There are only two airlines that fly to India nonstop from the US. Air India offers one of them.
- Air India, India's debt-ridden, flailing national carrier is one of the two airlines that flies nonstop to India from the US.
- In March, I took the nonstop 15-hour long flight between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Last month, I went on my annual pilgrimage to India. My parents still live there, so a trip once a year or so is pretty much non-negotiable.
But this time, instead of settling for a connecting flight with a layover in Europe as per usual, I decided to fly nonstop to New Delhi — not only to save time but because the direct flight during this time of the year didn't come with the exorbitant price tag that it usually comes with around the time of the Christmas holidays.
My only two options were United, which is a 15-hour flight from Newark Liberty International Airport, and Air India, which takes around the same time, but departs from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. I decided to go with an economy ticket on the latter.
Make no mistake — Air India has a terrible reputation. India's national carrier is a flailing, debt-ridden airline that frequently ends up at the very bottom of global rankings. Its facilities are hardly state-of-the-art, and it often gets dismal customer service reviews.
I was nervous, as I too had a bad experience flying Air India once before. But I had last flown the airline on this route all the way back in 2010, as a tourist to the US heading back to India. So I decided to give it another shot.
Here's what I thought of my Air India flight, departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport at 2:25 p.m. for New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, operated on a Boeing 777-300 ER.
I arrived at JFK at 11:55 p.m. for my flight at 2:25 p.m. on a Saturday. I had two medium-sized bags, and a carry-on, even though only one is pictured here.
I like to show up at least three hours in advance for international flights, so I was a little worried when I saw how crowded the terminal was. But despite the long lines, I was past both check-in and security by 12:20 p.m.
Not too long after that, it was time to board the Boeing 777-300. I felt a surge of patriotism upon spotting the Indian flag. Fun fact: The tail is supposed to be a red flying swan with a "Chakra" in orange inside it — a version of the blue 24-spoked wheel at the center of the flag.
Every airline's cabin has its own flair, and Air India's is distinctly unique. It is bathed in purple, with signature orange and red interiors modeled after the "Maharajah," its longstanding mustached mascot.
The Maharajah first made his appearance way back in 1946, created by Air India's then-Commercial Director Bobby Kooka and Umesh Rao, an artist with J.Walter Thompson, Mumbai.
They say India is an experience for all your senses. As soon as I walked in, I could smell India. Maybe it was the food, or the people, but I hadn’t even left JFK and it felt like I’d already stepped foot in India. I settled into my seat, which I found to be very comfortable. But then, I'm only 5'4. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
While most airlines have their stewards and stewardesses come around pouring glasses of water post take-off, I was happy to find that each seat came with a pouch carrying a separate bottle of water for each passenger.
Shortly before take off, Air India's safety video came on the in-flight entertainment screen. The system isn't the best —it was pretty sluggish and while the Bollywood collection was pretty extensive, the English content was fairly limited. The volume wasn't the best either.
The white pillow and blanket also came emblazoned with Air India’s logo. These, along with my own personal neck pillow, were going to come in handy on this 15-hour marathon flight.
About an hour into the flight, the first round of food came out. It was typical Indian fare, some mixed vegetables and chicken curry with rice. The food wasn't terrible — heavy, but actually one of the better meals I've had on a flight. But the salad was sad. Just a bunch of lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes with a lemon wedge. I scarfed it down with some wine.
The next round came about three hours after the first one, and was similar to the first meal. It consisted of okra, rice, and chicken. I am usually good with spicy food, but the chicken was a tad too spicy and oily.
After the cabin lights were dimmed, most people settled in for a nap. But I watched the Bollywood film "A Death in the Gunj," a thriller-drama that came out in 2017. Each new video began with a promotional campaign for New Delhi called "Incredible India," showcasing its various sights. Delhi is a historical paradise, and that made me even more pumped to be heading home.
With an hour and a half left for New Delhi, we got our third and final snack — apple pie, canned fruit and a croissant. I had one takeaway: Airplane croissants are the worst kind of croissants.
At long last — I was home! IGI is one of the world's 20 busiest airports, and was also ranked number one in airport service quality recently. I had to wait almost an hour to make it through past immigration, but I had no complaints as my parents were waiting on the other side.
Let me be brutally honest — I expected this flight to be an absolute nightmare. But it exceeded my expectations, probably because I expected the bare minimum.
Going by my past experience, I thought I was going to encounter confused (and annoying) first-time fliers, a rude crewmember, and an uncomfortable ride. But I thankfully faced none of that.
The crew members were courteous, polite and helpful, my fellow passengers too were considerate, and the flight was generally comfortable.
The plane left on time, arrived a few minutes early, the seats were decent and the beer and wine were complimentary. I felt less tired and more refreshed than I usually do when I fly to India with a layover in Europe.
But not everything was good, or even fair. The cabin felt dilapidated, shoddy, and ancient. The entertainment system was janky, and I literally had to punch the TV screen with my fingers, and it still wouldn't work. I couldn't find the outlet at all.
Keeping all of that in mind, would I fly Air India nonstop to India again? Yes. If for nothing else, the fact that it slashes travel time and jet lag considerably. Flying to India is a gigantic undertaking, and if this makes it better, I'll take it.
Air India has redeemed itself, at least in my mind. And since the airline is up for sale, hopefully, a new, non-government owner will help it get better and soar higher.