Mumbai, Oct. 14: The tubby, bewhiskered Maharajah might have been expected to take a twirl on Monday when he turns 80. But if he doesn’t shake a geriatric foot after all, blame it on our reluctance to hold a bash for a senior citizen.
India’s bestknown corporate mascot — puckish at his best, leery at his worst — has been through so much of turbulence in the intervening years that he has become a pale shadow lurking in the margins of aviation lore.
He has been demoted to an obscure corner of Air India’s giant billboard in Juhu that currently carries a representation of the B787 Dreamliner, the latest Boeing model to join the fleet, and a prominent tagline that reads: “India, meet the Dream”. The words have finally overwhelmed the tiny flagwaving caricature.
The billboard is just a hop away from the mudflats that served as the airfield where JRD Tata created history when he touched down on October 15, 1932, in his Puss Moth on a flight from Karachi to Bombay carrying a precious mailbag that marked India’s tryst with the world of aviation.
Eighty years later, the airline that Tata created is battling for survival, solely dependent on the promise of a Rs 30,000crore bailout from the government with the funds scheduled to come in dribs and drabs over the next nine years if it is able to get its act together and meet the tough performance milestones that have been set for it.
The parlous coffers probably explain why the shoguns at Air India’s corporate headquarters on Mumbai’s Marine Drive have decided not to splash out precious money to celebrate an event that has lost much of its significance for a stateowned airline formed out of an illconceived merger of two nationalised carriers whose employees remain unpaid for months and have trouble in unifying their cultures and a fissured past.
In any case, if you didn’t turn the 75th anniversary into a hoopla, would you make a riot over the 80th?
In February 1929, JRD passed out of flying school, receiving a little blue and gold aviator’s certificate from the Aero Club of India and Burma bearing the number 1 which proclaimed him as India’s first pilot. But his first brush with the aviation business was anything but propitious. It was a “striking” one at the Le Bourget airport in 1930. As Tata recalls it: “At the controls of a small plane with no brakes, I drifted into the tail of a large Imperial Airways Argosy airliner and put it smartly out of commission.”
Tata’s chance encounter with Nevill Vintcent, a former Royal Air Force officer who had come to India on a barnstorming tour to give joy rides on First World War vintage de Havilland 9s, ignited the idea for an airline.
It was a modest start: Tata Airlines had two planes — a Puss Moth and a Leopard Moth — one wholetime pilot, a parttime engineer, two apprentice mechanics, one palmthatched shed and oodles of optimism.
The government signed a 10year contract with the Tatas for an airmail service; it would receive no subsidy but a small payment computed at a small rate per pound on a distancebased sliding scale. The idea was to hook up with the Indian Air Mail service launched in 1928 by Imperial Airways which flew out from Croydon in England and dropped the mailbag at Karachi before going on to Australia. Although it could fly people, it didn’t do so initially because the small planes had no room for both passengers and post.
Soon there was competition: the airline wasn’t making too much money. The outbreak of the Second World War hit the business hard and the planes were commandeered to carry out reconnaissance flights for the Royal Air Force. By January 1946, commercial status was restored and the airlines were able to induct larger multiengined planes.
Frederick Tymms, who was director of civil aviation, put forth a plan to start scheduled air services with the number of players restricted to three or four. But in a burst of generosity, the government doled out 11 licences on 51 routes, fragmenting the market and wrecking the profitability of operations.
Over 50 years later, the same game would be played out in the world of telecom, fostering cutthroat competition.
By the summer of 1947, the Tatas proposed to float a new airline in which the government would hold 49 per cent. Air India Ltd (the renamed Tata Airlines) and the public would hold the rest. The government was cool to the proposal initially as it wanted to set up its own airline that would start a regular service to Britain. But it soon dawned on the officials that it might be better — and cheaper — to go along with the Tata proposal.
The service was eventually launched on June 8, 1948, with three Lockheed Constellations. However, Nehruvian socialism soon came into play and Parliament passed the Air Corporations Act that formed two corporations — Indian Airlines and Air India International — into which all the private airlines were subsumed.
Crash of ideals
Air India’s first flight to London was on June 8, 1948, on a 40seater Lockheed Constellation called the Malabar Princess. On board were industrialists J.R.D. Tata and Neville Wadia, Maharajah Duleepsinhji and a sprinkling of Englishmen and Indian officials. The flight out of Mumbai’s Santa Cruz airport would make stops at Cairo (where there would be a change of crew) and Geneva (where it would refuel). When it touched down at London, the celebrations went on the next day with an enormous party at the Dorchester hotel.
