The Widebody Era
As Air India moved into the 1970s, it was in a wonderful position. Known for its superior service, Air India had managed to catch, not only a huge part of the Indian international travel market, but even a strong share of the Trans-Atlantic traffic between New York and London. They were one of the world’s most profitable airlines, as well as one of the most respected by other countries. Such was the opinion of Air India, that in 1972-1973, Singapore Airlines asked for Air India’s help in setting up its airline.
However, despite Air India’s sparkling reputation and solid operation, change was brewing in the world’s aviation market; change that would require bold action if the Maharaja was to continue in its prosperity. On January 22nd, 1970- Pan Am introduced widebody Boeing 747 service on the London-New York sector. Airlines around the world scrambled to catch up with Pan Am in introducing this new innovation. Despite strong opposition from Air India’s conservative board, there was really never a question in J.R.D Tata’s mind that Air India had to join the “747 club,” both for prestige reasons, and financial ones (competing as they did with Pan Am on New York-London, as well as European carriers and Asian carriers on the majority of their routes; Air India could ill afford to lose out on the added demand stimulated by lower fares, or the bump in passengers demanding the comfort of the 747). Through almost a sheer force of will, Tata was able to convince the board of the 747’s viability at Air India. Thus it was a moment of personal triumph for Tata when Air India’s first 747-200B (“Emperor Ashoka”) announced its presence at London on May 24th, 1971, touching down at New York just two days later.
Air India would, at various times, operate 14 Boeing 747-200s, purchasing 11 brand-new from Boeing. During the 1970s, much of the focus was, predictably, on integrating the new aircraft successfully into Air India’s operation. The Boeing 747 presented enormous operational challenges for Air India; its sheer size made much of Air India’s ground equipment, as well as its maintenance and support operations essentially obsolete. Furthermore, while airports at the Londons and New Yorks of the world (where Air India would be operating their aircraft) had the necessary infrastructure in place to handle the Jumbo, taxiways, holding areas, and parking positions at Air India’s international gateways of Bombay and Delhi were woefully inadequate. But in an interesting contrast to today’s situation, the socialist-leaning Indian government of that time quickly acceded to Air India’s demands; building up the necessary infrastructure at not only Bombay and Delhi, but Madras and Calcutta as well. Air India was even able to build brand new maintenance hangars and support buildings at Bombay with a minimum of red tape. Air India’s mechanics at the time had an extraordinary reputation for quick, efficient and thorough quality service; leading many a third world carrier to schedule a stop in Bombay for maintenance purposes.
Given the enormous complexity added to Air India’s operation by the 747s, it is not surprising then that the airline limited its expansion during the first half of the 1970s. The first priority was to upgrade their highest-traffic routes to the 747s. By the summer of 1978, that goal had been achieved- with daily service to New York JFK, double daily to London-Heathrow (one of which continued to New York JFK), and daily service on the Tokyo route all performed on the 747-200Bs. During this transitions period, Air India wisely restricted its network growth; simply adding new destinations close in. The most notable of these was service to Dhaka, capital of the (relatively) new nation of Bangladesh. Service to Dhaka on 707s was begun on February 4th, 1972 and in November of that year; Osaka was added as an intermediate stop to the Tokyo route. Meanwhile, the Gulf market continued to grow in leaps and bounds, as new found oil wealth drove Middle Eastern nations to import migrant South Asian workers in droves. The important oil destinations of Muscat and Doha were added during the mid 70s, and frequencies to Gulf points increased heavily. Later in the decade, Baghdad and Ras al Kaminah also joined the Gulf portfolio. African growth was more limited, with mid-decade additions of the Seychelles (on the Mauritius route), Lagos, and Accra.
To this date, very few aviation entrepreneurs have been as involved in the day to day operations of their airline as J.R.D Tata. Air India’s scion, who had guided Air India to profitability in all but 3 years during his tenure, was one of the aviation industry’s foremost personas; on par with C.R Smith of American Airlines or Eddie Rickenbacker at Eastern Air Lines. However, in early 1978, it was announced that Tata would be stepping down as chairman by the end of that year. Before he exited however, Tata made one final mark on the aviation world; proving that he still had one of the sharpest minds in all of India. In a landmark speech on the 23rd of January 1978, Tata predicted that in the future, there would be a twin deck 750 seat mainline aircraft, that a long haul, low cost carrier akin to Laker Airways would flourish, and that future growth rates in the airline travel industry would average around 6%. He also cast doubts on the viability of the Concorde.
