The Flying Carpet – The Wonder that was Air India – 2

Diwan Gautam Anand, Founding Trustee, Cuisine India Foundation writes about the history of Air India

You will recall that in our last article, upon his induction as a junior officer for Air India, our protagonist and storyteller SL Oberoi (Somi as he is affectionately known) came across the blue notes of JRD. JRD Tata’s Blue Notes were extraordinary in their attention to detail and relentless pursuit of excellence in all areas, big and small. After every Air India flight he took, he would send these “blue notes” to management, summarizing his observations, including encouraging comments and scathing criticisms.

JRD Tata, former chairman of the Tata Group and founder of Tata Airlines, now Air India, was determined to make it the best airline in the world. For him, Air India was not just an airline, but a symbol and a proud bearer of India’s image across the world. In 1948, Air India inaugurated its first international service from Mumbai to London and it was a proud moment for the country.

Known for his attention to detail and precision, he was obsessed with making the airline special, setting the highest standards of customer service and excellence. He is known to have told airline employees, “I want passengers flying with us to not have a chance to complain. I want to establish that there is no airline that is more popular with passengers, that is safer and more punctual, that has better food and service and that gives a better image than Air India.

He was particularly picky about in-flight service: he once stated that the color of tea served during the flight was “indistinguishable” from the color of coffee; prevented flight attendants from smoking in the galleys while on duty. He also ticked off his crew for not being properly healed. “You have to know where to draw the line between the weird, the ridiculous and the appealing. Some of your pursers are pushing paws into their collars! Some have drooping mustaches which make them indistinguishable from Fu Manchu. Some hostesses have buns bigger than your head… please pay special attention to makeup and appearance,” he wrote in a note to one of his managers as early as 1951.

Somi, a diehard Air Indian in his many years in the commercial division, had followed JRD’s passion closely afterward. He continues to vouch for the vision, integrity, aesthetics and hard work of JRD. JRD was attentive to the smallest details and closely monitored the operation of the airlines. We were told how, seeing the toilets of the plane dirty, he undertook to clean them. Flying was his dream, so much so that he would later admit that he spent almost 50% of his time at Air India. The crew would be on their toes when he was on board. In its early days, flight personnel were trained to focus on service, they had to know their wines and cheeses and ensure passenger comfort.

No weight gain, no acne, no glasses – the attention the flight attendants received for grooming and beauty. Male flight attendants were almost never talked about, but flight attendants were objects of fascination and their appearance was the subject of much discussion.

One Peculiar Interaction Somi Recalls – On a particularly long flight to attend the Chase Manhattan Mumbai-Geneva-London-New York board meeting, JRD’s comments were like this – The Mumbai-Geneva Meal Service which he found excellent, well served and comfortably warm. Green pea and mint soup, Lebanese tabbouleh salad warmed with bulgur and roasted eggplant with lime and yogurt vinaigrette, possibly with ricotta mezzalune sous vide lamb cutlet, sautéed morels and grilled beef fillet panna sauce with thyme. Green beans with sesame seeds, mashed sweet potatoes, seared black cod with edamame and gremolata, saffron risotto, ratatouille, roasted Roma tomatoes or sautéed kale, roasted artichokes, cherry tomato, French brie cheese, arenberger, fourme d’ambert. To finish – fresh seasonal fruits, sweet bean soup mixed with coconut milk, chocolate fondant with dulce de leche.

Geneva to London breakfast service was appalling complaining that bacon and tomatoes were often served ‘cold’ in first class breakfast and eggs were like leather. He further pointed out that professional kitchens of the land variety, chefs have turned cooking eggs into precision maneuvers. He noted that the French method for perfect poaching involves a farm-fresh egg, a ceramic plate in a pot of precisely heated water, a slotted spoon, and careful finesse. Precision is the key.

With all of these precise preparation recommendations, how can a flight crew even attempt to serve a well-cooked egg to a large number of people on a long-haul flight?

Understanding the anatomy of an egg reveals some helpful hints.

The San Francisco Exploratorium encourages playful investigation of science, art and human perception. Their Science of Cooking project explores how egg protein changes when beaten and mixed with other ingredients. Eggs that are mixed to be scrambled or made into an omelette have added cooking challenges, as the eggs have now “formed a network of interconnected proteins”. When eggs are cooked too long at high heat, the whites can become rubbery. For eggs that are served on an airplane, in addition to the challenge of tight spaces in an airline kitchen and high altitudes, the goal of serving fluffy eggs becomes a nearly impossible task.

