Historic Moment for Indian Aviation: 70 Years of India-UK Air Connections

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June 10, 1948.

That was nearly 70 years ago when Air India, then the country’s only International Air carrier, operated its first flight to United Kingdom.

  • The airplane was a Super Constellation
  • It stopped at Cairo and Geneva
  • Most of its 42 passengers were of the Royal clan.

That event – Air India’s first flight from Mumbai to London- was indeed one of the building blocks of India-UK business relationship.

Since then much water has flown down the Thames and the Sutlej. Today Air India has fallen from grace, its up for sale and there are no buyers for it.

Despite a gloomy scenario, today Air India wants to celebrate that event. It has invited members of the Indian diaspora in Britain to share their memories of the airline in its early days. Debashis Golder, Air India Regional Manager – UK and Europe says, “We want to reach out to people who would have made some of these early journeys to share their memories and pictures, which we could feature in our in-flight magazine and also catalog to mark those glorious early days of air travel.”

Golder has recently taken charge of the UK and Europe operations of Air India. This is the time when Air India is undergoing a process of disinvestment. As per Golder, this marks a period of big change for Indian aviation. The airplanes, availability and the flight times are vastly different than what they were in 1948. He, like other wishful thinkers, hopes that that Air India will regain its days of grace and glory.

The UK aviation market is among the Air India’s busiest sectors. It is running at full capacity at Heathrow Airport and Golder believes that a strong trust among the Indian diaspora population has been the key to AI’s growth. It recently added three direct flights between Birmingham and Amritsar.  It was a long-standing demand. The route is doing very well, as anticipated, because it includes within its loop the religious sentiment emanating from the  Golden Temple, Amritsar.  Today, there are second and third generations of Indians who are happily settled in the UK for years. They regularly travel between India and UK. This constitute the bulk of passenger load for Air India.  

Besides, direct flight to Goa, daily flights to Ahmedabad and Canada and flights from London to Amritsar are among some of the desired routes, but as per Golder, Air India remains constrained by airport slots. 

Till 1990s, Air India ruled the skies. Later, new airlines came up and beat Air India in its own game. Ironically, those new airlines consisted of people mostly from the Air India and erstwhile Indian Airlines. Today, despite having a fleet of more than 100 wide-bodied jets, Air India is left with
a) 12% share in the domestic aviation market,
b) 17% share in the to/from India market,
c) annual losses of Rs 4,000-5,000 crore,
d) Rs 50,000 crore debt, and
e) a hugely under-utilized infrastructure & an inefficient workforce.

However, it still has some prime landing slots spread across the world as:
– 72 in US/Canada
– 72 in Europe,
– 70 in the UK, and
– 280 in the Gulf/Middle East.

It is also true that to build such a network, any other airline would take several decades. Despite this only rosy picture, there is very little left for Air India to cheer. India may be one of the fastest growing aviation markets, along with China. It is reflected in the growth in passenger traffic statistics at almost all the major Indian cities and more than 100% capacity utilization at the country’s top two airports, Mumbai and Delhi. Yet very few would credit Air India for this phenomenal growth; its contribution to the aviation’s growth has been continuously diminishing as reflected in its market share. Even the strategic disinvestment of Air India turned out to be a damp squib. There are just no takers for Air India. Running the airline does not make any prudent business sense. That indeed was a foregone conclusion well before the end of the deadline for the expression of interest from bidders.