Now that I have done trans-continental journeys between India and the United States by five different airlines, one from each of the five different broad categories available for India-US travel i.e. US based airline, India based airline, cheap Gulf based airline, posh Gulf based airline and Europe based airline, it’s time to pitch them against each other in the Great Airline Showdown!
The table above summarizes my experience with each of the airlines for impatient people. If you have the patience, a detailed review follows below. Some disclaimers before we start off-
- This is purely my personal opinion based on one personal experience on each of the airlines, so don’t come to kill me if you experience something drastically different on your flights from what I mention here.
- The flights considered for comparison are- Delta’s Mumbai-Atlanta non-stop (no longer in existence), Jet Airways’ Mumbai-Brussels-Newark, Kuwait Airways’ Mumbai-Kuwait-London-New York, Qatar Airways’ Mumbai-Doha-Washington and Lufthansa’s Mumbai-Frankfurt-Dallas.
On ultra-long haul transcontinental flights in Economy class, my biggest concern (and nightmare) is the seat comfort and legroom. This is the single most important thing that can make or ruin (mostly ruin) the 20-odd hour journey. My first experience was on Delta’s Boeing 777 with 3-3-3 seating, and it being my first long haul flight I was distracted by a lot of things but I do remember the legroom was just enough to sit without poking your knees into the seat ahead. Jet Airways Airbus 330 is almost the same when it comes to legroom but I prefer the 2-4-2 layout because now you have to disturb only one person (as opposed to two in B777) every time you want to get up to go to the loo (or to the galley to nick some free chocolates and snacks). Kuwait Airways’ 3-3-3 and the legroom is as good (or bad) as Delta while Lufthansa again scores for the 2-4-2 layout. The clear winner here is Qatar with its generous legroom that makes up for the 3-3-3 layout. This was the only flight on which I could actually comfortably rest without wriggling around like a fish taken out of water.
When it comes to ambience and interiors of the plane, all five airlines more or less represented their origins. Delta has clean and functional but blah interiors showing the typical I-don’t-care American attitude. Same thing for Lufthansa. It has everything that should be there, but don’t expect unnecessary glamour. Typical European. Kuwait Airways is the worst of the lot, what with torn seat covers, dirty toilets and seats that either stay only reclined or not recline at all. On the other hand, Jet Airways has nice LED lighting, moisturizers and deodorants in the washroom.. the little things that make you feel good. And of course, the winner in this category is Qatar with its multi-color mood lighting that simulates time of the day, amenity kits for all passengers including toothpaste, brush etc and nice well-maintained planes.
The female flight attendants on Delta are straight out of old-age home, so aged that I felt bad asking them to bring something for me. Kuwait Airways has a random mix of European, Chinese, Indian flight attendants (surprisingly none Middle-Eastern) and it’s a hit or miss depending on whom you have on your side of the plane. Lufthansa’s all-European cabin crew is charming, smiling but will stick exactly to their prescribed duty schedules. Nothing more, nothing less. Qatar and Jet Airways both score high on friendly, smiling, helpful crew that goes out of their way to make you feel good, whether it is by bringing extra ice cream and chocolates for the kids or chatting and joking with the passengers.
Food! The only thing that I look forward to on long haul flights. The only thing that breaks the monotony of sitting and staring at a screen for hours. I have always ordered Asian Vegetarian Meal on all flights, so that makes the comparison fair. In this department Lufthansa disappoints. Big time. First, their definition of Indian meal is rice and random vegetables in gravy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Second, someone needs to explain them that Indian gravies have oil.. that seeps.. into other things packed with it. I had the (mis)fortune of eating (or throwing away) puri soaked in oil from veg korma, with salty gaajar ka halwa on one flight, and water soaked roti with rubbery paneer bhurji in another. Now before you jump on me claiming that it was my fault ordering Indian food on non-Indian airline, well, other non-Indian airlines have fared remarkably well in this department. Delta served decent dinner and quite good idli and masala dosa; Kuwait Airways, in spite of being low in other departments, scored a winner here with finger-licking delicious meals, and once again Qatar and Jet Airways won the way to my heart through my stomach! Worth noting here is Jet Airways serving Pav Bhaji (yes, tasty Pav Bhaji!) and Ragda Pattice onboard and also Belgian chocolate ice cream. None of the other airlines had an ice-cream after the meals.
