Sunday musings by Shekhar Nambiar
A museum in San Francisco has recently celebrated the achievements of Air India’s Captain Zoya Agarwal, who flew an all-women crew on a San Francisco-Bangalore flight over the North Pole last year. The feat made her the first Indian woman to fly the polar route covering a record-breaking 16,000 km.
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The tribute to Agarwal, the first Indian female pilot to be given a place at the SFO Aviation Museum, is also for being an advocate of women’s empowerment and for inspiring so many girls and women across the world. India has the highest proportion of women pilots flying on domestic and international skies, pipping the US, with the world’s largest aviation industry, to the second position. It is all about pushing boundaries, your limits, and breaking the glass ceiling. Agarwal’s achievements are also an acknowledgement of Air India’s encouragement to gender balance and women’s participation in management and operations.
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It is almost a year to the Tatas taking over the reins of Air India. Somewhere around this time in 2021, the talk of the town was on the fate of the airline. Indians of all backgrounds debated, doubted and questioned the decision of the sale of the national carrier. And rightly so. After all, it was not just another public asset for sale.
As a brand, nay, an entity enshrined in the collective consciousness of the Indian nation, the Maharajah, Air India’s mascot, flew the skies and took India to the world, literally becoming our flying Ambassador.
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As interesting as the saga of the Maharajah is, even those among us who haven’t had anything to do with the carrier, much less fly with it, felt a tinge of sadness when it became known that Air India was up for sale.
The entry of the Tatas and their eventual successful bid had the nation heave a sigh of relief. Indeed, as Ratan Tata tweeted at the time, JRD would have been overjoyed too had he been alive today.
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Air – India, pride of Indians!
For those who flew its premium class, the coveted black and grey suitcase given away as gift to guests was a prized possession, something to be seen with and also perhaps to tell everyone that “we have arrived”.
What has not Air-India done for a young nation’s aspirations and ambition. To many Indians, the carrier fulfilled dreams. It took them to distant lands in search of jobs and education. It was not all elite or elitism as flights took Indian labour overseas in search of greener pastures. Or when planes ferried our people back from a besieged Afghanistan.
As our flag carrier, the airline had been with us through thick and thin, and as a part of our history and journey in time. From Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, it has flown Indian leaders on State visits and to international conferences.
The sight of the red coloured swan with the Konarak chakra on a plane’s tail at international airports gave goose bumps and stirred patriotic fervour and pride in Indians.
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Over the years, no other Indian brand has created such a stir as Air India, for the right or wrong reasons, in our psyche. We recollect several sad moments too like when Flight 101 with the distinguished Indian nuclear scientist Dr Homi Bhabha on board, perished on Mont Blanc in the snowy Alps in January 1966, or when terrorists brought down Flight 182, a jumbo jet on the Montreal-London-Delhi route, in the Atlantic Ocean near Cork, Ireland. Switch to Bandung where the Non-Aligned Movement came into being. Air India’s turboprop-engined ‘Kashmir Princess’ carrying the Chinese delegation for Bandung plunged into the South China Sea, probably sabotaged, killing all on board but three.
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Tata ethos and culture
Even before its nationalization in 1953, Air India, then Tata Airlines, established as early as in the 1930s, showed a commitment to people and the nation, thanks to the Tata ethos and culture. Tata’s romance with the airline began with JRD Tata piloting the single-engine De Havilland Puss Moth on its historic maiden flight from Karachi to Bombay. To India’s pioneer in civil aviation, JRD put the nation in front before his business. Profitwas not the only motive or drive and, of course, the culture of professionalism and commitment permeated the organization, right through to the initial years of the government takeover. The nation owes a lot to JRD who remained Air India’s Chairman till 1977.
Mismanagement and interferences in the airline’s functioning at the top, and the scourge of corruption, brought in its own share of woes and made Air India irretrievably sick.
It is also a fact that the airline bled to its own end. Sadly, from pilferage of giveaways and consumables, including beverages, as also excessive government control and nepotism were all responsible for its downfall over time.
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It is Bharat Ratna
Air India may not have been in the Navaratna league of elite public sector companies, but it certainly was, and always will be, a Bharat Ratna. The Indian people’s wishes and prayers will be with the Maharajah always, for sure.
I recall the weekly column ‘Aviation Notes’ in The Financial Express on domestic and international aviation by Captain K M Mathen, a former air force and Air India pilot. I have had the privilege to do his copy that required only minor edits, if any. Mathen flew on international routes and his experience and knowledge of the aviation industry and trends were evident in his prolific writings. Mathen was friends with the legendary marketing genius Bobby Kooka, considered close to JRD, and the creator of the Maharajah along with Umesh Rao of Hindustan Thomson Associates.
Kooka helped take the airline to great heights through branding and messaging. At a time when choices for in-flight entertainment during long-distance travel were limited and few and far between, one of the ways travellers were kept entertained was with the airline’s famous keepsake book FoolishlyYours. It is perhaps impossible to imagine now how a collection of self-deprecating humour, crossword puzzles and trivia could engage the passengers’ attention and even become a collector’s item for posterity. The book served as a travel guide introducing foreigners to India in a most humorous and engaging way, helping kill boredom and travel fatigue.
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Maharaja’s new avatar
Parts of this tribute, initially thought of as a eulogy to the Maharajah, was written close to the change of hands last year, but Air India is far from dead and gone. It is quite the contrary – the airline is alive and kicking. It will continue to live amongst us in spirit and in flesh. Yes, today, after some 10 months, we can see that Air India is in good hands and on to more and better days. The thoughts penned then were never really meant for wider reading. A good friend and a former Air Indian now living in the US, put some observations from it on his FB page.
The past few months, no doubt, have been early days for the Maharajah’s new avatar. It is on an expansion mode, increasing frequencies of services, a makeover of uniforms without fanfare, as also a focus on the much talked of in-flight meals. And, of course, the mascot itself has not been tampered with, nor the aircraft livery, not so far. Air India flies to 57 domestic and 45 international destinations covering some 31 countries.
Bobby Kooka’s inspiration
Bobby Kooka must be a happy man wherever he is. He drew some inspiration in creating the Maharajah from his friend and Pakistani businessman Syed Wajid Ali, an Indian army officer before the partition. Ali’s handlebar moustache was what Kooka adapted on to the Maharajah’s countenance, who by no means was of any royal origin and very much a commoner, in fact as common as one can get.
As more and more Indians take to the skies, and with many active private players now, notwithstanding hiccups and disruptions from calamities such as the pandemic, Indian aviation is set to march on in the coming years. With the return of Jet Airways and the newest entrant Akasa Air, alongside all the existing players, competition is the rule of the game. There is no looking back for the industry.
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