Flight Plan

Indian Airlines: A glorious innings that gave India wings

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on February 18, 2020 Published on February 18, 2020

Indian Airlines Corporation's Viscount seen swimming majestically over the clouds.   -  THE HINDU

The airline had a rich past, much of which has faded out of public memory

Few will remember that in its earlier avatar the state-owned Air India also flew as Indian Airlines.

Air India, which has been in the news for some time now, was created in 2007 by the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines. The formation of Air India as a single entity (earlier Indian Airlines flew mostly on domestic routes and Air India on international ones) also meant that Indian Airlines’ (IA) achievements were pushed to the background.

The two airlines were created on March 1, 1953, by the Air Corporation Bill. By 1956-57, Indian Airlines Corporation (IAC) had logged 19,201,903 miles by air, carrying 5,71,106 passengers apart from carrying 50,194 tonnes of cargo and 5,221 tonnes of mail.

In 1962, IAC announced additional flights on all trunk routes to provide more seats. This included two flights with a Viscount aircraft linking Delhi and Madras and Madras and Calcutta. Besides, IA also operated Dakota and Caravelle varieties of aircraft.

Saying it through ads

The crew of the first IAC Viscount pose for a photograph with Mr. Shankar Prasad, Chairman, IAC, soon after the plane landed at Palam. Seen from left are B.A. Patil, Radio Officer, Capt. Sandhu, Mr. Shankar Prasad, Capt. B.A. Powell who commanded the aircraft, Capt. P.N. Reddy, Capt. Jung and Capt. J.A. Chitambar, Chief Operations and Training Manager, IAC.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

The airline took pains to explain its aircraft to its passengers. One ad ran something like this: “Cruising at 20,000 feet… the Viscount eats up distance at a steady 320-miles-an-hour, while you relax in the comfort of a pressurised, sound-proof cabin with its panoramic windows and adjustable armchair seats.”

By 1966, IAC was operating over 100 flights a day over a route network of over 36,000 km and boasted of carrying one million passengers annually, making it one of the largest domestic airlines in the world. In 1969-70, the airline earned ₹8.50 crore in foreign exchange.

 

Back then, as also now, flying in India was cheaper as compared to many parts of the world. As an IA advertisement pointed out, “…we carry you on jets and turbo-props for just 38 paise or 5 cents per mile as against 52 paise or 7 cents in other parts of the world.”

As IA’s fleet grew, so did its operations. The airline’s ads of the years gone by give a glimpse of what it did — Many domestic airlines in the world cover 36,000 km in days we do it every day, said one while another pointed out that an Indian Airlines aircraft was either landing or taking off from the 70 airports every three minutes.

The IAC Caravelle VT-DPN photographed at Toulouse, France, soon after it was rolled out of the Assembly line. The aircraft is expected to reach Delhi on its delivery flight this evening. Two more aircraft of the type are expected by IAC in the next five weeks, and they will replace Viscounts on nearly all of IAC's Trunk Routes on 1st February 1964   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

IA was led by people who believed in what they were doing. L Vasudev, its CMD, resigned in 1993 over differences with the then Civil Aviation Minister. Before him, Air Chief Marshal SS Ramdas also resigned as CMD alleging interference by the government, and there was also a time when Air Chief Marshal PC.Lal, who was heading IA, enforced a lock-out.

Many glorious firsts

IA had many glorious moments like taking delivery of the first of the over 30 Airbus 320 in 1989, becoming the only airline in the world to have aircraft with four bogey or wheels which allowed it to land at most airports in the country. Incidentally, IA was the only airline in the world that operated this variety of aircraft.

In its heyday IA introduced the concept of a metro shuttle in 1999 — an hourly departure between Delhi and Mumbai at a time when most people thought there was no market for so many flights.

“The thought that you did not need a reservation was really path-breaking… remember those were the days of planning way ahead for seat availability,” said Aloke Singh, who then worked in the Market Planning Department of the airline.

Having been set up in an era where the state was all powerful, Indian Airlines was a self-sustaining entity, so much so that in its headquarters in Delhi, an advance communication room had been set up with high-speed connections to most of the airports to which the airline operated.

This was the room to which political bigwigs and government ministers dashed in 1985 when news filtered in that then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had been attacked by a Sri Lankan soldier in Colombo. IA flew to Colombo and had telecommunication links with the city which helped in getting first-hand information of what had happened.

Post the merger the brand name Air India was retained and slowly Indian Airlines faded from public memory.

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Published on February 18, 2020
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