Few people are aware of the fact that India’s aviation history started with a world record.
The very first air mail was flown from Allahabad to Naini on February 18, 1911 on a Humber-Sommer biplane by French pilot Henri Pequet.
On October 15, 1932, JRD Tata flew a consignment of mail from Karachi to Mumbai on Tata Airlines. This was the airline that would go on to become Air India.
In 1953, there were a total of eight airlines operating in India.
- Air India, owned by the Government of India and the Tatas
- Airways India
- Air Services of India, owned by the Scindia family
- Bharat Airways, owned by Basant Kumar Birla
- Deccan Airways, a joint venture between the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Tatas
- Himalayan Airways, a Kolkata-based carrier
- Kalinga Aviation, owned by politician Biju Patnaik
- Indian National Airways, owned by Delhi-based British businessman, RE Grant Govan
In 1953, the Government announced that aviation would be nationalised and all existing airlines were merged into either Air India for international routes, or Indian Airlines for domestic services.
In 1991, the Government de-regularised the aviation sector and allowed private airlines to take to the sky again. Many entrepreneurs launched airlines but few lasted the journey. Here’s a list of the prominent names that didn’t make it.
- East-West airlines, promoted by Kerlala-based entrepreneur Thakiyudeen Wahid was the first to launch a fleet. It shut down after Wahid was shot dead in 1995.
- Damania Airways promoted by entrepreneur Parvez Damania. It was acquired by the Chennai-based NEPC group, and later merged with their carrier called Skyline NEPC.
- Modiluft, a joint venture between the B.K. Modi group and Lufthansa. The relationship between the partners had soured by 1996 and the airlines stopped operations in 1997 due to lack of funds.
- NEPC Airlines, promoted by the Chennai-based Khemka Group. After acquiring Damania Airways, the carrier closed operations in 1997.
Jet Airways. was launched in 1993 by travel entrepreneur Naresh Goyal. The airline was the shining star of Indian aviation, until its shocking collapse in 2019. Spanking new aircraft, excellent service, polite crew – Jet gave Indians the flying experience they deserved. Its credo was captured in the yellow rose it would hand out to embarking passengers, until cost-cutting put an end to this signature ritual.
Ad veteran KV Sridhar designed the original Jet Airways logo, with speed lines dissecting an oval sun. In anticipation of its foray into the USA, the brand was given a complete makeover in 2007 by Landor Associates, although the basic form of the logo was retained. The stylish navy and yellow crew uniforms were created by Italian designer Roberto Capucci.
Air Sahara, part of the Sahara Group, started flying in 1993 (Who remembers Sahara Pranam – the awkward salute that all group employees, including crew, had to use?) Jet acquired Air Sahara in 2007 and rebranded it to JetLite, its budget brand.
Fly King Size
Kingfisher Airlines launched in 2005, creating another inflection point in premium airline experience. From the welcome message recorded by promoter Vijay Mallya, to the over-the-top service and food, Kingfisher was a worthy competitor to Jet. Taking a leaf from Virgin Airlines, the carrier used an adaptation of the beer brand logo and slogan, elevating Kingfisher to a lifestyle brand that did indeed stand for the good times.
After acquiring low-cost carrier Air Deccan in 2007, Kingfisher collapsed and was grounded in 2012.
Air Deccan, the first low-cost carrier in India, launched in 2003. Its promoter, Captain Gopinath dreamt of making flying accessible for all Indians.
To emphasise this positioning, Air Deccan used RK Laxman’s iconic ‘common man’ as a brand ambassador.
This was followed by the launch of two other low-cost carriers: Spice Jet and GoAir. The Spice Air brand identity was created by Gopika Chowfla Design. Little is known about GoAir’s creative exercise and partners. The reason they rebranded to GoFirst in 2020 is also unclear.
The airline that created the most compelling brand experience in India was undisputably Indigo. Launched in 2006, Indigo made low-cost flying ‘cool.’ The brand was developed by design consultancy Motherland and everything from the retro air-hostess hats (designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh) to cheeky messaging (Hello 6E – pronounced sexy), was a delight.
In 2014, Air Asia, a low cost carrier from Malaysia, entered the Indian market as a joint venture with the Tatas. (This story covers Air Asia’s recent pivot).
Indian Airlines, Indian, Air India
India’s advertising history is incomplete without the Air India Maharajah, the iconic mascot created by Bobby Kooka, Commercial Director, Air India and sketched by Umesh Rao, an artist at J Walter Thompson in Bombay. Much loved even today, the globe-trotting Maharajah featured in witty communication that lent a dose of glamour to the Air India brand.
Air India’s original logo was a centaur, selected by JRD Tata in 1948. In the 1950s and 60s, the Air India brand flew high, but by the 70s, the airline had started flagging.
In 1989, the aviation minister Rajan Jaitley said that the Maharajah belonged to the past and Air India needed to be modernised. Global design consultancy Landor Associates delivered a minimal golden sun with 24 spokes emblazoned on the tail against a red background. The exercise was not a success and the design was withdrawn in the face of widespread outrage.
In 1990, the Maharajah was hastily brought back and an exercise by Mumbai-based Alia group saw the airplane livery incorporate a truncated Centaur on the tail and jharoka-like outlines on the window.
Meanwhile, Indian Airlines, was undergoing brand changes of its own. Its original logo was designed, like so many brands of its time, by the National Institute of Design. In 2006, as part of an exercise to modernise its image, advertising agency RK Swamy BBDO designed a logo with the spokes of the wheel of the Konark temple. The suffix ‘Airlines’ was dropped and the brand was called Indian.
In 2007, Indian were merged into Air India. The new logo was a hybrid of both the earlier logos – a truncated centaur with spokes.
Other attempts have been made to rebrand the national carrier – despite the fact that its woes could never be solved by a logo change. Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder of design firm, Elephant Design says she heard Kenneth Cato, founder of Australian branding company, Cato Partners, talk about an aborted attempt to rebrand Air India in 2010 at a design conference.
Vistara: The Return of the Tatas
Although technically, the Tatas returned to Indian aviation via their stake in low cost carrier Air Asia, it was Vistara – the joint venture with Singapore Airlines that truly reflected their ambition.
Vistara launched in 2015 and was the first airline in India to offer a Premium Economy cabin. The name, brand identity and experience were developed by Ray+Keshavan and the uniforms were designed by Abraham and Thakore. As opposed to one-time rival Jet, Vistara grounded its identity in an Asian sensibility.
Sunny Skies Again?
Indian aviation is poised for change. Ownership of Jet Airways has changed hands and it may fly again. Low cost airlines Akasa, promoted by stock market investor Rakesh Jhunjunwalla, has received approval and Air India has returned to the Tata fold.
Even thought it is a terribly hard business, with global cycles of boom and doom, aviation has a unique allure for entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is the vision of leaving the ground behind and conquering a new frontier that will keep new logos taking to the skies.