Flight Plan

Air India: Why the Maharaja is truly unique

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on: Oct 27, 2020
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The national carrier has been a patron of arts, an owner of hotels and investor in an international airline

There is still uncertainty about whether Air India will be divested in the latest effort.


The government’s last attempt at divesting its share in the Maharaja failed in 2018. This time around, the Expression of Interest from interested parties is expected by October 30, though there is talk that the process might get delayed.

But whatever the outcome of the divestment process, there are some things that are truly the Maharaja’s alone. In its 75 years of existence, the airline has been a patron of arts (it arguably has the best art collection in the country), an owner of hotels (Centaur) and has also invested in an international airline (Air Mauritius).


The Maharaja was also the first and only airline in the world to own A 320 aircraft with four bogeys or wheels, which allowed it to land at most airports in the country.

The 1985 tragic loss of its Kanishka aircraft made the world sit up and take notice of safety for the first time and all international airlines adopted baggage reconciliation or making sure that the bags of all the people on board the aircraft flew on the same aircraft.

Taking to the skies

To start at the beginning. The original Air India was set up by JRD Tata, who launched Air India international at a time when known international carriers like KLM, Air France and Imperial Airways were dominant players on the India-UK route. In 1948, a brand new Lockheed Constellation L-749 made its first Mumbai-Geneva-London flight, flying in Air India International’s colours.

This flight was the start of many more international routes and new aircraft that AI inducted in its fleet over the years, becoming the first airline in Asia to fly the Boeing 707. Its journey across countries and continents is captured by its mascot, the portly Maharaja. Over the years, the Maharaja could be seen next to the Big Ben, wrestling with judokas and posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, showing Air India’s flights to newer destinations.


In 1953, the government repealed the Air Corporation Act, paving the way for the creation of Air India and the Indian Airlines Corporation (IAC). In 1962 or within nine years of being formed, 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.

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.

Repatriation flights

While Indian Airlines flew largely on domestic routes, Air India flew largely on international routes. The two were merged in 2007 and the brand name of the newly created airline was retained as Air India.

Indian Airlines grew from strength to strength, connecting different parts of the country. There was a time when the airline came up with an ad which said that Indian Airlines’ aircraft were either landing or taking off from 70 airports every three minutes. 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.

Eight years later, Indian Airlines was but a memory in the minds of most.

But that was not the case with Air India. Notwithstanding its huge losses the Maharaja continued to fly across countries and continents so much so that today many consider the slots that it has at international airports like London and New York its biggest strength.

The Maharaja is making news even in Covid times. It flew to Wuhan late January-early February to bring back Indians and people from neighbouring countries from the epicentre of the pandemic. It has also been very active in the government’s Vande Bharat Mission and has flown to over 54 countries, including flying for the first time to New Zealand.

Published on October 30, 2020

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