On board the Maharaja with JRD Tata

I remember in 1960 I was a frequent visitor to London and the focus of all eyes was the big Air India boarding in Piccadilly Square with ‘Maharaja’ in bold. Air India run by JRD Tata was then a leading airline in the world with the first Boeing 707 flight in Asia.

It started as Tata Airlines in 1932. Now, after 99 years, from 1932 to 2021, it’s come full circle to Tatas.

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Once when I was going to London on a Boeing 707, with my third row seat in the front, I saw JRD Tata across the aisle in the fourth row. At that time there were only two sections – economy class and first class, there was no business class. JRD, although chairman of Air India, had no paraphernalia around him and received no special attention. I observed that after a while he left in economy class. Out of curiosity, I asked the stewardess about it and she suggested I take a look in economy class. I saw that he was sitting next to a passenger and having an animated conversation with him. He continued his tete-a-tete for about twenty minutes. When he returned, I asked him if I could sit next to him. He readily agreed and I asked him about his foray into economy class. He smiled and said, ‘I get the real feedback on Air India’s service from economy class passengers, not first class passengers’. What vision, what understanding. It was a lesson I never forgot.

The airline began its journey in the early 1930s when, on October 15, 1932, JRD Tata piloted the single-engined De Havilland Puss Moth on its maiden flight from Karachi to Bombay with tons of mail. Tata Air Service was a small team which quickly grew to become Air India and Air-India International. ‘Maharaja’ was the brainchild of Bobby Kooka, one of Tata Airlines’ first employees.

A perfectionist, JRD Tata sought the highest standards, whether in the operation or maintenance of the AI ​​fleet. He was also adamant about the quality of passenger service.

Soon, AI with its 400-seat Boeing 747s began to be considered one of the best airlines in the world.

It is mainly thanks to JRD Tata who selected the best talents from all over the world.

His spirit of fair play and justice was legendary. In 1930 the Aga Khan announced a prize of £500 for the first Indian to fly solo from India to England or vice versa within six weeks. Then 26-year-old JRD Tata, who had a flying license, set off from Karachi in a Gipsy Moth. Meanwhile, Aspy Engineer, then 19, started the journey from London. Due to bad weather, JRD had to land in Alexandria where he saw another gypsy moth. He found out it belonged to Aspy Engineer who needed a spark plug. JRD immediately gave him a spare he had. Thanks to him, Engineer was able to reach Karachi two and a half hours before JRD and win the prize.

But JRD never refused him the prize. While Engineer became India’s second chief of staff, Tata became chairman of Air India.

After independence, India nationalized all Indian airlines in 1953, creating two companies – domestic services under Indian Airlines and international services under Air India. This was done to take advantage of the increased number of air travellers. Unfortunately, these companies began to suffer losses. Private airlines entered the country after liberalization in 1991 and competed with Indian Airlines and Air India. The two state-owned airlines merged in 2007 under Air India, but the move made no difference to its profits.

In 2009 my wife injured her knee in Birmingham and had to move back to Delhi. I bought first class tickets on Air India and we went straight to Heathrow airport. During the flight, the footrest did not work. To keep the leg horizontal, stewards had to put boxes under the footrest, which made for an unpleasant experience.

The merger of the two airlines did not improve matters. Neither the bureaucracy nor the pilots seemed to be attached to the airline and there was endemic nepotism in upgrading from economy to business class or first class, and other concessions.

Most of the major airlines in the world were privatized and eventually the Indian government also decided to sell Air India. In 2018, he offered to sell 76% of his stake but found no takers. In 2020 he approved the sale of 100% equity and Tata’s offer was accepted through a holding company. Finally, the Air India was back with the Tata after 50 years.

In a moving message, former Chairman Ratan Tata said, “Tata Group winning the tender for Air India is great news! While it is true that it will take huge efforts to rebuild Air India, it will hopefully provide a very strong market opportunity for the Tata Group in the aviation industry.

On an emotional note, Air India under the leadership of Mr. JRD Tata had at one time gained a reputation as one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. Tatas will have the opportunity to regain the image and notoriety it enjoyed in previous years. Mr. JRD Tata would have been delighted if he were with us today.

I am convinced that Air India, in its new avatar, will again become one of the best airlines in the world.

(The writer was the first Indian to be elected President of Rotary International)

About Ren Valdez

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