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The rise & fall of Air India: Interesting facts to know

Chaitra Anand
·8-min read

67 years after handing over the reigns of Air India to the Indian government, the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate, is believed to have submitted an expression of interest for the beleaguered national airline. The Tata Group has a significant expression of interest in AirAsia through which they have submitted the proposal.

If this deal is in fact secured by the Tata Group, life would have come a full circle for the conglomerate with having been the pioneers in the Indian aviation sector to reentering the market at a time when privatisation is imperative. It remains to be seen if contenders such as SpiceJet steal the deal or if the Tata’s return with a vengeance to steer the airline in the right direction.

Though tough times have befallen India’s flag carrier, Air India has soared heights none others could reach. Here’s a look at the airline’s journey from many ‘firsts’ to being in the waiting to be rescued by a knight in shining armour.

-Air India had its origin as Tata Air Services later renamed to Tata Airlines.

-Tata Air Services was founded by J. R. D. Tata of Tata Sons, an Indian aviator and business tycoon.

-The airline launched its first domestic flight from Bombay to Trivandrum with a six-seater Miles Merlin.

-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.

-After World War II, regular commercial service was restored in India and Tata Airlines became a public limited company on 29 July 1946 under the name Air India.

-After Indian independence in 1947, 49% of the airline was acquired by the Government of India in 1948.

-Air India moved its headquarters from Air India Building, Mumbai to Delhi in 2013. The former headquarters is a 23-storey tower on Marine Drive and was one of the targets of the 1993 Bombay bombings.

-Air India's mascot is the Maharajah. It was created by Bobby Kooka, the then-commercial director of Air India, and Umesh Rao, an artist with J. Walter Thompson Limited in 1946. Kooka stated that, "We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn't blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn't royal". Air India adopted the Maharajah as its mascot in 1946. It was used in promoting it although initially designed only for the airline's memo-pads. The Maharajah was given a makeover in 2015 and the brand is represented by a younger version.

-Air India's colour scheme is red and white. The aircraft were painted in white with red palace style carvings on the outside of the windows and the airline's name written in red. The name is written in Hindi on the port side fuselage and in English on the port side tail. On the starboard side fuselage, the name is written in English, and in Hindi on the starboard tail.

-The window scheme was designed in line with the slogan Your Palace in the Sky.

- The aircraft were earlier named after Indian kings and landmarks.

-The first logo of Air India was a centaur, a stylised version of Sagittarius shooting an arrow in a circle representing the wheel of Konark. The logo chosen by founder J. R. D. Tata was introduced in 1948 and represented the airline until 2007.

-On 22 May 2007, Air India and Indian Airlines unveiled their new livery consisting of a Flying Swan with the wheel of Konark placed inside it. The flying swan was morphed from the centaur logo and the chakra was derived from Indian's erstwhile logo.

- On 15 May 2007, Air India refreshed its livery, making the Rajasthani arches along the windows slightly smaller, extending a stylised line from the tail of the aircraft to the nose and painting the underbelly red. The new logo features on the tail and the engine covers with red and orange lines running parallel to each other from the front door to the rear door.

- In 1967 the company commissioned ashtrays from Salvador Dalí and gifted a few hundred of them to its first-class passengers. As payment, Dali asked for a baby elephant, which Air India flew from Bangalore to Geneva, along with a mahout.

-The airline entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people evacuated by civil airliner.Over 111,000 people were evacuated from Amman to Mumbai, a distance of 4,117 kilometres (2,558 mi), by operating 488 flights from 13 August to 11 October 1990 – lasting 59 days. The operation was carried out during Persian Gulf War to evacuate Indian expatriates from Kuwait and Iraq. The event was later featured in the film Airlift.

-The airline has also played a vital role during the COVID-19 pandemic by participating in the Vande Bharat Mission, an evacuation mission implemented by government of India to evacuate it's citizens stranded in other countries due to lockdown announced by several countries due to coronavirus pandemic.

-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 India 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.

-On 21 February 1960, Air India International inducted its first Boeing 707-420, thereby becoming the first Asian airline to enter the Jet Age.

-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.

-In 2000–01, attempts were made to re-privatise Air India.

-In May 2004, Air India launched a wholly owned low cost subsidiary called Air-India Express connecting cities in India with the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

-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 combined losses for Air India and Indian Airlines in 2006–07 were ₹7.7 billion (US$110 million) and after the merger, it went up to ₹72 billion (US$1.0 billion) by March 2009.

-In July 2009, State Bank of India was appointed to prepare a road map for the recovery of the airline.

-The carrier sold three Airbus A300 and one Boeing 747-300M in March 2009 for $18.75 million to finance the debt.

-By March 2011, Air India had accumulated a debt of ₹426 billion (US$6.0 billion) and an operating loss of ₹220 billion (US$3.1 billion), and was seeking ₹429 billion (US$6.0 billion) from the government.

-A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General blamed the decision to buy 111 new aircraft and the ill-timed merger with Indian Airlines for the poor financial situation.

-The government pumped ₹32 billion (US$450 million) into Air India in March 2012

-In May 2012, the carrier invited offers from banks to raise up $800 million via external commercial borrowing and bridge financing.

-In May 2012, the airline was fined $80,000 by the US Transportation Department for failing to post customer service and tarmac delay contingency plans on its website and adequately inform passengers about its optional fees.

-In 2013, the then-Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh stated privatisation was the key to the airline's survival. However, the opposition led by the BJP and the CPI(M) slammed the government.

-On 28 June 2017, the Government of India under BJP approved the privatisation of Air India.

-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).

According to the EOI, the new owner would have to take on a debt of ₹33,392 crore (US$4.7 billion) and a bid would have to he 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 Govt. 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$4.2 billion) of debts and liabilities in a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).