April 25, 2024

I Flew Air India’s Old Economy Cabin for 15 Hours and Was Miserable

My Air India flight from Delhi to Newark was rough, thanks to the broken seat, broken USB port, and broken seatback TV.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

  • I flew on Air India’s legacy long-haul economy product from Delhi to Newark, New Jersey.
  • The television and the USB port on my seat were broken, making for a rough 15 hours.
  • Customers have better cabins to look forward to as Air India’s new management looks to improve.

Air India may be on the rise with its swanky new Airbus A350, but it can’t escape the basket case that is its old long-haul economy product.

I flew from Delhi to Newark, New Jersey, in January on the company’s aging Boeing 777-300ER. For 15 hours. In coach. (Business Insider paid a media rate). The specific plane, registered VT-ALO, is about 15 years old.

After hearing the horror stories about Air India’s economy product, I had low expectations going into the ultra-long-haul journey.

And despite paying an extra $50 to reserve an aisle seat after being randomly assigned a middle, I happened to choose one that was completely broken.

Here’s what the flight was like and how I passed the time without power outlets, a reading light, or seatback entertainment.

Going into my 15-hour trek from Delhi to New Jersey on Air India, I had low expectations.

Air India has dozens of legacy widebodies that feature a dated cabin. I flew on the pictured Boeing 777 in business class before flying back in economy.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The Tata Group originally founded Air India in 1932 before the airline was nationalized in 1953.

The Tatas, however, bought back Air India in 2021 in a full-circle moment and have vowed to restore its reputation, starting with a record 470-aircraft order for new Airbus and Boeing planes and a $400 million cabin retrofit — which can’t come soon enough after my recent economy flight.

Air India is not the gold-tier airline it once was, and there was no shortage of online reviews complaining of broken seats and dirty planes.

Air India was Tata Airlines when it was founded. Pictured is a Boeing 747 from the Tata archives.

Reuters reported many of Air India’s seats were in bad condition, while The New York Times described poor customer service and reliability over the years.

Despite an OK flight in the carrier’s awkward Boeing 777 legacy business class to Delhi, the return trek in economy was rough.

There was little to no privacy onboard Air India’s legacy business class.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Similar bad reviews were written about Air India’s legacy business class, which sports an uncomfortable 2×3×2 layout with no privacy.

This configuration means passengers could still be assigned the dreaded middle seat — and the window and middle seat travelers wouldn’t have direct aisle access.

I managed to secure an aisle on my business class trek to India, and, despite concerns, the flight ended up not being as bad as I expected.

For my journey in economy back to the US, my trip started at Indira Gandhi International Airport around 11 p.m. for a 2:05 a.m. flight.

A guard was at the airport entrance checking people’s tickets, I suspect to make sure everyone entering was actually flying.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The late-night flight time didn’t bother me because I figured I could kill the first few hours by sleeping, and I came prepared with a small pillow and blanket.

In total, the jet would fly about 15 hours, including across Russia — meaning the flight time is at least an hour shorter than American Airlines’ route that doesn’t cross Russian air space, according to FlightAware.

The app would not let me check in online and told me to see an agent at the airport — and I arrived to find a line a mile long.

Dozens of people crowded the check-in area in snaking queues.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

After standing in the dedicated economy line with little movement for 15 minutes, I worried about the time as I still needed to clear security and passport control.

Stressed, I found a nearby employee and asked if he could help, given I didn’t have any luggage to check. He eventually found a free agent willing to help who printed my boarding pass in less than two minutes, and I was on my way — one crisis averted.

Clearing passport control and security took another 45 minutes, and I finally arrived at the gate around 1 a.m.

A view of the terminal on the way to the gate.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

I enjoyed a drink at the Irish pub in the terminal before walking 10 minutes to gate 26B.

There was another layer of security in which my bags and person were checked one last time before entering the sitting area by the gate.

A 30-minute delay was announced shortly after, which turned into an hour by the time we took off.

Gate 26B at Delhi airport.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Having worked in the airline industry before becoming an aviation reporter, I know delays happen and do not give much thought to an extra one-hour sit — though I’ll admit the late-night hour during this particular delay made it difficult to stay awake.

We didn’t take off until around 3:15 a.m.

Unfortunately, the problems didn’t stop there. After boarding the Boeing 777, I found my seat was broken in more ways than one.