In-seat screens with several dozen movies and TV shows is the norm across airlines these days, so not much to compare here. Just a couple of notable points- some of Lufthansa’s dinosaur era Boeing 747 do not have individual screens and I had to bear one such flight, with only two bulky CRT monitors in the aisle playing random stuff. Kuwait Airways technically has in-seat screens but you have a better chance of winning a lottery than getting a working screen on this plane. In my flights, some screens worked only when you bang them, one screen worked with remote from adjacent seat, and some screens randomly turned black and white from color!
Touch wood, by God’s grace, all my transcontinental flights across airlines have always been more or less right on time at departure and arrival, except two incidents- the Jet Airways plane developed a technical snag at Brussels that delayed it by an hour, but the staff made up for it by promptly distributing vouchers for passengers to go around and buy fine Belgian chocolates! On other occasion the Kuwait Airways plane encountered a problem before takeoff from Kuwait and everyone sat in a stationary plane in the desert for two hours “celebrating” turn of the New Year (00:00 Jan 1st local time!) as apparently “someone had gone to the store to bring the replacement part” according to the pilots.
Today, unless you are flying to New Jersey, any journey from Mumbai to United States involves at least one change of flight, so it matters what is the condition of the connecting hub. My Delta flight was non-stop to Atlanta but since I had to take an onward domestic flight I will consider Atlanta as the connecting hub for it. Hartsfield Jackson International is the world’s busiest airport and it shows. The place is huge, and the gates have minimal seating, so the whole place resembles CST railway station with people squatting on the floor. Kuwait Airways is test of endurance as you have to first transit through Kuwait City ST Bus Depot, which for some reason is called Kuwait International Airport, and then through hell-hole of the world- London Heathrow! Qatar’s Doha hub is better than Kuwait but nothing to write home about, unless of course you love taking a long bus ride through desert to reach your plane from the terminal. If you love watching planes and aviation, Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub is absolute HEAVEN for the sheer quantity and variety of planes on display, but for regular travelers it is laid out in a very confusing manner, and yes, it is no fun to get out in minus 15 degree C to board a bus to take you to the plane. Brrrr! Jet Airways’ Brussels hub is cool- not too confusing, clean and spacious, and all connecting flights arrive and departure from adjacent gates so no walking around.
On any India-US flight there is a probability approaching one that there will be lots of desi kaka, characterized by asking for alcohol every single time a drinks trolley passes by and standing up in the aisle as soon as the plane has touched down on the runway. On any flight heading to a Middle Eastern country, a good proportion of passengers are workers going there for manual labour, who have obviously got into a plane for the first time in their life, and it shows. On Qatar it was okay, but Kuwait Airlines simulates experience of boarding a train from LTT to Gorakhpur. The most well-behaved and classy crowd is on Lufthansa- I was pleasantly surprised to see not one person standing up from their seats after we touched down in Mumbai, right upto the point where the flight attendants announced that the doors are open. Rare sight!
It is commonly known fact that people buying tickets for India-US journeys look at only three things while making their decision- price, price and price. Nothing wrong it in, especially for people who just want to go from Point A to Point B by hook or by crook, but you need to remember that you get what you paid for. In my comparison, Kuwait Airways fares quite badly per se, but when put in perspective that I paid only $900-odd for the roundtrip compared to $1200-1400 I have had to pay for the other four, it’s not a bad deal. That being said, it makes sense sometimes to look a little below the first (cheapest) option on the website- the slight extra paid might be well worth the experience. Bon Voyage!