Looking back at Air India’s luxurious Boeing 747 fleet that once ruled the skies

In 1971, the Boeing 747 opened up major hubs around the world and allowed Air India to flourish as an international carrier. 50 years later, the aircraft have been replaced by more efficient versions such as the Boeing 777 and 787s. Here’s a look at the plane that helped build Air India’s reputation as ‘Maharaja of the Skies’.

In 1966, Joe Stutter and his team began designing a ‘jumbo jet’ for the erstwhile Pan American World Airways that would become a milestone in aviation. The Boeing 747, which first took flight in 1969, symbolised modern air travel and made long haul flights affordable for the masses. Today, airlines have moved to more fuel efficient options – Qantas has phased out its 747 aircraft and Lufthansa has permanently grounded some of its fleet. In July last year, British Airways retired its entire fleet of B747s due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, according to media reports, Air India is likely to follow suit and gradually phase out its four remaining B747 jets.

Maharaja of the skies

The Boeing 747 has been part of Air India’s fleet for 50 years and is synonymous with the carrier’s heyday. Under the chairmanship of JRD Tata, the airline received its first fleet of 747s in April 1971, and soon began plying them on non-stop international routes to cities such as London and Tokyo. The distinct white façade with a row of red jharokha arches was a signature of the fleet, and each plane was christened after an Indian emperor—Ashoka, Shah Jehan, Vikramaditya and Rajendra Chola.


Branded as “Your Palace in the Sky”, the aircraft set a new standard for inflight luxury. JRD Tata was keenly involved in the design, offering inputs on the smallest detail. Its exotic interiors, designed by the Art Studio of Bombay in collaboration with the Air India art department, were replete with rich tapestries and artwork based on Indian motifs.

Air India’s first two 747s, for example, featured pink and blue panels in alternate compartments. The window panels were embellished with motifs depicting the legends of Krishna. The first-class cabin of Emperor Ashoka featured exquisite paisley work reminiscent of Kashmiri textiles. A spiral staircase led to the Maharaja lounge on the upper deck. Clad in red velvet, the lounge was decorated with murals adapted from the frescoes of the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra. 

Guests traveling first-class also had access to a bar with magazines in distinctive red folders for inflight entertainment. The menu was designed by the late Jiggs Karla and based on four seasons—spring, summer, autumn, and winter. 

The future of the Boeing 747

In response to the reports of Air India retiring its 747s for good, the airline put out a statement saying that an official decision is yet to be made. However, with the advent of newer models, it’s plain that the glory days of the jumbo jet have passed. 

Air India originally held 14 Boeing 747-200s and three 747-300s. Of the four that remain today, three occasionally ply domestic routes and to ferry VVIP dignitaries, including the president, on long and medium-haul international visits. Last year, the government announced it had acquired two new state-of-the-art Boeing 777s which would function as the desi version of Air Force One. The COVID-19 pandemic has also shortened the commercial lifespan of four-engine passenger jets like the Boeing 747, with airlines grounding them in favor of twin-engine medium/long haul jets like the B777, B787, A330, and A350.

If Air India does ground its remaining 747s, it will be the only commercial Indian airline to operate four-engine aircraft. Vijay Mallya had ordered the Airbus A340s for Kingfisher but could not induct them before the airline shut operations in 2012.

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