From one aircraft to global fleet FIFTY YEARS is a considerable time for a place such as Hong Kong, where people, events and enterprises move forwards at an accelerated pace, seemingly ahead of the rest of the world. This year, Air-India celebrates 50 years of commuting between Hong Kong and India, as well as the golden jubilee of the first services to Singapore and Bangkok. The anniversary marks an important date on the company's calendar as it also signals the development of air links between China and India. Although the Indian community in Hong Kong is estimated to be as high as 70,000, and the Indian subcontinent is less than a six-hour flight away, the country and its culture is still viewed largely as distinctly foreign to most of the local population. While air travel has seemingly brought neighbours such as Australia and Japan closer, India still conjures unfamiliarity and exoticism. Looking back at the history of Air-India, it started with Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, better known as J.R.D. Tata. With a passion for flying since childhood, Tata was awarded his flying licence in 1929. Around that time, he received a business suggestion by Nevill Vintcent, a former Royal Air Force pilot, to create an air service. The feeder service would connect Karachi with Ahmedabad, thus extending Vintcent's proposed route of London to Karachi, and Calcutta. However, the pair's grand scheme did not initially get off to a flying start. The British government was reticent in giving approval, so it was not until 1932, after much negotiation, that the plan received the green light. On October 15, a small single-engine Puss Moth flew from Karachi to Ahmedabad and Bombay, with Tata in control. This first flight of the Tata Aviation Service commemorated the beginning of the airline. In the air carrier's first full year of operation in 1933, it flew 257,440km, carried more than 10 tonnes of mail and 155 passengers. By the summer of 1946, a year before India's Independence, the company was converted to a public company, and renamed Air-India. Ambitions for the airline ran high. When orders for six Lockheed Constellations were delivered ahead of schedule, the airline charged ahead for development in the international front. After a renaming, Air-India International was inaugurated in March 1948. Three months later, a weekly service from Bombay to London, via Cairo and Geneva was in operation. The 1950s was a boom time for air travel. With a proliferation of airlines registering for the domestic market, the government stepped in for a spring clean by nationalising the air transport industry. Eight airlines were eventually merged to create Indian Airlines for the operation of domestic services, with Air-India International to focus on overseas flights. This development gave Tata a hefty blow in financial and emotional terms. The government asked Tata to head both airlines and he accepted, in an unpaid role, heading the revamped Air-India International in 1953. By this time, the airline was eyeing the rest of the world. The first Hong Kong booking office was set up in 1954 at Fu House, on Ice House Street in Central. At that time and up until the late 1970s, when real estate redevelopment in the area was beginning to take shape, it was the heart of airline offices. Thai Airways, Korean Air and Scandinavian Air Services established offices there and, of course, Air-India, where its mascot - a Maharajah figure - stood at the entrance. At the newly opened booking office, female service assistants dressed in smart flight attendant-style uniforms of blouse and long skirts, complete with pillbox-style hats. The mid-1950s also saw the airline adding countries from the Far East to its expanding number of destinations. Singapore came on board with Hong Kong, Tokyo followed in 1955, with Sydney coming the year after. In 1958, it landed in Moscow. Air-India, in marketing its identity and promoting the country to the world expanded on its mascot theme and the Maharajah quickly became synonymous with the carrier. The airline's in-house art department in Bombay where, during its heyday, it employed 12 artists, helped cast the Maharajah as a globe-trotting travel ambassador of India. They also created many award-winning posters. The large collection of graphics, housed in the archives, carried striking poster designs ranging from colourful cartoon earth motifs, to National Geographic-style black and white documentary shots of the people, and stylised close-ups of Indian women. By the time the jet age of the 1960s arrived, Boeing 707 aircraft were added to the fleet. As Hong Kong evolved into a thriving business centre in Asia and a shopper's paradise over the following decade, flights expanded to five a week, to and from India. The Gulf and Africa also became new destinations in the 1970s and 1980s. But as Air-India prospered, Tata faced an abrupt termination of his post in 1978 by the then prime minister Morarji Desai. Though having lost its industrious leader, the airline pushed on. On January 1, 1980, Boeing 747s began operation in Hong Kong, in keeping with the latest aircraft developments and passenger demand. Air-India now takes passengers to 49 worldwide destinations. Shanghai became the Maharajah's latest stomping ground last year and, with growing interest in India for business and leisure, new horizons are in store.