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Retired Air India pilot: "In 1971 everything was perfect, the culture was beyond compare"

Memories of two Air India pilots who flew with J.R.D. Tata. Plus, their thoughts on what went wrong and top tips for Ratan Tata.

October 09, 2021 / 01:08 PM IST
Air India pilots who worked with him remember J.R.D. as strict but always polite, and a stickler for values like on-time travel and high quality of service. (Image of JRD Tata tweeted by Ratan Tata)

Air India pilots who worked with him remember J.R.D. as strict but always polite, and a stickler for values like on-time travel and high quality of service. (Image of JRD Tata tweeted by Ratan Tata)


As Air India comes back to the Tatas seven decades after the family patriarch J.R.D. Tata started the airline, two veteran pilots, both of whom worked with J.R.D. Tata recall their journeys with the Maharajah. In the process, they also throw light on what made Air India great and how it became a loss-making entity. They also talk about the journey ahead for the airline and the Tatas, and what Ratan Tata needs to do to take the Maharajah back to its old glory.

A retired senior Air India Captain who joined the airline in March 1971 and who does not wish to be named. The Captain started his career as a co-pilot on the Boeing 707 and also flew the Boeing 747. He worked with J.R.D. and retired in 2003.

“As I recall it, I joined Air India the same month as the first Boeing 747 aircraft for the airline landed in India.

In 1971 everything was perfect, the culture was beyond compare. The airline had the latest aircraft  - the Boeing 747 - which came rolling into India.  The whole culture and atmosphere of the Tatas was beyond compare. How do you run an airline? You run it with the latest aircraft, was the thinking. After World War II everyone went to get the old war aeroplanes. There were one or two fellows who went for brand new aircraft and not second- or third-hand aircraft. That is what Air India’s policy was.

I was there when J.R.D. was chairman and also when Ratan Tata became chairman. When people asked me what was so great about J.R.D., my one question to them used to be what can you bribe him with? When you cannot bribe a man, everything works perfectly. J.R.D. had a passion, so much so that he would take a walk into the rear-most cabin of the aircraft and inspect the toilets to see if they were clean. That was his passion and mindset on how to run an airline.

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J.R.D. had one simple philosophy which was the most difficult to fulfil - being on time. It is a simple word, but it applied to the catering, the engineering, the passengers, the crew. Everything had to be on time.

J.R.D. sat in on the final interviews for cabin crew members. They would purposely throw something on the floor. Then they would see how the candidate picked it up. Did she bend her knees with culture and pick it up, or bend right over and pick it up? These are the small things that would go on in the interviews.”

On what went wrong:

“When the replacement for the Boeing 707 was got, it was another two engine aircraft which replaced it. Within 45 minutes of taking off, the plane had to land. So, all our flights to Africa had to land in Aden and pick up the land route and go as the aircraft could not fly over water (for a long time). There were no direct flights to Africa. But the management called the aircraft a replacement. How do you run an airline on such policies?

Then at one time the airline had a chairman who was sitting in Kolkata and at another time the managing director was sitting in Delhi when the headquarters were in Mumbai.  If you run an airline with the chairman sitting in Kolkata or Delhi with its headquarters in Mumbai, are you going to succeed?

Yesterday I came back from Goa to Mumbai on an Air India flight. I had to wait for 80 minutes for my bags to arrive. The flight is shorter than that. This is the state.”

On the task ahead:

“The Tatas winning Air India is really wonderful news. He (Ratan Tata) has done it out of great respect for J.R.D. I admire that. He has been pursuing it, there is no doubt. But now he needs to put all his time and energy into it. J.R.D. would put day and night into it. It was his passion. He (Ratan Tata) has to be sitting in the headquarters for the next one or two years and make things work. The headquarters cannot be in Delhi and he cannot be sitting in Mumbai (currently, the AI headquarters are in Delhi).

The Tatas have taken on a mammoth task. Even if they get the best executive to sort out all the chinks, it will take at least a year or two.

I recall seeing Ratan Tata flying in the Juhu flying club way back in 1965. He has the knowledge. He has the added advantage of being a pilot. You need to get professionalism back into Air India.

Ratan Tata has to sit down and figure things out before we say wow. Air India has all the rights (flying rights) around the world.”

Captain Minoo Wadia

Captain Minoo Wadia was transferred on deputation from the Indian Air Force in 1977. Eventually, Captain Wadia flew all the aircraft in the Air India fleet, including the Airbus A-310 and Boeing-747, before retiring from the airline in 2003.

“The name may have been the same - Air India - but it was a different airline to work with. In those days, one did not join Air India. I was  transferred on deputation to Air India in 1977 from the Indian Air Force.  It was a totally, totally different airline altogether. These are not my opinions, these are established facts all over the world. That it was the finest airline in the world.

J.R.D. was mild-mannered, very congenial and everyone wanted to see or talk to him. But in actuality, he was fairly strict about regulation of Air India and following protocol and on-time performance. He was strict but in a very polite manner. Even though the cabin crew were very fond of him, he was clear that they should know their liquor (to be served to passengers) and how the service should be done.

J.R.D. led by example. At the airport, people would run around him and try to carry his baggage. He would immediately say ‘you see that poor lady there? She requires help; go help her not me.’

Though I never flew J.R.D., I did meet him on many occasions and what stood out was his wit. Vijaypath Singhania and I had gone to see J.R.D. (Singhania and Captain Wadia were attempting to fly around the world). He heard us out and in his typical humour he said the whole venture seemed crazy. ‘I can understand Captain Wadia being crazy, he is a Parsi, but what excuse do you have?’ he asked Singhania.”

On what went wrong:

“By the time I retired in 2003, the situation was extremely poor and very bad. At one point, the government decided that it wanted to charter aircraft. I gave a white paper to the management against this, pointing out that the airline had enough crew and aircraft to fly so why should an aircraft be wet leased which was a move which was bound to make Air India face losses. (A wet lease involves taking an aircraft and crew to operate the aircraft on lease. It is generally more expensive than a dry lease, where you only pay for leasing the aircraft.) I was successful in stopping the wet lease. But a year later, a friend of mine told me that they had already signed for the wet lease deal.

It was extremely frustrating as everyone could see that things were going wrong with Air India, but no one wanted to correct them. First, you kicked out the person who built the airline unceremoniously. It (Air India) went downhill thanks to the actions of people in authority and not on its own.
Ashwini Phadnis is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.

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