AVIATION: Air-India 

Maharaja is Back

From the heady fifties when Air-India was the first Asian airline to induct a jet airliner, the Maharajah today has been overtaken by countless upstart carriers. But now, under new boss V. Thulasidas, the airline is flying higher and further
Air-India is India’s finest flying Ambassador. The urge to excel and the enthusiasm which characterised Air-India’s first flight, way back on October 15, 1932, is quintessential even today—thanks to Air Indians who have kept alive the tradition of flying high. The airline has expanded its fleet by inducting 21 aircraft—three B777-200ER, five B747-400s, one B747-400 Combi and 12 Airbus 310s—on dry lease during the past three years. Induction of these dry-leased aircraft has enabled Air India to enhance frequencies to many of its existing destinations and introduce several new flights. Says chairman and managing director V. Thulasidas, “After flying the global skies for over 53 years all, Air-India is the most widely known Indian brand; the Maharajah has tremendous brand recall.” 

Thulasidas’ main priority is fleet expansion. The airline has become considerably older because the last time we purchased an aircraft, a Boeing 747, was way back in 1993. “The last plane we leased was in 1996. It has not been a profitable way to run an airline. The upshot: market share nose-dived,” says the airline boss. 

There is no reason why Air-India should not be the best airline in the world —Thulasidas

The government has already given the green signal to Air India’s proposal for the acquisition of 68 new aircraft—50 for Air India and 18 for Air India’s low budget subsidiary airline, Air India Express. For Air India Express, 18 aircraft (181-seater each B737-800W) are being purchased. 

Keeping in view the intense competition, both from Indian carriers who are now allowed to fly abroad and from international airlines operating to India, Air India has appointed Alia Group as Brand Consultants. Their scope of work includes almost every aspect of airline functioning, particularly areas which have customer interface. This exercise will help Air-India in enhancing its brand identity in India and abroad. Simultaneously, Air-India has also undertaken a Rs 400 crore product upgradation programme for change of seats in the Economy Class of 14-owned aircraft — six B747-400s and eight A310s and introduction of digital inflight entertainment system for individual passengers in all classes. The task of reviving the Maharajah isn’t as hopeless as it seems. 

Air-India is trying to move away from its Mumbai-centric bias. So you can hop on a plane from small towns in various towns in the country and travel to destinations like London and New York . Amritsar and Kolkata are new centres. You also have the Ahmedabad-London non-stop operations. 
The flights to Mauritius will be eventually extended to South Africa. Flights to San Francisco, Washington, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth are also on the firmament.

Air-India has grown more than 100 per cent in three years in terms of capacity in seats. It is flying to Shanghai and Los Angeles for the first time, and after a gap of several years Birmingham and Toronto are back in the airline’s loop. 

The preceding three years have seen phenomenal growth in the European and US sectors. Since December 2002, not only has the network been expanded to cover Newark and Los Angeles in addition to New York and Chicago in U.S., the capacity has also been increased from 10 to 28 flights per week—a daily service to all the four destinations. 

Likewise, flights to the UK have been increased from 10 to 24, 21 of these to London and three to Birmingham. Frequencies have also been significantly enhanced on the South-East Asian and Far-East routes.

There is no reason why Air-India should not be the best airline in the world. After all, in the fifties and the sixties, the Maharajah was a synonym for exclusivity. To attain those heights will require team effort. The Maharajah means business.

—Empire Bureau

January 2006

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