Monday, June 06, 2011

My experiences with the Maharaja

Photograph ©: Vinay Bavdekar
It was conference time, and since I was being funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, it was compulsory for me to travel Air India, at least till its hub in a foreign country. Beyond the hub, I was free to travel any airline, preferably a code-sharing partner of the Maharaja.  I was flying international with the Maharaja for the second time. Last time too, I had taken Air India to travel to Frankfurt and back.

I had to fly to Hangzhou in China. Air India said that I would have to fly to Hong Kong and from there to Hangzhou. The Maharaja would drop me in Hong Kong and from there I was supposed to fly any other airline. It turned out that if I were to book any other airline, my ticket would have been way cheaper than that it cost me on Air India. Why does this happen, I do not know? But, since DST had agreed to pay me whatever it costs, I didn't have to worry too much. It turned out that even Cathay Pacific is cheaper than Air India.

Most of Air India's international flights now begin from Delhi. New Delhi T-3 has become the hub for Air India's flight operations. Many flights routes have been converted into via Delhi routes. So, although my flight was numbered AI-310, I had to fly to Delhi on a Airbus aircraft (possibly an erstwhile Indian Airlines aircraft used for domestic operations). The Mumbai-Delhi leg was pleasant. The flight took off after a 20 minute delay. However, AI staff announced this well in time, so that we didn't have to keep wondering what happened to the aircraft. AI should retire its Airbus A320 fleet. The aircraft looks aged, the interiors speak volumes of its age. When most aircraft (including AI's new Boeing fleet) are donning white coloured interiors (not seats), the A320 has yellow interiors, which makes the atmosphere seem dull. Anyways, once that's out of the way, I enjoyed the flight, except for the toilets, which were stinking like those on railway stations. The food was good, and most importantly, the flight landed in Delhi 5 minutes before the scheduled time. Delhi-Hong Kong was on AI's new Boeing 777. The interiors were well maintained. The ambiance is way better than the A320, with soothing lighting and spacious seats. The in-flight entertainment system was functioning well, with new headphones kept in the seat-pockets. The movie stock was nice and the music collection, too, was great. The crew was mild mannered and polite. The air hostess in our part of the flight deck was extremely polite and tried to cater to passenger demands with utmost care. The flight took off on time and landed in Hong Kong 20 minutes before its scheduled time of arrival.

After the conference, on my return leg from Hong Kong to Mumbai, it was again time to be served by the Maharaja. This was against the back drop of the news when oil companies had refused to give fuel to AI aircraft, because AI hadn't cleared their bills. My worry was whether we would be able to even take-off from Hong Kong. But, we did take off on time. Here again, the crew was well-dressed, well-groomed, strict, yet polite and mild mannered. At this point, I would like to point towards the behaviour of passengers. Almost everyone in the flight were Indian citizens or persons of Indian origin. A Gujarati family, the moment they entered the flight, started saying "Air India hai, kuch bhi ho sakta hai", on anything that didn't happen as per their desire.  The desire might have been completely impractical or misplaced. E.g. when dinner was delayed due to turbulence, they got agitated and restarted their rhetoric against AI. A kid (hardly 5 years old) of the family told her father that she had been given non-vegetarian food. The father immediately began a rant against the steward without any verification. The steward just looked and said, "Sir vegetarian hi to diya hai, aap khud hi dekh lijiye."  After sometime, another passenger got drunk and began creating nuisance. Because of his nuisance, I couldn't concentrate on my movie. When the steward tried to calm things down, the drunk passenger became more abusive. At this moment, the senior steward stepped in and gave a nice mouth lashing to the passenger, who really deserved it. It also perhaps helped in sobering him down.

For the Delhi-Mumbai leg, we had to change aircraft and we were back into the A320. When boarding in Hong Kong, we were allotted seat numbers on our boarding passes. But when we entered the plane, we were told it is free seating. The saying, "Early bird catches the worm", worked well for me. I was the third person to enter the aircraft and got into the seat that was printed on my boarding card. The later ones faced problems and there was a lot of chaos that led to the flight taking off almost 20 minutes late. Families got separated, those allotted window seats insisted on having one, and those who didn't find a favourable seat walked into the business class as a protest. AI should have managed this better. They should know before hand, what aircraft would be pressed into service. Seat configurations are different even for different A320s. Or else, allot seat numbers only after the aircraft is finalised. This would have helped saved passengers a good 20 minutes apart from the troubles and agitations that they had to face. At Mumbai airport too, the aircraft was not parked at an aero-bridge, but in the parking bay of AI aircraft. This bay, is closer to Kalina side, whereas the airport terminal is at Sahar side (i.e. Andheri side). We were ferried across in a bus.

All in all, it was a mixed experience. The flight performance was good, almost on time everywhere. The crew did behave well, with me at least. Considering the fact that they know the dire straits in which the airline is and that their future is completely dependent on the whims and fancies of certain IAS officers and central government ministers, rather than strategic business decisions. But some mismanagement on the airport side, caused stress to certain passengers. And I didn't have to worry about food. Moreover, the route is inconvenient. Why ferry everyone to Delhi and then take them out of the country? Another flip side is that AI hasn't yet joined Star Alliance, which means passengers are bereft of benefits such as seamless connectivity, accruing travel miles for travelling partner airlines, etc. But so is the case with Jet Airways and Kingfisher, India's other two international airlines. Once this happens, it would be even better flying with India's airlines.
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  1. nice write up.. But definitely me n hubby prefer the maharaja to all other flights even though we may end up paying more.. the state of economy class for other flights (international) is really bad.

  2. @Sushmita,
    I haven't flown any other international airline, so no comments on that issue. But, if AI joins the Star Alliance, it would mean improved connectivity across the world for its passengers. As of now, connectivity is definitely an issue, since AI doesn't have enough code-sharing partners.

  3. hey.. i am travelling on the same bombay - delhi - hongkong route tomorrow since the flight was 50% cheaper than jet, cathay and kingfisher.. i will let u'll know my experience when i am back next week.. just a question, i hope they let us disembark at delhi airport for the 4 hour wait ???? Pls let me know

  4. @Pranay,
    There is an aircraft change at Delhi, but since the boarding passes are issued in Mumbai, you won't be able to leave the Delhi airport terminal. You have to remain within the terminal, though since you have around 3.5 hours, you can roam around the T-3 shopping area and food court.