The news that Air India will buy 250 Airbus aircraft and 220 Boeing jets, worth a total of $70 billion, is excellent news for passengers to India and for the country itself.
The company has had a torrid time in recent years: Since the early 2000s Air India has suffered from chaotic management and customer service, terrible punctuality and ticketing.
Some travel agents expressly advise their clients not to use it.
Most recently, two separate incidents of drunken idiots urinating on fellow passengers created a scandal known as ‘pee-gate’, which Air India compounded by trying to shampoo it under the carpet, so to speak.
Originally founded in the 1930s by Tata, Air India was nationalised in 1953 then re-privatised in 2022 by its founders.
Whether public or private, many airlines are proxy embassies in the sky, flying their country’s flag, representing its values, and projecting soft power. If India is going to fulfil its potential as a respected major economy, Air India needs to up its game.
This giant order for new aircraft is a good start. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French president Emmanuel Macron and US president Joe Biden have all praised the deals, with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars flowing into the British, French and American economies, earning their gratitude.
For me, it feels particularly close to home, because airlines have been central to my personal and professional life for decades.
First, I met a beautiful young woman called Tani who had been selected from thousands to work as a stewardess for Air India in the 1970s – a job of exceptional glamour and prestige.
We married and had two children.
Then we started a travel agency specialising in long-haul flights and – as ebookers.com – built it into a multinational business with thousands of employees and offices across Europe. For years, I tried to sign a deal with Air India, to become its preferred UK agent. It never happened (I did a deal with Nepal Airlines instead). The airline represented India in a diplomatic sense, as a reliable, established and secure company with a strong reputation. So, it’s been painful to watch the company’s many struggles and self-inflicted wounds. If a visitor to India has a shockingly bad experience on the national airline, before they’ve even reached the country, what kind of an impression does that create?
I’m hopeful that this latest infusion of capital and brand-new fleet of the latest aircraft shows that Air India will follow Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines into the 21st century world of exceptional customer service, clean, fuel-efficient, comfortable aircraft, reliable punctuality and advanced digital administration.
It would be great to have an airline to feel proud of, to look up above the West London skies and see its familiar red tailfin with the golden sun motif and look forward to my next flight back to Mumbai or New Delhi.
Dinesh Dhamija founded, built and sold online travel agency ebookers, before serving as a Member of the European Parliament. His latest book, The Indian Century, will be published later this year.