The Indian Airlines That Time Forgot

The Indian subcontinent has seen some interesting aeronautical players within the last few years. Some carriers in India’s history are more memorable than others. What are some of those forgotten names that may have left a mark (for better or worse)? We thought it would be interesting to take a step back in time.

Air Deccan

Air Deccan was an Indian regional airline based out of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Its route network was small, with only four destinations: Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar, Diu, and Mundra.

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The fleet was also small and consisted of Beech 1900D aircraft formerly flown by an Air New Zealand subsidiary. Air Deccan served cities with little to no air service and minimal competition with major airlines. Things did not go as planned during its inaugural flight in 2003, which carried Indian dignitaries. Unfortunately, an engine fire during taxi grounded that oh-so-important flight.

Despite the bad start, Air Deccan expanded its fleet and route network and, in 2008, completed a merger with now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines. After being designated Kingfisher Red, the airline flew until its high operating costs and low yields scared off Kingfisher, who decided to shut down its subsidiary in 2011. It then reemerged on its own and continued to gain some traction.


As with every other carrier around the world, COVID-19 substantially affected Air Deccan’s operations, and in October 2021, the airline suspended operations. In fact, it was the first Indian carrier to cease operations amid the pandemic.

Air Sahara

Air Sahara was once a rapidly-growing Indian airline, with strong domestic operations and expanding international routes. The airline was almost exclusively a Boeing 737 carrier, starting from the -200 and moving to the -800. Air Sahara was founded in 1991 and made its inaugural flights in late 1993.

The airline was a subsidiary of the Sahara Group conglomerate. It began flights using a fleet of two 737-200s and went on to operate every subsequent 737 variant except the -600. It later added the Bombardier CRJ family to its fleet. The airline mainly focused on North India domestic routes when flights started, flying from its base in New Delhi. Air Sahara was eventually bought out by Jet Airways.


East West Airlines

One of the first private companies to obtain an Air Operator Permit (AOP) from India’s aviation regulators was East-West Airlines. Headquartered in Trivandrum, it was the first national-level private airline in India to operate after almost 37 years.

The airline began operations in early 1992 and established offices in Trivandrum, New Delhi, Madras (now named Chennai), and Mumbai. Its fleet first consisted of three Boeing 737-200s, and in 1992, East West acquired four additional -200s, totaling seven Boeing 737s.

Business operations expanded via its scheduled service and then later, thanks in part to some government-backed impetus. In 1994, the Indian Government granted scheduled domestic airline status to nine private air charter operators, including East West, in 1994. Unfortunately, unexpected storms loomed on the airline’s horizon.


On November 13, 1995, the company’s managing director Thakiyudeen Wahid was assassinated near his Mumbai office. Aside from the human tragedy of losing a key leader, East West’s management now had to deal with lingering debt to several creditors, including an American company from which it had leased three Boeings. A high court ordered East-West to pay up or return the aircraft.

In May 1996, the airline received DGCA permission to stop flying major routes due to a shortage of aircraft and subsequently considerably reduced its operations. The end came on August 8, 1996, when East West Airlines ceased all operations

Kalinga

One of the shortest-lived airlines in India was Kalinga Airlines. This company was founded in 1947 by famed Royal Indian Air Force World War II pilot, Bijou Patnaik who also served as the airline’s chief pilot. In 1953, Kalinga was nationalized along with other carriers. In 1957, it eventually merged with Indian Airlines and restarted operations as a non-scheduled charter operator transporting passengers and cargo via a fleet of Douglas aircraft.

Unfortunately, Kalinga’s history included several accidents and incidents. For example, in 1951, a Douglas DC-3 carrying three crew members struck trees due to low visibility. In September 1952, a Douglas Dakota cargo flight crashed in Wadi Halfa, Sudan, killing three crew members. That same year, A Douglas C-47 carrying four crew members lost control while carrying out an emergency landing following an engine failure.

Three years later, another Douglas Dakota lifted off prematurely in Nepal while attempting to avoid hitting someone crossing the runway. Two out of three crew members were killed as a result. After 25 years of flying, the carrier eventually ceased operations in 1972.

ModiLuft

Like many countries, India went through a deregulation period, and ModiLuft emerged as a result. Based in Delhi, ModiLuft was launched in April 1993 by Indian industrialist SK Modi. His strategy was to operate a private airline that benefited from strategic partnerships. German flag carrier Lufthansa was the partner of choice.

Modi’s goals were reached in February 1993, when the agreement came to fruition. The German airline provided pilots and trained ModiLuft’s Indian staff, including pilots, cabin crew, mechanics, and ground passenger handling staff. Lufthansa Technik provided maintenance, overhaul, and spares support. Thanks to this arrangement, ModiLuft’s aircraft were configured in first, business, and economy class, making it the only private airline in India at the time to fly a three-class configuration on domestic routes.

Like many partnerships, all was well for a period of time, but the relationship soured when ModiLuft accused Lufthansa of not keeping to its funding commitment. The German airline responded with its own allegations that ModiLuft had defaulted on lease payments on four Lufthansa aircraft. Meanwhile, SK Modi pressured Lufthansa to take up to a 40% stake in ModiLuft. Lufthansa was not interested.


ModiLuft made a strong start with seven domestic destinations and a fleet of seven aircraft in under three years. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flikcr

In May 1996, the German aeronautical giant announced its decision to terminate its agreement with ModiLuft. The aircraft belonging to Lufthansa were grounded due to the litigation and the Indian carrier eventually acquired Boeing 737-400 aircraft from Air UK.

However, life without Lufthansa was difficult, and the breakup really affected MobiLuft’s ability to compete. The airline ceased operations in 1996.

Many airlines have flown India’s skies throughout its history. We opted to name just a few that were part of the country’s aviation past and perhaps opened the door for others to follow in its bright future.

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