A friend and regular reader of the blog, Parag Mehta, recently took a First Class flight on Air India recently to travel between Mumbai and Newark, and I requested him for a Guest Post for the blog, since long haul Air India is not on my radar in the coming days. He came back flying Etihad First Class, booked on 9W miles, but try getting two trip reports from a busy investment professional You can read my review of EY F here. Over to you, Parag!
I was planning a trip to New York for the longest time, and when the time came I looked at my pile of miles, and decided to try Air India and Etihad for the two segments. On the outbound, I was getting Air India F on the dates I wanted using Air India miles, and for the return, I used Jet Airways miles to fly in Etihad F.
Getting the miles
One of the hardest things to achieve in India is getting the right set of miles in order to book such fantastic awards. Luckily, SBI Cards had just come out with their Air India co-branded card which provided option of earning 150,000 miles at the least on a spend of INR 1,000,000 (20,000 miles on signing up + 90,000 miles as spend bonuses) and 4 miles / INR 100 which gives you approximately 40,000 miles.
However, I ended up purchasing some AI tickets which gave me 20 miles / INR 100 spent and eventually on spending INR 1,000,000, I had earned nearly 250,000 miles. With my existing stash of ~80,000 miles, I knew I had sufficient miles to book 2 one-way AI first class tickets from Mumbai to Newark (112.5k miles per person).
Booking the award tickets
I did expect a lot of grief to be given to me when I called to book AI redemption tickets. To my huge surprise, AI has a great call centre and very courteous people (was I lucky?) who immediately said that they could book one award ticket in First class and put the other on waitlist.
This made me sad but I was quite determined on getting both the tickets. The call centre mentioned that I would need to go to the AI office in Mumbai to issue the tickets. Quite a pain to be honest to go all the way to issue these tickets but given one of the tickets was on the waitlist, I was open to the idea of driving all the way on a Saturday and try my luck.
Again, to my surprise, quite a smooth process and after a few requests, the courteous staff in the Mumbai office got my both the tickets issued (Mrs. Kosha was especially a great help). I had to dish out 112,500 miles and around $300 for each person. Not a bad deal for a ticket that goes for ~$3,500 each way.
Award Miles discount rebooking
While I had booked my flights in April, around 2 weeks later I heard that AI had come out with a 25% discount on award redemptions, which meant that I would have lost 56000 miles for booking my flights earlier. AJ advised me to go and talk to them, to see what the airline could do in this situation.
So come another Saturday, I went back to the Air India offices hoping to try my charm and luck on being able to manage this. Again, kudos to the helpful staff at the Mumbai centre and Mrs. Kosha and her colleagues who were super helpful. While they understood the issue and what I was going to lose, they mentioned that they had never heard of such a request from anyone in the past so not sure if that is possible.
As soon as I said that we have a chance for history in the making and some other requests, they agreed to give it a shot. Given I was asking to get the discount, it meant that they would have to release my earlier blocked seats (scary!) and then re-issue them immediately so that no other “waitlist” could get the seats.
All this meant that 225,000 miles would come back in my account and 169,000 miles would get debited from the account. It worked flawlessly in spite of the archaic systems of AI and their IT systems that run the Flying Returns program and the current website (can someone please suggest them for a makeover please?)
While it take 3 hours for all of this to get settled including paperwork and other formalities, it did get sorted eventually and I left a happy man with a large stash of miles back in my kitty to use for a future redemption.
I had heard some good things of a first class flight such as the ability to pre-order meals. Air India also mentions that as a First class passenger, you are allowed to pre-order meals. So I went ahead and tried my luck by calling their call centre dedicated to First passengers which led to my first bad experience in the whole process.
I called them and placed a request for a Arabic Coffee, Sushi and Caviar. They said they don’t know if it is possible and in spite of telling them that this is what your website claims, they could not agree to anything and said they will try. I knew what that meant and my worst fears did come true, but more on that later.
It was a 1:30AM flight which meant I needed to reach the airport around 11PM. I thought it would be good to reach a little earlier given the huge queues generally, although I was pleasantly surprised of the services one gets as a First Class passenger.