Air India’s Boeing 777 is set up in a 3x3x3 configuration. I opted for 22F — a right-side aisle seat.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Air India’s legacy economy product is extremely old, and many online reports have noted seats being flimsy and dirty and sometimes held together by duct tape.

I actually found this to be true on my business class flight as the aisle seat next to me had tape on the side, and my chair’s own power outlet wasn’t working.

The faults started with the seatback television, which wouldn’t respond to taps or the buttons on the handheld remote.

The TV was frozen on the home screen — tapping any button did nothing.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Regardless of where I tapped or the buttons I pushed, the TV stayed frozen on the home screen for 15 hours.

The cabin crew reset the system three times but to no avail. My screen wasn’t the only one broken, either.

The TVs in the rows directly right of me and diagonal to me were also broken, though those were stuck on a white screen.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

After I realized my TV was broken, I walked through the cabin to see how many others were out. I counted at least 15 screens stuck on a white loading page, including the person directly across from me.

When asked, a flight attendant told me that affected passengers could reach out to Air India after the flight to request compensation.

Also broken was the USB port, meaning I then had to be conservative with my battery when watching my pre-downloaded movies and shows.

The broken USB port. There wasn’t an outlet under the seat, either.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Knowing there was a chance my television could fail, I downloaded enough content to keep me entertained for days. This mostly included podcasts and bingeable TV shows like Survivor and NCIS.

My portable charger was, unfortunately, already more than half-dead by the time I boarded, so I was careful with my aging iPhone’s battery life when watching shows.

I also had to save battery for things like podcasts and Spotify when trying to sleep — I can’t just listen to the sounds of the cabin.

As a backup to the backup, I brought a book just in case I found myself without any entertainment at all.

I brought “The Book of Lost and Found” by Lucy Foley.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The book was particularly helpful when my phone was out of reach charging at another passenger’s seat, who was nice enough to let me use their USB when they weren’t.

Reading wasn’t entirely easy, though. My remote not only didn’t signal to the TV, but it also wouldn’t turn on my reading light.

Nothing responded to the remote, so it was useless on the flight.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

There was no external button on the ceiling for a reading light, so I had to rely on my phone’s screen. I propped the phone against my chest, facing the book, and maxed out the brightness.

It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough, and I could see the pages without getting a headache — but it was yet another thing that killed my phone battery.

In between balancing a light to read and keeping my phone charged, I mostly slept thanks to melatonin.

The cabin lighting helped me sleep, too.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

There was a lot of time to kill between Delhi and New Jersey, and I wanted to sleep as much as possible to avoid boredom.

Out of the 15 hours, I managed to sleep for about six in between meals, reading, and watching shows.

While the key amenities expected to work on an ultra-long-haul flight were busted, the aging seat wasn’t all bad.

I didn’t struggle to find space for my carry-on luggage.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The main amenities I rely on for entertainment — the TV and charging ports — were broken, but there were some aspects about the product that were good.

The seatback had several spots for storage — which was actually better than the seat in business class.

I liked the two extra pockets attached to the main one.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The business class seatback pocket was just one giant slot, while the one in economy had smaller slots attached to the main pocket for better organization. There was also a slot under the TV, where I kept my book.

I preferred the economy version, which reminded me of similar one I’ve found on airlines like ANA and Singapore.

A big cupholder also hung from the side of each seat, which helped organize the clutter.

My bottle easily fit in the large pouch.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

When I fly, I always bring a big water bottle to stay hydrated, and sometimes, there isn’t a good place to store it in economy.

I was happy Air India’s big mesh cupholder held my bottle with no issues.

I also loved the footrest, which I’ve only seen on a few other carriers in the regular coach cabin, like All Nippon Airways and Aerolineas Argentineas.

I love an unexpected footrest, like the one I found on this Air India flight.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

I normally see footrests in premium economy rather than in regular economy.

This is true on recent flights I’ve taken with United and Singapore Airlines, for example.

The footrest complemented the nicely cushioned seat and good recline.

Air India’s economy cabin, with this picture taken shortly after the first meal service.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Although I will complain about the broken TV, I will credit the seat’s comfort. The cushions are plush, and I found the seat roomy with good legroom and width.

I prefer it to the harder and slimmer seats installed on competing airlines.

My only issue with the comfort of the physical seat was the headrest — which was broken.

