Air India: Tailwind beneath its wings

As Air India, and its Maharajah, readies for a second takeoff with the Tata Group, a look at what the brand has meant to millions of travellers — and followers — around the world

By Joydeep  Sen  Gupta

Published: Fri 28 Jan 2022, 10:44 PM

Last updated: Sat 29 Jan 2022, 10:12 AM

On Friday, a day after India’s salt-to-software conglomerate Tata Group, which had successfully placed the highest bid of Dh8.82 billion in the Air India disinvestment and took over the Indian national carrier from government control after 69 years, a special message was relayed to passengers on all the carrier’s flights.

“Dear guests, this is your captain speaking… welcome aboard this historic flight, which marks a special event. Today, Air India officially becomes a part of the Tata Group again, after seven decades,” Captain Varun Khandelwal said to passengers on Air India flight AI-665 travelling from Delhi to Mumbai.

“We look forward to serving you on this and every Air India flight with renewed commitment and passion. Welcome to the future of Air India! We hope you enjoy the journey. Thank you,” he added.

History has come full circle.

Air India has always been a jewel in the Tata Group’s crown. It was never an enterprise, but a beloved child that was snatched by the then Jawaharlal Nehru government in 1953, in the name of a nationalisation drive.

But let’s recount the glamorous and heady days from the 1950s till early 1990s when the national carrier — synonymous with its vibrant logo The Maharajah — ruled the skies at home and abroad.

In 1994, the Indian government’s open skies policy reduced the carrier to a debt-ridden behemoth that was sustained for close to three decades by taxpayers’ money and successive regimes’ refusal to put it on the block for private entities.

Happier times

But let’s cut to the happier times. Sorab Kaikushroo Kooka, who famously went by his nickname Bobby Kooka and was Air India’s Commercial Director, came up with the Maharajah logo along with Umesh Rao, an artist with J Walter Thompson, Bombay.

Kooka was one of India’s first marketing geniuses, a Tata Group maverick, and a close acquaintance and friend of JRD Tata (see side bar), the founder of the airline in 1932.

Kooka embodied a “perceptive understanding of the Indian understanding of the Indian attitude to humour”, wrote journalist Vir Sanghvi in an article in the newsmagazine India Today on February 28, 1977.

Kooka’s background, Sanghvi wrote, belied his Indian-ness. He had a rather “pucca” education, at St Peter’s, York, and the prestigious Brasenose college at Oxford University.

Kooka had explained to Sanghvi in a freewheeling conversation that the greatest asset the monopolistic Air India had in the late 1970s, which coincided with the rise of some of the global airline brands such as Pan American World Airways, Trans World Airlines (TWA), Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways and many which have ceased to exist, was 
its image.

The Maharajah: The backstory

And there hangs the fascinating tale of the conception of the logo, the Maharajah. “We were the aviation department of Tata Sons then and our first office was what is now a tailor’s shop opposite Churchgate Station. It struck me then that we needed something to symbolise eastern hospitality and a potentate seemed ideal for that purpose. After we became Air India, we realised that we had to be different; it was simply impossible for a small airline to compete with TWA, Air France and the big shots on their own terms. So, we expanded the Maharajah image to include ‘the magic carpet service’ and tried to create a distinctive Indian identity for ourselves. The idea was that when you thought of Air India, you thought of the image and the Maharaja’s hospitality rather than the small number of planes we had. I’m surprised how successful the idea has been — so much so, that today we are about the only airline in the world that doesn’t have Air India on its advertisements. Our whole style (and the Maharajah) makes it clear that it’s us. In fact, if you look at our big hoardings, you’ll see that many of them don’t have our name on them,” Kooka recounted.

But why did Kooka call him the Maharajah?  “He may look like royalty, but he isn’t royal,” was his irrepressible one-liner.

Kooka and Rao gave him a distinctive characteristic trait: his outsized moustache, the striped turban and his aquiline nose. Initially, it had started as an attempt as a design for an inflight memo pad that was conceived to take Air India’s sales and promotional messages to millions of travellers across the world.

But over the years, this naughty diminutive Maharajah of Air India became a global figure. He can be a lover boy in Paris, a sumo wrestler in Tokyo, a pavement artist, a Red Indian, a monk... And most importantly, he can get away with it all. Simply because he is the Maharajah!

Now, he is 76 years old and is one of the most recognisable mascots across the globe.

His antics, his expressions, his puns have 
allowed Air India to promote its services with a unique panache and an unmatched sense of subtle humour.

‘Morality’ tales

Kooka and the Tata Group had a fair share of troubles because of the hoardings. His vivid account of a few incidents encapsulates India’s misplaced sense of morality that was often contrived and bordered on hypocrisy.

