In honor of JRD Tata’s 118th birthday today, we’re here to share an excerpt from Harish Bhat’s “Tata Stories: 40 Timeless Stories to Inspire You.” Excerpts published with permission from Penguin.
Coffee, tea and JRD
JRD Tata was the founder of Tata Airways, which later became Air India. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the airline was the first Indian global entity to proudly bring the Indian flag to international skies. In 1948, Air India launched its first international route from Mumbai to London, a proud moment for the country.
JRD is determined to make Air India the best airline in the world despite stiff competition from many other global airlines. For him, this is essential as Air India is not just an airline but a proud carrier of India’s image worldwide. During his maiden international flight, he watched passengers’ reactions carefully and was relieved when everything went well, including landing in London on time.”It was a great and exciting event for me…to see the Indian flag on either side of Princess Malabar,” he said. [the name of that particular aircraft] I was filled with joy and emotion as she stood proudly on the tarmac of Cairo, Geneva and London airports.
He has since become obsessed with making airlines special, which he knows requires the highest standards of customer service and excellence. He told the airline’s staff, “I hope the passengers travelling with us have no chance to complain. I want to prove that no airline is more popular with passengers, safer, more punctual, better food and service than Air India, and established a better image.
Back in 1949, these wishes came true with constant attention to every little detail. In fact, Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to JRD Tata on May 7, 1949, specifically praising the high quality of service provided by his airline. Nehru wrote: “This is just a short letter to express my high appreciation for the quality of Air India’s international service. I have now travelled between India and the UK four times and the more I experience it, The more I like it. I think Air India has played a big role in boosting India’s prestige abroad…so, congratulations.
Air India soon became a legend for its punctuality. Legend has it that in those years, people in Geneva could set their watches to the time an Air India flight flew over their city. In the first days, JRD would personally fly a plane every fifteen days. On these flights, he would adhere to such a high standard of accuracy that other pilots tried to avoid flying with him. Historian RM Lala tells us that on one such flight, JRD asked his co-pilot, Captain Viswanath, about the ground speed. “145 miles per hour,” Viswanath replied. JRD is not satisfied. He took out his slide rule, did the math himself, and replied, “It’s 145.5.” Those were the standards of accuracy he’d expect if the airline was going to maintain perfect timing.
JRD Tata’s blue notes are exceptional in their attention to detail and constant pursuit of excellence in things big and small. After each Air India flight, he sends these “blue notes” to management summarizing his observations, including encouraging comments and harsh criticism. Here are some excerpts from his notes in 1951, after he flew Air India to Europe and returned home: “Chairs: I found some seats on the VT-DAR to be more reclined than others. As a result, these seats were more Comfort. I recommend that all of our seats are adjusted to maximum recline, of course the rearmost seats are limited by the bulkhead.
Even more interesting is this note: “Tea sent from Geneva, quite literally, is indistinguishable in colour from coffee.” . . I don’t know if the black color of the tea is due to the quality of the (tea leaves) used or due to Over brewing. I suggest asking the Geneva station manager to look into the matter.
Due to its meticulous attention to detail and excellence, Air India topped the list of global airlines in 1968, according to a survey by London’s Daily Mail. In fact, in the same year, 75% of Air India’s passengers were foreigners from countries with their own airline. I also heard that when Singapore wanted to open an airline (now it is the famous Singapore Airlines), Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew advised his team to study the high standards set by Air India.
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