The Maharaja’s New Clothes — Tata Group Takes Over Air India

In any flying machine with two pilots, handing over controls always follows a time-tested procedure that ensures seamless handover with no “loss of control”. The pilot flying (PF) initiates the handover by saying “you have the controls”; the pilot not flying (PNF) physically takes over saying “I have the controls”. The pilot handing over repeats “you have the controls” to close the loop. In this manner, a smooth handing over of duties is achieved even as the heavier-than-air machine hurtles through the air.

Over time, this exchange may have morphed into “you got her” and “I got her” in the mostly male-dominated piloting community worldwide (India is an exception with maximum number of female commercial pilots in the world). But the essence remains — at all times somebody must fly the plane.

Tata Sons’ “I have the controls” moment came on Jan 28, 2022, when all three entities of the erstwhile national carrier Air India — flagship full-service airline Air India, low-cost carrier Air India Express, and 50% stake in ground and cargo handling service AI SATS — were formally handed over by the government of India to the founding company, almost 69 years after it was taken over.

For better or worse, time will tell. The Maharaja’s journey from a ‘startup’ to ‘bleeding national carrier’ has been part of Indian aviation folklore since 1950s when flying was elitist and tickets prohibitively expensive. In the deal signed at INR 18000 Cr (incl 15300 Cr debt), the Tata group inherits Air India with all its routes, assets, 60000 Cr of loans (2021 estimate), and a ‘sarkari‘ attitude to boot. The Maharajah who once bowed in welcoming grace is now practically a hunchback under crushing debt.

But if anybody can pull a rabbit out of this hat, it is Tata Sons. They have the depth of pocket, the span of corporate excellence, and, most importantly, ‘skin’ in this vanity game — to turn the multi-million dollar, loss-making dinosaur into a profit-making enterprise that will hopefully restore it to commercially-viable status. Coming at a time when the travel and hospitality industry is reeling under the disastrous multiple-whammy of Covid-19, Tata Sons will face much headwind. Many low-cost airlines bleed in the Indian skies while well-established players, and the soon-to-be-launched ‘Akasa Air’ funded by billionaire investor and stock trader Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, jostle for pax, patronage and airspace. Tata’s twitter feed for the momentous occasion says “we click”!

Tata Air India ad campaign on takeover (picture from Tata Company’s twitter feed, Jan 28, 2022)

There is a slice of Air India in every middle-class Indian — the present Chairman of Tata Sons Mr. N Chandrasekaran knows this only too well. He publicly acknowledged that his first-ever flight was on the airline that pulled into his hangar today. In an internal memo to airline employees soon after the baton handover, Chandrasekaran wrote: “My first flight was with Air India in December 1986, and I will never forget how special it felt to be onboard, or the exhilaration as we soared into the sky… today is the beginning of a new chapter. The nation’s eyes are on us, waiting to see what we achieve together. To build the airline our country needs, we need to look to the future.”

At many levels, this is personal for many of us Indians who grew up in the 80s adoring AI’s sharply noisy Boeing 737s, deep-throated Airbus A300s and majestic ‘Queen of the Skies’ Jumbo 747s. Flying on these planes was aspirational — strictly for the upper class, privileged Air India employees, or sarkari employees on official travel or LTC. Others simply bought an entrance ticket to the viewing gallery and inhaled the burnt residue of turbine fuel while watching friends, kith & kin, or complete strangers take to the skies chasing dreams overseas.

We all had our ‘Air India moments’, didn’t we? In Dec 1987, upon completion of the first of six gruelling terms at Naval Academy, Goa, as cadets, we were given an option of flying Air India to our hometowns on a 50% discounted ticket. The present naval chief Adm R Hari Kumar was a young lieutenant vested with the charge of about 80 of us cadets counting DLTGH (days left to go home) then. A man of few words, “Hariya” in his characteristic ‘tough on the outside, sweet on the inside’ demeanour asked if we would like to consider travelling “officer-like” with Indian Airlines (then the domestic carrier of AI). The deal was sweetened by offsetting the cost of our authorised second-class railway warrant against the cost of a seat in the lap of luxury by paying a few hundred rupees.

