Air India traces its first flight back to 1932 when it started as Tata Airlines. The Indian government acquired 49% of the carrier in 1948 when it also launched its first international services. In 1953 the government nationalised all airlines including Air India and the carrier’s fleet and route map steadily grew. Air India joined the jet age in 1960 and began services to New York with a Boeing 707. The first 747 arrived in 1971 and they acquired their first Airbus in 1986. In 2001 India’s aviation sector was deregulated and Singapore Airlines expressed interest in Air India but the sudden downturn following 9/11 scared them off. India’s largest domestic carrier, Indian Airlines was absorbed by Air India in 2007 at a time when both airlines had sunk into debt. In recent years the airline has improved services to compete with sophisticated Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways. Deregulation has brought competition and service improvements but profits remain allusive.
Air India was once a by-word for poor service. Not only were aircraft interiors filthy but staff were rude, lazy and typically invisible. International flights even carried rats and cockroaches on board. Service has improved immensely and passengers can now expect reasonable standards. Premium passengers are treated better than others but some staff still have a superiority complex over passengers. Crews are colourfully attired in an unmistakably Indian uniform.
Air India has a comprehensive point to point domestic network and also flies to a large number of international destinations especially to the Persian Gulf region. Air India has lost a considerable amount of business to its superior Indian competitors; Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways and have withdrawn from many routes.
Whatever price Air India is charging it is difficult to be convinced buying a ticket on them is a value for money proposition. Air India is never the best airline on any route. On domestic legs no-frills competitors are cheaper and quality airlines are better. To the Gulf region almost any other airline is better than Air India, providing far superior service and on long distance international legs Air India are beaten for value and service by competitors.
Premium passengers get excited when staff actually deliver the drink they’ve requested made correctly. As for their meals, they are poorly presented and of a very average quality. Economy passengers do get fed, but the Indian style meals are sloppily presented and not very exciting. However as Air India meals are prepared by different catering companies around the world they do vary and some are quite satisfactory. Passengers are extremely unlikely to get Delhi belly from Air India cuisine. Surprisingly even Maharajah (Business)Class get plastic cutlery.
Newer larger aircraft typically on longer legs have the latest in-flight entertainment systems with individual seat back screens playing a wide selection of current Hollywood and Bollywood movies together with plenty of audio channels. Older aircraft will have the single large screens at the front, but these are progressively being updated with individual entertainment units. Smaller aircraft on short legs will have nothing but the in-flight magazine. Staff are unapologetic if the entertainment is broken.
In general ground service at Indian airports is superior to that provided at most American, Australian and European airports. Security is better, staff are more abundant and queues are shorter. Baggage is well handled and transfers are completed efficiently. Indian check-in staff are quite pleasant, well educated and multi-lingual.
Air India has lifted its game with the arrival of Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways and it seems most of their premium passengers have flocked to the newer, better carriers. Air India simply cannot compete with these more sophisticated airlines together with the infinitely superior service to be found on the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Etihad. The only thing that Air India can offer premium passengers is a cheaper ticket price. Interiors are OK, service is alright and meals are not too bad. It is simply impossible to WOW over anything. As for Air India’s five Maharajah Lounges; they are quite nice with a distinctive Indian flavour about them, nice colours but are surpassed by more luxurious airlines.
Paying a little bit extra will typically buy Economy passengers a far nicer experience on a better airline. Within India’s competitive domestic market there are plenty of better airlines, and on shorter routes India’s Railways remain highly competitive and efficient. The busy India – Gulf sectors are well served by several quality airlines which not only provide good prices but more comfort. If tourists wish to begin their Indian holiday at the city of departure then Air India promises to deliver. Economy passengers can expect a basic onboard experience and a crowded flight that will touch down in India with floors littered with rubbish and toilets overflowing with filthy water and stinking like a sewer. Long distance Air India flights for Economy passengers can be unpleasant.
With Air India admitted to Star Alliance there seems no point in being a member of their frequent flyer programme as other airline membership cards will earn points on their airline. Air India’s loyalty scheme is called Flying Returns and in keeping with most other frequent flyer programmes points are almost worthless and members need to do a considerable amount of flying before any benefits will accrue.
In the past Air India can lay claim to being one of the most corrupt airlines in aviation. Managers accepted bribes from passengers to take excess baggage. Bribes were made to accept extra passengers who were on-loaded as infants and senior management knew, tolerated and participated in all manner of bribe taking, corruption and nepotism. The airline has lifted its game, however many of these culprits are still working in aviation and Air India has never exorcised itself of these demons. Management remain incompetent, dishonest and boastful of their own and the airlines abilities. Most staff are too grateful for their job to do anything about it. Airbus and Boeing ought to see the colour of Air India’s money before the airline takes delivery for equipment. They are notoriously difficult to get money out of.
Air India has had approximately 10 fatal accidents; it’s worst a terrorist bomb in 1984. The airline has an unenviable safety and maintenance record but has recently improved its performance from sub-standard to satisfactory. Terrorist related security at India’s airports is so excellent passengers will realise how pathetic American measures are in comparison, but baggage remains the weak link. Air India’s engineering facilities have an ISO9002 rating which is meant to mean it meets international standards. But corruption in the airline raises concerns over aircraft spare parts and accuracy of record keeping concerning aircraft checking.
A terrible reputation it earned through delivering consistently inferior service at an average price.
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