The airline had got its first jumbo jet in 1971 — a B747-200B named Emperor Ashoka — and for the last over 25 years is operating the B747-4 version that has an extended upper deck. For decades, the jumbo jet has been the sky’s most sensuously curvaceous beauty.
Three of the 4 B747s in AI fleet (one is in no condition to fly) were being mainly used for VVIP flights and regular commercial ones when not used by the dignitaries. Last year, the government got two new state-of-the-art Boeing 777s as India’s desi Air Force One which will be exclusively used for the president, PM and Vice-President’s ultralong/long/medium haul international visits. Recently the government conveyed to divestment-bound AI that its requirement for the old warhorse B747s will not be much for VVIP flights.
“We are planning to phase out the jumbo jets. The final decision will be taken by AI board, possibly in its next meeting. The planes are over 25 years old on an average and will be scrapped. Their residual value lies in the about 10 engines we have of these 747s that could fetch about $2 million apiece,” said a senior official.
AI could be the only commercial Indian airline ever to operate four-engine aircraft. Vijay Mallya had ordered the four-engine Airbus A340s for Kingfisher, but could never induct them in the fleet before the airline shut down in 2012.
With the 747s, AI under JRD Tata had set new levels of inflight luxury. It introduced a new “Palace in the Sky” livery and branding for this aircraft. The tastefully decorated staircase to the upper deck; jharokha interior flight panels; dewans and bar were way ahead of their time when introduced onboard these beautiful machines in the 70s by JRD.
JRD Tata in front of an Air India Boeing 747. (Photo: Tata website)
The drastically reduced demand for air travel during Covid has shortened the commercial lifespan of even new-gen four-engine passenger jets — B747, A340 and A380 — with airlines using them globally grounding them; drastically reducing their use or cutting short their use-by period — in favour of the frugal twin-engine medium/long haul jets like B777, B787, A330 and A350s.
An old timer in AI Engineering, that maintains the Maharaja’s fleet, recalls that the upper deck of the B747 would often serve play area as the play area with toys for then very young Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi when they used to travel with their PM dadi Indira Gandhi.
In the last two decades, the 747s were used for commercial flights — including one-stop to the US destinations like Delhi-London/Frankfurt-New York/Los Angeles. The government would inform AI in advance when the planes were required for VIP flights and the seats in the lower deck would be removed to make way for the dignitaries’ bed and meeting area. Top bureaucrats travelling with the president, PM or VP would sit in the upper deck.
“These beautiful planes have served us very well. They had become expensive to operate when we got the new-gen B777 and B787s. They have truly earned their retirement,” said a 747 pilot unable to hide his emotions.