Air India — the pioneer of Asian aviation
Part 1 of a 5 part series on the birth of airlines in the South Asian region
South Asia as we know it today, is a recent invention. A hundred years ago, it was simply India, or “British India”. The subcontinent was united under British rule, with a patchwork of “princely states” enjoying nominal independence but functioning under the auspices of the British Empire. Ceylon was a colony too though with Dominion status, only its geographical isolation preventing it from being absorbed into the greater region.
Ruled by the Viceroy who was the “King-Emperor’s” designated representative, British India provided a good portion of the Empire’s wealth. Boasting of a comprehensive railway network and a vibrant commercial sector India, was relatively developed by the end of the Great War.
As we have seen Imperial Airways set out to connect Britain with Australia by air. But due in part to the limitations of the aircraft of the era, convenience, and lack of government support, the air-route to Australia was broken up into segments flown by land-planes and seaplanes, sometimes joined by rail journeys. This was in stark contract to the Dutch, who linked Amsterdam and Batavia (then the capital of the Dutch East Indian colonies since renmaed Jakarta) by KLM flights that used aircraft for the whole journey.
Tata Air Lines
In part due to the bureaucratic lethargy of the Colonial Office, who failed to see the advantages of air travel, India’s fledgling airlines were largely indigenous ventures, pioneered and funded by the vibrant merchant class that kept the economy so prosperous.
A young Indian businessman, J.R.D. Tata who was the scion of a wealthy Parsi father and French mother, was an early adopter of the technology. He was the first licensed pilot in India and formed the first airline in the region, Tata Air Services in 1932, when he flew a de Havilland Puss Moth himself from Karachi to Bombay carrying a cargo of air mail.
Known simply as “JRD”, Tata was a suave and sophisticated businessman who controlled a huge conglomerate with a capital of over £50 million. In the field of aviation he was a true visionary, who was later honored by the Air Transport International Hall of Fame as one of aviation’s greatest leaders.
Tata’s passenger operation, originally called Tata Sons Ltd and later renamed Tata Air Lines, proved to be profitable in its first year of service and went onto serve a number of destinations in the region, including Colombo in Ceylon, which was added to the route network in 1938 becoming the first international destination served by an Asian airline.
Indian National Airways
Picking up on Tata’s success, Indian National Airways (INA) was started in 1933 the Govan Brothers. Later that year Indian Trans-Continental Airways Ltd (ITCA) was formed with the specific responsibility of providing a link from Karachi to Calcutta for Imperial Airways route to Australia. Imperial Airways and the Government of India were shareholders in this venture. INA were also equity partners and provided much of the sales and ground support in India.
The Imperial Airways route from London would terminate in Karachi and passengers would change to an ITCA aircraft, that flew them to Calcutta (still India’s largest city at that time and the commercial capital of the Empire in Asia) via Delhi, Cawnpore and Allahabad. This brought Calcutta only seven days’ travel time from London, a considerable achievement at the time. The service was very successful and popular, so much so that it was extended to Rangoon and later to Singapore by the end of 1933.
INA went on to establish its own network between Karachi and Lahore in the west of India, as well as flights between Calcutta, Dacca (now Dhaka) and Chittagong in the east.
Interest in aviation reached a new high during the the London to Melbourne MacRobertson Air Race in 1934. The purpose built de Havilland Comet racer, was the winner. But the KLM Douglas DC-2 that came in second, was on a scheduled commercial flight, proving how far technology had improved in a few short years since the Wright brothers began this saga.
Tata Air Lines continued to grow during the period, building the largest network in the region. It operated civilian commercial flights until the start of the second World War and then assisted the Royal Air Force with troop movements during the conflict as a civilian contractor. After the war, in 1946, Tata Airlines became a public limited company under the name Air India.
The government of India purchased a 49% stake in Air India in 1947 after independence from Britain. It was fully nationalized in 1953, though JRD Tata continued to serve as Chairman until 1977.
Air India was designated the international carrier of India, with Indian Airlines handling domestic flights. The first international flight was from Bombay to London in June 1948 in a Lockheed Constellation.
Even under state ownership Air India continued to prosper, mostly due the leadership and vision of JRD Tata. In 1960 Air India inducted a Boeing 707, becoming the first Asian airline to do so. By 1962 it had an all-jet fleet, the first airline in the world to make this transition. In 1971 a Boeing 747 was acquired, again one of the first in the world. The network was grown to include East Africa (Nairobi), Frankfurt, Zurich, Moscow, Singapore, Sydney and New York by 1971, a feat that JRD Tata was very proud of.
Gradually, Air India began to lose its way as JRD’s leadership waned. He was to retire in 1978 after 40 years at the helm of his creation, a record that is unsurpassed to this day. Not content with his achievement, JRD came out of retirement briefly in 1982, to re-enact the first commercial flight in India in the same Puss Moth that he had flown himself a full fifty years earlier!
Air India was merged with Indian Airlines in 2007 and though continuing to operate a sprawling network, the airline has steadily lost market share to the many aggressive Asian and Middle Eastern carriers. With a fleet of over 100 aircraft, including Boeing 777s & 787s for long-haul routes plus Airbus 320-family types for short haul, the airline has not been profitable for many years.
Bureaucratic apathy, poor management, militant trade unions and political infighting has led the airline to record making losses and an accumulated debt burden in the region of USD 8 billion to date. The government has attempted to privatize the airlines for many years but this process has proved to be unsuccessful. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are yet to be fully apparent but it could mean the end of what was once a great airline.
Part 2 covering Indian Airlines is here