Air India had a mixed 1980s with the loss of one of its 747s, in a highly publicized over ocean bombing in June 1985, a major negative impact despite the airline itself not being at fault. I still remember the image of the huge 747 tail with the Air India logo emblazoned floating on the surface of the Atlantic. The airline’s productivity had grown impressively since the introduction of widebody 747s in 1971, but the carrier was still inefficient and lost $23 million in 1987/88.
To stem the losses and modernize the airline the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appointed Rajan Jetley as the airline’s new managing director in 1987. Air India was mired in a perfect storm of issues. It had a dreadful reputation (one European travel body named it amongst the 10 worst airlines), powerful and disruptive unions, was over staffed, inefficiently run with a staff culture of entitlement, suffered government interference and had an aging fleet.
As you’d expect the powerful vested interests within Air India did not look upon Jetley as a welcome figure. In fact, his moves to run Air India more effectively successfully managed to put almost everyone’s noses out of joint. He made sweeping changes at management level and upset operations, commercial and pilots. By December 1988 the airline’s part time Chairman Ratan Tata had resigned due to Jetley’s management style (and after his failure to get the airline privatized so his own family could take ownership).
Within the first 18 months of his tenure Jetley worked hard to break the major unions stranglehold on the company, successfully seeing off a strike by cabin crew, forcing pilots to work longer hours, cancelling the first-class privileges of 1,300 managers and withdrawing the chauffeur facilities for overseas station managers. The result was a series of major flight disruptions towards the end of 1988 that led to over 100 flights being cancelled and 250 delayed by over 6 hours during a 7 week period. Around 8,000 passengers were stranded around the world. Nonetheless temporarily at least Jetley was successful. He was willing to suffer short term losses for long term gains.
His aggressive style forced the airline into profitability despite itself. By the end of 1988-89 the airline recorded a $23 million profit. In the year 1989-90 a record $41 million profit was made and this was followed by $42.7 million a year later. However far from being seen as a major success the Jetley era is seen by many as the opposite and in fact he is still a thoroughly divisive figure.
A large part of this is due to another aspect of Jetley’s reign – the introduction of a new modern image for the grand old airline. The introduction of new 747s in 1971 also heralded the introduction of a new ‘Flying Palace’ livery with Rajasthani arches around each of the windows. This went hand in hand with the slogan ‘Your Palace In the Sky’ and of course the airline’s famous Maharajah mascot.
The first aircraft unveiled in the new scheme was the 747-200 VT-EBN, Emperor Rajendra Chola. Unfortunately for Jetley the new scheme was loathed by the Indian public. Deeply conservative they were appalled at the removal of the ‘Flying Palace’ (in particular the temple windows) and especially the Maharaja character. These sentiments were no doubt whipped up by elements from within the airline and the press.
There were street demonstrations and staff refused to call the First Class lounges Sun Lounges and instead continued to call them Maharaja lounges. Inflight crews made a point of mentioning the Maharaja during in flight announcements. In retrospection it is hard to not see the outcry as a weapon used by disgruntled staff to attack the Jetley management they hated.
In July 1990 Rajan Jetley, still only 40 years old, announced that he would resign. He said:
“I needed something more challenging, and I basically felt that in about three years I'd done the job that I was assigned”
In the end only about half of the fleet ever wore the new scheme. These included 5 747-200s, 1 747-300 and 4 of the A310s. When the first 747-400s were delivered in 1993 they continued to wear the old colours, which weren’t replaced until well into the 2000s. Even then the temple windows and the Maharaja continue to reign supreme. Sadly for Air India the issues that Jetley attempted to control have subsequently flourished so that despite, or maybe because of, the 2007 merger with Indian Airlines the future for the flag carrier looks bleak.
All timetable images courtesy of the awesome timetableimages.com
1988. Hazarika, S. India’s Fading Airlines Stir First-Class Hopes. New York Times
1988, December. Singh, R. Rajan Jetley's reforms raise the hackles of Air-India old-timers. India Today
1989, October. Tripathi, S. Air-India sheds its faded skin to emerge in a gleaming new corporate avatar. India Today
1990. Hazarika, S. Air India Head Quits to Join Private Sector. New York Times
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: