From Seattle to Mumbai on Jet Airways’ first Boeing 737

FlightPlan offers a new column on the milestone moments in the life of aviation stalwarts. Here’s the first one off the runway

Of all the memories that Suresh Nair, General Manager, Air Asia Berhad, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, has collected in his close-to-four-decades-long career in civil aviation, the ones he remembers the most are those that also marked milestone moments in aviation history.

And why not? Nair has witnessed some momentous moments in aviation, both in India and abroad. The man who set up Delta Airlines’ operations in Dubai in 2001 cannot help but recall the time when he was one of the four officials to fly back to Mumbai from Seattle on the delivery aircraft of the first Boeing 737 which Jet Airways purchased in 1996. Nair who was then General Manager, North India, Nepal and Pakistan with Jet, talks of the landmark delivery as Jet was the first airline to buy the aircraft four decades after Parliament nationalised all airlines to create Air India and in 1993 amended the Air Corporation Act to allow private airlines in the India aviation space. Other private airlines like Damania and East West Airlines started operations before Jet but this Mumbai-based airline was the first to buy a new aircraft in four decades of Indian aviation (the others leased them).

Recalls Nair, “After the signing ceremony (which took place after all the funds for the aircraft had been transferred) between Jet Airways and Boeing officials in a terminal building at the air strip in Seattle, Jet was given a symbolic key.”

A cool idea

The journey back on the new aircraft was 36 hours long and Saroj Datta, Executive Director, Jet Airways, Nair and another colleague flew from Seattle to Montreal to Gander to Keflavik, a city 40 miles from the capital of Iceland to Amsterdam to Larcana to Abu Dhabi before touching down in Mumbai to a grand reception.

What Nair remembers most about the flight is that the beer on board was warm till Datta came up with a practical suggestion. It was snowing in Montreal and he asked Nair to bury some of the warm bottles in the snow. “I put some 4 to 6 bottles in the snow which cooled them off a lot,” he laughs.

Another special memory of that occasion is the exclusive wine bottle that was presented to him which had the Jet Airways logo and 737;400 written on it.

All the President’s men

Nair’s five-year tenure with Jet also saw him on a Jet aircraft accompanying the White House press party travelling with visiting US President Bill Clinton on the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur-Hyderabad leg before ending the journey in Mumbai. Since the US press aircraft (hired from Jet Airways) accompanying the President took off before the Presidential aircraft, with Air Force 1 landing about 30 minutes after the press aircraft, Nair got a chance to see the American President’s security drill first-hand — snipers on all tall buildings, sniffer dogs and burly secret service and security staff everywhere. He recalls that a Hercules military jet would land ahead of Air Force 1 carrying the Presidential limousine.

Nair also has to his credit setting up 10 stations in North India for Jet Airways including those in Srinagar, Jaipur, Varanasi and Khajuraho. “Srinagar was started at the height of tensions. No hotels were open in Srinagar so I would stay at the government guest house with Mufti Sahib staying in the room next to me,” he recalls. While in Srinagar, Nair travelled by a “BP.” “It’s a bullet-proof car with gun-toting security personnel for company,” he explains with a smile.

In 2001, Nair, who did his MBA from the Cochin University School of Management Studies, decided to quit Jet and move to Dubai where he joined Saraf Travels to launch Delta’s Dubai flight. Under Nair, Delta was the first American Airline after Pan American Airlines to launch operations to the Middle East. The flight started a few months after Nair joined with the then Delta President flying down on the inaugural flight.

Unfortunately global events like 9/11 happened and the turmoil which followed made Delta pull out of Dubai. Nair, though, stayed back for some more time but eventually returned to India less than 18 months after he had left. This was when the bug to do something new, like launching new sectors for new airlines, bit Nair. He joined Air Asia Berhard and convinced the Malaysian airline to start operations between Kuala Lumpur and Tiruchirapalli. This was the first of the 12 stations to which the airline started flights in India.

“I felt there was an ethnic connect between the people of Tamil Nadu and Malaysia, so I put up a case for starting the flight,” Nair says. He obviously knows what he is talking about because now AirAsia Berhad has four daily flights on this route.

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