BY AJAY GHOSH
History was made as India’s national carrier, Air India’s inaugural flight to the United States originating from Bombay, now renamed as Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, after brief layover in London, arrived at the Idlewild Airport, now known as the JFK International Airport in New York on May 14th, 1960.
Nancy Kuo, the first local employee hired in 1959 by the then country head of Air India, Peter Mahta, recalls the initial days, as it set forth on a new journey, adding a new feather to its long flying history around the world. Ms. Kuo, a Columbia University graduate was 23 years old when she had joined Air India in New York and retired after 40 years of service. “I was interviewed by Peter Mahta, the U.S & Canada Regional Director at Air India, for a position as a reservation agent,” recalls Ms. Kuo. “I was the first local Reservation agent hired by Air India in the U.S. There was a total of eight employees, including Ashok Dutt, Sales Manager; Bill Shaw, Cargo Manager; Don Gazdar, Reservations Manager; and I.”
Working in four small rooms within the offices of Tata Inc., on 425 Park Avenue in New York City, Air India’s successful business operation began 60 years ago. Reservations, ticketing and teletype were in a one room with three desks. “As we were preparing for the first transatlantic flight on May 14, 1960, we needed more staff and larger offices and moved to the 11th floor on 410 Park Avenue,” Ms. Kuo says.
Dilip Dulai was hired for accounting and stayed with Air India until his retirement. Airport traffic was handled by British Airways and there weren’t any Air India staff at JFK Airport. “I remained with Air India — through numerous personnel changes, in different positions and office locations in New York City — until my early retirement almost 40 years later. Now, in 2020, it has been 60 years since the inaugural flight. It is a bittersweet milestone as most of my colleagues from that time have passed on,” says Ms. Kuo, who is now in her Eighties living in Queens, NY.
Andy Bhatia, a veteran of Air India sales department in North America, a close link between the fast-growing Indian American community and the national carrier of India, had served the Airline for 34 years in the US. For several decades he was the face of AIR INDIA at numerous community events, where the national carrier made its mark among the community members across the country.
Air India was not only a carrier to the small Indian community in the US, recalls Anil Bansal, President, Federation of Indian Associations (FIA), Founder & Executive Chairman of the former Indus American Bank, and the President of the First National Realty Management, Lyndhurst, NJ. Air India was a link and a life line between India and the early settlers who had come to the US pursuing greener pastures in this land of opportunities.
In a congratulatory note on this special occasion, Mr. Bansal said, “Congratulations to Air India for serving the Indian community in the US for the past 60 years since their first flight arrived in New York on May 14, 1960. Those of us who came here as students in the 1960s or 1070s, remember how Air India brought news and entertainment from back home by making available a selection of new feature length Indian movies to be shown every weekend on the University Campuses and a special edition of the Hindustan Times with condensed weekly news from back home,” Mr. Bansal gratefully acknowledges.
By organizing art and essay competitions, and by offering books, magazines, entertainment, unique posters and recipe books, which were always much sought after by all, Mr. Bansal says, AIR INDIA played a significant role in the life of the growing Indian community in the US.
“Best of all, Air India helped many Indian organizations in showcasing India’s rich history and culture in the United States,” Mr. Bansal, who is leading the largest Indian organization in the US on its golden jubilee years, says. “FIA has been partners with Air India for 50 years, virtually from Day 1 that FIA was founded. They have always supported us, it has been a great association, partnership and friendship.”
Headquartered in Bombay (Mumbai), Air India’s first ever scheduled air service was inaugurated in 1932 by J.R.D. Tata, flying mail and passengers between Karāchi, Ahmadābād, Bombay, Bellary, and Madras. By 1939 routes had been extended to Trivandrum, Delhi, Colombo, Lahore, and intermediate points. After World War II, in 1946, Tata Airlines was converted into a public company and renamed Air-India Limited. Two years later, to inaugurate international services between Bombay (Mumbai) and Cairo, Geneva, and London, Air-India International Limited was formed.
In 1953 India nationalized all Indian airlines, creating two corporations—one for domestic service, called Indian Airlines Corporation (merging Air-India Limited with six lesser lines), and one for international service, Air-India International Corporation. The latter’s name was abbreviated to Air-India in 1962. In the following decades as India’s flag carrier, the airline extended its international routes to all continents except South America and Australia, and it expanded its cargo operations. To gain a competitive advantage in computerized reservation searches, the airline removed the hyphen from its name in 2005 to become Air India.
J. R. D. Tata founded Tata Airlines in 1932 as a division of Tata Sons Ltd. (now Tata Group). After World War II, regular commercial service in India went back to normal, Tata Airlines changing its name to Air India and becoming a public limited company on the 29th of July 1946.