On all four points, he was eventually proved correct (Airbus A380, AirAsia X, the test of time, and just 20 built). Having thus left his mark on Indian aviation, Tata rode off into the sunlight (literally- he re-enacted the first Karachi-Mumbai flight flown by Air India using an old Leopard Moth) and let his successor P.C Lal take the helm. The last two years of the decade provided very little in way of expansion; the major change was the introduction of direct services between South India and the Gulf. The majority of migrant workers in the Middle East were from Southern India, and Air India recognized this by introducing nonstop services- the first of which was Trivandrum-Dubai in 1978. Gulf routes represented the majority of Air India’s expansion in the latter half of the decade, and when Raghu Raj took over as chairman in April of 1980; Air India’s route network looked much as it did in 1975.
While Air India soared to great heights with the 747, Indian Airlines was entering the widebody age as well, though not on as grand a scale. Indian entered the 1970s as a troubled carrier. Of its numerous problems, a few were common with other airlines, but most were especially because of Indian Airlines’ home country; India. While these problems were certainly not insurmountable alone, when taken collectively, they represented a significant handicap to Indian Airlines’ progress.
* Indian Airlines was faced the constant threat of local wars between Pakistan and India. As the internal national carrier; Indian Airlines was responsible for providing transport and logistics during major conflicts. Therefore, operations were often interrupted, and lengthy periods existed where Indians traveling between cities had to divert to rail connections. Flights to rescue refugees (such as in Uganda in 1972) were less prevalent, but still diverted the carrier’s resources (Indian Airlines was required to perform these flights for free).
* As was common with national carriers, Indian Airlines was required to provide social services to underdeveloped and poor regions. These routes were rarely, if ever, subsidized by the government, and Indian Airlines was forced to cross-subsidize these routes with more profitable, big-city services; seriously depressing financial results. (Interestingly enough, one of the arguments in the recent Emirates and Canada brouhaha was that Emirates should not be given access to Canada because that would harm Air Canada’s international services, which supposedly cross-subsidized domestic routes to remote locations)
* As a corollary to the statement above, Indian Airlines was forced to serve multiple unprofitable points in the Northeast of India, where diversions due to a necessity to avoid East Pakistan (what Bangladesh was called before it got its independence, which in 1971 solved the to-be-mentioned problem) caused Indian Airlines’ fuel bill to become unsustainably high
* India as a market has always faced high fuel prices – thanks to import duties, sales taxes, and a lack of domestic production. For Indian Airlines, the high price of fuel heavily limited profitability, especially when the carrier was flying a (relatively fuel inefficient fleet).
* When the IAC was formed in 1953, labor rates in India were abysmally low (a by-product of India’s previously colonial-style economy). But due to Indian Airlines’ high structural costs, the airline could ill-afford to satisfy its employees’ demands for higher wages. With little wage growth, strikes and work stoppages were common; disrupting operations further.
* As a by-product of a merger of 8 different carriers, Air India had multiple maintenance bases (4; Bombay, Delhi, Chennai, Calcutta). This complicated scheduling, and increased costs by a significant margin. When coupled with the aforementioned strikes; it is safe to say that Indian Airlines did not have the same operational reputation as Air India.
Given this veritable laundry list of problems, it is surprising that Indian Airlines was even able to survive at all. It really is a credit to the airline’s spirit at that time; and Indian Airlines showed a resiliency that would sustain it till the very end (a.k.a the merger with Air India in 2011).
The years 1971-1973 were very bad for Indian Airlines. The 1971-1972 Pakistan War caused operational interruptions and numerous problems, as mentioned above. This led the airline to report a 45 million rupee loss in 1973, the carrier’s largest to that point. And that may have been the best news to come out of 1973; as a series of crashes and work disruptions made life for Indian Airlines a “living hell.” On May 31st, a 737 crashed in a fierce Delhi storm, while a Caravelle, 2 HS 748s, and a Friendship all had to be taken out of service as well. But in spite of heavy scheduling demands, Indian Airlines was slow to put these aircraft back into service due to the illogical structure of their maintenance operations.
