The History Behind India’s Flag Carrier: Air India

As India’s oldest airline, flag carrier Air India has a long history of serving the country and connecting destinations globally. From being known as the best airline in the world to currently undergoing privatization, the airline has had an interesting seven decades. As Air India enters its latest chapter, let’s take a look back at the carrier’s history.

Air India Boeing 777
Air India began as a postal air carrier in the 1930s under JRD Tata. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Beginnings

Air India found its beginning at Tata Air Services in 1932, founded by entrepreneur JRD Tata. JRD himself had a long fascination with aviation and was the first person to receive a pilots license issued in India. This fascination quickly turned into a plan to form India’s first commercial airline in the early 1930s.

Tata Air Services began its first year by transporting mail on some routes for then-Imperial Airways. However, operations grew quickly, with the airline adding more destinations across India for mail, and then beginning to carry passengers. By the end of the first year, the carrier had flown 10.7 tons of mail and 155 passengers using the de Havilland Puss Moth.

JRD Tata Plane
JRD Tata was only 28 when he founded the carrier and led it for decades more. Photo: Tata Group

Indeed, Tata Air Services was winning plaudits for its efficiency and on-time performance as soon as it launched, according to The New York Times. The adherence to schedule (100% punctuality) was so notable that Imperial Airways even planned to send a team to understand Tata’s secret in 1933. The airline turned a profit of ₹60,000($812, worth around $17,000 today) in its first year of operations.

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Growth

In 1938, the airline was renamed Tata Airlines and expanded internationally for the first time. The carrier added Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to its route map in addition to the dozen or so destinations in India. Profits grew ten-fold to ₹600,000 by 1937, highlighting the airline’s success.

World War Two saw Tata Airlines’ planes all commandeered for military use. JRD Tata offered to build de Havilland Mosquitos to support the war effort and eventually made gliders instead. By 1942, he was looking to the post-war future of the airline and expanding into the west.

Air India Lockheed Constellation
Air India began its first long-haul route to London Heathrow in 1948 and has never looked back from its since. Photo: Mila Daniel via Wikimedia Commons

After the war and India’s independence, the government took a 49% stake in the carrier, which had been renamed Air India. Air India made its maiden long-haul flight from Mumbai to London Heathrow in 1948, a long-awaited step for JRD Tata. To prepare the crew, he hired a former TWA flight attendant to maintain exceptional service even on long routes.

However, just five years later, the government nationalized Air India (and several other carriers) and took it out of Tata’s control. Despite initially being angered by the move, JRD Tata returned to lead the airline as its chairman soon after. In his biography, he said,

“I came to the conclusion that I should not shirk the opportunity of discharging a duty to the country and to Indian aviation. I am particularly anxious that the present high standards of Air India International should not be adversely affected by nationalization.”

His words have become particularly prescient in the decades that followed his exit as chairman of Air India.

Pushing ahead

Despite nationalization, Air India continued its expansion and modernization. In terms of fleet plans, the carrier particularly focused on acquiring the latest jets. In 1960, AI received its first Boeing 707, kicking off the Jet Age for the airline. A decade later, in 1971, Air India received its first Boeing 747, an aircraft type that remains in the fleet 50 years later as well.

Along with an ever-expanding fleet, the carrier continued to grow its routes as well. Destinations like Rome, Paris, and Dusseldorf were quick to join after London. In East Asia, Air India began flying to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, and Bangkok. Air India was rapidly becoming a familiar sight in airports around the world, from Nairobi to New York.

Air India 747-200
The 747 kicked off an era of luxurious service and new routes for Air India, including the first nonstop service to New York in 1993. Photo: Communi core via Wikimedia Commons

JRD Tata was removed as chairman of Air India in 1977, placing the airline’s control firmly into government hands. By that time, the carrier was colloquially known as “The Maharaja” (The King) for its service and connectivity. These changes had been heralded by JRD Tata and made the carrier an inspiration for some of today’s exceptional airlines, such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

The 1980s and 1990s saw Air India continue to remain successful internationally, add more cities to its network and maintaining a modern fleet. The Airbus A310 and Boeing 747-400 had become mainstays by the 1990s, serving long-haul and medium-haul destinations efficiently and comfortably. However, the next decade saw Air India run into problems for arguably the first time in its history.

Issues

Despite its successes in the past few decades, the government was trying to privatize Air India by 2000. However, attempts to do so failed due to a myriad of reasons, mostly to do with government control. As India liberalized the aviation industry in the 1990s, Air India began competing with new upstarts like Jet Airways in the years that followed.

Air India Boeing 747 Getty
Corruption, falling service standards, and government control hurt Air India’s operations and reputation. Photo: Getty Images

While Air India remained profitable, its domestic arm, Indian Airlines, was struggling and seeing losses by the early 2000s. The government opted to merge both carriers in 2007, creating one brand for full-service operations. However, the newly merged Air India quickly began racking up losses and has been doing so for the last decade, barring a few rare bright spots.

Today

Fast forward to today and the once legendary Air India finds itself in dire straits. The carrier has racked up billions of dollars in debt and continues to see losses. All of this has forced the government to fully give up control of the flag carrier and put 100% of it up for sale for the first time ever.

After over a year of waiting and bidding, the race to own Air India has come down to two airline industry veterans: the Tata Group and SpiceJet CEO Ajay Singh. The pair are currently evaluating the airline’s assets and planning their final bid amounts for Air India.

Air India Boeing 777-300ER
Air India will return to private hands once again after nearly 70 years of government control. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

If Tata does win the bid, it will be full-circle for the airline. From first founding to the airline to having it taken over by the government, the group will be excited to see the carrier return home. However, a few steps remain and competition is intense to see what the future of Air India will be.

What do you think about Air India’s history and future? Did you fly with the carrier during its heyday? Let us know in the comments!

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