You will recall that in our last piece, during his induction, as a junior officer for Air India, our protagonist and raconteur SL Oberoi (Somi as he is affectionately called) came across JRD’s blue notes. JRD Tata’s blue notes were extraordinary in their attention to detail and relentless push for excellence in all matters big and small. After every Air India flight that he took, he would send these ‘blue notes’ to the management, summarising his observations, including encouraging comments and scathing criticism.
JRD Tata, former chairman of the Tata Group and the founder of Tata Airlines, which went on to become Air India was determined to make it the best airline in the world. To him, Air India wasn’t just an airline, but a symbol and proud carrier 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 to be a stickler for 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 the airline’s employees, “I want that the passengers who travel with us do not have occasion to complain. I want to establish that there is no airline which is better liked by passengers, that is safer and more punctual, where the food and service is better, and which sets a better image than Air India.”
He was particularly punctilious about in-flight service: he once pointed to the colour of tea served on the flight as “indistinguishable” from the colour of coffee; stopped cabin attendants from smoking in the galleys while on duty. He also ticked off his crew for not being properly groomed. “We must know where to draw the line between the odd, the ridiculous and the attractive. Some of your pursers grow sideburns right into their collars! Some have grown drooping moustaches that make them indistinguishable from Fu Manchu. Some hostesses have buns bigger than their head… please do pay special attention to make-up and appearance,” he wrote in a note to one of his managers as early in 1951.
Somi, a die-hard Air Indian in his many years in commercial division, had later watched closely JRD’s passion. He continues to vouch for JRD’s vision, integrity, aesthetics and hard work. JRD had a keen eye for the minutest details and would keep a close tab on the working of the airlines. We were told how, on seeing the aircraft toilet dirty, he would take it upon himself to clean it. Aviation was his dream, so much so that he would later admit that he gave nearly 50 per cent of his time to Air India. The crew would be on their toes when he was on board. When the flight crew started out, they were trained to focus on service, they had to know their wines and cheeses and look after the passenger’s comfort.
No weight gain, no acne, no glasses – the attention that air hostesses received for their grooming and beauty. Male flight attendants were hardly ever spoken about, but air hostesses were objects of fascination, and their looks a subject of much discussion.
One particular interaction that Somi recalls – On a particularly long flight to attend the Chase Manhattan board meeting Mumbai-Geneva-London-New York JRD’s comments were like so – The meal service Mumbai-Geneva he found excellent, served well and comfortably warm. Green pea and mint soup, warmed Lebanese tabbouleh salad with bulghur and roasted eggplant lime and yoghurt dressing, optionally with sous-vide lamb rack cutlet ricotta mezzalune, sautéed morels and panna sauce grilled beef tenderloin with thyme. French beans with sesame seeds, sweet potato puree, pan-fried black cod with edamame and gremolata, saffron risotto, ratatouille, roasted Roma tomatoes or sautéed kale, roasted artichokes, cherry tomatoes cheese French brie, arenberger, fourme d’ambert. To finish – seasonal fresh fruit, sweet mixed bean soup with coconut milk, chocolate fondant with dulce de leche.
The breakfast service Geneva-London was appalling, and complained that the bacon and tomatoes were often served “stone cold” in the first-class breakfast and the eggs were like leather. He further emphasised that professional kitchens of the onland variety, chefs have turned cooking eggs into precision manoeuvres. He noted that the French method for perfect poaching involves a fresh from the farm egg, a ceramic dinner plate in a pan of precisely heated water, a slotted spoon and some careful finesse. Precision is the key.
With all of these precise preparation recommendations, how can a flight crew even attempt serve a properly cooked egg to a large number of people on a long-haul flight?
Understanding the anatomy of an egg reveals some helpful hints.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco encourages playful investigation of science, art, and human perception. Their Science of Cooking project explores how egg proteins change when they are beaten and mixed with other ingredients. Eggs that are mixed to be scrambled or prepared as an omelette have added cooking challenges, because the eggs have now “formed a network of interconnected proteins”. When eggs are cooked at high temperatures for too long, the whites can become rubbery. For eggs that are being served on a plane, the added the challenge of tight quarters in an airline kitchen and high altitudes, the goal of serving fluffy eggs becomes a near impossible task.
