On the afternoon of October 15, 1932, the postmaster of Bombay and other dignitaries were assembled at Juhu in Mumbai to welcome a tiny Puss Moth aircraft which was carrying mail from Karachi. The flight, piloted by J R D Tata, had historical significance – it was first such mail service by an Indian company – and it laid the foundation of Air India.
An airline’s birth is a result of passion and enterprise and is not without challenges and ordeals. Tata-run airlines are no exception.
However, the challenges faced by J R D Tata in his mission were far more complicated.
The Tata group’s airmail service in 1932 was started without a government subsidy. Sixteen years later Air India’s first long haul flight to London was launched in June 8, 1948, three years after the end of World War II.
The Tatas had asked for Rs 1.25 lakh subsidy from the government for the airmail service but received none. The contract between them and the government was signed in 1932 after three years of negotiations. It was decided the Tatas would only be paid a fee based on weight and distance flown.
R M Lala writes in his book ‘Beyond the Last Blue Mountain- A Life of J R D Tata’ that originally the air mail service was to begin on September 15 of that year but the launch was postponed due to heavy monsoon as mud flats of Juhu were under water (There was no proper runway or airport then). J R D Tata flew in from Karachi with 55 pounds of mail and thus heralded a new beginning of civil aviation in India.
Despite the lack of government support the air mail service made a profit and later covered other parts of India including Calcutta, Madras and Trivandrum. The service between Delhi-Mumbai began in 1937 and the company began carrying both mail and passengers.
Post World War II, J R D Tata submitted a proposal to government to start an international airline with government owning 49% ownership, Tatas owning 25% and the balance shares held with public.
Thus Air India International was born and its first flight was a Bombay-Cairo-Geneva-London flight using a Lockheed Constellation plane. Air India was then the first Asian airline to start a regular service between Asia and Europe. Ticket for the inaugural Bombay-London flight was priced Rs 1,720.