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(This story was first published on 9 October 2021 and has been republished from The Quint’s archives in light of the transfer of Air India to the Tatas likely to be completed on 27 January.)
The Beginnings of Indian Aviation: Tatas' History With Air India
The beginnings of Air India as Tata Air Services (later renamed as Tata Airlines) in 1930, mark, along with the company's birth, the origins of Indian aviation.
Founded by business tycoon JRD Tata, who was notably India's first licensed pilot, the airline made its first flight on 15 October 1932, piloted by its founder.
As Tata Air Services soared into the skies for the first time, the Indian aviation sector also spread its wings, as the 15 October mission marked India's inaugural flight.
The airline had originally transported mail between Karachi and Bombay in the undivided India under British control. JRD Tata's first flight, a single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth, had also carried a 25 kg load of mail from Karachi to Bombay, via Ahmedabad.
The airline went commercial in the 1940s, as per a Bloomberg Quint report, opening itself up to the public. Affluent passengers had thronged the airline's flights, and its Maharaja mascot had become an indelible emblem for Indian aviation.
Nationalisation of Air India: JRD Tata's Bête Noire
JRD Tata had strongly opposed the rampant nationalisation of companies post the Indian independence.
In particular, he had not been keen on the government's acquisition of Air India, due to the government's lack of experience in running an airline at the time, which he feared would adversely affect the carrier's standards, says a book authored by Daman Singh, portions from which have been published by Scroll.in.
“...Unless the greatest attention continues to be paid to the high standards of training and discipline amongst flying and ground crews, the resulting deterioration might destroy the good name of Indian civil aviation,” Tata had said, as per Singh's Asylum: The Battle for Mental Healthcare in India.
The government, had, however, remained adamant that nationalisation would help bring order to the aviation industry.
In 1946, Tata Airlines was rechristened as Air India, and was registered as a public limited company.
The Government of India purchased a 49 percent stake in the airline in 1948, a year after the independence. In 1953, the government acquired a majority stake, taking over the reins.
JRD Tata at Airline's Helm Even After Nationalisation
Even as Air India became a State-run venture, JRD Tata remained at the helm of the airline as it chairperson until 1978.
During his leadership, Tata had closely monitored the day-to-day workings of the airline, focusing even on minute details such as the cleanliness of the counters to the sartorial appearance of the staff.
The aviator-cum-businessman had received no financial rewards in his position as chairperson, but had continued to strive to maintain the standards of its excellence.
Following the fatal flight crash of an Air India plane near the Bombay coast in 1978, the Morarji Desai-led government removed JRD Tata from chairpersonship. The news of his dismissal was conveyed to the aviator only after media reports had carried it, deeply upsetting him.
In 1980, he was reappointed to the airline's board by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and had remained a part of it till 1986.
During his final years at the company, JRD Tata had re-enacted his maiden flight from Karachi to Bombay, to mark the golden jubilee of the voyage that had set off the field of Indian aviation.
'Welcome Back, Air India': Ratan Tata Says JRD Would've Been 'Overjoyed'
"The Tata Group winning the bid for Air India is great news! While admittedly it will take considerable effort to rebuild Air India, it will hopefully provide a very strong marketing opportunity to the Tata Group's presence in the aviation industry," said the group's former chairperson Ratan Tata in a statement on Friday, after the acquisition was announced.
Ratan Tata further stated, "On an emotional note, Air India, under the leadership of Mr JRD Tata, had, at one time, gained the reputation of being one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. Tatas will have the opportunity of regaining the image and reputation it enjoyed in earlier years. Mr JRD Tata would have been overjoyed if he was in our midst today."
(With inputs from Scroll.in and Bloomberg Quint.)