I had my first flight of life in Sept 1981 when I flew to Narita Airport, Tokyo from Delhi on my way to San Francisco to join the University of California, Berkeley as a Ph.D. student. It was not a good experience both from the food point of view and my own exhaustion due to the last-minute preparation. I was not used to the Japanese food that was served on the Japan Airlines flight. There was no option for Indian-style food. Later on, while traveling between USA and India, we used to look forward to the Air India flights towards the last leg of the flight from connecting to India as we would get food that we liked. There was no option for Direct flights.
As technology improved, we started having the option of Direct flights between India and the USA as well as other countries. In addition number of airlines offering direct flight options to Europe and the USA increased. All of them competed to offer Indian-style food including very specialized food such as “Jain meal” or other options needed for health reasons. With the availability of the internet, it started to become possible to customize meals before boarding the flight and Airlines tried to make it convenient for passengers. Air India no longer had an edge over others now. Whenever I had to make a Govt sponsored trip, we needed to use Air India flights both for domestic and international trips. Service on these trips was not much to talk about. I remember one incident when I was returning to India from Japan on an Air India flight. It was an early morning flight and I had to rush for the flight in the morning hours. I was famished and requested a second glass of juice. Air Hostess was really upset and brought the second one but put it on my tray with full anger to show her displeasure. I am sure many would have experienced similar issues. Of course, there were many pleasant experiences too.
Fast forward to 2022! After discussion for a few years, finally, news came that Tata group is taking over the loss-making “Air India”- Air India: Tata Group takes over the loss-making national carrier.
In 2021, I traveled to California on United Airlines, which was providing nonstop service between Delhi and San Francisco. While returning my experience was horrible – partly due to the sudden jump in Omicron-related Covid cases. I shared my experience through a blog: Travel woes returning from the USA.
I traveled to California again on Nov 24, 2022, to be present for my grandson’s birthday. One of my duties is to bake the birthday cake. I have covered this in my blog: How Did I Start Cooking!
While coming to San Francisco, I took a flight from Pune via Delhi. While traveling from Delhi to San Francisco, I was in a window seat(my preferred choice to get uninterrupted sleep!). I normally do not drink water with meals. After a few hours of flight, I tried to use the call button to get the attention of the air hostesses. However, even after 4-5 attempts of the attention light coming on, no one responded. I did not want to walk out of my window seat to get water as it would disturb my co-passengers. Normally I have seen the practice of carrying a tray of water cups every hour or so to let passengers drink them. I am not sure why this simple practice has not been followed and why no one responded to the call button.
After reaching California, I found that a direct flight from San Francisco to Mumbai was announced. I decided to change my return flight ticket to take advantage of this. I did not see any way to make modifications to the flight through the web or mobile App. For many things, we need to call their customer service line. I spend the last 4-5 days trying to make this possible. I tried to call their USA helpline number several times. IVRS system is buggy, to say the least. It would ask you to give the date of the journey in DDMMYYYY format. When you give that it would complain and do something uncertain. If you are lucky to connect, they would refer you to another division, and most of the time, it was not possible to transfer the calls internally. After trying several times (see the call history below), I decided to call India helpline numbers by making International calls in the middle of the night( call history attached).
I wanted to know about the modification of my flight. Sometimes I got a response that “my boss is not around – call after 3 hours”, sometimes I was told that “it is not possible since I have already traveled one way”. Finally, after 2-3 tries someone agreed to cancel my return ticket, but he could not tell me how much refund I would get – again a routine matter. When I asked about confirmation through email – he was silent. He asked me to go to the Air India website and fill out a “refund” form. I found the link and was happy. However, when I clicked on it, it took me to a webpage that had two links – one was not operational (something like a Form and did not allow the public to access it). The second link would take you to the “Manage booking” section which had nothing to do with the refund request. I finally called again and was advised to send an email to Air India. All 3-4 emails that I sent to Air India did not receive any reply!
With organizations like TCS as part of Tata Group, it is surprising that the IT systems of Air India have not been improved in the last 10 months to even ensure the basic functionality of Modification/Cancelation/Refund, etc. In spite of all this, I am very hopeful that the Tata group would make corrections just like they have done for the Indian passport office!
[Update: Jan 6, 2023 – Air India did finally issue a refund]