First impressions Braced for what I expected to be a lengthy wait at Air India's economy check-in at London Heathrow's Terminal 3, I was pleasantly surprised to be ushered straight to a desk for my 0945 flight. I had arrived two hours early expecting to join the back of a sizeable horde because Air India's Delhi flight is notoriously popular. I was offered a choice of a window or aisle seat and the man at the desk honoured my request for a seat as far forward as possible in the second section of economy seats.
Boarding Entry to the departure gate was slow as every passenger was scanned with a hand-held device and all bags checked. It was reassuring from a security perspective but created a 10-minute queue for the gate. Despite these lengthy checks we boarded promptly and took off on time.
The seat I had the aisle seat in a row of three on one side of this Boeing 747-400. The legroom was standard for economy class – sufficient but not roomy – and the seat reclined to make the journey more comfortable, although I had to ask the passenger in front to raise his seatback in order to eat. Blankets and small pillows were provided.
The flight I was offered orange juice before take-off, which I refused but asked for a glass of water, which never came. Once in the air, the movies started and I was looking forward to watching the selection of Indian and British movies listed in the in-flight magazine.
When the movie started on the screen fitted in the seat back in front, I put my headphones on but could not hear the sound – just a series of spluttered noises that sounded like whales communicating – less Finding Neverland, and more like a documentary version of Finding Nemo. I complained and was told to try other seats, but after five attempts, I realised that nobody's audio was working in the economy cabin. There were no other channels working and I couldn't turn the screen off, so ended up watching the movie without sound. It was a relief when a Bollywood flick came on next with subtitles.
I wanted to read but the cabin lights had been dimmed and the window shutters drawn so it was dark in the cabin. When I tried the light above my seat it didn't work, so I pressed the button for the cabin attendant to come, but this was also broken. I told a member of the cabin crew, who said a supervisor would come and see me. I wasn't surprised when the supervisor never materialised.
The flight passed slowly with little entertainment during the seven and a half hours. The food provided momentary diversion, but curry at 1100 was a little much for me. By lunchtime I was hungry and the second curry was more welcome – I opted for vegetarian instead of chicken. It was hot and tasty and came with a naan.
I was relieved to have chosen an aisle seat because I had to keep getting up to ask for more water. Except for the drinks trolley that came round with the food, I was only offered water once by a passing member of cabin crew and, having been continually told to drink plenty during a flight to avoid DVT, I was anxious to keep my intake up.
Arrival We arrived on time and immigration was well manned. My bag arrived within 10 minutes, but that wasn't enough to redeem Air India in my opinion.
Verdict Service was polite but inefficient and the poor condition of the aircraft was inexcusable. Air India is going to have to raise its game to compete with Virgin Atlantic, which launched flights to Delhi at the end of 2004, and BA, which wants to boost flights to the city.
Prices An economy class return in June costs from around £600 ($1,095), though travel agents may offer lower prices. Business class return fares start at £1,400 ($2,556) and first class at £2,200 ($4,016).