Of small aircraft and big ambitions: 1961-1990
In our last article, we looked at Indian aviation’s glorious moments between 1947 and 1960. The following decade was equally busy with the 60s being a heady time. While it took Indian Air Force’s Rakesh Sharma some time to catch up with the Soviets and the Americans in the space on Salyut 7, the International Airports Authority of India (IAAI) in the 1970s undertook a modernisation plan for the country’s airports to be on par with their global counterparts.
The aviation sector’s lift off came in the 1980s, spearheaded by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government, according to Harsh Vardhan, former managing director (1983-88) of Vayudoot Airlines, the third state-run carrier (after Indian Airlines and Air India—both were merged in 2007 to form the National Aviation Co. of India Ltd).
Vayudoot had a fleet of smaller aircraft which connected non-metros and made flying more affordable for the masses. This model was revisited in 2003 when Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar Gopinath, popularly known as Captain Gopinath, launched Air Deccan. More on him later in our year-long series.
“The economy had started growing at the time. We hosted the 1982 Asian Games and played a key role in the Non-aligned Movement. Things were looking up and it made sense to go ahead with aviation expansion,” Vardhan says, adding that the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was also a pilot with the Indian Airlines, was keen to bring best technologies to the country.
In the 1980s, Air India and its domestic counterpart, Indian Airlines, were ranked among peers globally, offering excellent on-board services. Also, Indian Airlines became one of the earliest global carriers to induct in its fleet the new-age fly-by-wire A320s made by France’s Airbus Co. The airline’s first true jet was a Caravelle manufactured by Sud Aviation, inducted in 1964.
“The nature of the market was different then. Only people from the corporate sector or those working for the government used to fly on domestic routes. Hence, there was a concrete need for change, to provide more flights to more people that would be pocket-friendly,” reflects Vardhan.
Here’s a quick look at Indian aviation’s moments under the Sun between 1961 and 1990. This was a period—before deregulation and the open skies policy—which determined the shape of things to come later.
Excellence in air and on the ground
Till the early 1970s, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) was solely in charge of all civil aviation operations. By that time, the government felt the need to form a state-run airport developer to expand current facilities and set up new airports in far-flung corners of the country. So the International Airports Authority of India (IAAI) became a reality in 1972.
“Don’t get confused by the ‘international’ tag in IAAI—it had nothing to do with any kind of affiliation to any international body,” quipped an Airports Authority of India (AAI) official who did not want to be named.
AAI was formed in 1995 by merging IAAI and National Airports Authority, which was set up in 1986.
However, IAAI engineers were sent abroad in batches for training who came back to modernise Indian airports on par with international standards. There was enough knowledge exchange at the time and IAAI further strengthened its team of experts. Also, unlike what AAI does today, a large part of the airport work, especially the construction part, was done by the IAAI’s in-house teams.
After spreading its wings, Vayudoot makes a hard landing
Started in January 1981, it initially served the remote northeast region, but soon became the government’s dream project and started spreading wings. By 1990, Vayudoot had a fleet of 23 aircraft—10 Dornier Do 228-201 turboprop planes, eight Hawker Siddeley HS 748 (also called Avro, a medium-sized turboprop airliner) and five Fokker F27 Friendship turboprop machines. In addition, its agro aviation division had a fleet of one helicopter and 16 other aircraft. Most of these could seat 19-40 people and were ideal for short-haul flights up to 600km. In brief, Vayudoot was meant to connect small towns and cities, much like the current regional connectivity scheme (RCS). Consequently, a large number of its passengers were first-time air travellers.
As envisioned, Vayudoot did some brisk business during its lifetime. It was the fastest-growing airline during 1985-89, as per data available with the International Air Transport Association, a global airlines lobby group. According to Vardhan, it also became the largest commuter airline in the world with a network connecting over 95 cities. Vayudoot introduced domestic tour packages and midnight discounted flights and also started a domestic overnight airmail service for India Post in 1985. However, this service was discontinued a year later.
The carrier finally ceased operations in April 1997 due to financial losses and growing operational costs, and got merged with the then-Indian Airlines. Vardhan, however, blames it on external factors beyond the business’s control.
“Majority of our planes (Dornier) came from Germany. But as soon as we ordered those in 1983, there were repeated fluctuations in international currency rates…things were especially bad with Japan’s yen and Germany’s deutsche mark (the currency before euro). Earlier, the deutsche mark-to-rupee exchange rate stood at Rs.2.83, which subsequently reached Rs.21 by 1987 and it led to major financial losses. We had 19 Dornier aircraft then and the losses were huge,” Harsh Vardhan explains.
Training the modern day aviators
An autonomous body, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi (IGRUA), under the ministry of civil aviation was set up at Fursatganj in Raebareli district, Uttar Pradesh, in 1985. The Raebareli Lok Sabha constituency has been represented thrice by Indira Gandhi.
The idea was to have more trained professionals without spending large amounts for overseas training. The flying training at IGRUA started with 40 students and eight TB-20 aircraft. The institute currently trains over 150 students every year, including foreign nationals from Nepal, Afghanistan, Mauritius, Zambia and Seychelles, among others. The government plans to increase its training strength to 200 over the next three years. IGRUA also provides pilot training to candidates of state-run carriers, Border Security Force, Coast Guard, Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.
Terror in the skies
In January 1978, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) was formed as a unit under DGCA on the recommendation of a committee headed by then-Cabinet secretary B.D. Pandey after an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked on 10 September 1976. The role of the unit was to coordinate, monitor, inspect and train personnel in civil aviation security matters. Despite these efforts, another disaster—the Kanishka bombing—killed all 329 passengers on board. Air India’s Boeing 747 ‘Kanishka’ (flight AI 182), which left Montreal for London on its way to New Delhi on 23 June 1985 crashed near the west coast of Ireland after a bomb planted on the aircraft exploded.
To cope with the growing menace of terror attacks and security lapses, BCAS was reorganised as an independent department in April 1987. It started operations under the ministry of civil aviation to ensure security of civilian flights at all Indian airports. BCAS is also supervised by the ministry of home Affairs. The dual reporting still remains a bone of contention between the two ministries, as access and ‘VVIP’ movements at airports come under the BCAS.
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