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J.R.D. Tata and the Story of Air India

Niranjan Bhombe

Niranjan Bhombe

10 February 2022

"Air India became the first airline to enter the jet age after it inducted its first Boeing 707-420....."

On 10th February 1929 J.R.D. Tata (Jahangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata) became Bharat’s first commercial flight license holder. In 1932 JRD Tata founded Tata Aviation Service the forerunner to Tata Airlines and later Air India. Tata himself flew its first single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth, carrying air mail from Karachi's Drigh Road Aerodrome to Bombay's Juhu aerodrome and later continuing to Madras (currently Chennai). In its early years the airline fleet consisted of a Puss Moth aircraft and a de Havilland Leopard Moth. Initial service included weekly airmail service between Karachi and Madras via Ahmedabad and Bombay.

In its first year of operation, the airline flew 160,000 miles (260,000 km), carrying 155 passengers and 9.72 tonnes (10.71 tons) of mail and made a profit of ₹60,000 (US$800). In 1938 Tata Aviation Service was re-named Tata Airlines, the airline launched its first domestic flight from Bombay to Trivandrum with a six-seater Miles Merlin. Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Delhi were added to the destinations. During the Second World War, the airline helped the Royal Air Force with troop movements, shipping of supplies, rescue of refugees and maintenance of aircraft.

Post World War 2, Tata Airlines restored their commercial services, and Tata Airlines became a public limited company under the name Air India on 29 July 1946. After Bharat’s Independence under Nehru’s stewardship, the Government of Bharat acquired 49% of the airline in 1948. On 8 June 1948, a Lockheed Constellation L-749A named Malabar Princess (registered VT-CQP) took off from Bombay bound for London Heathrow marking the airline's first international flight.

In 1953, the Government of Bharat passed the Air Corporations Act and purchased a majority stake in the carrier from Tata Sons though its founder J. R. D. Tata would continue as Chairman till 1977. The company was renamed as Air India International Limited and the domestic services were transferred to Indian Airlines as a part of a restructuring. From 1948 to 1950, the airline introduced services to Nairobi in Kenya and to major European destinations Rome, Paris and Düsseldorf. The airline took delivery of its first Lockheed Constellation L-1049 and inaugurated services to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore.

Air India became the first airline to enter the jet age after it inducted its first Boeing 707-420. The airline inaugurated services to New York on 14 May 1960. On 8 June 1962, the airline's name was officially truncated to Air India and on 11 June 1962, Air India became the world's first all-jet airline. Air India was the first airline from Bharat to own and operate the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A310. In 2007, Air India and Indian Airlines were merged under Air India Limited and the airline took delivery of its first Boeing 777 aircraft. The airline was invited to be a part of the Star Alliance in 2007.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Air India suffered heavy losses. The losses by the end of 2009-10 were ₹72 billion. In July 2009 State Bank of India was appointed to prepare a plan to recover the Airline out of its losses. For Air India to turn a Profit the Airline had to borrow money from Banks, get billions of rupees of funding for the Government of Bharat. As of May 2017, Air India is the third largest carrier in Bharat (after Indigo and Jet Airways), with a market share of 13%.

Finally the Government of Bharat approved the privatization of the Airline on June 28 2017. In March 2018, the Government issued an Expression of Interest (EOI) to sell 76% stake of Air India, along with low-cost airline Air India Express, and a 50% stake of AISATS, a ground handling joint venture with Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS). The new owner would have to take on a debt of ₹33,392 crore (US$4.4 billion) and a bid would have to be submitted by mid-May as the Government wanted to complete the selling process by the end of 2018, but no private firms showed any interest in buying the debt-laden airline.

Having failed on previous occasions to sell the airline, the Government decided to sell 100% share of the airline and started its preparation in late-2019. On 27 January 2020, Government released the Expression of Interest (EOI) to invite bidders. This time the Government decided to sell 100% shares of both Air India and its budget carrier Air India Express as well as 50% shares of AISATS and to attract more bidders this time, the government has already decreased nearly ₹30,000 crore (US$4.0 billion) of debts and liabilities in a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).

Finally, on 8 October 2021, Air India was sold for ₹18,000 crore (US$2.4 billion) to Talace Private Limited, a Tata Sons' SPV. On 27 January 2022, the airline was officially handed over to Tata Group. After 68 years of mishandling the Tata Airline the Government of Bharat handed it back over to its rightful owner. Even after the government authorities almost run Air India into the ground, the Tata Group graciously took back JRD Tata’s brain child. For his crowning achievements in aviation, JRD Tata was bestowed with the title of Honorary Air Commodore of India. In 1992, because of his selfless humanitarian endeavors, Tata was awarded Bharat’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna.

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