Around 10 hours before the flight in the morning, I had got a call from the Priority desk of AI asking if I needed anything in particular for the flight and that there will be someone to assist me at the airport. They gave me a number to call on just before reaching the airport. 5 minutes before reaching, I called them and a lady from the AI staff and a porter were there to welcome me and my wife. After bidding adieu to family who came to see us off, they took care of our luggage and took us to the AI First counter.
There, we were greeted by the AI airport manager who gave some details on the flight’s timing and route. Our boarding passes were printed and other formalities completed by them. When I asked them about immigration forms, they mentioned that they will take care of it.
The lady and other gentleman who were helping us with the luggage helped check all the luggage and came along with us towards the security. They filled the immigration forms and ensured that our security check was done extremely fast (was done in less than 5 minutes).
They directed us to the lounge where she mentioned that they will wait for us outside and call us once there was 20 minutes left for departure, so we have plenty of time to relax.
My wife and I then spent some time in the lounge where we ended up meeting a few friends who were flying around the same time. As AJ has mentioned earlier in his posts, I was quite disappointed that there was no separate first class lounge at the airport and a common lounge to be used for business and first. Having said that my experience was quite good at the lounge and thoroughly enjoyed the ambience, quality of food and drinks.
Around 20 minutes before departure, the lady called us and said its last call and we should now leave. They walked us towards the gate and ensured we did not have to go through the long line. Within 5 minutes of leaving the lounge, we were on the airplane in spite of the rush. I was so excited for this journey already. We were greeted by a couple of air hostesses as soon as we entered and the lady who had helped us for the past couple of hours wished us a happy journey and left. She was an exceptional person who was always smiling during this time.
Mumbai(BOM) – Newark (EWR)
Saturday, May 24 2014
Distance flown: 7807 miles
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
Seat: 1F (First Class)
Meal Service: Snack, Breakfast, Lunch
The flight had 4 first class seats and we were told that only 2 of us were booked and we could select the seats. We chose the 2 middle seats that were next to each other. The seats are quite spacious and comfortable, even for someone as tall and wide as me. While the make did not come as appealing as refurbished, it was nonetheless quite awesome for a first time AI First flyer like me.
However, before the flight was about to take off, a couple of passengers from business (mother and an amazingly cute kid) were bumped from business and joined us in the First section. We spent some time talking to the kid but he was too sleep to talk and went off to sleep in no time.
The flight attendant came and asked for pre-flight orders if any and I requested for a champagne and my wife asked for an orange juice. Through out the flight, I was quite disappointed with the quality of liquor that was on board, especially on such a long haul flight.
Flight took off in around 15 minutes and the attendant immediately came to ask for dinner service and drinks. We were given a menu to decide which looked really bad as it was almost about to break in pieces as you can see (Air India had to show its colours right?).
I ordered a scotch and a few nuts and requested for their suggestion on the dinner items. The attendant was extremely helpful and suggested that I start with a few Indian starters that will go well with the drinks and then decide on the dinner. However, after gulping down a couple of drinks and some food, and given the timing (was almost 3AM), I thought I rather pass on dinner (given the already 2 portions of dinner at home and at the airport lounge) and get some sleep. However, the attendant insisted that we at least take some small serving of a couple of dishes and we would enjoy the same so went ahead with very small portion of a couple of dishes.
I then asked for the bed to be made and in 10 minutes was all set for a good sleep. I ended up getting up after a peaceful sleep of 6 hours. I asked the attendant for the breakfast menu and was delighted to see some good variety. I tried a blend of traditional Indian and continental breakfast along with some juice and then spent some time reading some books I had got along. I was never in the mood to watch the IFE on this flight. I did go through the content and must say that it was extremely disappointing to see the quality of content in the first section.
A couple of hours before the landing, we were asked for lunch and again were given a huge spread to choose from. While we weren’t that hungry, we did end up trying a lot of things in small portions. The best part was the deserts (cake and chocolates) that they served at the end. They even got us our own personal cake on the plane.
To end the journey as soon as we landed, we had a lady welcome us at the Newark airport and helped us with our luggage. All in all, an amazing 160,000 miles spent for a great journey.
AJ: Like I’ve heard in the past, Air India is solid on content and a dud on presentation. Reading through Parag’s report, it comes across as this to me.