The legacy lives on: Air India comes back to the Tata fold

Tracing the heritage of what was India’s premier air carrier that now sees hope for a revival to its glory days with its Rs 18,000 crore sale to a Tata group company.

On October 15, 1932, JRD Tata flew a De Havilland Puss Moth aircraft loaded with mail, from Karachi’s Drigh Road Aerodrome and flew to Mumbai’s Juhu wetlands, via Ahmedabad. With no navigational aids back in the day, he would follow rail lines for navigation. That was the first flight in Indian aviation history, and JRD Tata became the father of Indian Aviation.

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JRD Tata after the first flight of the Tata Air Service from Karachi to Mumbai. Image: Courtesy Tata Central Archives.

Tata Air Services, as the service was originally called, started out as a mail package service, and later, started flying passengers as well. Just one passenger per flight, and they’d have to sit on top of the mail to make the journey. Neville Vincent, who brought the idea to JRD Tata, was appointed as the chief pilot and between them, they’d operate a weekly mail service on this route.

The airline quickly grew to be the largest airline in India by 1946, when it changed its name to Air India, and wanted to fly international as well. In 1947, Air India International was formed. In March 1948, Air India’s first Lockheed Constellation aircraft, named Malabar Princess, arrived in India allowing for the launch of flights between Bombay (now Mumbai) and London. Air India International became the first airline from Asia to connect the east and the west.

Air India’s reputation grew globally on the back of the perfection-driven JRD Tata, who helmed it. Bobby Kooka, who was the commercial director of Air India, visualised the iconic Maharajah, and brought him to life with the support of Umesh Rao, an artist at the J Walter Thomson advertising agency. The idea of the Maharajah came to him from the fact that, back in the day, India was referred to as ‘the land of the Maharajahs’.

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The iconic Maharajah mascot is recognisable everywhere even today. Image: Shutterstock/PhotographerIncognito.

Here is how Bobby Kooka described the Maharajah. “We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He might look like royalty, but he isn’t royal.” The Maharajah went on to be the icon of the elegance and luxury that Air India promised, and frequently took the shape and form of the destination he was promoting over the years ahead.

The luxury was not just on paper. While the airline was acquired from JRD and nationalised in the early 1950s, JRD Tata was retained to run the airline till 1978. In 1971, Air India announced the introduction of the Boeing 747s in its fleet, the iconic aircraft which is fondly known as the Queen of the Skies. Air India’s 747 aircraft were named after Emperors and were branded as ‘Your Palace in the Sky’. They sported jharokha windows, and had a Maharajah Lounge in the upper deck, featuring cocktail bars that brought to life the golden age of travel. The late Jiggs Kalra designed the in-flight menu, while flight attendants dressed in traditional ghagra-cholis and elegant sarees served passengers on the plane.

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The stewardesses proudly sported ethnic Indian wear as uniforms from 1960. Image: Courtesy Tata Central Archives..
Air india, vintage, airline, maiden flight, crew, air travel
JRD Tata with the crew of an Air India Boeing 747 aircraft. Image: Courtesy Tata Central Archives..

The airline was the first one in Asia to enter the jet age in early 1960 and by 1962, became the world’s first all-jet airline. It might not be well known, but when Singapore Airlines was founded in the early 1970s, Singapore’s PM Lee Kuan Kew collaborated with Air India to gain know-how about service standards. Air India is said to have inspired the service standards of many other Asian carriers as well.

Ultimately, the ousting of JRD Tata led to rise in bureaucractic infleunce on the airline. The next major jolt to Air India was the move to permit private airlines to enter the Indian airspace, but Air India continued to remain nationalised.

After many false starts, the Government of India has finally announced that Air India will be privatised again, and the house of Tatas will be its new owner. Ultimately, Tata Sons will pay INR 18,000 crore, out of which INR 2,700 crore will be paid to the Government of India, and the rest will be the debt of Air India which will be serviced by the Tata Sons.

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An Air India aircraft at Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport in Ladakh. Image: Shutterstock/Tooykrub.

While giving away Air India, the Government of India will still retain a majority of the debt it raised to fund the losses at the airline, to the tune of INR 46,000 crore. The Tatas are taking over on an airline that will make an INR 20 crore loss daily on Jan 1, 2022, . They will also have to invest extensively to refurbish Air India’s aircrafts, many of which are grounded. Not just that, any rationalisation in the crew can’t happen for a year after Air India’s privatisation.

A stake in Air India was put up for sale many a times since 2001. But life has come a full circle for the airline, which is back to where it belongs, in the fold of the Tatas, where it all started, with the airline, along with its low cost carrier Air India Express and 50 per cent of ground-handling company AISATS sold for USD 2.5 billion to Talace Private Ltd, a TATA Sons’ SPV. As Ratan Tata, the patriarch of the Tata Group, said on the occasion, “Welcome Back, Air India”.

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Return of the Maharajah. Image: Shutterstock/Santhosh Varghese.

Ajay Awtaney (Live From a Lounge) writes about Indian aviation.

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