Disaster struck Air India on November 3, 1950, when the Malabar Princess slammed into the Mont Blanc in France, killing all 48 on board. Coincidence is a strange bird and aviation history is replete with such tales. On January 24, 1966, Mont Blanc would claim another Air India plane — a Boeing 707 called the Kanchenjunga, ironically named after a bigger mountain — killing 117 including Homi Bhabha, India’s nuclear physicist.
The plane had 42 Indian sailors going to board a ship in Germany, five Americans, six Britons, one Swiss and one French national. “Also killed were a consignment of 15 monkeys,” writes Edgar A. Haine in his book Disaster in the Air. One wonders where they were headed.
JRD’s letters — compiled by Arvind Mambro into a twobook offering of speeches and epistles — show his fastidious attention to detail as he strove to turn Air India into an airline that could compete with the best in the business. So, there are testy observations about the tea served at Geneva (“indistinguishable in colour from coffee”), the life jacket drill (“the Pan Am patter is much better than ours”), airhostesses (“one…had an enormous hair bun at the back, larger than her whole head. She looked ridiculous”), wastage (“two packets of sugar in saucers along with a cup of tea or coffee, where they get wet, may please be stopped”), sweets on takeoff and landing (“taste like hair lotion and offer no choice”), meals (“we offer nothing better... than a boarding house meal, served as in a boarding house”), coat hangers (“when Air India International started, decent coat hangers made of transparent plastic material were used exclusively.... These have now been replaced by cheap and nasty wooden hangers. Who is responsible for this change?…. No change in the supplies to the cabin… should be made without my express approval”), and horror of horrors, a curtain between the First and Economy compartments (“The door… has been replaced by a curtain… which did not match with the other curtains… and (was) absurdly short, leaving a twofoot gap from the floor to the bottom of the curtain”).
The scale of freebies for staff also left him pretty horrified. In a letter to Air India MD Raghu Raj, JRD writes: “On the 29th April, 13 out of the 15 seats (in first class) were taken up by staff free riders. A few days later on the London/New York flight, there was not a single paying passenger in the first class…. It is time that this problem be faced and solved once and for all…. The only practical and satisfactory solution is to give up the salary qualification for eligibility which was fixed 30 years ago…. (We have) reached an absurd level where low-ranking staff are entitled to first class travel. In no other airline in the world does such a situation exist.”
JRD’s tenure at Air India ended dramatically in 1978.
On January 25 that year, then Prime Minister Morarji Desai received JRD warmly. He gave him no indication that the government intended to unceremoniously dump JRD from his position as chairman of Air India exactly a week later.
The government did not have the courtesy to inform the man who founded the airline that his services would no longer be required. To rub salt into Tata’s wounds, Morarji called up Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal — the former chief of the Indian Air Force, who was then heading one of the Tata units in Jamshedpur — and asked him to take over as Air India chairman.
Morarji tried to paper over the faux pas. He wrote a letter to JRD in which he said the boards of the two state-owned airlines had been reconstituted “with one chairman for both undertakings”. Since Lal was part-time chairman of Indian Airlines, he fitted the bill perfectly and hoped that he “could be spared by you”.
JRD’s riposte is the stuff of legend. “I hope you will not consider it presumptuous of me to have expected that when Government decided to terminate my services and my 45 years’ association with Indian civil aviation, I would be informed of their decision directly and, if possible, in advance of the public, instead of the news being communicated to me by my successor who was good enough to telephone to me after you had informed him of his appointment and he had accepted it.”
The years have rolled on. Another Tata — this time Ratan — revived some hopes of taking over Air India, making an overture with Singapore Airlines in the mid-nineties. By then the airline was already in a spot of trouble. But the government had in place a policy crafted in April 1997 that barred foreign airlines from holding a stake in any Indian carrier.
The Tata plan was scuppered and all its lobbying efforts to change the policy didn’t work at all. About two years ago, Ratan Tata dropped a bombshell when he said he had been buttonholed by another industrialist on a flight and advised to offer a Rs 15 crore bribe to stand any chance of winning approval for his proposal in 2001. Tata demurred.
The absurdity of the stake policy was brought sharply into focus a month ago when the Union government permitted foreign airlines to buy into domestic carriers — a change necessitated by the desperate need to shore up the fortunes of India’s debt-laden airlines that stand in danger of going belly up.
On February 27, 2011, Indian Airlines officially merged into Air India — based on a plan that was first conceived by civil aviation minister Praful Patel in 2007. Four chairmen have come and gone in the past six years; the employee base has swelled to over 30,000 with the large human resource pool riven by squabbles over pay and privilege parities.
From the Puss Moth of 1932 to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2012, the 80-year-old airline has weathered every rumble in the sky, and come through the shenanigans, intrigues and devious backroom power play.
For whatever it is worth, Air India, a big happy birthday even if there is no one around to celebrate with cakes and confetti.