Many of us middle-class kids availed the offer with no regrets. I have only the best memories of that flight which was the maiden air sortie for most of us (first termers are bottom feeders; arguably the lowest form of life in military academies). Strapping into the GOI-BOM Air India flight, wiping the sweaty brow with a hot hanky handed by the sweetest human I had seen in the last five months, receiving two lozenges and a delightful meal to cover a 45-minute flight, being treated like mini-celebrities courtesy the armed forces ID, and receiving matronly care by the air hostesses on that flight — all these remain indelible memories. Every Indian from that generation will likely have bittersweet memories of their ‘first flight’ with Air India. Some of that romance with the sky rubbed off in people like me who went on to train and become test pilots so we could push the envelope and do more “first flights”.

I also recollect extended deputations overseas where one had to travel by the national carrier as mandated by GoI rules. The second-AC railway warrant turned into an air warrant that could be exchanged for an air ticket only at one of Air India’s brick & mortar booking offices (later outsourced to Balmer Lawrie company) where one took a token and waited for hours! The tickets were many times more expensive than competing airlines, but who cared! The ‘apex fares’ accommodated “free travel for spouse”. For those who wanted “spouse-free travel” there was always the provision to “liaise” with the booking executive and “upgrade” to executive class. A significant amount of time was consumed in such “liaison” to ensure a reserved seat in the J-class. Truth be told, many of us faujis may have never enjoyed the plush comfort of ‘executive class’ but for the AI air warrant & its “deep reserves”. At the end of a long, hard deployment or deputation, the calming influence of an Air India cabin crew in saree or traditional attire, extending a “namashkaar” at embarkation, the Indian food and foreign liquor served in measured doses — all this was salve for a weary traveller. Those travelling by economy class may of course have other tales to tell!

But alas, in the end, somebody has to do the math and enforce operational and fiscal discipline. The national carrier had become an extension of the state: kind when it wanted, indifferent most of the time; servile to masters who held the strings; rising occasionally to a national cause, but with nebulous & opaque costs; full of hubris and arrogance when challenged; terribly inefficient and unaccountable — almost like flying with speed brakes engaged all the time. In aviation, drag costs money. Complacency costs lives. The last two major Indian air carrier accidents have been from Air India.

It is this sarkari culture of Air India that Tata Sons under Chandrasekaran’s stewardship will need to change. There will be old dogs that need to either learn new tricks or be put out to pasture. There is the need for infusing fresh blood with fire in the belly. New structures and frameworks for employee engagement will have to be created that respects and incentivises enterprise while eschewing complacency, status quo and ‘chalta hai’ attitude that have come to define the deferential Maharajah. It is time for a deep surgical intervention. It cannot come without pain — perhaps reason why the usually hug-happy Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept Tata Sons Chairman N Chandrasekaran at more than two arms distance in the photo-op that captured the “you got her” moment.

Power distance — Tata Sons Chairman N Chandrasekaran meeting PM Narendra Modi after taking over reigns of Air India (Pic from PMO India twitter feed, Jan 27, 2022).

Fair winds & happy landings, Tata Air India. If anyone can turn this ship around, it’s you. “A promise is a promise”, like Ratan Tata once said. Governments come and go. You do what it takes. Keep the joy of flying affordable and practical. We are with you.

(This story debuted on Emmy-nominated Indian reporter, columnist and Editor Barkha Dutt’s website ‘Mojo Story‘ on Jan 29, 2022. You can access it here.)


Author Kaypius (2019 photo by Sitam Moharana)

©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. I can be reached at or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons by Julian Herzog, CC BY 4.0.

25 thoughts on “The Maharaja’s New Clothes — Tata Group Takes Over Air India

  1. Nostalgia with AI GOA- DEL 3 hr non stop flight after the first term. Was even extended the courtesy as a naval pilot to visit the flight deck and stay there for the landing by AI pilots over the next few years, when rules still permitted flight deck visits to an aircraft in flight. These are experiences never forgotten. I could recount many unfortunate ones too but those are best left un said since i believe they will soon ( hopefully) belong to a bygone era! Here’s wishing the Tata Sons much luck, many congratulations and may each of your worries with AI be lesser than the previous one.

    1. I also have nostalgic memories of my first flight by AI, from Calcutta to Portblair…that tamarind toffee and smile of Air hostess etc…wish the Tatas all the best…

  2. You have given the public perception of the Air India sale
    But please don’t forget that the government has taken on Rs 46000 crores of Air India’s debt. The Tatas have paid Rs 2700 crores and taken on some Rs 153000 crores of debt. So, net net, the Government has paid Rs 28,000 crores to the Tatas to take over the loss making airline.

    All indications are that the Tatas will make some cosmetic changes. And make losses in their 3rd airline. I wish them good luck.

