The Maharaja was nationalized in 1953 and Tata was allowed to stay on as its chairman till the mid-1970s (Photo: Mint)


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But Tata stuck to his vision and AI launched its first international flight with a Lockheed Constellation L-749 aircraft on the Mumbai-Geneva-London route.

The Air India that Tata is running is a very different airline from a new aircraft introduced by Tata at that time.

The Maharaja was nationalized in 1953 and Tata was allowed to remain as its chairman until the mid-1970s. Air India continued to grow from strength to strength. In 1960, it became the first airline in Asia to enter the jet age when it incorporated the Boeing 707, and in the 1970s, it became the only airline in Asia to have an all-jet fleet.

During his time there, Tata took personal care and interest in the development of the airline on the ground and in the sky. It was not unusual for them to scold company executives for wanting to carry their briefcase, asking them to take care instead of a female passenger who needed help and was on an Air India flight. None of the details were too small, and Tatas were known to clean aircraft toilets when found dirty. Yes that is correct.

Tata was clear that Air India should be a reflection of India on the ground and in the aircraft. Therefore, he ensured that the airline’s offices in India and abroad had Indian murals, paintings and sculptures for all to see.

All this did not last. Over the years, the airline lost its sheen. It became more and more known for poor service, clumsy aircraft, and a very comfortable in-flight experience. The airline also suffered serious financial losses. Between 2014-15 to 2018-19, before being sold to the Tata group in October last year, the central government had invested approx. 24,306 crore in Air India to make it operational, but did not get success.

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After Air India finally returned to Tata after at least three failed attempts by the government to sell its stake, all that could change.

Bloomberg has reported that Air India is looking at expanding a fleet and may buy 300 narrowbody type aircraft. It has also been reported elsewhere that Air India may buy the widebody Airbus A350.

Recently privatized airlines, as any frequent flyer will tell you, are in dire need of new planes. Air India aircraft do not provide passengers with a luxurious cabin experience, their entertainment system is notoriously poor, and the general feel and maintenance is not up to the mark.

It doesn’t help that competition, both foreign airlines and domestic carriers flying in and out of India have deployed new versions of the planes.

Air India, troubled by accumulated losses and handicapped by a legacy of state ownership, last placed orders to buy the planes – 43 Airbuses and over 100 Boeings – in 2006. The airline leased approximately 15 Airbus 320 NEOs between 2013. -15, but they too are now about 7 to 12 years old.

The period between 1980s and 2000s was bad for Air India. In the mid-2000s, it planned to acquire 100 aircraft. The plan, several years in the making, and not without its share of controversies, was split between Airbus and Boeing. Plans to acquire the Airbus Plan 43 A320 of the then Indian Airlines were finalized during the time of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but were not finalized or signed. AI planned to acquire less than 30 aircraft, but this was eventually changed to 68, including 23 Boeing 777s, 27 Boeing 787s and 18 Boeing 737 aircraft for the newly created AI Express. Orders were eventually signed for Airbus and Boeing in 2006. Air India was to acquire new aircraft after a gap of nearly two decades.

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Things have changed dramatically since then. Newer, more fuel efficient and narrow-bodied aircraft that can fly longer distances are now available. Many domestic airlines – Indigo use the Airbus A321 Long Range – to fly between India and Turkey, for example flying around six hours – are using them on longer routes.

A narrowbody aircraft like the Boeing 737 MAX will allow Air India to operate from Mumbai to Nairobi and Delhi to Bali. The widebody A350 allows it to fly from Mumbai to Buenos Aires, Mumbai and Panama City (which, if it is to be mounted, will be the world’s longest flight), Delhi-Auckland or even Thiruvananthapuram to Tel Aviv Will give

The new aircraft will not only let AI bridge the gap with the competition on cabin experience for passengers, but they will also cut fuel costs by being more fuel-efficient. Newer versions of narrowband aircraft such as the Boeing 737 MAX and NEO consume 25-30% less fuel than older aircraft in Air India’s fleet – a major source of savings when crude oil prices are close to $120 a barrel . Remember that aviation fuel is the biggest cost item for domestic airlines; This is 35-40% of their operating cost.

The new aircraft will dramatically improve amenities such as in-flight entertainment in the passenger cabin. In the new planes, at a small additional cost, Air India may offer Wi-Fi services, which is a new source of income for the debt-ridden airline.

Thus, the benefits of planned acquisitions are obvious. However, there is a flip side as well. Aircraft are expensive. Air India has to choose very carefully the number of planes and the variety it wants to buy. And, it may not take too long to make these decisions. Because, the rapid devaluation of the rupee, and the rapidly rising cost of metals and other raw materials going into manufacturing planes, are raising the bill with every passing day.

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Narrow aircraft like the Boeing 737 MAX or Airbus A320 are not readily available off the shelf. It will take a few years before the ordered aircraft arrive.

Even if AI decides to lease the planes rather than buy them, the lease price usually covers the supplier’s inflation risk. The manufacturer or supplier, as the case may be, usually absorbs only a part of this risk.

On widebody aircraft, the choice of AI may be limited to European manufacturer Airbus’s A-350 aircraft, as the Boeing 787 currently faces problems with the US Federal Aviation Authority over problems with the Boeing production facility. Already, another Tata-owned airline, Vistara, is scrambling to expand its international footprint due to delays in the delivery of the Boeing 787.

JRD Tata’s mantra to stand the test of time – Attention to detail, whether in the cabin or on the financial side, will be key.

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