On June 9th, 1948, Air India introduced a regular service from Bombay to London, and two years later, Air India started regular flights to Nairobi. In 1993, Air India’s first Boeing 747-400, named Konark, operated the first non-stop flight between New York City and Delhi. In 1996, Air India started using its second US gateway at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Services to Air India’s third US gateway at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark were introduced in the year 2000.
In October 2016, Air India changed the Delhi – San Francisco route previously operated over the Atlantic Ocean to flying over the Pacific Ocean, in order to take advantage of jet stream winds and use less fuel. With the total flown distance being over 15,200 kilometres (9,400 miles), AIR INDIA operated the world’s longest non-stop regular scheduled commercial flight.
Air India has been an innovator of sorts, flying chef-on-board as early as 1987 when the four best restaurant chefs of them world flew on board AI flights serving delectable food to First and Business food on order. The meal sampling that followed from the myriad choice in the menu served onboard was a great experience. Not only was the taste very good, the health issue was attended by no visible oil or heavy spices. It was a gastronomical delight for all media participants.
Air India has many first in its glorious 60 years history of flying to the US. It marked the International Women’s Day in 2019 by flying all-women-crews to various cities – Washington DC, Newark, Chicago & San Francisco. The national carrier flew four flights to the US with women pilots as its commanders. Air India says it has become the first airline to fly around the world with an all-female crew, just ahead of International Women’s Day. “Air India scripted history by flying an all-women crew flight around the world,” the airline said in a statement on Facebook, after Flight AI 174 touched back down in New Delhi.
“Literally with high flying women. All 4 Air India flights into US today, JFK, Newark, Chicago & SFo were commandered by women pilots. We were delighted to honor 8 women pilots at the Consulate on #Internationalwomensday. Big thanks to Vandana Sharma of @airindiain& FIA,” tweeted Consul General of India, New York, Sandeep Chakravorty.
In addition to the four flights to the US, the airline flew all-women-crew flights to destinations including Milan, Frankfurt, and Singapore. Air India reiterated that by flying all-women-crew in its flights it wants to stress on its constant efforts to encourage women by giving them an equal opportunity in the workplace.
Air India’s Delhi-San Francisco non-stop service on August 15, India’s 73rd Independence Day, created history — it became the first Indian commercial flight to fly over the Polar region, The flight did its bit to save the environment and also ensured that the journey between the two cities becomes shorter.
The opening of the Polar route will help Air India’s operations to all the five cities in the US that it flies to — New York, Newark, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington DC. Potentially, the opening of the Polar route could lead to Air India no longer operating the ‘around the world’ flight that it currently plies to reach San Francisco. The Delhi-San Francisco route was launched in 2015.
Air India has been in the forefront when calamities struck Indians living abroad. The services rendered by Air India has continued to this day. “Right now, during this COVID pandemic, we salute Air India for the bravery and the service they are providing to evacuate stranded Indians from America and other countries. FIA and the Indian community will remain grateful,” Mr. Bansal acknowledges.
The first Air India special flight, which took off from San Francisco with 225 Indians on board, landed in Mumbai on Monday, May 11th, 60 years later it started its operations in the US. The passengers departed from San Francisco International Airport on Saturday under the Government of India’s Vande Bharat mission on Sunday. “First AI spl flight from the US brings in 225 Indians from San Francisco to Mumbai. Thank @airindiain @MoCA_GoI and Maharashtra Govt for support and coordination. Great work by CG Sanjay Panda and Team @CGISFO,” External Affair Minister S Jaishankar tweeted.
According to India’s Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, of the 64 flights that will leave for the 12 countries, seven flights would be dedicated to the U.S., another seven to U.K., 10 to UAE, five to Saudi Arabia, five to Singapore, two to Qatar.
Over the past six decades, AIR INDIA has come to be trusted for its consistency and dedicated services unique to the national carrier. “If I were to send my aged parents or a minor child, or any newcomer to the United States, I always look forward to Air India for a reliable service and confidence in helping them reach safely home,” says Dr. Narendra Kumar, past President of American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin. “While many of us ignore the lack of services or the attitude of other international flights, we tend to complain about or take for granted several services Air India offers to the Indian American community,” he adds.
With expansion and bigger competitions from other airlines, Air India began to borrow in order maintain its operations around the world. In 2013, Air India cleared some of its debts by selling and leasing back the newly acquired Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Also, as a part of the financial restructuring, the airline sold five of its eight Boeing 777-200LR aircraft to Etihad Airways.
In 2018, the Indian government tried to privatize Air India by selling 76% of its stake in the national carrier but failed because no private-sector buyer expressed interest in the state-owned airline. In January 2020, the Indian government approved a new proposal to divest 100% stake in Air India, which will be followed by the Expression of Interest (EoI) document to be issued this month.
Not many are happy are happy about the national carrier of India becoming privately owned business. “We wish Air India a bright future and hope things will improve, and they will continue as an independent airline,” Mr. Bansal says.