The wings of the headrest wouldn’t click into place when bent in.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The wings of the headrest did not stay folded in, so it was as if it wasn’t even there. I typically don’t care about the seat’s padding as long as the headrest works, so this was probably one of the biggest annoyances.

I ended up mostly resting on the tray table to sleep.

Despite its flaws, Air India is trying to make up for its shortcomings by elevating the so-called soft product.

The remote was stored in the armrest.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The soft product is anything not physically attached to the aircraft, such as the food, service, linens, and amenity kit.

While new management, which officially took over in January 2022, needs time to improve Air India’s poor onboard product, it has added nice touches where it can.

There was a pillow and blanket provided, as well as headphones for the TV (assuming it’s working).

The pillow and blanket were fine, though the pillowcase could be softer.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The pillow and blanket were fine, though the pillowcase could be softer. I still recommend bringing your own linens.

I was also happy with the food. The first consisted of a simple savory pastry and juice.

I had orange juice with the pastry.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The first meal was served about an hour after takeoff, and I only nibbled on it as I wasn’t that hungry given the 4 a.m. hour.

I found the pastry tasty enough for economy food.

Breakfast included eggs, sausage, potatoes, yogurt, and a croissant.

The breakfast meal served aboard my Air India economy flight.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Served around five hours into the flight, the breakfast was tasty and filling, and I was happy a Western option was available.

I paired the meal with coffee and water.

For dinner, I had chicken with rice and beans served with bread, veggies, yogurt, and dessert.

The dinner meal served aboard my Air India economy flight.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

The entrée was my favorite of all the food onboard. It was well-cooked and flavorful. The side dishes were good, too.

Other dinner options included a vegetarian meal or pasta.

I enjoyed a few Bira 91 beers with dinner and then read until we landed a few hours later.

The book was a life-saver.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Throughout the ultra-long-haul journey, I mostly slept and read — watching TV shows during meals when I felt confident my phone wouldn’t get close to dying.

Considering the very few pros of the seat, my 15-hour trek from Delhi to New Jersey was disappointing, to say the least.

My tray table wouldn’t stay perfectly secured.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

I expected a poor product but didn’t expect to have the most important amenities completely broken.

If I didn’t plan ahead and pre-download shows, movies, podcasts, and music, remember to pack a book (as someone who doesn’t read often) and stock up on melatonin, then I can’t imagine how I would’ve entertained myself.

My one mistake was not making sure my portable charger was fully juiced up by the time I got to the airport — lesson learned.

The broken features are not necessarily a design flaw but just an overall lack of care from the once-nationalized Air India to keep the interiors of its planes in good shape.

The tray table next to me was patched with tape.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

I didn’t dislike the design of the seat itself. It’s dated and in need of modern touches, but I loved the legroom, seat cushions, and big cupholder.

The problem was the state of the seat. The headrest was broken, and the tray table wasn’t properly secured to the seatback. In fact, the tray in the middle seat next to me was held together by tape.

Fortunately, the Tata Group is already following through on plans to improve the airline — most noteworthy is its new planes and cabins.

A new economy cabin on Air India’s Airbus A350.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Air India launched its first-ever Airbus A350 in January, which features new business, premium economy, and regular coach seats that are a night-and-day difference from its legacy 777 product.

Economy televisions have been upgraded, and Air India has kept the cupholder idea while adding more power outlets. I did not notice a footrest or think the seats felt as padded as the legacy version — but they were still comfortable.

In addition to its A350 and legacy cabins, Air India also flies leased Boeing 777s from airlines like Etihad Airways and Delta Air Lines.

The Delta 777-200LR Air India has leased features business class with sliding doors.
Delta Air Lines

For example, some customers — like those flying from San Francisco to Delhi — may get lucky with Delta’s much nicer economy experience.

Travelers can check the plane they’re on before booking by looking at the reservation or using websites like FlightAware.

Still, customers can expect to fly on Air India’s legacy widebody product until at least late 2025, but a better cabin will eventually come.

The Air India Boeing 777 I flew from Delhi to Newark.
Taylor Rains/Business Insider

“By the end of 2025, the entire legacy widebody fleet will also be upgraded to match what we’re getting on the A350,” Air India’s new CEO, Campbell Wilson, told Business Insider in January. “So, essentially, our fleet will be completely reborn by then.”

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