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Thursday, January 31, 2008



This year the national carrier Air India is undergoing momentous changes as it is all set to emerge as a world class airline and one of the largest airlines in the Asia Pacific region, following its merger with Indian (erstwhile Indian Airlines) the leader in the domestic aviation sector.


One summer day in 1929, late Mr. Nevill Vintcent, a former Royal Air Force pilot came to India from Britain on a brainstorming tour during which he surveyed a number of possible air routes. He saw the immense potential for aviation in India. It came to pass that he met late Mr. J.R.D. Tata, a young Indian who was the first to get his A-licence in India and that too in the shortest number of hours.

Mr. Vintcent worked out a scheme, secured Mr. Tata’s approval and together they showed it to Mr. Peterson, a Director of Tata Sons and Mr. J.R.D. Tata’s mentor. Sir Dorab Tata, the then Chairman of Tata Sons, pleasantly surprised all by giving the scheme his okay. So they went ahead and drew plans for the operation of an air service from Karachi to Mumbai with one stop at Ahmedabad.

All that they asked from the Government was a guarantee for only a year for the sum of Rs. 1,00,000. This, however, was turned down. The Tata-Vintcent combination was naturally disappointed, but no dismayed. A second scheme was prepared. This time the guarantee asked for was only Rs. 50,000 for the first year, Rs. 25,000 for the second year and after that no guarantee at all. This scheme too was not accepted. The team tried a third time. This time they offered to donate an air services to the Government of India, with no strings attached. The Government agreed and thus was born Tata Airlines, which later became Air India.

On October 15, 1932, a light single-engine Puss Moth took off from Karachi on its flight to Mumbai (then known as Bombay) via Ahmedabad. At the controls of the tiny plane was Mr. Tata, operating the first scheduled air service in the country. He landed with his precious load of mail on a grass strip at Juhu. Life was simple then. There were no runways, no radio facilities in the aircraft or on the ground. There were no pretty hostesses, no aerodrome officers and no airport buildings. At Mumbai, Mr. Vintcent, took over from Mr. Tata and flew the Puss Moth to Chennai (then known as Madras) via Bellary.

In 1933, the first full year of its operations, Tata Airlines flew 160,000 miles, carried 155 passengers and 10.71 tonnes of mail. In the next few years, Tata Airlines continued to rely for its revenue on the mail contract with the Government of India for carriage of surcharged mail, including a considerable quantity of overseas mail brought to Karachi by the Imperial Airways for destinations in India. On the Karachi-Chennai route, frequency was stepped up to twice a week in 1934, and a year later, a weekly service was started between Mumbai and Trivandrum (now known as Thiruvananthapuram) with stops at Goa and Cannanore. In 1937, the frequency was stepped up to two per week and another flight between Mumbai-Delhi via Indore, Bhopal and Gwalior was started. New planes began to appear in the fleet. In addition to the original Puss Moth and Leopard Moth, there were Wacos, DH-89s and Stinson Trimotors.

The introduction of the Empire Airmail Scheme in February 1938 brought the opportunity for further expansion and renovation of fleet. Tata Airlines received a ten-year contract under the Scheme with guaranteed minimum payment for the carriage of first class mail on the Karachi-Colombo and Karachi-Lahore routes.

When the war came, the Empire Air Mail Scheme was suspended and the Government took over the fleet of bigger DH-89s leaving the airline to make do with the smaller Wacos and Stinsons. Later, during the war, some Beachcraft Expeditors and DC-2s were loaned to Tata Airlines, with the famous DC-3 (more popularly known as the Dakota) joining the fleet towards the end of the war. Four surplus DC-3s were allotted to the airline by the US surplus property authorities and in addition, about eight DC-3s were brought directly from the US office of the Foreign Liquidation Commissioner.

If the war interrupted the airline’s smooth progress, it provided other opportunities. The airline was involved in a survey of South Arabia route, carriage of supplies to Iraq, movement of refugees from Burma and overhaul and maintenance of RAF equipment. The transition to civilian status immediately after the war caused few problems to the airline, since it had already acquired considerable operating experience. To stress on its new civilian status and its role as a public utility, Tata Airlines was converted into a Public Limited Company on July 29, 1946 and renamed AIR INDIA. Around this time, the airline moved its operating base from Juhu to its present location at Mumbai Airport.

At the beginning of 1947, Air India turned its attention to the international scene. Towards the end of the year, an agreement was reached with the Government of India for the formation of Air India International Limited to operate international services. At Air India’s request, the Government agreed to limit their capital participation to 49 percent , subject to an option to acquire, at any time, a further two percent from Air India. Air India was appointed technical manager on a ten-year contract.

In order to make the earliest possible start, Air India had already placed a provisional order for three Lockheed Constellations and arranged for the training of pilots and other staff. Luckily, Lockheed was able to deliver the planes six months earlier than planned because of cancellation of an order by another airline. Thus, Air India International, which was registered on March 8, 1948, inaugurated its international operations modestly with a weekly services from Mumbai to London via Cairo and Geneva on June 8, 1948.

On the domestic front, however, storm clouds had begun to gather. The availability of cheap war surplus DC-3s in the country had given rise to a number of airlines during the immediate post war era. Twenty-one companies were registered. However, only 11 were licenced to operate 51 routes all over the country.

