Rather curiously amongst Britain’s colonies in the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, commercial aviation remained neglected in India in comparison to what was taking place elsewhere in the Empire.
Some of this was due to perceived stereotypes of the day that the vast majority of India was made up of illiterate peasants and that the British government conducted business through New Delhi with select members of the Indian aristocracy. Some of this was also due to the perception that India already had an extensive rail network that made airlines superfluous.
And for many in the main British overseas airline of the day, Imperial Airways, the priority interest in the region was the development of a route connecting the United Kingdom with Australia, with India being more of a refueling stop along the way.
Whatever the misconceptions and prejudices of the day, development of commercial aviation in India prior to the Second World War became the purview of the country’s growing merchant class who saw commercial aviation not just as a tool for business, but also as a business opportunity in a modernizing nation.
Foremost amongst these individuals was J.R.D. Tata, the youthful head of the Tata Sons conglomerate which by the 1930s was already the largest business enterprise in India with holdings in manufacturing, textile mills, iron works, and even hydroelectric plants. J.R.D. Tata was so enamored with aviation that he himself learned to fly, earning the first pilot’s license to be given to an Indian.
Unlike Europe, the New Delhi government expected any airline established to be self-funded without any subsidy or assistance. This proved to be a significant barrier for any sort of entry into the market, but given that Tata Sons Limited was the largest business in India, funding would be no issue at the start.
In July 1932, J.R.D. Tata established an aviation department in the company as private enterprise and on 15 October 1932 launched services connecting Karachi (Imperial Airways main gateway to India at the time) to the southern city of Madras via Ahmedabad, Bombay, and Bellary with a very modest fleet of two De Havilland Puss Moths which could carry two passengers plus the pilot.
Tata himself flew the inaugural flight. It was quite an investment for Tata Sons Limited. The New Delhi government didn’t just refuse to provide any subsidies; any investment in landing fields and navigational aids was also non-existent. However, Tata’s early success resulted in a ten-year air mail contract that did help offset the investment costs. Over the next several years Tata embarked on route expansions within India along with progressively larger aircraft like the De Havilland Dragon. By 1938 Tata Air Lines served every major city in southern India with connections to Karachi, New Delhi and Colombo.
During the Second World War, Tata Air Lines proved vital to supporting the war effort and with more contracts in hand, aircraft as large as the Douglas DC-2 were acquired along with further investment in the airport facilities at each of the cities it served, all under J.R.D. Tata’s guiding hand.
By 1945 and the end of the war, not only had Tata expanded services to include every major Indian city, but had earned a position of prominence and reputation that would enhance India’s aviation status in the world. The experience of running a scheduled airline to meet the exacting demands of the Allied war effort gave not only Tata Air Lines valuable experience, but also a whole host of other Indian carriers as well, the most prominent of which, after Tata Air Lines, was Indian National Airlines.
By the time of India’s independence in 1947 with the subsequent formation of Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka, Tata Air Lines found itself not just India’s largest domestic airline, but also India’s primary international airline as well. Tata Air Lines was on sound financial ground with surplus Douglas DC-3s now filling its fleet needs. On 29 July 1946 J.R.D. Tata took his airline public, raising a significant amount of capital for modernization of the airline’s fleet. As part of the airline becoming a publicly-traded corporation, the name was changed to Air India with Tata himself at the helm. One of his first acts as head of the new Air India was an agreement with Howard Hughes’ TWA whereby Air India acted as TWA’s agent in India in exchange for technical assistance and training and an interchange link to the United States via TWA’s own route network.
In April of that year, Air India received its first post-war aircraft, the Vickers Viking. Given Air India’s status as India’s premier airline, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked Tata for Air India to be the nation’s ‘chosen instrument’ for international expansion (the fact that Tata had already ordered Lockheed Constellations undoubtedly helped).
In March 1948 Air India was organized as a joint corporation split between J.R.D. Tata and the Indian government and the first two Lockheed Constellations were delivered to what was now branded as Air India International. On 8 June of that year, ‘Rajput Princess’ and ‘Malabar Princess’ would inaugurate Air India International’s first Constellation services to London.
Significantly behind the new Air India International were a motley group of domestic carriers, of which the most prominent was Indian National Airways. The other seven airlines were of varying fiscal health and some even were still operating pre-war aircraft.
Seeking rationalization in the airline industry of the nation, the Air Corporations Act of 1953 was passed which, in essence, nationalized the airline industry of India. J.R.D. Tata’s Air India International was obviously shoed-in for the all international services and the remaining seven airlines were merged into one entity named Indian Airlines which would have responsibility for all domestic services; the model being that of BOAC and BEA in Great Britain.
The nationalization of Air India International took place in June 1953 and in a complex pool agreement with Indian Airlines, it was allowed to keep two domestic trunk routes, Bombay-Calcutta and Bombay-New Delhi. The infusion of government capital allowed Air India to order not just Lockheed Super Constellations, but also the new De Havilland Comet in order to compete on a more even footing with BOAC’s Comet services to the region. Ultimately the Comet order was cancelled following the Comet tragedies that struck BOAC, but Air India’s Super Constellations stretched its network throughout Asia to Africa and even to Moscow and the rest of Europe.
By this time Air India had the clout to join the pooling agreement that BOAC and QANTAS had on the London-Sydney route. Beginning in December 1959, revenues between London and Sydney were split with BOAC getting 51%, QANTAS getting 28% and Air India getting 21%. But the most important aspect of the agreement was Air India getting Fifth Freedom rights from London. In the early 1960s this allowed Air India to launch Boeing 707 services to New York JFK via London Heathrow.
For over forty years J.R.D. Tata remained at the helm of Air India from its first incarnation as a private company in his business conglomerate to its rise as an international carrier operating Boeing 747s across the globe (South America excepted). He would retire from Air India in 1980 and in 1982 at the age of 82 he re-enacted his inaugural Tata Air Lines flight from Madras to Karachi in a restored De Havilland Leopard Moth. And he did it solo!
As an interesting footnote to the story, a few years before J.R.D. Tata retired, he gave a speech to a conference of Pacific area travel agents in New Delhi. After his customary review of the trends in the airline industry, he offered up a few predictions for the future of the airline industry that today are remarkably accurate:
- He anticipated the need for jetliners bigger than the 747, specifically pointing out opportunities for a 750-seat twin-deck jetliner.
- He accurately predicted the pace of long-term growth in passenger numbers.
- He praised Sir Freddie Laker and his ideas on low-cost fares to stimulate more passenger traffic and was convinced that such budget fares were the wave of the future for the industry.
- He bemoaned the lack of foresight by the Indian government in investing in its aviation infrastructure, predicting that lack of capacity would be the biggest threat to the airline growth in India in the future.
- He questioned the economics of the Concorde and felt that supersonic flight would have little bearing on the future of jetliner development.