When I booked our flights to Mumbai a few months ago I really didn't have much of a plan about what we'd do on our holiday. With the help of my trusty India guide book I started to patch together some ideas and the main thrust of my thinking was that we would go from Mumbai to somewhere vaguely in the south or west of the country and then work our way back again. Having spent a couple of slightly sick days in Kochi (a.k.a Cochin) eight years ago, I quite fancied going back for a better look (hopefully without the ickiness second time around). I went looking for flights and found a bargain deal on a flight from Mumbai to Kochi with Air India Express (let's call it AIE) for just 9466 rupees – a grand total of £117 for the two of us. I think at the time it was actually cheaper and a lot quicker than the train.
I've used several Indian budget airlines without any trouble and really liked SpiceJet in particular. I was wary of Air India Express because it's the budget arm of Air India and I've never been overly impressed by the full-service airline. I had low expectations of how much more they could possibly cut out of their already pretty shabby service.
The good news for those familiar with the games played by the big European budget airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet is that thankfully AIE doesn't try to trick you or catch you out by charging you to check in or to take luggage and they don't make you practice your rugby scrum by not assigning you a seat and leaving you to fight for it. That's the good news – don't let it get you too excited!
AIE uses the international terminal of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport in Mumbai even though it's offering domestic flights. This means when you tell your hotel and your taxi driver that you want to go to the international terminal, they will assume you are lying or stupid. Be firm! Despite the suggestion from the airline that we might like to roll up 3 hours before departure we were actually at the airport about 2 hours before and were more than happy to find an almost empty airport and nobody in the queue to check in. So that's another big plus point AIE compared to our European friends. We handed over our bags, got our proper boarding passes and were more than happy to see that we had proper seat allocations. We then headed off for security checks, something to eat, some magazines to read and all the usual things you do at an airport anywhere before heading to find somewhere to sit in the gate area.
We steered away from the crush and were two of the last people to go to the gate and board the bus to the plane. It was a battered old beast and we were sweltering in the heat whilst we waited to go to the plane. Once we boarded it became quickly apparent that we might have been the only people who were happy to have allocated seating. I say that because it was evident that most people were not where they were supposed to be. Thankfully our seats were still free but conflict was breaking out around us as people tried to work out what was going on. A rather strident woman was strutting about trying to find somewhere to sit and we got the impression that she was a 'hitch hiker' who worked for the airline and was trying to get a free ride to Kochi. For a while she thought she had a seat until someone came a turfed her out. My husband had taken one look at her when she got on the plane and said "I can smell trouble" and sure enough he seemed to be right. We like to think they strapped her in the toilet for take off and landing.
The seats on the plane were awful. I'm not sure if I was just unlucky and others were better, but my seat felt like it had no padding in the bum area at all. The last time I'd had something close to so unpadded was a saddle on a camel. The plane appeared to be an old one that had probably been in service since Mrs Gandhi had been a girl. As you'd expect for a cheap airline, the seats were crammed in pretty tight but nothing worse than you'd find on a Ryanair flight. Looking around the cabin we quickly realised that we were the only passengers who didn't appear to be local – something which turned into quite a typical scenario during our holiday.
Being late arrivals, all the overhead locker space had long gone and contents suggested that people have a pretty flexible interpretation of what constitutes hand luggage. The plane was absolutely stuffed tight with bodies and – since we were flying a few days after Diwali and it's a big holiday season - a lot of the passengers where children. It may well become a recurring theme in my reviews of this particular holiday that middle class children in India might benefit from a little more discipline from their parents. That's my polite way of commenting that nobody seems to think it might be a good thing to stop their kids kicking the seats and bouncing on the seat back trays whilst screaming at each other. I'm failing to restrain myself from saying that I'd like to buy up hundreds of copies of a book I saw in a bookshop in Mangalore called "Learn to smack your kids" and them hand them out to AIE passengers. The volume of noise in the plane was like a Saturday afternoon in Pizza Express. I wished I'd had my ear plugs.
In terms of service during the flight, I'm not sure how much activity there was as most of the time I was sitting there with my eyes closed, gritting my teeth and trying to ignore the bedlam going on around me. The cabin attendants were neatly attired in smart salwar kameez rather than the more traditional saris I recall from Air India. I thought they had their work cut out to try to keep a plane full of rowdy passengers under something resembling control.
We were each given a small bottle of drinking water fairly early on and a slice of really poor cake followed. The cake was probably rubbish because in order to be vegetarian in the Hindu sense of the word, it can't contain egg. Nobody is going to hand out non-veg cake so the resulting slice of cake-like stuff has to work for both veg and non-veg customers. The other most noticeable thing about the flight was how incredibly cold it was. I wondered if someone had left the windows open!
The flight took about 2 hours and landed eventually in Kochi with a bump that might have been less noticeable if there had been more padding in the seat. The disembarkation resembled one of those training videos where passengers are challenged to prove that it's possible to get 200 people down an emergency shoot in less than 10 seconds. Bags were delivered after a short delay and I watched as two women lugged all the bags out of the trolleys and onto the luggage belt whilst a chap in a uniform supervised them. Some of the larger bags took both women lifting together to get them out and I couldn't help thinking that was a pretty awful way to earn a living.
I asked some locals we got speaking to on a train about a week later what they thought about Air India Express. They told me that even though the service is a lot poorer than many of the independent budget carriers and the planes are old and ropey, many people choose the carrier because it's part of Air India and they expect that if anything goes wrong the government will put things right. Whether that's 'anything goes wrong' in terms of flight cancellations or planes falling out of the air, I'm not sure. For my money, I'd rather book an independent carrier whose planes are newer and who might still have some padding in their seats. Our flight was a bargain but I'd prefer to pay a little more in return for a bit more comfort next time. AIE is unlikely to get repeat business from us.