The Air-India International Lockheed Constellation L-749 at London airport
preparing for the return journey to Bombay on June 10, 1948
London, March 8: Maneck Dalal, who played a key role in the birth of Air-India International in 1948 when he was sent to the UK by J.R.D. Tata, chairman of the Tata group of companies, died in London on Monday. He was 98.
Dalal was not a stranger to Britain because he had been an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he had an agreeable time captaining the university at tennis and squash.
He shared digs with an Indian prince who scandalised his landlady by telling her: “I won’t need any dinner tonight – I am off to London to see the whores.”
Dalal would chuckle as he recounted: “What the prince meant was he was off to see the Hoares.” The Hoares were a distinguished banking family.
After being called to the Bar in the Middle Temple in 1945, Dalal returned to India with his English wife, Kathleen (Kay) Richardson.
He joined Tata Airlines in Delhi in 1946. He found himself engaged in rescuing his Muslim servants from communal frenzy, while at the same time looking after his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.
Just then, JRD came up with the idea of starting an international carrier, Air-India International Ltd. Initially, the government wanted to own all the equity but agreed to a compromise solution under which the government had 49 per cent of the shares, the Tatas 25 per cent and the public the remaining 26 per cent.
It helped that the Tatas had placed an order for three Constellation planes with Lockheed but delivery came through earlier than expected because another customer had cancelled.
Dalal, then 29, was packed off to London by JRD in early 1948 and would later recount how he found Heathrow was just a collection of huts. Air-India’s traffic department was initially in a caravan and after six months another caravan arrived.
Dalal remembered the winter of 1948: “We had to trudge through slush and mud to get to the caravan and had oil heaters to keep us warm. It was a question of suffocating from the oil fumes or freezing of cold…. London airport was a wide stretch of area with hardly any development – a large number of rabbits and hare could be seen jumping around. The only person who had the right to shoot them was the Commandant of the airport.”
Air-India’s inaugural flight on the Constellation, named Malabar Princess, took off from Bombay on June 8, 1948, just after midnight. On board were JRD and his wife, the Jamsaheb of Nawanagar and industrialist Neville Wadia.
Dalal was at the airport to receive the flight and to see it start the return journey onJune 10. This was the start of a twice-weekly service. At the time only BOAC, Pan Am, TWA, KLM and Air France operated from Heathrow.
He was formally appointed Air-India’s regional director (UK) in 1959 and held the job until 1977.
He was close to his boss but nevertheless got a firing from JRD when he took on expensive offices in New Bond Street.
He later described what happened: “I asked him to see the proposition before letting loose and went on to explain how and why I did what I had to do. Big man that he was, he saw my side and immediately sent a telex back home, ‘Accept Dalal’s proposition fully. Please put it up to the board and recommend that the chairman has suggested it.'”
This was a time when Air-India did indeed offer a Maharaja service and there was a certain style and elegance which Dalal ushered in.
Every summer he would host a champagne party for members of the Cambridge University India Society. When some wondered whether such extravagance was necessary, Dalal would deflect criticism with characteristic charm.
“They are my future passengers,” he would say.
After retiring from Air-India, he was managing director for the Tata group of companies in the UK from 1977-1988.
Among his many public duties, he chaired the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Indian Cultural Centre) in London for 40 years until 2011.
He always urged Indians to “remember the culture of your motherland while pledging total loyalty to this country. The culture you have inherited at your country of birth is very good in this mad world of today. Indian culture is the bedrock of sanity.”
Maneck Ardeshir Sohrab Dalal was born in Bombay on December 24, 1918.
His death was announced today by Malcolm Deboo, president of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe where Dalal was a trustee from 1980-88. He died in hospital on March 6.
He is survived by his wife, his daughters Suzy and Caroline and other members of his family.