Flight Plan

Air India: A mighty maharaja who once ruled the skies

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on February 18, 2020

Recalling the history of Air India leaves one with sadness and a sense of nostalgia, says Ashwini Phadnis

When an airline as old as the state-owned Air India is put on the block for a variety of reasons, including that it has been running losses for five years, it is with a sense of sadness and nostalgia that one remembers its 70 year-old history.

A government survey tabled this year said Air India was among the three public sector units that incurred the highest losses for a third consecutive year in 2018-19. AI reported a provisional loss of ₹7,635.46 crore, prompting the government to sell its entire stake in Air India and Air India Express and its 50 per cent stake in Air India SATS Airport Services Private Ltd.

During these decades, the airline transported millions of people, both Indians and foreigners, to every nook and corner of the country and also to different parts of the world.

Of course, that is what every airline does. But Air India did much more than ferrying people. It brought India to the global map by acting as its brand ambassador. Among the VIPs who have flown the Maharaja are the king and queen of Sweden. Air India also flew Pope Paul VI from Rome to Mumbai when His Holiness was travelling to India in 1964.

More importantly, the airline and its staff members always stepped up when their services were needed.

Rising to the occasion

Air India's B747 aircraft, carrying the second batch of Indian nationals stranded in Wuhan amid coronavirus outbreak, upon its arrival at the airport in New Delhi, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020.   -  PTI


The evacuation flights to Wuhan to get back Indians stranded there due to the coronavirus outbreak are the latest in a long series of evacuations that the Maharaja has undertaken. The most significant of these was in 1990 when it brought back over 1,50,000 Indians from Iraq and Kuwait when conflict broke out there — a feat that got it a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

During the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai it was an Air India aircraft that flew the National Security Guard commandos from Delhi to Mumbai. At that time the Union Cabinet passed a law that it could requisition any aircraft at any time but when it came to emergencies either in India or abroad, it was always Air India that the government turned to.

Green moves

The airline has also led from the front when it comes to saving fuel and the environment. In April 2019, AI became the first domestic airline to operate a flight using the ‘Dispatch with No Destination Alternate’ on its Boeing 787 from Delhi to Hyderabad.

Regulations require every flight to file a flight plan to an alternate city or airport where the aircraft can land in case of an emergency and carry adequate fuel to cover this distance. This means that the aircraft carries additional fuel which is dead weight if there is no diversion from the intended destination. The heavier the aircraft, the more fuel it consumes while flying.

But AI’s Delhi-Hyderabad flight did not carry any extra fuel, making it more fuel efficient. Other domestic airlines followed AI’s example by launching similar flights.

Air India is also the second airline in the world to use the Polar route while flying to the US and Canada, which saves not only time but also helps the environment. The time saved on the flight varies from five minutes to 75 minutes. But more importantly, this helps save the environment.

Air India on average cuts flight time by 20 minutes on every Polar flight which, on the Boeing 777, means about 2,500 kg of fuel saving and about 7,500 kg in carbon emission reduction.

Tech at your service


The Maharaja also has the distinction of being the first airline in the world to use a taxi-bot for an Airbus aircraft. A taxi-bot is a semi-robotic tow truck or an alternate aircraft taxiing device. The taxi-bot helps push the aircraft to a point short of the runway where the aircraft starts its engines for take-off.

Given that an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737, on average, takes 11 to 13 minutes to taxi, it is likely to burn over 200 litres of ATF. Using a taxi-bot helps cut this down, thus saving the environment.

Over the years, Air India has also played the role of a senior to other airlines. For example, it has helped recover aircraft in the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia and a small section of the Gulf. AI is a custodian for the regions for the International Airlines Technical Pool (IATP). IATP is a convention of airlines started over six decades ago to promote safety in the skies. It is a not-for-profit, independent and non-political organisation.

In recent times, AI’s equipment was used for rescuing a Jet Airways aircraft stuck in Khajuraho airport and also a Turkish Airlines A-330 aircraft which overshot Kathmandu airport’s runway, forcing the closure of the airport till AI’s team was able to remove it.

Besides, who can forget the trained manpower that the Maharaja has provided to help other airlines in the country take off? Just one example of this is Saroj Dutta, Executive Director, Jet Airways, who is often credited with being the man behind the success of the private sector airline. Dutta started his career in Air India. Air India pilots have also left the Maharaja and helped set up a number of private airlines in the country.

Besides all this, the airline’s aircraft have played a key role in ensuring safe elections across the country. Its aircraft ferry security personnel from one corner of the country to the other to ensure that the election process is carried out safely. It even plays a role during the elections of the President and Vice-President — the ballot boxes containing votes of the various legislators from across the country are flown back on Air India aircraft.

Published on February 18, 2020

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