It's been a long time since we’ve seen direct flights between Australia and India. Air India made a spectacular re-entry into the Australian market in late 2013 with Australia’s first commercial Boeing 787 Dreamliner service which offers the only direct flights to the sub-continent, dog-legging via Sydney and Melbourne on the daily return flight to Delhi.
Several airlines – among them Emirates, Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines – offer daily flights to most major Indian cities including Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Most necessitate at least one stopover, although in the end you can usually get to most cities in under 20 hours.
I travel to India every four to six weeks and with return business class flights on other airlines ranging from $6,000 to over $7,500, Air India's direct-to-Delhi service and competitive $4,000 business class fare offer a significant advantage for the frequent traveller.
An email at 10:30 pm the night before my flight alerted me to a two-hour delay due to fog in Delhi, which in turn set back the departure of the inbound flight.
Check-in at Melbourne is via a single counter, rather obscurely placed at the end of China-Southern’s check-in. I had to twice ask the airport attendant where check-in was, even after walking up and down the correct aisle!
Air India's check-in staff provided me with a photocopied express pass that was questioned at immigration, however after showing my Executive Class boarding pass I was through the lot in 15 minutes and off to the lounge.
Air India's Executive Class passengers in Melbourne have access to the Qantas International Business Lounge. This is a cracking lounge, but disappointing that it’s on the lower concourse which means you miss out on what would be a great view of the airport.
Even though it was peak hour on a Saturday morning the lounge has plenty of space, great barista-made coffee and a huge variety of traditional and healthy food options. Wifi is fast and steady and provides a last minute opportunity for getting some work done.
Boarding was at Gate 14, in the lacklustre new section of Melbourne's international terminal.
Executive Class passengers were offered priority boarding and, although we boarded through one door only, I only had a short wait before I got on board.
As with all my Air India flights to date the welcome on board was warm and I was escorted to my seat in the front cabin.
And this being a Boeing 787 Dreamliner brings the boarding experience to a whole new level, with entry into the enormous galley giving a tremendous sense of space.
And then there are those extra large windows, which are tinted blue and are can be individually dimmed as well as being controlled by the crew. During the day, the crew limits how light they can get so as not to make the cabin too bright.
The real advantage is having some sense of daylight outside when the shades are dimmed, in contrast to conventional flights where once the shades are down, you have no idea what time it is.
Air India's Boeing 787 cabin has gotten a fair bit of flack since its launch due to a less-than-glamorous palette.
While I wouldn’t have chosen orange carpet, I feel the interspersed rich reds and earthy tones really suit the spacious front cabin.
A simple yet useful amenity kit is provided to all passengers, as are slippers and eye-mask.
There are three rows in Air India's Boeing 787 Executive Class cabin and the 22 inch wide seats have an ample 74 inch pitch.
The seats are situated straight ahead, rather than the angled orientation which some airlines are adopting, so you don’t sit on a funny angle and you don’t have to squeeze your feet under the seat in front.
This gives a great sense of space, and for my money, puts Air India right up with the best of them.
The foot rest – which has two open storage compartments underneath – forms the end of the bed when the seat is turned into a fully lie-flat bed.
It’s a real treat to get a lie-flat, non-angled bed these days – you don’t have to tuck your legs on an angle or put your feet under the seat in front of you.
Of course, being a 2-2-2 layout, if you're in a window seat you'll need to climb over your seatmate to get to the aisle.
The seats (and beds) are well padded with a selection of pillows and doonas offered.
I only use the light blanket, but the duck-down doona is a tremendous asset. Had the bed been uncomfortable I was considering putting this down as a mattress, but I didn’t need it.
After my meal the crew offer a decent-sized pillow for sleeping which really turns the Air India seat into one of the better beds in the sky.
However, the whole arrangement lacks space for personal items.
There's a slot for a laptop, tablet or book in the armrest between the seats, and a drink holder under the armrest (making it a bit hard to get in recline or sleep mode), but other than that there’s just not much for storage.
This makes it hard to keep your book, digital music player, toiletries and so on at hand.
There appeared to be minimal galley and lavatory noise from the front or rear galleys.
This is definitely not Air India's strongest suit.
On the first leg to Sydney all we were served was a cup of tea and some tired-looking open sandwiches.
Coming out of Sydney we’re given a drink and a small pack of peanuts after take-off.
Lunch is offered as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘non-vegetarian’. I chose the non-veg, which I considered a pretty tasty chicken curry – but then I'm known for eating almost anything served on a tray at 35,000 feet!
A cheese platter was offered after main course. It came with a nice port, but Air India didn't offer a menu so it was hard to know what we were getting.
On such a long flight it would have been nice to spread the meal out and take up a bit of time.
The service was lacking and would be better with more attention to detail, such as with other airlines where the entrée is served separately. After all, we had 12 hours to kill so there was no rush!
On this 13 hour flight, we waited another 8 hours before being fed supper – again a curry but slightly smaller in serving size.
I asked for something in between and was brought a selection of savoury snacks which got me through. It would have been good if they had an ‘anytime menu' or snack bar for guests to help themselves, especially for a plane-food addict like me.
Entertainment & Service
The inflight entertainment system is easy to use but the content was a bit of a letdown with only four 'new' movies, all of which I had seen last year on different airlines.
Obviously catering to the airline's native audience there was a great selection of regional, classic and Indian videos.
Noise cancelling headphones are provided and the 15 inch screen is on par with most competing airlines.
The comfort level, seat and bed certainly make Air India a worthy contender when choosing to travel to the sub-continent. Executive Class comfort is far superior to some other carriers plying the route and the benefit of direct flights (which can reduce total time to Delhi to about 13 hours) is very attractive.
Air India currently only flies to Delhi, which makes it unattractive if you need to get to anywhere in southern India as you have to transfer in Delhi and head south again.
For my money, a return flights under $4,000 make this the obvious choice if you need to get to Delhi – but anywhere else comes with the risk of an overnight stay in Delhi due to delays, which puts the other airlines back in the game.
(As an aside, on this trip I was flying on to Hyderabad and would have missed my connection due to the late arrival of this flight into Delhi, had I not already decided to stop in Delhi for the night and catch the morning flight to Hyderabad).
I’m not yet sold on the day flight. Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines offer a midnight departure from Melbourne, getting you in to Bombay or Delhi mid-morning and allowing you plenty of time to work in the afternoon. By comparison, Air India's schedule doesn't see you arrive into Delhi until at least 6pm.