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An Air India Boeing 787-8. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

A Personal Look Back: Air India Was Once A World Renowned Airline

These days, many people in and around the industry see Air India as a poorly run airline that most avoid flying if they can help it. They’re known for poor on-time performance, rundown planes, indifferent staff and more. A quick search online results in dozens of bad reviews for every good one. This has all taken a toll on the airline’s finances, and the Indian government is seeking to fully privatize the airline in hopes that someone else will do a better job.

Whoever that may be, they’ll have a daunting task ahead of them trying to sort out the many issues that the airline faces. One of the biggest is regaining customer trust. Many members of the Indian diaspora prefer to take a Middle Eastern airline to India just to avoid Air India.

It has even got to the point where passengers would prefer a less comfortable experience on a Middle Eastern airline’s Boeing 777 than fly on one of Air India’s 777 which offers more space in economy.

Now the airline isn’t entirely bad. However, it’s more likely that someone will have a poor experience vs a good one.

Earlier this year, I flew on Air India in their business class from Newark to Mumbai and the flight was much better than I expected. A good crew and good food made up for shortcomings of the hard product. A review will be up soon, but I’ve come to understand that my positive experience is not representative of the airline.

The Standard Bearer for Service

Air India has faced a lot of struggles in its history, but surprisingly to many, it wasn’t always so terrible. There was a point in time where the rest of Asia looked to Air India as the airline to beat. It at one point in team was a revered in terms of comfort and service as an airline like Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific is looked at today.

The airline had it’s first real international passenger flight on June 8, 1948, when its Lockheed Constellation took off from Mumbai bound for London, via Cairo, Egypt and Geneva, Switzerland.

Over the next 30 years, Air India built a reputation for being one of the world’s best airlines. It ran a highly punctual operation and offered a level of service that was envied by other airlines.

Air India’s reputation was so stellar that it had no problem using its slower propeller driver Constellation aircraft to compete with BOAC’s much faster de Havilland Comet jet aircraft.  People would still prefer Air India due to its excellent service.

In the 1970s, shortly after the establishment of Singapore as we know it today, Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was looking for an airline for the newly formed Singapore Airlines to follow to develop the know-how and world-class service standards. The airline he decided to go after was Air India.

Singapore Airlines, the airline we all consider one of the best airlines in the world, established its fundamentals in operations and service by emulating Air India.

One Man Behind it All

Now one would ask, what was it about Air India back then that made it so great vs the dumpster fire that it is now?

It comes down to one man, J.R.D. Tata. He was Howard Hughes of the Indian aviation industry and a world-renowned businessman who led the Tata Group, a giant conglomerate that is still relevant today. He has had such an impact in the country and on Air India that just a few days ago the country fondly remembered and celebrated his 116th birthday in memoriam of his contributions.

He found Tata Air Services in 1932, later called Tata Airlines, which became Air India in 1946.

Tata had unparalleled attention to detail rivaled only by his work ethic. He would wander the facilities and aircraft examining everything down the amount of wine that was being poured into wine glasses. If he saw a dirty counter he would wipe it himself. He was even known to help the crew clean aircraft toilets if he came across one that wasn’t up to his standards.

It was his meticulous attention to detail that made Air India what it was during that time. It was a labor of love for him, and his employees were either inspired or terrified by him.

Initially, Air India was primarily a public entity, with 49% of the airline owned by the Indian government and the rest by Tata. In 1953 the Indian government purchased the majority stake from Tata fully nationalizing the airline.

Tata, having responsibilities managing his family’s business, spent most of the time on the airline he built and grew. He remained on as chairman of Air India into the late 1970s and was humiliatingly fired by the Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai over a petty dispute, much to the outrage of the Indian public. The prime minister had decreed that no alcohol was to be served onboard Air India, but Tata strongly disagreed with this, stating that it was no way to run an international airline, and he was subsequently fired for his objections.

Things Go Downhill

That is when things started to go downhill. Though he was eventually brought back as a board member of Air India by Indira Gandhi, the decline had already started and there really was no way to turn things around. Government mismanagement and lack of oversight plagued the airline, bringing it to its knees.

Four decades and countless government bailouts later the Indian government is looking to privatize the airline with many people hoping that someone like J.R.D. Tata will come along and revive the failing airline.

Hemal Gosai
Hemal Gosai
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