VIP CULTURE — A HAZARD TO AIR SAFETY
Unruly passengers onboard can be a major safety hazard for the aircraft and its occupants
ON MARCH 23, 2017, the Indian airline industry was traumatised with an incident that can be described not only as bizarre, but one that has serious implications for the safety of passengers and crew onboard an airliner. Ravindra Gaikwad, a Member of Parliament (MP) from Shiv Sena, took umbrage to the fact that he was compelled to sit in economy class while flying onboard an Air India flight AI 852 from Pune to New Delhi even though he was holding a business class ticket and enjoyed VIP status. After landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) at Delhi at around 1030 hours, the MP refused to get off the plane and resorted to a sort of dharna inside the aircraft creating a problem for the airline staff who were required to prepare the aircraft for onward flight to Goa. The staff of Air India were helpless in the matter raised by the MP as the Pune-Delhi flight was operated as an all-economy class flight without business class. Thus there was no way the demand of the VIP could have been met with by the crew. After arrival at Delhi, when the Air India Duty Manager at IGIA intervened and tried to convince the VIP to deplane, instead of acquiescing to the request, the VIP reportedly flared up and thrashed the 60-year-old Duty Manager with his sandals, tore his shirt, broke his glasses and even tried to push him out of the aircraft.
The conduct of the MP was not only unbecoming of a gentleman, irresponsible and deplorable; but was of a nature that is not expected of a VIP and especially an MP who is a part of the law-making body of the nation. What is even more disconcerting is the fact in the case of this particular VIP, this sort of behaviour was not new as he has been involved in similar misconduct on the ground on earlier occasions. To that extent, he appears to have maintained remarkable consistency in the pattern of his public conduct.
As the conduct of the MP onboard the Air India aircraft was clearly in the nature of a criminal offence, the national carrier rightly filed an FIR with the police. Unfortunately, the law enforcing agencies do not appear to have the freedom to act against lawmakers with the same vigour and urgency that they do against the common man. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha voiced disapproval of the conduct of the MP and said, “No one is allowed to misbehave with anyone, even if he is an MP.” However, when asked whether any action could be taken against the offender, she said “I cannot take suo motu action as the incident had taken place outside Parliament.” Regrettably, the party to which the offender belongs is likely to support his action of manhandling the Air India staff.
But what is encouraging and remarkable is the unity displayed by the Indian carriers in placing the offending MP on the “no-fly list”. This practice is followed in some countries wherein habitual offenders are denied tickets for air travel. While this decision has been endorsed by the Federation of Indian Airlines, there is a lurking doubt in some quarters about the legality of the move. Fortunately, the Minister of Civil Aviation has disapproved of the MP’s conduct and has refused to interfere with the action taken by the airlines against the offender.
Apart from the menace of VIP culture in the country, this particular episode is of relevance for the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the airlines and the travelling public. This was explicitly stated by the Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha who said that unruly passengers can create serious problems in flight. He said: “After all, when you are flying at 30,000 feet, you are in a very fragile environment”. Unruly passengers onboard can be a major safety hazard for the aircraft and its occupants. Imagine a situation wherein a VIP of unstable mind bulldozes the cabin crew and barges into the cockpit in flight and assaults or inflicts serious injury to the pilots. The consequences of such conduct could be horrendous.
However, it is gratifying to note that at least the Indian airline industry has finally understood the implications of the episode of disgraceful conduct of the MP on March 23 and has acted to control the menace of misguided and potentially hazardous VIP culture that could seriously compromise air safety.