On the occasion of JRD Tata’s 116th birthday, we present to you his importance in the Indian Aviation Industry. The history of Indian civil aviation closely linked to that of the Tata Group, the Mumbai-based global conglomerate. While it may now be famous in Indian aviation due to its investments in AirAsia India and Vistara, Tata’s history in aviation reaches back to the beginning of commercial aviation in India.
The foundation of Indian aviation
To say the Tata’s were the founders of Indian aviation would not be an exaggeration. J.R.D Tata, the Chairman of the Tata Group (1938-1988), held the first pilot’s license ever issued in India, having first flown in Europe and alluring inspiration from a family friend Louis Blériot (the first man to fly across the English Channel).
He went on to establish Tata Air Services in 1932, India’s first commercial airline, which carried freight from different parts of India and a few passengers. The airline snowballed from there, adding several domestic destinations and its first international destination of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon, another British colony) in 1938. the airline later was renamed Tata Airlines.
After World War 2, when commercial air service returned, and Tata Airlines had officially been renamed as Air India in 1946, setting the stage for modern aviation. In 1953, the Indian government declared Air India as a government airline which was against the decree of J.R.D Tata, creating two different airlines for domestic and international operations. However, J.R.D Tata led Air India as its Chairman into the Jet Age in India and saw the entry of the 747 in its fleet.
The current flag carrier, Air India, has its origins in 1946 as a subsidiary of the Tata Group. However, following nationalization, the Indian government took control of the airline and created Air India International and Indian Airlines. While J.R.D Tata no longer owned Air India, he continued to work for the airline as its Chairman until 1977, when he got removed.
During his ownership as Chairman, Air India International became a primary global carrier, becoming the first Asian airline to enter the Jet Age. The entry of the Boeing 707 in 1960 connected India to the US for the first time. By 1962, Air India was an all-jet airline( meaning containing plane which had only jet engines and not propellors). It was now serving multiple destinations in the east and the west, thanks to India’s ideal location for connections.
Air India’s breakthrough came in 1971 when it received its first 747-200. Like other airlines, the 747 allowed for non-stop services to far-away countries that once needed multiple stopovers. Air India immediately took advantage and launched direct flights to London, Tokyo, and other major cities.
The 747 also established Air India as a customer-focused airline, a feature seen even today in Vistara. Its mascot was the “Maharaja,” or king, to reflect its focus on passenger comfort and satisfaction. Back then, the airline delivered on this promise with its fleet of 747s and comfortable cabins.
All of these changes took place under J.R.D Tata, who focused on being the most advanced airline in the skies, offering utmost comfort. Air India even served as the inspiration for Singapore Airlines, which is now one of the world’s best carriers.
After J.R.D Tata’s removal from Air India, the Tata Group stayed away from the airline market for many years. However, its ambition to lead Indian aviation remained. On multiple occasions, the conglomerate tried to make bids to start new airlines, only to be shot down by the government. It previously bid to start a new airline with Singapore Airlines in 1996 and tried to buy 40% of Air India with them in 2000. Both of these efforts failed.
However, in 2013, the Tata’s returned to the Indian aviation market with a joint venture deal with AirAsia. The new carrier was known as AirAsia India. It hoped to shake-up the low-cost market the same way AirAsia had around the continent of Asia.
Air India’s Subsidiaries
AirAsia India today continues to fly with a fleet of 30 A320-200s. Still, it has struggled to succeed in the face of competition from IndiGo and SpiceJet. There are currently reports that the Tata Group is looking to exit the airline, which is yet to turn an annual profit.
The Tata Group’s most recent, and significant investment has come in the form of Vistara, a new full-service carrier. The airline is owned by the Tata and Singapore Airlines, their third and only successful venture together. Vistara is much more nostalgic of J.R.D. Tata’s Air India, with full-service nature and ambitious fleet plans.
Vistara currently holds only a small part of the domestic market, but the airline’s plans are clear. It hopes to establish itself as India’s primary international carrier and fly direct, long-haul routes from India. To this point, the airline now has a growing fleet of 787s, which it can deploy globally once the current virus subsides. With the purchase of the Dreamliner, Vistara has become the second airline after Air India to own a 787.
The Tata Group has played a crucial role in the development of Vistara. Aside from its investment, the group’s history in the hospitality sector helps give confidence to its conception.
While the current crisis has changed the shape of the aviation market, Vistara still has an avenue to succeed. Its success would mark a return of the Tata Group as an essential member, almost a century after it founded India’s first airline.
However, it seems Tata is not satisfied with its two airlines in the industry. Last year, Vistara announced that it was pondering a bid for Air India, which is now up for sale. While these plans have likely changed due to the current situation, it would’ve been a fantastic return for the carrier. For now, it seems the Tata’s will remain an essential part of Indian aviation for years to come.