The early Fifties saw the financial condition of airlines in India deteriorate to such an extent that the Government decided to step in and nationalize the air transport industry and accordingly, two autonomous corporations were created on August 1, 1953. Indian Airlines was formed with the merger of eight domestic airlines to operate domestic services, while Air India International was to operate the overseas services (the world ‘International was dropped in 1962. Effective March 1, 1994, the airline has been renamed Air India Limited).

Nationalization opened a new chapter in the airline’s history, which was marked by the expansion of its fleet and routes. By mid-Fifties, Air India had replaced its fleet of Constellations with the larger, faster and more modern Super Constellations. New destinations were added – Singapore and Hong Kong in 1954, Tokyo in 1955, Sydney in 1956 and Moscow in 1958.

The Fifties also witnessed Air India bursting forth on the world air transport scene with a refreshingly different publicity campaign. The little Maharajah, who had first made his appearance as a symbol on a note-pad in mid-Forties, began to appear all over the world in various garbs – in London he wore a bowler hat and read The Times, in Sydney he was caught sun bathing on Bondi beach, in Nairobi he went on a Safari and in Europe he went skiing, to the intense amusement of the locals. No other airline quite matched Air India’s panache and subtle humour in promoting its services. Air India became one of the most talked about airlines in the world.

The jet age was already looming on the horizon and heralded revolutionary changes in the air transport industry. Air India was keeping a sharp eye on the latest developments and decided to order the Boeing 707 in the late Fifties. The first Boeing 707 was received in February 1960. This marked the airline’s entry into the jet age.

The Boeing 707 enabled Air India to extend its Mumbai-London service to New York in May 1960. This was a major step in the airline’s steady expansion into new markets. The other major route to be added in the Sixties was Mumbai-Mauritius.

As the Sixties closed, Air India in keeping with its tradition of ordering the latest and the best planes available, placed an order for the Boeing 747-200s, the first of which was delivered in April 1971. Over the next nine years, Air India received nine more planes at regular intervals, thus achieving the biggest ever expansion of its fleet and capacity in its history, with simultaneous expansion of all other facilities.

Another significant event was extraordinary expansion of services to the various cities in the Gulf region. In 1970, Air India was operating only a couple of services a week from Mumbai to the Gulf, but following the oil boom, there was a mass migration of Indian labour to the Gulf and other countries, and Air India had to step up services to meet the demand.

The latter half of the Seventies also saw more services being launched to Africa. Further expansion into Africa took place in the Eighties when services were started to Dar-es-Salaam and Harare in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, because of the economic downturn in Africa and the consequent fall in traffic, services to Accra, Lagos, Dar-es-Salaam and Harare were discontinued. The airline currently operates flights to Nairobi/Dar-esSalaam in Africa.

Air India started the Eighties with a programme of fleet renewal. In the first phase, Air India purchased three Airbus 300-B4s in 1982. In the second phase, six A310-300s were inducted into the fleet. The airline acquired two more Boeing 747-300 Combi aircraft in October/November 1988 and two Airbus A310s in the August 1990. Four Boeing 747-400s were inducted into the fleet between August 1993 and July 1994. Two more Boeing 747-400s were inducted in November 1996. Air India currently has a fleet of 50 aircraft along with Air India Express, its budget airline.

Air India has come a long way from that far off day, way back in 1932 when all it had was one palm-thatched hut at Juhu Airport, two single-engine planes – a Puss Moth and a Leopard Moth – one full time pilot and two apprentice mechanics. From its inception, Air India has followed a policy of self-sufficiency. This has been a matter of necessity for the simple reason that Air India is located away from the main centers of air transport activity in the world, and the planes could not be sent out for either maintenance or major checks without disrupting services and the subsequent loss of revenue.

This has meant, of course, a considerable investment in building extensive and often expensive facilities, but the major advantage of this policy has been that the airline now possesses one of the most modern and up-to-date engineering bases in the world, capable of handling complete work on its fleet of Boeing 747-400s, Boeing 747-200s, Boeing 747-300s, Airbus A310-300s and Boeing 737-800s. The most important acquisitions have been the B-777-200 LR aircraft with which Air India has launched the daily non-stop direct flight between Mumbai and New York on 1st August 2007 and will launch the daily non-stop direct flight between Delhi and New York on 8th February 2007.

The airline’s historic and Herculean effort of airlifting over 110,000 stranded Indian nationals from Amman to Mumbai during August-October 1990 was, recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest evacuation of civilians and was featured in its 1993 edition.

The New Air India

The New Air India is the merged entity comprising the two state owned carriers – Indian Airlines and Air India. The Government on 1st March 2007 approved the merger of the two public sector carriers in to a new company – National Aviation Company of India Ltd., which was incorporated on 30th March 2007 with its headquarters at Mumbai. The brand name of the new airline is Air India and its logo remains the Maharaja. The new airline is the largest in the country, with a fleet size of almost 120, comparable to other airlines in Asia, and a further 111 aircraft on order.

The merged entity now has an integrated national and international footprint and is enabling these two airlines to pool their resources, achieve synergies, face competition and establishing new benchmarks for efficiency and reliability. Though the formal merger of the two airlines has been completed in August 2007 and integration of operations will proceed in a phased manner over the next two years.

The merger is in keeping with the industry trend of moving towards consolidation to achieve synergies and reduce costs. The merged airline is now offering an integrated schedule from interior points in India to various international destinations and vice versa, offering seamless connectivity to passengers.

A larger and stronger public sector national carrier is expected to increase regional connectivity to hitherto under services and un-serviced destinations.

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