Exacerbating the aforementioned crises was the continual strike being waged by labor. Management, concerned by growing labor costs and inefficiency, eventually locked out many of its workers, operating only a skeleton schedule with a non-union workforce. It was against this backdrop that Indian Airlines ended the Night Air Mail Service, a service utilizing Nagpur in Central India as a hub to exchange mail between major Indian cities, after 24 years of continuous service. Additionally, all but two of the Vickers Viscounts were retired; all but ending the service run of India’s first true mass-transport aircraft. Eventually, Indian Airlines negotiated a new deal with its staff that kept wages flat while simultaneously making work rules and management-labor interactions more flexible.
With the labor situation stabilizing, Indian Airlines then moved to improve the financial performance of its operations. On February 1st 1974, fares were increased by 25% across the board; an action that was followed by the retirement of the last 30 Douglas DC-3s. The DC-3s had been present since the formation of Indian Airlines, and had served a variety of purposes; serving small dirt and gravel strips, performing airlifts and refugee flights, and acting as a quick substitution for Indian Airlines’ numerous aircraft losses. While fuel costs were certainly high with the DC-3s, the reliability of the aircraft was top-notch and no other aircraft could perform the DC-3’s exact function. This unique versatility was corroborated by the fact that upon the retirement of the DC-3s, 16 stations previously served by Indian Airlines were entirely closed down, as the Fokker Friendships could not reliably operate into these airports.
The dramatic sideshow of Indian Airlines’ regional operations sometimes overshadowed the fact that the carrier served a growing demand base on its trunk routes. Throughout the middle part of the decade, Indian Airlines re-grouped and stabilized, allowing it to take the bold and historic step of ordering 3 Airbus A300 widebodied aircraft in April of 1975. These aircraft would be used on Indian Airlines’ primary trunk routes, on which the 737s were regularly traveling full.
Recognizing that domestic demand in India was more about volume than premium business, Indian Airlines planned for the new Airbuses to be configured in a 278 seat all-economy class offering, with 33 inches of seat pitch. Even with demand booming however, widebody aircraft were very expensive to acquire and operate, so Indian Airlines smartly negotiated a deal with Airbus to reduce the price of the aircraft by a collective $2.4 million by shifting the manufacture of key ground service components to Indian factories.
External events caused the new A300s to be delivered much earlier than planned. In October of 1976, yet another Caravelle had crashed; causing the entire fleet to be grounded temporarily. Thus, Indian Airlines inaugurated service of the A300B-2s on December 1st of that same year, taking delivery of all 3 initial frames by mid January. These aircraft quickly began serving the Bombay-Delhi-Calcutta-Madras “diamond,” as well as Bangalore, stretching the 3 aircraft to their utilization limits. Loads were very good, consistently surpassing the 90% mark, and on-board service was upgraded a notch with more flight attendants per seat and a new selection of fine Indian cuisine.
Indian Airlines was primarily a domestic airline; with the vast majority of its flights operating within the confines of India’s 28 (+7) states. But given the fluid political situation of the Indian sub-continent; it was deemed better for Indian Airlines to provide air services to India’s immediate neighbors; namely Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Burma, and so on. Keeping Air India on longer haul routes ensured that the valuable Air India brand was not tainted by unrest on the sub-continent. But for Indian Airlines, its international services were a point of pride, and so the carrier faithfully restored service to Karachi, Lahore, Dhaka, Kabul, and the like after every conflict. Given the state of the region’s other national carriers, such as PIA, Biman, and Ariana; Indian Airlines often represented the first step in normalized relations in the subcontinent. International operations grew in scale, albeit slowly, and by the end of the decade Indian Airlines was serving Dubai and Muscat in the Gulf.
Thus concludes Part 2 of the history of Air India. At this point I’d like to give a huge shout out to perhaps my best source; Airlines of Asia by R.E.G Davies. While I’ve certainly used other sources to write this piece; the basic events, and the idea for the story were both based on Mr. Davies’ book. R.E.G Davies is perhaps the greatest aviation historian of all time, and I encourage you all to find more of his books. It would be a great way to pay homage to his memory (Mr. Davies passed away on July 30th of this year).