“Yes, sometimes for reasons that amaze me,” Kooka pointed out in the same India Today interview. “We once put up one that said that if Lady Godiva were around today, she would take a Boeing (which first joined the Air India family in 1960). Naturally the advertisement contained a woman (discreetly covered by her tresses) on a horse. Questions were asked in Parliament and several lawmakers demanded to know if this was the way to treat Indian womanhood. At this, the minister pointed out that Lady Godiva was English. The lawmakers were relieved, thundered their applause and Air India was let off the hook. Similarly, our inflight booklet 
‘Foolishly Yours’ had a cartoon showing a hostess embracing a passenger and recovering stolen cutlery from his pockets. 
Unfortunately, the passenger wore a Gandhi cap. Once again there was a big uproar, questions were asked and the cartoon was altered so that the fellow wore a bowler hat and our guardians of morality rested satisfied. Perhaps, the most interesting reaction was provoked by a hoarding which said, ‘We do business in three languages: English, English and English’. They loved that in Madras (now known as Chennai).”

The high life

In a post-independent Mumbai of the 1950s, Mitter Bedi was an ace photographer, who would travel to the airport in Santa Cruz at the dead of the night from his studio in Colaba to capture the flying Indians — a rare species. His first encounter of the close kind was at the airport terminal, where a family was saying goodbye to their London-bound son on an Air India flight. He quickly made them pose in front of the Maharajah logo and took a few candid photographs before the son went inside the airport.

Flying Air India was synonymous with high life touchpoints such as Chantilly lace saris, sky-high bouffants, double-breasted suits and London’s Bond Street’s ubiquitous brogues.

For Indians — many of who were first-time travellers to overseas — flying Air India 
was a holistic ritual complete with garlands and breaking the auspicious coconut ahead of the flight.

Overseas passengers’ photographs would be taken at international airports and would later be splashed across newspapers’ pages. Such was the novelty of flying Air India.

The carrier, which spelt class those days, had also introduced an in-house Air India  etiquette for first-time flyers. It would circulate an illustrated booklet, aptly called 
Better Acquainted, which was a ready reckoner for grooming topics such as dress code, how to cancel an international flight ticket, washroom manners while flying, and baggage allowance.

This line from Better Acquainted underscores the importance of grooming it would ascribe to first-time flyers: “When you fly with us, it’s not necessary to dress like Trade Horn or Theodore Roosevelt on the eve of a visit to the Dark Continent. A safari has its points but mountains of bedding, snake-bite 
ointment and Man Friday at your elbow are not required.”

In the 1960s, a first-class menu on Air India’s Boeing 707 was a shout-out for the connoisseurs: hors d’oeuvres, caviar Malossol sur glace (Malossol caviar on ice), pâté de foie gras Strasbourg (Strasbourg goose liver paste) and entrees include fillet mignon. Cheese platters were never in short supply and would be washed down with generous helpings of house beverages.

The menu was designed by chefs from Mumbai's Taj Hotel and Centaur Hotel, a subsidiary of Air India Hotel Corporation of India. Passengers were allowed to smoke on long-haul flights those days and a flyer could buy a carton of cigarettes on board.

Air hostesses from that era were a swish set. A promotional film, which was shot in 1962 and tantalisingly called Shimmering Shepherdesses, captured them gliding down aisles and offering passengers — a majority of whom were well-heeled, including industrialists, feudal elites, and film stars — hot towels and boiled candy.

Crystal ball gazing

If the past was glorious, and the last 30 years were sordid, then the future holds promise for Air India.

As per the deal, 100 per cent of Air India has been transferred to Talace Private Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tata Sons.

The Tata Group, which owns a majority stake in carriers such as AirAsia and Vistara, has the full ownership of Air India and 
Air India Express as part of the deal. Vistara is a joint venture with Singapore Airlines and Air India is the third airline brand in the group’s stable.

The deal stipulates that the conglomerate will have to retain all 12,085 employees for at least one year, and may offer a voluntary retirement scheme after that.

The Indian government will continue to provide gratuity and provident fund benefits to all existing employees of Air India and erstwhile Indian Airlines.

In December, India’s Minister of State (MoS) for civil aviation VK Singh responded to a query on whether there would be any changes in benefits provided to employees after the privatisation of Air India. He said the interests of employees were being taken care of by the government and incorporated in the share purchase agreement signed with the “strategic partner”.

Air India, which is a major brand, has eight logos associated with it. The Tatas cannot transfer the logos for at least five years and after that they can only change hands with an Indian entity.

Talks abound that the conglomerate may integrate low-cost carriers AirAsia India and Air India Express. The group’s brand licence agreement with AirAsia Berhad to operate the AirAsia brand expires in December 2022.

India’s Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia has expressed happiness about the Air India deal. He told NDTV, a 24x7 private Indian broadcaster: “This has been a landmark transaction under which all the debt has been taken care of and is a truly win-win transaction where everyone’s a winner.”

How do the Tatas gain?

Air India comes with global brand recall, assets, hangars, and bilateral rights to fly to 
several nations. It’s a complete package because it has slots and parking bases at some of the leading airports in the world, pilots who have clocked thousands of miles and well-trained staff.

The long-haul aspirations of India’s homegrown civil aviation brands such as IndiGo and SpiceJet, which are eyeing a slice of international cargo, are likely to face stiff competition from the Tatas that have two global carriers in Air India and Vistara.

The Tatas’ market share in the domestic civil aviation space is likely to go up to 35 per cent, which is next to the market leader IndiGo that has an estimated 58 per cent of the pie.

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