    Tatas has also got a loan commitment of Rs 35000 crores on highly concessional terms from a SBI-led consortium for Air India
    The consortium of banks includes Punjab National Bank, Bank of Baroda, and Union Bank of India apart from SBI.
    So, even the money paid by the Tatas comes as a loan from govt owned banks. The agreement includes working capital. So it is a bail out by the government for the government. And Tatas get the credit. All good — if the venture succeeds.

    And there are four govt nominees on the board. It is very much a public – private partnership.

  3. The economics of the takeover and the quid pro quo is of a kind that the public monies got adjusted grossly in favour of the Tata Sons and the common left as specks on ground as it takes off.Your love of the air shows in the script of fond remembrances which affectionately overlooks that a supposedly great past might not quite be the story today.

  4. It is rough skies ahead for Tata Sons & Mr. Chandrashekharan. Indeed, it it is the babu culture that ruined Air India in the first place, is the biggest challenge.

    1. I wish they change the name Air India which is the other name of chaos, neglect, indifference and total mismanagement by the Baboos. Suggest: Tata Air or Air Tata

      1. First bring back the Lucky Logo Centaur on the Tail in Bright Red as before. Tata Magic will do wonders, will bring back past Glamour and Glory.Tata can not fail. Tata works for the country and people and not for their gains. Long live Tata and Air India.

  5. As an ex employee of Tata Steel I am proud of Tata that Air India is back to Tata group. I hope present CMD WILL TAKE THIS TO WARLD CLASS AVIATION SERVICES.

  6. I have traveled on Air India at every opportunity when I was working in the Gulf. The he biggest challenge used to be the delayed flights. However the biggest challenge for Tata’s is to change the BABU culture that is so deep rooted. The UNIONS leadership which is the most dangerous will need to be neutralized. Most importantly the employees will need to put their best foot forward, even if it means sacrificing a little today for a better future tomorrow. Employees, especially the cabin crew and front line staff will really need to do their best. Tata’s are known to take care of their employees ( I was a Tata employee myself), and if Air India’s current lot of employees work hand in hand soon AIR INDIA will be MAHARAJA again. Wishing Air India all the very best.

  7. Hope Tata air india will be the best for middle class people to fly in
    every respect . Tata management have working it own qualities in all areas.

  8. I remember flying from Mumbai to chandigarh by AI, three years ago before onset of covid. They served sumptuous lunch, and the captain was very experienced. I am also happy that Tata group has taken over AI. Let’s hope it turns over, yielding profits in the future. The bureaucracy and its employees, with free passes, have riddled the organisation with debts. Country cannot afford losses of 20,000 crores till date.

  9. It is wrong to expect that overnight Air India will achieve its past glory. There is a total cultural overhaul needed from public to private sector. This is easier said than done .
    Attitude towards passengers or guests need to more acceptable.. Training staff especially traffic, cabin crew, and those who need to interact with the
    “guests”, to deal with exemplary courtesy, and respect. All this is going to take time. We must remember practically all major Airlines own aircraft manufactured by one or two of the well known manufacturers, so the competition boils down to service.
    I would give TATA six months for noticeable changes.

  10. I flew first time in my life as a 24 year 9ld on an Air India super constellation flight from Calcutta to Amsterdam with a few stops. I was thrilled with the experience and the booklet Foolishly Yours.
    I have been flying for over six decades, but the charm of the services I enjoyed on my first flight on Air India has never ever left me.

  11. My first flight on dec 1980 from chennai to Bombay to catch a connecting flight to Doha to join my first overseas job was memorable… If my memory serves me right, chennai to Bombay costed only Rs. 750/-… I am a fan of the Tata group and they are every bit patriotic… They need not have taken over AI when they already have two airlines and not making profit… I wish them the very best and pray for their success… Venkat narayanan chennai


    Air India in the Air
    in all aspects
    allow little more facilities
    for economy senior
    citizens as like students
    Best Wishes

  13. Piloting an aircraft, in rough weather (even on auto-pilot) for passengers’ comfort is a challenging ask.

    May taking over controls, set the course, to steer, out from the turbulence.

    Happy, safe and successful journey.

  14. Piloting an aircraft, in rough weather (even on auto-pilot) for passengers’ comfort is a challenging ask. May taking over controls, set the course, to steer, out from the turbulence. Happy, safe and successful journey.

  15. A very well.written article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it …must resonate with many readers。.

    Perhaps including some points from the comments section in terms of the Govt loan to TATAs for taking over Air India would have made it more balanced

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