National flag bearers always have formed an elusive sliver of aviation industry. These are the brands that exemplify the respective country – their traditions and business models are a sneak peek for the world tourism into the habits, lifestyle and aura of the way people live and thrive there. Air India originated as ‘Tata Air Services’, later renamed to Tata Airlines, founded by an Indian aviator and business tycoon, J.R.D. Tata, way back in 1932. Since then, after having gone through a multitude of business and management transitions, today, though hanging by a thread, it is one of the most beloved airline in the country.
Conception and Early Times
When the airline was founded, the founder and visionary, J.R.D. Tata, himself flew its first single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth, carrying air mail from Karachi to Bombay’s Juhu aerodrome and later continuing to Madras, currently known as Chennai. The initial service included a weekly air-mail between Karachi and Madras (now, Chennai) via Ahmadabad and Bombay (now, Mumbai). In its first year of operation, the airline flew 160,000 miles (260,000 km), carrying 155 passengers and 10.71 tons of mail, which was a huge feat for the airline, given that back then, aviation was little known with minuscule government and economic support, not to forget that air travel was only reserved for the elite class.
After the World War II, when aviation received a green light to flourish in passenger and cargo domain, the company became a public limited company and was renamed as ‘Air India’. On February 21 ,1960, it took delivery of its first Boeing 707 named ‘Gauri Shankar’ and became the first Asian airline to induct a jet aircraft in its fleet.
After Indian independence in 1947, 49% of the airline was acquired by the Government of India. On June 8, 1948, a Lockheed Constellation L-749A named ‘Malabar Princess’ (aircraft registered as VT-CQP) took off from Bombay bound for London Heathrow, thereby, marking the airline’s first international flight. From 1948 to 1950, the airline introduced services to Nairobi, Kenya and to major European destinations including Rome, Paris and Düsseldorf. The airline took delivery of its first Lockheed Constellation L-1049 and inaugurated services to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bangkok. In 1953, the Government of India passed the Air Corporations Act and purchased a majority stake in the carrier, and with that, Air India came into existence.
Modern Times and Fleet
With a history of 87 years, Air India has had some magnanimous transitions in terms of brand positioning, its business model and fleet constituency. While we shall look into the recent predicaments for the airline in part 2 of this article, one cannot overlook the fact that Air India has been one of the most diverse airline, constituting almost 20 different aircraft types, from the likes of Boeing 747, the Boeing 757 to Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, Airbus A300 and DC-8 in its fleet. The transition over the decades from flying a De Havilland Fox Moth to the sophisticated Boeing 787 Dreamliner is indeed, noteworthy!
Presently, it is the third largest airline in India in terms of domestic market share, mainly operating a fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, serving various domestic and international airports. In 2014, the airline became a member of esteemed Star Alliance Network, after have been recognized by the IATA (International Air Transport Association) for Safety Audit for Ground Operations in 2013, and Emerging Freighter Services of the Year Award 2010. In 2008, the airline also won accolades for the best short-haul international airline in India.
Lately, however, things do look quite dingy for India’s flag bearer. Post 2014, profits have become meager and business, as a whole, has been an a slump. However, the once jewel in India’s aviation history has always brought a sense of nostalgia for every aviation lover in the country!
In part 2, we shall look more into the latest developments at Air India, what can we expect in the near future; and most importantly, try to answer: ‘Will there be one?’