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The family which founded Air India regains control with a $2.4 billion bid

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

India is selling its national airline. Air India has faced a lot of the same problems as other legacy airlines - pension costs and competition from low-cost carriers, not to mention the pandemic. But there was a time when Air India embodied the dreams of a new free nation, and a takeover announced this past weekend aims to salvage that. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This story begins in 1932 with a young daredevil pilot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He was India's first licensed pilot.

FRAYER: Flying a rickety, single-engine propeller plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the first flight - takes off from Karachi airport, destination Bombay.

FRAYER: Across what was then British colonial India.

ANURADHA REDDY: People were thrilled. They were gathered there to watch this miracle in the sky. So this is the beginning

FRAYER: The beginning, says aviation historian Anuradha Reddy, of what would become India's national airline.

REDDY: The initial purpose was mail - communications - because at that time, it took so long for letters to go by land. Colonial India was so large and the British needed to connect.

FRAYER: Over time, the planes started carrying passengers, too. And after India won its freedom...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: August the 15, 1947, Independence Day for India.

FRAYER: ...The new government nationalized this fledgling airline. Historian Mircea Raianu says in a way, Air India helped build a new country.

MIRCEA RAIANU: You see them connecting different parts of the subcontinent, providing the new nation, as it's coming out of the colonial period, providing it with an essential infrastructure, an essential service.

FRAYER: Indians were proud. Air India's Maharaja logo became a symbol of elegance, service, modernity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) We are Air India.

FRAYER: That was in the 20th century. But in the 21st, Air India has also become a symbol of the challenges plaguing this fast-developing nation - rising fuel prices, competition, never-ending bureaucracy. Air India went bankrupt. The government has been trying to sell it for years. Now they finally found a buyer - Tata and Sons (ph), one of India's biggest conglomerates. They make steel, cars, hotels. The Tatas are like the Rockefellers of India.

GIRISH KUBER: It is more of a romantic story than a business (laughter) tale, you know?

FRAYER: The reason this is a romantic story, says business journalist Girish Kuber, is that that young daredevil from 1932 who got India's first pilot license, his name was Tata - JRD Tata. The Tata family actually founded Tata Airlines, which later became Air India and then was nationalized. When the $2.4 billion takeover was announced Friday, the company's current chairman, Ratan Tata, tweeted welcome back, Air India. Now comes the hard part, though, Kuber says, getting profits out of what over the decades became a pretty bloated government enterprise.

KUBER: The issue will be the culture. In India, it's completely laid back, typical government-owned, non-performance-oriented company.

FRAYER: He worries the Tata family's love of aviation may be clouding their business judgment here. But Anuradha Reddy, the aviation historian, says if anyone can help Air India, it's the Tatas.

REDDY: The Tata family has chosen to take back this baby of theirs - with all of its disadvantages because there are so many problems - it just shows their commitment.

FRAYER: The question is whether a commitment to all this history will be enough to return India's national airline to its past glory. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHUTA HASUNUMA AND U-ZHAAN'S "SPORTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.