Nearly 75 years after its legendary founder JRD Tata flew its maiden flight from Karachi to Mumbai, Air India is spreading its wings far beyond its short haul origins, seeking an alliance with a global association of airlines and readying to fly non-stop to the United States on state-of-the-art jets.
The national carrier's chairman and managing director V Thulasidas told the Hindustan Times on Friday that the airline, whose merger with domestic carrier Indian (IA) has been approved recently, was in talks with all the leading alliances — Star Alliance, One World alliance and Sky Team.
The born-again airline also plans to make India, powered by cost-effective engineers, a global hub for aircraft maintenance to win back a glory lost to Dubai and Singapore, Thulasidas told senior journalists in a "Coffee with HT" session.
The civil servant who switched from policy-making in the Aviation Ministry to giving the sagging airline a makeover, said legal formalities of the merger with IA would be completed by July this year and various working groups were working out the modalities for the integration process.
This would involve challenges ranging from harmonising staff seniorities to building a premium brand, he said. He was well aware the process would not be easy. "There are bound to be problems when two different organisations come together to merge into one," he said.
Air India is seeking back the turbaned glory of its Maharaja mascot, who symbolised its royal-style service in the 1960s before cut-throat competition, an ageing fleet, staff problems and bureaucratic control took off its international sheen.
Thulasidas said that the cabin crew and pilots of Air India were among the best in the world, but admitted that the airline needed an image makeover.
"Our image has to be changed. We need an image makeover and there has to be hardcore change," he said.
Scheduled air services in India began on October 15, 1932, when JRD Tata took off from Drigh Road Airport, Karachi, in a tiny, light single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth on his flight to Mumbai (then known as Bombay) via Ahmedabad.
In its 21st Century mode, Air India has placed orders for 68 Boeing jetliners, including 777-200 LRs, 777-300 LRs, 787-800 Dreamliners and 737-800s involving a budget of over $10 billion (Rs 55,000 crore). Its last induction of new aircraft was in 1993-94.
With the LR (long range) aircraft, Air India will start its first non-stop flight from Mumbai to New York on August 1 and subsequently add non-stop flights from India to Chicago and San Francisco, Thulasidas said.
Shortage of pilots was a major problem, but Air India is helping flight school students and seeking other means to boost its aviators, who are in short supply as a result of new airlines clamouring for pilots and passengers alike.
Thulasidas said Air India has entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Indian Air Force (IAF) to recruit pilots from its senior aviators. "We have recently hired the first batch of 14 pilots and are expecting to receive the names of the next batch of pilots in December this year," he said.
With the expansion of fleet by both Indian and Air India as well as the induction of more aircraft by some of the major private players, the total number of additional aircraft in the next five years is estimated to reach 500, requiring an additional 5,000 pilots at the rate of 5 sets of crew for every aircraft.
Air India currently operates a fleet of 43 aircraft. These include eight 747-400s, two 747-300, four 777, eight 737-800s, one 767-300 (all Boeings), and 20 Airbus 310-300 aircraft.
Maintenance, in which Air India has a joint venture with Boeing involving an investment of $100 million, is another focus area. "India now has a historic opportunity for growth of the aviation sector and other businesses including maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO)," Thulasidas said.