Only first-class cabins are equipped with enough kitchen space to store chilled eggs and crack them fresh for breakfast. For the rest of the plane, most egg dishes must be pre-made in catering units with special techniques to ensure the eggs remain creamy, like folding in bechamel sauce to the basic recipe once it’s been chilled. For a fresher alternative, some airline kitchens prepare fresh pasteurised liquid egg into cardboard cartons that are kept in chilled storage in the first-class galley. Despite careful methods of preparation, cooking scrambled eggs at 30,000 ft still poses a challenge, and cabin crew members are therefore trained to make fresh scrambled eggs under limited, unpredictable conditions. One technique involves a bain-marie, created by putting two smaller foil containers into large foil tray filled with water. Fresh pasteurised mixed eggs and cream are poured into the smaller trays, carefully loaded into the oven, and mixed every three minutes, then hit with a dash of cream at the end, proving that creamy scrambled eggs with a fluffy consistency can be made even in the tiny galley of a plane.
Let’s triumph our breakfast – he concluded.
Maybe the subtle success of an inflight breakfast, then, exists simply because it is one of the few moments in air travel where the golden age novelty of flying carries over. In the same way that the road trip trifecta of charred black coffee, greasy eggs, and a desert sunrise will satisfy a specific kind of hunger during a weary traveller’s diner pit-stop, an airplane breakfast provides fulfilment only in effect with its environment, within the passenger’s momentary context. Even the most jaded traveller is capable of being faintly, fleetingly impressed by waking up at 40,000 ft to a full meal, and looking out the window to observe the patchwork of land and miniature urban systems that make up a country so very far from home.
In 1978, when the Morarji Desai government summarily removed JRD without any notice from the chairmanship of Air India and the directorship of Indian Airlines, Indira Gandhi, then in the Opposition, wrote to him, saying: “You were not merely the chairman but the founder and nurturer who felt deep personal concern. It was this and the meticulous care that you gave to the smallest detail, including the decor and the saris of the hostesses, which raised Air India to the international level and indeed to the top of the list.” This was a perfect tribute to India’s foremost 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 imparted the training or joined them after retirement. We gave them training. Singapore Airlines, when it started, would work hard to poach our pilots, cabin crew, technicians and ground staff. So much so that the Government of India had to get into an agreement with Singapore Airlines that they would not poach and agreed to give them staff on deputation for two years. We had the best training schools for cabin crew, pilots, ground staff and engineers. Air India would stand out anywhere in the world. The silk saris worn by our women were the best. Men’s dressing/ uniforms were perfect and immaculate. We had the best tailors of Bombay stitching their uniforms.
In retrospect, says Somi, I see three things that stand out for the Tatas: Their ethics, work culture and philanthropy. Of course, if someone was not performing well, he would lose his job, but overall, the approach was liberal and humane. The management looked at employees with respect and the employees were loyal to the company. It will be a formidable task and will take Ratan Tata to be at his best to make the airlines fly again. I, like many of my former and present colleagues, want him to succeed. And succeed well in bringing back the airlines to what it was known earlier: “Your palace in the sky”.
Somi’s last interaction with JRD was as station manager of Calcutta (Kolkata). JRD hated when someone offered to pick up his hand cabin baggage. On this occasion, he requested Somi, whom he addressed as Mr Oberoi, would you please help me with my hand bag? Perhaps, it was a symbol of the times to come. JRD passed away shortly afterwards at a nursing home in France.
His reading companion was Charles Baudelaire.
“From Seine’s cold quays to Ganges’ burning stream,
The mortal troupes dance onward in a dream;
They do not see, within the opened sky,
The Angel’s sinister trumpet raised on high.
In every clime and under every sun,
Death laughs at ye, mad mortals, as ye run;
And oft perfumes herself with myrrh, like ye
And mingles with your madness, irony!”
– THE DANCE OF DEATH
“I am about to discover a new world. It is going to be very interesting. Very Interesting.” He said a few days before his passing: “Comme c’est doux de mourir” (“How gentle it is to die”).
His last words. Even standing on the death door, he was smiling looking at the new world. To find light even in darkest times. To reach a place where optimism falls short to justify the experience.
That’s JRD. Tata who flew into ‘Paradise on the Flying Carpet, leaving behind him such great institutions.
The author is the Former Executive Vice President of ITC Hotels and currently, Founding Trustee of Cuisine India Foundation.
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