air India should be managed by Airline people, not by a bunch of Ministers from New Delhi who have no idea what international travel trends are all about. If the airline were let off its governmental leash, I think that it would regain its lost status of a premium carrier, especially in First and Business Class. All in all, I would like to thank the excellent cabin crew on all my flights who worked against the odds to ensure a good trip.
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SR 103
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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Sun Jun 01, 2003 9:35 am

Thanks for the excellent trip report. Really well written.

I haven't flown Air India since I was like 5, but have always wondered what it would be like to fly them. My parents decided never to fly them again after that one time. Your report was very informative and provided a good idea of what Air India is like.

I think I shall stick to the other airlines when it comes to flying to BOM simply because of the entertainment, which I desperately need on long flights such as these. Maybe someday I will give Air India a try when they improve certain aspects.

I noticed that ALL of the female FAs on board looked paunchy which is not a very professional look in a saree. Hon, if you have a big paunch then the salwar kameez suit (an Indian pantsuit featuring a tunic, pants and scarf) is a better bet. No one wants to see a big belly in a saree. Sarees are best left for Bollywood beauties or as worn by the slim FAs

haha... This is one thing I remember from my flights back then. Nice to know things are the same in this department.  Big grin

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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Sun Jun 01, 2003 11:13 am

I bumped into the entire crew from an Indian Airlines flight in Concorde Hotel, here in Singapore. ALL of them had paunched hanging out of their sarees.  Big grin
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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Sun Jun 01, 2003 10:07 pm

One additional aspect - it appears that the ridiculous Indian Aviation Ministry has been spending enormous amounts of the Indian tax payer's money to examine the feasibility of providing "Inflight ayurvedic massages" to apparently make AI more competitive with BA and Virgin. What has the Ministry been smoking? And in which country on God's green earth besides India does a tax payer funded ministry engage in such stupidity? I have no idea where onboard they intend to do that. There does not appear to be any space onboard for any such foolishness. The whole idea of flying First Class is exclusivity which does not include paying $ 5000 to watch some hefty masseur from Trivandrum massage the bejesus out of someone.
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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Sun Jun 01, 2003 11:00 pm

Guess the babus were taken on a junket by Virgin when they came in. I had recently attended a presentation by a gentleman who was involved with Virgins launch in India and according to him, they really laid onthe full show in India.

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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Mon Jun 02, 2003 9:30 am

Nice report there Jay!

AI seems like the best alternative in Y Class. But how would you rate AI J class as compared to BA? In terms of fare and service.

ALL of them had paunched hanging out of their sarees.

I agree that many of them need to visit a gym, but both AI and IC have their fair share of hotties, i assure you.

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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Mon Jun 02, 2003 2:15 pm

Air India's Business Class was about $ 3000 all told with taxes. And of course it cost me another $ 200 R/T to Newark and back. BA ran about $ 4100. So it was a saving of about $ 800 (Northwest was about $ 3700 but its a terrible airline). My travel agent insisted that I would regret flying Air India, but her fears were unrealized - the food and service in Business Class were very good. I found that service on BA is good on transatlantic runs, but on the India-UK runs, its blah. BA beats Air India overall because of the hardware (flat bed seats, inflight entertainment), and the presentation of meals in Business Class on BA is much better than on Air India. Still, Air India do provide a reasonably good Business Class service and the savings are worth it in spite of the pitfalls.

The overall experience in First Class, however, was far superior on BA than on Air India.
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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Wed Jun 11, 2003 7:54 pm


Thanks for your very interesting trip report, I always enjoy reading reports from the more "uncivilised" airlines...  Smile/happy/getting dizzy

You mentioned there was no carpet in economy class - what was in its place? Was it right down to the metal or was there that horrible plastic textured floorcovering you get on trains?

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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Wed Jun 11, 2003 8:21 pm

the DVDS that the now demoted ex-Aviation minister was talking about were nowhere in sight

Ah, the DVD saga. The reason for this is that when the contract for DVDs was signed, no one paid any attention to the minor issue of RECHARGING THE BATTERIES for the DVD players. So they bought DVD players and spare batteries, but not battery chargers that could work in flight. Now they have to go back and get ministry approval before they can purchase the chargers, so expect about 10-12 months before that is approved. In the meanwhile, all batteries have to be charged on ground at BOM which isn't really feasible.

As for the privacy dividers, they want to add them but again the vendor choice would have to go through the ministry for approval and that whole deal has been restarted because of the new minister being appointed.

"The A340-300 may boast a long range, but the A340 is underpowered" -- Robert Milton, CEO - Air Canada
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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Thu Jun 12, 2003 3:33 am

Well, I don't consider Air India to be an uncivilized airline. As a matter of fact its far more civilized than any intercontinental American carrier I have flown with. But its no BA or SQ. But as far as the flooring in Economy class is concerned it was this rubberized matting that I think exists below the carpeting. Quite terrible indeed. Made it look like a bus.

The DVD & Divider saga:
This is like a Benny Hill cartoon. Its pathetic isn't it, that a friggin' plastic divider between seats has to go through approval by the asinine minister. Ditto for the DVDs. What do they do when they decide to change the TP in the loos? Does the minister wipe his arse with it first to pass approval? I am sorry, but I think that the Indian civil ministry is a joke. And the joke is being played out on Air India and the travelling public. Question: What exactly DOES the indian aviation ministry do???? And why does it take 12 months to approve the purchase of inflight battery chargers especially since it is apparent that they do nothing ! As far as the privacy dividers are concerned, why were they not purchased with the seats? Sogerma supplies seats with privacy dividers. Who is running this airline? Sell the damn thing to Jet Airways and let Naresh Goyal spruce it up. I bet he'll make sure that privacy dividers show up tomorrow !
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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Thu Jun 12, 2003 4:10 am

What do they do when they decide to change the TP in the loos? Does the minister wipe his arse with it first to pass approval?

There was a major scandal a few years ago when the manager in charge of deciding the inflight toilet paper brand was suspended and later terminated because they determined he had taken samples of the toilet paper home to test before placing the order. Allegedly the reason for this was that he had refused to bow to ministerial (Sharad Yadav back then) pressure to select a certain vendor who was providing kickbacks.
"The A340-300 may boast a long range, but the A340 is underpowered" -- Robert Milton, CEO - Air Canada
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RE: Air India First Class Bombay-Paris-Newark

Thu Jun 12, 2003 7:53 am

Well, thats what the aviation ministry does (as everyone suspected) ! It takes kickbacks from vendors. Why else are they kicking and screaming to stop liberalization? Take away the goose that lays the golden egg, and they're just a bunch of third-rate ex-IAS officers with nothing left to loot.

Sharad Yadav was that idiot who preceded Shahnawaz, right?

Of course, the most interesting this is that AI have a manager in charge of deciding inflight TP !
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