Praful Patel and the fall of Air India

01 December, 2011


AT AROUND NOON on 28 July 2007, Air India’s newest plane descended from the silver cotton clouds of a pale monsoon sky, escorted by a pair of Indian Air Force fighter jets. In the Technical Area at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, where dignitaries usually gather to greet visiting heads of state, the roar from the engines of the Boeing 777-200LR was met with euphoria by the assembled VIPs, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “I take pride in the fact that our government has taken steps to bring to an end a long period of neglect of our national carriers,” Singh announced proudly. “I compliment my colleague Shri Praful Patel and the present leadership of Air India and Indian Airlines for their important forward looking and innovative role.” For Patel, the minister of state for civil aviation, it was a moment of triumph, and he stood beaming in a pearl-white kurta-pyjama, feeling every bit like the tallest man on the dais.

Designed for long-haul intercontinental travel, the Boeing 777-200LR is an imposing sight, 209 feet long and 212 feet from wingtip to wingtip. The arrival of this particular aircraft, which had flown nonstop to Delhi from the Boeing plant in Seattle, was rich with symbolic significance for Patel’s tenure, reflecting two of his major initiatives for Air India. It was among the first of the Boeing jetliners that had been ordered under Patel, part of an enormous purchase of 111 aircraft placed in 2005 at a total cost of Rs 450 billion. It was also sporting the brand new logo and livery designed to reflect the planned merger of Air India and Indian (formerly Indian Airlines), which had been initiated by Patel in 2006 and cleared by the cabinet in March 2007: a red flying swan morphed from Air India’s “Centaur” logo, incorporating the stylised Konark Temple Sun Chakra of Indian. Within a few days, the 777 would be flying nonstop routes to the United States, making Air India the first domestic operator to do so—another one of Patel’s priorities for the national carrier.

Flanked by his party colleague Sharad Pawar—the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the minister for agriculture—and the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Patel used his speech at the ceremony to ask the prime minister to support another large aircraft purchase. “If we have to look ahead for growth, we will have to revisit the entire fleet requirement. I will urge the government and the prime minister to look into this aspect,” Patel said, exuding the confidence of a man who saw himself as a reformer of the skies—who opened up India’s cosseted aviation sector 15 years after Manmohan Singh had done the same for the Indian economy. He announced that he would soon submit a request to buy another 60 planes—for about Rs 280 billion—and declared that the aviation sector would create two million new jobs in the next decade.