Only First Class cabins are equipped with enough galley space to store chilled eggs and crack them fresh for breakfast. For the rest of the plane, most egg dishes must be prepared in advance in catering units with special techniques to ensure the eggs stay creamy, such as folding in bechamel sauce à la basic recipe once it has been cooled. For a fresher alternative, some airline kitchens prepare fresh pasteurized liquid eggs in cartons which are kept in refrigerated storage in the first-class kitchen. Despite careful preparation methods, cooking scrambled eggs at 30,000 feet remains a challenge, and so cabin crew members are trained to make fresh scrambled eggs under limited and unpredictable conditions. One technique involves a bain-marie, created by placing two small aluminum containers in a large aluminum tray filled with water. Pasteurized fresh mixed eggs and cream are poured into the small trays, carefully loaded into the oven and stirred every three minutes, then hit with a splash of cream at the end, proving that creamy scrambled eggs with a fluffy consistency can be prepared even in the small hassle of an airplane.

Let’s triumph over our breakfast – he concluded.

Perhaps the subtle success of an in-flight breakfast thus exists simply because it’s one of the few times in air travel where the novelty of the golden age of flight lives on. In the same way that the road trip trio of charred black coffee, greasy eggs, and a desert sunrise will satisfy a specific type of hunger during a weary traveler’s restaurant stop, a breakfast on a plane only provides fulfillment with its surroundings, in the momentary context of the passenger. Even the most jaded traveler is capable of being faintly and fleetingly impressed by waking up at 40,000 feet to a full meal and gazing out the window to observe the patchwork of land and miniature urban systems that make up a country so far from his home.

In 1978, when the Morarji Desai government summarily removed JRD from the presidency of Air India and the management of Indian Airlines, Indira Gandhi, then in opposition, wrote to him: “You were not only the president, but the founder and nurturer who felt deep personal concern. It is this and your meticulous attention to every detail, including decoration and stewardess sarees, that has lifted Air India to international status and even to the top of the list. It was a perfect tribute to India’s greatest aviation man.

JRD was a man of vision. Malaysian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Nigerian Airlines – they all grew thanks to Air India and their experienced staff who provided the training or joined them after retirement. We gave them training. Singapore Airlines, in its early days, worked hard to poach our pilots, cabin crew, technicians and ground staff. So much so that the Indian government had to make a deal with Singapore Airlines that they wouldn’t poach and agreed to give them staff as deputies for two years. We had the best training schools for cabin crew, pilots, ground crew and engineers. Air India would stand out all over the world. The silk sarees worn by our women were the best. The men’s clothing/uniforms were perfect and immaculate. We had the best tailors in Bombay sewing their uniforms.

Looking back, says Somi, I see three things that stand out for the Tatas: their ethics, their work culture and their philanthropy. Of course, if someone didn’t perform well, they would lose their job, but overall the approach was liberal and humane. The management looked at the employees with respect and the employees were loyal to the company. It will be a formidable task and it will take Ratan Tata at his best to get the airlines flying again. Like many of my former and current colleagues, I wish him success. And do a good job of bringing the airlines back to what was earlier called: “Your Palace in the Sky”.

Somi’s last interaction with JRD was as Calcutta (Kolkata) station manager. JRD hated when someone offered to collect his cabin baggage. On this occasion, he asked Somi, who he was addressing as Mr. Oberoi, could you please help me with my purse? Perhaps it was a symbol of the times to come. JRD died shortly afterwards in a retirement home in France.

His reading companion was Charles Baudelaire.

“From the cold quays of the Seine to the burning river of the Ganges,

Mortal troops dance forward in a dream;

They do not see, in the open sky,

The sinister trumpet of the Angel rose very high.

In all climates and under all suns,

Death mocks you, foolish mortals, as you run;

And often perfumes itself with myrrh, like you

And mingles with your madness, irony!”

Charles Baudelaire

“I am about to discover a new world. It’s going to be very interesting. Very interesting.” He said a few days before his disappearance: “How sweet it is to die”.

His last words. Even standing on the death door, he smiled as he gazed at the new world. To find the light even in the darkest moments. To reach a place where optimism is insufficient to justify the experience.

It’s JRD. Tata who flew to ‘Paradise on the Flying Carpet’, leaving such great institutions behind.

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