A Brief History Of Commercial Aviation In India

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India is the world’s third-largest aviation market, behind the US and China, and is the fastest-growing. The history of Indian aviation is closely tied with that of Air India and state control, with its roots in the 1930s. So, how did India become the aviation hub it is today? Let’s find out.

Air India 707
Air India has played a central role in the history of Indian aviation, but that may change soon. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons

The beginning

Indian aviation kicked off in 1932, with the introduction of the first airline, Tata Air Services. The airline, founded by J.R.D Tata, started as an airmail carrier within India after winning a contract with Imperial Airways. The airline flew its inaugural flight in October 1932, flying from Karachi to Mumbai.

The airline progressed from a small freight airline to a commercial passenger airline. By 1938, the airline was renamed to Tata Airlines and was flying domestic flights to a number of destinations. J.R.D Tata was himself heavily involved in the airline, he flew the airline’s inaugural flight in 1932 and was India’s first licensed pilot. Tata Airways also played a role in the Second World War, carrying troops and supplies for Britain during the war.

The foundation of Air India

In 1947, following Indian independence, Tata Airways was renamed Air India and the government took a 49% stake in the airline. The airline began flying its first international flights in the next year, flying from Mumbai to London on a Lockheed Constellation.

Air India Lockheed Constellation
Air India flew its first international flight from Mumbai to London. Photo: USAF via Wikimedia Commons

By the 1950s, India was home to a number of smaller airlines, operating in the different parts of the country. Some notable airlines were Deccan Airways based in Hyderabad and Kalinga Airlines based in Kolkata. Air India remained the national carrier, flying multiple domestic and international routes.

In 1953, the Indian government nationalized the aviation industry, taking control of all major airlines. This resulted in the eight major airlines being merged into two airlines run by the government. These two airlines were Air India and Indian Airlines.

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Government-run airlines

The two government airlines were simplified for efficiency. Indian Airlines operated domestic flights in India and Air India focused on international routes. This led to a significant streamlining of operations, allowing the government to manage these airlines.

Indian Airlines
Domestic flights were operated by Indian Airlines. Photo: Northside via Wikimedia Commons

Air India International, the new airline, was India’s flag carrier and quickly became a major international carrier. Air India became known for its superior service and profitable business model, led by J.R.D Tata, who stayed on as Chairman of the airline post-privatization. The airline also became of the first few to purchase the 747, hoping to keep its status as a premier airline.

However, the 1970s were marred with war and domestic disputes, leading Air India and Indian Airlines to struggle. Indian struggled in particular since it operated a number of unprofitable routes and was forced to manage its aging fleet. In the 1990s, the peak of India’s financial crisis, India reversed its stance on regulation and allowed private airlines once again.

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The birth of modern Indian aviation

By 1994, India repealed all laws regulating the formation of airlines and allowed the introduction of scheduled private airlines. This deregulation allowed for the formation of new airlines such as Jet Airways and ModiLuft. This laid the groundwork for the current Indian aviation industry.

Jet Airways Heathrow 777
Jet Airways began operations in 1993. Photo: Aero Lucas via Flickr

Following the 1994 reforms, India saw a number of airlines crop up. Air India and Indian Airlines continued to operate as government-run airlines. However, carriers such as Jet Airways and Air Sahara began chipping away at the legacy airlines, trying to establish themselves.

India’s deregulation also attracted foreign players, Lufthansa invested in ModiLuft, a joint-venture airline that failed to succeed. However, ModiLuft did go on to become SpiceJet, the major low-cost carrier.

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The aviation boom

The 2000s marked the beginning of India’s aviation boom. Full-service carriers such as Air India and Jet Airways were challenged by a slew of low-cost airlines. Low-cost airlines drastically reduced fares, allowing millions more to fly and challenging the larger airlines.

Notable examples of low-cost airlines were IndiGo, SpiceJet, GoAir, and AirAsia India. These airlines now occupy over 70% of the domestic market and continue growing. This explosion of airlines and low fares has propelled India into the third-largest aviation market, requiring thousands of new aircraft in the coming decades.

IndiGo A320
Low-cost carrier IndiGo quickly became a dominant market force thanks to its low fares. Photo: Laurent Errera via Wikimedia Commons

The growth of the Indian aviation market has also attracted a number of foreign airlines. Carriers such as Emirates and Qatar have become major long-haul carriers, flying to nearly a dozen cities each and holding a significant share of the market.

What does the future hold?

As mentioned at the start, India remains the fastest-growing aviation market in the world. This has meant both aircraft manufacturers and airlines are looking to expand into the Indian market. As the aviation industry starts its recovery from the current downturn, some are predicting India is in a unique place to have a strong recovery.

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Airbus A320 Getty
The Airbus A320 has been the best selling plane in India. Photo: Getty Images

Both Airbus and Boeing are pushing to sell their aircraft to the Indian market, which is set to buy nearly 2000 planes in the next two decades. Airbus has found success with its A320, which is the common plane in India, while Boeing has dominated the smaller, yet growing, widebody market.

Airlines are also making a play to expand their operations. Vistara recently became India’s first private airline with a widebody aircraft, hoping to capture the long-haul market. Air India is in the process of privatization, with the government selling its entire stake in the airline. The fall of Jet Airways last year created a place for a new long-haul airline, one which is currently being filled by foreign airlines.

Vistara’s Dreamliner purchase could see great success as India looks for a new long-haul airline. Photo: Boeing

The coming years will see the Indian market continue to grow, as more travelers start flying and Indian airlines continue to expand. We will be keenly watching as India reaches another chapter in its long aviation history.

What do you think about India’s aviation market? What does the future hold for the industry? Let us know in the comments below.

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