Flying Delhi to San Francisco nonstop with Air India

  • This article tells you about in-flight experiences, three interesting conversations that I had with fellow passengers, benefits of flying and suggestions for Air India.


Today’s MINT newspaper carried a report of Air India flying over the North Pole region to San Francisco. The flight would reduce fuel consumption and decrease carbon emissions. I hope passengers can get a view of the region during the flight.

This article is about my recent experiences, during and in, the flight to San Franciso and back.

The last time I went to the U.S., years ago, I flew Lufthansa and United Airlines. In itself the experience was ok. However, changing flights at Munich and Frankfurt esp. long walks at the latter did me in. Plus Indian food was served on the Mumbai Frankfurt sector only. This time round decided to fly Air India because it has a non-stop Delhi San Francisco (SFO) flight.

Passengers check in at their city of origin, take a domestic Air India flight to Delhi and then a sixteen hour flight that left at 4.50 pm and reaches SFO at 8.30 pm. What I liked about the flight timings was that one goes to bed soon after landing thereby reducing the effects of jet lag.

The flight from Mumbai reached Delhi at about 3.45 pm, late by about half an hour. About twelve passengers, all headed for SFO were in jitters, because there was little time left for the 4.50 pm flight. We were received by Air India staff who rushed us through immigration and to the aircraft, a VIP experience.

The passengers were nearly all Indian with large number of parents predominantly from Punjab and undivided Andhra Pradesh.

I was seated next to a newly wed girl from Amritsar. It had taken her one year to get a Green Card post which she was going to join her husband. Priya spoke about the drug problem in Punjab and lack of employment opportunities. When I saw her wedding pictures asked who the tall lady was. My Bhabhi and nearly instantaneously Priya said when she cooks nobody eats so my mother-in-law does all the cooking.

Priya also said she is a very good cook. I told her that bragging would antagonise all so better under play her strengths and let food do the talking. Moreover, if she wanted cordial relations with her Bhabhi, they lived in a joint-family, she should look for her good qualities and praise her publicly. Like that gave her brotherly advice on how to deal with interpersonal dynamics of married life, not that I am an expert.

Food served during the flight was disappointing, both in terms of menu and taste. When I expressed unhappiness the purser was nice enough to offer me a Jain meal that had black lentils, a favourite. 

A passenger asked for Old Monk Rum. He was told that Old Monk is served only to Business Class passengers. Wondered why the cheapest and the very popular Old Monk was not served to Economy class passengers.

One of the joys of travelling Air India is that we can freely communicate our likes and dislikes to the crew without being apprehensive of being judged as Indian. Also knowledge of English is not a pre-requisite.

However the entertainment system was inefficient, sound did not work and movie choices limited. When I complained to the cabin crew they offered to change my seat but also said it was beyond their control.

Notwithstanding that time flew. What disappointed passengers was about the forty-five minutes it took to clear immigration at San Francisco airport. Clearly, the team was under-staffed. In contrast, it took about ten minutes to clear immigration at Delhi Airport. I feel, that Indians are over-critical of their country and sparingly appreciate the good things.

The zip of one of my bags gave way in-transit. I found that Air India had covered the bag with plastic and was happy to see that nothing from the bag was missing. Thanks Air India ground staff.

The return flight was as interesting.

I was impressed to see the manner in which the crew served senior citizens, as if they were their own parents, after all respect for elders is part of Indian tradition. Later on an air hostess told me Indians send their parents and children alone because they know that the Air India crew would look after them.

My first seat was next to a Punjabi lady who had just undergone a back surgery. Since a few seats are empty she got the two of us to change seats so that she could sleep comfortably. A very Indian thing to do.

I was now seated next to a young girl from Vijaywada. Married for a year she was going home to have her visa stamped as a student since she wanted to do a Masters in Computer Science. Why change I asked? Farah said this way she could work-internships, not possible with her dependant visa.

During our conversation Farah told me how difficult it was to manage the change from Vijaywada to Silicon Valley? The first six months were hell. I was not used to doing so much of house work – meaning cooking, laundry, cleaning and a husband.  

To my right was a Tibetan by the name Sonam. His first sentence was one of gratitude to the people of India for giving Tibetans shelter and love. His words brought back memories of my 1998 Kailash Mansrovar Yatra, when the Tibetan owner of a guest house gave us freebies because we were Indian.

Sonam usually flew Emirates and Etihad but said he was very happy flying Air India. There was enough leg space and service very good.

Food and service were excellent on the return flight. Never felt it was a sixteen hour flight and it reached about ten minutes ahead of schedule.

When passengers are virtually all Indian it becomes very easy to start a conversation with fellow passengers. I saw many passengers in intense conversations. In this respect, it seemed just like a good old Indian train journey where we chat with fellow passengers.

Here are some suggestions for the Air India management.

One, use newer aircraft instead of the Boeing 777. 

During my stay in SFO heard a couple of gory stories from passengers who flew Business Class for e.g. damaged seats. Given how successful the non-stop flight is, do not wait to upgrade when competition starts.

Two, if the percentage of passengers from Andhra Pradesh are as high as I saw it makes sense to have one Telegu speaking crew. It is a more inclusive way of managing guests.  

Three, offer special viewing seats (for a price) to those who wish to view the North Pole region during the flight.

Wonder why it took Prime Minister Modi to announce the starting of the Delhi SFO non-stop flight in 2014. Given the number of Indians in Silicon Valley why did the Air India management not think about it earlier?

Author is founder and a Chartered Accountant.  

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