Flight Plan

Air India headquarters: it’s not just brick and cement

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on March 10, 2018


If the walls of the headquarters of a public sector company could speak, those at the Air India headquarters would have some of the best stories to tell.

This nondescript, five-storied building behind All India Radio in New Delhi was built in the 1960s. Those were the times when the Maharaja had the Indian Airlines Corporation to fly domestic routes and Air India to fly international ones.

The decision to have a new building for the domestic operator was taken by the airline’s board in early 1959. After the proposal was approved by the government, a plot was acquired on Parliament Street. Delhi-based firm of architects Messrs Kanvinde & Rai provided the designs and construction work was entrusted to Messrs Sit and Construction Company.

WIth great foresight, provisions were made to build an annexe, should the airline need extra working space in the future. When Indian Airlines and Air India were merged, officials from both airlines moved into this building.

Today Airlines House, as the building is referred to, has the offices of Ashwani Lohani, the airline’s current Chairman and Managing Director and also others connected with the airline. It has a doctor on the ground floor and a well-stocked library. The Maharaja welcomes all those who walk through its doors while the walls on each side have a glass painting of the latest models of Airbus and Boeing aircraft deployed by the airline.

Before this building came up, various departments of Indian Airlines were housed in different parts of the city. It was only when all the departments moved to the new building, built at an estimated cost of ₹16 lakh at that time, that it started getting a character of its own and the walls started hearing their stories.

Walls have ears

Old timers recall an incident in 1985. Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, was visiting Sri Lanka. While inspecting a guard of honour, a Sri Lankan Naval Rating attacked the Prime Minister. News soon reached Delhi although the details were sketchy.

 Suddenly, the parking lot in the airline headquarters came alive with sirens blaring and official cars arriving by the hordes.

All the VIPs who had descended on the building were rushed to a waiting lift that took them to an advanced communications room. The room had machines and hi-tech communication devices which allowed the airline’s management to speak with crew members at any time in any of the cities to which it operated. 

 These machines allowed the VVIPs to speak with the Prime Minister’s delegation and get details of what had happened and check on the PM’s health status.

Besides showing that the building had the best in class technology at that time, this was perhaps also the first instance when so many ministers had visited the headquarters. Of course, by then, those who had offices in the building were used to seeing VIPs — when he was a pilot, Rajiv Gandhi was often seen in its corridors. 

It was not just Indian VIPs. In the late 1970s, Mohammad Gayoom, who eventually took over as the President of Maldives visited the building. Gayoom was the Minister for Tourism in 1977 and visited the headquarters seeking more flight connections to his country. 

Then in November 1973 the building stood as a mute spectator as a lock out — the first and last in the airline’s long history — was declared by the management. This was the time when sections of workers were not allowed to enter the building.  

What’s in a name

And to think that the building that has witnessed so much almost didn’t get a name! It is said that though the decision to construct and shift to the new building was taken a little detail was missed — what should the building be called?

The airline sought suggestions from the public. Pratap Singh from Delhi suggested Vyom Vihar while Viman Bhawan was a suggestion made by HR Lumia of Calcutta. V Narayan from Bombay suggested Bharat Gagan which means Indian skies (as he explained in his letter) or Gagan Raah meaning Indian Skyways. NK Jain from Delhi suggested Airlines House. Whether Jain’s suggestion was accepted or not, no one knows, but that is the name which has stuck to the building.

Published on December 15, 2015

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