MIAMI – India’s flag carrier Air India (AI) has been up for sale for some years. Finally, its privatization is around the corner. Let’s look at how it all began.

In the early 1930s, mail bound to India sent from the west was unloaded in Karachi, Pakistan. This mail was then sent to different parts of India by train. Nevill Vintcent, former Royal Airforce pilot proposed an idea: to establish an air service that could pick up the mail from Karachi and deliver it to its destination the same day.

Vincent approached JRD Tata, a 25-year-old aviation freak who belonged to the Tata family and he had some basic flying experience back in France as a youngster.

Tata on a 1994 stamp of India. Photo: By India Post, Government of India – [1], GODL-India,

Tata Air

In 1932, JRD Tata and Vintcent started Tata Air Mail with two Puss Moth aircraft, which could fly at 160 kph, carrying mail and two passengers.

Tata Air Mail’s first flight departed on October 15, 1932. JRD Tata flew the mail from Karachi to Bombay, and then Vincent took over the second leg from Bombay to Madras.

This tiny air service had just two pilots, three engineers, and four support workers. The Karachi-Bombay-Madras run was done every Monday, stopping at Bellary for the night. Tata Air Mail made a profit of INR 60,000 in its first year and carried 10 tonnes of mail.

In a couple of years, it extended its service. to Bombay – Delhi (via Indore, Bhopal, and Gwalior) Hyderabad, Goa, Cannanore, Trivandrum, Trichy, and Colombo.

The Malabar Princess on an Air India International 1948 stamp of India. Photo: By India Post, Government of India –, Public Domain,

The Malabar Princess Flies to London

The next step for the airline’s evolution came in 1946. JRD Tata saw huge possibilities for the airline industry post-WWII. He, therefore, took the company public and renamed Tata Airlines, Air India. He also acquired a fleet of aircraft, the pride of which was a Lockheed Constellation, one of the most advanced aircraft of its time with a range capable of international flights, which was named “Malabar Princess.”

At five minutes past midnight on June 8, 1948, the Malabar Princess took off from the Santa Cruz airport, Bombay, on its first international flight to London (LHR), via Cairo and Geneva/Rome and piloted by Captain K R Guzdar. Onboard were 35 passengers, including JRD Tata, Nawab Amir Ali Khan of Jamnagar, the high commissioner to the UK; several Bombay industrialists, as well as two Indian cyclists on their way to the London Olympics.

The fare was a princely sum of Rs 1,720. The entire Air India crew had rigorously rehearsed for months, flying dummy runs to various international routes under JRD Tata’s meticulous eye for detail, so, not surprisingly, the Flying Carpet landed in London on the dot.

“Set your watches, boys, we are right on schedule,” said JRD Tata to the press as he stepped off the aircraft.

Image: the Airchive

Air India’s World-class Service

Over the next three decades, AI became known to the cognoscenti as one of the world’s finest airlines. It may have been small compared with other global competitors, but it had the kind of service that the other airlines talked about with admiration and envy.

Just one example of this was the fact that when in the 1950s, BOAC (British Airways) introduced a jet service that cut a few hours off the trip, people still preferred to fly by AI’s slower propeller-driven aircraft, simply because of the way they were pampered on board.

But AI’s finest service probably was on its trans-Atlantic flights, where it took great pleasure in stealing passengers away from its American and European competitors. And long before Singapore Airlines (SQ) created an icon of its “Singapore Girl” in her silk kebaya, AI had made an icon of its air-hostesses in their exotic silk saris.

Air India map. Image: the Airchive

JDR Tata’s Legacy

One of the main reasons behind AI’s success was JRD Tata himself, who used to manage everything. He was notorious, he would make notes of tiny details that needed to be fixed, from the level to which the wine was poured into a wineglass to the hairstyles of the air hostesses.

Image: the Airchive

If he saw a dirty airline counter he would shame everyone by requesting a duster and wiping it himself and, on at least one occasion, he rolled up his sleeves and helped the crew clean a dirty aircraft toilet. It was his eye for microscopic detail that inspired the Air India staff into performing way beyond the ordinary call of duty. And that, ultimately, was what made the airline what it was.

For JRD Tata it was entirely “a labour of love”, as he once said, because by then Air India had been nationalized, and the only personal stake he had in it was an emotional one. He may have been chairman of the Tata group, but he spent most of his time not on any of the Tatas’ own companies, but on the airline he had created and nurtured.

And that is why when, in 1978, JRD Tata was humiliatingly sacked by prime minister Morarji Desai, the nation was outraged, because Air India was, at that time, a matter of deep national pride. (The main issue apparently was that the puritanical Morarji had issued a diktat that no alcohol was to be served onboard AI, and JRD had objected strongly, saying that was no way to run an international airline.

JRD Tata was later reappointed to the AI board committee by Indira Gandhi, but the downfall of the airline had already begun.

Featured image: Air India VT-ALN Boeing 777-300(ER) (Celebrating India livery). Photo: Brad Tisdel/Airways