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Wings of Change

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A well built, powerful, young boxing champion approaches a dashing Indian industrialist in the early thirties with a proposal. They take to each other almost instantly and a deep friendship brews. Friendship based on their common passion, a shared dream and spirit of adventure. Friendship that creates history and gives India wings to fly. Two gentlemen, Nevill Vintcent, a pilot so strong that he could virtually lift the tail of a small aircraft on his shoulder, and JRD Tata, legendary Indian industrialist and pilot license no. 1 pioneer aviation in India.

Their venture remains afloat in spite of seemingly insurmountable difficulties such as restrictions of colonial era, world war, government policies and sudden death of Vintcent. With an initial funding of Rs.200,000/- and resistance of Sir Dorab, Tata Airlines finally takes off in October 1932 as airmail linking Imperial Airways’ mail service that terminated at Karachi to Madras (as it was called then) via Ahmedabad, Bombay. So high were the service standards that DCA in his annual report in 1934 applauds Tata’s service saying it set example of how airmail service should be run, it has 100% on time performance through the year even during the most difficult months of monsoon. In JRD’s words, his devotion to aviation was not only to airline but to aviation and aeroplanes. However an insecure imperial control scuttles their attempts to venture into aircraft manufacture business on two occasions during the world war period. Destiny deals another blow to Tata Airlines and to JRD personally. The aircraft that was flying Vintcent from England gets shot down by a German bomber killing everyone on board. It was a lonely roller coaster ride for JRD after that with highs such as going international in 1948, forming first public private partnership venture with the then Govt of India in the same year, to the lows of it getting nationalised in 1953. JRD goes on to chair the board for the next 25 years without taking any salary, proving personal attention to the finest details of the entire operations, exempting himself for 2-3 days a week from the demands of Tata Sons, TISCO, TELCO, Tata Industries etc only to be unceremoniously `sacked’ by Morarji Desai in 1978. JRD was deeply hurt having left with nothing after birthing aviation in India and taking it to such dizzying heights with so much dedication. Frail, old and weak, when he received the covetous Daniel Guggenheim Medal in Seattle for his distinguished service to aviation in 1986 at the age of 82 he said, `I have decided to come back in the future, hopefully in the next century…inflicting on you reminiscences and prophecies’.  JRD died in 1993 with a promise to come back.

And come back he did.

In spite of intense lobbying by rivals, at a time when Indian aviation industry is facing deadly turbulence, on the backdrop of closures, consolidations and suicidal price wars. With another well built, powerful partner, in the wake of kinky government policies and wonky business projections. With a promise to treat customers as people, not numbers, Vistara takes off when rivals are struggling to stay afloat. Vistara glides quietly, making a humble beginning but holding a big promise.

Vistara is JRD reincarnated. Keenly adventurous and resilient, shrewd yet compassionate. Tata Sons and SIA are a formidable force with many similarities to young Jeh and Vintcent. It’s a great union of passion, excellence supported by deep pockets and territorial advantage. Poise, faith and conviction are the hallmark of this union. They make as humble a beginning as the two friends did with just one aircraft. The conquest of the limitless expanse will be a slow and steady process with no razzle dazzle of ramp walks on the wings or macho announcements of fleet size or flirtatious posturing with foreign partners. No airmail this time but other innovations galore! Premium economy seats, personalised service and weekly menu changes to name a few.

With life of over a dozen airlines hanging in balance and over 40 airlines already in their coffins, times couldn’t have been more difficult. Vistara promises to spread its wings in the surrounding gloom and melancholy. Entire nation watches it with hope and admiration. How often has this generation seen so much resilience and such conviction in any business? 43 attempts failed but only Tata showed the resilience to try again…and again. Vistara is a great example of aspiration and resilience. It was incredible to watch their conviction in this business, how they balanced shrewdness with compassion, how they feel passionately for aviation and how they nurtured one aspiration for forty years and waited for a right time. It’s a great business lore that will live for generations singing songs of scintillating glory, followed by doom and phoenix-like uprising.

Vistara is making an attempt to rise from the ashes of JRD’s dream, his passion, his sweat and his hurt. While it has nothing to lose anymore, they have every reason to succeed.  They have to deliver justice to their Captain, they have to bring back the lost glory. They were crucified once but now is the time to resurrect. So flap your wings and fly on Vistara!

- Rahoul Joshii

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